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WSU student spends summer at San Diego Zoo

By Maya Wahl, CAHNRS Academic Programs

Claudia Kightlinger spent her summer working with a variety of amazing animals as an animal care intern at the San Diego Zoo in the mammal department for the cheetah breeding program. Students dream of getting to work on a project like this and Claudia has gone above and beyond to have this opportunity.

Claudia Kightlinger with one of the cheetahs at the San Diego Zoo this summer.

The San Diego Zoo is home to many exotic animals and Claudia, a WSU junior majoring in Wildlife Ecology & Conservation Sciences with a minor in Zoology, interacted with just a few. While there are 15 cheetahs, she also worked with 22 dholes (Asian wild dogs), three black footed cats, and a sand cat. Her daily tasks included routine feeding, cleaning, and general care of the animals, as well as monitoring aspects of their breeding program.

She also worked on a project of her choice, a cheetah behavior research project conducted by the Institute of Conservation Research.

This wasn’t Claudia’s first internship, or her first experience at the San Diego Zoo. She has worked hard during her college career to gain experience in preparation for her future career. She was a first generation Ignite Undergraduate Research Program student and worked through the Steffen Center studying pygmy and mountain cottontail rabbit behavior response to predatory stimulus. She has also spent time at the San Diego Zoo shadowing various careers available at the zoo as well as in the zoo’s Safari Park in Guest Services.

“This internship has given me so much knowledge and career preparedness that I never had prior,” she said.

Her job at the zoo is the perfect example of how students build their network and gain skills learned beyond the classroom.

“I got to intern at the best zoo in the world, so every interaction with an animal care professional is influential and my team at the cheetah center all genuinely cared about my future success by making sure I was exposed to as many components of this job as possible,” she said. “I was treated just the same as any other paid keeper there, which means that the job experience I got is basically a preview of what the next 50 years will be like.”

“It’s not about the resume fillers; it’s about the exposure to this field that will shape the type of worker I will be,” she said. “There is zero doubt in my mind after this summer that there could be anything else I would want to do.”

Claudia finds great value in all the internships that she has pursued.

“There is no greater value than the reassurance, from getting the internship I’ve always wanted at my dream job, that I chose the right path and whatever I’m doing must be working,” she said. “But that doesn’t mean I’m just going to stop striving for more opportunities and greater progress.”

Her favorite part of this summer experience was how closely she worked with animals that many people will only ever see on TV. It is a unique opportunity that very few people get to experience. While it required her to put in longer hours and could be unpredictable, she wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I know that I’m doing something that I love and it makes a difference in the world so even if some people don’t care about it, it means everything to me,” she said.