Scaly Friends

[dcwsb inline="true"]

Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique ability 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!

People can go their whole lives fearing reptiles and amphibians believing that they are just Godzillas in an enclosure. They have scales or slimy skin where most people would rather see fur, and aren’t exactly what you would want to take home and cuddle. Often times, it is this stigma which often leads to people not even wanting to visit the Reptile House at the Zoo. This negative reputation is exactly what reptile keeper and educator Peter Gilson wants to end.

The great part about Mr. Gilson’s job is that he gets to personally interact with the animals of the Reptile department and then share those experiences with the public. For younger generations to gain information about these creatures there is a program called Reptile Researchers. The educators leading this program for school children want to show students these animals in a more positive light. It’s a great way to have kids grow up with knowledge and respect for reptiles and amphibians.

Mr. Gilson did a great job easing the interns in to the world of reptiles by first introducing us to the Galápagos tortoises. The tortoises love attention, vegetable treats, and neck rubs. Since they are cold blooded, low temperatures make it hard for them to move, but instead of being tucked in under blankets, they spend the cold nights in a giant room that doubles as their barn. The barn is fully equipped with sun lights, heated floors and a specialized rubber coating on the walls to protect the tortoises’ shells from damage. The tortoises can also experience stress if not cared for properly. Stress levels go down by keeping them active and entertained. Every animal at the Zoo participates in different enrichment activities to keep life in captivity from getting boring. Enrichment is basically playtime that can involve treats, scents, mirrors, or anything to keep them engaged. For the tortoises, keepers will scatter lettuce or kale throughout the enclosure as a way to get them to move, and let me just say these guys are not as slow as you’d think!

These reptiles require specialized care that the San Diego Zoo is well equipped to provide for them. This incredible care is what allows all of the reptiles and amphibians to thrive in captivity. It is especially important to know what you are doing when handling the more dangerous ones, so Mr. Gilson and his fellow reptile keepers take extra precautions. Reptile keepers each have to go through training in order to transport snakes correctly, and safely. It doesn’t happen a lot, but if there is an incident where someone is bitten they know exactly how to handle it. Just like you might have a procedure for your house if there is ever a fire or emergency, there are instructions for dealing with snake bites. On each venomous snake enclosure there is a number, so that if bitten, they can find the corresponding anti-venom and give written instructions to the doctor. Mr. Gilson put a big emphasis on the ecological value of reptiles, and the implications caused by disrupting that balance by taking reptiles illegally as a pet is irresponsible. An ecosystem is a community of living and non-living organisms that interact as a whole system. Essentially what this means is that if one species is eliminated, it could have a detrimental effect on the other organisms in the same area. So let’s just leave human involvement to the professionals.

Once I learned more about reptiles and amphibians I appreciated their value more. Each level of an ecosystem has different organisms it’s dependent on, and there isn’t one role that’s not important. Knowing all the factors that go in to caring for the reptiles at the Zoo, and getting to witness how relatable their personalities can be made me really happy to have these species around. Hopefully, exposing more people to the interesting and lovable side of reptiles and amphibians can start to break the bad stereotypes they’ve had for so long.

Claudia, Real World Team
Week One, Winter Session 2015