Warming Up to the Cold Blooded

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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!

For most, meeting someone who was alive during the Civil War would be impossible. However, educator guide Peter Gilson gets such an incredible opportunity almost daily. When he’s not giving tours or presentations, Mr. Gilson is also a reptile keeper, and Speedy the possibly-150-year-old Galapagos tortoise is just one of the many species under his care.

From a very young age, Mr. Gilson was drawn to the herpetological, and was determined to be a reptile keeper since he was only four. Mr. Gilson’s later experiences volunteering at the Natural History Museum and studying abroad are what he attributes to achieving his dream. “Volunteering was probably the best thing I did,” Mr. Gilson recalled during his afternoon meeting with InternQuest. Opportunities like InternQuest, which develop connections, as well as volunteer and internship opportunities which give hands-on experience, are key to getting a job in animal care. A bachelor’s degree in a biology or ecology related field is also important. Mr. Gilson studied a semester in Costa Rica during his undergraduate studies at Point Loma Nazarene University. While abroad, he learned about reptiles and tropical ecology, giving him an edge when applying for a summer internship with the San Diego Zoo’s education department.

The summer of 2007 was eventful: the final Harry Potter book hit shelves, President Bush signed off on the first minimum wage increase of the millennium, and Mr. Gilson had found his true passion during his internship with the Zoo’s education department. In teaching hordes of enthusiastic summer campers, he discovered how exciting teaching can be in a zoo setting. Mr. Gilson realized he loved sharing his passion through interaction. Today, his main duty as an educator guide is to interact with the public in order to create better understandings of the Zoo, and he has no intention of letting that change. Even when spending time as a reptile keeper, Mr. Gilson’s favorite part of the job is guest interaction. He noted that most keeper jobs involve some degree of speaking with the public, but future keepers with stage fright have no need to fear. Just like Mr. Gilson has been given the opportunity to expand his duties towards his interests, keepers at the San Diego Zoo get the chance to work towards their own strengths and have input into how much guest interaction they want to be involved in.

The tours, presentations, and keeper talks play an important role in the Zoo’s conservation mission. As San Diego Zoo Global leads the fight against extinction, keepers and educator guides like Mr. Gilson get the public involved and excited with the connections they make. His presentations may give a child the chance to touch a lizard that they’ve never seen—or realized they should care for—before, giving its species just one more ally in conservation.

As the sun sets over Reptile Mesa, Peter Gilson may be found ringing a cowbell in the Galapagos tortoise exhibit, calling the Zoo’s oldest inhabitants into their heated barn for some evening yams. One surprising aspect of Mr. Gilson’s work as a keeper is how much training reptiles, especially crocodilians and monitor lizards, can be involved in. Through operant conditioning and positive reinforcement alone, many lizards have learned their own names. Learning at the Zoo isn’t just for the animals: educator guides like Mr. Gilson teach the public conservation messages to help the wild relatives of species they can meet at the Zoo. Giving guests the opportunity to understand and appreciate some of the scalier species—like the Galapagos tortoise, whose exhibit boasts an interaction area for feeding fresh veggies and giving neck scratches—makes the future a little bit brighter for the endangered species the Zoo is working to save.

Brianna, Careers Team
Week One, Winter Session 2015