Just a Hop, Slither, and a Crawl

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!

Dawn_W1_picPeter Gilson, a Reptile Keeper and Educator Guide for the San Diego Zoo, was able to show the interns around the Galapagos Tortoise exhibit, as well as behind-the-scenes of the amphibian building and Reptile House. We learned all kinds of facts about Galapagos Tortoises while looking around their enclosure.

Did you know Galapagos tortoises can hiss? But, it’s not for the reasons you may be thinking. When threatened, these gentle giants will tuck their heads into their shell causing them to exhale which causes the hissing sound. Also, mammals aren’t the only ones who like scratches! In the tortoises’ natural habitat, Galapagos finches would eat bacteria and parasites off of the Tortoises’ necks. Humans can simulate this by scratching their necks; when prompted with scratching, the tortoise will stand up higher and stretch out their necks for easy access. Mr. Gilson allowed the interns to all take turns scratching at a tortoise’s neck, which was definitely a unique experience!

Mr. Gilson began his career at the Zoo 8 years ago, as a program aid for the Education Department, helping with educational programs like summer camp. Mr. Gilson studied Environmental Science as an undergraduate at Point Loma Nazarene University, where he was able to obtain an internship at the San Diego Zoo’s Reptile Department through a Point Loma Alumnus. He was also able to work at the San Diego Zoo’s Institute of Conservation Research, where he did research on reptiles and amphibians such as the mountain yellow-legged frog and Caribbean rock iguana. After graduating college, Mr. Gilson became an educator guide at the Zoo, where he has been working ever since.

Mr. Gilson always knew he loved reptiles, but he realized during his education that he definitely didn’t want to be a keeper. He expressed how he prefers educating and interacting with the public rather than the day-to-day responsibilities required of keepers.

As an educator guide, Mr. Gilson’s job primarily consists of giving tours and conducting presentations at places like elementary schools. He often brings animal ambassadors, such as Ruby, the enormous red-tailed boa, to help engage and interest kids in learning about animals and conservation.

If working with the scaly and slimy is your thing, Mr. Gilson advises having a strong knowledge of herpetological taxonomy, or the scientific names of various reptiles and amphibians. Keepers often need to communicate about specific species, and knowing who and what you’re talking about is always essential. Mr. Gilson also advises future reptile keepers that like most professions, prior knowledge and “hands-on” experience, such as a earning a degree, volunteering opportunities, and internships are invaluable. Reptiles and amphibians are very unique to most other animals, and keepers need to be aware of those differences, and how to tend to the reptiles and amphibians in relation to those distinctions.

The cold-blooded are often associated with bad reputations and stereotypes, which for the most part are unwarranted. Many are understood, and reptile keepers at the Zoo have been able to teach them some rudimentary training, and even teach the animals their own names, proving that they are capable of much more than their bad reputation. Reptile keepers and educator guides, like Mr. Gilson, are working to break these bad perceptions and teach future generations to have respect for our scaly friends.

Dawn, Careers Team
Week One, Fall 2015