The Eight-Armed Human: Kim Livingstone

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Zoo Intern Quest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors.  Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about jobs, and then blog about their experience online.  Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

kalee_week3_picKim Livingstone is an octopus. Well, a metaphorical octopus at least. Ms. Livingstone has her arms in so many different areas of the San Diego Zoo, it is a wonder she can keep up with all of her activities. She is the master multitasker, the cool keeper, and a friend of bonobos and birds alike.

Ms. Livingstone’s first job at the Zoo involved caring for the birds in one of the aviaries. Literally overnight, she was thrown from caring for birds to training bonobos. However, the transition went smoothly because of Ms. Livingstone’s previous education and general experience in animal training. On the keeper side of things, she feeds, medicates, studies, and generally cares for the bonobos. She knows all of their names, from Kali to Mikasi, and is aware of the peaceful primates as well as the more dominant personalities. Ms. Livingstone informed us that Kali is usually the instigator when it comes to giving Mikasi and Aaron a hard time, who are the only males in the group. This is because bonobo society is matriarchal, meaning that the females run the group. However, males are not excluded all the time. In fact, bonobos also have a tender side, which Ms. Livingstone has seen first-hand. She once witnessed the bonobos fighting, but after the quarrel was over, she observed them hugging each other. To humans, this kind of interaction resembles “making up.”

Ms. Livingstone is both the keeper and the traveling companion for these primates. When four of the Zoo’s bonobos were relocated to a sanctuary in Japan, they traveled in a large, open cargo plane. Ms. Livingstone accompanied them so that they would feel comforted throughout the trip. Zoos will often loan an animal to other organization to participate in a breeding program in order to keep the population of that species genetically diverse. Genetic diversity is important because it increases a species’ chance of survival.

Not surprisingly, Ms. Livingstone has also been involved in the engineering and design side of the Zoo. Following the theme of primates, Ms. Livingstone helped to design the Zoo’s orangutan exhibit. When designing an exhibit, she knows that it is important to keep in mind the natural behavior and habitat of the animal. In the case of the orangutan, she took great care to make sure these hairy orange primates could move from one side of the exhibit to the other without having to walk with the use of tree-like structures made out of metal and rope. This is because the orangutans, and the siamangs that cohabitate their exhibit, are built for living in the trees and therefore must have some mode of treetop transportation. Another goal for the exhibit was to get the orangutans and people as close as possible without posing a potential risk to either the people or the primates. This is because people enjoy being close to the orangutans and the orangutans like watching humans, which also doubles as a form of enrichment for the primates. The glass serves as a barrier, which acts as a form of security to prevent the harm of both people and orangutans and the spread of disease. Ms. Livingstone said that because humans and primates share more DNA than most animals and diseases can be transmitted between the two species.

As if being a bird keeper, primate keeper, traveling ambassador, and exhibit designer weren’t enough, Ms. Livingstone is also passionate about conservation education. Did you know that palm oil, an ingredient used in many processed foods, is detrimental to endangered species such as orangutans and their habitat? Ms. Livingstone informed us that palm oil, which comes from the fruit of palms, is farmed in the tropical areas of Asia, Africa, and South America. In many cases, these tropical habitats are already in great danger. In order to plant the palms, companies will clear a large area of forest, which leaves less space for orangutans, other animals, and native plants to survive. This type of farming is a form of monoculture, which means only one crop is planted over a very large area of land. Over time, the farming of palm oil takes land away from native animals and the monoculture method used to grow the palms depletes the soil of all its nutrients.

If Ms. Livingstone could stand on her soapbox and spread one message to everyone, it would be to decrease the amount of stuff we buy. Seriously, do you really need the latest and greatest of every electronic device when your old devices probably work just fine? Ms. Livingstone told us to “Really ask yourself whether or not you need something before you buy it.” Basing your purchases on need instead of want can reduce your consumption of materials and your waste output, which in turn, saves habitat. The little actions that you take every day can always help to bring the war on endangered species closer to an end. Ms. Livingstone is the master multitasker. We should be taking lessons from her and her positive impacts she has on not only at the San Diego Zoo but wildlife conservation.

Kalee, Real World Team
Week Three, Winter Session 2014