Zoo Intern Experiences the Otter Side of Hands-On Learning
As an intern at the Palm Beach Zoo, Carolina Paola Segarra kept frequent company with the animals including endangered Malayan tigers, Goeldi's monkeys, and the playful North American river otters.
A senior majoring in environmental science/studies at the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences, Segarra's goal was to observe the animals' behavior and record data as part of a hands-on, research-focused internship at the zoo's conservation and research department.
"I always had something to do, which was very exciting and kept things interesting," said Segarra, who has worked in animal-care programs since middle school. Her recent work at the nonprofit zoo—home to more than 1,400 animals—fulfilled requirements for a practicum course at the college.
By choosing to major in environmental science/studies, "I decided to combine my passions to better understand environmental research and its relationship to animal welfare and rights," Segarra said.
"Palm Beach Zoo offered the perfect opportunity with its conservation and research internship because I was able to study how environmental factors play a role in zoos and how conservation education plays a role in future change."
At the zoo, Segarra's research focused on the correlation between an animal's environment and certain behaviors. Spending time with river otters, for instance, her goal was to observe whether the physical size of zoo guests caused abnormal behaviors by the otters, or if novel objects provided by zookeepers stimulated the otters to be more active.
In another study, she explored whether certain frog species could raise their offspring in captivity as they would in the wild, and if rearing the tadpoles in certain conditions would increase their chances of surviving to adulthood.
"This is the kind of opportunity that students usually get working with faculty on independent research projects, but seldom during an internship," said Paul Baldauf, Ph.D., associate professor at the college who chairs the environmental science/studies program and who served as Segarra's faculty advisor.
"Her level of engagement in research as part of an internship is unusual. She's had a richer experience than most students because of the degree that she was trusted to collect and analyze data on these animals. Carolina will understand more about the formulation of hypotheses and collection and analysis of data than other students at her level.
"Students in the environmental science/studies major have the chance to apply scientific principles to solve environmental problems. It bridges theory and practice," Baldauf said.
"For Carolina, this internship has been especially helpful because zoo keeping is a very specialized field with specialized experiential and educational requirements. Carolina has a much better understanding about how to achieve her professional goals now than she did a year ago."
Besides research, Segarra educated guests about the animals at the zoo's Florida Exhibit, helped plan events and make signs, and assisted zoo keepers by preparing the animals' diets and "cleaning up after them."
"One of the conservation projects I did was making signs for a rehabilitation center in Argentina. It was amazing to see how a small project can help educate others and motivate change."
During the internship, Segarra wrote a weekly journal. She hopes to present her research at NSU's Undergraduate Student Symposium in spring 2013. She is working with an employee at the zoo to publish an article in the print publication Animal Keepers Forum.
She plans to pursue graduate studies in environmental science with a focus on ecology and conservation as well as her "dream job" of becoming a conservation biologist.
"My life goal is to help improve the ways that humans interact with nature and ultimately how we can learn to responsibly respect the parts of nature that we don't understand.
"My experience at the Palm Beach Zoo was unforgettable," she said. "I learned about the zoo industry and the importance of conservation as well as about myself and what I wish to do with my life. I am thankful for their support and will strive to keep spreading their conservation message."
Update: Carolina Segarra graduated from the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences in May 2013. She is currently working full-time as a zookeeper in the Ectotherm Department at Zoo Miami.