Zoo InternQuest

Zoo InternQuest

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How to Train your Parents

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

This week we were privileged enough to meet Nicki Boyd, San Diego Zoo’s Behavior Husbandry Manager. Ms. Boyd manages the Zoo’s animal training program and has trained everything from tigers to komodo dragons. Many of the techniques she uses on exotic animals can be easily applied to domestic ones and even people. Training is important to do with every animal because it stimulates their learning capabilities and facilitates cooperation in their care.

Ms. Boyd bases her entire training program on the concept of positive reinforcement. It is a training technique that uses rewards to reinforce an animal when it has performed the appropriate behavior. This system of training is found to be so effective that Ms. Boyd even stated how it can be used on kids, parents, or a boyfriend or girlfriend. Regardless of the animal, most rewards with positive reinforcement are food related. Food is innately desired by all animals and therefore is the most universal motivator. Tactile rewards, meaning praise involving touch, can also be used to positively reinforce an action with animals like rhinos, which love to get scratched with a back scratcher. Dogs are one of the best animals to use tactile reinforcement on because of how much they love attention and physical affection. Toys can also be used as reinforcement, particularly for domesticated animals. Granting an animal access to a favorite toy after they have successfully performed a behavior is not only a great reward, but can also signal to some service animals that it is time to work.

Positive reinforcement can be used not only to teach new behaviors but also to help desensitize the animal to things that are initially startling. A big fear that a lot of people with pets have encountered is the horror of the pet carrier. Many animals associate that dreaded object with negative, stressful experiences at the vet, and do their best to avoid it. Positive reinforcement can help to remove those bad associations for an animal by rewarding time spent in the carrier, or relaxed behavior around the carrier. With enough praise and rewards, the animal eventually equates the carrier with multiple good experiences and rare trips to the vet, which helps desensitize their fear. Besides using rewards, just leaving the upsetting object around the animals living area aids in desensitization. The animal will become habituated with the object and therefore not stress out every time it is revealed. Desensitization is extremely helpful for situations that may not come naturally, such as medical procedures, which can now be less stressful and possibly even enjoyable for the animal.

One thing to be cautious of when training any animal is superstitious behavior. Positive reinforcement can sometimes accidentally applaud an unnecessary action that the animal then believes is part of the desired behavior. An example that Ms. Boyd gave us was when she trained some big cats to open their mouths for dental exams. In order to capture the open mouth, Ms. Boyd and her team waited for the cat to roar because that is one of the only times they will naturally perform that behavior. By rewarding the animal for opening its jaws, Ms. Boyd was also reinforcing the accompanied roar. The next step was removing the superstitious roar behavior to isolate the desired action. In Ms. Boyd’s opinion, opening the mouth and keeping it in that position is one of the hardest behaviors to train, but with enough patience and consistency this behavior can be learned. Consistency is huge in husbandry because every single interaction with an animal is shaping them. People are constantly either training or un-training a certain behavior just by being present. It is for that reason that reinforcement must be exact and routine. Despite how consistent the training is, often times the learning process must take place one baby step at a time, a strategy referred to as successive approximations. Rewarding every time the animal improves on the behavior, even slightly, is a gradual, yet effective way to reach perfect execution.

As Ms. Boyd would agree, training is teaching. Training is essential in the welfare of animals in managed care; to not only make their lives easier and less stressful but also as a way to stimulate their intelligence. Through the practice of positive reinforcement, learning is promoted in a way that is rewarding and enjoyable to the animal. Above all else, proper training establishes a strong bond and makes the lives of the animals and the people who care for them happier and healthier.

Lucas, Real World Team
Week Two, Winter Session, 2015

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Polar Bear Won’t Eat His Peas?

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!

Interns had the amazing opportunity to meet with Deborah Lowe, Supervisor for Nutrition Sciences here at the San Diego Zoo. Ms. Lowe showed us around the Forage Warehouse, where she and ten other staff members oversee the delivery, preparation, and distribution of food for each of the 4,000 residents living here at the Zoo. Fresh, restaurant-quality produce is delivered four times a week for the birds, reptiles and mammals on exhibit at the Zoo.

The Forage Warehouse is constantly distributing huge quantities of food- over 160 pounds of fruit a day- and that’s just for the birds! One part of Ms. Lowe’s job is replicating the natural diets of animals that are new to the Zoo. She and the keepers in each department carefully monitor each animal’s eating habits and preferences, ensuring that they are getting the right amount of nutrients, and take note if there is anything that they won’t eat. Managing picky eaters, such as a polar bear who won’t eat yellow squash, can be tricky, but finding the right diet for each individual can make all the difference in their health and wellbeing.

Ms. Lowe discovered her interest in animal science at a young age, while she worked as an intern at the San Diego Zoo in a program much like InternQuest. After high school, she attended University of California, San Diego, where she majored in biology and minored in Physical Education. The kinesiology classes she took for her Physical Education minor has helped her understand the anatomy of the animals she works with, and discuss their diets with the nutritionists on staff at the Zoo Forage Warehouse. After college, Ms. Lowe worked part-time at the Zoo, and when a position at the Forage Warehouse opened up, she jumped at the opportunity. Ms. Lowe is now a supervisor for nutritional services, where she has been for the past 17 years.

A typical day for Ms. Lowe begins at around 6:45 am with supervising the delivery of food to 35 specific drop-off points stationed throughout the Zoo. She checks in with keepers to ensure that the animals are eating enough and are getting the right nutrients. Ms. Lowe also helps to modify special diets for animals at certain stages of life. For example, female birds that are getting ready to nest and lay eggs need more calcium in their diets so that their eggs’ shells are strong. Older apes may have heart problems, so they need lower levels of sodium in their diets. Animals also need enough activity during the day, so Ms. Lowe will help develop special enrichment programs for feeding time. She and the keepers will hide food around an enclosure to encourage foraging or will freeze fruit in blocks of ice for animals as a treat to cool down in hot summer months. One of Ms. Lowe’s favorite parts of working in nutrition is helping design and construct the Zoo’s infamous panda cakes. She and the other Forage employees carve 100-pound blocks of ice into beautiful sculptures, adding fruit juice, bamboo, yams, and carrots to create a masterpiece as a way to celebrate birthdays in Panda Canyon here at the Zoo.

Ms. Lowe loves working here at the San Diego Zoo Forage Warehouse. She enjoys working with the nutritionists and other staff members in order to ensure that each animal is healthy and happy. Someone who is interested in studying animal nutrition should gain as much experience as possible working in the field, and apply for internships pertaining to animal science. Ms. Lowe recommends studying biology or focusing specifically on animal science. Nutrition is vital to an animal’s health and overall wellbeing, and Ms. Lowe at the Zoo Forage Warehouse is one of the leaders in providing this for all the animals at the San Diego Zoo.

Emily, Careers Team
Winter 2015

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Turtles, Frogs, Snakes, 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!

Last Wednesday, interns got the opportunity to step into the reptile world as we met reptile keeper and educator, Peter Gilson, at the San Diego Zoo. Interns visited and fed the Galapagos tortoises and then went to the Klauber-Shaw Reptile House, where Mr. Gilson brought out an annulated tree boa.

On the first day of our adventure, we started off celebrating Brianna’s birthday with cupcakes and brownies. We were all really excited to begin our internship and learn from the Zoo’s experts and meet unique animals that are home to the Zoo. From left to right: Celine, Lucas, Claudia, Brianna, Julianna, Devin, and Emily.

On the first day of our adventure, we started off celebrating Brianna’s birthday with cupcakes and brownies. We were all really excited to begin our internship and learn from the Zoo’s experts and meet unique animals that are home to the Zoo. From left to right: Celine, Lucas, Claudia, Brianna, Julianna, Devin, and Emily.

Our first stop was to meet the Galapagos tortoises, where the average San Diego weather is similar to their natural environment near the equator. However, on cold nights or when their habitat is getting cleaned, they are enclosed in their heated barn. In this room, the tortoises get special treatment, as the heated floors, which range from the 70’s-80’s, help keep the tortoises happy and comfortable.

Our first stop was to meet the Galapagos tortoises, where the average San Diego weather is similar to their natural environment near the equator. However, on cold nights or when their habitat is getting cleaned, they are enclosed in their heated barn. In this room, the tortoises get special treatment, as the heated floors, which range from the 70’s-80’s, help keep the tortoises happy and comfortable.

 

Reptile keeper, Mr. Gilson starts his day at 7 a.m. at the Zoo. Mr. Gilson started working in the reptile department in college. When asked what his favorite part about his job was he said, “Two things I like most are doing keeper talks giving people the opportunity to interact with [the animals.]” Instead of being a full time keeper, Mr. Gilson is also an educator for the Zoo. He is able to interact with both people and animals, where he teaches people about the animals he works with.

Reptile keeper, Mr. Gilson starts his day at 7 a.m. at the Zoo. Mr. Gilson started working in the reptile department in college. When asked what his favorite part about his job was he said, “Two things I like most are doing keeper talks giving people the opportunity to interact with [the animals.]” Instead of being a full time keeper, Mr. Gilson is also an educator for the Zoo. He is able to interact with both people and animals, where he teaches people about the animals he works with.

There are 14 total Galapagos tortoises that live at the Zoo. Males and females are separated to prevent random breeding. The oldest tortoise at the Zoo is Speedy, who is believed to be currently 150 years old. Unfortunately, Speedy wasn’t able to join us, as he suffers from arthritis in colder weather and was separated from the group to ensure he was getting enough to eat during feeding times.

There are 14 total Galapagos tortoises that live at the Zoo. Males and females are separated to prevent random breeding. The oldest tortoise at the Zoo is Speedy, who is believed to be currently 150 years old. Unfortunately, Speedy wasn’t able to join us, as he suffers from arthritis in colder weather and was separated from the group to ensure he was getting enough to eat during feeding times.

 

During our time with the Galapagos tortoises, we got the opportunity to feed them dinner, which consisted of romaine lettuce and kale. At the Zoo, the tortoises also enjoy eating yams, carrots, apples, and watermelon. Galapagos tortoises don’t have a good sense of smell, so they often rely on their eyes to find food. This is why tortoises are attracted to bright colors, and why they were attracted to fellow intern Devin’s bright blue shoe laces.

During our time with the Galapagos tortoises, we got the opportunity to feed them dinner, which consisted of romaine lettuce and kale. At the Zoo, the tortoises also enjoy eating yams, carrots, apples, and watermelon. Galapagos tortoises don’t have a good sense of smell, so they often rely on their eyes to find food. This is why tortoises are attracted to bright colors, and why they were attracted to fellow intern Devin’s bright blue shoe laces.

 

Not only did we feed these guys dinner, but we also had the opportunity to pet them, as they love to be scratched on their necks. We had to be watchful of their whereabouts because they would often sneak up behind us. Galapagos tortoises are well known for their size and can grow up to 6 feet long and are about 4 feet tall. As we can see compared to fellow intern Brianna, they are gigantic!

Not only did we feed these guys dinner, but we also had the opportunity to pet them, as they love to be scratched on their necks. We had to be watchful of their whereabouts because they would often sneak up behind us. Galapagos tortoises are well known for their size and can grow up to 6 feet long and are about 4 feet tall. As we can see compared to fellow intern Brianna, they are gigantic!

 

Next, interns entered the Klauber-Shaw Reptile House, but little did we know we were entering a hot and humid reptile environment, which is about 84 degrees Fahrenheit with a 70% humidity level. The humid, hot environment is the natural habitat that these reptiles need in order to survive and thrive in captivity.

Next, interns entered the Klauber-Shaw Reptile House, but little did we know we were entering a hot and humid reptile environment, which is about 84 degrees Fahrenheit with a 70% humidity level. The humid, hot environment is the natural habitat that these reptiles need in order to survive and thrive in captivity.

 

This annulated tree boa is demonstrating how this species of snakes grips to trees, which is where they spend most of their time. As you can see, the brown coloring helps the snake to camouflage from predators and to conceal its whereabouts from its prey. Even though this snake isn’t venomous, keepers learn to hold snakes and it takes 6 months of training in order to interact with venomous animals.

This annulated tree boa is demonstrating how this species of snakes grips to trees, which is where they spend most of their time. As you can see, the brown coloring helps the snake to camouflage from predators and to conceal its whereabouts from its prey. Even though this snake isn’t venomous, keepers learn to hold snakes and it takes 6 months of training in order to interact with venomous animals.

 

This room is the inside of what we see behind the glass barriers in the reptile room. It houses amphibians and tadpoles, many not seen to the viewers outside. The sensitivity of amphibians’ skin is completely different than reptiles.  Amphibian’s have very thin skin, which means they quickly absorb things in their environment, including harmful chemicals. That is why keepers must be very careful before they touch any amphibian to not transfer any harmful chemicals including lotions, soaps, and sanitizer.

This room is the inside of what we see behind the glass barriers in the reptile room. It houses amphibians and tadpoles, many not seen to the viewers outside. The sensitivity of amphibians’ skin is completely different than reptiles. Amphibian’s have very thin skin, which means they quickly absorb things in their environment, including harmful chemicals. That is why keepers must be very careful before they touch any amphibian to not transfer any harmful chemicals including lotions, soaps, and sanitizer.

 

As we looked around at the amphibians in their enclosures, I was especially interested in the golden poison dart frog, which is native to Northern parts of South America. Their poison is so strong that holding one can make you nauseous, while eating one has enough poison to kill three humans. However, this species of frog at the Zoo is not poisonous. They are only toxic because of their diet in the wild, which consists of ants. Once they eat the ants, their body synthesizes the toxins that cause them to be poisonous.

As we looked around at the amphibians in their enclosures, I was especially interested in the golden poison dart frog, which is native to Northern parts of South America. Their poison is so strong that holding one can make you nauseous, while eating one has enough poison to kill three humans. However, this species of frog at the Zoo is not poisonous. They are only toxic because of their diet in the wild, which consists of ants. Once they eat the ants, their body synthesizes the toxins that cause them to be poisonous.

 

The exhibit for the tadpoles uses an aquatic system that filters the water. What’s special about this system is that it allows the same water to be circulated throughout all the tanks so the same temperature and chemicals will flow through each compartment. When the tadpole is in the last stages of development, it is moved to a gradient environment where there is half land, half water. The structure creates a slope, making it an easier transition for the frog.

The exhibit for the tadpoles uses an aquatic system that filters the water. What’s special about this system is that it allows the same water to be circulated throughout all the tanks so the same temperature and chemicals will flow through each compartment. When the tadpole is in the last stages of development, it is moved to a gradient environment where there is half land, half water. The structure creates a slope, making it an easier transition for the frog.

 

Julianna, Photo Team
Winter Session 2015

 

 

 

 

 

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Insect House

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!

Last Thursday, interns got the chance to see the Entomology department of the Zoo! Our guide for the experience was Ms. Esther Chang, a sweet and smart keeper, who has worked with insects her whole career. Interns visited multiple places in the Zoo that are dedicated entirely to insects, and by the end of the trip we had seen more amazing species than I could count! Though I began the trip rather skeptical of the real benefits of insects, I ended it with a profound sense of their importance and where they all fit in the ecosystem.

Our first stop of the day was the Insect House, located in the Children’s Zoo just beyond the Petting Paddock. The Insect House is relatively new in comparison to the rest of the Zoo, since it’s only seven years old! Although it is a more recent installation, it already boasts an impressive collection of insects and is a vital component in conservation for many fascinating species.

Our first stop of the day was the Insect House, located in the Children’s Zoo just beyond the Petting Paddock. The Insect House is relatively new in comparison to the rest of the Zoo, since it’s only seven years old! Although it is a more recent installation, it already boasts an impressive collection of insects and is a vital component in conservation for many fascinating species.

 Ms. Chang, a senior keeper who has worked at the Zoo for about 8 years, led our visit. Ms. Chang is pictured here with one of the many species of stick insect at the Zoo; this particular specimen is a female. One of the coolest things about stick insects is their amazing form of camouflage. When threatened, females curl their ovipositors over their heads to mimic scorpions, and have even been known to accidentally fling eggs at attackers if startled during hatching season!

Ms. Chang, a senior keeper who has worked at the Zoo for about 8 years, led our visit. Ms. Chang is pictured here with one of the many species of stick insect at the Zoo; this particular specimen is a female. One of the coolest things about stick insects is their amazing form of camouflage. When threatened, females curl their ovipositors over their heads to mimic scorpions, and have even been known to accidentally fling eggs at attackers if startled during hatching season!

 

One of the most fascinating insects Ms. Chang showed us was the leaf-cutter ant, a Central and South American rainforest species renowned for their unique diet. These ants are essentially farmers, in that they grow an edible fungus in their tunnels using bits of chewed-up leaf as fuel! Pictured above is one of the fungus caverns located in the Zoo’s leaf-cutter ant exhibit. The mushroom-colored spongy substance is the fungus, and the little brown specks are the ants carrying new leaves to fertilize.

One of the most fascinating insects Ms. Chang showed us was the leaf-cutter ant, a Central and South American rainforest species renowned for their unique diet. These ants are essentially farmers, in that they grow an edible fungus in their tunnels using bits of chewed-up leaf as fuel! Pictured above is one of the fungus caverns located in the Zoo’s leaf-cutter ant exhibit. The mushroom-colored spongy substance is the fungus, and the little brown specks are the ants carrying new leaves to fertilize.

 

This giant green insect is a jungle nymph! Jungle nymphs are Malaysian leaf-eaters with a distinct method of self-defense. When threatened they snap their thorny legs together in an attempt to impale their attacker, a reaction shared by stick insects and some other bugs.

This giant green insect is a jungle nymph! Jungle nymphs are Malaysian leaf-eaters with a distinct method of self-defense. When threatened they snap their thorny legs together in an attempt to impale their attacker, a reaction shared by stick insects and some other bugs.

 

One of the more colorful insects at the Insect House is the jade-headed buffalo beetle. This insect is a tropical-forest dweller that is attracted to fermenting fruits, and the males have a tiny set of horns on their heads.

One of the more colorful insects at the Insect House is the jade-headed buffalo beetle. This insect is a tropical-forest dweller that is attracted to fermenting fruits, and the males have a tiny set of horns on their heads.

 

Ms. Chang’s favorite animal is the dragon-headed katydid. Despite its fearsome appearance, this South American insect is actually a peaceful gardener that eats leaves, seeds, fruits and tree bark. It literally wouldn’t harm a fly! Ms. Chang’s love for this bug is because of the breakthroughs the Zoo has made in its care. Before the Zoo acquired these insects, little was known about these secretive animals. Through trial and error, the Insect House solved the mystery of why these bugs wouldn’t reproduce in captivity: keepers installed live banana plants in their exhibits and within a few weeks, katydid eggs appeared!

Ms. Chang’s favorite animal is the dragon-headed katydid. Despite its fearsome appearance, this South American insect is actually a peaceful gardener that eats leaves, seeds, fruits and tree bark. It literally wouldn’t harm a fly! Ms. Chang’s love for this bug is because of the breakthroughs the Zoo has made in its care. Before the Zoo acquired these insects, little was known about these secretive animals. Through trial and error, the Insect House solved the mystery of why these bugs wouldn’t reproduce in captivity: keepers installed live banana plants in their exhibits and within a few weeks, katydid eggs appeared!

 

After we had finished with the Insect House, Ms. Chang took us behind-the-scenes to the arachnid room near the duck pond in Children’s Zoo. Before the Insect House, this facility was used as a temporary residence for the Zoo’s then-small insect collection. Now, it is used to house the arachnids- mostly various spiders, but some scorpions too- in the humid environment they require to thrive.

After we had finished with the Insect House, Ms. Chang took us behind-the-scenes to the arachnid room near the duck pond in Children’s Zoo. Before the Insect House, this facility was used as a temporary residence for the Zoo’s then-small insect collection. Now, it is used to house the arachnids- mostly various spiders, but some scorpions too- in the humid environment they require to thrive.

 

The first thing we noticed stepping into the Arachnid Room, besides the spiders, was the humidity! Ms. Chang told us that most of the arachnids were from tropical climates, so it was necessary to keep it humid in order to mimic their natural environment, but that didn’t make it any easier for us…

The first thing we noticed stepping into the Arachnid Room, besides the spiders, was the humidity! Ms. Chang told us that most of the arachnids were from tropical climates, so it was necessary to keep it humid in order to mimic their natural environment, but that didn’t make it any easier for us…

 

This agile spider is a male Brazilian black tarantula, a predatory arachnid that eats crickets and other small insects. The tag is yellow, which shows it is a venomous insect; the tag has the species’ name and individual’s gender indicated on it as well. This specimen’s giant jaws- which look like eyes in this picture- hold two hollow venomous fangs.

This agile spider is a male Brazilian black tarantula, a predatory arachnid that eats crickets and other small insects. The tag is yellow, which shows it is a venomous insect; the tag has the species’ name and individual’s gender indicated on it as well. This specimen’s giant jaws- which look like eyes in this picture- hold two hollow venomous fangs.

 

Ms. Chang brought out a tiny water scorpion to show us! These little insects are actually only distantly related to scorpions, but their tiny pincer-like front legs and aquatic lifestyle earn them their common name. Their broad front legs are used to catch the small invertebrates they eat, and their thin tails are actually used like snorkels for breathing while in the water!

Ms. Chang brought out a tiny water scorpion to show us! These little insects are actually only distantly related to scorpions, but their tiny pincer-like front legs and aquatic lifestyle earn them their common name. Their broad front legs are used to catch the small invertebrates they eat, and their thin tails are actually used like snorkels for breathing while in the water!

 

These African millipedes are one of the biggest species of millipedes and have over 250 legs! The specimen at the bottom right-hand corner is exhibiting one of the ways these insects defend themselves, by curling into a tight ball so only their hard exoskeleton shows. Millipedes are decomposers and are vital to the food chain- like the “garbage collectors” of the world.

These African millipedes are one of the biggest species of millipedes and have over 250 legs! The specimen at the bottom right-hand corner is exhibiting one of the ways these insects defend themselves, by curling into a tight ball so only their hard exoskeleton shows. Millipedes are decomposers and are vital to the food chain- like the “garbage collectors” of the world.

 

This New River red-rump tarantula is a non-venomous spider as indicated by its tag, which is white instead of yellow. This particular spider is a female who, like other tarantula species, possesses a surprising mode of self-defense. Threatened tarantulas protect themselves by flicking their barbed abdomen hairs at their attackers, and as Ms. Chang can attest, even keepers are targeted if the spiders are surprised!

This New River red-rump tarantula is a non-venomous spider as indicated by its tag, which is white instead of yellow. This particular spider is a female who, like other tarantula species, possesses a surprising mode of self-defense. Threatened tarantulas protect themselves by flicking their barbed abdomen hairs at their attackers, and as Ms. Chang can attest, even keepers are targeted if the spiders are surprised!

 

The New Guineau Stick Insect that Ms. Chang holds here is markedly different than the paler stick insect she previously showed us. For one thing, this species has a harder exoskeleton, and its back is dotted with tiny armor-like spikes. The interesting thing about this particular species is that it lives on the ground, unlike most other stick insects that live arboreally in bushes and trees. Like the earlier species, it defends itself by snapping its spiked legs together.

The New Guinea Stick Insect that Ms. Chang holds here is markedly different than the paler stick insect she previously showed us. For one thing, this species has a harder exoskeleton, and its back is dotted with tiny armor-like spikes. The interesting thing about this particular species is that it lives on the ground, unlike most other stick insects that are arboreal living in bushes and trees. Like the earlier species, it defends itself by snapping its spiked legs together.

 

Katie, Photo Team
Week One, Winter Session 2015

 

 

 

 

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Warming Up to the Cold Blooded

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!

For most, meeting someone who was alive during the Civil War would be impossible. However, educator guide Peter Gilson gets such an incredible opportunity almost daily. When he’s not giving tours or presentations, Mr. Gilson is also a reptile keeper, and Speedy the possibly-150-year-old Galapagos tortoise is just one of the many species under his care.

From a very young age, Mr. Gilson was drawn to the herpetological, and was determined to be a reptile keeper since he was only four. Mr. Gilson’s later experiences volunteering at the Natural History Museum and studying abroad are what he attributes to achieving his dream. “Volunteering was probably the best thing I did,” Mr. Gilson recalled during his afternoon meeting with InternQuest. Opportunities like InternQuest, which develop connections, as well as volunteer and internship opportunities which give hands-on experience, are key to getting a job in animal care.

A bachelor’s degree in a biology or ecology related field is also important. Mr. Gilson studied a semester in Costa Rica during his undergraduate studies at Point Loma Nazarene University. While abroad, he learned about reptiles and tropical ecology, giving him an edge when applying for a summer internship with the San Diego Zoo’s education department.

The summer of 2007 was eventful: the final Harry Potter book hit shelves, President Bush signed off on the first minimum wage increase of the millennium, and Mr. Gilson had found his true passion during his internship with the Zoo’s education department. In teaching hordes of enthusiastic summer campers, he discovered how exciting teaching can be in a zoo setting. Mr. Gilson realized he loved sharing his passion through interaction. Today, his main duty as an educator guide is to interact with the public in order to create better understandings of the Zoo, and he has no intention of letting that change. Even when spending time as a reptile keeper, Mr. Gilson’s favorite part of the job is guest interaction. He noted that most keeper jobs involve some degree of speaking with the public, but future keepers with stage fright have no need to fear. Just like Mr. Gilson has been given the opportunity to expand his duties towards his interests, keepers at the San Diego Zoo get the chance to work towards their own strengths and have input into how much guest interaction they want to be involved in.

The tours, presentations, and keeper talks play an important role in the Zoo’s conservation mission. As San Diego Zoo Global leads the fight against extinction, keepers and educator guides like Mr. Gilson get the public involved and excited with the connections they make. His presentations may give a child the chance to touch a lizard that they’ve never seen—or realized they should care for—before, giving its species just one more ally in conservation.

As the sun sets over Reptile Mesa, Peter Gilson may be found ringing a cowbell in the Galapagos tortoise exhibit, calling the Zoo’s oldest inhabitants into their heated barn for some evening yams. One surprising aspect of Mr. Gilson’s work as a keeper is how much training reptiles, especially crocodilians and monitor lizards, can be involved in. Through operant conditioning and positive reinforcement alone, many lizards have learned their own names. Learning at the Zoo isn’t just for the animals: educator guides like Mr. Gilson teach the public conservation messages to help the wild relatives of species they can meet at the Zoo. Giving guests the opportunity to understand and appreciate some of the scalier species—like the Galapagos tortoise, whose exhibit boasts an interaction area for feeding fresh veggies and giving neck scratches—makes the future a little bit brighter for the endangered species the Zoo is working to save.

Brianna, Careers Team
Week One, Winter Session 2015

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From Scary to Necessary

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

This week we met with Esther Chang, Senior Keeper of the San Diego Zoo’s entomology department. Ms. Chang has been working for the Zoo for seven years. The Zoo’s entomology keepers work hard to remove the negative attitude towards insects in order to instill an appreciation for the creatures, and get the public interested in the conservation of threatened species.

When it comes to conservation the hardest obstacle for entomologists to overcome is the general fear and repulsion in regard to insects. For that reason the goal of conservation organizations, like the San Diego Zoo, is to make people realize and understand the pivotal roles these creepy crawlies play in the world. Many people are so put off or uninterested in “bugs” that they are unaware that there are endangered species of insects that need our help.

Insects make up the foundation of practically every ecosystem; in fact only saltwater aquatic environments are not dependent on insects. That is why the Zoo’s entomology department focuses so much on the education and exposure of these important animals to the public. Each animal in the insect house has its role displayed next to its enclosure, stating whether the arthropod is a gardener, predator, pollinator, or decomposer in its natural habitat. By strongly emphasizing how important the animal’s job is in its respective ecosystem, guests can appreciate that every insect is crucial in maintaining the fragile balance of the environment.

Conservation is Ms. Chang’s favorite part about working for the Zoo because she feels it justifies all of the zoological exhibits. Ms. Chang believes that the captivity of wild animals should have a purpose and what better motive than ensuring the survival of endangered species. One of the many conservation projects for Ms. Chang and the department is the Quino checkerspot butterfly (Euphydryas editha quino). Its numbers have declined rapidly mainly due to habitat loss and the detrimental effects of California’s drought. As with many insects, the Quino checkerspot butterfly is extremely dependent on a particular type of plant, the plantago. As a result of the drought, this native genus of plants has gradually declined, dragging the butterfly’s numbers with it. The San Diego Zoo plans to help this insect species by collecting wild adults and letting them lay their eggs in captivity. The Zoo staff, including Ms. Chang, will then protect and raise the larva until they are mature adults, and ready to be released into their native habitat. However, before removing the wild adults, the Zoo was working closely with California Fish and Wildlife to determine the health of the native population and evaluate how many individuals can be removed. Hopefully the current population will be sustainable enough to allow the Zoo to capture an adequate amount of females to achieve their ambitious goal. Last year, the Zoo was successful in rearing 300 individuals but this year they aim to raise and release 800 Quino checkerspot butterflies back into the wild.

When I think about the conservation of insects my mind immediately buzzes to bees. After discussing the status of California’s bees with Ms. Chang, I learned that the problem is not an overall decline in bees but rather the increase of one particular kind of bee. The common European honeybee is not native to the Americas but was brought over by colonists. This introduced species has flourished in its new home, but I had always wondered if they were damaging California’s native population of bees. It turns out that the native bees, such as sweat bees, are believed to be more efficient at pollinating native species of plants than honeybees and are not displaced by the European species. The population of honeybees is so prevalent in the United States because of our agricultural society. Modern agriculture, especially the farming of almonds, depends on honeybees in order to maintain monocultures of plants. Especially in California, where so much of the nation’s food production occurs, honeybees are an absolute necessity for farmers. The European honeybee is so widely cared for and controlled by humans that it is practically a domesticated animal. The threat that comes from bees is not found in this species, but rather from its African relatives. The African honeybee has been able to survive in South America and gradually climb its way into the United States where it has successfully mated with many European relatives. The African bees are more aggressive and hardier than the European bees which enabled them to survive so easily in the American environment. The now Africanized honeybee populations pose a threat because there is a danger they are outplacing native bee populations. They are also harder to control for pollination purposes and spread disease to other bee species. Although there seem to be enough bees to satisfy human’s agricultural need, attention must be paid to this insect in order to maintain our necessary symbiotic relationship.

There are a few easy things that people can do to help preserve native populations of insects. The first and foremost is to restrict the use of pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides. Over doing it with weed killer or ant spray can have serious effects on native populations. Ms. Chang urges everyone just to be mindful of the effect that these chemicals can have on the environment and its array of insects. Even something as simple as buying organic produce can help the livelihood of insects. The healthier the agriculture and the healthier the soil, the healthier the insect populations will be that depend on the two. Insects and plants display some of the most significant coevolution in the world, meaning that the two have adapted over thousands of years in direct response to each other. As a result many plants and insects are heavily dependent on each other. By paying attention to the conservation of native plants, the survival of the insects that are so connected to the flora will be conserved as well.

This week’s entomology presentation opened my eyes to how important insects are to our planet. Even the grossest cockroaches and the most annoying mosquitos have vital roles to play in their ecosystems, as decomposers and food sources for other animals. Ms. Chang did a wonderful job breaking down the stereotypes of insects, and explaining the ways that ordinary people can aid in the conservation of this essential group of animals. I wish her the best of luck in the upcoming conservation efforts and hope to one day see the Quino checkerspot butterfly prevalent in San Diego!

Lucas, Conservation Team
Week One, Winter Session 2015

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Scaly Friends

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!

People can go their whole lives fearing reptiles and amphibians believing that they are just Godzillas in an enclosure. They have scales or slimy skin where most people would rather see fur, and aren’t exactly what you would want to take home and cuddle. Often times, it is this stigma which often leads to people not even wanting to visit the Reptile House at the Zoo. This negative reputation is exactly what reptile keeper and educator Peter Gilson wants to end.

The great part about Mr. Gilson’s job is that he gets to personally interact with the animals of the Reptile department and then share those experiences with the public. For younger generations to gain information about these creatures there is a program called Reptile Researchers. The educators leading this program for school children want to show students these animals in a more positive light. It’s a great way to have kids grow up with knowledge and respect for reptiles and amphibians.

Mr. Gilson did a great job easing the interns in to the world of reptiles by first introducing us to the Galápagos tortoises. The tortoises love attention, vegetable treats, and neck rubs. Since they are cold blooded, low temperatures make it hard for them to move, but instead of being tucked in under blankets, they spend the cold nights in a giant room that doubles as their barn. The barn is fully equipped with sun lights, heated floors and a specialized rubber coating on the walls to protect the tortoises’ shells from damage. The tortoises can also experience stress if not cared for properly. Stress levels go down by keeping them active and entertained. Every animal at the Zoo participates in different enrichment activities to keep life in captivity from getting boring. Enrichment is basically playtime that can involve treats, scents, mirrors, or anything to keep them engaged. For the tortoises, keepers will scatter lettuce or kale throughout the enclosure as a way to get them to move, and let me just say these guys are not as slow as you’d think!

These reptiles require specialized care that the San Diego Zoo is well equipped to provide for them. This incredible care is what allows all of the reptiles and amphibians to thrive in captivity. It is especially important to know what you are doing when handling the more dangerous ones, so Mr. Gilson and his fellow reptile keepers take extra precautions. Reptile keepers each have to go through training in order to transport snakes correctly, and safely. It doesn’t happen a lot, but if there is an incident where someone is bitten they know exactly how to handle it. Just like you might have a procedure for your house if there is ever a fire or emergency, there are instructions for dealing with snake bites. On each venomous snake enclosure there is a number, so that if bitten, they can find the corresponding anti-venom and give written instructions to the doctor. Mr. Gilson put a big emphasis on the ecological value of reptiles, and the implications caused by disrupting that balance by taking reptiles illegally as a pet is irresponsible. An ecosystem is a community of living and non-living organisms that interact as a whole system. Essentially what this means is that if one species is eliminated, it could have a detrimental effect on the other organisms in the same area. So let’s just leave human involvement to the professionals.

Once I learned more about reptiles and amphibians I appreciated their value more. Each level of an ecosystem has different organisms it’s dependent on, and there isn’t one role that’s not important. Knowing all the factors that go in to caring for the reptiles at the Zoo, and getting to witness how relatable their personalities can be made me really happy to have these species around. Hopefully, exposing more people to the interesting and lovable side of reptiles and amphibians can start to break the bad stereotypes they’ve had for so long.

Claudia, Real World Team
Week One, Winter Session 2015

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KEEPING AN EYE ON CONSERVATION

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

This week our intern group experienced a behind-the-scenes look at some of the endangered amphibians and reptiles in the Zoo’s care. As interns, we learned ways to keep an eye on how we affect the environment, such as being aware of how household chemicals can harm ecosystems. Our group of interns had the opportunity to meet with Peter Gilson, a keeper and educator here at the Zoo, as he gave us a tour of the popular Reptile House and surrounding exhibits House and surrounding exhibits.

The first exhibit Mr. Gilson showed us was of the Galapagos tortoises. Interns were greeted by some of the 14 Galapagos tortoises that are a part of the Zoo’s conservation efforts. Amazingly, some of them have been at the Zoo more than 80 years, which illustrates the Zoo’s long-term commitment to conservation of the species. Since it was feeding time, our intern group had the special opportunity to have a hand in feeding lettuce and kale to the tortoises. In the wild, these tortoises wouldn’t have access to that kind of food. One of the primary factors of the tortoises decline in the wild is habitat loss. As more people inhabit the islands, more space is taken away from the tortoises. These tortoises have no concept of fear, which puts them at risk because they aren’t afraid to approach humans. One of the best ways to help conserve these creatures is awareness. One of the ways the Zoo is helping to conserve these animals is by setting up a Species Survival Plan, in the hopes of removing this species from the list of endangered species.

Once the tortoises had their fill, Interns paid a visit to the local and exotic amphibians. Here we met another species the Zoo is working to conserve called the Panamanian golden frog. This critically endangered species of frog, native to Panama, is virtually extinct in the wild. The Zoo is actively involved in its Species Survival Plan, which entails breeding these beautiful creatures in the hopes of saving the species from extinction.

One of the greatest threats to these frogs is a disease called chytrid fungus. Chytrid fungus is detrimental to frogs because it keratinizes their skin. When a frog’s skin becomes keratinized, it means the frog’s skin dries and thickens. Since all amphibians breathe through their skin, this disease makes it impossible for the frogs to breathe eventually killing them. Scientists aren’t sure what causes chytrid fungus, but there are theories for both climate change and humans bringing in the disease. One thing we can do to help the amphibians who live around us is to be conscientious of what chemicals we use around our house. For example, pesticides and herbicides are detrimental to amphibians because they absorb the poison into their skin. The best thing to do is to use chemicals that don’t have negative effects on the environment.

All in all, it was a fantastic day! Our intern group fed Galapagos tortoises their lunch and learned about some of the Zoo’s conservation projects, which encourage people to be responsible in their role as humans. People have the power to save endangered species, but need to remember to use natural resources wisely. Even people in their daily lives can participate in conservation. Be mindful of what chemicals you’re using to spray around your house, and also how you dispose of these harmful chemicals. Little things like this can make a big difference in our world.

Celine, Conservation Team
Week One, Winter Session 2015

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To Bee or Not to Bee?

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

This was the question bugging Senior Keeper Ms. Ester Chang about her future career with insects during her years of college study. After acquiring a master’s degree in museum studies and a minor’s degree in entomology, Ms. Chang began her career with insects at the California Academy of Science in San Francisco that would last her three years. This new job, home to nearly 10 million specimens of insects, gave her the task of counting and cataloging dead insects for the academy; primarily so that they may learn more about the live insects from information collected from the deceased ones. While counting and cataloging insects might be considered tedious and somewhat tiresome, for Ms. Ester Chang it was “nice knowing you’re contributing to science” and truly amazing to contribute such a vast amounts.

Ms. Chang has currently been employed at the San Diego Zoo for 7 years and was an employee before the zoo had even constructed the present day Insect House. Over the last 7 years the entomology department has grown exponentially, and is now capable of not only the conserving insects, but educating the public on the large importance of them. Ms. Chang’s daily routine as a Senior Keeper in the entomology department involves feeding each insect a diet specific to each individual species and keeping every habitat clean and inviting; this is especially important since insects naturally carry a negative or invasive stigma.

As an educator, part of Ms. Chang’s job is to teach the public how important insects are to our daily ecosystem and to show people the “real world problems” we could face without them. Daily presentations of the insects are crucial to building a positive image of insects and tearing down their all too common stereotype as mere “pests”. People are almost always less afraid of what they understand. One of the biggest challenges of the job as an entomologist is learning about a new species when there is very-little-to-no information on how to care for that specific insect. Often times it is through trial and error that most problems are fixed, however the most common downfall of this method is its propensity to be time consuming.

Keepers often come from varying backgrounds, but nearly all have some degree in biology or specialty field of zoology. The key to getting a job in any zoology field is hands on experience, whether it’s through volunteering or internships. For those interested in studying entomology, many schools offer undergraduate and graduate entomology courses. For a job that’s always a buzz of excitement, the field of entomology is truly in a class of its own.

Devin, Careers Team
Week One, Winter Session

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The Blog at the End of the Woods

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

devinMy interest for wildlife and conservation began, oddly enough, in southern California, which is considered one of the most developed places in the United States. Never satisfied with domesticated animals my interest in wild animals began when I started watching the National Geographic channel, and reading as many books as I could get my hands on about wildlife. At the age of 5, I got to see the Amazon Rainforest while visiting family in Quito, Ecuador, South America. I was amazed to see what wildlife looked like up close and personal.

After this experience, I later learned how much of the wildlife in the Amazon Rainforest became endangered due to deforestation and habitat fragmentation. It was seeing animals become endangered that could easily be saved by someone with the proper training that drove me to want to become zoo veterinarian for exotic animals.

Some of my hobbies are riding and training horses, hiking the Palomar Mountains, surfing at Oceanside Harbor, snowboarding, and scuba diving. While I also have a passion for reading and writing, there is nothing better to keep me occupied than a new challenge and the excitement that comes with a new adventure; I could never sit still indoors if I wanted to. The San Diego Zoo InterQuest is another adventure awaiting me. I look forward to embarking on these next seven weeks that I’m sure I will remember for the rest of my life.

Devin
Winter Session 2015