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I Got Your Back, Baby

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!

Ms. Becky Kier, a Senior Keeper in the Neonatal Assisted Care Unit, or NACU for short, may have the coolest job in the world. Why? For twenty-six years and counting, she has had the amazing opportunity to care for many different types of mammals at the San Diego Zoo. Her job is very similar to an ICU or human nursery, as it provides case-specific care for animals in need. The profession seemed to be the perfect blend of veterinary work and animal interaction, with the bonus of getting to spend the days with the only thing cuter than human babies… animal ones!

Keepers in the NACU might have one of the most rewarding jobs in the entire Zoo, but it is also definitely one of the hardest. At times, Ms. Kier works long and unpredictable hours caring for extremely unstable animals. However, the reason her job is so rewarding is the same reason why it’s so difficult: successfully assisting a baby in the NACU means not only overcoming great odds in many cases, but saving a life.

There are many reasons nursery keepers get involved with the care of young animals, but the most common are injury or infection, maternal neglect, maternal death, conspecific abuse (aggressive behavior between members of a group), or an inadequate milk supply. In any of these cases, NACU keepers will provide what the mother does not or cannot in order to give the offspring a fighting chance, much like doctors in an ICU that help support a baby until it is strong and healthy enough to be cared for by its mom. Generally, keepers try to assist the animals using little interaction, and also try to be as close to their exhibit, and family as possible. This is especially true in the case of hoof stock, which rarely ever enter the nursery and instead are cared for in their exhibit. Keeping the young animals close to their families introduces them to the sounds and scents of their world early in life, and also allows the group in the exhibit to adjust to its new member and vice versa. However, carnivores such as tiger cubs are cared for in the NACU for the first few months of their lives because they generally require more intensive care than hoof stock. They then are moved to be closer to their animal mommies.

The keepers in the NACU truly do it all from feeding to bathing to administering medications, depending on the individual animal, their condition, and their needs. Their routine is incredibly hectic. If they are needed to help with a litter of meerkats they would need to mark the litter with grease pens so they know who’s who, feed the babies, weigh them, take their temperature, feed them again, clean bottles, make formulas, and even burp the young animals. With all their tasks, it is incredible keepers can keep it all straight, but they do, adhering to a strict schedule and working efficiently.

Ms. Kier and her team help to care for the Zoo’s babies just like doctors in our world do. They work around the clock to successfully assist newborn animal babies and the rewards that come with their job are unmatched by any others. Ms. Kier plays an active role in species conservation every time she goes to work and helps to sustain a life. Every time she is a part of assisting a newborn, she gets to know that she has not only made a difference in one animal’s life, but also contributed to the conservation of that species as a whole. And, after all, I can’t think of anything better than being recognized by a tiger, cuddled by meerkats, or loved by a fossa, all very wild animals that have a soft spot just for you because you once helped them in a time of need.

Haley, Real World
Week Six, Fall Session 2013

 

 

 

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A Scat Chat With a Scientist

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!

haley_pic_w5In a world full of career paths, it’s easy to see how somebody could struggle to pick just one—vet or keeper, field or lab researcher. It is then, almost by accident that somebody stumbles upon the perfect job, but when they do it is evident. Dr. Chris Tubbs gets to fall in love with his work every day… and what an amazing job he has!

Dr. Tubbs is a Scientist in the Reproductive Physiology Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. He and his department work primarily with how hormones affect an animal’s ability to reproduce. Dr. Tubbs told us that for him, every day is completely different from the previous or coming one, and because of this he never gets bored. One day the project could be condors and some weeks later it could be polar bears! In order to give us a better idea of what kind of research he and his colleagues might do, he presented us with a mock assay. In this lab we got to practice mixing chemicals that would reveal progesterone levels. Based on this we could make graphs that allowed us to predict pregnancy, track a fertility cycle, or diagnose fertility issues. Though ours was just a practice, Dr. Tubbs work allows keepers to monitor when to breed an animal or to know if an animal is pregnant, so they can receive the proper care for their condition.

Dr. Tubbs told us that despite liking what he did, he always stayed open to the possibility of change because he was interested to find out where his path might take him. He first attended the University of Florida, where he received his bachelor’s degree in zoology. He then went on to receive his Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin Marine Science Institute. Before making the leap to mammals, Dr. Tubbs work closely with a project that was studying fish sperm motility.

After working with fish, Dr. Tubbs made the surprising leap to mammal research. Believe it or not, he told us that the hormones in all animals are nearly identical, which made the transition from fish to mammals easier for him. He is currently working on a project about white rhinos. This current project has been one of the most fruitful that Dr. Tubbs has been a part of and, because of that, he has devoted a significant amount of time to sticking with it. In his studies he researched progesterone levels in the rhinos using fecal, urine, blood, and saliva samples. With this information he is able to track and gain a more solid understanding of rhino reproduction and then use that knowledge to help promote reproduction of the species.

Dr. Tubbs did tell us there are definite pros to field research as well, which he also knew from personal experience. It is harder, more physical work and for Dr. Tubbs the most engaging part of conservation is the science behind it, which is largely why he decided to go into lab research. As he spoke it was obvious he wouldn’t trade his job for anything in the world… and who can blame him? It’s a pretty amazing profession! Even though Dr. Tubbs works alongside the keepers and their animals, he has a huge impact on their health and success and also gets to pioneer a new field of research.

Whatever your interests, Dr. Tubbs stressed that when pursuing a profession, it has to be something you love. He also asked us to consider the importance of staying open to every possibility for our careers. After all, if he hadn’t been open to trying out work at the Institute and studying mammals, we might have never gotten to meet this amazing man with one incredible job.

Haley, Careers Team
Week Five, Fall Session 2013

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Can You Dig It?

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!

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This camera device is used for capturing pictures of the burrowing owl.

What’s the first animal that comes to mind when somebody mentions wildlife conservation? A panda, or maybe even a polar bear? What about a burrowing owl? Probably not. At only about six to eight inches tall, they tend to be low on people’s radar, literally and figuratively. These birds, native to San Diego grassland habitats, live underground in burrows. Even though they aren’t legally endangered and receiving protection, they need our help.

You may be wondering, “What exactly is a burrowing owl?” There are fifteen to twenty-five subspecies of burrowing owls, though only two are recognized in the United States: the western and Florida burrowing owls. They are one of the smallest owl species and are uniquely active both day and night. Believe it or not, these little birds are dependent on the California ground squirrels and other digging mammals for housing. Squirrels will dig burrows, which owls then take over to use for nesting and roosting. In San Diego County, burrowing owls mainly make their homes in the Otay Mesa area because that is where you can still find some patches of grassland habitat.

Ms. Colleen Wisinski, Senior Research Technician in Applied Animal Ecology at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, is currently working to help bring the burrowing owl population back to a more sustainable number. Not only do the burrowing owls face difficulties because of human encroachment on their habitat, but they are also dependent on other animals for housing. They most predominantly rely on ground squirrels, which some humans consider pests. Ms. Wisinski is able to track and study the birds’ natural behaviors, flight patterns, reproductive potential, and the success rates of burrowing owls in man-made versus natural burrows by using a technology called camera trapping. By studying pictures taken with high-tech, camouflaged cameras, researchers can piece together a picture of the burrowing owls’ lifestyles and what they need to survive as well as create an action plan to help the birds and restore their populations.

You don’t have to be a researcher working with fancy equipment and a team of scientists to make a difference for local San Diego wildlife like the burrowing owl. Instead, try fostering a “backyard habitat.” This means planting a variety of native plants that attract and support native animals to build a “mini ecosystem.” Native animals benefit from these habitats because they provide a home for the animals in the middle of urban and suburban areas. Burrowing owls can live relatively close to humans as long as their nesting sites aren’t disturbed, making backyard habitats especially helpful to them. Plus, these habitats are rewarding and fun—you get to help sustain the native species in your area and get to enjoy having the critters right outside your own back door.

Haley, Conservation Team
Week Four, Fall Session 2013

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The Greatest Gift

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!

haley_week3_photoIt’s widely known that a blood transfusion in humans can save lives, whether it replaces blood lost in an accident, or platelets and red blood cells that do not form properly. But did you know that animals can also receive transfusions? Plasma transfusions are sometimes given to baby animals that weren’t nursed properly by their mothers so that they have a better chance at a healthy life.

We went “behind-the-scenes” to see and learn about plasma processing and plasma transfusions in at the Harter Hospital Clinical Pathology Lab located next to the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center for Conservation Research. Ms. Leslie Nielson, a lab technician, gave us a tour of the lab. I was particularly fascinated with one aspect of her job, plasma processing, which is adapted from human medicine. Plasma processing separates the plasma from the rest of the animal’s blood. Scientists collect blood from a full grown animal and put it in a centrifuge to them separate the plasma from the blood. Two layers are formed and the plasma is removed and bagged. These bags are then labeled, dated, and placed in the freezer to be stored and used for another animal of the same family if necessary.

The centrifuge is a huge machine and has many compartments as well as dials used to control the separation process. The special bags used to hold the plasma come in different sizes, small to large. The lab also is equipped with four large freezers that store the plasma until it is needed for a transfusion. The plasma is organized by animal type and by the temperature at which they must be stored. They even come in a range of colors, from a partially opaque white to greens, though scientists don’t know why this difference in colors occurs.

During our visit, we got to see a plasma transfusion in action on a young Thomson’s gazelle being housed in a holding pen at Harter Hospital. A holding pen is a secure and safe room that can be used for many purposes. Animals may wait in a holding pen before or after a surgery or an exam. An animal may even go into a holding pen to receive a little T.L.C. The gazelle we happen to see was receiving a plasma transfusion intravenously. The I.V. ran from behind the baby’s ear, up and through the wall, and into a compartment just outside the holding pen. The compartment, which held all the fluids the gazelle was receiving, is on the outside of the holding pen to protect the tubing and bags from becoming tangled or being punctured.

Getting to witness such an amazing process was thrilling and it was truly amazing to see methods of human medicine being applied to animals! Plasma transfusions have given many animals a new chance at life, even when the likelihood of survival would have been extremely low without it. It makes me think twice about what it means to donate blood and how the process is beneficial and potentially lifesaving in many different ways!

Haley, Real World Team
Week Three, Fall Session 2013

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A Zoo-pendous Job

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!

haley_w2_photoEvery little kid has a dream. Some want to be the President, others a princess, or a doctor. For Dr. Christine Molter, things were different. She didn’t know what she wanted to be for most of her childhood. After a very meaningful internship, she realized her calling was to be a Zoo vet and her mind was made up.

Growing up she wasn’t quite sure of what she wanted to do, but she had always had an affinity for animals. Dr. Molter’s journey began at Harbor Animal Hospital in Illinois, just a short distance from her home town in Wisconsin. The job began with mostly cleaning the facility and doing laundry. However, over time, Dr. Molter moved her way up and eventually got the opportunity to work the front desk and even assist the doctors in the exam rooms.

After finishing high school, Dr. Molter went on to receive a Bachelors of Science from the University of Wisconsin in Zoology and Conservation as well as a certificate in Environmental Studies. Upon finishing her undergraduate degree, she landed internships at the Disney’s Animal Kingdom in the Reproductive Endocrinology department as well as at the animal hospital. It was at these internships that Dr. Molter had her “Ah-hah!” moment and realized that working as a vet in zoos and helping sick or wounded animals was actually “somebody’s job” and a job she really wanted. Inspired, Dr. Molter returned to the University of Wisconsin for veterinary school. Currently, Dr. Molter is a Zoological Medicine resident. She is in a joint program with UC Davis, the San Diego Zoo, and Sea World. She is in the second year of her three year residency. Dr. Molter is working at the San Diego Zoo right now and will spend the remaining year of her residency at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and SeaWorld.

For any aspiring veterinarians, animal researchers, or biologists, Dr. Molter had plenty of advice. At the top of the list was to volunteer and volunteer a lot. She also suggested that we intern with programs such as Zoo InternQuest and later through other zoological institutions such as the Disney’s Animal Kingdom. She advised for anybody wanting to major in animal biology or something along those lines, to start getting all the pre-requisites you need for graduate school early in your undergraduate career. In addition, try to take a surplus of classes that could give you an extra edge over the competition. There are several helpful websites Dr. Molter gave us the links to that advertise animal related internships, veterinary residencies, and employment opportunities. These links are perfect for advancing veterinarian or animal biology students! Try checking out the outreach, calendar, or program search tabs on the following websites: www.aza.org, www.virmp.org, www.wildlifedisease.org, www.nwrawildlife.org.

Dream big, dream a lot, and try something new wherever you can! You never know if one new opportunity can take you to the profession you will fall in love with. This was certainly the case for Dr. Molter, who got to be exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up.

Haley, Careers Team
Week Two, Fall Session 2013

 

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All Things Reptile

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!

Ever wondered how reptiles are cared for at the San Diego Zoo and what is required to keep them happy and healthy? Educator and part-time Reptile Keeper Peter Gilson gave us an inside look at the behind-the-scenes details of the job that is responsible for maintaining this world-class reptile collection!

Mr. Gilson introduced us to the famous Galapagos tortoises. The ages of the tortoises are mostly approximated because the majority of their birthdates are unknown. The Zoo only has an accurate estimate on their youngest tortoise, Jaws, who is 47 years old. Keepers believe their oldest tortoise, Speedy, to be at least 150 years old!

Mr. Gilson introduced us to the famous Galapagos tortoises. The ages of the tortoises are mostly approximated because the majority of their birthdates are unknown. The Zoo only has an estimated age on their youngest tortoise, Jaws, at 47 years old. Keepers believe their oldest tortoise, Speedy, to be at least 150 years old!

Most reptiles are kept in warm, humid environments and are only fed a few times a week to maintain a healthy weight and to accommodate their slow metabolisms. About three fourths of the reptiles in the Reptile House live in warm and humid environments, but the other quarter live in cooler environments.

Most reptiles are kept in warm, humid environments and are only fed a few times a week to maintain a healthy weight and to accommodate their slow metabolisms. About three fourths of the reptiles in the Reptile House live in warm and humid environments, but the other quarter live in cooler environments.

As a safety precaution, a list of all keepers, their locations and what they are doing are listed on a board in the Reptile House. There is an alarm in each corridor, hard-wired to call the Zoo security in the unfortunate event that a venomous animal bites a keeper.

As a safety precaution, a list of all Zookeepers, their locations, and what they are doing are listed on a board inside the Reptile House. There is an alarm in each corridor, hard-wired to call the Zoo security in the unfortunate event that a venomous animal bites a Zookeeper.

Cards listing all animal information and the antivenin are posted on every venomous animal exhibit and at least two keepers are required to be in the Reptile House if someone is working with a venomous species.

Cards listing animal information and the antivenin are posted on every venomous animal exhibit.  At least two Zookeepers are required to be in the Reptile House if someone is working with a venomous species.

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The incubator room has a very strict temperature regulation system, which is required for proper animal development. The room is kept cooler and less humid than the rest of the building, with the incubators set between 80 and 88 degrees. Mr. Gilson is showing us a group of baby Leaf-nosed snakes, just newly hatched.

The Shingleback skink is one of the most interesting reptiles we learned about! This lizard has some pretty amazing adaptations to keep it alive. Its head and tail look nearly identical and is a way to confuse predators. Another means of protection is its very hard armor-like scales. Unique to reptiles as a whole, they are monogamous. Not only do they only take one mate a season, they also return to that same mate every year.

The Shingleback skink is one of the most interesting reptiles we learned about! This lizard has some pretty amazing adaptations to keep it alive. Its head and tail look nearly identical and is a way to confuse predators. Another means of protection is its very hard armor-like scales. Unique to reptiles as a whole, they are monogamous. Not only do they only take one mate a season, they also return to that same mate every year.

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Mr. Gilson demonstrated the process of handling a venomous snake. He was wearing a mask, using a bucket, and snake hooks to give us the full effect!

For safety purposes, he used the nonvenomous two-headed California king snake, named “Brett and Brandon.” I’ve always heard about these snakes, but never seen one in real life!

Regrouping on Reptile Mesa, we had a conservation conversation. Mr. Gilson’s advice was to get a wide of range of experiences so you can jump into an exciting career later in life!

Regrouping on Reptile Mesa, we had a conservation conversation. Mr. Gilson’s advice was to get a wide of range of experiences so you can jump into an exciting career later in life!

Before leaving the Zoo, we had the surprise opportunity to watch Mr. Gilson feed the crocodiles fresh fish. Not only are the fish a healthy snack for the animals, but it’s also a great source of enrichment. The crocidiles have to catch the fish like they might do if they were hunting in the wild.

Before leaving the Zoo, we had the surprise opportunity to watch Mr. Gilson feed the crocodiles fresh fish. Not only are the fish a healthy snack for the animals, but it’s also a great source of enrichment. The crocidiles have to catch the fish like they might do if they were hunting in the wild.

Haley, Photo Team
Week One, Fall Session 2013

 

 

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A Snapshot of Behavior Biology

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!

Dr. Lance Miller is a scientist with the Behavior Biology Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. We were eager to me him as he was our first speaker of the InternQuest session. We learned about what it means to be a behavior biologist and he took us to the Safari Park to talk about some of the projects he has worked on.

We began in the Conservation Education Lab at the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center for Conservation. Dr. Miller focuses his efforts on animal welfare at both the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park. Animal welfare is the study of animal wellness through science where as animal rights is mainly concerned with how animals deserve to be treated based on their similarities to humans.

We began in the Conservation Education Lab at the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Center for Conservation. Dr. Miller focuses his efforts on animal welfare at both the San Diego Zoo and the Safari Park. Animal welfare is the study of animal wellness through science where as animal rights is mainly concerned with how animals deserve to be treated based on their similarities to humans.

In front of the elephant exhibit, Dr. Miller explained that there are many reasons why the elephants at the Safari Park are so healthy. They have a well-managed diet, get plenty of exercise, and receive superb medical care.

In front of the elephant exhibit, Dr. Miller explained that there are many reasons why the elephants at the Safari Park are so healthy. They have a well-managed diet, get plenty of exercise, and receive superb medical care.

Studies have shown that elephants that have everything they need for survival in their nearby surroundings will walk much less than those that need to go in search of their food, water, mates, etc. To compensate for the elephants walking less, keepers entice them using food rewards and also provide the animals with puzzle feeders that hang or roll in the exhibit.

 

In a matter of minutes it started to pour rain. We quickly jumped back into the golf cart where Dr. Miller concluded his talk on the elephants. Even the elephants hurried back under the rock structure in their exhibit to escape the downpour!

In a matter of minutes it started to pour rain. We quickly jumped back into the golf cart where Dr. Miller concluded his talk on the elephants. Even the elephants hurried back under the rock structure in their exhibit to escape the downpour!

Lions are social animals and live in groups called “prides.”  Generally the prides are composed of one male and a handful of females. The two main exceptions to this trend are if a male cub is born into a pride or if a group of young male lions are hunting together to survive.

Lions are social animals and live in groups called “prides.” Generally the prides are composed of one male and a handful of females. The two main exceptions to this trend are if a male cub is born into a pride or if a group of young male lions are hunting together to survive.

Just like humans, animals need mental stimulation. At the Safari Park, different enrichment items are used to engage the animals. The lions have different preferences in terms of which enrichment items they are drawn to. For instance, the male lion loves cardboard and browse while the females love scents and gourds.

Just like humans, animals need mental stimulation. At the Safari Park, different enrichment items are used to engage the animals. The lions have different preferences in terms of which enrichment items they are drawn to. For instance, the male lion loves cardboard and browse while the females love scents and gourds.

The Institute for Conservation Research conducted a massive research project on which scents tigers preferred, even developing their own “Tiger Scent” as a result of these efforts. Hundreds of perfumes were donated and by studying which high, middle, and low notes the tigers preferred, scientist were able to extract six scents and then mix those to create a very potent scent of their own that the tigers love.

The Institute for Conservation Research conducted a massive research project on which scents tigers preferred, even developing their own “Tiger Scent” as a result of these efforts. Hundreds of perfumes were donated and by studying which high, middle, and low notes the tigers preferred, scientist were able to extract six scents and then mix those to create a very potent scent of their own that the tigers love.

Joseph, a fellow intern, smells the custom tiger scent created by the Institute of Conservation Research. He seemed to really enjoy it! Joseph even described it as smelling like a mix of cleaning chemicals, Pine Sol, and citrus.

Joseph, a fellow intern, smells the custom tiger scent created by the Institute of Conservation Research. He seemed to really enjoy it! Joseph even described it as smelling like a mix of cleaning chemicals, Pine Sol, and citrus.

Haley, Photo Team
Week One, Fall Session 2013

 

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A Different Creature Feature

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!

haley_profileEver since I was old enough to appreciate the nature around me, I was drawn to it. My afternoons were taken up by bug hunts in the backyard, butterfly gardens, trips to the Zoo, and hikes with my family. In my other free time I could be found watching Animal Planet, reading animal books, or even conducting “research projects” on the animals I discovered. Needless to say, my love of animals started at a very early age, and it has only grown over the years.

My interest in the San Diego Zoo grew out of an assignment in my fifth grade class: we were instructed to write business letters to local establishments. I wrote mine to the Zoo inquiring about volunteer and internship opportunities and was introduced to the Zoo Corps program. For those who are not familiar with it, Zoo Corps is an incredible program for teens through the Education Department. I’ve learned so much about San Diego Zoo Global and it also really inspired me to get involved with InternQuest. I feel so lucky to be part of such an amazing program where I hope to gain insight into the different career paths at the Zoo as well as continue to educate myself about animals and the environment.

Besides juggling my junior year of high school and my Zoo involvement, I’m also involved in competitive fencing. I fell absolutely in love with the sport after seeing a demonstration while on a trip to Europe (I love to travel!) and have been doing it ever since. I compete in both the local and national circuits and aspire to, eventually, participate in international competitions.

I cannot wait for my internship to start so I can begin my newest adventure. I hope you will follow along with me on this awesome journey and enjoy my blogs as much as I will enjoy putting them together!

Haley
Fall Session, 2013