What I Did This Summer: Otterbein Junior at ZooTampa

Posted Aug 11, 2021

Preston Smith 
Majors: Zoo and Conservation Science and Biology 
Class of 2022 
Hometown: Bethel Park, Pennsylvania 

As a zoo and conservation science major, I’ve always had a strong interest in the work done by zoos, both in conservation and behind-the-scenes. In fact, the relationship between Otterbein and the Columbus Zoo is what led me to the Zoo and Conservation Science program.  

When it came time to look for an internship, I wanted to expand my life experience. I’d been working with a local veterinarian in Finleyville, PA, for several years primarily on small and even a few exotic animals, but I hoped to expand on that this summer. With the country re-opening after many COVID-19 limitations were lifted in late spring of 2021, I was hopeful that more opportunities would be available to explore larger exotic animals.  

After a rigorous application and interview process with several zoos and wildlife centers, I had to choose my opportunity. I chose the animal care intern position in the Asia-Australia department of ZooTampa at Lowry Park and am so glad I made the decision to join them. 

Working at ZooTampa was slightly intimidating because of their distinguished reputation. Not only is it an AZA accredited zoo, but it is also featured on National Geographic’s show Secrets of the Zoo: Tampa.  

Being an accredited zoo, it also must be very focused on conservation. On the zoo’s website, their mission is to “Rescue, rehabilitate and care for animals; create exceptional personalized experiences that connect people with wildlife and each other in fun, immersive ways.” It is very clear that this organization is dedicated to this mission from their conservation projects with animals such as the Florida panther, manatee, indigo snake, and many others. 

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Preston Smith ’22

My first few days were spent being trained on the Australia side of the zoo, which includes koalas, wallabies, an emu, and the pony barn and petting zoo areas, which have ponies, llamas, goats, and sheep.  

Then, I was trained on the Asia side, which has animals such as a sun bear, Malayan tapir, Malayan tiger, babirusa, Visayan warty pig, lowland anoa, and many more. After my training, I rotated between the two sides on days that I worked. Though the routine stayed generally consistent on each side, the animals always kept us on our toes. 

A typical day started with outdoor habitat cleaning, enrichment creation, and indoor habitat cleaning in the morning. The afternoon was flexible for a variety of different projects, such as training or veterinary procedures like blood draws or quick check-ups. One day, I got to go over to the Africa department to watch an elephant blood draw, which is taken from their ear.  

When the park closed for the day, animals would be shifted inside where they would have plenty of enrichment objects for their night. Each day, the whole process starts over. Thanks to the animals, no day is ever the same. 

It is very hard to pick which animal was my favorite to work with. Myrtle the babirusa was very sweet and super curious about everything. Albert and Ubi the Malayan tapirs were so funny and performed for the guided tours, but usually not enough to swim out for the melons. I noticed that they loved the rain, which happens very often in Florida. They would run around in the yard and then go for a swim. Most days, only us interns were there to see it.  

Kacey the sun bear was a “performer” and was completely food motivated. He loved anything relating to food and would bend over backwards to get some of his meal. The koalas, Heathcliff and Ceduna, were so much fun to be around. When going in to feed them and clean their habitat, they would wake up and walk around on their branches or on the floor. As a zoo guest, this is very rare to see, but working behind the scenes gave me that experience.  

One goat, Django, had to be on stall rest for a few days after hurting his leg in the petting zoo. The day before he went back with the other goats, we let him wander around the barn to make sure he was no longer limping. He followed us like a dog wherever we went. He ate lunch in the office with the keepers, ate from the hay bale in the barn, snuck into the feed room to steal some snacks, and got plenty of attention that day.  

Lastly, there are tales of the 41-year-old orangutan, DeeDee, targeting interns by throwing something that you’ve all heard that this species is prone to do. I can confirm it’s true, but luckily for me, her aim was off. 

Additionally, it isn’t just about the animals, it’s also about their environments. Knowing what plants are safe for the animals is extremely important. We would collect different plants that animals would potentially eat in the wild and feed them foods that they would browse upon. It is also just as important to know who likes what kind of browse. 

Being in Florida, I was able to take advantage of the location for some hiking and nature walks along the beaches (and snuck time in for a few adventure parks). I even made a visit to Busch Gardens a learning experience as I was able to observe a procedure to repair a leg fracture of a knob billed African duck. 

My long-term goal after graduation involves continuing my education toward becoming a veterinarian, preferably at a zoo. This internship affirmed so much about what it is like to work at a zoo and emphasized the hard work keepers and veterinarians do behind the scenes that the public never gets to see. My experiences certainly provided steps toward that future goal.  

Every person I worked with loved what they did, and that was obvious from day one. It’s clear that animals can bring out the best in everyone. I hope that, in the future, I can do the same for them. Moving forward, I am thankful for my time at the ZooTampa and the positive impact it will have on my future working with animals.  

I am lucky I was able to participate in this amazing opportunity with ZooTampa, and I want to thank The Kyle Miller Scholarship and Otterbein for the generous contribution that made this experience possible.