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Keeper by Kismet

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!

Jade_Career_W6From the time we start school, most of us are told to get good grades in order to get into a good college so that we can get a good job. For some people, this plan is perfect. But for others, there is a different pathway to success. One person who falls in the latter category is Torrey Pillsbury, a Senior Keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Ms. Pillsbury started working at the Safari Park at the age of nineteen, with no college degree, previous internships, or related formal work experience. With an adventurous attitude, love of animals, and a little bit of kismet, Ms. Pillsbury started her career working in zoos.

All of her life, Ms. Pillsbury loved and owned horses. In high school, her love of animals led to her involvement in FFA, or Future Farmers of America. After graduating high school, Ms. Pillsbury did not go to college – but this clearly did not stop her from becoming a keeper at the Safari Park. One day, Ms. Pillsbury’s friend, who was in a horse show at the Safari Park, invited her to watch. Unfortunately one of the workers was injured and could not perform in the show. Fortunately, Ms. Pillsbury was there to step in. The horse show was what got her working at the Safari Park, but was not what kept her there. When the horse show was cancelled, she worked at the elephant show for six years. Following that, she took a break from the Safari Park and moved to Phoenix, where she worked at a zoo for six months. While she enjoyed working at the Phoenix Zoo, she was drawn back to San Diego. When she returned to the Safari Park she became a keeper, making her one of only two keepers without a college degree.

Ms. Pillsbury and her fellow keepers are cross-trained in three areas, the Animal Care Center, the Village (where visitors walk around), and in the field enclosures. Currently, Ms. Pillsbury works in the field enclosures. Most people think that Ms. Pillsbury gets to pet animals all day, but that is not the case. A typical day for a keeper begins in an office. All of the keepers meet to discuss the day’s schedule, such as which animals need check ups. After that, the keepers disperse to perform their daily duties. Ms. Pillsbury starts by picking up food for the animals in the field, which mostly consists of hay and pellets. What comes after feeding the animals varies from day to day, which is an exciting aspect of the job that Ms. Pillsbury likes the most. For example, if an animal comes from another zoo or if a baby is born, Ms. Pillsbury has to tag its ears in order to identify it from the rest. Animals must be differentiated so that keepers can keep records and communicate with each other about each specific animal. Another task keepers must perform is moving animals to different areas. An animal may have to be moved if it needs medical attention, is not getting along with other animals, or is needed for breeding. Methods of moving the animals include using crates, dump trucks, sedation, and trucks (depending on the size of the animal). Other jobs that keepers must do are cleaning up waste and keeping records. Ms. Pillsbury and her coworkers keep records of everything that goes on in their area and with the animals, such as births, deaths, shipments in and out of the Safari Park, movements within the Safari Park, health tests, and the total count of animals.

Of the three areas where she is trained to work, the field enclosures are Ms. Pillsbury’s favorite. In the field enclosures, the keepers are the eyes and ears. They do fence-line checks, count the animals, and notify veterinarians if they are needed. One of Ms. Pillsbury’s favorite parts of her job is searching for babies to make sure they are doing okay. Keepers also make sure that animals are not being harassed. For instance, when Ms. Pillsbury was showing us around, a northern white rhino picked up a baby waterbuck, causing Ms. Pillsbury and her coworkers to step in. By parking a truck in front of the waterbuck and using another truck to shoo the rhino away, Ms. Pillsbury and her coworkers were able to keep the newborn safe. This just goes to show that every day for a keeper really does come with unexpected surprises!

Even though Ms. Pillsbury did not get a college degree, she does have advice for those interested in becoming a keeper. Getting a four-year degree in animal science or zoology is extremely helpful if you want to work at a zoo. She also advises to be open to new experiences. Sometimes people come to the Safari Park and only want to work with one species, a very unrealistic mindset. Ms. Pillsbury endorses a positive attitude and a willingness to embrace every experience the Safari Park has to offer. Ms. Pillsbury herself has worked with bonobos, black rhinos, giraffes, orangutans, gorillas, and many more animals. The eager attitude Ms. Pillsbury had as a nineteen-year-old riding horses has not faded a bit. The incredible passion she has for animals makes her a dedicated and enthusiastic keeper at the Safari Park.

Jade, Career Team
Week Six, Winter Session 2013

 

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Raising Chicks 101

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!

Inside the San Diego Zoo is the Aviation Propagation Center (APC), a facility dedicated to the care of eggs and birds, we met Bird Keeper Ann Knutson. She gave us a behind the scenes tour of the facilities and informed us of all the things her and her colleagues do for the birds at the Zoo. Ms. Knutson’s job entails everything from keeping records, to incubation, to raising chicks.

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If an egg must be pulled from a nest on grounds, it is taken to the incubation room. A critical element of the incubators is their ability to control humidity. By controlling the humidity levels, keepers can control the weight and development of the eggs.

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When a chick is about to hatch, the egg is moved from its incubator to a “hatcher.” Right before the chick starts to break through its shell, it takes a breath of air from the air cell in its shell in order to get the energy to start hatching.

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Candling is an important method used to monitor chick development. Ms. Knutson turns off the lights and holds the egg to the candler, illuminating the egg to show keepers its stage of development.

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Ms. Knutson and her colleagues record everything about the eggs in the APC, including weight and color. Keeping records of an egg helps the keepers communicate and share information about the development and condition of each individual egg at the Zoo.

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After a chick is hatched it is moved to the brooder room. Everything in the brooder room is kept extremely clean in order to reduce the contaminants chicks are exposed to. This is also where every species’ special diet is prepared.

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We met Christopher Leon, Bird Keeper at the APC. Mr. Leon is feeding a mixture of pinky and cricket to a raggiana bird of paradise. The chick had just hatched and was resting in the brooder room.

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Meet Scarlet, a red-tailed black cockatoo raised at the APC. Scarlet was hatched with her parents, which is preferred (if possible) over the incubation room. Scarlet is about five months old and will soon be moving to Salt Lake City.

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The costume that Ms. Knutson is wearing is actually a very important outfit for keepers who are feeding chicks. It prevents chicks from seeing them and imprinting on humans. Socks and puppets are also great tools to cover up keepers’ hands.

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When Ms. Knutson is done feeding, cleaning, and caring for the birds and eggs at the APC, her job is still not done. All of the keepers at the APC document everything that happens in order to create a guide for the future and be able to share information with zoos all over the world.

Jade, Photo Team
Week Five, Winter Session 2013

 

 

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Respecting Reptiles

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!

jade_W4_picWhen most people think of reptiles or amphibians they envision sticky, slimy, or scaly creature that slither with the intent of injecting its poison. Reptiles often get an unfavorable reputation because they lack the “cute” and “cuddly” factor, but just because they aren’t as fuzzy as pandas doesn’t mean they’re not important. This week we had the pleasure of meeting San Diego Zoo Educator and Reptile Keeper, Peter Gilson. Mr. Gilson’s main goal isn’t to make people love reptiles, but simply to help them recognize how valuable they are to the environment and that they deserve our respect. I have to confess that I was a bit nervous on our tour through the Reptile House. After all, who wouldn’t be a little jumpy when being crowded through a small corridor surrounded by eclosures containing venomous snakes?  However, after hearing Mr. Gilson talk with such admiration and conviction, I came to realize that reptiles aren’t so bad after all.

Mr. Gilson eased us in to the world of reptiles by introducing us to Galapagos tortoises. As soon as we walked through the doors of their barn, these giant 500-pound reptiles slowly rose up, left their lettuce meal, and shuffled their way over to us. They stopped within a few inches of us and stretched their necks, hoping we would scratch them. Mr. Gilson explained that in the wild tortoises stretch their necks so birds can pick parasites off of them. In the Zoo, they love when keepers and guests pet and scratch them.

Even though they move slowly, it was still a little intimidating to see a bale (group) of huge tortoises scuffle towards us. Mr. Gilson assured us that we had nothing to fear and that tortoises are pretty friendly animals. He revealed that tortoises exhibit a lot of pet-like behaviors.  Just like a dog, tortoises love attention, often choosing to be with people instead of food. Just like a dog, tortoises can be motivated by food, especially brightly colored food like carrots, yams, and lettuce. Tortoises also like to feel secure and comfortable. Remember when you were little and if you didn’t pull the sheets over your head you couldn’t sleep? Well tortoises do the same thing, except instead of using blankets they like to huddle into a corner of a wall to feel protected. Interacting with these magnificent creatures helped calm the anxious members of our group (including me). We were then ready to move on to some of the more menacing reptiles.

Stepping into the Reptile House felt like entering a sauna. Reptiles are exothermic so the reptile facilities at the Zoo are kept at an average of 82 degrees Fahrenheit. Mr. Gilson took us through different sections of the Reptile House, showing us everything from the incubator, to frogs, to snakes. In the incubator room, eggs were kept in plastic food containers – which makes sense because if plastic containters can keep moisture levels right for your food, they can do the same for eggs. This room was not as hot and humid as the rest of the facility because most eggs need a fluctuation of temperature to develop. An intriguing tidbit of information Mr. Gilson shared was that the gender of sea turtles is actually determined by the surrounding temperature during a certain stage in development. This means that increasing global temperatures can potentially throw off the gender ratio – talk about an inconvenient truth. Animals like polar bears are often the “poster child” for global warming, but reptiles will soon be the most affected by global climate change. However, there are some things we can do. Reducing our use of fossil fuels can help lessen global warming and therefore help reduce temperature. We also learned some great, easy tips about helping reptiles and the environment when we visited the Panamanian golden frogs. By reducing the chemicals we use we can help our local amphibians, which in turn benefits us because amphibians keep pest populations in check. Doing simple things, like using eco-friendly fertilizer and not washing cars in the street, can help amphibians’ health and promote a thriving ecosystem.

Of course, we also visited snakes while at the Reptile House. Housing venomous snakes means having safety precautions, just in case the unlikely event of being bitten does occur. The Reptile House keeps anti-venom for every poisonous animal there is on grounds and whenever anyone handles a venomous reptile there must be another person with them. The keepers all recognize the importance of precautionary methods. Its always good to use the buddy system just in case something happens.

Even though I did not fall in love with reptiles after talking with Mr. Gilson, I did gain enormous respect and appreciation for these animals. Learning about reptiles took away the negative stigma that is usually associated with them. Most people have never taken the time to understand that reptiles have their own personality just like a dog or cat, but they do. For example, a Komodo dragon at the Zoo named Sunny is as affectionate as a golden retriever with his keepers. Reptiles even have similarities to us! The shingleback skinks, for instance, mate for life, essentially “marrying” their partner. See? Reptiles aren’t so different from our pets or us! Mr. Gilson’s motivation for educating the public about these animals is to take away the fear most people have and to get people to respect reptiles.

Jade, Real World Team
Week Four, Winter Session 2013

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Genetic Compatibility

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!

jade_W3_pic2What makes the perfect partner? Well, evolutionarily speaking, it is the one that can produce the most viable offspring. Everyone who has taken a biology class has heard the term “survival of the fittest,” but how does an animal know which mate will produce the most fit offspring? Of course there are many telling signs, such as healthy plumage, long antlers, or vibrant coloration – but there is an even more exact method. This is where Steven Thomas comes in, a Senior Research Technician in the Genetics Division of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research (Institute). Mr. Thomas’s purpose of working with California condor DNA is to increase the number of viable condors so that the species is not lost forever.

Before coming to work at the Institute, Mr. Thomas began his journey in genetics at San Diego State University as a biology major. Mr. Thomas talked with great respect for his alma mater, especially its biology program. After finishing his undergraduate degree, Mr. Thomas went on to complete his masters in evolutionary biology. All of this schooling prepared him to work in a lab. One job in particular that Mr. Thomas loved was working in a spider lab, extracting and analyzing their DNA. Mr. Thomas also worked at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies for a year, where he worked on protein biology related to drug addiction. Mr. Thomas’s education and experience most certainly helped him land his most current position at the Institute.

Now you might be asking yourself, “What exactly does a Senior Research Technician in the Genetics Division do?” A large part of Mr. Thomas’s job is analyzing the DNA of California condors to verify parentage. A typical day for Mr. Thomas begins by extracting DNA. The DNA samples that he works with come from a variety of sources, such as blood, feathers, or even a condor eggshell membrane. One method Mr. Thomas uses requires a phenol-chloroform extraction step to obtain the DNA, a process that must be contained inside a fume hood because of its toxicity. Now that he has the DNA he can begin analyzing it. In order to tell individual condors apart, Mr. Thomas examines markers on the DNA through a process called microsatellite analysis. In microsatellite analysis, DNA is amplified by PCR (polymerase chain reaction) so that the markers on the DNA can by inspected. Amplifying one marker at a time wouldn’t be efficient, so Mr. Thomas uses a multiplex PCR to enlarge multiple markers at once. Although studying the markers is a critical step, the process of DNA analysis is not over yet. Next, Mr. Thomas utilizes a genetic analyzer, a machine that determines the sequence of nucleotide bases on a segment of condor DNA. When DNA is run through the genetic analyzer, the different nucleotide bases are differentiated with various colors, making it easy to compare the nucleotide sequences. Once Mr. Thomas has completed these steps, he has all the pieces to the condor DNA puzzle. Now Mr. Thomas is able to run a parentage analysis to determine which condor chick belongs to which two condors. This information is very useful as it helps in identifying which condors create viable offspring.

All of this information may cause you to question what the point of this process is, after all, up until recently, animals haven’t had the luxury of running their DNA through a genetic analyzer. Even though this method of breeding condors may seem unnatural, it is actually helping the California condor population stay strong and viable. California condors have been through a severe bottleneck, which caused a drastic drop in population numbers and genetic diversity. Matching condors based on genetic compatibility has helped the California condor population grow and flourish. Also, keeping accurate records of ancestry is very important. In this way, Mr. Thomas has been able to help in the recovery of this magnificent species.

Jade, Career Team
Week Three, Winter Session 2013

 

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Sperm Science

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!

This week we met Carly Young, a Senior Research Technician in the Reproductive Physiology Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Ms. Young walked us through her job and allowed us to do some hands on work with sperm samples from domestic cats.

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Sperm samples are collected via electro ejaculation, post mortem collection, or manual stimulation. All collected samples are then kept frozen in liquid nitrogen, waiting to be thawed before any research can be performed.

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Since sperm is found inside the body, Ms. Young and her colleagues use a body temperature water bath to thaw samples. After one minute of soaking the sperm we were ready to observe our sample of “cat junk.”

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These microscopes are a bit more complex than the ones we’re used to seeing in our high school classes, but they work great for zooming in on tiny sperm cells. As Intern Abby observed the cells, she counted how many were motile (meaning ability to move spontaneously and actively) and how many were stationary.

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Intern Marcel took advantage of the technology used in the Reproductive Physiology Division and projected the image of his slide onto a screen. Enlarging the size of the sample made it easier to count the active sperm cells and note how fast they were going. The speed of progression (SOP) of the sperm indicates how well the sperm will be able to fertilize an egg, a very useful tool when determining the potential of a sample.

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Besides observing the motility of the sperm cells, technicians in the Reproductive Physiology Division also determine how many of the cells are alive and dead. The sample is stained with eosin/nigrosin, which turns the heads of live cells white and dead cells pink.

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By using a pipette, we were able to add caffeine to the sperm sample to increase its speed of progression. After adding the caffeine, we observed a dramatic increase in the amount of motile cells and the overall speed of progression. Who knew caffeine could wake up sperm?

After concentrating the sperm into a pellet, re-suspending it in a M199 medium, and adding water, the Technicians observe the amount of coiled and non-coiled tails. This helps them determine the optimal environment for the sperm’s structure. Straight tails are better than coiled tails because they allow for faster motility.

After concentrating the sperm into a pellet, re-suspending it in a M199 medium, and adding water, the Technicians observe the amount of coiled and non-coiled tails. This helps them determine the optimal environment for the sperm’s structure. Straight tails are better than coiled tails because they allow for faster motility.

Jade, Photo Journalist Team
Week Two, Winter Session 2013

 

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Save What You Love

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!

kizzyMs. Carroll led our group through various parts of the Zoo and explained different aspects of her job. An important part of Ms. Carroll’s job is to inform the public about the challenges animals are faced with in the wild (such as habitat loss) and what they can do to help. One method of increasing awareness is through the use of outreach programs and Animal Ambassadors. The Animal Ambassador program is a great way to educate the public because Animal Ambassadors can be taken offsite to different locations. One Ambassador that Ms. Carroll works with is Kizzy, an African gray parrot.

One place Kizzy has been to is the Kaiser Children’s Hospital, where she performed different noises and actions on cue. By bringing animals to people who cannot visit the Zoo, Educators like Ms. Carroll are able to inform the public that without our help, endangered animals could be extinct in ten to fifteen years. Educators also give conservation tips, such as how to conserve water, recycle, and use alternative energy. There are many Zoo programs that people of all ages can experience, such as Watershed Wizards, Recycle Rockstars, and Growing Up Green.

Of course there are also many opportunities to learn from the Educators at the Zoo itself. Ms. Carroll introduced us to one of her colleagues, Alyssa Medeiros. Ms. Medeiros also works in the Education Department and is a Panda Narrator. There are many facets to Ms. Medieros’s job, one of which is educating spectators about the pandas’ behavior, reproductive success, and threats. A major threat to pandas is habitat loss. Bamboo is a very desirable material and, as a result of excessive bamboo harvesting, many pandas are losing their homes. Therefore it is very important for us to check that the bamboo we buy is not from a panda habitat.

Another opportunity to learn from Educators at the Zoo is through private tours. Inside Look and EVE (Exclusive VIP Experience) tours are behind the scene encounters that small groups can go on to experience a more intimate, close-up look at animals. On Ms. Carroll’s tours she takes her groups to see different animal exhibits, such as the pandas, giraffes, and elephants. One of her goals is to show people just how special animals are. By pulling at their heartstrings, Ms. Carroll makes people understand the importance of protecting animals and their natural habitats. Besides learning about the animals, visitors can also feed and pet some of them, too. For example, Ms. Carroll works with two meerkats named Hakuna and Matata, who can be brought out of their enclosure for Inside Look tours. Ms. Carroll gives visitors an up-close look at Hakuna and Matata, informing them about their behaviors, habitat, and even letting visitors pet them. This personal experience is a great way for Educators to leave guests with a love for animals.

Educators like Ms. Carroll and Ms. Medeiros work hard to convey their knowledge and love of animals to others. Their efforts carry out the Zoo’s mission of connecting people to wildlife conservation by informing guests and spreading the love of animals. By accomplishing these goals, the Zoo hopes to spur people to action. There are so many simple things everybody can do, such as taking shorter showers or using reusable water bottles. Educators can provide us with the information, but in the end it is up to all of us to make a difference.

Jade, Conservation Team
Week One, Winter Session 2013

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Pasha and Me

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!

revised_photoEver since I was little, I have always been fascinated by animals. Animal Planet was the station to watch and the petting zoo was the place to be. The first thing I said I wanted to be when I grew up was a veterinarian. Even though I was discouraged for a while – after watching a veterinarian put his entire arm up the behind of a horse – I came to realize that there are so many wonderful opportunities that involve animals. 

My dog Pasha made me realize just how special animals are. Every day without fail, she waits the front door with a wagging tail, ready to cheer me up or keep my good mood going. Although she can be a lot of hard work (especially when she eats my socks), I still love her to death. Besides taking care of my own dog, I also help my neighbors and friends with their pets, walking their dogs and feeding their cats.

My academic life has also contributed to my love of animals. Throughout high school I have taken courses and joined clubs that have enhanced my knowledge about animals and conservation. Two of my favorite courses so far have been AP Biology and AP Environmental Science. Outside of the classroom I have joined different volunteer clubs at my school, such as National Honor Society. Along with a friend from my volleyball team, I started a club called Clean the Courts. Our goal is to help keep local beaches clean while staying active through sports, such as beach volleyball.

As much as I have loved my experiences with animals so far, I cannot wait to get started on my journey as a part of Zoo InternQuest. Every day will be a new and exciting experience that I can share with you. I hope you follow along on my blog and learn something new about animals and conservation!

Jade
Winter Session 2013