Justin Birkhoff has been at White Oak since January 2015 as our Management Intern, which is a year long program. He has had many adventures since arriving. Below are just a few.
My path to White Oak started almost a year ago when I found the listing for a Conservation Management internship. I was sitting in my flat in London, recently finished with a master’s degree, looking for my next move when I clicked on the link to a position that read like a checklist of everything that I was looking for; an internship that was going to furnish me with skills to carry forward into the rest of my career. I had heard of White Oak when I was a zookeeper due to its reputation as one of the premier cheetah breeding centers in the United States, but I didn’t know much else about it. Diving into the website I found it to be so much more than just a cheetah center, it was a conservation center at the forefront of captive breeding, with strong ties to conservation in the field and a facility that had strong relationships within the zoo community. The more I read, the more I knew that this was the position I needed to try for. I gathered my resume, wrote a cover letter and crossed my fingers as I hit send.
There was nothing as nerve-wracking as hitting send on that email. The process is out of your hands, all you can do is wait and I did, for what seemed like forever. For me the waiting paid off, and I was offered a phone interview, followed by a second phone interview discussing my desires and goals, and then more waiting. Eventually an email came, the internship was mine. I was off to White Oak for the next year.
I arrived the second week of January, unsure of what to expect. My first day had some definite highlights. I was pleasantly surprised to find a familiar face. One of the tour guides was a former colleague of mine, a flashback to my first job in the field at a safari park in California. Much to everyone’s surprise we greeted each other with a big hug.
Justin holds the hoof of a Somali wild ass for trimming.
My internship has been a whirlwind, a wealth of experiences in a dynamic place, working alongside dedicated and passionate people. I started off working in the various animal sections, learning new skills, like hand grabbing antelope for procedures and how to avoid getting attacked by a crane. Reproductive management is at the center of what White Oak does and I was able to learn some of the techniques to improve success in species that are difficult to breed in captivity. One memorable experience was an okapi breeding introduction that resulted in vocalizations I didn’t realize the notoriously silent species made. This was accompanied by a play-by-play narration by one of the animal care specialists explaining the finer details of what was occurring, just in case I was missing any of the action. I have been fortunate to participate in and observe cheetah breeding, the process of pairing two cats together that generally live solitary lives. There are individual variances in subtle behaviors from the females that show they are biologically ready and a distinct stutter bark call from the male when he has found the scent that he is looking for. All the pieces need to be in place in order to put two cats together with the intent of producing a litter of tiny spotted kittens 92 days later. There are a small handful of institutions in the United States that breed cheetahs successfully, and few have the patience and experience that the carnivore team here at White Oak does in getting the job done. The knowledge gained from observing the breeding techniques and asking questions, is unrivaled.
Justin and keeper intern Katie Story hold Mississippi sandhill crane chicks for their health assessments. The goggles are not for the chicks… they are for protection from the chicks’ parents which don’t always take kindly to keeper interventions. They chicks were returned to their parents safe and sound. And Justin and Katie also came out intact.
Education at White Oak is not just for the staff and the interns, it extends to our guests as well. Education is one of the most powerful tools in conservation. If the public is not informed, how will they ever make choices to illicit change? One of the more exciting ways that we discuss conservation here is through cheetah runs and rhino encounters. Guests get to experience the power, and speed of a cheetah running at full tilt, thundering across a field as they chased a lure, or meet some of our rhinos up close and personal. The tangible and visceral experiences are paired with a talk about natural history and conservation. I was able to give these presentations, entrusted to stand in front of an assembled group of summer campers or visiting guests and convey our message.
When I started this journey it seemed like a year would be a phenomenally long period of time. As I sit here writing this I realize how truly short a year can be. It seems like just a few weeks ago I was driving down the dirt drive for the first time, soaking in the amazing piece of property around me. I look forward to spending my last few months here with even more new experiences, including the exciting world of fundraising and proposal writing. As a management intern I get to learn more about the administrative aspects of running a conservation center. I look forward to taking all of my experiences with me as I move forward with my career. There is always tomorrow to look forward to, because no matter what it will never be exactly the same as today, but for the time being today is pretty awesome.
– Justin Birkhoff, Management Intern
Stay tuned to our blog for when Justin gives us updates of his continuing adventures at White Oak…