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Runnin’ Wild with the Herd

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!

IMG_0097For our final week of InternQuest, we were given the opportunity to really go out with a bang. Our last visit to the Safari Park had been kept pretty secret, but as we rolled down a small back road, most of us could guess where this was going. Waiting for us in a gravel parking lot was a Safari Park Caravan, joined by two of the Safari Park’s Senior Keepers, Ms. Torrey Pillsbury and Mr. Roger Peterson. They would be our guides as we learned about what goes into maintaining the Safari Park’s huge plains exhibits and the animals within them. Due to the massive size of the exhibit, the animals here have developed their own herds and family groups, so the Safari Park has to go to great lengths to keep track of everyone on exhibit making sure that all the animals are happy and healthy.

The first thing you might notice about the large plains enclosures at the Safari Park is just how many animals live there. Not only are there different species of antelope, giraffe, rhino, birds, and buffalo wandering these simulated savannahs, but each of those species have their own herds. In the wild, hoofed animals live in these large groups, which move across vast areas of terrain. The Safari Park simulates this environment as best it can, ensuring that different species can get along by grouping animals from the same region. For example, the Safari Park won’t put Asian rhinos in the African plains exhibit. Due to the exhibits being quite realistic, the Safari Park allows guests a unique opportunity to see natural herd behaviors.

With all these herds, it can be a real challenge for keepers to identify and keep track of each individual on exhibit, which is a big part of the job. To keep the identification process from getting too aggravating, keepers tag or put notches into the ears of the animals on exhibit. The process doesn’t hurt the animals, it’s just like getting an ear piercing. In notching, each triangular notch is in a different region of the ear, and each region represents a different number. These numbers are then added up, and used as the animal’s unique identification. Tags on the other hand, work like earrings, with big round circles that are color coded to particular groups of numbers. For instance, a red tag means the animal’s ID is in the one hundred range. Tags and notches are both used together to help keepers identify their animals more efficiently.

Even though these enclosures are designed to be as natural as possible, human intervention is still just as necessary as in typical zoo exhbits. You see, one of the side effects of having such open spaces and large herds is an increase in breeding. It can be difficult to breed hoofed animals in smaller enclosures, which typically house only a few animals, but out in the Safari Park, that isn’t an issue. The problem comes when those babies are born, and have to be weighed and quickly evaluated by keepers to ensure that everything is looking healthy. The task of separating these youngsters can be extremely challenging, and according to Ms. Pillsbury, one creature in particular has shown a particular distaste towards human interference. Next time you’re at the east African section of the caravan or tram tour, keep an eye out for the sitatunga. These animals are a small species of antelope who typically make their homes in marshlands around central Africa. In the Safari Park, these animals like to spend time near watering holes, where they hang out in the muddy dirt. In one instance, a baby sitatunga had been born on an island in the large exhibit. When Ms. Pillsbury and the other keepers approached her by boat and took her baby for a check-up, the mother leapt into the water and chased the keepers down! In the end, the baby received its health check-up and was returned to mom without anyone getting hurt, but it still goes to show how far a mother will go to protect baby.

Another aspect of human intervention is feeding, something we got a very up-close and personal understanding of. Feeding the animals here helps develop a relationship with keepers. Food can be used to move animals from one area to another or enrichment or as a really cool attraction for guests at the Safari Park. By allowing members of the public to get in and interact with the animals here, the Safari Park helps raise awareness and funds for conservation programs that could help their wild counterparts.

Before today, I really didn’t notice how complex the animals on this plot of land really were, or how dedicated the keepers were to keeping them comfortable and enriched. Having seen so many cool things over the course of this internship, I must say that this has certainly been one of my more memorable experiences, and I won’t soon forget it.

Mark, Real World
Fall Session 2014

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Surprise for the Interns!

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!

FullSizeRenderThis week, interns were met with quite a surprise. As we walked into our classroom we found eight pumpkins sitting on the table, completely out of place. We all stared at each other in confusion because we had no idea why there were pumpkins there. We were told to pick them up and take them with us to meet Melinda Wittmayer, a Senior Keeper for the Primate Department.

With our pumpkins in hand, we met Ms. Wittmayer her at the tufted-capuchin exhibit in a behind the scenes area. Ms. Wittmayer told us she always knew she wanted to work with animals. Her first job here at the Zoo was a seasonal position during the summer doing animal presentations. She began her work at the Zoo during a summer program as an animal presenter. As she was telling us about her career, a capuchin was hanging on to the metal mesh wall just next to her trying to get her attention. Ms. Wittmayer went on to tell us that the tufted-capuchins are the smartest of the new world primates, or small to mid-sized primates, and that they have the biggest brain out of all of them. The capuchins at the Zoo have a very strict hierarchy that we learned about. All 15 of the capuchins came together from Emery University after being part of a research project there based on animal behavior, and already had established family groups. The three families are separated by rank. With so many monkeys running and jumping around it’s hard to remember them all, but Ms. Wittmayer knows each one by their name and their behavior. For example, the capuchin that was trying to get her attention is named Luther, he is on the bigger side in terms of size and is known for being slightly more dominant even though he is low ranking on the hierarchy order.

A huge part of Ms. Wittmayer’s job is providing enrichment. Enrichment is an activity an animal can do to keep it entertained, occupied, and thinking in similar ways it would in the wild. For example, tufted-capuchins use rocks to smash nuts open in the wild, so Ms. Wittmayer finds the perfect sized rocks for them and sprinkles them around their exhibit so they will find them and use them. She collects an incredible amount of items ranging from magazines, to palm fronds, to Tupperware containers, all so that she can design new activities for them. This is where our surprise came in. We were given the pumpkins so that we could make enrichment for the capuchins. Ms. Wittmayer gave us primate protection equipment to make sure that we could not spread any zoonotic diseases, which are diseases that spread between species, like primate to primate. Then, we started carving our pumpkins, and drawing interesting designs that we hoped the orangutans would love.

Enrichment is not only for zoo animals. All pets need enrichment because it keeps the animal’s brain intellectually stimulated and active, like a crossword puzzle is for us. It keeps them from getting bored, and keeps them energized. For example, a dog needs more than a walk or a toy bone, so you can provide it with all sorts of enrichment like different scents, going to a dog park, or even basic training behaviors. Enrichment isn’t difficult to provide, and in the end you’ll end up having fun yourself. It is essential to provide your pets with sufficient enrichment because in the end it makes them happier and healthier.

Alon, Real World Team
Fall Session 2014

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Nutritionists to the Rescue

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

DSCN0948Nutrition is an essential element to the survival of any species and is often a vital component of keeping the Zoo’s collection happy and heathy. It is a new field within the Zoo world and has only been around for about the last 20 years. Luckily, for the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, three nutritionists on staff create specialized diet plans to suit the needs of each individual animal. This week, Interns were able to meet one of these nutritionists, Dr. Jen Parsons, Associate Nutritionist of the San Diego Zoo. Dr. Parsons mainly works at the Zoo, creating and constantly adjusting all of the animal’s diets as their needs change. Dr. Parsons has worked on many projects, studying exotic animal nutrition which in turn greatly impacts wildlife conservation.

Dr. Parsons researches the natural history of each animal in order to replicate each animal’s natural diet to the best of her ability. Dr. Parsons must closely look at what each animal eats, as well as its foraging and browsing habits. Nutritionists must be sensitive to the needs of each animal to ensure the animal is getting all the necessary nutrients found in their natural diet. If there are not enough nutrients, or perhaps the wrong nutrients are being ingested, the animal can become sick.

A large part of Dr. Parsons’ job is replicating the natural diets animals in a managed care facility would be eating in the wild. Dr. Parsons was involved in the desert tortoise project, where she replicated their natural diets in order to ensure a smooth transition when it came time to release the tortoises back into the wild. A desert tortoise’s diet in the wild is primarily grass which is very high in fiber. However, at the time of Dr. Parsons’ work, the only available pellet supplement was very high in protein, which wasn’t ideal for the desert tortoises. The desert tortoise care center was able to find a company that could make special pellets containing more fiber than protein. Since most of the tortoises were being released into the wild, Dr. Parsons had to make sure they were ready for the transition to the wild grasses. She gradually changed their diets from the pellet supplements to the grasses they would find in the wild, so as not to “shock” the tortoise digestive system.

Habitat destruction is a leading factor that limits what an animal eats and how much they eat. The bamboo forests in China are being cut down at an alarming rate, causing not only the habitat of giant pandas to rapidly decrease, but their diet and nutrition as well. One of the main challenges many nutritionists face is that not many people know about the field, so it is hard to acquire funding for more projects pertaining to preserving the natural habitat for nutritional purposes.

The nutrition of animals in the wild continues to be a struggle today. Since most people are not aware of the impact they have on the environment, they pollute the air and soil, and unknowingly support companies that tear down the environment. Staying informed of what happens in the natural world is a great way to lessen your contribution to habitat loss. Dr. Parsons is living her dream as she helps animals receive the nutrients they need in order to survive, not only at the San Diego Zoo, but for the animals in the wild such as the giant pandas and desert tortoises.

Isabella, Conservation Team
Fall Session 2014

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Caring for the Birds in Our Backyard

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!

IMG_0048In the field of wildlife conservation, it can often be difficult to get concrete results fast. When big changes are made to restore a damaged environment, it can take years or even decades before see any major improvements can be seen. That’s why it’s up to field researchers to monitor the progress of animals and plants in a given region, and to ensure that the population remains stable. Field researchers also categorize the problems seen in the wild to find out what can be done to help them in the future. For ecologists like Colleen Wisinski, a research coordinator at the Applied Animal Ecology Division at the Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, this means surveying large swaths of land, and describing in detail the status of the ecosystem. Without her research coming directly from the field, it would be nearly impossible to know how well these animals are doing in their natural habitat.

Ms. Wisinski’s field research focuses around monitoring threatened bird habitats. In our time with her, Ms. Wisinski took us to Biodiversity Reserve, 900 acres of undeveloped land that sits behind the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, to take a look at the site of an older project involving the endangered San Diego cactus wren. Cactus wrens are small birds, which build elaborate nests inside large prickly pear cactus plants. The birds use the cactus as protection from potential predators, as well as a strong foundation for their big nests. Cactus wrens require coastal sage scrub habitat, which means lots of drought-resistant foliage, a lack of human presence, and most importantly, the prickly pear cactus. In order to boost the wrens’ numbers in the region, the Institute for Conservation Research received a grant to repopulate several key habitats throughout San Diego with prickly pear cactus. These cacti won’t just benefit the wrens, but all the native San Diego wildlife, which depend on these plants for food and shelter. However, those cacti were planted years ago, and now that time has passed we can look back to see just how the cactus wrens have adjusted to the new homes.

In order to measure the success or failure of a wild population, such as the cactus wren, scientists need unique methods to accurately determine the estimates of changes in population numbers. For us humans, we measure changes in population with the census. Somebody comes to our home every 10 years to measure how many people live there. It’s a bit trickier with animals, because there’s really no way to know the exact population. As a result of this, scientists have had to find new ways to survey an ecosystem and determine how many animals live there. With small vocal birds, like the cactus wren, one approach is known as point counting. Point counting is a system, in which a field researcher simply watches and listens from a certain point and counts how many birds she can hear or see from a certain distance. The region is first divided up into a grid, and the corners of each grid square are used as a point from which the scientist will perform the point count. These studies require a lot of patience and have to be performed several times in order to get the most accurate data. Sometimes repeated point counts are done at different times of day to help make the survey as random as possible. By keeping the time of day random, biologists ensure that they aren’t counting the same birds, keeping the population counts as diverse as possible.

Being a field biologist is hard work, requiring hours of observing and cataloging data outside. However, its benefits are very tangible, allowing us to measure with more certainty exactly how effective these conservation programs have been. Field biology is looking at conservation from the big picture, and asking the simple question “Is this working?” In the case of the wrens and burrowing owls, the answer seems to be yes, though it is still too early to say for sure. All of the hugely important discoveries made in the lab mean nothing if we can’t see how they affect what happens out in the wild. That is why working in the field is so crucial to our understanding of conservation.

Mark, Conservation Team
Fall Session 2014

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Monkeying around with Primates!

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

Keeping a troop of fifteen capuchins happy and entertained is a pretty daunting challenge. Today we met up with Senior Primate Keeper Melinda Wittmayer, who’s in charge of keeping her animals happy, healthy, and most of all, busy.

Ms. Wittmayer gave us an up-close behind the scenes introduction to the Zoo’s population of capuchin monkeys. Capuchins are native to South America, and are known for their notable intelligence. As we talked, several monkeys tried to get our attention, reaching their hands out through the fencing or jumping across the enclosure to distract us from our work.

In the Zoo’s capuchin enclosure, there is a strict pecking order. Of the fifteen monkeys housed here, they are divided into three classes. There is a high class, a middle class, and a lower class. Female monkeys here at the Zoo are actually named after their ranking in the system. Names that start with the letter ‘W’ are at the top,  ‘N’ names in the middle, and ‘L’ names are on the bottom. The two capuchins pictured here are Ozzie and Wilma, the dominant pair of the troop.

In the Zoo’s capuchin enclosure, there is a strict pecking order. Of the fifteen monkeys housed here, they are divided into three classes. There is a high class, a middle class, and a lower class. Female monkeys here at the Zoo are actually named after their ranking in the system. Names that start with the letter ‘W’ are at the top, ‘N’ names in the middle, and ‘L’ names are on the bottom. The two capuchins pictured here are Ozzie and Wilma, the dominant pair of the troop.

Before we could go backstage at the capuchin exhibit, Ms. Whittmayer gave us these surgical masks to protect us and the capuchins from any zoonotic diseases. A zoonotic disease is an ailment that can pass between humans and other animals. Being that humans are also primates, there is a high risk that we could spread certain diseases to the monkeys who live here, or vice versa.

Before we could go backstage at the capuchin exhibit, Ms. Whittmayer gave us these surgical masks to protect us and the capuchins from any zoonotic diseases. A zoonotic disease is an ailment that can pass between humans and other animals. Being that humans are also primates, there is a high risk that we could spread certain diseases to the monkeys who live here, or vice versa.

Enrichment is a very important part of working with primates. By enrichment, I mean keeping animals entertained, active, and engaged like they are in the wild. To achieve this, keepers use a variety of foods to motivate these monkeys and make them think. Every day these foods are hidden in burlap sacs, PVC pipes, and jars which the capuchins must experiment with in order to solve.

Enrichment is a very important part of working with primates. By enrichment, I mean keeping animals entertained, active, and engaged like they are in the wild. To achieve this, keepers use a variety of foods to motivate these monkeys and make them think. Every day these foods are hidden in burlap sacs, PVC pipes, and jars which the capuchins must experiment with in order to solve.

This is where the capuchins go after dark to keep out of the cold. Like the outer enclosure, these facilities, known as bedrooms, need to be stocked with food puzzles to keep the residents from getting bored over night. Ms. Wittmayer and her fellow keepers even have to rearrange the branches and platforms every couple days to keep the primates guessing.

This is where the capuchins go after dark to keep out of the cold. Like the outer enclosure, these facilities, known as bedrooms, need to be stocked with food puzzles to keep the residents from getting bored over night. Ms. Wittmayer and her fellow keepers even have to rearrange the branches and platforms every couple days to keep the primates guessing.

Ms. Wittmayer explained to us that the capuchin monkey’s class system even affects their sleeping arrangements. There are three enclosures, each catering to one of the different groups of capuchins. The dominant monkeys don’t like to sleep nearby the middle and lower class, and the rooms are designed to create as little conflict between the groups as possible.

Ms. Wittmayer explained to us that the capuchin monkey’s class system even affects their sleeping arrangements. There are three enclosures, each catering to one of the different groups of capuchins. The dominant monkeys don’t like to sleep nearby the middle and lower class, and the rooms are designed to create as little conflict between the groups as possible.

Okay, this is the real reason why we were there. It was Halloween and the little capuchins didn't have any jack-o-lanterns to demolish in their exhibit. The monkeys are used to the usual enrichment items scattered throughout their enclosure, but jack-o-lanterns offered a unique opportunity, and made great toys once they’re ready. Let the carving begin!

Okay, this is the real reason why we were there. It was Halloween and the little capuchins didn’t have any jack-o-lanterns to demolish in their exhibit. The monkeys are used to the usual enrichment items scattered throughout their enclosure, but jack-o-lanterns offered a unique opportunity, and made great toys once they’re ready. Let the carving begin!

Because of the risk of spreading zoonotic disease through touching these pumpkins, we spared no expense to ensure the health of the Zoo’s capuchin population. We had to don these yellow hazmat suits, surgical masks, and rubber gloves before any of the carving could begin.

Because of the risk of spreading zoonotic disease through touching these pumpkins, we spared no expense to ensure the health of the Zoo’s capuchin population. We had to don these yellow hazmat suits, surgical masks, and rubber gloves before any of the carving could begin.

Okay, they’re not gonna win any pumpkin carving awards, but considering we had less than 20 minutes to carve, I would call this a job well done. The capuchins may not care too much for the artistic aspects of our jack-o-lanterns, but they will appreciate some unique enrichment items that the whole troop can enjoy. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the group of capuchins rip my masterpiece to shreds for the sake of fun.

Okay, they’re not gonna win any pumpkin carving awards, but considering we had less than 20 minutes to carve, I would call this a job well done. The capuchins may not care too much for the artistic aspects of our jack-o-lanterns, but they will appreciate some unique enrichment items that the whole troop can enjoy. I’m definitely looking forward to seeing the group of capuchins rip my masterpiece to shreds for the sake of fun.

After cleaning up from our pumpkin carving, Ms. Wittmayer led us into the behind the scenes area of the orangutan exhibit. On the left is a computer monitor is one of the Zoo’s orangutan moms, Indah, who is taking care of her baby, Aisha. Aisha has just had her first birthday and still needs a lot of help from mom before she’s ready to be on her own.

After cleaning up from our pumpkin carving, Ms. Wittmayer led us into the behind the scenes area of the orangutan exhibit. On the left is a computer monitor is one of the Zoo’s orangutan moms, Indah, who is taking care of her baby, Aisha. Aisha has just had her first birthday and still needs a lot of help from mom before she’s ready to be on her own.

Mark, Photography Team
Fall Session 2014

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Pathology: The Coolest Science You’ve Never Heard Of

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!

wesley_4There are hundreds upon hundreds of different careers at the San Diego Zoo. Although the basic duties, responsibilities, and missions amongst these careers vary, each and every one requires challenging work and tremendous determination. In spite of this however, some careers ultimately seem more glamorous than others. The Zoo is undeniably a beautiful place, but it takes more than just the beauty and spectacle that keeps visitors entertained to maintain the health and prosperity of the collection. And, as opposed to taking care of animals while they are still alive, taking care of them when they’re dead is about as far from “glamorous” as you can get at the Zoo.

This is what veterinary pathologists Jenny Bernard, a pathology fellow, and Andrew Cartoceti, a pathology resident, do on a daily basis behind the scenes at the San Diego Zoo. Pathology, the study of diseases and viruses, is vital to maintaining the health of every single collection found at the Zoo. Through their work studying various tissue samples from dead animals in the collection and figuring out the specific causes of their death, diseases are prevented, diets are perfected, and most issues that have the potential to rise within a specific collection are averted. Despite the lack of recognition that veterinary pathologists receive from the general public, without these brilliant individuals, many animals would have suffered the same fates as their sick companions.

For the general public, the Zoo is a place for observing live animals; therefore, most visitors don’t consider what becomes of them after death. However, when an animal dies at the Zoo, regardless of whether it’s part of the collection or a wild animal, the process it undergoes is extensive and complex. First, it goes to the necropsy department, or the “animal autopsy” department. In this department, dead animals are examined with care for any external or internal proof of disease. We visited this department and witnessed an autopsy on a duck. It wasn’t pretty, but through the examinations, an official cause of death was recorded. So, after examination, if the cause of death is clear by observation, then the case is over. If the cause of death is disease, virus, or unidentifiable by plain examination, then the case goes to next department, histology. In the histology department, microscopic slides are prepared with tissue samples from the dead animals. We visited Histology and prepared slides of our own using Tic-Tacs as a substitute for animal tissue. We placed the Tic-Tacs in small containers and filled them with hot wax. Once they dried, our slides were complete. So, once the tissue slides are complete, they are sent to the pathology department. In pathology, the slides are analyzed meticulously in search of cell mutations, foreign bacteria, or viruses. Dr. Bernard and Dr. Cartoceti presented a power-point on the science of Pathology in general and then on three separate example cases which described the different steps in solving them. The analyzing process is often painstaking, long, and difficult for pathologists. However, if the cause of death is found and addressed, this knowledge can often be used to further prevent the same fate from spreading to the rest of the collection.

Although it isn’t recognized as frequently as most animal related careers, veterinary pathology is a brilliant science for brilliant individuals. First, it requires years of schooling in college, veterinary school, and a residency program. Grades are very important during this time because of the intense competition for available spots. After passing a grueling test, you can then become a pathologist. In order to get to this point though, you will have had to master mathematics, laboratory skills(i.e. microscope familiarity, slide analyzing), the basic anatomy of practically every animal species on earth, problem solving, the ability to work and cope under intense pressure and frustration, and in the end, the ability to admit that the problem can’t be solved. All of these traits together are not just encouraged, but necessary to maintaining a career in pathology, which, in my personal opinion, makes people who have or strive for this career my role models.

Death, in practically all of its forms, is tragic. Yet, despite this tragedy, it’s a common, unavoidable part of being alive. Veterinary Pathology serves as an unknown savior for all animals in the zoo. It’s a bittersweet science, and although it deals directly with death, its ultimate purpose is to assist, praise, and ensure life. So, next time you’re visiting the Zoo, don’t forget to acknowledge the efforts of necropsy, histology, and pathology to make the Zoo the beautiful and prestigious place that it is every day.

Wesley, Real World Team
Fall 2014

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Passing on to Pathology

Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique ability 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.

belle_4Have you ever wondered what happens to an animal after it dies? At the San Diego Zoo, they are sent to the necropsy, histology, and pathology departments. Necropsy refers to animal autopsies, which may sound simple, but my fellow interns and I learned it is quite the opposite. To work in either the necropsy or pathology department requires staff members to not only have veterinary skills, but also in a way be full-time detectives. This week InternQuest met with doctors Jenny Bernard and Andrew Cartoceti; both Veterinarians and pathologists at the Zoo

After an animal dies at the Zoo it undergoes a full gross examination also known as a necropsy. The animal is fully examined to hopefully determine the cause of death if it is not already known. This is crucial because knowing the reason for an animal’s death can allow staff and keepers to prevent the deaths of other animals. For example, if an animal died due to a viral, bacterial, or parasitic infection, it’s important to treat the other animals in the Zoo’s collection to prevent the same affliction from occurring.

After the full gross examination, any infected tissue is sent to the histology department. The histology department is involved in preparing the infected tissues to be placed onto slides which can then be seen under a microscope. The samples are first cut between three and five microns thick. These very thin samples are then placed into a small box also known as a cassette before being covered in a hot paraffin wax. Once cooled, the wax is then sliced very thin and made into slides.

Histologists continue to prepare the slides by dying them with vibrant, different colored stains that allow infectious agents or substances in the tissues to be seen. The different colors allow the slides to be better identified. For example, the pink stain used specifically detects proteins while the blue stain detects DNA and RNA.

The whole point of the necropsy is to determine the cause of an animal’s death. This is where the pathologists Dr. Bernard and Dr. Cartoceti come into play. Pathology is a study of medicine that specifically looks at diseases and what changes they can have on the body. Pathologists determine exactly what killed an animal by looking at the slides before making an official diagnosis. If the pathologists cannot pick up anything from the cell samples, then they are sent to be viewed under an electron microscope. This is a special microscope with high magnification that can detect viruses, unlike a traditional microscope.

There is an obscene amount of work both veterinarians have done before becoming pathologists and it includes roughly eleven years of education after high school. Dr. Bernard and Dr. Cartoceti achieved undergraduate degrees and completed Veterinary school. Dr. Bernard studied at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee before moving on to veterinary school at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. Dr. Cartoceti studied at Cornell University for his undergraduate degree and his veterinary degree before studying at University of California, Davis to complete his residency work. Both doctors have also obtained a certificate of completion in Diplomat American College Vet Pathology after completing a four year residency specifically in pathology. Dr. Bernard and Dr. Cartoceti shared that if you aspire to become a pathologist, succeeding academically in college is crucial. The next step would be to take on the challenging task of being accepted to veterinary school.

Both doctors were able to share with us some of the incredible moments that make all the schooling worth it. While the species that Dr. Bernard and Dr. Cartoceti have worked with are memorable, Dr. Bernard shared with us that the most exciting aspect to her job is figuring out the answer to the puzzle of what killed the animal and the “We got it!” moments she has had.

Dr. Bernard and Dr. Cartoceti have taken their long time passions for animals and conservation beyond being veterinarians. Both doctors intend to continue on their paths of pathology. Dr. Bernard ideally would like to work in the Zoo as a pathologist, while Dr. Cartoceti hopes to work on a more academic level, perhaps teaching in a veterinary college one day. Even though so much work goes into caring for animals when they’re alive, there is a whole other part of animal care that takes place even after death.

Belle, Careers Team
Fall Session 2014

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Womb Service

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!

Our visit this Thursday was to the Neonatal Assisted Care Unit, or the NACU. We met with keeper Kim Weibel and learned all about what exactly the NACU does. We even experienced a few of the duties of a NACU keeper firsthand, and got to see some of the NACU graduates.

The NACU takes in any baby animal whose mother is unable or unwilling to rear it. NACU keepers have to be very flexible, as many young animals need care around the clock. Ms. Weibel also told us the story of Frank, the gorilla. NACU staff set up all the equipment needed in the gorilla bedrooms, which allowed Frank to gain the social skills and behaviors necessary in being a gorilla.

The NACU takes in any baby animal whose mother is unable or unwilling to rear it. NACU keepers have to be very flexible, as many young animals need care around the clock. Ms. Weibel also told us the story of Frank, the gorilla. NACU staff set up all the equipment needed in the gorilla bedrooms, which allowed Frank to gain the social skills and behaviors necessary in being a gorilla.

When feeding a litter of animals, such as big cat cubs, it can be difficult to tell the cubs apart from each other. Each baby animal in the litter is assigned a specific color to help the keepers tell them apart. The babies are fed in the same order to maintain consistency. This keeps time between feedings equal for every animal, which keeps each animal from overeating or being hungrier than others.

When feeding a litter of animals, such as big cat cubs, it can be difficult to tell the cubs apart from each other. Each baby animal in the litter is assigned a specific color to help the keepers tell them apart. The babies are fed in the same order to maintain consistency. This keeps time between feedings equal for every animal, which keeps each animal from overeating or being hungrier than others.

Different bottle nipples are needed for different animals, since there are so many different sizes of mouths and faces. Some of them can be purchased from stores, but not all of them. One of the nipples was actually created by the Zoo for specifically royal antelopes, a very small type of deer. The Zoo asked a latex mask maker to create a custom nipple because these antelopes are generally too small for other nipples. After several years of producing and testing prototypes, the Zoo now has a custom nipple for small species, and shares it with other Zoos. The size of the nipple is crucial to feeding an animal, as is the size of its hole. If the hole is too big and the animal sucks too hard, it will suck air into its lungs, too. This can be problematic, especially for very young animals.

Different bottle nipples are needed for different animals, since there are so many different sizes of mouths and faces. Some of them can be purchased from stores, but not all of them. One of the nipples was actually created by the Zoo for specifically royal antelopes, a very small type of deer. The Zoo asked a latex mask maker to create a custom nipple because these antelopes are generally too small for other nipples. After several years of producing and testing prototypes, the Zoo now has a custom nipple for small species, and shares it with other Zoos. The size of the nipple is crucial to feeding an animal, as is the size of its hole. If the hole is too big and the animal sucks too hard, it will suck air into its lungs, too. This can be problematic, especially for very young animals.

Inside the NACU, we saw a wall of pictures of animals that had been successfully raised and released by the nursery. On the left is a silvered leaf langur, which is an Old World monkey from Malaysia, Sumatra, and Borneo. In the middle, there is a picture of wallaby who had been through the NACU, and, lastly, on the right is a litter of Pallas cat, who are dotted with the colors from the cattle marker.

Inside the NACU, we saw a wall of pictures of animals that had been successfully raised and released by the nursery. On the left is a silvered leaf langur, which is an Old World monkey from Malaysia, Sumatra, and Borneo. In the middle, there is a picture of wallaby who had been through the NACU, and, lastly, on the right is a litter of Pallas cat, who are dotted with the colors from the cattle marker.

We entered a room, which contained this incubator, a mini-pharmacy, and an oxygen tank, which is used to help animals breathe in emergency situations. The humidity and temperature of the inside of this incubator can be controlled. We saw another incubator containing a specially-made pouch for marsupials. This pouch simulates the mother’s pouch, and is supplemented with a hot water bag to simulate the mother’s body.

We entered a room, which contained this incubator, a mini-pharmacy, and an oxygen tank, which is used to help animals breathe in emergency situations. The humidity and temperature of the inside of this incubator can be controlled. We saw another incubator containing a specially-made pouch for marsupials. This pouch simulates the mother’s pouch, and is supplemented with a hot water bag to simulate the mother’s body.

The mini-pharmacy at the NACU contains a number of medications used by the keepers for young animals. There is also a cabinet of medical supplies for humans in this room, in case of emergencies. However, all of these medications you could find in a first aid kit—antibacterial creams, bandages, and similar items.

The mini-pharmacy at the NACU contains a number of medications used by the keepers for young animals. There is also a cabinet of medical supplies for humans in this room, in case of emergencies. However, all of these medications you could find in a first aid kit—antibacterial creams, bandages, and similar items.

Our next activity was making formula. Interns calculated how much we needed, measured water and powdered formula, mixed it by hand, and strained it into a bowl. Straining is important in making formula as it breaks up clumps best. We learned firsthand that being a keeper at the NACU requires doing a lot of math! This “mock” formula recipe was for a lesser kudu, which is a type of antelope.

Our next activity was making formula. Interns calculated how much we needed, measured water and powdered formula, mixed it by hand, and strained it into a bowl. Straining is important in making formula as it breaks up clumps best. We learned firsthand that being a keeper at the NACU requires doing a lot of math! This “mock” formula recipe was for a lesser kudu, which is a type of antelope.

This is our final product: a milky formula fit for a king, but not a kudu. In actuality, we used water in place of goat’s milk when making it, so our final product would not be suitable for a real kudu. Milk is vital to the recipe, and without it, the formula will not properly sustain a baby animal. Making the formula was a little messy, but we were sure to make a little extra to account for spillage.

This is our final product: a milky formula fit for a king, but not a kudu. In actuality, we used water in place of goat’s milk when making it, so our final product would not be suitable for a real kudu. Milk is vital to the recipe, and without it, the formula will not properly sustain a baby animal. Making the formula was a little messy, but we were sure to make a little extra to account for spillage.

Here is the filing system for the NACU. Each cabinet contains hundreds of files, each with very specific details about the animals that was cared for by the NACU. Ms Weibel told us that each file was like an instruction manual on how to raise an animal from birth to a few weeks old.

Here is the filing system for the NACU. Each cabinet contains hundreds of files, each with very specific details about the animals that was cared for by the NACU. Ms Weibel told us that each file was like an instruction manual on how to raise an animal from birth to a few weeks old.

Meet Oringo; the NACU’s newest graduate. The Zoo hopes that he will breed with the female fennec fox in the Children Zoo. Oringo is in training to become an animal ambassador, which means he will be used for educational purposes.

Meet Oringo; the NACU’s newest graduate. The Zoo hopes that he will breed with the female fennec fox in the Children Zoo. Oringo is in training to become an animal ambassador, which means he will be used for educational purposes.

Oringo’s last night at the NACU started off with some frolicking and mealworms. The day we visited marked the end of his stay at the NACU. After his quarantine in the NACU, he will begin to spend the night in an exhibit in the Children’s Zoo.

Oringo’s last night at the NACU started off with some frolicking and mealworms. The day we visited marked the end of his stay at the NACU. After his quarantine in the NACU, he will begin to spend the night in an exhibit in the Children’s Zoo.

Another graduate of the NACU, this fossa (pronounced FOO-sah), remembers Ms. Weibel very well. She cared for him during his time at the NACU, and they share a close bond because of it. As we approached, we could hear him vocalizing excitedly as he saw Ms. Weibel walk around the corner. He was our final stop on our visit with Ms. Weibel, and left us with an understanding of how influential the keepers at the NACU are on the animals they care for.

Another graduate of the NACU, this fossa (pronounced FOO-sah), remembers Ms. Weibel very well. She cared for him during his time at the NACU, and they share a close bond because of it. As we approached, we could hear him vocalizing excitedly as he saw Ms. Weibel walk around the corner. He was our final stop on our visit with Ms. Weibel, and left us with an understanding of how influential the keepers at the NACU are on the animals they care for.

Olivia, Photography Team
Fall Session 2014

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Calves, Cubs, Pups, 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!

IMG_4307Conservation begins with baby animals, and the Neonatal Assisted Care Unit (NACU), helps raise them. Kim Weibel is a senior keeper in the NACU. Ms. Weibel’s explained her role as a keeper in the NACU, and how her position directly impacts the Zoo’s conservation effort.

Ms. Weibel and her fellow keepers work with whatever animals are brought to them to help them grow into healthy, independent adults animals. The five keepers in the NACU are trained for whatever animal comes to them. This requires them to stay on their toes. They work with mammals specifically because they need so much care and attention at a young age. They inform the public on how important the NACU’s role is, and how crucial they are in the effort to save animals. The keepers in the NACU also educate the public on conservation issues through the use of animal ambassadors. Animal ambassadors are raised differently from other animals, because they’re used for educational purposes to teach Zoo guests the benefits of conservation, and the potential consequences of a species dying out.

Ms. Weibel works with many other zoos to help inform them or share information regarding raising different animal babies. Networking is a huge part of the NACU’s job, because they must be prepared for the endangered animals that come to them, and they must be educated on how to care for them. The keepers help conservation efforts around the world by sharing the techniques they’ve learned over the years with other zoos. They share the successful formulas animal nutritionists have figured out because each animal takes different amounts of formula, and a different mixture of formulas. Almost every species requires a special nipple for bottle feeding (if necessary). Keepers even share tips to help raise certain species. For example, Ms. Weibel needed help raising a marsupial, so another zoo gave her very specific tips that would help replicate the feeling the baby received when it was in its mother’s pouch and this would help comfort the baby.

Keepers in the NACU have worked on many successful conservation projects throughout the years. Their most successful is the Giant Panda Project. To help China raise their giant pandas, the San Diego Zoo NACU keepers, including Ms. Weibel, visited China to collaborate with their keepers and share the innovative formula San Diego Zoo nutritionists created for Giant Panda cubs. China’s keepers have even come to the San Diego Zoo to watch how the keepers here care for the pandas. Another project the NACU has worked on is the Baja Pronghorn Project. Some of the NACU keepers went south to Baja to help trainers there rear their critically endangered Baja California pronghorns.

Ms. Weibel has worked on so many different species in the NACU. Her years of experience have helped not only the species in the San Diego Zoo collection, but also other animals in zoos around the world. Information sharing and networking is a power resource especially when it pertains to saving endangered species.

Alon, Conservation Team
Fall Session 2014

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Plants are Better than Animals, and You Know 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!

wesley_3When considering a career, even in the scientific field, Applied Plant Ecology is not the first one that comes to mind. In fact, the majority of the general public is not even aware of this career’s existence at all. However, despite this relative obscurity, an Applied Plant Ecologist has an immeasurable impact on the ecosystem.

On Wednesday, interns met Sara Motheral, a Senior Research Technician with the Applied Plant Ecology Division at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. On a daily basis, her job consists of data crunching, back breaking work, and report writing. In the long run though, Ms. Motheral’s career plays an integral part in maintaining the local ecosystem in San Diego.

Minus the emphasized issue of deforestation, most people tend to only consider conservation when concerning animals or concerning themselves. It seems as if, often, little to no thought is put into plants from the general public at all. Plants, being primary producers in the environment, are arguably the most crucial organisms in the entire sphere of life on Earth. However, despite the importance and necessity of plants in the environment, habitat and biodiversity loss concerning animals has a far greater emphasis in the media. In comparison to animals, most people don’t adequately appreciate plant life and are unaware of the loss that occurs on a daily basis. Plant loss is a tragic loss and it negatively impacts the ecosystem including us. So where does this apathy for plant life come from? Ms. Motheral answered, “That’s a problem that we deal with on a daily basis here at the Institute for Conservation Research.” It’s clear that animals are more similar to humans and more animated than plants. Inherently, this makes observing them and learning about them easier and more interesting. However, to those that only focus on the conservation of animal species: the plants that are being degraded could be the staple food supply of an entire ecosystem. All animals, even humans, rely on plants. So, therefore, plants should be esteemed as the most important focus of all.

In terms of local impact, Ms. Motheral’s conservation projects have been consistently successful. She has worked on a project to help restore native Coastal Sage Brush habitat which serves as shelter for the cactus wren, a subspecies found here in San Diego. The rising trend of wildfires in Southern California has degraded this plant at an unsustainable rate, causing the coastal cactus wren population to diminish as well. Progress is being monitored daily to see any upward trends. Ms. Motheral has also worked in Riverside, California to restore grassland habitat destroyed by invasive grass species. These invasive species were in turn affecting local animal species. Specifically, the kangaroo rat population had been falling due to the invasive species and action had to be taken. Serving as a primary consumer in this ecosystem, the rats played a vital part in keeping the San Jacinto River Basin healthy. The exotic grasses were removed, some by mowing, some by controlled burning, and some grazing sheep. The kangaroo rats preferred the area that had utilized controlled burning to remove the grasses because their population increased far greater than from the other methods. The success can be seen clearly by observing the habitat and the data. Without Ms. Motheral’s work, these local species may have never been saved in time.

The most pressing ecological impact on plant life is urbanization and increased population. This is the root cause for many other issues to arise. Urbanization leads to an increase in invasive species which leads to increased wildfires that don’t occur naturally. Although wildfires are necessary to the chaparral biome, if they occur too frequently, the ecosystem cannot replenish in time for the next. Although urbanization is a difficult obstacle to overcome, action can be taken through volunteer work removing invasive species and planting native plants. Also, joining garden clubs and attending local seminars raises awareness on a personal level which can then be shared with family and friends.

The true value of plants is unclear to the majority of people. Aesthetically, a world without plants would be bleak and boring. However, on a more significant level, they are overwhelmingly vital to the environment. Plants filter out pollutants from entering the ocean and groundwater supply, prevent wildfires, and serve as a food source for almost everything on earth. These organisms are invaluable to the world from every standpoint and their degradation must be averted before it’s too late.Also, plants are totally exciting!

Wesley, Conservation Team
Fall Session 2014