Bai Yun inhales a tantalizing scent.
Zoo InternQuest is a career exploration program for high school students. For more information see the Zoo InternQuest blog. For more photos see the Zoo InternQuest Photo Journal.
At the San Diego Zoo, there is one animal that has always stolen the show – the giant panda. People from all over the world are infatuated with the pandas at the San Diego Zoo, and we got the chance to get a behind-the-scenes view of all the “panda-monium.”
We met with Suzanne Hall, a senior research technician for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, for a tour of the Giant Panda Research Station.
If you’ve ever been to the Zoo, you’ve probably passed by the Panda Research Station billions of times and never thought of what goes on inside, but believe me, a lot does. It takes a lot of educated and passionate people to conserve a species, and Ms. Hall is the epitome of a passionate individual who strives for change. When asked to describe her job, she said, “We are the science of saving species” and after telling us all about her job, there was no denying it.
Ms. Hall’s focus is on bears and their specific behaviors. From observing animals in their natural environment to writing blogs about the animals, Ms. Hall is incredibly invested in her job. A big part of her job revolves around the study of animals’ behaviors and recording them and then applying her knowledge. So we could experience a day in the life of a research technician, Ms. Hall gave us a small ethogram (a table of different types of behaviors) allowing us to see what tools she and her colleagues work with. She showed us a video of Keesha, a sloth bear, and asked us to record what we saw based on the previously given ethogram codes. We only watched and recorded behaviors from a two-minute video, which is miniscule compared to the hours that research technicians spend observing animals. I really enjoyed observing animals, and it was exciting to see what a day in the life of a research technician is like.
Right now, Ms. Hall is focusing on sun bears and educated us about the challenges they face, as well as the steps the Institute is taking to help them. According to Ms. Hall, sun bears are incredibly likely to go extinct due to the recent decline of their habitat by 30 percent. Researchers have been studying sun bear cub behaviors at the San Diego Zoo and hope to compare their observations to orphaned sun bears in Borneo. The goal of this research is to provide some insight on the behavior and survival of orphans in the wild. It’s also important to have animals in managed-care facilities so there is a self-sustaining breeding population in the case that something happens to the animals in the wild. These animals play a crucial role in educating visitors about the species and why they are so important to the environment. They also allow for research to be conducted to aid a population in the wild.
To learn more about her job, Ms. Hall gave us an exclusive tour of the Giant Panda Research Station. She spends most of her time with the animals, but when she’s not there, she is writing blog posts as well. She led us through the building and to the main food source for the pandas, the bamboo refrigerator. Most of the bamboo fed to the pandas is grown on Zoo and Safari Park grounds, and considering the size of the bamboo refrigerator, that’s a lot!
After learning so much about pandas, we went into the exhibit viewing area to observe and learn about the specific pandas. One of the pandas, Bai Yun, has been with the Zoo since 1996! Ms. Hall talked to us about how all the Zoo animals are given enrichment objects to stimulate natural behaviors. Researchers are able to identify which objects the animal favors, as well as observe how they interact with the objects. Bai Yun’s favorite enrichment items include kitchen spices and perfumes. She prefers pumpkin pie spice and Polo cologne, and she actually covers herself with it!
It was really exciting to be able to experience a completely different side of the pandas by understanding what methods are being employed to study their behavior, as well as talking to a professional about her job. From now on I’ll never view the panda exhibit the same way!
Katherine, Real World Team (week 2)