Field Notes: The Winding Path to a PhD with Zoo Animals

I’m a first year PhD student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group, but I’ve had many different titles over the last ten years: zookeeper, animal trainer, and most recently, veterinarian. When people discover I am a licensed veterinarian, most are justifiably confused. “Why are you still going to school? Haven’t you had enough?” they ask. The short answer is: I LOVE LEARNING. I believe we should never stop learning, no matter what career path we take. The longer answer is that, although my career path has been long and winding, every experience I have gained along the way has shaped who I am and contributed to my passion for animal behavior and welfare in the zoo world.

Figure 1: The public often see zookeepers as either an uneducated cleanup crew or professional animal cuddlers. The reality is that the job is extremely competitive, physically demanding, and oftentimes low paying. Most zookeepers have at least a bachelor’s degree, volunteer and intern for years before getting hired, know tons of information about the animals under their care, and spend their entire day educating the public, all while getting paid little more than minimum wage.
Photo source: Jamie Nakatani

As a zookeeper, I learned the importance of having a strong work ethic and being truly passionate about what you do. Zookeeping is an extremely competitive field; although the general public often views zookeepers as uneducated, or joke that they have to pick up poop because they’re not trained for anything better, the reality is that most zookeepers have at least a bachelor’s degree, volunteer without pay for years just to get their foot in the door, and spend their entire day educating the public. Indeed, I already had a bachelor’s degree in Animal Biology and a minor in Entomology when I started volunteering at my local zoo, and it took a year and a half before a position opened and I was hired as a paid zookeeper. Even after I started getting paid, the wages were ridiculously low, the work was physically demanding, and the snarky comments from the public were frustrating, but I absolutely loved every minute of working with the animals and getting to know their individual personalities. All the hours volunteering, cleaning enclosures, and generally working my butt off, were all worth it for the time I got to spend with those animals.

Figure 2: Boo and Scout happily grooming each other after being reunited.
Photo source: Jamie Nakatani

The next step in my journey was at the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program at Moorpark College, a 2-year program dedicated to formally training zookeepers and animal trainers. It was there that I learned what I was truly capable of when I put my mind to something, and that data collection and research could be used to make real change. There, I worked with a pair of very special coati sisters, Boo and Scout, who had been separated a couple years prior because Boo had undergone surgery and was still recovering. Female coatis are very social animals, but the staff had serious concerns about reintroducing them. There was a possibility of Boo reinjuring her back, and Scout would not be able to perform her natural climbing behaviors in the special enclosure modified for Boo. As part of a class assignment, I spent 30 hours observing Scout and found that she no longer used the vertical space in her enclosure except when her trainers placed food on high branches. I used this information to convince the veterinary and animal care staff to allow us to slowly reintroduce Boo and Scout. Although it was a long process, the two sisters were eventually reunited and were inseparable for the remainder of their lives. It was then that I knew I wanted to spend my career improving the lives of other animals the way I had for them.

Figure 3: My veterinary degree gives me unique insights as an animal behavior researcher. I am not only focused on the behaviors I see but can also consider potential medical causes for those behaviors and suggest ways to rule out different conditions.
Photo source: Jamie Nakatani

I knew I wanted to be a veterinarian when I was only 3 years old. According to my parents, I came home from preschool and announced I wanted to be a vegetarian when I grew up, which was rather perplexing considering I hated vegetables. When pressed, I explained I wanted to take care of animals, which made much more sense! I got knocked off track just before college, but my love of animals never wavered. My time in the Exotic Animal Training and Management Program working with the older/sicker animals reminded me of my love for medicine. I am so grateful for everything I learned and all the clinical skills I gained, but my heart still demands I use research to help zoo animals live their best lives. To that end, I am now pursuing board certification (aka becoming a veterinary specialist) in Animal Welfare, while I pursue my PhD in Animal Behavior.

As a PhD student, I am now combining my past experiences as a zookeeper, animal trainer, and veterinarian to study the benefits of training in improving animal welfare at zoos. I spent the first few months of graduate school visiting all the zoos in the area, reaching out to my zookeeper and veterinary contacts to brainstorm ideas for my research. I started with the San Francisco Zoo, where they have trained their giraffes to voluntarily participate in physical exams, blood draws, and even chiropractic adjustments. I visited the Sacramento Zoo and Oakland Zoo to discuss ways to incorporate my medical background into my research. And finally, I visited Six Flags Discovery Kingdom, where all their dolphins are trained to voluntarily participate in blood draws, x-rays, and even open their mouths to have their teeth brushed! Although every facility I visited was doing incredible things to improve the lives of their animals, the dolphin trainers at Discovery Kingdom were working on some amazing training ideas to offer their animals more choice and control over their daily lives. They also shared my pure enthusiasm for training and research, making it a fantastic fit for both of us. Stay tuned for future Field Notes where you may see some updates on our work together!

Figure 4: The giraffes at the San Francisco Zoo are given the choice to participate in interactions with humans (guests and trainers alike). The person reaches out their hand, and if the giraffe closes the distance and leans into the hand, it means they are giving permission for the person to continue physical contact.
Photo source: Jamie Nakatani

My career path has been anything but straightforward, but I would not change it for anything. All the jobs I’ve held, the degrees I’ve earned, and the people I’ve met have helped shape me into the person I am now.  Every experience helped me grow, learn, and figure out who I wanted to be and what I wanted to do – even when that experience showed me who I did NOT want to be and the kind of job I did NOT want to do. I am grateful for all of it, and beyond excited to be where I am now!

Figure 5: Apollo is one of the 6 bottlenose dolphins I will be studying at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom. He lives in a group with 2 other males and 3 females and will soon be learning how to tell the trainers who he prefers to socialize with through some pretty cool training techniques!
Photo source: Jamie Nakatani

Jamie Nakatani is a 1st year PhD student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group at UC Davis, working under the guidance of Dr. Jason Watters. Jamie has a Bachelor in Science degree in Animal Biology with a minor in Entomology from UC Davis, an Associate degree in Exotic Animal Training and Management from Moorpark College, earned her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree and Master of Preventive Veterinary Medicine degree from UC Davis, and is currently a veterinary resident pursuing board certification through the American College of Animal Welfare. Her current research will focus on positive reinforcement training, cognitive tasks, social dynamics, and welfare in bottlenose dolphins at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, California.

[Edited by Cassidy Cooper and Jessica Schafer]

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