About Author: Marcel

Posts by Marcel


Tending Loving Care

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!

marcel_W6_picBabies require constant care and attention from their parents to be healthy and happy. Babies at the San Diego Zoo are no different. Sometimes in the animal world babies don’t get the proper care they need from their mothers. When this happens at the Zoo, keepers spring into action and deliver the baby to the nursery, where the 24/7 on-call staff can begin giving the animal the assistance it needs. We had the incredible opportunity to meet Ms. Kim Weibel, senior NACU keeper (Neonatal Assisted Care Unit), who told us about the remarkable journey taken by baby animals that start their lives at the Zoo’s NACU. There are many different reasons, from injury to parental neglect that might cause a baby to move to the NACU. Once the NACU receives the baby they treat it just as a hospital would treat a human baby, with constant surveillance and care. Tasks at the NACU range from feeding the animal carefully constructed diets, to helping very young animals regulate their digestive system by stimulating the release of excrement and urine.

Whether a baby ends up at the NACU due to poor health, maternal neglect, maternal death, or too much competition for food, the NACU staff provides them with a head start in the right direction. Ms. Weibel carefully measures out ingredients to make the baby animal formula. She must ensure that the ingredients and proportions are exactly what the Zoo nutritionist order to keep the baby in good health. Ms. Weibel administers medication to animals who might be sick, keeping careful record of what is done. Caring for animals in the NACU is not always predictable and easygoing. There are many variables that can add extra steps to Ms. Weibel’s day. For example, if an animal is brought to the NACU and is underweight, it might require more monitoring and medical treatment than other nursery animals.

Eating is just as important for animals as it is for people. The most important part of a NACU animals’ feeding is giving the animal the proper formulas. Since formulas for each Zoo animal aren’t commercially available, the Zoo nutritionists have the task of developing formulas using preexisting human and animal formulas. Once a formula has been developed, making the nipple is next on the list. How do keepers make a nipple for every shape and size of animal that comes through the NACU’s doors? By taking pre-made nipples that do not have holes, Ms. Weibel can use a heated sewing needle attached to a string and make a hole. Varying the width of the string allows for different hole sizes; the nipples are then tested to make sure it will allow the animal to feed properly.

Remember when your math teacher told you, “This is important, you may need it later in life”? Ms. Weibel’s career uses a lot of math. After a formula and nipple have been designed for an animal, Ms. Weibel calculates is the gastric capacity of the animal, which can be found by multiplying the weight in kilos by 50.  “Gastric capacity” is the measure of how much food an animal can eat at a time. Overfeeding an animal can be dangerous, so animals at the NACU are fed volumes of formula slightly below their gastric capacity.

After our tour of the NACU facility we were able to meet Isa, a fossa, who was cared for by Ms. Weibel. Isa went through the NACU as a baby because he was not getting the attention he needed from his mother. Isa is evidence that all the care and work that goes into taking care of animals at the NACU pays off. While watching Isa climb poles and jump from pedestal to pedestal, I was amazed that at one point in his life he needed Ms. Weibel. She helped him to become a very happy, healthy, energetic resident of the San Diego Zoo.

Marcel, Real World Team
Week six, Winter Session 2013


Lifelong Career

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!

marcel_W5_picWhile visiting the ECC (Elephant Care Center) at the San Diego Zoo, we had the remarkable opportunity to meet Lead Elephant Keepers Ron Ringer and Steve Hebert. During our visit we got to see a first hand account of what it’s like to be an elephant keeper at the Zoo. Mr. Ringer originally wanted to work with the National Parks but decided on a zoo career after volunteering at a local zoo during college. When asked if he wanted to work with elephants he replied, “I’ll give it a shot. 

Taking care of the elephants at the Zoo is a big task. In the course of a day a keeper has to clean the exhibit, put out food, provide enrichment, give special medical attention depending on the individual, and much more. “If you want to be a keeper you [have to] love shovels and rakes,” says Mr. Ringer. Even though keepers have lots of interactions with guests at the training and pedicure area, they also have to keep the exhibits clean for the animals. Along with maintenance and guest education, keepers are responsible for administering medication to different animals that need it. Smitty is one such animal. Smitty is an older elephant at the Zoo that has arthritis. In order to make Smitty as happy and as comfortable as possible, keepers administer powdered ibuprofen twice daily as part of her routine. How might you get an elephant to take its medicine? The answer is simple: you convince the elephant that it’s a treat. Not only is Smitty’s medicine apple-flavored, but it can also be put into treats that the elephants enjoy, such as hollowed out cantaloupes or peanut butter. Keepers have to think creatively in order to find the best methods to deliver care in a way the animals enjoy and can benefit from.

One of the hardest personal challenges Mr. Ringer has experienced as a keeper was switching to protected contact with the elephants. Protected contact was put in place as a safety method for keepers. Protected contact means that the animal and the keeper are never in the same area without some form of physical barrier. If an elephant has procedures done, ranging from health management of their feet to drawing blood or administering medicine, it is all done with limited contact. For Mr. Ringer it took three years to adjust to the this new method of handling elephants. Before protected contact, keepers’ interactions with the elephants in their enclosures allowed them to become a matriarch-like figure to the elephants. Adapting to protected contact meant Mr. Ringer had to get used to the new way the elephants would respond to instruction. They would do some behaviors when requested and others they would omit or avoid. In the words of Mr. Ringer, it was like telling a child to eat their vegetables before eating their dessert- but from a block away. In the beginning they would not always do what was asked. However, the benefits of protected contact greatly outweigh these challenges.

In addition to training, communication is key for keepers. Whether engaging guests in conversations, letting other keepers know where they are working, or keeping logs on the animals, zookeepers communicate in a variety of ways each day. In the Elephant Care Center, there is a white board where the elephant keepers write down their location so other keepers know where they are working and keep the appropriate doors closed. There is also a board with elephant foot hygiene information so keepers know when an elephant needs its next foot treatment. Boards are not the only way keepers can communicate with one another; keepers also use daily diaries, known as red books, to share important information. The current communication challenge is the creation of a universal training language for elephant keepers nationwide. If a keeper would like an elephant to lift its foot to do a medical evaluation, a keeper in one zoo may ask for the elephant to “lift,” whereas another keeper at a different zoo may say to an elephant  “up.” If we are able to create a universal training language for elephant keepers throughout the nation, it would make it a lot easier for elephants and keepers that get transferred between zoos to understand each other.

Being a keeper is a full time job, especially with six elephants. The animals under Mr. Ringer’s care become like family. In the words of Mr. Ringer, “I got here when [Devi] was 11 years old, I got to see her go through her teens and early adulthood. She’s 36 now.” In some instances, when keepers get to watch the animals grow and thrive under their care, they grow close with the animals. A keeper helps their animals in everyway they can, whether it be taking a blood sample to make sure the animal is healthy, or educating the public on their importance. Mr. Ringer hopes every visitor to the Zoo will understand just how amazing elephants are.

Marcel, Careers Team
Week five, Winter Session 2013


Turtles, Lizards, and Frogs, Oh My!

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!

marcel_W4_picWhile visiting the Reptile House at the San Diego Zoo, our guide Peter Gilson enthusiastically informed us about reptiles and why they’re important. Reptiles are amazing animals, but they also need our help. Many different species of reptiles are at risk of extinction without human intervention. There are many threats to these animals from poaching for food to introduced fungi. Although there are many challenges facing these animals, there are also many ways to help preserve and protect them in order to keep their populations at a stable, if not rising, number.

We were given the unique opportunity to see the Zoo’s endangered Galapagos tortoises in their bedrooms on Reptile Mesa. Mr. Gilson informed us that part of his job is to make the reptiles as happy as possible. In the bedrooms, Mr. Gilson and other reptile keepers have set up movable walls to help make more corners for the tortoises. The tortoises enjoy sleeping in corners because it makes them feel safe and secure. In addition to the daily care of the tortoises, Mr. Gilson also enjoys his role educating the public about the history and conservation of Galapagos tortoises.

So, why are Galapagos tortoises endangered? Historically, their home on the Galapagos Islands was free from any natural predators. Over the centuries, humans have proven to be the greatest natural predator to these tortoises. From the islands discovery up until the early 1900s, passenger ships sailing by the Galapagos Islands would stop and collect 200-300 of these tortoises and store them on board the ship as a food supply. Fortunately, in the early 1900s, ships abandoned this method of obtaining food and stopped collecting the tortoises. In addition to large numbers of their populations being taken from the islands, other factors have also contributed to the Galapagos tortoises’ decline. Introduced species such as dogs, cats, rats, and goats pose a threat because they may prey upon young tortoises or use up the islands’ natural resources. This competition for resources is putting a strain on the tortoise populations. All of these challenges have led to a loss in genetic diversity.

Breeding programs are a critically important part to saving endangered species. Fortunately for the Galapagos tortoises, there have been many breeding programs started in multiple managed care facilities that will help with the animals’ genetic diversity. Mr. Gilson pointed out that another species that would benefit from breeding programs would be the Komodo dragon. Sunny, the Komodo dragon at the San Diego Zoo, Mr. Gilson explained, “ is like a big puppy dog.” He is very calm and personable and gets excited when keepers enter the exhibit with food. There are blueprints drawn for a Komodo dragon breeding facility that could be built at the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park (the Zoo is just waiting for a reptile enthusiast and donor in order for the facilities to be built). This has the potential to greatly improve the future of Komodo dragons. Sadly, they have lost a good portion of their native habitat (which was already small to begin with) and are now extremely vulnerable to events such as a major storm or epidemic.

Loss of habitat and hunting are not the only challenges animals face. Threats such as pathogens are also present. Mr. Gilson explained that one such pathogen, which affects amphibians, is the Chytrid fungus. The Chytrid fungus causes the skin on the amphibians to become hard and stiff. This is a problem because amphibians use their skin to breathe. Once infected with this fungus, they lose their mobility. There are many different theories as to how the Chytrid fungus came about. Some theories suggest that humans introduced it unknowingly and others speculate that with global climate change, the fungus was able to spread more freely on its own.

Although there are many challenges facing wildlife, both natural and human-induced, there are many ways to help both locally and globally. Action steps you can take in your own home range from small details to big fixes. One of the most important and easiest ways to help is to save energy. There are many ways to save energy in your home, from recycling aluminum, turning off lights when you’re not using them, to taking shorter showers. Along with being energy efficient, you can also be chemical-conscious. Help keep harmful chemicals out of animal habitats by not washing cars in the driveway and avoiding the use of chemicals and pesticides. If you have your heart and mind set on helping animals around the world, you can also donate to conservation. Whether $10 or $1,000, it makes a difference. Mr. Gilson says that if he can change even one person’s mentality about reptiles then he’s accomplished his goal. I feel Mr. Gilson has done his job because after learning about reptiles at the San Diego Zoo, my view of reptiles has changed for the better.

Marcel, Conservation Team
Week Four, Winter Session 2013



Building Blocks of 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!

marcel_W3_picOur whole lives are affected by genetics. Genes are what allow us to be who we are; without a different set of DNA and chromosomes there would be no diversity of life. This is why the study of genetics is vitally important, not just for us, but for other animal species as well. This week we had the once-in-a-lifetime experience of being able to talk to multiple genetic specialists at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. While we learned about different processes, methods, and procedures of gene science, we also learned about why they are important and how these practices positively benefit both animals and us.

Steven Thomas of the Genetics Division at the Institute taught us about molecular genetics. This ranged from microsatellite analysis to different methods of obtaining DNA. One fascinating question that Mr. Thomas asked us was, “How do we obtain these samples of DNA?” Turns out, there are many different ways to obtain samples of DNA to work with, such as blood, tissue, feathers, hair, skin, and even from eggshell membrane. One of the important aspects of this gathered DNA is it can be used to see which animals are related and study genetic diversity and variation within a population.

Genetic variation within a population is critically important to animals just as it is for people. If animals with similar genetic material (animals that are closely related) produce offspring, then their offspring will have a higher chance of inheriting harmful DNA mutations or traits. If an animal inherits these harmful mutations, they can develop weaknesses to certain aspects of their environment and pass these weaknesses on to their own offspring. Over time, it is possible that an entire population may have developed a weakness to a certain condition, and if this condition were to come about, it could have large impacts on the population. It is important to keep a careful watch on animal DNA so we can keep them as healthy and reproductively robust as possible.  If we can keep their populations as genetically diverse as possible, it helps us in the future as our conservation efforts will have one less challenge to overcome.

An important aspect of genetics is bringing back species from the brink of extinction. With animals such as the California condor and the giant panda, the study of genetics has played a huge role in their recovery success, instead of leading to extinction. The story of the California condor starts in 1982 with only 22 condors left on the planet. Condors are critically important to people. They help maintain a clean environment by eating carrion. After realizing the dramatically low numbers, the San Diego Zoo got involved and started a breeding program. Condors are monitored very closely and their genetic diversity is carefully observed. In 1992 the first zoo-bred condors were released back into their natural habitat and with close monitoring and extensive captive breeding efforts, by 2011 their total estimated populations reached 400, with approximately half of those still in managed care facilities. With success stories like this, we know that these efforts are worth the work and have a positive impact on the ecosystem, in turn helping us as well as the other animals that call those ecosystems home.

Genetics plays a huge role in everyday life. The study of genetics can have positive influences on species and ecosystems, which in turn impact us. With the study of genetics, many more animals have better chances in the wild as well as in breeding programs. The future of genetics and animal research is up to us to continue to improve upon. After all, who could imagine a world without rhinos and giant pandas if they were to go extinct? Genetic studies may provide us with a second chance. In the words of Dr. Ryder “The future will thank us for what we save.”

Marcel, Real World Team
Week Three, Winter Session 2013



Cactusy Career

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!

marcel_W2_picThere are many different career opportunities available to those who have a passion for conservation. Senior Research Technician in Applied Animal Ecology and Applied Plant Ecology, Colleen Wisinski, has one such career. In Ms. Wisinski’s career, she assists in many hands on restoration and rehabilitation projects. Currently Ms. Wisinski is working on the cactus wren restoration project, which includes planting new cacti in regions near the Safari Park as well as tagging and observing the behaviors of local cactus wrens. Apart from the cactus wren restoration project, Ms. Wisinski is also working on a burrowing owl restoration project.

Ms. Wisinski has always wanted to work with animals, in high school she wanted to be a wildlife veterinarian. After graduating with a Bachelors degree in biology and Spanish from the University of Wisconsin, Ms. Wisinski went on to get a Masters degree in fish and wildlife management at Montana State University. With these degrees under her belt, Ms. Wisinski took her passion for wildlife conservation out into the field by assisting with wildlife rehabilitation twice in Wisconsin, tracking and research of sage-grouse and chronic wasting disease research in Montana, wildlife/habitat research in Argentina, as well as whooping crane reintroduction in Wisconsin and Florida.

All of Ms. Wisinski’s experience and credentials have helped prepare her for the cactus wren restoration project at the Safari Park. The cactus wren is a type of wren, which builds its nest in cacti located in coastal sage scrub habitat. Unlike most birds that only nest seasonally, the cactus wren nests year round. Located adjacent to the Safari Park is the largest patch of coastal sage scrub habitat in the county, having approximately 800 acres. The cactus wrens’ natural habitat has been depleted due to rapid urbanization. The Witch Creek Fire in 2007 decimated much of the area, which also contributed to their habitat loss. There is now only ten percent of the costal sage scrub habitat that previously existed. Non-native and invasive plant species are also more present making the area more susceptible to fires.

With much of the cactus wren habitat destroyed, it was up to Ms. Wisinski, and people like her, to begin working to restore the cactus wrens’ habitat. The efforts were entirely grant funded by organizations such as SANDAG (San Diego Area Association of Governments) and consisted of planting cacti in a multitude of different ways to find out which method works best. In addition to different planting methods, Ms. Wisinski and her colleagues would put cages made of chicken wire and zip ties over the cactus to prevent them from being eaten by rats and deer, which would detract from their overall growth. For the past three years, Ms. Wisinski, other workers on the project, and volunteers have been planting cacti, covering about fifteen acres a year. Although much work has been done it takes time to see its effects since a newly planted cactus can take five years to reach the state needed for the cactus wren to nest in it.

The amazing careers that await someone in the field of conservation are nearly endless and infinitely rewarding. Whether you want to help a species locally in your backyard, or travel halfway around the world, the opportunity is present. All you need to do is work towards it and put forth your best effort like Ms. Wisinski.

Marcel, Careers Team
Week Two, Winter Session 2013



Animals up-close

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. Kimberly Carroll, an Educator at the San Diego Zoo, introduced us to just a few of the different animals guests have the opportunity to meet during an Inside Look Tour. Meeting meerkats, an African gray parrot, a Bactrian camel, and Masai giraffes definitely made our experience not only memorable, but fun and educational.


Meerkats Hakuna and Matata are Animal Ambassadors, which means they are used during presentations for educational purposes. Their role during presentations is important in connecting people to wildlife and conservation.


Ms. Carroll and Ms. Stephanie Alexander, Education Supervisor, harness Hakuna and Matata for our presentation. Ms. Carroll said that working with animals is one of the parts of her job she likes the most.


Hakuna and Matata love going on walks through the Children’s Zoo digging for earthworms and other snacks. Their walks are a form of enrichment, which helps to bring out some of their natural behaviors. Enrichment is not only important but necessary for all animals at the Zoo in keeping them happy and healthy.


Parrots are highly intelligent animals so they always need new and interesting things to keep them busy. Ms. Carroll and Kizzy, an African grey parrot, are working on some different vocalizations. Ms. Carroll uses a combination of verbal cues and hand signals to ask for behaviors and then when behavior is successfully accomplished, Kizzy receives a treat.


Ms. Carroll is with Ms. Alyssa Medeiros, a Panda Narrator. Ms. Medeiros educates the public about giant pandas at the San Diego Zoo and highlights the importance of panda research in managed care facility in order to help pandas in the wild.


Panda narrators, like Ms. Medeiros, ensure that the viewing environment of the pandas remains safe and calm for the pandas and guests alike. This allows the pandas to be more relaxed so they may have a better chance to exhibit natural panda behaviors, including vocalizing, eating, sleeping and breeding.


Cameron, a fellow intern, is overjoyed to meet Mongo, a Bactrian camel. Ms. Carroll explained that Mongo has very long eyelashes to help keep dirt out of his eyes.


Our last stop was to the Masai giraffes and intern Victoria gets to feed a curious giraffe. Giraffes have a long prehensile tongue, used for grabbing foliage for eating. Their tongue can actually extend up to 18-20 inches!

Marcel, Photo Team
Week One, Winter Session 2013


Conservation Handyman

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!Marcel InternQuest Picture

My passion for plants and animals began at an early age. When I was in elementary school, I would enjoy going on catch and release ‘bug hunts’ in my yard and at school. I would catch the insects, examine them, and release them in a nearby vicinity to where I had found them. My dogs have also given me a window into the natural world and an appreciation for animals. I have always enjoyed playing with my dogs, especially Freckles and Dingo. I enjoy showing them affection and making them feel like a loved member of my family.

During my second semester of eighth grade, I joined a teen volunteer program at the San Diego Zoo called Zoo Corps. Zoo Corps is a teen volunteer program for students ages 13-17. The purpose of the program is to inform Zoo guests about conservation and to show them that they have the power to make a difference for wildlife with the choices they make in their own lives. The program taught me how to convey conservation messages and how to take steps in my own life to better our environment. Zoo Corps has also taught me how to be a leader and give guests a positive message, such as how to help wildlife by using reusable grocery bags or recycling old cell phones. I am proud to say that I am still a member of the Zoo Corps program and equally proud to say that I still have a lot to learn.

Helping animals has always been my calling. The best way I figured I could do that locally was by volunteering at the SPCA where I became a dog buddy in November of 2012. As a dog buddy, I go into the dogs’ rooms at the SPCA animal shelter and give them much needed companionship and help them with their training. The purpose of their training is to keep them calm and happy in an otherwise potentially stressful environment and involves rewarding them for calm and positive behavior. Apart from the training and companionship that being a dog buddy entails, I also bring fresh water and clean the rooms when the need arises. All in all I would have to say my favorite part (and the dogs’ favorite part as well) is providing companionship that makes them feel loved.

I also have a few personal hobbies. I enjoy mountain biking on local trails, as well as going for runs with friends around my neighborhood. I like to spend time with friends and occasionally play video games. I also enjoy taking my dog to a nearby park with my dad. I have been a part of my school’s track and cross-country teams since I was a freshman in high school. I plan on doing both sports again next year as a senior. I have been involved in my school’s environmental awareness club, ‘Club Green’, since sophomore year. I have been a vegetarian for over a year and a half and find it relaxing to tend to the vegetable garden in my backyard. I have also been involved in three habitat restoration projects at the Safari Park for the endangered cactus wren through Zoo Corps.

I look forward to being in InternQuest and sharing my wonderful experiences with the public!

Winter Session 2013