Putting the Education in Conservation

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 Wildlife Alliance, to learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

Meet two of the San Diego Zoo’s Educator Guides: Maya O’Connor and Adriana Blair! At this moment, Ms. O’Connor and Ms. Blair were explaining some amazing facts about giraffes!

Today was an exciting day since it was the very first day for the interns to officially embark on their San Diego Zoo InternQuest adventure! Maya O’Connor and Adriana Blair, today’s presenters, work as Educator Guides at the Zoo. Even though every day looks different, the interns learned about the educators’ roles as they received first-hand experience of what Ms. O’Connor’s and Ms. Blair’s days look like. Little did the interns know of the thrilling experiences waiting ahead, such as feeding giraffes and going behind the scenes at the Zoo to meet wildlife ambassadors.

In the first week of this program the interns had the opportunity to work with amazing educators Ms. O’Connor and Ms. Blair. While both are UC Davis graduates, Ms. O’Connor majored in animal science and received a master’s in education, whereas Ms. Blair majored in wildlife, fish and conservation biology. Early on, Ms. Blair attended Roosevelt Middle School making the Zoo her backyard. While in middle school she participated in a program called Girls in Science, which is a partnership between the school and the Zoo to encourage girls to get involved in conservation and science. From this program she found her passion for animals. Ms. Blair started working at the Zoo as a Program Aide in the Education Department. While doing this she strived to learn more about animal handling, which led her to an internship handling raptors at the Living Coast Discovery Center. In the Education Department she was a Narrator for the giant pandas and taught summer camp before being promoted to her job as an Educator Guide. On the other hand, Ms. O’Connor had a strong interest in veterinary science. Realizing it was not her passion, Ms. O’Connor moved to teaching courses in biology and agriculture. After working at a high school for a couple years she decided it was time for a change. She then came to a difficult decision, the Zoo or teaching. She ended up choosing the Zoo and has never regretted her decision. Applying for a job as an educator, Ms. O’Connor received her acceptance and has now been here for 11 years.

Harriet the giraffe, displayed her 16-inch long tongue as Ms. O’Connor fed her a piece of lettuce. Lettuce is a favorite snack for giraffes so they never miss the chance when they see it!

Ms. O’ Connor and Ms. Blair appreciate and enjoy the wide variety of tasks that every day brings. The idea of every day being different generates excitement and allows the two educators to be on their toes at all moments. They described to the interns a time when a giraffe in the San Diego Zoo was in labor and how, after hearing the news, all the educators and other staff members would rush to the location in search for the newest baby. One thing for certain is that both Ms. O’Connor and Ms. Blair love seeing the impact that they have on others through their work. Whether speaking to a private tour or simply watching others’ first experience with a specific animal species, the exuberance that comes from opening other people’s eyes to wildlife never quite ceases to end. For example, Ms. O’Connor described her feelings towards Make A Wish programs and the distinctive impressions educators have on bringing about happiness during some of the most difficult trials. Again, it is that feeling of making a change in someone’s heart or mind, a small impact that could change another’s perspective on life completely, that leads both educators to continue working hard every day.

Ms. O’Connor feeds Icana, the Brazilian porcupine. Don’t be fooled, she is a picky eater! Even though she loves bananas she makes sure to remove the peel before she eats it.

The first week of the Zoo InternQuest, the interns had the amazing experience of meeting two wildlife ambassadors; a two-toed sloth and a Brazilian porcupine. A wildlife ambassador is an animal trained by specialists to help educate the public about animal conservation and inspire guests to be an ally for wildlife. The interns met two of these animals to experience this inspiration firsthand. Ms. O’Connor has been working with Icana, the Zoo’s Brazilian porcupine, for around 10 years which has allowed them to form a very deep bond based on trust. She helps get her ready for encounters with the public, such as behind the scenes tours or summer camps. She recalls one of her favorite experiences with Icana, in which the porcupine made a very prominent “mooing” sound. Ms. O’Connor knew that porcupines tended to make a variety of vocalizations that can “sound like they are grumbling under their breath,” however it was a real surprise when the sound that escaped her mouth was one like a cow. These Brazilian porcupines have a distinct warning coloration with black-and-white barbed quills and yellow undertones to tell predators to stay away. Ms. Blair then introduced the interns to one of her favorites, Xena, the two-toed sloth. Two-toed sloths are closely related to armadillos and anteaters. Sloths love to hang from their habitat in the rainforest so their bodies are built to live upside down. They have a diet of leaves, bark, flowers and fruit. Ms. Blair emphasised that wildlife at the Zoo are trained using positive reinforcement such as food rewards during these encounters. While the Brazilian porcupine and two-toed sloth conservation status is stable, there are still many threats to these animals such as habitat loss, logging, and cattle grazing. Some ways the community can focus on the conservation of these species is by making better choices for the planet. Be aware of your paper and wood products, try to be waste free, and reuse as many materials as you can.

Ms. Blair talks about Xena, the sweetest sloth, who serves as a wildlife ambassador. Xena was born at the Zoo and enjoyed hanging from one of her favorite places: the rope!

Among the plethora of jobs that the Educators perform, one of the most impactful is giving tours to visitors at the Zoo who are interested in learning more about wildlife conservation. During the Inside Look tour, they take visitors behind the scenes to meet wildlife ambassadors and experience a glimpse into wildlife care and the conservation work done at the Zoo. Another program that stands out is School in the Park. This multi visit program blends formal and informal learning by utilizing the spaces and resources of various museums in Balboa Park and the Zoo. This week-long program provides authentic learning and helps inspire younger age groups to become involved in wildlife conservation and may help to create future scientists and researchers. Ms. Blair and Ms. O’Connor also participate in outreach programs that they conduct both virtually and in-person. These programs allow students a chance to learn about wildlife and conservation, and form connections with wildlife they may never see otherwise. These outreach and education programs are not just for local schools and guests. A virtual world has allowed audiences from across the globe to visit the Zoo and guests travel from far and wide to come see the plants and wildlife. Ms. O’Connor has also spent time abroad collaborating with educators internationally. Ms. Blair and Ms. O’Connor spread their knowledge and inspire others to go forth and contribute to conservation in any way possible.

Ms. O’Connor and Ms. Blair took the interns to the next exciting destination! Giving tours to the public and educating them about wildlife is one of the many roles they have. Along the way, everyone was able to enjoy all the amazing animals at the Zoo.

Being educators for quite some time, Ms. O’Connor and Ms. Blair provided insight to the interns about some key aspects of their career journey. As a San Diego native, Ms. Blair described her passion as stemming from constantly being near the Zoo, both during middle school but also while attending San Diego High School, just down the street. During these formative years, she visited multiple times, went on caravan safaris, and partook in programs that helped feed that interest. It was her childhood that inspired her to pursue her career as an educator today. Ms. O’Connor on the other hand, spent time as a teacher for many years before starting her wildlife educator journey. She never had a huge push for conservation until experiencing that aha moment – that moment where she knew she would love this job. Having a teaching credential really gave her an advantage in the education field, allowing her to incorporate her past experience into a career that also specializes in teaching. Ms. Blair wishes she had a teaching credential prior to her present job as she believes it would be very useful for this field. She also advised that animal handling experience is useful in the job because of the work they do with wildlife ambassadors. Both educators graduated from the University of California, Davis and they recommended attending this college if your interests align with environmental or wildlife studies, due to the variety of programs available. They unanimously agreed that keeping an open mind and exploring new things both in and out of the classroom were critical to discovering their love for teaching.

At the end of the day, the interns got a taste of what the next seven weeks of Zoo InternQuest will be like. It was a day of learning and having fun as the interns and Educator Guides got to know each other more! Ms. Blair and Ms. O‘Connor shared with the interns their stories that led to their current job at the San Diego Zoo as educators. Their passion and contribution for conservation has certainly left an impact on every person they have educated. Besides all the incredible knowledge that the interns acquired, the highlight of the day was definitely meeting the wildlife ambassadors: Xena the sloth, Icana the Brazilian porcupine, and Harriet the giraffe. The interns were all impressed with how much they learned in just the first day and could not wait for the future presenters. 

Week One, Fall Session 2021