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, then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!
On our first day out in the Zoo as interns, we had the wonderful opportunity to meet with Kim Livingstone, Lead Primate Keeper. Ms. Livingstone took us to see the bonobos and the gorillas in order to teach us about their upkeep, social structures, and the conservation efforts in place for them.
We got the chance to learn about primates, which are genetically some of our closest relatives. Pictured above is silverback gorilla, Paul Donn, who is an excellent example of the similarities between humans and primates. Just last week, Paul Donn was given human cold medication when he got the flu. But, instead of the human dosage of a teaspoon, he got the gorilla one: half the bottle!
To start off our adventure, we were first met by Lead Primate Keeper at the San Diego Zoo, Kim Livingstone. Before introducing us to some of the animals in her care, Ms. Livingstone told us about her path to becoming a primate keeper. She got her start at Mount San Antonio College, looking into veterinary medicine. Later, she made the decision to instead go into exotic animal management and training at Moorpark College. Though her true passion is ornithology, the study of birds, she made the switch to primates because of her animal training background, when she was asked to train the bonobos.
Ms. Livingstone is one of twelve primate keepers who works hard to keep her animals happy and healthy. This process starts bright and early, at 6:00 in the morning, as keepers train, feed, and check on their animals. After this, several hours of the keepers’ day will be spent cleaning the exhibits and stocking them with enrichment. Ms. Livingstone also works on conservation programs and does educational work, which she loves.
Ms. Livingstone took us to meet the Zoo’s troop of bonobos, who are some of the 150 bonobos living in managed care within the United States. As the dominant female of the group, Loretta observed Ms. Livingstone while she explained the bonobos’ matriarchal society. The females rule the roost, while the males in the troop only get their power and support from their mothers.
Bonobos’ social structures and interactions with each other are strikingly similar to humans. They form friendships within their troops, they show empathy, they reconcile, they play, they plan, and they laugh. All of the bonobos will pitch in to take care of the babies, who begin to learn the complex social system through imitation.
Ms. Livingstone’s presentation was abruptly interrupted by loud shrieks and squeals coming from the bonobos. When we looked out into the exhibit, we could see one of their keepers approaching to let them inside their sleep enclosures for the evening. The bonobos are fed in these back enclosures, and have toys, beds, and even, a television to keep them entertained. Ms. Livingstone informed us that they are currently in the middle of watching a documentary on whales.
With the bonobos inside, Ms. Livingstone took us up to the roof of the gorilla exhibit. The Zoo’s troop is part of a Species Survival Plan, which is a breeding program trying to raise the numbers of this endangered species. The troop out on exhibit today was a success story of the project, with baby Denny in the mix.
Jessica, the mother in the troop, brought baby Denny over to check us out. Ms. Livingstone told us about the white spot on Denny’s backside that signifies his infancy. As long as he has it, the other gorillas will have to let him get away with whatever he wants, but the spot will disappear around age three. Then, he will start having to behave and fit himself into the social order of the troop.
We got a special treat when Ms. Livingstone called the troop’s silverback, Paul Donn, over for us. Unlike bonobos, the males are the commanding force in gorilla troops. Paul’s pointy, cone-like head, gray and silver back, and long front arm hair are all secondary sex characteristics that display his dominance and power.
The gorillas’ exhibit was constructed with their natural habitat in mind. The keepers work with architects to design exhibits that recreate the look and function of the elements in the wild where the animal would live. They will consult with other zoos and research to make sure everything is as natural as possible. Ms. Livingstone worked to put together the gorilla exhibit, and is working on new primate exhibits for the Zoo’s opening of Africa Rocks in 2017.
Another way the Zoo mimics their animals’ natural environments is by providing them with browse. Browse is just a fancy term for foraging food that the animals can munch on during the day. As part of their constant efforts to reduce their ecological footprint, the Zoo grows a majority of its browse locally, to avoid having to ship it long distances. Some of the gorilla browse is being grown up on the roof of their exhibit, so the keepers can just walk up and pick fresh plants whenever they need; now that’s efficiency! In the picture above, you see hibiscus, rosemary, and sugar cane, ready to be eaten.
As Ms. Livingstone wrapped up her presentation, she told us about ways to help conserve endangered species we had gotten the chance to see. We are all capable of making a big impact by doing little things. For instance, being aware of where the products we are buying come from can make a huge impact. Buying locally grown foods and sustainable products does make a difference, no matter how trivial it may seem, so do your part; the primates are counting on it!
Naomi, Photo Team
Week One, Fall 2015