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Chirping for Conservation

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

Nicole LaGreco and Ann Knutsons’ entire job revolves around picking up chicks. No, no, not like that – chicks – as in baby birds. Ms. LaGreco and Ms. Knutson work at the Avian Propagation Center (APC) at the San Diego Zoo. Ms. LaGreco is an animal care manager, Ms. Knutson, a senior keeper, but what is the APC? It’s a facility where baby birds whose parents couldn’t care for them are given a second shot at being raised. The APC, like all other divisions of San Diego Zoo Global, is contributing to the conservation of endangered species around the world.

Many of the APC’s conservation efforts are fairly direct; they make a difference on an individual scale. When keepers raise hundreds of individuals, the effects of their work grow quickly. Every baby bird they are able to save is a boost to its species’ population, especially when that bird grows up to have babies of its own. The Guam kingfisher, bird species that has been declared extinct in the wild, is an excellent example. Guam kingfishers have been hunted to extinction on their native island by invasive brown tree snakes. There are now only 150 Guam kingfishers left, and only in zoos. The APC raises all of the San Diego Zoo’s Guam kingfishers with minimal human imprinting so that they are potential candidates for release into the wild once the tree snakes have been removed. While the kingfisher is by far the APC’s most extreme case, they also work with other endangered species, like the Andean cock of the rock, the blue crowned laughing crush, and the Dalmatian pelican. And even if a species is not endangered, keeping babies alive and creating a thriving population serves as a preventative measure.

Another way the team at APC helps conserve bird species is by raising animal ambassadors. The flamingoes that guests meet at Backstage Pass and many of the birds who star in educational shows around the Zoo and Safari park grew up with the APC staff. These birds go on to inspire the public and promote awareness for conservation in hundreds of guests every day.

On a more global scale, the APC team works on international projects to help endangered species around the world. For the past few years the Zoo has been sending APC staff to the Galapagos Islands to help raise mangrove finches. This finches’ populations have been declining, mainly because of a fly introduced to the island that kills their chicks with astonishing efficiency. The fly has a 97% mortality rate in mangrove finch chicks, but surprisingly, it has no effect on adult birds. Since adults are not susceptible to death by fly bites, APC keepers can help. By pulling eggs from nests and raising the chicks away from the flies, they are able to keep the chicks alive until the fly is no longer a threat to them. The adult finches are then released back into the wild on their native island, so the population can start to grow again.

The APC’s work is a very hands-on type of conservation. They help each bird they work with to grow up and live a successful, independent life. From the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park to an island thousands of miles away, the dedicated team at the Avian Propagation Center is making a difference for baby birds – and it all starts by picking them up.

Naomi, Conservation Team
Week Six, Fall 2015

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Life in a Laboratory

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

Naomi_W4_picDr. Chris Tubbs is in the business of babies – but not human babies, and not as a keeper with animal babies. Nope, Dr. Tubbs is a Scientist, working off exhibit to uncover the details of animal fertility and pregnancy throughout the Zoo and Safari Park. And how does he do that? With poop.

Dr. Tubbs is one of about a dozen staff in the Reproductive Physiology Department at the Institute for Conservation Research. His focus is on molecular endocrinology: the study of hormones. Hormones are the chemical messengers of an organism, and their presence can be a signal of what’s going on inside the body. Dr. Tubbs uses these hormone “clues” to figure out when an animal is ovulating, if they are pregnant, and when a mother might have her baby. He can do this by extracting the hormones, specifically progesterone, from poop samples. His analysis of hormone levels plays a huge role in coordinating the birth of babies across the Zoo and Safari Park.

So how does one end up in such a specialized field? Dr. Tubbs said it was a stumble, not a plan, that got him into this line of work. He was studying to be a veterinarian at the University of Florida when he got hooked on lab work in a biology class his sophomore year. He stuck with it, and was soon working on his graduate degree with fish in a marine lab. He knew someone who was working at the Institute for Conservation Research, and they encouraged him to apply for a job there.

Now in his eighth year at the Institute, Dr. Tubbs is working on a project to determine the effects of diet on fertility in southern white rhinos. In addition to lab work, he analyzes and writes papers on his findings. Dr. Tubbs goes to conferences and universities to collaborate and share with other scientists, and speaks with the public, be it potential donors, or interns, like our group.

With so many different things to do, it comes as a surprise that the most challenging part of Dr. Tubbs’ day doesn’t have anything to do with science. Instead, it is convincing other people that the data he collects, pulled solely from the contents of a test tube, can be a reflection of the entire animal that it came from. The challenges, however, do not outweigh the fondness Dr. Tubbs has for his job. He enjoys being able to come up with his own projects and solve puzzles every time he goes in to work.

Dr. Tubbs’ advice to anyone looking to pursue a job as a lab researcher is fairly self-explanatory: get yourself in a lab. You’ll gain experience, get to know people interested in similar fields, and will be showcasing yourself to potential employers the whole time. Networking is a huge part of getting any job, Dr. Tubbs explained, and who you know is very important.

Through his own lab experience and networking, Dr. Tubbs was able to work his way into his current position. Though his job isn’t always glamourous, Dr. Tubbs knows that the research he does helps make breeding programs successful. The results he can glean from a tiny test tube reverberate outwards, helping iconic species in the Zoo, Safari Park, and around the globe.

Naomi, Careers Team
Week 4, Fall 2015

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Bugs for Breakfast?

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

Naomi_W3_photoBugs for breakfast? You bet! And according to Deborah Lowe, they’re a favorite! As the Nutritional Supervisor at the San Diego Zoo, Ms. Lowe is in charge of feeding the Zoo’s animal collection, and bugs happen to be on the menu for lots of different species. Ms. Lowe’s job at the forage warehouse is a bit like the job of a chef in a big restaurant. She doesn’t write the recipes for the food, but she and her team follow the instructions to prepare big bins full of nutritionally balanced diets for the Zoo animals. The forage team also takes on the role of waiters, and deliver the meals to the keepers of the animals each morning.

As Interns, we got the opportunity to get a tour of the forage warehouse from Ms. Lowe. We started out in the main building, also known as the forage warehouse, which is always brimming with fresh, restaurant quality produce and meats, stored in huge walk in refrigerators and freezers.

Next, we got to go inside the grain room. The “room”, which was really more like a large barn, was stacked high with bags of pelleted animal diets. In addition to some of the more unusual foods one would expect in a zoo warehouse, the majority of the bags were filled with popular name brand dog and cat foods! Ms. Lowe explained that the foods for domestic animals are not necessarily given to the most similar exotic animal. Some of the dog food, for example, is softened and given to the birds as a source of protein. The Zoo has a team of nutritionists who analyze the dietary needs of the animals and the nutrient content of the foods. The nutritionists decide which animal gets what diet based on each animal’s needs. Using this method, keepers and nutritionists can make sure that every animal is getting all of its nutrient requirements met, even if its diet isn’t exactly the same as the one it would get in the wild.

After checking out the grain room, Ms. Lowe took us into the hay barn. Stacks and stacks of almost identical bales of hay filled the room, but Ms. Lowe told us that there are actually three separate types: alfalfa, Bermuda, and Sudan. Each variety is dried from a different grass, and each has its own unique set of nutrients. To make sure the animals get all the nutrients they need from the hay, every load that gets brought in is sampled and tested for quality. The Zoo gets a load of hay once every eight weeks, and a full load weighs over 54 tons! The Forage team will deliver over a ton of hay to animals around the Zoo every single day.

The final stop on our tour was the bug room. The first thing we noticed as we walked in were all the escapee crickets springing around on the floor. Crickets aren’t the only residents; the Bug Room is also home to mealworms, superworms, and waxworms. Ms. Lowe told us that as the bugs grow, they are fed a special calcium rich diet. This is called gut loading, and it’s another way that the Zoo nutrition staff can make sure their animals get all the nutrients they need. Some of the critters that munch on bugs include meerkats, primates, Tasmanian devils, and birds. The birds alone eat 100,000 crickets a week! Talk about a favorite food!

As Ms. Lowe wrapped up our tour, she told us about how rewarding it is to see happy, healthy animals around the Zoo, and to know that she is an important part of it. The hours of work that she and her team put in preparing diets make it possible for the animals to get their breakfast each morning, and thank goodness for that – who else is going to serve up bugs?

Naomi, Real World
Week 3, Fall 2015

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Sowing the Seeds of a Brighter 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, then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

Naomi_W2_picDid you know that San Diego County is the most biodiverse county in the continental United States? This means that we have the largest number of different native species living right in our backyards! Unfortunately, this incredible variety is slowly disappearing as development takes over much of the land, destroying natural habitat and displacing native wildlife populations. However, San Diego Zoo Global is determined to change this, and that’s where they bring in the expert assistance of Emily Howe.

Ms. Howe is a Research Coordinator for Plant Conservation at the Institute for Conservation Research, located next door to the Safari Park. Right now, she is working on a huge restoration project to bring back the native species at Lake Hodges in Escondido, CA.

Ms. Howe explained that in addition to human destruction, our natural coastal sage scrub ecosystem is disappearing because of frequent fires and overdevelopment. Though native San Diego habitats are well adapted to fire, with many plants needing the flames to stimulate seed dispersal and germination, wildfires should only come every 75 to 100 years. At this interval, plants have enough time to regenerate and store up reserves to withstand the next fire. When fires come back to back, like they have recently, native species don’t have enough time to prepare, and are killed in the blaze. This gives invasive species the perfect opportunity to fill in the open spots. These invaders, usually grass species from the Mediterranean basin, were brought hundreds of years ago by the first European settlers. These highly invasive species completely destroy San Diego’s amazing biodiversity, creating a monoculture where native species cannot survive.

Ms. Howe’s restoration project is working to bring back natural habitats. To do this, invasive species must first be weeded out. This is hard work, since they are usually removed by hand. Next, the native plants are brought back in. Typically, young plants are used instead of seeds, since they have a better chance of survival. As part of the restoration project, 25 different species of native plants are being reintroduced, with a total of 10,000 individuals being planted in just two years! The work will restore 25 acres of land for native wildlife and vegetation.

Even with large areas being converted back to the natural landscape, many animals, like pollinators and birds, struggle to find them, since they are so fragmented. That’s where you come in. By planting native species in your yard or community garden, you can create a link between the restored grounds. Animals may not be able to go directly between restored areas, but with smaller spots around them, they’ll have the opportunity to travel from one to the other. Along the way, they’ll pollinate and spread the seeds of native plants. Ms. Howe stressed the importance of this effort by San Diego residents: it is a critical part of keeping the newly reestablished ecosystem healthy.

With your help and the work of the team at San Diego Zoo Global’s division of Plant Conservation, we can restore the beautiful and unique ecosystem that once swept across this county. Let’s keep San Diego a biodiversity hotspot; it’s just one more thing that makes our city the finest in America.

Naomi, Conservation Team
Week Two, Fall 2015

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Going Bananas for Bonobos

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

On our first day out in the Zoo as interns, we had the wonderful opportunity to meet with Kim Livingstone, Lead Primate Keeper. Ms. Livingstone took us to see the bonobos and the gorillas in order to teach us about their upkeep, social structures, and the conservation efforts in place for them.

We got the chance to learn about primates, which are genetically some of our closest relatives. Pictured above is silverback gorilla, Paul Donn, who is an excellent example of the similarities between humans and primates. Just last week, Paul Donn was given human cold medication when he got the flu. But, instead of the human dosage of a teaspoon, he got the gorilla one: half the bottle!

We got the chance to learn about primates, which are genetically some of our closest relatives. Pictured above is silverback gorilla, Paul Donn, who is an excellent example of the similarities between humans and primates. Just last week, Paul Donn was given human cold medication when he got the flu. But, instead of the human dosage of a teaspoon, he got the gorilla one: half the bottle!

To start off our adventure, we were first met by Lead Primate Keeper at the San Diego Zoo, Kim Livingstone. Before introducing us to some of the animals in her care, Ms. Livingstone told us about her path to becoming a primate keeper. She got her start at Mount San Antonio College, looking into veterinary medicine. Later, she made the decision to instead go into exotic animal management and training at Moorpark College. Though her true passion is ornithology, the study of birds, she made the switch to primates because of her animal training background, when she was asked to train the bonobos.

To start off our adventure, we were first met by Lead Primate Keeper at the San Diego Zoo, Kim Livingstone. Before introducing us to some of the animals in her care, Ms. Livingstone told us about her path to becoming a primate keeper. She got her start at Mount San Antonio College, looking into veterinary medicine. Later, she made the decision to instead go into exotic animal management and training at Moorpark College. Though her true passion is ornithology, the study of birds, she made the switch to primates because of her animal training background, when she was asked to train the bonobos.

Ms. Livingstone is one of twelve primate keepers who works hard to keep her animals happy and healthy. This process starts bright and early, at 6:00 in the morning, as keepers train, feed, and check on their animals. After this, several hours of the keepers’ day will be spent cleaning the exhibits and stocking them with enrichment. Ms. Livingstone also works on conservation programs and does educational work, which she loves.

Ms. Livingstone is one of twelve primate keepers who works hard to keep her animals happy and healthy. This process starts bright and early, at 6:00 in the morning, as keepers train, feed, and check on their animals. After this, several hours of the keepers’ day will be spent cleaning the exhibits and stocking them with enrichment. Ms. Livingstone also works on conservation programs and does educational work, which she loves.

Ms. Livingstone took us to meet the Zoo’s troop of bonobos, who are some of the 150 bonobos living in managed care within the United States. As the dominant female of the group, Loretta observed Ms. Livingstone while she explained the bonobos’ matriarchal society. The females rule the roost, while the males in the troop only get their power and support from their mothers.

Ms. Livingstone took us to meet the Zoo’s troop of bonobos, who are some of the 150 bonobos living in managed care within the United States. As the dominant female of the group, Loretta observed Ms. Livingstone while she explained the bonobos’ matriarchal society. The females rule the roost, while the males in the troop only get their power and support from their mothers.

Bonobos’ social structures and interactions with each other are strikingly similar to humans. They form friendships within their troops, they show empathy, they reconcile, they play, they plan, and they laugh. All of the bonobos will pitch in to take care of the babies, who begin to learn the complex social system through imitation.

Bonobos’ social structures and interactions with each other are strikingly similar to humans. They form friendships within their troops, they show empathy, they reconcile, they play, they plan, and they laugh. All of the bonobos will pitch in to take care of the babies, who begin to learn the complex social system through imitation.

Ms. Livingstone’s presentation was abruptly interrupted by loud shrieks and squeals coming from the bonobos. When we looked out into the exhibit, we could see one of their keepers approaching to let them inside their sleep enclosures for the evening. The bonobos are fed in these back enclosures, and have toys, beds, and even, a television to keep them entertained. Ms. Livingstone informed us that they are currently in the middle of watching a documentary on whales.

Ms. Livingstone’s presentation was abruptly interrupted by loud shrieks and squeals coming from the bonobos. When we looked out into the exhibit, we could see one of their keepers approaching to let them inside their sleep enclosures for the evening. The bonobos are fed in these back enclosures, and have toys, beds, and even, a television to keep them entertained. Ms. Livingstone informed us that they are currently in the middle of watching a documentary on whales.

With the bonobos inside, Ms. Livingstone took us up to the roof of the gorilla exhibit. The Zoo’s troop is part of a Species Survival Plan, which is a breeding program trying to raise the numbers of this endangered species. The troop out on exhibit today was a success story of the project, with baby Denny in the mix.

With the bonobos inside, Ms. Livingstone took us up to the roof of the gorilla exhibit. The Zoo’s troop is part of a Species Survival Plan, which is a breeding program trying to raise the numbers of this endangered species. The troop out on exhibit today was a success story of the project, with baby Denny in the mix.

Jessica, the mother in the troop, brought baby Denny over to check us out. Ms. Livingstone told us about the white spot on Denny’s backside that signifies his infancy. As long as he has it, the other gorillas will have to let him get away with whatever he wants, but the spot will disappear around age three. Then, he will start having to behave and fit himself into the social order of the troop.

Jessica, the mother in the troop, brought baby Denny over to check us out. Ms. Livingstone told us about the white spot on Denny’s backside that signifies his infancy. As long as he has it, the other gorillas will have to let him get away with whatever he wants, but the spot will disappear around age three. Then, he will start having to behave and fit himself into the social order of the troop.

We got a special treat when Ms. Livingstone called the troop’s silverback, Paul Donn, over for us. Unlike bonobos, the males are the commanding force in gorilla troops. Paul’s pointy, cone-like head, gray and silver back, and long front arm hair are all secondary sex characteristics that display his dominance and power.

We got a special treat when Ms. Livingstone called the troop’s silverback, Paul Donn, over for us. Unlike bonobos, the males are the commanding force in gorilla troops. Paul’s pointy, cone-like head, gray and silver back, and long front arm hair are all secondary sex characteristics that display his dominance and power.

The gorillas’ exhibit was constructed with their natural habitat in mind. The keepers work with architects to design exhibits that recreate the look and function of the elements in the wild where the animal would live. They will consult with other zoos and research to make sure everything is as natural as possible. Ms. Livingstone worked to put together the gorilla exhibit, and is working on new primate exhibits for the Zoo’s opening of Africa Rocks in 2017.

The gorillas’ exhibit was constructed with their natural habitat in mind. The keepers work with architects to design exhibits that recreate the look and function of the elements in the wild where the animal would live. They will consult with other zoos and research to make sure everything is as natural as possible. Ms. Livingstone worked to put together the gorilla exhibit, and is working on new primate exhibits for the Zoo’s opening of Africa Rocks in 2017.

Another way the Zoo mimics their animals’ natural environments is by providing them with browse. Browse is just a fancy term for foraging food that the animals can munch on during the day. As part of their constant efforts to reduce their ecological footprint, the Zoo grows a majority of its browse locally, to avoid having to ship it long distances. Some of the gorilla browse is being grown up on the roof of their exhibit, so the keepers can just walk up and pick fresh plants whenever they need; now that’s efficiency! In the picture above, you see hibiscus, rosemary, and sugar cane, ready to be eaten.

Another way the Zoo mimics their animals’ natural environments is by providing them with browse. Browse is just a fancy term for foraging food that the animals can munch on during the day. As part of their constant efforts to reduce their ecological footprint, the Zoo grows a majority of its browse locally, to avoid having to ship it long distances. Some of the gorilla browse is being grown up on the roof of their exhibit, so the keepers can just walk up and pick fresh plants whenever they need; now that’s efficiency! In the picture above, you see hibiscus, rosemary, and sugar cane, ready to be eaten.

As Ms. Livingstone wrapped up her presentation, she told us about ways to help conserve endangered species we had gotten the chance to see. We are all capable of making a big impact by doing little things. For instance, being aware of where the products we are buying come from can make a huge impact. Buying locally grown foods and sustainable products does make a difference, no matter how trivial it may seem, so do your part; the primates are counting on it!

As Ms. Livingstone wrapped up her presentation, she told us about ways to help conserve endangered species we had gotten the chance to see. We are all capable of making a big impact by doing little things. For instance, being aware of where the products we are buying come from can make a huge impact. Buying locally grown foods and sustainable products does make a difference, no matter how trivial it may seem, so do your part; the primates are counting on it!

Naomi, Photo Team
Week One, Fall 2015

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Squawking Hello!

naomi_profileHi! My name is Naomi, and I’m thrilled to be checking in with you here as a new Zoo intern. Before I start documenting my adventure, let me tell you a bit about myself.

I’ve been an avid animal lover since before I can remember, and since I also enjoy math and science, it’s no surprise that I’ve always been interested in pursuing a career in some sort of animal science. The only problem was that I had no idea what I wanted to specialize in. I got a push in the right direction when I started volunteering at an exotic bird sanctuary.

I fell in love with the birds, and was touched by my experiences with these incredible animals. I was shocked to find out just how many of the species I worked with are endangered. This realization inspired me to look into a career in conservation, not just for birds, but for any species that needs help. I want to be out there in the field, collecting data, observing how these creatures live, and figuring out how we can save them. That’s why I jumped at the chance to be a part of Zoo InternQuest; it will give me the opportunity to explore more of what truly fascinates me.

In addition to my passion for conservation and continuing volunteer work with the birds, I love to spend time taking pictures, drawing, painting, and running as a part of my school’s amazing cross country team.

I’m excited to add Zoo InternQuest to the list of things I enjoy, and to discover all that this incredible program has to offer. I can’t wait to see where this takes me down my path towards a conservation career. I hope you’ll check back in as I record my adventures – you’ll have a bird’s eye view from here!

Naomi
Profile, Fall 2015