Donor and former Zoo Commission President, Shelby Kaplan Sloan established the Sloan Animal Keeper Advanced Studies Fund in 2003 to provide keepers with opportunities for hands-on field experiences with particular animals. Upon completing their fieldwork, they share their experiences and insights with the staff and the animals at the Zoo.
In 2008, Animal Keeper Alexis Higgins used Sloan Grant funds to travel to the Alaska SeaLife Center in Seward, Alaska where she joined staff there in their ongoing study examining the relationship between diet and overall physiological health of harbor seals.
“In addition to learning various aspects of the care and study of wild and captive harbor seals there, I learned about their research tracking the diet of a group of the Center’s captive harbor seals,” says Higgins. “They were not only investigating the potential causes of declining harbor seal populations, but trying to understand why populations have not recovered. I also spent time with the marine mammal husbandry staff. Because of the birth of their seal pup the previous year, I was able to gain valuable insight into the birthing process, which was very beneficial to my work at the Zoo. My time in Alaska gave me a new perspective on the seals and sea lions that I care for every day, and what great ambassadors they are for their species.”
“The experience gave me a broader appreciation for what I do, and as a keeper your profession that is always changing,” Higgins observes. “That’s why conferences and field study opportunities are important because they allow you to challenge yourself and grow. Nothing is the same from year to year and we can build on knowledge from everybody. I think that’s really important because you want to provide the highest level of care to these animals. I love them because I care about what I do—it’s the nature of being an animal keeper. I mean, you can say that you love them, but what are you doing for them? It’s great that we are encouraged to constantly find ways of expanding our care.”