Babies!

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!

sabrina_week6_picHave you been to the Safari Park’s nursery lately? Right now, they have two beautiful lion cubs busily eating, playing, and sleeping—sleeping about 20 hours a day! But most baby animals at the Safari Park are raised by their mothers, including the adorable baby antelopes, deer, giraffes, and other hoofstock (hoofed animals) in the African and Asian Plains exhibit. InternQuest met “behind the scenes” with two keepers who work with these cuties Senior Mammal Keepers Torrey Pillsbury and Jenifer Minichino.

It’s not all fun and games working with baby hoofstock. The exhibits have hundreds of animals of many different species, so just keeping track of new babies is tricky. Each exhibit has a “red book,” which looks like a journal where the keepers record details of the day like whether an animal seems sick or a new baby has arrived. The keepers also keep a management log, where each animal, its species, and its number is recorded. But how do the keepers tell which animal is which? Well, when each animal is born, it is given a colored tag and numbered specific notches in one of its ears (kind of like a human ear piercing!). The color of the tag and the placement of the notches represent a number code. Keepers have to be really good at reading the notches because the animals in the larger exhibits are free to run around wherever they like, so the keepers often only get a fleeting glimpse.

The animals will get really close at feeding time, though! We were able to feed acacia leaves to the giraffes and they clearly loved it. We held out handfuls of the leaves for them to eat and I can only imagine that it was like being spoon-fed your favorite food. I never realized how big giraffes are until I saw them up close! Their tongues are really long, almost purple, and prehensile (which means they can grab things, similar to a monkey’s tail or an elephant’s trunk). When their marvelous tongues and fuzzy mouths had eaten all the acacia leaves, we reluctantly left. As we headed away, I even spotted a baby giraffe! Maybe you’ll spy him, too, if you take a tour around the African Plains exhibit.

On the way back from the African Plains, Ms. Pillsbury told us all about the Przewalski’s wild horses, one of her favorite animals, in the Asian Plains exhibit. They’re very cool-looking horses, with golden and white bodies and short, dark, and spiky manes. North American mustangs, descended from domesticated horses, just don’t compare—the Przewalski’s horse is the only subspecies that has never been domesticated. There are only a few hundred left in the world, but the Safari Park’s herd is doing their part for the species. Five out of six of the mares are due to give birth in the next six months, which means more babies in the Park!

But what good are animal babies—even the babies of endangered animals—to the rest of the species? In other words, how do the babies and their keepers contribute to conservation? Well, baby animals in the wild are vulnerable to everything from habitat loss and poaching to ordinary predation (being eaten by predators). What the Safari Park and other animal parks do is provide a secure home for animals to breed safely. Of course, it’s also a good thing for us humans. We get adorable baby animals to look at! When we get a chance to observe cute animals in a place that mimics their natural habitat (like the Safari Park), it shows us just how valuable these creatures are and how important it is to conserve them. I would love to have a world full of babies in their natural surroundings and surrounded by their own species!

Sabrina, Conservation Team
Week Six, Winter Session 2014

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