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Everything Ends in Necropsy

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!

What happens to Zoo animals when they pass away? How can we determine if an animal died of natural causes or had a contagious disease? Well, have no fear because the anatomic pathologists at the San Diego Zoo are prepared to investigate!

InternQuest travelled to the Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine at the San Diego Zoo. The Jennings Center has 5 different departments, all important to maintaining the health and wellbeing of collection animals, and we met two anatomic pathologists. Pathology is a special branch of veterinary medicine that focuses on diseases. Pathologists look at tissue samples from animals to determine what sorts of things may have infected the animal and determine if they are a threat to other animals in the collection.

InternQuest travelled to the Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine at the San Diego Zoo. The Jennings Center has 5 different departments, all important to maintaining the health and wellbeing of collection animals, and we met two anatomic pathologists. Pathology is a special branch of veterinary medicine that focuses on diseases. Pathologists look at tissue samples from animals to determine what sorts of things may have infected the animal and determine if they are a threat to other animals in the collection.

We met Dr. Jennifer Bernard (left), an Anatomic Pathology Fellow, and Dr. Sabrina McGraw (right), an Anatomic Pathology Resident. Dr. Bernard recently took a test, similar to the test she took to become a veterinarian, and is officially a pathologist! Dr. McGraw only has one more year to go before she, too, can take the test.

We met Dr. Jennifer Bernard (left), an Anatomic Pathology Fellow, and Dr. Sabrina McGraw (right), an Anatomic Pathology Resident. Dr. Bernard recently took a test, similar to the test she took to become a veterinarian, and is officially a pathologist! Dr. McGraw only has one more year to go before she, too, can take the test.

Dr. Bernard explained that pathology has two sides: clinical and anatomic. She explained that clinical pathologists, like her, are focused more on living animals and work to treat diseases before they can progress. Anatomic pathologists work with animals that have already died, trying to determine what killed the animal and how it might affect other animals in the collection.

Dr. Bernard explained that pathology has two sides: clinical and anatomic. She explained that clinical pathologists, like her, are focused more on living animals and work to treat diseases before they can progress. Anatomic pathologists work with animals that have already died, trying to determine what killed the animal and how it might affect other animals in the collection.

Dr. McGraw presented us with a case to test our pathology skills. The case of the “Coughing Condor” involved a bird that was being treated successfully for lead poisoning but still died, puzzling its keepers. She put a slide containing a sample of the condor’s tissue under the microscope for us to look at. It turns out, the lead poisoning had weakened the immune system of the bird, making it susceptible to infection.

Dr. McGraw presented us with a case to test our pathology skills. The case of the “Coughing Condor” involved a bird that was being treated successfully for lead poisoning but still died, puzzling its keepers. She put a slide containing a sample of the condor’s tissue under the microscope for us to look at. It turns out, the lead poisoning had weakened the immune system of the bird, making it susceptible to infection.

Each slide contains a tissue sample from a different animal. The samples are stained with different dyes to make certain features, such as parasites or fungi, stand out against the animal’s tissues. Once stained, the pathologists can more easily examine the tissue and determine what might have killed an animal.

Each slide contains a tissue sample from a different animal. The samples are stained with different dyes to make certain features, such as parasites or fungi, stand out against the animal’s tissues. Once stained, the pathologists can more easily examine the tissue and determine what might have killed an animal.

Dr. McGraw showed us a tissue sample from the “Coughing Condor” case. The teal is the tissue of the condor’s air sac and the pink is a mold called aspergillum. The mold infects a bird when their immune system is weak. This condor already had lead poisoning, so the aspergillum was able to infect the bird, leading to its death.

Dr. McGraw showed us a tissue sample from the “Coughing Condor” case. The teal is the tissue of the condor’s air sac and the pink is a mold called aspergillum. The mold infects a bird when their immune system is weak. This condor already had lead poisoning, so the aspergillum was able to infect the bird, leading to its death.

The skeleton of a small hoof stock was on display, but there was something distinctly different about it. This animal had an extra leg growing out of its pelvis! Dr. Bernard pointed out the different parts of the extra leg and explained that the leg would never have functioned because the muscles wouldn’t have attached to it properly.

The skeleton of a small hoof stock was on display, but there was something distinctly different about it. This animal had an extra leg growing out of its pelvis! Dr. McGraw pointed out the different parts of the extra leg and explained that the leg would never have functioned because the muscles wouldn’t have attached to it properly.

We got a special look inside the necropsy lab. Here, animals are dissected in order to determine cause of death in a way somewhat similar to a human autopsy on CSI. The lab is kept very sterile, as technicians have no way of knowing what sort of diseases an animal might be carrying. Dr. McGraw explained that the lab is cleaner and safer than a human hospital. Necropsies at the Zoo are important for ensuring the health of all animals in the collection.

We got a special look inside the necropsy lab. Here, animals are dissected in order to determine cause of death in a way somewhat similar to a human autopsy on CSI. The lab is kept very sterile, as technicians have no way of knowing what sort of diseases an animal might be carrying. Necropsies at the Zoo are important for ensuring the health of all animals in the collection.

When larger animals are brought in from the Zoo or Safari Park, a special lift allows for easy transport. The lift can support large animals, up to the size of a rhino! The lift extends all the way to the back of the necropsy lab so that the technicians can place the animal wherever they will be conducting the necropsy.

When larger animals are brought in from the Zoo or Safari Park, a special lift allows for easy transport. The lift can support large animals, up to the size of a rhino! The lift extends all the way to the back of the necropsy lab so that the technicians can place the animal wherever they will be conducting the necropsy.

Before leaving the lab it is important to sanitize any part of your body that came into contact with any part of the lab. Due to the strict protocols of the lab, we were instructed not to lean on any tables or touch anything in the lab. Even though the floors had been washed and disinfected for our visit, we also had to rinse the bottoms of our shoes in a footbath to ensure we didn’t leave with any contaminants on our feet.

Before leaving the lab it is important to sanitize any part of your body that came into contact with any part of the lab. Due to the strict protocols of the lab, we were instructed not to lean on any tables or touch anything in the lab. Even though the floors had been washed and disinfected for our visit, we also had to rinse the bottoms of our shoes in a footbath to ensure we didn’t leave with any contaminants on our feet.

A few doors down from the necropsy lab is the histology lab. Here, tissue samples from animals are made into slides that can later be studied and tested. The process is a bit complex, but the technicians and pathologists have it down to a science.

A few doors down from the necropsy lab is the histology lab. Here, tissue samples from animals are made into slides that can later be studied and tested. The process is a bit complex, but the technicians and pathologists have it down to a science.

While she showed us the histology lab, Dr. McGraw passed around the skull of a rodent from southern South America known as the plains viscacha. This particular plains viscacha suffered from an infection of the bone marrow known as osteomyelitis. Preservation of tissues and bones allows pathologists to study the different diseases that affected an animal long after it has died. This helps the pathologists learn more about the disease and how to detect it in other animals in the collection.

While she showed us the histology lab, Dr. McGraw passed around the skull of a rodent from southern South America known as the plains viscacha. This particular plains viscacha suffered from an infection of the bone marrow known as osteomyelitis. Preservation of tissues and bones allows pathologists to study the different diseases that affected an animal long after it has died. This helps the pathologists learn more about the disease and how to detect it in other animals in the collection.

The histology processing center is essential to turning a tissue sample into a slide. A tissue sample is put in the processing center to extract all the water from it. Once the water is extracted, it is coated with wax. The wax not only makes the sample stronger and easier to handle but also preserves the tissue. Pathologists make slides so that they can take a closer look at what affected an animal and help protect other animals in the collection.

The histology processing center is essential to turning a tissue sample into a slide. A tissue sample is put in the processing center to extract all the water from it. Once the water is extracted, it is coated with wax. The wax not only makes the sample stronger and easier to handle but also preserves the tissue. Pathologists make slides so that they can take a closer look at what affected an animal and help protect other animals in the collection.

Once a sample has swapped its water for wax it goes to the microtone. Here, the tissue is precision cut and placed on a slide. The microtone can cut a slice as thin as a few cells thick! The thinner the slice the better, as it then becomes easier to look at individual cells and determine what may have been wrong with the animal.

Once a sample has swapped its water for wax it goes to the microtone. Here, the tissue is precision cut and placed on a slide. The microtone can cut a slice as thin as a few cells thick! The thinner the slice the better, as it then becomes easier to look at individual cells and determine what may have been wrong with the animal.

The final step to making a slide is adding stains to it. Each stain is formulated to color a different tissue, fungi, virus, or other components that can infect animal cells. The staining process is automatic and there is a robotic arm that will add stains to the slides. Once the sample has been stained, pathologists have an easier time determining the cause of death for an animal. This is an important part of zoo veterinary medicine because pathologists can more confidently determine what affected and killed an animal, potentially saving other animals in the collection.

Libby, Photography Team
Week Six, Winter Session 2014

 

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Surprising Safari Adventure

Zoo Intern Quest 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 then blog about their experience online.  Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

Interns and I got to experience a day in the life of a mammal keeper at the Safari Park. We were expecting a ride in the keeper’s truck, but what we got was so much more…

Torrey Pillsbury (passenger’s side) and Jennifer Minichino (driver’s side) are hardworking Senior Mammal Keepers at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. They get up bright and early every morning to begin their rounds, feeding and checking on their animals. By caring for the mammals at the Safari Park, Ms. Pillsbury and Ms. Minichino are helping wildlife conservation efforts worldwide by contributing to breeding programs for endangered species. We had the privilege of riding in their four-wheel drive beauty for the day.

Torrey Pillsbury (passenger’s side) and Jennifer Minichino (driver’s side) are hardworking Senior Mammal Keepers at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. They get up bright and early every morning to begin their rounds, feeding and checking on their animals. By caring for the mammals at the Safari Park, Ms. Pillsbury and Ms. Minichino are helping wildlife conservation efforts worldwide by contributing to breeding programs for endangered species. We had the privilege of riding in their four-wheel drive beauty for the day.

Ms. Pillbury is displaying the keeper book that is used in all areas of the Safari Park to keep track of the animals, record any animal observations, and/or important information concerning their exhibit. If an animal looks injured or pregnant, it is noted here. Anything a keeper observes during their shift that they deem important is written down in the handy dandy notebook. Without it, keepers would have a difficult time communicating with each other between shifts about what the animals need to stay healthy and happy.

Ms. Pillbury is displaying the keeper book that is used in all areas of the Safari Park to keep track of the animals, record any animal observations, and/or important information concerning their exhibit. If an animal looks injured or pregnant, it is noted here. Anything a keeper observes during their shift that they deem important is written down in the handy dandy notebook. Without it, keepers would have a difficult time communicating with each other between shifts about what the animals need to stay healthy and happy.

The essential tools of a keeper: a rake, a shovel, a truck, and some food. The green branches on the left are acacia branches and the hay is excelsior hay, which many of the hoof stock at the Safari Park consume by the pound. Seriously though, scooping poop is a very important part of the job, so making sure you have a quality rake and shovel in essential.

The essential tools of a keeper: a rake, a shovel, a truck, and some food. The green branches on the left are acacia branches and the hay is excelsior hay, which many of the hoof stock at the Safari Park consume by the pound. Seriously though, scooping poop is a very important part of the job, so making sure you have a quality rake and shovel in essential.

(From left to right) Interns Samantha, Emily, Libby, and Tori are peeling acacia leaves off of their branches to feed to some animals unbeknownst to us. As we soon discovered, removing leaves from a tree is much easier if you are a giraffe. The sweet, sappy smell of the leaves wafted through the air of the Safari Park as we traveled towards our destination, the open fields.

(From left to right) Interns Samantha, Emily, Libby, and Tori are peeling acacia leaves off of their branches to feed to some animals unbeknownst to us. As we soon discovered, removing leaves from a tree is much easier if you are a giraffe. The sweet, sappy smell of the leaves wafted through the air of the Safari Park as we traveled towards our destination, the open fields.

While driving through the Asian Plains Exhibit, we encountered a prancing Indian blackbuck. His ears are turned downward because at the moment, another male was attempting to encroach upon his herd, and that, of course, just wouldn’t do. Although this animal is relatively miniature and cute, the acacia leaves were not for them. So who were the leaves for?

While driving through the Asian Plains Exhibit, we encountered a prancing Indian blackbuck. His ears are turned downward because at the moment, another male was attempting to encroach upon his herd, and that, of course, just wouldn’t do. Although this animal is relatively miniature and cute, the acacia leaves were not for them. So who were the leaves for?

This curious little orange east African Sitatunga also came over to check out our vehicle. The red tag in its ear helps the keepers identify who is who in the exhibit. A certain tag in combination with the ear notch can relay the number identification of the animal, the sex, or which family it belongs to. Since keepers often cannot get close enough to the animal to read a nametag, this system is very effective, especially at a distance.

This curious little orange east African Sitatunga also came over to check out our vehicle. The red tag in its ear helps the keepers identify who is who in the exhibit. A certain tag in combination with the ear notch can relay the number identification of the animal, the sex, or which family it belongs to. Since keepers often cannot get close enough to the animal to read a nametag, this system is very effective, especially at a distance.

A small group of deer seemed to take an interest in our truck. Maybe they know that it carries food?  These fluffy deer are called Indian Barasinghas, they are endangered in the wild, but the population at the Safari Park appears to be doing just fine. These deer are both healthy and happy!

A small group of deer seemed to take an interest in our truck. Maybe they know that it carries food? These fluffy deer are called Indian Barasinghas, they are endangered in the wild, but the population at the Safari Park appears to be doing just fine. These deer are both healthy and happy!

This Cape buffalo, whose relatives live in Africa, was just too cute to simply pass by, I mean, look at those big blue eyes! Since we had branches left over from our leaf stripping exercise, we gave these guys a snack. After all, they do need to eat several pounds of food a day.

This Cape buffalo, whose relatives live in Africa, was just too cute to simply pass by, I mean, look at those big blue eyes! Since we had branches left over from our leaf stripping exercise, we gave these guys a snack. After all, they do need to eat several pounds of food a day.

Here, we met Bhopu (pronounced BOH-POO). He is a greater one-horned rhino from India. He has great genes and is a fabulous candidate for breeding. When we fed Bhopu apples, he used his prehensile upper lip to (which acts like a finger) to grab the apples out of our hands. This resulted in some laughing and a large amount of stinky rhino slobber.

Here, we met Bhopu (pronounced BOH-POO). He is a greater one-horned rhino from India. He has great genes and is a fabulous candidate for breeding. When we fed Bhopu apples, he used his prehensile upper lip to (which acts like a finger) to grab the apples out of our hands. This resulted in some laughing and a large amount of stinky rhino slobber.

This beautiful greater one-horned rhino also coveted our apples and we were happy to oblige. However, tossing apples into a rhino’s mouth is not as easy as it looks, there were a couple missed shots that other animals cleaned up. She opened her mouth so wide we could see the molars in the back of her mouth, which are used for grinding plant material.

This beautiful greater one-horned rhino also coveted our apples and we were happy to oblige. However, tossing apples into a rhino’s mouth is not as easy as it looks, there were a couple missed shots that other animals cleaned up. She opened her mouth so wide we could see the molars in the back of her mouth, which are used for grinding plant material.

 

The giraffes see us coming! They are ready to chow down on some acacia leaves. From personal experience I can tell you that giraffes run and walk surprisingly fast for their size and height. Their necks are craned forward trying to get to the food as fast as they can! So that’s who the leaves were for…

The giraffes see us coming! They are ready to chow down on some acacia leaves. From personal experience I can tell you that giraffes run and walk surprisingly fast for their size and height. Their necks are craned forward trying to get to the food as fast as they can! So that’s who the leaves were for…

This is a Uganda giraffe. Check out that long tongue! Each inch of a giraffes tongue corresponds to one foot in neck length. Giraffes use their tongue to strip leaves off of tree branches. Their saliva is very thick and mucousy because acacia trees in Africa have long, sharp, thorns, and if a giraffe swallows a thorn, its saliva protects its esophagus and throat from being damaged. Needless to say, I discovered that giraffe spit is very thick.

This is a Uganda giraffe. Check out that long tongue! Each inch of a giraffes tongue corresponds to one foot in neck length. Giraffes use their tongue to strip leaves off of tree branches. Their saliva is very thick and mucousy because acacia trees in Africa have long, sharp, thorns, and if a giraffe swallows a thorn, its saliva protects its esophagus and throat from being damaged. Needless to say, I discovered that giraffe spit is very thick.

Sarah, our program supervisor, tries to hide the box of goodies unsuccessfully and the giraffes grab some easy leaves. Eventually, we were able to get the box out of their long-necked reach.

Sarah, our program supervisor, tries to hide the box of goodies unsuccessfully and the giraffes grab some easy leaves. Eventually, we were able to get the box out of their long-necked reach.

As I fed the giraffe a fresh green leaf, I could feel it’s breath of my hand and it didn’t matter that it was rather stinky because feeding a giraffe is one of the most amazing things I have ever done. Being this close to such a unique and exotic animal was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

As I fed the giraffe a fresh green leaf, I could feel it’s breath of my hand and it didn’t matter that it was rather stinky because feeding a giraffe is one of the most amazing things I have ever done. Being this close to such a unique and exotic animal was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

On the way out of the plains, Ms. Pillsbury told us stories of her past keeper days and how she went from riding horses to riding elephants all when she was only nineteen years old. Of course, no one at the San Diego Zoo or Safari Park rides any of the animals now, for the safety of the keepers and the animals. We ended our amazing day by thanking the keepers for this amazing opportunity and left with an even stronger sense of admiration for the passion Zoo Keepers exhibit on and off the job.

On the way out of the plains, Ms. Pillsbury told us stories of her past keeper days and how she went from riding horses to riding elephants all when she was only nineteen years old. Of course, no one at the San Diego Zoo or Safari Park rides any of the animals now, for the safety of the keepers and the animals. We ended our amazing day by thanking the keepers for this amazing opportunity and left with an even stronger sense of admiration for the passion Zoo Keepers exhibit on and off the job.

Kalee, Photography Team,
Week Six, Winter Session 2014

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Parenting gone Wild

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!

tori_week6_picBeing a parent is hard work. It’s like having multiple jobs in one. You have the responsibilities of a chauffeur, nurse, and chef all at the same time. I can only assume that being a parent can be challenging, but it can also be very rewarding to see your child grow up and achieve special milestones. Zoo keepers are similar in that they watch over animals and make sure all of their needs are met. They have to feed, clean up after, and love the animals they take care of just like parents care for their children.

Interns met with Torrey Pillsbury, Senior Mammal Keeper, and Jennifer Minichino, Senior Mammal Keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. We were given the opportunity to see what they do on a regular basis, including hand-feeding giraffes and rhinos! After spending a couple hours with them, I realized that the tasks they do resemble the ones that parents do. It is their job to provide food for the animals, make sure they have water, keep their exhibits clean, and make sure the animals are safe. First thing in the morning, Ms. Pillsbury loads her keeper truck with hay, alfalfa, about ten bags of pellets, and acacia leaves to feed the animals in her area. She also makes sure the exhibits are clean and that nothing is broken or out of place. To make sure that each animal is healthy, the keepers need to watch for behavioral changes such as an animal not eating. If an animal is acting different it could mean that he or she is sick. Any behavioral changes that a keeper notices are recorded in a notebook so that all keepers can watching over that animal are in the loop.

Parents have to make sure their children are safe at all times by constantly keeping an eye on them. Keepers also have to keep an eye on the animals by counting them each day to make sure that one hasn’t escaped or to see if a baby was born. You must be wondering how a keeper knows which animal is which when most of them look exactly the same. That is the purpose of the ear tagging and notching system. Each color tag and ear each notch means a specific number. Right after a baby is born, a keeper puts a tag in the bay’s ear, which is a similar process to getting your ears pierced. A keeper then clips specific parts of the baby’s ear to correspond with its number. This way the keepers will know exactly which animal is which in the wide-open exhibits.

Keepers also can develop special relationships with the animals. Ms. Pillsbury helped to hand raise a gorilla named Jamani because her mother was unable to properly care for her. Being hand-raised is when a human assist with raising an otherwise wild animal. When Jamani got older and was transferred to the North Carolina Zoo, of course Ms. Pillsbury was sad to see her go, but she knew she was going to a good zoo that would look after her. Now, Jamani has her own baby and is taking good care of her, which can be sometimes difficult for hand-raised animals. Sometimes hand-raised animals don’t know how to be a mother because they weren’t around their biological mother. Ms. Pillsbury was very happy and proud to see Jamani achieve this goal of becoming a mother.

Being a keeper isn’t always easy. They have to feed the animals, clean their exhibits, and make sure that they are safe. However, with these challenges come great rewards such as watching animals grown up, and sometimes being within touching distance of wild animals.  Parents and keepers are alike in that they have others that depend on them for their care and attention. In any career you will face challenges, but the rewards make it all worthwhile.

Tori, Real World Team
Week Six, Winter Session 2014

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Path to Pathology

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!

libby_week6_picWhen an animal at the Zoo or Safari Park is sick, a veterinarian can treat it. But, what if they don’t know what is making the animal sick? What if it dies before they can determine the disease that infected it? This is where the pathologists step in to help.

Now, you’re probably thinking what is a pathologist? Well, pathology is a special branch of veterinary medicine that is focused on diseases. It has two different subsets: clinical and anatomic. Clinical pathologists work with living animals. They determine what is making an animal sick through tissue and blood samples. Anatomic pathologists work with dead animals and use tissue samples to determine what killed an animal. Think of it like this: anatomic pathologists are concerned with population health while clinical pathologists are focused on individual health.

Dr. Jennifer Bernard, an Anatomic Pathology Fellow, explained that her job as a zoo pathologist consists of sitting at her microscope looking at the cells of animals that go through necropsy, a lab where technicians dissect the animals in a way that is somewhat similar to a human autopsy. All animals that die at the Zoo or Safari Park are sent to necropsy so that the technicians can take samples from it and determine cause of death. Dr. Bernard also explained that Zoo pathologists, working with nutritionists, animal care staff, and clinical veterinarians at the Zoo, contribute to public health. Zoo pathology is a very important field. For example, in 2006, there was an outbreak of the West Nile virus in New York, no doctors could diagnosis what it was. Who eventually made the diagnosis? Why, the veterinary pathologists at the local zoo! So, these professionals aren’t only helping the animals at the zoo, they’re helping people, too.

Dr. Bernard has always had an interest in zoos and exotic animals. Her interest in pathology began when she was working on a jaguar project in Brazil. She was helping catch the big cats and put radio collars on them so scientists could track their movements. Dr. Bernard also had the opportunity to work on research in a lab at Cornell University. While in school, she even spent a summer in South Africa working with cheetahs. When we met Dr. Bernard, she explained that earlier in the week she had taken her final test to become a veterinary pathologist, like the bar exam a lawyer takes in order to practice, and passed! Now, she has completed all her schooling and passed all the tests she needs as an anatomic pathologist! She said it was a long road, but it was well worth the effort because she is finally able to help the zoo animals she has been fascinated with since she was young.

Dr. Sabrina McGraw, is an Anatomic Pathology Resident. She works with Dr. Bernard and is only a year away from becoming a pathologist! Like Dr. Bernard, she works in necropsy and spends most of her time at her microscope looking at cells. Dr. McGraw grew up loving horses and aspiring to become veterinarian. She went to the University of Florida where she majored in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation and minored in Zoology and Chemistry. While in school, she had the opportunity to work on many projects, including a project involving black bears. The biggest danger to black bears is cars. When the bears cross the street in search of food or shelter they may wander in front of cars. Dr. McGraw worked with other scientists to track the movements of the bears and determine popular crossing areas. Once they found the crossing areas they were able to help place corridors under the road so the bears could cross the street without coming in contact with cars. Working on this project sparked Dr. McGraw’s interest in pathology. She enjoyed being able to help not only individual bears but the black bear population as a whole.

Dr. McGraw found population health fulfilling and wanted to work in pathology, but she still wasn’t quite sure. So, she went to work for a crime lab. In the lab they tested samples from racing dogs and horses to look for drugs, ensuring that no animal had an unfair advantage or was harmed. When that job was over, she decided to train as an EMT. She quickly discovered that it wasn’t for her and she left to work on different projects. She worked on a project trapping shore birds and testing them for avian influenza. Another project that she was involved in focused on white-tailed deer and different viruses that affect them. Dr. McGraw decided to go back to school to become a pathologist. She went to the University of California at Davis for three years and is now in her residency. Soon, she will take her test like Dr. Bernard and become a pathologist.

The road to becoming a pathologist is long and can be difficult but Dr. McGraw and Dr. Bernard have braved the difficult path and come out triumphant! Dr. Bernard (and soon Dr. McGraw) has joined the selective world of zoo pathology. There are only approximately 25 zoo pathologists total in the United States, and the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park are lucky enough to have 5 of the 25 on their payroll.

Pathologists at the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park are essential to maintaining the health of collection animals. By looking at samples from animals that died on site, they can determine if the other animals are in danger of infection. Without Dr. Bernard and Dr. McGraw, a disease that entered the Zoo could be detected too late. Though the path to pathology is long and difficult it is well worth the rewards.

Libby, Career Team
Week Six, Winter Session 2014

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Babies!

Zoo Intern Quest 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 then blog about their experience online.  Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

sabrina_week6_picHave you been to the Safari Park’s nursery lately? Right now, they have two beautiful lion cubs busily eating, playing, and sleeping—sleeping about 20 hours a day! But most baby animals at the Safari Park are raised by their mothers, including the adorable baby antelopes, deer, giraffes, and other hoofstock (hoofed animals) in the African and Asian Plains exhibit. InternQuest met “behind the scenes” with two keepers who work with these cuties Senior Mammal Keepers Torrey Pillsbury and Jenifer Minichino.

It’s not all fun and games working with baby hoofstock. The exhibits have hundreds of animals of many different species, so just keeping track of new babies is tricky. Each exhibit has a “red book,” which looks like a journal where the keepers record details of the day like whether an animal seems sick or a new baby has arrived. The keepers also keep a management log, where each animal, its species, and its number is recorded. But how do the keepers tell which animal is which? Well, when each animal is born, it is given a colored tag and numbered specific notches in one of its ears (kind of like a human ear piercing!). The color of the tag and the placement of the notches represent a number code. Keepers have to be really good at reading the notches because the animals in the larger exhibits are free to run around wherever they like, so the keepers often only get a fleeting glimpse.

The animals will get really close at feeding time, though! We were able to feed acacia leaves to the giraffes and they clearly loved it. We held out handfuls of the leaves for them to eat and I can only imagine that it was like being spoon-fed your favorite food. I never realized how big giraffes are until I saw them up close! Their tongues are really long, almost purple, and prehensile (which means they can grab things, similar to a monkey’s tail or an elephant’s trunk). When their marvelous tongues and fuzzy mouths had eaten all the acacia leaves, we reluctantly left. As we headed away, I even spotted a baby giraffe! Maybe you’ll spy him, too, if you take a tour around the African Plains exhibit.

On the way back from the African Plains, Ms. Pillsbury told us all about the Przewalski’s wild horses, one of her favorite animals, in the Asian Plains exhibit. They’re very cool-looking horses, with golden and white bodies and short, dark, and spiky manes. North American mustangs, descended from domesticated horses, just don’t compare—the Przewalski’s horse is the only subspecies that has never been domesticated. There are only a few hundred left in the world, but the Safari Park’s herd is doing their part for the species. Five out of six of the mares are due to give birth in the next six months, which means more babies in the Park!

But what good are animal babies—even the babies of endangered animals—to the rest of the species? In other words, how do the babies and their keepers contribute to conservation? Well, baby animals in the wild are vulnerable to everything from habitat loss and poaching to ordinary predation (being eaten by predators). What the Safari Park and other animal parks do is provide a secure home for animals to breed safely. Of course, it’s also a good thing for us humans. We get adorable baby animals to look at! When we get a chance to observe cute animals in a place that mimics their natural habitat (like the Safari Park), it shows us just how valuable these creatures are and how important it is to conserve them. I would love to have a world full of babies in their natural surroundings and surrounded by their own species!

Sabrina, Conservation Team
Week Six, Winter Session 2014

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Every Day is a New Day

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!

emily_week6_picIn today’s world, life is a jumble of different professional opportunities. You may not always know where your career will take you, even if you’ve already picked a career. Interns met with Torrey Pillsbury, Senior Mammal Keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and she told us how she had no idea that she’d begun a path to zoo keeping when she took a job as a horse trainer straight out of high school. Today, she loves working with the animals on the African and Asian Plains Exhibits at the Safari Park. Zoo keeping is a fun and rewarding career, but in order to handle the job, you have to be motivated and ready to get your hands dirty.

Ms. Pillsbury has been working at the San Diego Safari Park for almost 30 years. However, she became a keeper by taking a different route than keepers would need to take today. Being a zoo keeper has become very competitive and quite often those interested need a degree and a lot of previous hands-on animal experience. As a teenager, Ms. Pillsbury worked a lot with farm animals, especially horses. At only 17 years old, she was hired on to work in the Safari Park’s horse shows, alongside Joan Embry. Eventually, when the horse show closed, a friend who worked at the Park suggested that if she could ride horses, why not elephants? So she began riding elephants in the show and became the show’s first female elephant trainer.

When Ms. Pillsbury trained elephants, she became more confident working with exotic animals. After working with the elephants in the Safari Park for a few years, she went off to work at the Bronx Zoo for six years to help with their breeding program with their equine animals. She returned to San Diego after her time at the Bronx Zoo and became a mammal keeper at the Safari Park. She cares for many of the animals in the open exhibits including endangered species such as the Przewalski’s horses, the most endangered horse species on earth. At one time Ms. Pillsbury even helped to hand raise a baby gorilla!

Caring for horses and other animals isn’t simply putting them into a pen and feeding them, though. All of the animals in the Safari Park need to have strong fences that they can’t jump over or break. They also need big enough enclosures so that they will feel comfortable moving around. When we were between exhibits, we had to go pass through two different fences that stop animals from going between exhibits.

Ms. Pillsbury also makes sure that all of the exhibits look as natural as possible. Enclosures need to be clean, so, yes, keepers need to be able to shovel a lot of. In fact, keepers like Ms. Pillsbury dedicate two to three days a week to raking manure into trucks. Even so, Ms. Pillsbury says that those days are probably her favorite because she can observe the animals instead of having to keep track of them, deliver food, and record what she sees in a journal for all the keepers and vet technicians to review. There are still exciting points in her job, though. For example, sometimes keepers have to get rhinos into a pen by corralling them with trucks because they need to get them alone, usually for a check up. Ms. Pillsbury feels that her job is so important because she is responsible for a lot of different animals. Other people also rely on her, such as the vet staff who determine, from Ms. Pillsbury’s observations, if they need to bring an animal to the Harter Hospital located just next to the Safari Park.

Ms. Pillsbury learned a lot of what she knows about being a keeper on the job. For her current position, the most difficult part of the job, at first, was recognizing all the different species and individuals, because there are a lot of animals she cares for. Personally, I was surprised it wasn’t rounding up rhinos into a corral, but everyone has their opinions. On our trip, we saw Thompson’s gazelles, rhinos, buffalo, too many kinds of deer to count, Przewalksi’s horses, and by far the most memorable was the giraffes who don’t know the meaning of personal space. They stuck their heads in the truck while we were feeding them.

Although being a keeper sounds time-consuming, it’s completely worth it. While we were in the exhibit for just two hours, I saw why Ms. Pillsbury enjoys her job so much—there’s so many animals to work with. She told us she doesn’t mind leaving for work at 4:30 in the morning at all because she loves her job so much. She gets to work with animals from the other side of the globe, some of which are so endangered that they aren’t even found in the wild! Her favorite part of the job is being able to come to work every day and know that everything is going to be different from yesterday.

Emily, Careers Team
Week Six, Winter Session 2014

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The Puzzles of Pathology

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!

eric_week6_picToday, we live in a society where diseases and viruses have plagued every aspect and area of our lives. Whether we’re at home, school or even work, the fear of catching a flu or illness is always a possibly that concerns and weakens us at unexpected moments. And at instants like this, we often have that one person that protects and recuperates us as we struggle to get better and recover. Whether it is our mother, a doctor, or even a friend, these people act as problem solvers that provide the ideal remedy to truly help us towards recovery.

Similar to humans, animals rely on a special individual to provide them the care and expertise they need to combat any harmful disease or sickness. At the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park, the animals are occasionally stricken by a disease and/or illness that eventually could lead to death. But with an animal’s death, the pathologists within the Wildlife Disease Laboratories provide the necessary tools, research, and knowledge to prevent future occurrences. Acting as problem solvers for animals, the scientists within these laboratories provide individual pieces to a jigsaw puzzle that, when completed, has the potential to save the lives of many other animals.

We got the opportunity to meet two crucial pathologists at the San Diego Zoo, whose work in the field of pathology (the study and diagnosis of diseases) gives living animals a fighting chance against many illnesses. Jenny Bernard, a Pathology Fellow, and Sabrina McGraw, a Pathology Resident, both work in the Wildlife Disease Lab for San Diego Zoo Global, where they provide diagnostic services for every deceased animal that previously resided in the San Diego Zoo and Safari Park. Due to the lack of information and poor understanding about animal diseases, Dr. Bernard and Dr. McGraw do necropsies (examinations on whole, dead animal) to collect necessary information on a particular species. Occasionally, they will also do surgical biopsies (examinations of cells or tissues from a living animal) in order to further research and expand knowledge about developing diseases. All the information collected from the necropsies and surgical biopsies give Dr. Bernard and Dr. McGraw the answers to important questions like what was the cause. Dr. Bernard and Dr. McGraw also collaborate with other employees of the Zoo, such as clinical vets, nutritionists, and animal care staffs to ensure that the highest level of care is being given to all the animals.

With only about 25 Zoo Pathologists in the United States, the San Diego Zoo has five full-time Zoo Pathologists that are vital to both San Diego Zoo Global as well as other zoos across the nation. To fully understand the role of pathologists, you can compare their work to someone trying to solve a difficult jigsaw puzzle. Each piece of the puzzle provides a clue that connects to another piece and when the puzzle is complete, someone can understand the whole picture that is created, or in a pathologist’s view, the disease that caused the death of an animal. Processes such as diagnostic tests, outbreak investigations, tissue and cell examinations, and nutritional analysis are all essential towards collecting the pieces that will solve that ultimate question: what caused the death of this animal? Whether they are doing a necropsy or looking at an animal’s cells and tissue, every procedure will bring Dr. Bernard or Dr. McGraw one step closer to discovering the fatal disease, just as every piece of the jigsaw you connect will bring you closer to discovering the picture it creates.

In one particular animal case study at the San Diego Zoo, a Micronesian kingfisher was found dead, after seeming to be in perfect condition the day before. Since this particular species of kingfisher is now extinct in the wild, one death is a horrible loss, and future deaths must be prevented in order to save the species. The Zoo’s pathologists were called in to investigate the sudden death of this exotic bird in hopes that their knowledge and research would provide the answer to what exactly happened to him. To begin solving this unique jigsaw puzzle, pathologists began by asking for the bird’s medical history and any current health issues from the keepers. Learning that the Micronesian kingfisher had no current or past illnesses narrowed down the list of potential diseases, a significant piece to the puzzle. By taking a small sample of tissue from the liver and observing it under a microscope, pathologists found small purple dots inside the liver and heart that could provide a deeper insight into the mystery. They discovered that these purple dots were actually a virus that was preventing the functioning of major organs, which ultimately led the kingfishers death. By looking at past medical histories, doing necropsies, and examining the tissues and cells, pathologists collect pieces of the puzzle that when connected properly will provide an answer to almost any mystery.

As diseases and illnesses continue to affect animals at the Zoo, it’s up to our pathologists, such as Dr. Bernard and Dr. McGraw to solve these difficult puzzles in order to help prevent future sicknesses from occurring. Although we may lack the education and knowledge about diseases and viruses to make an impact, some of our actions as humans have caused some of the illnesses that Dr. Bernard or Dr. McGraw have investigated. In one particular instance, diagnostics on birds have discovered that pennies and other loose coins can be found within the stomachs of dead birds. It has always been a human perception that throwing coins into fountains is good luck, but this isn’t the case for birds. As pennies or quarters are thrown into fountain, they soon find their ways into bird’s stomach as food, which can lead them to slowly decay, which in turn gradually poisons the animal. Simple actions such as not throwing coins into fountains or any type of trash can help to ensure animals aren’t harmed by human actions. With each person doing their part to stop littering, Zoo pathologists like Dr. Bernard and Dr. McGraw can focus on the more threatening diseases that are plaguing the animal kingdom every day.

Eric, Real World Team
Week Six, Winter Session 2014

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For the love of elephants

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 blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

Interns were given the incredible opportunity to meet with elephant keepers Steve Herbert and Ron Ringer at the San Diego Zoo. We learned all about elephants and how they socialize, eat, and learn. On our tour through the Elephant Care Center, we even got to feed Mary, the matriarch of the herd!

Ron Ringer, Lead Elephant Keeper (left), and Steve Herbert, Senior Elephant Keeper (right), work together in the Elephant Odyssey exhibit at the San Diego Zoo. They make sure the elephants have a clean exhibit, plenty of food, and lots of love!

Ron Ringer, Lead Elephant Keeper (left), and Steve Herbert, Senior Elephant Keeper (right), work together in the Elephant Odyssey exhibit at the San Diego Zoo. They make sure the elephants have a clean exhibit, plenty of food, and lots of love!

Being an elephant keeper isn’t all fun and games. It also involves a lot of hard work. Rakes, shovels, and brooms are only some of the tools the keepers use to keep the elephants comfortable in their immaculately clean exhibits.

Being an elephant keeper isn’t all fun and games. It also involves a lot of hard work. Rakes, shovels, and brooms are only some of the tools the keepers use to keep the elephants comfortable in their immaculately clean exhibits.

Mr. Ringer has been working at the San Diego Zoo for thirty-four years. He has always had a love for animals, and continues to enjoy working with elephants. He also loves sharing his stories about his work with people who visit the Zoo. Here, he is introducing us to one of the elephants, named Mary.

Mr. Ringer has been working at the San Diego Zoo for thirty-four years. He has always had a love for animals, and continues to enjoy working with elephants. He also loves sharing his stories about his work with people who visit the Zoo. Here, he is introducing us to one of the elephants, named Mary.

Mr. Herbert has very close relationships with all of the elephants, especially since he has been working with some of them for over twenty years. Here, he is showing interns how to feed Mary some romaine lettuce. Elephants use their trunk, which is a combination of their nose and upper lip, to grab and chew food.

Mr. Herbert has very close relationships with all of the elephants, especially since he has been working with some of them for over twenty years. Here, he is showing interns how to feed Mary some romaine lettuce. Elephants use their trunk, which is a combination of their nose and upper lip, to grab and chew food.

Elephants use the tip of their trunk to pick up objects and food. The tip has a projection on it that’s kind of like a finger that helps to grab the object. Elephants can also use their trunk to suck up smaller pieces of food, such as pellets, and shoot them into their mouths.

Elephants use the tip of their trunk to pick up objects and food. The tip has a projection on it that’s kind of like a finger that helps to grab the object. Elephants can also use their trunk to suck up smaller pieces of food, such as pellets, and shoot them into their mouths.

Elephants are herbivores, meaning they don’t eat meat. Each day they are fed about one hundred and twenty-five pounds of food per each! They receive a mixture of fruits, vegetables, and most of all hay.

Elephants are herbivores, meaning they don’t eat meat. Each day they are fed about one hundred and twenty-five pounds of food per each! They receive a mixture of fruits, vegetables, and most of all hay.

My fellow intern, Kalee, feeds Mary some lettuce, one of her favorite treats! When training the elephants, the keepers use operant conditioning, which includes the use of positive reinforcement, or rewards in exchange for desired behaviors. However, not all elephants are motivated by the same things. Some are motivated by praise and others are motivated by food.

My fellow intern, Kalee, feeds Mary some lettuce, one of her favorite treats! When training the elephants, the keepers use operant conditioning, which includes the use of positive reinforcement, or rewards in exchange for desired behaviors. However, not all elephants are motivated by the same things. Some are motivated by praise and others are motivated by food.

Mary is the matriarch of the seven-elephant herd at the Zoo. The matriarch is the leader, and all of the elephants look up to her. This mimics natural elephant behavior-in the wild, the leader is always female.

Mary is the matriarch of the seven-elephant herd at the Zoo. The matriarch is the leader, and all of the elephants look up to her. This mimics natural elephant behavior-in the wild, the leader is always female.

The elephants come to the Elephant Care Center regularly for foot treatments. The keepers are constantly doing foot care to make sure their legs and feet are in good shape and free of infection. Without their feet, elephants wouldn’t be able to move to get food or water. Healthy feet means a good, long life for elephants. The keepers soak, file, and scrub each elephants’ feet to keep them healthy and clean.

The elephants come to the Elephant Care Center regularly for foot treatments. The keepers are constantly doing foot care to make sure their legs and feet are in good shape and free of infection. Without their feet, elephants wouldn’t be able to move to get food or water. Healthy feet means a good, long life for elephants. The keepers soak, file, and scrub each elephants’ feet to keep them healthy and clean.

Everything about elephants is big. Therefore the walls to their exhibit have to be large enough and strong enough to keep elephants contained but accessible to the keepers so they may care for them. The keepers only interact with the elephants through protected contact, or contact with a barrier between them. They can still touch, feed, and be close to the elephants but they have to keep the elephants safe.

Everything about elephants is big. Therefore the walls to their exhibit have to be large enough and strong enough to keep elephants contained but accessible to the keepers so they may care for them. The keepers only interact with the elephants through protected contact, or contact with a barrier between them. They can still touch, feed, and be close to the elephants but they have to keep the elephants safe.

Elephants are the largest land mammals on the planet. Even as babies they need huge amounts of food. This is a photo of Devi the elephant in 1978 when she was a calf in the nursery at the San Diego Zoo. In the photo, she is drinking from the same bottle we saw on display at the Elephant Care Center.

Elephants are the largest land mammals on the planet. Even as babies they need huge amounts of food. This is a photo of Devi the elephant in 1978 when she was a calf in the nursery at the San Diego Zoo. In the photo, she is drinking from the same bottle we saw on display at the Elephant Care Center.

Even elephants don’t particularly like taking their medicine. In order to, Tim Davis, Senior Elephant Keeper, mixes the medicine with different foods. This way, the elephant won’t notice they are consuming the medicine.

Even elephants don’t particularly like taking their medicine. In order to, Tim Davis, Senior Elephant Keeper, mixes the medicine with different foods. This way, the elephant won’t notice they are consuming the medicine.

My fellow intern, Samantha attempts to lift the giant elephant tusk that came from Ranchipur, the male elephant at the Zoo. It weighs about thirty pounds! Even today, elephants are poached, or killed, for their ivory.

My fellow intern, Samantha attempts to lift the giant elephant tusk that came from Ranchipur, the male elephant at the Zoo. It weighs about thirty pounds! Even today, elephants are poached, or killed, for their ivory.

Mr. Ringer taught interns about the conservation efforts involving elephants in the wild. They are actually considered pests in some regions because they can eat farmers’ crops. However, they play a very important role in the ecosystem. Elephants are almost like gardeners; they keep the plants from over growing. If they disappeared from their ecosystem, their habitat would definitely change, thus affecting the other animals that share their habitat.

Mr. Ringer taught interns about the conservation efforts involving elephants in the wild. They are actually considered pests in some regions because they can eat farmers’ crops. However, they play a very important role in the ecosystem. Elephants are almost like gardeners; they keep the plants from over growing. If they disappeared from their ecosystem, their habitat would definitely change, thus affecting the other animals that share their habitat.

Mr. Herbert told us several stories from his experience with the elephants. Since they are extremely intelligent animals, they can be good escape artists as well. They are able to solve problems and puzzles. Mr. Hebert us a story about when Ranchipur figured out how to unlock a complicated lock AND maneuver himself around the gates. When the keepers found him, and asked him to return to his exhibit, he went back in without any problems.

Mr. Herbert told us several stories from his experience with the elephants. Since they are extremely intelligent animals, they can be good escape artists as well. They are able to solve problems and puzzles. Mr. Hebert us a story about when Ranchipur figured out how to unlock a complicated lock AND maneuver himself around the gates. When the keepers found him, and asked him to return to his exhibit, he went back in without any problems.

Tori, Photography Team
Week Five, Winter Session 2014

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What’s for Dinner?

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!

samantha_week5_picThe San Diego Zoo has seven elephants, and Lead Keeper Ronald Ringer and Senior Keeper Steve Herbert are in charge of feeding all of their large appetites.

During our adventure at Elephant Odyssey, we got to feed Mary, who is the matriarch, which means that she is the head of the family. Watching her eat was a really fascinating experience. When given a mixture of veggies and compressed hay pellets, she would take them in her trunk, flick it like she was trying to shake them all to the bottom of her trunk, and then shoot it into her mouth. She was definitely interested in eating. Mr. Herbert said that if they gave her an opportunity, she would easily eat a whole pineapple. 

Both Mr. Ringer and Mr. Herbert are experts in the field who’ve each worked as elephant keepers for more than 20 years. Every day is a new experience, because one of the many jobs of an elephant keeper is to make sure that the elephants are always busy. Their high level of intelligence requires keepers to be creative and provide lots of enrichment. One way to keep elephants entertained is to occasionally give them a new and tasty treat. Since elephants spend up to sixteen hours per day eating, changing up the food is a pleasant surprise for these big, gray creatures. Elephants even get seasonal treats. Mr. Herbert told us one of his favorite food stories was about one of the elephants at the Zoo. It was during a hot summer day, the keepers hung up frozen blocks ice with fruit in it (essentially, giant popsicles!) for the elephants to enjoy. Elephants are smart, and they often come up with clever ways to eat their food. On this occasion, an elephant sucked up water into its trunk, lightly drizzled the water onto the frozen fruit blocks, and then drank the trickles from the block without waiting for it to defrost or using its trunk to knock it around. She then snatched the whole fruit pieces right off the top of the block.

Elephants would eat all day if they could, which is why wild elephants can sometimes be considered pests. Wild elephants eat around 165 to 330 pounds of vegetation per day. As elephants habitats have decreased over time and human communities have expanded, elephants and humans have conflicts over resources and use of habitat. Elephants compete with people who utilize space in and around their grazing areas. Because these animals are such good eaters, they have the power to turn jungles into plains; they can also completely wipe out a farm. And a farmer, whose life earnings are dependent on his/her crops, will make sure that elephants stay out of their farms at all costs. This ultimately leads to human-animal conflict, and sometimes the death of wild elephants.

There is a very important aspect to Mr. Ringer and Mr. Herbert’s job, which is conservation education. They are in charge of educating the public about these amazing giants. By aiming to inform the public (our youths, particularly), keepers such as Mr. Ringer and Mr. Herbert help to inspire others to make a difference. Telling others about what elephants eat may not seem like a huge step in elephant conservation, but it is. A listener of Mr. Ringer or Mr. Herbert’s may become hungry for a career in elephant keeping or get involved in elephant conservation projects, such as the International Elephant Foundation. Next time you are at the dinner table, talk to a friend about what elephants eat, because it just might save a life.

Samantha, Real World Team
Week Five, Winter Session 2014

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Big Personalities

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 then blog about their experience online.  Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

sabrina_wwk5_picHave you ever looked at your dog and wondered, “How smart is he, anyway?” I know I have. Over the course of InternQuest, that question has kept popping up. How smart are bonobos? Turtles? Even ants? This week I met a beautiful elephant named Mary, and she showed me that intelligence is not all that matters. There’s personality and relationships—like the ones Lead Keeper Ronald Ringer and Senior Keeper Steve Herbert, have with their animals at Elephant Odyssey.

An elephant keeper’s job is unique, even by San Diego Zoo standards. If you’re an elephant keeper, you usually take care of elephants and nothing else, because elephants need a lot of care, from pedicures (taking care of their feet) to enrichment (stimulating natural behaviors). Of course, since the Zoo has a herd of seven (one male and six females) with good social dynamics, keeping the elephants busy isn’t that difficult. For instance, the rest of the herd usually respects Mary, who is the matriarch (leader) of all the other elephants. But another elephant, Devi, likes to tease Mary, so Mary chases her all around their exhibit. Sounds like how my brothers and I used to run around when we were kids!

According to the keepers, elephants are pretty similar to kids. They’re about as smart as a four or five year old child. By our measure of intelligence, that’s pretty smart for an animal! There are other comparisons as well. Like kids, elephants are always hungry. One time, a keeper placed some hay in what they thought was a secure, out-of-reach area and went to do something else in the exhibit. While the keeper was distracted, Mary snuck over to steal some hay. She couldn’t quite reach, so she quickly formed a plan. There happened to be a rock sitting just behind the hay. Her trunk was powerful enough to blow air to the rock, which then pushed hay within her reach for her to snack on.

In spite of the chasing and food stealing, Mary the matriarch struck me as a pretty mellow and confident individual. Recently, she was introduced to a new elephant named Mila, who was brought in from a zoo in New Zealand. Mila had not seen another elephant for a very long time, so she was shy and a little nervous. She needed to be introduced to the other elephants slowly. The keepers brought in some poop from each of the individual elephants so Mila get used to each of their scents. The next step was to let Mila see the other elephants through a fence. Mila and Mary were then able to meet each other trunk-to-trunk through the fence and then finally, Mary and Mila were able to interact face to face. Elephant introductions need to be slow and keepers must observe and pick up on any positive or negative cues from the elephants. Eventually, Mila will be introduced to the herd and will learn her role within the social group.

Elephants are one of the world’s coolest animals (in my humble opinion), but are they important to conservation as a whole? Well, elephants are “flagship animals”—the kind people come to the Zoo to see, similar to rhinos or giraffes. Every kid knows what an elephant is, and everybody would be devastated if elephants disappeared. Mr. Ringer mentioned an organization, Elephants Without Borders (EBW), that the San Diego Zoo Global has partnered up with. EWB is working to take a census of all African elephants in order to better conserve their populations. If you want to learn more, visit www.elephantswithoutborders.org. Like EWB, if we want to save elephants from extinction, we’ll need to tap into our human intelligence to find ways to save their habitat. And if we save one habitat, we’re one step closer to saving many others.

Sabrina, Real World Team
Week Five, Winter Session 2014