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!
Interns and I got to experience a day in the life of a mammal keeper at the Safari Park. We were expecting a ride in the keeper’s truck, but what we got was so much more…
Torrey Pillsbury (passenger’s side) and Jennifer Minichino (driver’s side) are hardworking Senior Mammal Keepers at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. They get up bright and early every morning to begin their rounds, feeding and checking on their animals. By caring for the mammals at the Safari Park, Ms. Pillsbury and Ms. Minichino are helping wildlife conservation efforts worldwide by contributing to breeding programs for endangered species. We had the privilege of riding in their four-wheel drive beauty for the day.
Ms. Pillbury is displaying the keeper book that is used in all areas of the Safari Park to keep track of the animals, record any animal observations, and/or important information concerning their exhibit. If an animal looks injured or pregnant, it is noted here. Anything a keeper observes during their shift that they deem important is written down in the handy dandy notebook. Without it, keepers would have a difficult time communicating with each other between shifts about what the animals need to stay healthy and happy.
The essential tools of a keeper: a rake, a shovel, a truck, and some food. The green branches on the left are acacia branches and the hay is excelsior hay, which many of the hoof stock at the Safari Park consume by the pound. Seriously though, scooping poop is a very important part of the job, so making sure you have a quality rake and shovel in essential.
(From left to right) Interns Samantha, Emily, Libby, and Tori are peeling acacia leaves off of their branches to feed to some animals unbeknownst to us. As we soon discovered, removing leaves from a tree is much easier if you are a giraffe. The sweet, sappy smell of the leaves wafted through the air of the Safari Park as we traveled towards our destination, the open fields.
While driving through the Asian Plains Exhibit, we encountered a prancing Indian blackbuck. His ears are turned downward because at the moment, another male was attempting to encroach upon his herd, and that, of course, just wouldn’t do. Although this animal is relatively miniature and cute, the acacia leaves were not for them. So who were the leaves for?
This curious little orange east African Sitatunga also came over to check out our vehicle. The red tag in its ear helps the keepers identify who is who in the exhibit. A certain tag in combination with the ear notch can relay the number identification of the animal, the sex, or which family it belongs to. Since keepers often cannot get close enough to the animal to read a nametag, this system is very effective, especially at a distance.
A small group of deer seemed to take an interest in our truck. Maybe they know that it carries food? These fluffy deer are called Indian Barasinghas, they are endangered in the wild, but the population at the Safari Park appears to be doing just fine. These deer are both healthy and happy!
This Cape buffalo, whose relatives live in Africa, was just too cute to simply pass by, I mean, look at those big blue eyes! Since we had branches left over from our leaf stripping exercise, we gave these guys a snack. After all, they do need to eat several pounds of food a day.
Here, we met Bhopu (pronounced BOH-POO). He is a greater one-horned rhino from India. He has great genes and is a fabulous candidate for breeding. When we fed Bhopu apples, he used his prehensile upper lip to (which acts like a finger) to grab the apples out of our hands. This resulted in some laughing and a large amount of stinky rhino slobber.
This beautiful greater one-horned rhino also coveted our apples and we were happy to oblige. However, tossing apples into a rhino’s mouth is not as easy as it looks, there were a couple missed shots that other animals cleaned up. She opened her mouth so wide we could see the molars in the back of her mouth, which are used for grinding plant material.
The giraffes see us coming! They are ready to chow down on some acacia leaves. From personal experience I can tell you that giraffes run and walk surprisingly fast for their size and height. Their necks are craned forward trying to get to the food as fast as they can! So that’s who the leaves were for…
This is a Uganda giraffe. Check out that long tongue! Each inch of a giraffes tongue corresponds to one foot in neck length. Giraffes use their tongue to strip leaves off of tree branches. Their saliva is very thick and mucousy because acacia trees in Africa have long, sharp, thorns, and if a giraffe swallows a thorn, its saliva protects its esophagus and throat from being damaged. Needless to say, I discovered that giraffe spit is very thick.
Sarah, our program supervisor, tries to hide the box of goodies unsuccessfully and the giraffes grab some easy leaves. Eventually, we were able to get the box out of their long-necked reach.
As I fed the giraffe a fresh green leaf, I could feel it’s breath of my hand and it didn’t matter that it was rather stinky because feeding a giraffe is one of the most amazing things I have ever done. Being this close to such a unique and exotic animal was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
On the way out of the plains, Ms. Pillsbury told us stories of her past keeper days and how she went from riding horses to riding elephants all when she was only nineteen years old. Of course, no one at the San Diego Zoo or Safari Park rides any of the animals now, for the safety of the keepers and the animals. We ended our amazing day by thanking the keepers for this amazing opportunity and left with an even stronger sense of admiration for the passion Zoo Keepers exhibit on and off the job.
Kalee, Photography Team,
Week Six, Winter Session 2014