Well, Well, Welfare

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!

Ms. Sheftel explains to the interns how wildlife welfare and enriched experiences contribute to the health and well-being of the wildlife at the Zoo.

This week, the interns had the opportunity to meet with Jessica Sheftel, the San Diego Zoo’s Wildlife Welfare Specialist, who focuses on animal welfare. Throughout the afternoon, Ms. Sheftel explained the importance of wildlife welfare and how enriched experiences can make all the difference for the wildlife in her care. She described past enrichment projects at the Zoo and taught the interns how she creates welfare plans for every animal.

Ms. Sheftel has always loved animals but never thought she would be in the career she is in today. Growing up, Ms. Sheftel wanted to be a librarian until her aunt gave her a book called Koko’s Kitten, which illustrates the friendship between a cat and a sign language using gorilla. That book made her realize how amazing animals are and inspired her to follow a career with wildlife. Ms. Sheftel began her career path by going to Beloit College in Wisconsin, where she graduated with a major in physical anthropology and a minor in behavioral studies due to her interest in primate evolution. Before coming to the San Diego Zoo, Ms. Sheftel worked at Zoo Atlanta in a data entry job for a project focused on golden lion tamarins. She also worked at Georgia State University studying bonobo communication and behavior. When Ms. Sheftel first came to the San Diego Zoo, she had a part time summer job planning enrichment, which eventually led to her position now as a wildlife welfare specialist. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) describes animal welfare as an animal’s collective physical, mental, and emotional state over a period of time that is measured on a scale from good to poor. This may include ensuring that the animal has a balanced diet, monitoring their health, and providing opportunities for them to show species-specific behavior. Ms. Sheftel plans cognitive challenges and enriched husbandry that differs from species to species, and even between individuals. As the interns got a sneak peak into her job, they saw how many components go into getting a specific outcome from an animal. When planning the activities, you often have to pick the behavior you want to see first and then create the enriched experience by working backwards from there. Ms. Sheftel expressed that one of the hardest parts of her job is working with other specialists because coming to a consensus can be hard. However, this collaborative effort is vital in ensuring the animals’ well-being is of the utmost importance. 

Ms. Sheftel describes how much wildlife welfare and enriched experiences can vary based on species specific natural history, such as how different it would be to create an experience for a koala compared to Armando the armadillo.

Enriched experiences and husbandry techniques are vital to conservation efforts. A wild animal is continuously engaged and surrounded by the noises, smells, tastes, and challenges in its habitat. In a zoo setting, the wildlife care specialists are the ones in charge of providing these stimuli. Ms. Sheftel explained the importance of her role in eliciting natural behaviors through experiences to promote good physical, mental, and emotional health. When caring for animals at the Zoo, it is only ethical for wildlife care specialists to provide them with the greatest possible life, ensuring that they are active, curious, and stimulated. Various types of enriched techniques, such as foraging or climbing for food, stimulate physical mobility and increased levels of exercise, which helps the animals maintain their fitness. These enriched husbandry techniques not only help physically but greatly benefit an animal’s overall mental well-being as well. Animals who have “too much free time” are less likely to engage in natural activities that they might do in the wild. Giving these animals tasks that they would do in their native surroundings, even simulating natural environmental cues like food availability and seasonal weather changes, improves their mental health. Finally, enrichment is critical in reintroduction efforts. Animals that may be released back into the wild must learn and practice activities that they will need to survive, such as foraging, socializing in a group, avoiding predation, and habitat selection. Overall, allowing animals to work cognitively and challenge themselves can bring about many natural behaviors that previously would not have been seen by any specialists. Ms. Sheftel really is trying to ensure that every animal at the Zoo has the best opportunity to thrive.

Armando Santiago, the three-banded armadillo, shows off his massive front nails used for digging.

After learning about wildlife welfare and the way in which Ms. Sheftel helps elicit the natural behaviors of different species, the interns were able to step into her shoes, creating an enriched experience for Armando Santiago, a very adorable three-banded armadillo. The word armadillo in Spanish means “little armoured one,” which describes the tough outer shell protecting their body. These shells are made up of keratin plates known as scutes, which vary in structure according to the species. The arrangement of plates on the back and head of all armadillos are commonly used to identify them, each pattern being individually unique. It’s important to remember that armadillos are mammals despite their shells, and it’s easy to spot the prominent hair sticking out of the sides of their body! In the Americas, there are 20 different species of armadillo, the majority of which dwell in Central or South America. Because armadillos sleep and seek shelter in burrows and are prolific diggers, they are typically found in higher concentrations in places with easier-to-dig soil. Thorn scrub, grasslands, and wooded regions are all good places to look for them. Armadillos have a huge nose that they utilize to smell out prospective food. Also, their sticky tongues are excellent for capturing and consuming crickets, fruit, mealworms, and other food that make up an armadillo’s diet. An interesting fact unique to the three-banded armadillo is that they are the only armadillo able to roll up into a ball for protection. Knowing a bit about their background and habitat, the interns were given a plethora of supplies to build an enriched environment that would promote some of Armando’s natural behaviors. Utilizing paper, sticks, vegetation, and lots of cardboard, the interns built a spiral shaped habitat ready for Armando’s skills. After a couple of trials, the interns observed Armando burying under paper, plowing himself into small holes, digging through different material, and smelling all the varied scents his nose could catch.

The interns construct an enriched experience for Armando in the form of a maze. He loved it!

Ms. Sheftel stated that one of her favorite parts of her job is working with the more challenging animals that require creative problem solving. Her current favorite species to work with are the snakes. Her and her team are working on creating a more well-rounded welfare program for these unique animals. During her presentation, she told the interns to constantly ask themselves what behaviors they want to promote. She finds herself asking this frequently with arboreal (tree-dwelling) snakes, who require environmental cues that promote climbing behaviors. By creating these opportunities the snakes could develop the natural climbing skills that they would need in the wild to find food, shelter, and warmth. When asked what her favorite challenge is, she thought again back to the snakes. She told the interns about a snake that had spent most of its life working as a wildlife ambassador. A wildlife ambassador is an animal who works with the wildlife care specialists and does presentations and special experiences with visitors at the Zoo. The wildlife care specialists realized that this snake in particular wasn’t exhibiting natural hunting behaviors when it came time for him to eat. She said this was a particular challenge for the welfare specialists as they had to “undo” previous training and were trying to promote a natural hunting striking behavior. Lastly, she discussed some of her favorite behaviors she’s seen displayed by the wildlife that she’s worked with. Her favorite to watch is called ‘pronking’ or ‘stotting’ usually displayed by gazelles where they spring up into the air with all four legs dangling below them. These behaviors are displayed the most by younger wildlife, often suggesting playfulness. 

Here is Armando navigating his maze! He had items to manipulate, food to find, paper to bury himself under, and new scents to explore.

With her background in anthropology and behavioral studies, Ms. Sheftel has been given the relevant skills to be successful in her career. She left the interns with some parting words of wisdom for what they should do going forward. She advised that they seek out any animal experience possible, domestic or exotic. She also told them to not shy away from math and statistics because many aspects of wildlife care revolve around species population studies and require a lot more data analysis than one might expect. Ms. Sheftel recommends gaining experience in any way possible and creating connections with other professionals to generate career opportunities. Opportunities come around if you work hard, and it’s important to seize them whenever you can.

The interns loved meeting Ms. Sheftel and learning about the importance of collaboration and teamwork across multiple departments throughout the Zoo to ensure that the animals are thriving. 

After an afternoon with Ms. Sheftel, the interns were left with a new understanding of the variety of work it takes to create a habitat where an animal can thrive. It takes collaboration, hard work, dedication, and creativity, but in the end it’s well worth it to see the wildlife climb, pronk, and crawl in ways that reveal just how amazing each species is.

Week Four, Fall Session 2021