Saving a Species One Patient at a Time

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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 jobs, and the blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

When people think of species conservation, they often imagine field biologists who are working in remote countries, often recording animal populations. However, this is only half the battle to combat extinction for many endangered species around the globe. Experts in our own San Diego Zoo have a huge impact on conservation projects; one of these passionate individuals is Yvette Kemp, a senior hospital keeper here at the Zoo. Ms. Kemp, along with seven veterinarians, six registered veterinary technicians, five other hospital keepers and three nutritionists, all work at the hospital and around the Zoo ensuring that each animal is healthy.

The staff onboard at the hospital has specific protocol for every animal that comes through their doors. Animals that are new to the Zoo have to stay in quarantine for at least 30, sometimes even 60 days. This is done so that the keepers can monitor the animal, making sure that it is completely healthy and well adjusted before it is put in its own enclosure on Zoo grounds. If an animal has a specific problem, hospital staff may bring in an expert in that field, such as a cardiologist for a gorilla having heart problems or an endocrinologist for a rhino who is having fertility problems. These small steps comprised of treating one animal in a zoo can lead to huge breakthroughs in saving an entire species.

Ms. Kemp has been involved in countless conservation and education projects affiliated with the Zoo. Previously, she was the Bornean bearded pig studbook keeper, where her job included tracking breeding programs, monitoring family trees, and acting as the liaison between zoo programs who are looking to breed one of their pigs with one from another zoo. By establishing breeding programs, zoos can increase a species’ population and gain insight on how these animals would breed in the wild. If biologists can pinpoint which factors lead to higher birthrates, they can encourage animals to mate in their native environments, thus leading to a higher population numbers.

Hospital keepers here at the San Diego Zoo work relentlessly to make an animal’s stay in the hospital as comfortable and stress-free as possible. The staff studies the natural history of an animal’s environment in order to better meet his or her needs during their stay. Currently, the hospital is hosting Sitka, an Arctic fox who was admitted due to lack of appetite and possible eye problems. The keepers let her stay in a wide-open area where she won’t knock into anything because of her possible impaired vision. Sitka also has access to a warm den area where she can sleep at night and feel safe. By diagnosing animals like Sitka, hospital employees can better understand wild Artic foxes and their health problems, which could help lengthen lifespans and eventually build up the population, greatly contributing to species conservation.

Recently, Ms. Kemp played a role in the rehabilitation of a Western pond turtle. A Southern California native, this species has become endangered due to habitat loss and competition from the invasive red-eared slider turtle. Ms. Kemp worked with researchers to assist an injured turtle and get him on his way to a full recovery. After his stay in the Zoo hospital, the turtle was released into the wild, where biologists are working to rebuild Western pond turtle populations.

Ms. Kemp has been a keeper at the San Diego Zoo for over nineteen years, and has committed her career here to stopping species extinction one patient at a time. Studying animals individually has been an amazing asset to conservation efforts, and care at the San Diego Zoo’s hospital has been instrumental in providing opportunities to do this.

Emily, Conservation Team
Week Four, Winter 2015