Redefining the Classroom

Student biologist ventures off for internship with Detroit Zoo

Posted: September 17th, 2013

FRIENDS IN WILD PLACES – Lake Superior State University conservation biology student Alexis Schefka bonds with Jabari, a male giraffe at the Detroit Zoo. Schefka's three-month internship this past summer has piqued her interest enough to consider zookeeping as a career. She still has a preference for marine animals, though. (LSSU/Alexis Schefka)

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SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. - A Lake Superior State University student has channeled her love for animals into working this past summer with mammals at the Detroit Zoo. The three-month internship has piqued biologist Alexis Schefka’s interest enough to consider zookeeping as a career.

The Shelby-township resident, a junior in LSSU’s conservation biology program, learned of the internship through the Detroit Zoo's web page. As far as she knows, she is the first LSSU student to ever intern there.

“I've always loved working with animals, especially marine mammals, so I wanted to get experience working with them so I could prepare myself for a possible marine mammal internship next summer,” Schefka says.

The internship was unpaid, but Schefka received four school credits by writing weekly journals to her supervising LSSU professor, Ashley Moerke, reflecting on her experiences.

“I basically did what a zookeeper does," she says. "I helped tend animals, cleaned yards and stalls, prepared diets, medicated them, trained them, observed if they did anything out of the ordinary, and then helped with public talks."

Schefka's experiences were as varied as the animals she cared for.

“I was a mammal intern all summer for seven, two-week rotations," she says. "One rotation was with giraffes, kangaroos and wallabies. Another was with rhinos, and the third was the Veldt, which consists of zebras, elands, warthogs, kudu deer, and fallow deer.”

Schefka’s first rewarding experience was working with the giraffes. “I fell in love with Jabari and Kivuli, the male and female giraffes,” she says.

A zookeeper's work with the pair gave Schefka a firsthand look at a type of conditioning - called target training - that's done with animals everywhere, that of reward and reinforcement.

"The first training session I watched was getting them to put their hooves on a box so their keeper, Gretchen, could do some trimming," Schefka recalls. "The keeper would take a target, a buoy on a stick, and say “TARGET” and they would have to touch their nose to the target. Gretchen had a clicker she would click when they touched it and then she would give them food. This way the giraffes associate the click with food, which is a good reward for hooves on a box."

The final goal of target training is for an animal to connect the clicker noise, not a food reward, with a doing desirable behavior. This training is useful in getting animals comfortable for vaccines, or staying calm if they are temporarily confined in tight spaces such as a transfer pen.

Enrichment is also important to the animals. It is not ideal to have unengaged animals in zoos.

"One method of enrichment we did with giraffes was to put bamboo out all over the yard and stuff it in the trees," says Schefka. "As soon as we let them out in the morning, they were eating it. A major detail I have learned about giraffes is they are food motivated."

Schefka picked up on formulating enrichment ideas for other animals.

"There are so many options when it comes to chimps and gorillas," she says. Schefka squirted ketchup on leaves and into rock crevices for the gorillas. Keepers froze coconuts and smashed them on the ground. The gorillas relish slushy coconut milk. Another favorite is mixing oatmeal with bananas and peanut butter and freezing it.

"I also got a good look at the veterinary side of zookeeping and its role in an animal's life,” says Schefka.

For example, there was a wallaby named Coral. Keepers wanted Coral to eat some produce and take a pill. Schefka coaxed the stubborn wallaby numerous times, but it would not budge. Then Schefka noticed that it looked like Coral was gumming something. She notified her supervisor immediately and a vet was called.

“It turns out Coral's baby teeth were giving her issues," Schefka says. "What is neat is that I was apart of everything my supervisor had to report. We told the hoof stock supervisor about Coral's chewing problem, and I was acknowledged for my contribution in finding it."

Schefka really enjoyed gorillas and chimps because they had the most complex personalities of any animal she worked with. Schefka's professional training has taught her not to project human characteristics onto wild animals, nevertheless many times a day the gorillas would charm her heart with funny mannerisms.

Pende, a male gorilla that is very gentle and relaxed and the least dominant of his group, became Schefka's favorite. Rubber boots mesmerized Niyani, a female chimp that is not fully accepted into the social structure. She usually "displayed" for the keepers, getting all riled up and screaming; but when she saw boots, she instantly quieted and dropped to the ground in fascination. Then there was how other chimps interacted with two-year-old Akira. "She would run up and jump into their arms, and they'd hug her right back," recalls Schefka.

At one point a male chimp was chasing Akira and she ran into her mother’s arms, who literally hugged her and buried her face in Akira’s neck. It was the single most precious thing Schefka ever witnessed.

Schefka's Detroit Zoo internship concluded the third week of August, which got her back to the Sault in time for LSSU’s fall semester with plenty of new stories and knowledge to share.

"Moments with these animals make it obvious to me that I could very easily be a keeper and care for terrestrial animals," she says. "I still plan on trying for a more marine focus for my career, but I now know that I could be happy being a zookeeper."


CONTACTS: John Shibley, e-mail, 906-635-2314; Tom Pink, e-mail, 635-2315; Helena Wollan, e-mail, 630-0610.