Zoo InternQuest

Zoo InternQuest

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The Science of Pathology

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

Camille_W5_picHave you ever wondered what happens to the animals at the Zoo after they pass away? Well, last week the interns had a firsthand look through the necropsy and histology buildings at the San Diego Zoo’s hospital. Our guide through the necropsy and histology buildings was Megan McCarthy. Dr. McCarthy is a DVM Pathology Resident at the San Diego Zoo.

So what exactly is pathology? Before our trip into the necropsy and histology, Dr. McCarthy gave the interns a presentation all about veterinary pathology, and the roles that those in the field play at the Zoo. Pathology is, essentially, the study of viruses and diseases. The pathologists at the Zoo perform necropsies or “animal autopsies” to identify the cause of death in collection and non-collection animals that die on the Zoo’s premises. Pathologists study and examine the sample tissues they extract during the necropsy to identify any traces of disease that had not been seen during the actual autopsy itself. Even though most people do not know about veterinary pathology, the work they do is extremely important to keeping the collection animals at the Zoo healthy and avoid any possible outbreak of disease.

For most Zoo visitors, the process that animals go through after they die is not something on their mind. However, the process is also very necessary to ensure the health of all the animals residing at the Zoo. After an animal passes, they are first sent to the necropsy building. It is here that the animal is delicately examined to identify any signs of disease that can be seen with the naked eye. Dr. McCarthy performed a necropsy on a feeder rabbit in order to show the interns some of the processes as well as what they look at when they try to discern the cause of death. During the necropsy, small samples of each organ are taken and sent to the histology department. Once the samples are delivered to the histology department, they are made into small slides that are stained to be once again examined by the pathologists. A variety of different stains are used in order to reveal cell types, infections, or foreign substances in the animal’s tissues that were too microscopic to be identified during the gross necropsy. If you have ever had your tonsils removed, they would go through a similar process to be made into slides.

What about diseases that can be transferred from non-collection animals that die on Zoo premises? To prevent cases like that from happening, all animals that die near or within the Zoo are examined in the necropsy building. Birds are also placed inside a special hood designed to contain pathogens to prevent bird flu from being transmitted to people. The pathologists are also always on the lookout for the West Nile virus. As you might already know, West Nile virus is spread by mosquitoes and can infect both animals and humans. So the pathologists at the Zoo perform necropsies on non-collection animals to ensure nothing like West Nile can be spread to the animals in the collection or to the human visitors.

The professionals working at the Zoo know all too well how unavoidable death is, which is why Veterinary Pathologists are so valuable in a zoo type setting. If an animal is ill and dies, the pathologists can identify the exact cause of death and prevent disease from spreading to the other animals in the collection. How an animal is treated after they die is just as important as how they are treated alive.

Camille, Real World Team
Week Five, Fall Session 2015

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Working on the Wild Side

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

 Have you ever dreamed of having a crazy awesome job? What would be the first thing that comes to your mind? Swimming with whale sharks? Staring contests with giraffes? Driving a motor bike across the towns of Southeast Asia? What about all three combined? This week we met David O’Connor, Community-Based Conservation Ecologist working with the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, who has one of the coolest jobs I’ve ever heard of!

Mr. O’Connor’s interest in wildlife and conservation started when he was a young man living in the countryside of Ireland. Seeing firsthand how loss of habitat due to agriculture affected the native wildlife, Mr. O’Connor developed an interest in conserving wildlife. From a very young age, he made efforts to help the local wildlife. He shared how he would run ahead of the hounds during fox hunts with a fox scent just to steer hunters from the foxes trail! By the time he was ready for college, Mr. O’Connor knew he wanted to study zoology and did so for his undergraduate degree. He then received a master’s degree in Business at the University of Dublin before venturing to the University of Michigan to receive his master’s in Conservation Ecology. Out of college, Mr. O’Connor worked for National Geographic Magazine designing animal natural history articles, and still continues working for the magazine part-time. It wasn’t until a job opened up at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research (ICR) in the conservation education department that Mr. O’Connor began truly leaving his mark on worldwide conservation efforts. Currently working for the Conservation Partnership Development program of ICR, Mr. O’Connor has two main projects that he focuses on.

The first project is on the illegal wildlife trade in Southeast Asia. Mr. O’Connor explained to us that, “Conservation begins with the people” and he and his team focus on communicating with the local people in Laos about ways to combat the wildlife trade. Wildlife trade in countries like Laos has become a large problem because of the high demand of exotic animal parts for use in traditional Chinese medicine. Product demands for rhino horn, bear paw rice wine, bear bile, tiger parts, rhino horns, elephant tusks, and clouded leopard bones have endangered many wildlife species. Mr. O’Connor has been focusing on the sun bear trade, trying to survey and hire local people to raise awareness about the endangerment of these animals. One of the products of highest demand, bear bile, has caused killings and harvestings of local bear organs in order to meet the increasing medicinal demands. Through surveying the local people, Mr. O’Connor has been finding that people have positive feelings towards the Laos wildlife, have an awareness of the cruel treatment of the animals, and that country people are more concerned about the species decline than those in urban settings. The research collected can assist efforts in raising awareness about the illegal wildlife trade.

The second part of Mr. O’Connor’s job is something he has loved doing for years, researching and studying reticulated giraffes in Kenya. Giraffes, rapidly moving up to the top of the critically endangered list, are threatened greatly by poaching and habitat loss. About 80% of the reticulated giraffe’s wild population has declined in just 15 years. Mr. O’Connor specializes in studying the behaviors of these giraffes as well as working with the local people to discourage poaching and killing for bush meat. Many of the native people are pastoralists, or nomadic herders that maintain their livestock with the wild animals. By herding during the day and sleeping in new places at night, these people have been coexisting with the wildlife around them. This, Mr. O’Connor described to us, could be key in the future of conservation, because the pastoralist lands often contain high concentrations of endangered species. Mr. O’Connor believes that the local people of Africa have the power to make a large impact in conservation. For these reasons, his team places emphasis on becoming familiar with the communities and culture of the people. Giraffes are often used for target practice by poachers, snagged in wire traps hung from trees, and killed as an easy form of bush meat. Mr. O’Connor and his team have been hiring locals to assist in field research, map livestock movements, set up cameras, and have created education programs for conservation. The team’s efforts have brought much wildlife back to community lands and even some giraffe celebration ceremonies to the local tribes, steadily making a difference in conservation.

Whether he is combatting the wildlife trade in the forests of Southeast Asia, or spending hours in a jeep observing his favorite species of giraffe, Mr. O’Connor dedicates his life to conservation every day. I don’t know about you, but I’d sure love to do what he does some day!

Shannon, Careers Team
Week 5, Fall 2015

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Promoting Conservation with Your Bear Hands

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!

Traveling to foreign countries while learning about native cultures, values, and perspectives sounds like a vacation for most people. But for Mr. David O’Connor, however, these kinds of things are what he does for a living. On Wednesday, the interns had the amazing opportunity to meet Mr. O’Connor and learn more about his involvement in the conservation efforts at the Institute for Conservation Research. He is the Community-based Conservation Ecologist for the Conservation Partnership Development at the Institute. Yeah, I know, it’s a mouthful! We discussed Mr. O’Connor’s recent projects and how his work is advancing the efforts toward saving the animals he works with.

“How does your job relate to animal conservation?” is a question that most people may have trouble answering. I believe this is because of the fact that a majority of us cannot see the direct impact we have on animals. In Mr. O’Connor’s case, the simpler question would be, “How does your job NOT relate to conservation?” He studies different aspects of conservation on a daily basis while trying to understand how humans can be influenced to be more conscious of their impact.

Mr. O’Connor has been at the forefront of conservation efforts in various countries, but I am going to focus on his work in Southeast Asia. While working in countries like Laos and Cambodia, he has concentrated his time on bears, specifically the sun bear and the Asiatic black bear. Mr. O’Connor mainly works with native people, conducting studies and trying to figure out how to reduce the demand for these bears. He stated that the biggest threats to wildlife include habitat loss, pollution, climate change, and wildlife trade. During his time in Asia, Mr. O’Connor began a study on the socio-ecological factors of wildlife trade. In Southeast Asia, bears are most commonly captured and killed for bile, a liquid stored in their gallbladders and often used for traditional medicine. Mr. O’Connor conducted his study with the goal of investigating the drivers of why people are motivated to kill bears as well as the perceived consequences of killing bears.

He and his team first started by distributing 1400 questionnaires to both native Cambodians and Laotians as well as western tourists. Their results indicated that the natives reacted more sympathetically when told that their use of bear products like bear bile will cause a decline in wild bears. He also recorded a significant difference in knowledge and attitudes toward bear conservation depending on where the natives lived. Mr. O’Connor’s objective is to use results like these to contour the message that goes to the native people in order to reduce wild bear trade. He believes that an effective advertising campaign can be the difference between a thriving species and an extinct species.

As the interns listened to Mr. O’Connor’s presentation, we learned a lot more about his conservation work in the field. I found out the importance of working with and educating the people that directly impact wildlife conservation. I also realized that conservation efforts do not always have to involve working solely with animals. Mr. O’Connor stated that he loves studying where people and wildlife overlap. He finds joy in being able to give people a way to solve their situational problems. As Mr. O’Connor reiterated throughout his presentation to the interns, “the key to conservation is people”.

Bami, Conservation Team
Week Five, Fall Session 2015

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Conservation Kitchen

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

Camille_W4_picThe nutrition of the animals is a top priority for the personnel working at the Zoo and Safari Park. Last week the interns got to meet with Michael Schlegel, the Director of Nutritional Services, and Katie Kerr, an Associate Nutritionist for the San Diego Zoo. They are two of three nutritionists in charge of creating and adjusting the diets for over 7,000 animals! The work that they do helps ensure each animal is receiving the proper nutrients they need to live a long and healthy life. The interns got to see just a few of the animals in their care as they took us on a miniature tour of the Zoo.

So, how does nutrition help with conservation efforts? Well first of all, when the animals have healthy diets it increases the species sustainability as healthy animals are more likely to reproduce.

The Nutritionists take special care to replicate each animal’s natural diet to make sure they are getting everything they need. If an animal does not receive all the nutrients they need, they run the risk of becoming sick; which is why the job of a Nutritionist is so important to a zoo! When an animal does fall ill, Dr. Schlegel and Dr. Kerr can adjust and create new diets to help the animal have a fast and safe recovery. The health of each animal at the Zoo and Safari Park is an important part of the overall conservation of their entire species.

In addition to developing diets for animals that are sick, Dr. Schlegel and Dr. Kerr can create diets for reproductive purposes. When they are creating these diets they try to maintain proper levels of vitamin A and E to help with the fertility of the animals. The female animals that are ready to breed also need to maintain a healthy weight to help regulate their cycles and fertility. The Nutritionists just recently needed to change the diets of the elephants at the Zoo. They found that if the elephants were overweight then their calves would be too large which resulted in difficulties during birth. They also recently changed the diets for the southern white rhinos. The phytoestrogen that were once in their diets were removed and replaced with beta-carotene to help with their reproductive health. Each individual diet has a very significant impact on the reproduction rates for the animals at the Zoo and the Safari Park.

The work that the nutritionists do also serves to help with environmental conservation. When there is a team of nutritionists creating the diets there is significantly less waste produced. They are able to streamline the whole process of what foods are to be purchased and where it is to be purchased from. They also lower the Zoo’s carbon footprint by purchasing the extra meat from processors making products for human consumption.

The job of a nutritionist is never done, as they are always working to maintain and improve the health and happiness of the animals at the Zoo. They are also a very important piece of the puzzle in regards to the many conservation efforts the Zoo and Safari Park have in place. What can we do to help in these efforts? One option is being aware of your carbon footprint that is created when food products are shipped long distances. Buying local and in season can assist in significantly lowering your footprint!

Camille, Conservation Team
Week Four, Fall 2015

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Animal Weight Watchers

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!

 Last Thursday, the interns met with Dr. Mike Schlegel and Dr. Katie Kerr. Dr. Schlegel is the Director of Nutritional Services and Dr. Kerr is an Associate Nutritionist. They are responsible for creating diets to give to the forage warehouse to later be given to the animals at the Zoo. Interns spent the day in the classroom as well as throughout different areas in the Zoo, learning more about animal nutrition.

The day started in the education classroom as Dr. Schlegel and Dr. Kerr discussed their career paths and also their daily job tasks. Interns took notes as Dr. Schlegel talked about his road to becoming the Director of Nutritional Services. He received a degree in Animal Production from Pennsylvania State University before getting both his Master’s and Doctorate in Ruminant Nutrition from Michigan State University. Dr. Schlegel then took on a number of jobs and research positions before ending up at the San Diego Zoo.

The day started in the education classroom as Dr. Schlegel and Dr. Kerr discussed their career paths and also their daily job tasks. Interns took notes as Dr. Schlegel talked about his road to becoming the Director of Nutritional Services. He received a degree in Animal Production from Pennsylvania State University before getting both his Master’s and Doctorate in Ruminant Nutrition from Michigan State University. Dr. Schlegel then took on a number of jobs and research positions before ending up at the San Diego Zoo.

Pictured above are Dr. Schlegel and the interns on their way to the Galápagos tortoise exhibit. Dr. Schlegel is the Director of Nutritional Services. His main job is supervising his team in creating and changing diets. He also evaluates body condition of the animals, communicates with other zoos about diet information, and formulates diets for reproduction, lactation, and hand rearing. Dr. Schlegel’s job is extremely important to the well being of the animals and the productivity of the Zoo.

Pictured above are Dr. Schlegel and the interns on their way to the Galápagos tortoise exhibit. Dr. Schlegel is the Director of Nutritional Services. His main job is supervising his team in creating and changing diets. He also evaluates body condition of the animals, communicates with other zoos about diet information, and formulates diets for reproduction, lactation, and hand rearing. Dr. Schlegel’s job is extremely important to the well being of the animals and the productivity of the Zoo.

You can find a number of these hibiscus flowers all around the Zoo. These vibrant plants come in a multitude of different colors, including red, white, yellow and orange. On our way to the flamingo exhibit, Dr. Schlegel stated that almost all of the hibiscus plants grown in the Zoo are used for food. He also noted that the tortoises especially love eating the flowers!

You can find a number of these hibiscus flowers all around the Zoo. These vibrant plants come in a multitude of different colors, including red, white, yellow and orange. On our way to the flamingo exhibit, Dr. Schlegel stated that almost all of the hibiscus plants grown in the Zoo are used for food. He also noted that the tortoises especially love eating the flowers!

The Galapagos tortoises are an excellent example of the importance of diet changes. Dr. Schlegel stated that about two years ago, the tortoises’ diet was changed from high calories to high protein. This had many positive impacts on the tortoises’ health. Dr. Schlegel and Dr. Kerr take pride in finding different ways to help the animals.

The Galapagos tortoises are an excellent example of the importance of diet changes. Dr. Schlegel stated that about two years ago, the tortoises’ diet was changed from high calories to high protein. This had many positive impacts on the tortoises’ health. Dr. Schlegel and Dr. Kerr take pride in finding different ways to help the animals.

Pictured above is fellow intern, Riley posing in front of the flamingo exhibit. The Zoo is home to a huge flamboyance of Caribbean flamingos. These awesome birds are known for their long necks, skinny legs and deep pink-orange color. Dr. Schlegel and the nutritional services department have created a pellet food to replace their typical diet. This is not only less expensive for the Zoo to produce, but also makes it possible to know exactly what the flamingos are eating.

Pictured above is fellow intern, Riley posing in front of the flamingo exhibit. The Zoo is home to a huge flamboyance of Caribbean flamingos. These awesome birds are known for their long necks, skinny legs and deep pink-orange color. Dr. Schlegel and the nutritional services department have created a pellet food to replace their typical diet. This is not only less expensive for the Zoo to produce, but also makes it possible to know exactly what the flamingos are eating.

In the wild, flamingos get their color from their natural diets of algae and shrimp. Dr. Schlegel and the rest of his team have replicated this by infusing their food pellets with carotenoid pigments. Carotenoids are the same things that make carrots orange, bell peppers red, and spinach green! The pigment used at the Zoo, called canthaxanthin, promotes good health and provides the flamingos in the Zoo with their bright color.

In the wild, flamingos get their color from their natural diets of algae and shrimp. Dr. Schlegel and the rest of his team have replicated this by infusing their food pellets with carotenoid pigments. Carotenoids are the same things that make carrots orange, bell peppers red, and spinach green! The pigment used at the Zoo, called canthaxanthin, promotes good health and provides the flamingos in the Zoo with their bright color.

When we visited the Hippo Trail, Dr. Schlegel taught us some important facts that contribute to the dietary needs of the pygmy hippopotamuses. I learned that pygmy hippos, like a few other animal species, have stomachs with multiple chambers. Dr. Schlegel also added that this adaptation makes pygmy hippos capable of digesting high fiber food in the wild. Dr. Schlegel and his team have to take facts like these into account when creating and adjusting animal diets. When we visited the Hippo Trail, Dr. Schlegel taught us some important facts that contribute to the dietary needs of the pygmy hippopotamuses. I learned that pygmy hippos, like a few other animal species, have stomachs with multiple chambers. Dr. Schlegel also added that this adaptation makes pygmy hippos capable of digesting hig

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The Quest to Preserve for Future Generations

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 adventure here on the Zoos website!

Lauren_W4_picOn Wednesday, October 28, 2015, the interns met with Dr. Christopher Tubbs, a Scientist at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research who works in the Reproductive Physiology Laboratory. In the Reproductive Physiology Laboratory, the main goal for the scientists is to help ensure the reproductive success of the animals at the Zoo and Safari Park. Dr. Tubbs works to preserve and allow endangered and threatened species to have the best possible chance to reproduce.

Dr. Tubbs has been involved with projects involving fertility of southern white rhinos and the marine environment effects on California condors in their reproductive stage. In the lab, Dr. Tubbs does blood tests to determine the hormone levels of the animals. Through the blood test, the scientists can look at the hormones such as their estrogen and progesterone. Progesterone is high during the reproductive cycle. However, it is unrealistic for Dr. Tubbs to take multiple blood samples from the species to determine their hormone levels. Instead, keepers gather urine and feces samples, and then Dr. Tubbs and his team can monitor the animals’ reproductive cycles and their hormone levels.

While working in the Reproductive Physiology Laboratory, Dr. Tubbs gets samples of rhino feces every week. After the feces have been tested, Dr. Tubbs makes a graph of the data from black, southern white and greater one-horned rhinos. When the rhinos show elevated progesterone levels, it means that they are possibly ovulating or pregnant.

The graphs from the hormone data gathered from animal’s feces are very important in certain animals such as pandas. Being solitary by nature, female and male pandas have to stay in separate enclosures because they will become aggressive. When a female panda’s progesterone levels peak, she may be ready for reproduction. Female giant pandas only ovulate a few days out of the year, so it is crucial that the Reproductive Physiology Laboratory notify the keeper once this occurs to introduce the male panda to the female panda otherwise they will miss the opportunity for breeding.

Dr. Tubbs is also working on a diet change for the southern white rhinos to ensure that they are able to reproduce. The pellets, which make up a high percentage of the southern white rhino’s diet contained phytoestrogens that can cause reproductive problems for this species of rhino. In response to this discovery, Dr. Tubbs had bars put in place over the field feeding troughs to keep the southern white rhinos from eating the pellets that contained high levels of phytoestrogens. Dr. Tubbs’ says his job is rewarding because he is able to make a difference in preserving various animal species and is able to raise awareness and to explain how chemicals affect the environments where the different species live.

Lauren, Conservation Team
Week Four, Fall 2015

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Career’s Digest

Have you ever wondered why the animals at the Zoo eat what they do? Meet Michael Schelgel and Katie Kerr, two of the three nutritionists at the Zoo and Safari Park. Dr. Schelgel is the Director of Nutritional Services and he supervises Dr. Kerr, the Associate Nutritionist at the Zoo. They are in charge of formulating and improving the diets of all the animals in the Zoo.

Kylie_W4_picDr. Schelgel has been working in his position for 10 years, but has had a wild journey getting there. He received his bachelor’s degree in animal sciences from Pennsylvania State University where he originally wanted to become a vet. While he was there, Dr. Schelgel got excited about nutrition and pasture management. Dr. Schelgel then went to Michigan State University to pursue a master’s and doctorate in animal sciences. There he learned about the grazing systems and hosting of steers. Five years later, Dr. Schelgel received his master’s degree and began to work on his PhD in ruminant nutrition.

After completing his PhD, Dr. Schelgel worked for the Pennsylvania Beef Council for 6 months and later instructed an animal science class at Delaware County University. He first became introduced to the Zoo when he traveled with a student to San Diego where he discovered a job opening at the Safari Park. In 2001, Dr. Schelgel was hired as an Associate Nutritionist for two years before the position was eliminated. Before getting hired back in 2005, he did a postdoc with Disney’s Animal Kingdom through the University of Florida. Since 2005, he has held the position of Director of Nutritional Services for both the Zoo and Safari Park.

Dr. Kerr started working at the San Diego Zoo only 2 months ago. She first graduated from Colorado State with a bachelor’s degree in biology and zoology, and had a keen interest in nutrition. Dr. Kerr then took a year off to complete an internship at the Saint Louis Zoo. She also began talking to a wide range of people, asking how to get into zoo nutrition. At a conference her mother encouraged her to attend, she received some advice involving which steps she should take to become a zoo nutritionist. Dr. Kerr went back to school to receive a master’s and doctorate degree from the University of Illinois where she studied both domestic and big cat nutrition. Before getting hired by the San Diego Zoo, she completed a postdoc position at Disney’s Animal Kingdom. Now at the Zoo, Dr. Kerr enjoys being the Associate Nutritionist where she is in charge of a variety of exotic animal diets.

On a daily basis, Dr. Schelgel and Dr. Kerr ensure that all the animals are fed well by improving and adjusting the animals’ diets to fit each animal’s needs. Their job is similar to being an executive chef at a restaurant because they do not work directly with the food, but instead give directions to the other chefs who manage the preparation of the food. They perform body-conditioning examinations on various animals to make sure they are healthy and not over or under weight, and assist the animal hospitals when creating diets for sick or quarantined animals. All of the diets are based on the amount of energy an animal will get from the foods. To ensure the animal is receiving the correct amount of energy, they use simple math and computer programs along with their extensive knowledge of animal nutrition.

One reason both Dr. Schelgel and Dr. Kerr love being nutritionist is because they find their job similar to solving puzzles and finding solutions to problems. A majority of the time, there is very little information on a specific animal’s diet, so they must extrapolate from a more known similar animal’s diet to fit the needs of the other. They are both learning new things all the time and will continue to discover new information as the years go on.

Finally, some advice Dr. Kerr shared was to explore and take advantage of different opportunities that are even remotely interesting. Dr. Kerr explained that in order to land her dream job, she needed to think outside of the box because there was no direct path for her to become a zoo nutritionist. Dr. Kerr stresses the importance of networking and encourages people to put themselves out there. She says that you never know just whom others have connections with and urges people to let others know how interested they are in a specific subject.

Kylie, Careers Team
Week Four, Fall 2015

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Nutrition for the Zoo and Beyond

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 adventure here on the Zoo’s website!

Dawn_W4_picThis week, the interns met the “executive chefs” of the Zoo and Safari Park, the nutritionists. Director of Nutritional Services, Michael Schlegel, PhD., as well as Associate Nutritionist, Katie Kerr, PhD., showed us around the Zoo and explained the variety of diets they use for the animals. As nutritionists, their jobs mainly encompass managing diets for the animals and giving individual animals body condition evaluations, which is similar to the BMI scale for people. These body condition scores tell nutritionists, veterinarians, and keepers if the animal is underweight, normal or overweight. With this information, nutritionists and veterinarians learn if and what they need to change in an animal’s diet to keep it as healthy as possible, just like how people get check-ups, and doctors will often tell their patients to monitor and change their carbohydrate, sodium, cholesterol, sugar, etc. intake to try and avoid health problems.

Just like humans, it’s good for animals to have as much variety as possible in their diet, and everything in moderation. You wouldn’t want to eat only pizza every day for the rest of your life, right? Well, maybe… but it’s not good for you. To achieve variety, in addition to their daily mandatory diets, nutritionists provide enrichment food items, which the keepers can mix and match to find what the animal likes.

For primates, Dr. Schlegel and Dr. Kerr devised a point system, similar to Weight Watchers, to monitor the enrichment food items given to primates. The primates are given a certain allotment of enrichment points in their diet, and different items are worth different amounts of points, depending on their nutritional value. For example, a serving of grapenut cereal is worth 4 points, while a hard-boiled egg is worth 1½point. This way, primates can have unusual and tasty items, while also staying within their nutritional boundaries.

As you can see, Zoo diets aren’t necessarily restricted to specialty feeds and fresh fruit and vegetables. Carnivorous birds, or birds of prey, get dry dog food in their diets because it has essential nutrients that the birds need. One of Dr. Schlegel’s most memorable cases as a Zoo Nutritionist was the small and colorful beautiful sunbird. Two of the Zoo’s beautiful sunbirds had chicks, and for some reason, they weren’t eating their normal diet. Eventually, they realized that the birds ate spiders, so Dr. Schlegel was able to obtain spiders from a company that originally raised spiders for use in the pharmaceutical industry.

Instead of shrimp, because it’s very expensive, Zoo flamingos actually get carotenoid vitamins added to their diets. The specific carotenoid used by Nutritional Services is called lutein. Lutein helps the flamingos to achieve their signature pink color, but it is also used in the medical industry for human eye health. It’s known as the “eye vitamin,” and helps prevent eye diseases like macular degeneration and cataracts by acting as a sort of light filter, protecting eye tissues from sunlight damage.

Sometimes, zoo nutrition also overlaps outside of the Zoo. Some exotic feeds which were originally specially made for zoos and exotic animals have made their way into the pet food industry. For example, a specialty feed for crickets made for zoos is now used by many pet reptile owners to feed their crickets, which are in turn used to feed their reptiles.

As a cat owner, Dr. Schlegel advises fellow cat owners to feed their cats strictly cat food because it contains everything your cat needs, although he and his family may be a little lenient about their own cats’ diets. Although the Schlegel’s do feed their cats dairy products sometimes, Dr. Schlegel advises not to because domestic cats have lost the ability to digest lactose properly, a key ingredient in dairy products.

There’s no doubt that Dr. Schlegel’s and Dr. Kerr’s work is tailored to benefit zoo animals, but it also can carry over to our everyday lives. Like zoo nutritionists, it’s important to monitor your animals’ diets, because keeping your animals healthy and happy is quintessential. Certain food items may be very detrimental to your pet’s health, while others may be good for them, so always do your research and think before you feed.

Dawn, Real World Team
Week Four, Fall 2015

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Totally [Test] Tubular!

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

shannon_W4_pic2The San Diego Zoo Global is famous for their success in breeding endangered and at risk species, specifically rhinos. This week we had the opportunity to meet one of the people who is part of one of the most successful breeding programs at the Zoo. Dr. Chris Tubbs, scientist at the Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, gave us a tour of his team’s lab and showed us how he works with southern white rhino reproduction.

Breeding animals isn’t as simple as placing a male and female together in the same enclosure, there is much more going on behind the scenes. Most of what happens to bring a new baby animal into the world begins in the lab with test tubes, samples, and hours of analysis. Dr. Tubbs and his team examine the hormones that are present in pregnancy and reproductive cycles. Hormones are chemical messengers that are released into the blood stream in order to trigger reactions. By testing and studying the hormones in the animals, Dr. Tubbs and his team can watch for changes in the amount of hormones which are associated with pregnancy.

Sampling and testing the animals for hormone levels is not that easy…do you know any 5,000lb rhinos that will happily cooperate with a large needle drawing their blood daily? Dr. Tubbs and his team have a more efficient way of doing things- though much more stinky. This is where the poop comes in! Weekly samples collected by the keepers are perfect for studying hormones from each animal. Dr. Tubbs explained that each waste sample is dried out, placed in a chemical solvent (like alcohol), and the hormones can then be extracted. The hormone levels are then charted to compare the levels of each hormone over time. For example, southern white rhino feces is sampled for levels of Progesterone which is a hormone produced by the female reproductive system. What Dr. Tubbs’s is looking for is high levels, or spikes, in the graph of progesterone to see if the rhino, or any other mammal, could be pregnant or ovulating (producing an egg). Similarly, when a human is pregnant or ovulating, there are higher levels of the HCG hormone that show up on a pregnancy test.

Recently, Dr. Tubbs had a new diet passed for the rhinos that could be very promising in the world of zoo-born animal reproduction. There has been a history of southern white rhinos raised in a zoo setting struggling with fertility and becoming pregnant. Dr. Tubbs explained that our environment and food intake has a large impact on our health and the same goes for animals. When looking into why the zoo-born rhinos were struggling with fertility, the team discovered that certain chemicals in the pellets that the animals are eating contain phytoestrogens. Phytoestrogens, found in soy and alfalfa, are chemicals that mimic the hormone estrogen which is linked with the female reproductive system. By mimicking estrogen, the animal’s body is tricked into thinking it doesn’t have to produce more estrogen and that greatly reduces their fertility. Dr. Tubbs’s team, working with the Zoo’s nutritionists, has produced a diet with less of these phytoestrogens in the hopes that the zoo-born southern white rhinos have a greater likelihood of producing offspring.

Hormones play a big role in the success of reproduction just like Dr. Tubbs plays a big role in aiding the Zoo’s rhino mothers. With the help of scientists like those in the reproductive physiology team, the San Diego Zoo can maintain its reputation of world renowned breeding facility. And, who knows, Dr. Tubbs and his team’s studies of hormones and diets could change zoo reproductive success for the better!

Shannon, Conservation Team
Week Four, Fall 2015

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Life in a Laboratory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Naomi, Careers Team
Week 4, Fall 2015