A Slimy and Scaly Start

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!

Bami_W1_picFor our first week, we had the amazing opportunity of meeting Peter Gilson, a Reptile Keeper and Educator Guide at the San Diego Zoo. Mr. Gilson’s background is no less fascinating than it is motivational. He started off holding different internship positions while taking classes at Point Loma Nazarene University. After graduating with a major in Environmental Science, Mr. Gilson ended up working for the summer camps at the Zoo for eight years. Now, however, when he is not helping take care of the animals, he is taking the public on tours and presenting to schools around the county. Through years of dedication, Mr. Gilson ended up in a great position at one of the best zoos in the nation.As Mr. Peter Gilson emphasized during our tour of the reptile and amphibian exhibits, “Conservation is multifaceted”. This statement could not be any more insightful. Most people are misinformed that conservation, by definition, only deals with the protection of an already endangered animal species. In contrast, conservation entails a vast array of different aspects and perspectives that I will be exposed to during my journey.

First stop on our adventure was seeing the Galápagos tortoises. With one of the largest colonies of tortoises in the world, the San Diego Zoo is at the forefront of conservation efforts. Mr. Gilson said that these amazing creatures can live an upwards of 150 years, with some living to almost 200! The Zoo has taken care of some of their Galápagos tortoises for over 80 years. This and other conservation efforts exemplify the long-term interest the Zoo has for not only these animals but for reptiles and amphibians as a collective. However, this has not always been the case. Mr. Gilson stated that before conservation efforts began, Galápagos tortoises were at major risk due to habitat destruction and degradation. This was in part a result of the human population bringing in a number of invasive species like goats, pigs, and cattle to the Islands. The Zoo’s efforts to reverse these effects have been particularly successful through breeding programs and spreading public awareness.

As the day continued, Mr. Gilson shifted focus to other reptiles and amphibians. We were able to learn more about different threats that these animals are subjected to and various conservation efforts the Zoo takes part in. Almost a third of all amphibian species are threatened with extinction. One of the most pressing issues driving this decline, as Mr. Gilson highlighted, is chytrid fungus. Chytrid fungus attacks the skin of amphibians and subsequently destroys their respiratory system. Its primary victims are frogs and salamanders. For the past years, the San Diego Zoo has actively researched chytrid fungus and ways to treat and prevent it.

During our time with Mr. Gilson, we visited the behind the scenes area of the amphibian exhibits. It was there that he talked about how he emphasizes conservation when educating the public. He stated that during tours and presentations, he tries to make it clear “what you can do to make an impact”. This includes improving water quality by creating less chemical pollution and nutrient loading. Nutrient loading includes the use of harmful fertilizers that leach their way into reptile and amphibian habitats. We can all do this by simply becoming more aware of what we use like weed killers and fertilizers that will eventually end up in the environment. Mr. Gilson’s efforts towards a more knowledgeable community can make a huge difference in the world around us. People like Mr. Gilson, who positively influence the actions of others through education, are truly inspiring.

Bami, Conservation Team
Week One, Fall 2015