From Birds to Bonobos

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Zoo InternQuest 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 their jobs and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s Website!

libby_week3_picThe road of life is not always a straight path. You may end up in a place you never dreamed of before. Kim Livingstone grew up loving birds, aiming to work with them when she became an adult. If you told her then that she would be working for the San Diego Zoo Primate Department now, she may not have believed you. However, life has a mind of its own.

Kim Livingstone is Lead Keeper for the San Diego Zoo Primate Department. She is the liaison between upper management and the keepers that work directly with the animals. She oversees husbandry, medical concerns, nutrition and other areas, ensuring that all the primates are healthy and happy and all protocol and regulations are followed. Ms. Livingstone refers to herself as the “peacekeeper” because she makes sure upper management and the keepers are all on the same page so that the welfare of the animals never suffers.

When she was three, Ms. Livingstone used to sit outside and watch the birds, trying to coax them down from the trees and onto her hand. That’s when she knew she wanted to work with animals. Ms. Livingstone had such a strong passion for birds that she was determined to work with wildlife. After immersing herself in ornithology, the study of birds, Ms. Livingstone went to Moorpark Community College near Ventura and received a degree in Exotic Animal Training and Management. Realizing that the animal world was truly a business, she went back to school and obtained a degree in Business Management. Now done with school, Ms. Livingstone wasn’t sure where she wanted to work. She knew she wanted to go to a zoo, but there were so many to choose from.

So, Ms. Livingstone hopped into her car and drove across the United States to see where she would end up. She went across the entire continental U.S. and ended up in Florida. She decided she wanted to work for the Miami Metro Zoo, but they didn’t have any positions open. Ms. Livingstone was determined to work in the zoo and continued asking about job openings. She figured if she was there daily, inquiring about jobs, they would have no choice but to hire her, and they did. At last, the bird department at the Miami Metro Zoo offered had offered the job she had longed for since she was a child.

Ms. Livingstone had the opportunity to go to Papua New Guinea with keepers from all over the world for a bird project that would help strengthen the genetic variability of bird populations in zoos. Ms. Livingstone met a few keepers from the San Diego Zoo and when she got home from her trip, she wrote and inquired about a job at the San Diego Zoo. They called her back, told her there was an open position, and she was hired.

When Ms. Livingstone started working at the Zoo, they were in the process of redoing the aviaries. The Zoo wanted to create bioclimatic zones that immersed visitors in an entire ecosystem as opposed to just one animal’s exhibit. Now, the Zoo is arranged so that animals from the same climate are in the same exhibit, if compatible, or close to each other so that visitors can experience the ecosystem as a whole.

As her work as a bird keeper was underway, the Primate Department contacted Ms. Livingstone for help. They needed a trainer for the bonobos, and her background in animal training made her a perfect fit. So, Ms. Livingstone began to work with the bonobos, a cousin of the chimpanzee, teaching them hand gestures and verbal cues that would in turn benefit their overall care. They are highly intelligent, Ms. Livingstone explained. They know sign language and verbal cues that can be used to ask them to do something, and they even know their own names.

One part of Ms. Livingstone’s job that she really enjoys is being involved in the architectural design in the exhibits at the Zoo. When an exhibit is designed, she explained that the animal’s way of life, or natural history, plays a large role in how the exhibit is laid out. For example, in the orangutan exhibit there are lots of ropes and raised platforms spanning the entire space. This is because orangutans move about in the trees in the wild, moving faster swinging through the vines then they do walking around the ground. The ropes were placed in the exhibit to ensure that the orangutans have the ability to swing all the way across it if they so desire. All of the exhibits are designed to enrich the lives of the animals, encouraging natural behaviors. Drawing up new designs and adding new features to the exhibits to make life better for the primates in her care is something she always enjoys working on.

Sometimes, the path you set out to take is not always the one you end up on. A bird lover at heart, Ms. Livingstone strove to become the best bird keeper there ever was. She had no idea that she would ever be in San Diego working with great apes and helping to design exhibits for the Zoo. Though the switch from birds to primates may not have been the most logical, Ms. Livingstone loves her job. It may not have been her original goal for her life, but life runs its own course and you never know where you will end up.

Libby, Career Team
Week Three, Winter Session 2014