This summer, my love for animals has come full circle with my internship at the Oakland Zoo in California. As a child, I spent many wondrous hours here, watching and learning—even interacting with some animals (particularly goats at the children’s zoo). Now, as a recipient of a Whitman internship grant, I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to work behind the scenes caring for some of the same species I visited many years ago while gaining valuable experience toward my goal of becoming a wildlife veterinarian.
More than 700 species, many of them rescues, make their home here at the Oakland Zoo. The zoo’s main mission is wildlife conservation both globally and locally. It’s known for its for high quality animal care, and as an intern here, I’m able to contribute to that effort, working under the guidance of zoo keepers and other staff. I’m assigned to string 3 where my charges include Lesser Flamingos, African Spoonbills, Siamang Apes, Cotton Top Tamarins, Sun Bears, White-Nosed Coatimundi, an Indian Muntjac deer, Wallaroos and Emus.
My assignments vary with each shift, but generally include some habitat maintenance, animal observation, feeding and providing enrichment. Enrichment is a particularly important component for animals kept in captivity as it encourages natural behaviors when they forage for food. For the Coatimundi and the Cotton Top Tamarins we hide food in puzzle toys, add new forage material (such a wood or recycled paper), and put new browse (plants) into their night house. Coatimundis are omnivores and get kibble, egg, bugs and mice throughout the day. The Siamangs also can forage for bugs but we feed them biscuits (in the morning) and fruit and vegetables. For the Siamang Apes, in addition to filling puzzle toys with food and scattering some on the ground, I add more to large plastic bottles with holes in them and use pulleys to place them in high places. One of my favorite activities is tossing the two Siamangs sliced oranges at lunch.
As an intern, I’m also responsible for designing and implementing a research project related to one of the species on my string. I chose to focus on our two Cotton-Top Tamarins. They are a critically endangered species due to habitat loss in their native region of Northwest Columbia. They’re also one of the smallest primates in the world, weighing on average between eight to ten ounces. My research involves observing the tamarins to assess behavioral changes in relation to enrichment, weather and external conditions throughout the day. I’m also working on developing new forms of food presentation and enrichment activities.
Many of the animals at the zoo are rescues. One of the Sun Bears, Ting Ting was sold into the pet trade in Malaysia as a cub, remaining there for four years until rescued and sent to an Orangutan refuge. In 2006, at age 16, she came to the Oakland Zoo. Now she lives with two sisters, Pagi and Bulan, and is free to roam a spacious and naturalistic enclosure, the largest such habitat in the country. Twice each day we hide worms in logs for them, skewer fruit on trees, spray spices, stuff firehoses with food or place peanut butter on logs. One fun Sun Bear fact is that the yellow/tan crest on their chest is like a fingerprint, unique. Ting Ting has a v-shaped crest, Bulan’s is u-shaped crest while Pagi’s is round.
In addition to animal care, I also spend an hour each week in classes taught by zoo staff. These cover a range of topics, from animal behavior to veterinary care. We’re also given a behind the scenes tour exploring different parts of the zoo. This past week we visited the tortoise exhibit and I met a resident who is over 130 years old!
As an environmental studies/history major at Whitman, I’ve found that much of what I’ve learned in the classroom has real applications in my work with animals at the Oakland Zoo. I’ve also gained invaluable hands on experience and new insights into the crucial role organizations like the Oakland Zoo play in preserving endangered species while promoting global conservation and educating the public.
Experiences like Dylan’s are made possible by the Whitman Internship Grant, which provides funding for students to participate in unpaid internships at both for-profit and non-profit organizations. To learn how you could secure a Whitman Internship Grant or host a Whitman intern at your organization, click here or contact Assistant Director for Internship Programs Victoria Wolff