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Path to Pathology

Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and the Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s Website!

Dawn_W5_picThe interns had the pleasure to meet Megan McCarthy, D.V.M., this week. Dr. McCarthy is a Resident Zoological Pathologist at the Zoo’s Wildlife Disease Laboratories, and works mostly in the Clinical Pathology Lab. Pathology is a branch of veterinary medicine, what Dr. McCarthy calls the study of the “essential nature” of a disease. This “essential nature” is basically how a disease functions and how it might affect the subject, zoological pathology being the study of the nature of diseases in animals specifically.

Dr. McCarthy’s job at the Zoo is mostly puzzle solving; her goal is to figure out how a deceased animal died. She and the rest of her team go about this by looking at the past clinical history of the animal, conducting necropsies, analyzing tissue samples (also known as histology), analyzing blood work, etc. Sometimes the cause of death may be obvious during the necropsy, like in the case of an obstructed gastrointestinal tract. However, most of the time, Dr. McCarthy and her associates must go through a long process of deductive reasoning to figure out what went wrong with the animal.

The Wildlife Disease Laboratories not only find the cause of death for a wide variety of the Zoo’s animals, from tiny frogs to elephants, but also native animals that were found deceased in areas surrounding the Zoo. The reason for this is to monitor any diseases present in wildlife that may potentially affect animals within the Zoo.

Zoological pathology is a very specialized field, so there is really no structured academic path to zoological pathology. There are only about 25 full-time zoological pathologists working at zoos in the United States. Dr. McCarthy actually earned her first degree in economics at Yale University as an undergraduate, and then realized she had distaste for working in the field after graduating. She then decided to go to veterinary school at North Carolina State University, with the goal of becoming a zoo veterinarian. While at vet school, Dr. McCarthy learned about and fell in love with pathology and histology. She was able to obtain a residency here at the Zoo through University of California, Davis, and she will soon be taking the Board Exam to officially become a specialist in zoological pathology.

Most of Dr. McCarthy’s work is spent in front of a microscope, which is her favorite part of her job. Dr. McCarthy especially loves histology because she is able to see a “snapshot” of an animal’s life in just a small tissue sample.She also does monthly rounds to check in with keepers, veterinarians, and other staff. Dr. McCarthy also regularly conducts necropsies, in which she examines deceased animals and collects small tissue samples of all of the organs to analyze. By analyzing tissue samples, Dr. McCarthy and her colleagues can identify any diseases in the animal, such as chytrid fungus, an epidemic among amphibians that has caused massive population declines and even extinctions.

If you’re looking into a future in zoological pathology, Dr. McCarthy says that zoos aren’t your only option. Many zoological pathologists also work in education and academia, diagnostic laboratories, and research. Dr. McCarthy’s work at the Zoo is important not only to San Diego Zoo’s animals, but to other zoo animals as well as wildlife around the world. Understanding and treating diseases such as chytrid fungus, is crucial for global conservation efforts and combating population decline.

Dawn, Careers Team
Week Five, Fall 2015

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Nutrition for the Zoo and Beyond

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 adventure here on the Zoo’s website!

Dawn_W4_picThis week, the interns met the “executive chefs” of the Zoo and Safari Park, the nutritionists. Director of Nutritional Services, Michael Schlegel, PhD., as well as Associate Nutritionist, Katie Kerr, PhD., showed us around the Zoo and explained the variety of diets they use for the animals. As nutritionists, their jobs mainly encompass managing diets for the animals and giving individual animals body condition evaluations, which is similar to the BMI scale for people. These body condition scores tell nutritionists, veterinarians, and keepers if the animal is underweight, normal or overweight. With this information, nutritionists and veterinarians learn if and what they need to change in an animal’s diet to keep it as healthy as possible, just like how people get check-ups, and doctors will often tell their patients to monitor and change their carbohydrate, sodium, cholesterol, sugar, etc. intake to try and avoid health problems.

Just like humans, it’s good for animals to have as much variety as possible in their diet, and everything in moderation. You wouldn’t want to eat only pizza every day for the rest of your life, right? Well, maybe… but it’s not good for you. To achieve variety, in addition to their daily mandatory diets, nutritionists provide enrichment food items, which the keepers can mix and match to find what the animal likes.

For primates, Dr. Schlegel and Dr. Kerr devised a point system, similar to Weight Watchers, to monitor the enrichment food items given to primates. The primates are given a certain allotment of enrichment points in their diet, and different items are worth different amounts of points, depending on their nutritional value. For example, a serving of grapenut cereal is worth 4 points, while a hard-boiled egg is worth 1½point. This way, primates can have unusual and tasty items, while also staying within their nutritional boundaries.

As you can see, Zoo diets aren’t necessarily restricted to specialty feeds and fresh fruit and vegetables. Carnivorous birds, or birds of prey, get dry dog food in their diets because it has essential nutrients that the birds need. One of Dr. Schlegel’s most memorable cases as a Zoo Nutritionist was the small and colorful beautiful sunbird. Two of the Zoo’s beautiful sunbirds had chicks, and for some reason, they weren’t eating their normal diet. Eventually, they realized that the birds ate spiders, so Dr. Schlegel was able to obtain spiders from a company that originally raised spiders for use in the pharmaceutical industry.

Instead of shrimp, because it’s very expensive, Zoo flamingos actually get carotenoid vitamins added to their diets. The specific carotenoid used by Nutritional Services is called lutein. Lutein helps the flamingos to achieve their signature pink color, but it is also used in the medical industry for human eye health. It’s known as the “eye vitamin,” and helps prevent eye diseases like macular degeneration and cataracts by acting as a sort of light filter, protecting eye tissues from sunlight damage.

Sometimes, zoo nutrition also overlaps outside of the Zoo. Some exotic feeds which were originally specially made for zoos and exotic animals have made their way into the pet food industry. For example, a specialty feed for crickets made for zoos is now used by many pet reptile owners to feed their crickets, which are in turn used to feed their reptiles.

As a cat owner, Dr. Schlegel advises fellow cat owners to feed their cats strictly cat food because it contains everything your cat needs, although he and his family may be a little lenient about their own cats’ diets. Although the Schlegel’s do feed their cats dairy products sometimes, Dr. Schlegel advises not to because domestic cats have lost the ability to digest lactose properly, a key ingredient in dairy products.

There’s no doubt that Dr. Schlegel’s and Dr. Kerr’s work is tailored to benefit zoo animals, but it also can carry over to our everyday lives. Like zoo nutritionists, it’s important to monitor your animals’ diets, because keeping your animals healthy and happy is quintessential. Certain food items may be very detrimental to your pet’s health, while others may be good for them, so always do your research and think before you feed.

Dawn, Real World Team
Week Four, Fall 2015

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Food for Thought

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 Zoos website!

 Dawn_W3_photoOut of all the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park’s various departments, Nutritional Services might not be the first department that comes to mind when discussing conservation efforts. However, Nutritional Services has more to do with conservation than you may think.

Deborah Lowe, the Nutritional Services Supervisor at the Zoo, showed the interns around the Forage Warehouse, as well as a few additional storage structures used by the Nutritional Services Department, including the bug room, grain room, and hay storage. As the supervisor of the department, Ms. Lowe does several things including ordering food supply, managing diets, preparing food, and delivering meals to the keepers. Her responsibilities lie mostly in logistics and daily tasks.

One significant way that Ms. Lowe and her department contribute to conservation is by being efficient and maintaining a minimal amount of waste. In place of trash, Nutritional Services uses a scrap pile similar to compost, in which they dispose of organic waste products, like the end of a head of lettuce. They feed this scrap pile to the mealworms, disposing of waste while simultaneously feeding their live worms, which are used to feed a multitude of animals, including birds, Tasmanian devils, primates, and meerkats.

Another method that the department uses to reduce waste is by preserving and reusing hay. The Zoo uses three main species of hay: bermuda, alfalfa, and sudan. By storing their hay in an enclosed indoor structure, protecting it from the wind, rain, and heat, no hay is lost to weather conditions. This way, the department saves a large quantity of hay by preserving their supply and preventing loss and mold. Hay is also recycled when it is unusable, in cases such as mold, or not meeting the nutritional requirement. Instead of disposing of the hay, they place it on the hills around the Zoo for erosion control. Erosion control is the practice of preventing wind and water erosion to avoid soil and property loss, as well as water pollution. By putting moldy and inedible hay to use elsewhere, Nutritional Services is able to reduce their waste and at the same time have a positive effect on the Zoo and its surroundings.

Other than reducing waste, Nutritional Services also is integral for keeping Zoo animals healthy and happy, which is incredibly important for breeding programs conducted by the Zoo. Breeding healthy and well-fed animals encourages healthy offspring, which is all the better in terms of conservation of endangered animals. Keeping the animals healthy is also very helpful for engaging the public, and perhaps discouraging the flawed perception that living in the Zoo is detrimental to the health of animals, and other harmful preconceived notions that visitors might be coming to the Zoo with.

Although the Nutritional Services Department may not have a direct impact on Zoo conservation efforts, Ms. Lowe and her colleagues do as much as they can for conservation by lowering their negative impact on the environment. Reducing waste and making efficient use of supply is the Nutritional Services Department’s way of making their mark and contributing their part to conservation at the San Diego Zoo.

Dawn, Conservation Team
Week Three, Fall 2015

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Planting for the Future

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 our second week, the interns got to meet Emily Howe, who spoke with us about her background as well as her job as a Research Coordinator at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research’s Plant Conservation Department. Additionally, interns were given the opportunity to help Ms. Howe with transplanting some native coyote bush (baccharis pilularis) plants into bigger pots to allow them to grow and be strong enough to be planted in the ground. The final destination for these plants will be Lake Hodges, just south of Escondido, where the Institute’s Plant Conservation Department is conducting a habitat restoration project to plant and preserve native species.

Ms. Howe wasn’t always a plant person. She actually studied liberal arts as an undergraduate at Hamilton College, before doing bird surveys for the National Forest Service. After realizing it was really plants she was interested in, Ms. Howe earned a Master’s degree in ecology at San Diego State University. She says that her liberal arts background is helpful to her job at the Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research because it allows her to approach things differently than perhaps a conventional scientist would.

Ms. Howe wasn’t always a plant person. She actually studied liberal arts as an undergraduate at Hamilton College, before doing bird surveys for the National Forest Service. After realizing it was really plants she was interested in, Ms. Howe earned a Master’s degree in ecology at San Diego State University. She says that her liberal arts background is helpful to her job at the Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research because it allows her to approach things differently than perhaps a conventional scientist would.

After getting acquainted with Ms. Howe and what she does at the Beckman Institute, she led us to the shade house to get started on transplanting. The shade house is a big, netted tent to protect plants from harsh sunlight while they’re still maturing. It houses several different San Diego native species, including coyote bush, at various stages of development.

After getting acquainted with Ms. Howe and what she does at the Beckman Institute, she led us to the shade house to get started on transplanting. The shade house is a big, netted tent to protect plants from harsh sunlight while they’re still maturing. It houses several different San Diego native species, including coyote bush, at various stages of development.

Ms. Howe started by showing us the process for transplanting the coyote bush. We first took the plant out of its cone by loosening up the soil and turning it upside-down. Then, we held the plant in a larger container, as shown, filling around the new pot with more soil, trying to keep the roots as intact as possible, but at the same time making sure to not bury the plant.

Ms. Howe started by showing us the process for transplanting the coyote bush. We first took the plant out of its cone by loosening up the soil and turning it upside-down. Then, we held the plant in a larger container, as shown, filling around the new pot with more soil, trying to keep the roots as intact as possible, but at the same time making sure to not bury the plant.

Here are some of my fellow interns beginning the transplanting process. The Plant Conservation Department relies largely on volunteers and organizations to assist them with their projects, including their current native plant restoration effort at Lake Hodges. These projects often require planting thousands of individual plants at a time, so the more hands available, the more efficient and effective they can be.

Here are some of my fellow interns beginning the transplanting process. The Plant Conservation Department relies largely on volunteers and organizations to assist them with their projects, including their current native plant restoration effort at Lake Hodges. These projects often require planting thousands of individual plants at a time, so the more hands available, the more efficient and effective they can be.

Ms. Howe pointed out to us that these plants have smaller, thinner roots toward the surface, and thicker, denser roots toward the bottom. This is in order for the plant to absorb as much water as possible, which is essential especially when the plants first germinate. However, the recent drought is not as detrimental to San Diego native ecology as you might think. Many native plants are built for these drought conditions, and thrive in them, especially when non-native plants die out from the lack of water, leaving more nutrients and resources for the native species.

Ms. Howe pointed out to us that these plants have smaller, thinner roots toward the surface, and thicker, denser roots toward the bottom. This is in order for the plant to absorb as much water as possible, which is essential especially when the plants first germinate. However, the recent drought is not as detrimental to San Diego native ecology as you might think. Many native plants are built for these drought conditions, and thrive in them, especially when non-native plants die out from the lack of water, leaving more nutrients and resources for the native species.

Germination flats are where seeds are initially planted, allowing for their first growth. The plants stay in these flats for about three weeks before going into the plastic cones, where they mature for around one to two months. Then, they are transplanted into larger pots, where they grow for about four to five months before finally being planted in the ground.

Germination flats are where seeds are initially planted, allowing for their first growth. The plants stay in these flats for about three weeks before going into the plastic cones, where they mature for around one to two months. Then, they are transplanted into larger pots, where they grow for about four to five months before finally being planted in the ground.

My fellow intern Naomi gave special care to the younger plants of the bunch. The coyote bush plants are native to coastal sage scrub and chaparral ecosystems. The name “coastal sage scrub” is a bit of a misnomer because the ecosystem is actually associated more with elevation than proximity to the ocean. Because of this, coastal sage scrub ecosystems can also occur several miles inland. Such places include Lake Hodges, which is around 12 miles away from the coast.

My fellow intern Naomi gave special care to the younger plants of the bunch. The coyote bush plants are native to coastal sage scrub and chaparral ecosystems. The name “coastal sage scrub” is a bit of a misnomer because the ecosystem is actually associated more with elevation than proximity to the ocean. Because of this, coastal sage scrub ecosystems can also occur several miles inland. Such places include Lake Hodges, which is around 12 miles away from the coast.

Ms. Howe expressed that the most rewarding part of her job is being able to see native animals use the habitats she is restoring. Although it may not have a significant impact on the rest of the world, she knows that she’s making a big impact on small ecosystems around San Diego.

Ms. Howe expressed that the most rewarding part of her job is being able to see native animals use the habitats she is restoring. Although it may not have a significant impact on the rest of the world, she knows that she’s making a big impact on small ecosystems around San Diego.

The Plant Conservation Department will plant around 25 species this year, although the number of species often varies by the location of the habitat. The Lake Hodges restoration project involves about 25 different species, and around 10,000 individual plants.

The Plant Conservation Department will plant around 25 species this year, although the number of species often varies by the location of the habitat. The Lake Hodges restoration project involves about 25 different species, and around 10,000 individual plants.

After we finished the transplanting process, my fellow intern Kylie helped put away the transplanted plants. In a few months, the plants will be planted into the ground at Lake Hodges, where Ms. Howe estimates the survival rate to be over 90%, which is well over the 70% her grant funding requires.

After we finished the transplanting process, my fellow intern Kylie helped put away the transplanted plants. In a few months, the plants will be planted into the ground at Lake Hodges, where Ms. Howe estimates the survival rate to be over 90%, which is well over the 70% her grant funding requires.

Dawn, Photo Team
Week Two, Fall 2015

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Just a Hop, Slither, and a Crawl

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!

Dawn_W1_picPeter Gilson, a Reptile Keeper and Educator Guide for the San Diego Zoo, was able to show the interns around the Galapagos Tortoise exhibit, as well as behind-the-scenes of the amphibian building and Reptile House. We learned all kinds of facts about Galapagos Tortoises while looking around their enclosure.

Did you know Galapagos tortoises can hiss? But, it’s not for the reasons you may be thinking. When threatened, these gentle giants will tuck their heads into their shell causing them to exhale which causes the hissing sound. Also, mammals aren’t the only ones who like scratches! In the tortoises’ natural habitat, Galapagos finches would eat bacteria and parasites off of the Tortoises’ necks. Humans can simulate this by scratching their necks; when prompted with scratching, the tortoise will stand up higher and stretch out their necks for easy access. Mr. Gilson allowed the interns to all take turns scratching at a tortoise’s neck, which was definitely a unique experience!

Mr. Gilson began his career at the Zoo 8 years ago, as a program aid for the Education Department, helping with educational programs like summer camp. Mr. Gilson studied Environmental Science as an undergraduate at Point Loma Nazarene University, where he was able to obtain an internship at the San Diego Zoo’s Reptile Department through a Point Loma Alumnus. He was also able to work at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute of Conservation Research, where he did research on reptiles and amphibians such as the mountain yellow-legged frog and Caribbean rock iguana. After graduating college, Mr. Gilson became an educator guide at the Zoo, where he has been working ever since.

Mr. Gilson always knew he loved reptiles, but he realized during his education that he definitely didn’t want to be a keeper. He expressed how he prefers educating and interacting with the public rather than the day-to-day responsibilities required of keepers.

As an educator guide, Mr. Gilson’s job primarily consists of giving tours and conducting presentations at places like elementary schools. He often brings animal ambassadors, such as Ruby, the enormous red-tailed boa, to help engage and interest kids in learning about animals and conservation.

If working with the scaly and slimy is your thing, Mr. Gilson advises having a strong knowledge of herpetological taxonomy, or the scientific names of various reptiles and amphibians. Keepers often need to communicate about specific species, and knowing who and what you’re talking about is always essential. Mr. Gilson also advises future reptile keepers that like most professions, prior knowledge and “hands-on” experience, such as a earning a degree, volunteering opportunities, and internships are invaluable. Reptiles and amphibians are very unique to most other animals, and keepers need to be aware of those differences, and how to tend to the reptiles and amphibians in relation to those distinctions.

The cold-blooded are often associated with bad reputations and stereotypes, which for the most part are unwarranted. Many are understood, and reptile keepers at the Zoo have been able to teach them some rudimentary training, and even teach the animals their own names, proving that they are capable of much more than their bad reputation. Reptile keepers and educator guides, like Mr. Gilson, are working to break these bad perceptions and teach future generations to have respect for our scaly friends.

Dawn, Careers Team
Week One, Fall 2015

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Once a San Diegan, Always an Animal Lover

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

dawn_profileNot many things have come naturally to me, but one of the few that has has been my passion for animals and wildlife. I grew
up going to the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, so I was fairly spoiled in my exposure to wildlife and conservation. Lucky for me, I am captivated by wildlife and conservation, and as a result I have always known that I want to pursue a career revolving around animals, wildlife, zoology, and conservation. InternQuest will be an amazing opportunity for me to expand my experience and knowledge of different sciences and professions at the Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute of Conservation Research, which I am very grateful for and looking forward to!

I am currently in my last year of high school, and once I graduate, I aspire to attend the University of California, Davis to study zoology as well as wildlife and conservation biology. Other interests and hobbies of mine include comedy, travelling, and reading. Although I tend to be quite introverted, I love hanging out and having fun with friends and family.

 I am always looking for new experiences and opportunities to learn more about myself and the world I live in, so I hope that you’ll follow me along in this exciting seven-week endeavor to explore the Zoo and Safari Park!

Dawn
Profile, Fall 2015