Zoo InternQuest

Zoo InternQuest

0

Saving Species One Necropsy at a Time

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!

What happens when an animal is sick? What happens if they die? This week we met with pathology fellow Jenny Bernard and pathology resident Andrew Cartoceli at the Wildlife Disease Lab for San Diego Zoo Global. When an animal from the San Diego Zoo or San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park dies, they are brought to the Wildlife Disease Lab to be examined. Dr. Bernard and Dr. Cartoceti examine a variety of different animals, from small millipedes all the way up to the largest animals at the zoo; the elephants. However, they do not just examine deceased animals, they evaluate living ones that might have a disease that is affecting not only its own health, but the health of other animals around it.

In the photograph above, Dr. Bernard tells us about the process taken when they receive a deceased animal. This process begins with a necropsy or gross examination. These terms are used when describing an animal autopsy. During the initial gross examination, they look at the anatomy of the entire animal. By doing this, they can see any abnormalities in the basic structure and functions of the internal organs. Next, the affected tissues are sent to the histology department. This is where the microscopic slides are prepared in order for Dr. Bernard and Dr. Cartoceti to look at the cells on a microscopic level. This is done to see if an infected area found in the gross necropsy was a virus, bacteria, or fungi.

In the photograph above, Dr. Bernard tells us about the process taken when they receive a deceased animal. This process begins with a necropsy or gross examination. These terms are used when describing an animal autopsy. During the initial gross examination, they look at the anatomy of the entire animal. By doing this, they can see any abnormalities in the basic structure and functions of the internal organs. Next, the affected tissues are sent to the histology department. This is where the microscopic slides are prepared in order for Dr. Bernard and Dr. Cartoceti to look at the cells on a microscopic level. This is done to see if an infected area found in the gross necropsy was a virus, bacteria, or fungi.

Pathologist, Dr Bernard, analyzes tissues for disease and determines the results for a diagnosis. Contrary to popular belief, a pathologist is not like the television show CSI; the results are not always quick and conclusive. However, if tissue needs to be tested, the process can take several weeks and the results are not always clear.

Pathologist, Dr Bernard, analyzes tissues for disease and determines the results for a diagnosis. Contrary to popular belief, a pathologist is not like the television show CSI; the results are not always quick and conclusive. However, if tissue needs to be tested, the process can take several weeks and the results are not always clear.

After gross examinations some of the organs, body parts, and tissues are preserved for education purposes. The body parts and tissues not needed for education purposes are put through a machine known as the tissue digester. The digester breaks down tissues into liquids and bones into a chalky-like substance as seen above. The chalky bones can then be used as fertilizer throughout the San Diego Zoo.

After gross examinations some of the organs, body parts, and tissues are preserved for education purposes. The body parts and tissues not needed for education purposes are put through a machine known as the tissue digester. The digester breaks down tissues into liquids and bones into a chalky-like substance as seen above. The chalky bones can then be used as fertilizer throughout the San Diego Zoo.

The machine pictured above is used to stain the tissues on the microscopic slides to show the different parts of the cell. The stain used depends on if they are testing for bacteria, fungi, or a virus in the animal’s cells. Histologists can also use a special stain that will show a specific part of the cell they might be interested in looking at.

The machine pictured above is used to stain the tissues on the microscopic slides to show the different parts of the cell. The stain used depends on if they are testing for bacteria, fungi, or a virus in the animal’s cells. Histologists can also use a special stain that will show a specific part of the cell they might be interested in looking at.

Here are blue-stained slides, one of the “typical” colors used to differentiate between organelles. After they are stained, the slides can be looked at under a microscope to see various abnormalities in question. If it is bacteria or fungus, Dr. Bernard and Dr. Cartoceti would be able to identify it because of the shape of the organism. However, sometimes pathologists are unable to identify a specific pathogen, but they can eliminate contagious diseases which could potentially affect the other animals in the collection.

Here are blue-stained slides, one of the “typical” colors used to differentiate between organelles. After they are stained, the slides can be looked at under a microscope to see various abnormalities in question. If it is bacteria or fungus, Dr. Bernard and Dr. Cartoceti would be able to identify it because of the shape of the organism. However, sometimes pathologists are unable to identify a specific pathogen, but they can eliminate contagious diseases which could potentially affect the other animals in the collection.

After the slides are made in histology, they are sent to Dr. Cartoceti and Dr. Bernard to be analyzed by looking at them under the microscope. Through these slides, they can identify pathogens that were inside the animal. Dr. Cartoceti was able to show us some of the cases he worked on. He pulled up a slide under a microscope of an actual bacteria and fungi and showed us how to find what the infection was and how it changed the anatomy when it was alive.

After the slides are made in histology, they are sent to Dr. Cartoceti and Dr. Bernard to be analyzed by looking at them under the microscope. Through these slides, they can identify pathogens that were inside the animal. Dr. Cartoceti was able to show us some of the cases he worked on. He pulled up a slide under a microscope of an actual bacteria and fungi and showed us how to find what the infection was and how it changed the anatomy when it was alive.

Isabella, Photography Team
Fall Session 2014

 

 

 

 

0

Beth Bicknese: The Exotic Animal Veterinarian

Last Thursday, interns met Dr. Beth Bicknese, a Veterinarian, and Ms. Meredith Reed, a Veterinary Technician, at the San Diego Zoo. We got the opportunity to see the quarantine enclosures, pharmacy, intensive care unit, clinical pathology lab, x-ray room, and lastly, the surgery room. Dr. Bicknese and Ms. Reed are both amazing people and the veterinary department was very exciting!

My fellow intern, Mark, observes two animal quarantines at the veterinary department. When animals arrive at the Zoo, they must first be quarantined for thirty days. This is done in order to examine them for potential diseases or viruses.

My fellow intern, Mark, observes two animal quarantines at the veterinary department. When animals arrive at the Zoo, they must first be quarantined for thirty days. This is done in order to examine them for potential diseases or viruses.

Interns Ivanna, Rose, Isabella, and Belle gather around Dr. Bicknese in the keeper kitchen. This is where keepers prepare diets for all of the animals residing at the hospital at any given time. The kitchen is stocked with everything from meal-worms to copious amounts of vegetables, grains, and even dog food.

Interns Ivanna, Rose, Isabella, and Belle gather around Dr. Bicknese in the keeper kitchen. This is where keepers prepare diets for all of the animals residing at the hospital at any given time. The kitchen is stocked with everything from meal-worms to copious amounts of vegetables, grains, and even dog food.

In the clinical pathology department, we were allowed to look through a microscope at a slide currently in the examination process. The picture above is of a bird's red blood cells and white blood cells at a large magnification. A common trait amongst birds is that their red blood cells are noticeably elongated as opposed to the circular red blood cells seen in humans and other mammals.

In the clinical pathology department, we were allowed to look through a microscope at a slide currently in the examination process. The picture above is of a bird’s red blood cells and white blood cells at a large magnification. A common trait amongst birds is that their red blood cells are noticeably elongated as opposed to the circular red blood cells seen in humans and other mammals.

Alon and Isabella stand near Dr. Bicknese in the intensive care unit. This room is where animals come to be closely observed and monitored. At the Safari Park a few years back, the veterinarians there had the bright idea to install a camera in their intensive care unit to observe the animals. In the wild, animals will not show that they are sick because it reveals their weakness making them susceptible to predation. Due to this instinctive behavior, animals will often not show that they are sick to veterinarians who are attempting to treat the wound or illness. However, with the cameras installed, animals do not realize that they are being monitored, which in turn allows the veterinarians to observe each animal and act accordingly.

Alon and Isabella stand near Dr. Bicknese in the intensive care unit. This room is where animals come to be closely observed and monitored. At the Safari Park a few years back, the veterinarians there had the bright idea to install a camera in their intensive care unit to observe the animals. In the wild, animals will not show that they are sick because it reveals their weakness making them susceptible to predation. Due to this instinctive behavior, animals will often not show that they are sick to veterinarians who are attempting to treat the wound or illness. However, with the cameras installed, animals do not realize that they are being monitored, which in turn allows the veterinarians to observe each animal and act accordingly.

This is the surgery room where Dr. Bicknese performs often times meticulous procedures on diseased or injured animals. The medical machines in the room look just as technical as a regular hospital. There is a small table in the center of the room and a hydraulic table out of frame in the corner for large animals.

This is the surgery room where Dr. Bicknese performs often times meticulous procedures on diseased or injured animals. The medical machines in the room look just as technical as a regular hospital. There is a small table in the center of the room and a hydraulic table out of frame in the corner for large animals.

This is the pulse oximeter which is a machine that monitors an organism's pulse. Dr. Bicknese puts the clip on her finger and checks her own pulse to give us a demonstration. Some types of animals, like reptiles, have different types of pulse oximeter devices to adequately suit their size.

This is the pulse oximeter which is a machine that monitors an organism’s pulse. Dr. Bicknese puts the clip on her finger and checks her own pulse to give us a demonstration. Some types of animals, like reptiles, have different types of pulse oximeter devices to adequately suit their size.

My fellow intern Alon examines the inside of a bell pepper with a scope with a small camera on the tip. This device is used for examining animals internally without having to make a large incision. It was difficult to maneuver the device through the pepper when I tried it, but once I got the hang of it, it was pretty fun!

My fellow intern Alon examines the inside of a bell pepper with a scope with a small camera on the tip. This device is used for examining animals internally without having to make a large incision. It was difficult to maneuver the device through the pepper when I tried it, but once I got the hang of it, it was pretty fun!

My fellow intern Alon examines the inside of a bell pepper with a scope with a small camera on the tip. This device is used for examining animals internally without having to make a large incision. It was difficult to maneuver the device through the pepper when I tried it, but once I got the hang of it, it was pretty fun!

My fellow intern Alon examines the inside of a bell pepper with a scope with a small camera on the tip. This device is used for examining animals internally without having to make a large incision. It was difficult to maneuver the device through the pepper when I tried it, but once I got the hang of it, it was pretty fun!

Meet Emilio #2, the dummy deer used for practice with the dart guns. Emilio is tattered and marked with holes from years of intense practice.

Meet Emilio #2, the dummy deer used for practice with the dart guns. Emilio is tattered and marked with holes from years of intense practice.

My fellow intern Isabella shoots Emilio for practice with the dart gun. Ms. Reed encouraged us to aim for the butt or leg avoiding the face and heart when shooting. If the face or heart of an actual animal were to be shot with the dart gun it could injure or maim the animal.

My fellow intern Isabella shoots Emilio for practice with the dart gun. Ms. Reed encouraged us to aim for the butt or leg avoiding the face and heart when shooting. If the face or heart of an actual animal were to be shot with the dart gun it could injure or maim the animal.

Wesley, Photo Team
Fall Session 2014

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Dr. Parsons has a lot on her plate….

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!

The science of nutrition is most commonly associated with the study of nutrients and how they affect the health of living organisms. So, for animal nutritionist Dr. Jen Parsons, the job should seemingly simple only consisting of composing diets for the Zoo’s collection, right? Well, not quite, there are many different facets to Dr. Parsons’ job.

Dr. Parsons’ responsibilities are vast and relatively ambiguous due to the newness of the field. However, at its core, zoological nutrition seeks to create the healthiest and most natural diets possible for captive animals. In this field, multiple sciences such as physiology, biology, chemistry, math, behavioral sciences, and laboratory science are all necessary and utilized. Also, often times, when problems arise within the collection, Dr. Parsons and her colleagues don’t have instructions to solve them. They regularly have to be creative, conducting experiments to first discover those systems and instructions so that they can then be applied. Despite the immense amount of responsibility and awareness that’s required from Dr. Parsons on a daily basis, the excitement, love, and passion for her job proved to us that her career is as rewarding as it is revolutionary.

Zoological nutrition is a new field of science, and because of this, most colleges don’t offer majors, minors, or even specialized tracks that directly pertain to it. So what did Dr. Parsons do for schooling? Along with many other nutritionists from around the country, they began their schooling with intention of becoming a veterinarian or another career in the veterinary sciences. Specifically, Dr. Parsons has a background in multiple majors including a bachelors in animal science from Colorado State University, a masters in zoology from Oklahoma State University, and a PhD in animal science from Mississippi State University. Although, none of these studies directly prepare a student for a career as an animal nutritionist, they are all necessary sciences involved in Dr. Parsons’ work.

To most people, including myself before meeting Dr. Parsons last Thursday, composing an animal’s diet seems like a simple task. After all, my dog will eat practically anything that falls off the table or is placed in her bowl and she seems to be pretty healthy. So why then would it be so difficult to compose a diet for a giant panda or toucan? The answer to this question is the basis for most of Dr. Parsons’ research. Every wild animal’s stomach adapts to efficiently digest the food available in their respective ecosystem or habitat. The nutritionists at the Zoo work hard to mimic these natural diets in captivity. However, for animals commonly referred to as “browsers,” like giant pandas and giraffes, these diets are often hard to replicate. “Browsers,” which are most often strictly herbivorous, pick and choose their food on so small of a level as from one leaf to the other right next to it. So, due to the complex and definitive nature of these selective tendencies, figuring out how to perfectly replicate a browser’s diet in captivity requires acute experimentation and patience, two things Dr. Parsons has mastered.

Dr. Parsons is constantly on the forefront of new discoveries which not only raise the bar for health and enrichment for animals in captivity all over the world, but also further inform the scientific community about the intricacies in species adaption and ecology. Dr. Parsons loves her job and her passion is deep-seated. It’s been five years for her at the San Diego Zoo and zoological nutrition is still the dream job she thought she’d never have.

Wesley, Real World
Fall Session 2014

0

A Day in the Life of a Field Biologist

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!

This week interns got the chance to meet research technician Ms. Sarah Motheral, who focuses on native habitat restoration in the San Diego area. Ms. Motheral took us to the Biodiversity Reserve behind the Safari Park, where we collected data from a cactus habitat planted a few years ago. The experience gave interns a glimpse of what it is like to be a field biologist showing us that plant conservation is just as vital as the conservation of animals.

In 2007, the biodiversity reserve was damaged due to wildfires resulting in a good portion of the cactus to be destroyed. Many native animal and plant species were directly affected by the wildfires. Specifically, cactus wrens depend on cactus for nesting, but due to the fires much of the cacti were destroyed. Shortly after the fires, Ms. Motherall along with her team began a restoration project to restore the cacti habitat for the cactus wrens.

In 2007, the biodiversity reserve was damaged due to wildfires resulting in a good portion of the cactus to be destroyed. Many native animal and plant species were directly affected by the wildfires. Specifically, cactus wrens depend on cactus for nesting, but due to the fires much of the cacti were destroyed. Shortly after the fires, Ms. Motherall along with her team began a restoration project to restore the cacti habitat for the cactus wrens.

Interns were given the task to measure the height of each cactus in the area as well as count the number of cactus pads. The data collected was then recorded on data sheets created by Ms. Motheral.

Interns were given the task to measure the height of each cactus in the area as well as count the number of cactus pads. The data collected was then recorded on data sheets created by Ms. Motheral.

In the reserve, not all the cacti were tagged with many of the larger cacti not having any sort of marking by the biologist. Due to the vast amounts of cacti planted throughout the area, it is hard to mark and record all individual plants. Pictured above is one of the cacti marked by Ms. Motheral’s team in order to monitor the general growth progress throughout the area.

In the reserve, not all the cacti were tagged with many of the larger cacti not having any sort of marking by the biologist. Due to the vast amounts of cacti planted throughout the area, it is hard to mark and record all individual plants. Pictured above is one of the cacti marked by Ms. Motheral’s team in order to monitor the general growth progress throughout the area.

Each team had a ruler for measuring the height of each of the marked cacti planted in the restoration area.  The information collected was recorded, and would be later recorded into the original data base which contains all of the data recorded throughout the years for each individual cactus.

Each team had a ruler for measuring the height of each of the marked cacti planted in the restoration area. The information collected was recorded, and would be later recorded into the original data base which contains all of the data recorded throughout the years for each individual cactus.

The task of measuring the height and growth of each cacti was not as simple as it seemed. Imagine having to plant a large amount of cacti on a huge reserve and collect the data of  all the cacti by yourself, it would take forever. Field biologists work in teams in order to do their projects much more quickly, which allows them to collect and record data much more efficiently.

The task of measuring the height and growth of each cacti was not as simple as it seemed. Imagine having to plant a large amount of cacti on a huge reserve and collect the data of all the cacti by yourself, it would take forever. Field biologists work in teams in order to do their projects much more quickly, which allows them to collect and record data much more efficiently.

Pictured above is one of the many cactus plants located in the restoration area. Most of the cacti interns measured had over 20 new growth pads, which demonstrated significant growth. When asked about her work, Ms. Motherall said that one of this was one of her most successful projects that she has been a part.

Pictured above is one of the many cactus plants located in the restoration area. Most of the cacti interns measured had over 20 new growth pads, which demonstrated significant growth. When asked about her work, Ms. Motheral said that one of this was one of her most successful projects that she has been a part.

In the above picture is one of the cactus plants that had completely dried out. When these plants were found, interns left a blank space on the data sheet which indicated that the plant was deceased. With the widespread drought throughout San Diego County, even cacti, which are highly adapted for an environment with little water, are being affected. Ms. Motheral and her team are closely monitoring the affects of the drought on the habitat and the cactus wren.

In the above picture is one of the cactus plants that had completely dried out. When these plants were found, interns left a blank space on the data sheet which indicated that the plant was deceased. With the widespread drought throughout San Diego County, even cacti, which are highly adapted for an environment with little water, are being affected. Ms. Motheral and her team are closely monitoring the affects of the drought on the habitat and the cactus wren.

Ivanna, Photo Team
Fall 2014 Session

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

0

Teamwork for the Health of All Animals!

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

All animals are so different, from birds to tigers, it’s impossible to think that all these animals have the same diets, so who creates these meal plans? Jen Parsons, Associate Nutritionist at the San Diego Zoo, answered this question for InternQuest on Thursday. Dr. Parsons, along with her colleagues in the animal nutrition department, are the creators of the diets for all the animals at the Zoo.

Throughout our time with Dr. Parsons, InternQuest got a glimpse of the process of formulating diets in order to ensure the Zoo’s animals receive proper nutrition. Additionally, interns got a walk through the food storage warehouse which stores various types of meats and produce, as well as the grain room in which dry foods were stored. It was evident that formulating and preparing the diets for the animals at the Zoo takes plenty of research and group collaboration by various departments at the Zoo such a zoo keepers and veterinarians, with their goal being to keep the animal nice and healthy.

A restaurant consists of chefs, waiters, food and of course, hungry customers! This is very similar to what happens at the San Diego Zoo’s nutrition department. Nutritionist create the diets for the animals, the zookeepers prepare and feed the animals their food. Additionally, Interns had an opportunity to visit the food storage warehouse. Located inside the building were multiple walk in fridges, one limited to only meat and bones, another limited to only fish, and lastly, one reserved for produce. In addition to the main storage warehouse, interns were also given the opportunity to tour the grain storage building. This building contained dog food and cat food, pellets, seeds, and grains. Additionally, there are many animals that consume insects throughout the Zoo. Interns were given a peak into the building in which the insects are stored. Dr. Parsons explained that many of the commercially farmed insects lack nutrients many animals need in their diet. In order to make up for this deficiency, a supplement is given to many of the crickets and worms. Collectively, throughout these buildings there was a lot of food, however, with such a large collection of animals there was only enough food to last about two weeks.

Throughout our tour with Dr. Parsons, interns learned that keeping the animals at the Zoo healthy is not an easy task. One of the biggest components of Dr. Parsons’ job is replicating, to the best of her ability, the natural diets these animals would consume in the wild. Recreating these natural diets is often a group effort, involving many different departments including veterinarian sciences, pathology and, often times the keepers for each animal. Once the natural history has been studied, Dr. Parsons teams up with veterinarians to find which essential nutrients an animal needs in it’s diet. The next process is trying different kinds of foods to see which foods the animals prefer and which best replicate their diets in the wild. This is when the keepers come into play; helping to observe and monitor how the animal is doing with the changes in the diet. Dr. Parsons’ career requires much research and observation, and with the help of keepers, pathology, and veterinarians, she can ensure the proper nutrition of each animal at the Zoo is reached. All these steps are required for the animals at the Zoo due to the collection being so unique and important to the community!

Ivanna, Real World Team
Fall Session 2014

0

Runnin’ Wild with the Herd

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark, Real World
Fall Session 2014

0

Surprise for the Interns!

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

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

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

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

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

Alon, Real World Team
Fall Session 2014

0

Nutritionists to the Rescue

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

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

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

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

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

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

Isabella, Conservation Team
Fall Session 2014

0

Caring for the Birds in Our Backyard

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

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

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

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

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

Mark, Conservation Team
Fall Session 2014

0

Monkeying around with Primates!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark, Photography Team
Fall Session 2014