Caring for Baby Animals

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 adventure here on the Zoo’s website!

On Wednesday, interns had the pleasure of meeting Kim Weibel, a keeper for the NACU (Neonatal Assisted Care Unit) at the San Diego Zoo. Ms. Weibel told us all about what it’s like to care for baby mammals whose mothers are absent or otherwise cannot do so themselves. Her job includes finding the proper bottle size, nipple shape, and formula recipe for each animal, preparing the formula, feeding the babies, checking up on their physical health, and eventually introducing them to the adult animals of their species.

The first step is making sure the bottle size and shape are perfect for the animal. Ms. Weibel showed us about 30 differently shaped bottle nipples, one even custom-made. Once she has this, it’s time to find the right formula. Each animal has a different formula recipe to fit its nutritional needs, so a nutritionist is able to find or create a recipe and relay it to Ms. Weibel and her team. She must then weigh the animal and see how much it needs, then calculate the exact quantities of the ingredients needed.

Each type of animal also has a specific feeding schedule, so Ms. Weibel must always be on call. While hoofstock only need to be fed during the hours of daylight, primates and carnivores have a much more demanding schedule and need to be fed every two and a half hours. However, even though being a NACU keeper may mean long hours, Ms. Weibel says she loves her job and truly enjoys taking care of these baby animals.

Once an animal is old enough to be introduced back to its enclosure, Ms. Weibel is part of the team that coordinates and oversees the reintroduction process. Most of the time, the baby is first introduced while inside a separate part of the exhibit. That way, the adults can smell it and see it, but not hurt it. If that goes well, an opening is made in the baby’s crate, large enough for only it to leave and re-enter. The final step is letting the baby animal into the enclosure to interact with its group, no barriers included.

Our intern group got to tour the NACU with Ms. Weibel, seeing the incubators, enclosures, file cabinets, and refrigerator/freezer. Each of these apparatuses has a specific and important role in the care of the baby mammals. The incubators were originally designed for human babies, but are able to be used for other animals as well. Once the animals are big enough to leave the incubator, there are a few other small enclosures for them located in the NACU. The file cabinets contain all of the information needed to calculate the formula recipes, and the refrigerator and freezer store all of the ingredients to create different formulas.

After the brief presentation, we got to have the hands-on experience of making formula ourselves. We were given a booklet, and had to find the recipe for baby kudu formula, mix it, strain it, bottle it, and label it with the species name and formula expiration date.

Kim has mothered baby pandas, cats, marsupials, and more. It was really exciting to get a closer look at what it’s like to be a keeper for baby mammals! If you find an injured or orphan animal in your neighborhood, take it to your local wildlife rehabilitation center so that someone can patch it up and nurse it back to health, like what Kim does at the San Diego Zoo.

Sage, Real World Team
Week One, Fall Session 2017

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