I’m so thankful I’ve had the opportunity to be an intern at Southwick’s Zoo this summer! I’ve been able to accomplish my original learning goals while gaining valuable insights along the way. I’ve had the opportunity to work with almost all of the intern birds and in depth with a specific few. This has allowed me to gain real-world experience in training and conditioning behaviors, and I’ve been able to do more than I expected.
I’m still implementing a training project I drafted for one of the birds, Kiki, in order to stethoscope-train her so that she’s comfortable with having a stethoscope on her chest during veterinary exams. The process of designing her training plan was useful in and of itself, because it taught me how to break down behavioral training into achievable steps. Inevitably, unanticipated deviations happened almost immediately that I then had to problem-solve. For example, Kiki has a habit of bobbing up and down between cued behaviors, which causes her to become distracted and makes training more difficult. I found I had to start training a different cue to help keep her calm and still between cues so that training could progress. The progress I’ve made with her will be continued by staff members after my internship ends, but it is rewarding to have started her down this path.
Another goal I fulfilled was contributing to education about wildlife conservation. In addition to outreach during the shows, I also participated in EARTH Awareness Day on August 6th, where groups of interns made projects centered around any pressing conservation issue. My group chose to talk about how dangerous the illegal pet trade is for the captured animals themselves, the humans who attempt to keep them as pets, and the environment on a larger scale. For this project, I spent a great deal of time researching this issue and how it intersects with other environmental issues. We centered our discussion around a specific species, the cotton-top tamarin, which is critically endangered (there are only about 2,000 mature individuals left). They not only have been taken for the pet trade (and used as test subjects in colon cancer studies), but also have been severely impacted by deforestation and urban sprawl. My group put together a poster presentation as well as creating three interactive activities. We presented this to the public all day, and I enjoyed talking to people about this issue. We were able to talk about ways to help, and for those interested in concretely helping cotton-top tamarins, we encouraged them to look into Proyecto Tití, an organization that specifically focuses on aiding this species. It was nice to see how receptive zoo visitors were and to see them enjoying our activities.
In addition to gaining skills and experience in both the animal care and conservation outreach areas, I’ve also gained insight about my learning style in the workplace. Figuring out how I take in and process information has been helpful, and pushing myself out of my comfort zone has helped me feel more confident and capable. For example, now I’m able to comfortably stand on a stage in front of a large crowd and give informal presentations. Overcoming my fear like this has taught me that as long as I do something I initially find intimidating a few times, I become desensitized to the feeling and can move past it more quickly than I realized. This lesson will stay with me as I move forward.
For anyone interested in pursuing an internship at Southwick’s Zoo, I highly recommend it. One practical piece of advice I’d give for those doing a summer internship is to stay hydrated! Half the day at work is spent outside where it’s insanely hot, and the other half is inside (where it’s actually even hotter). So drink a lot and be prepared to sweat a lot! Also, be prepared for longer hours than expected in the beginning of the internship. It takes a fair amount of time to learn the specific terminology used and to learn how to perform a plethora of niche tasks both efficiently and quickly. There are also different protocols for indoor vs. outdoor husbandry, and even different rules for each specific bird, so the days often ran long for the first few weeks. You don’t clock out until you ensure all tasks are complete and the animals are cared for (as it should be, because their well-being depends on it), so having a flexible schedule is necessary. It’s also good to be aware that despite being fun and rewarding, working in the animal care field isn’t always glamorous. Most of the day is manual work, and while it may not be lifting heavy weights all the time (which depends on the department and what animals you’re working with), it is still constant movement and a lot of crouching in awkward spaces. A large part of husbandry is cleaning poop, so if you have a sensitive nose or get easily grossed out, be prepared!
Glamorous or not, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this internship. It has been impactful and has helped clarify my career direction. My interest in animals started before the internship, but I didn’t anticipate just how much I’d enjoy working with them! I really loved bonding with the animals and being part of a team that helps make sure they have the best care possible. Educating the public and contributing to conservation efforts was also a meaningful pursuit for me. I am enormously grateful to the W.O.W fellowship for helping to support me during this incredible experience!