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FHS student ‘a first’ for zoo


A Farragut High School senior has opened the door for local high school students to become involved in research projects at Knoxville Zoo.

FHS Science Academy member Alex Khaddouma holds the honor of being the first high school research intern to work with the zoo and he may just be the first high school student to intern in the zoo’s veterinary clinic as well.

“Alex has set the bar very high,” Chad Fifer, Knoxville Zoo education director, said.

“Alex was our first [research intern] setting the bar very high, but he has also allowed us to open the doors to other local high schools and start bringing in students for the same reason. He has also helped us to make a set of guidelines on how to work with them and how to build these relationships; so it has been very good to have him here,” Fifer added.

Alex should find out soon if his application to intern in the zoo’s veterinary clinic will be accepted.

“We do have college interns that work in our clinic, but not very often. All of our vet staff comes from The University of Tennessee. They actually do a lot of their teaching here and provide us with some pretty top- notch veterinary care so we don’t often accept interns into that area.

“So in general it is really neat to get him in there, but it is even more impressive because he has not even gotten to college yet to even start his path to veterinary medicine. It’s a really good thing to see the program taking off this fast,” Fifer said.

Alex is currently in his second semester of research at the zoo working in the Grassland Animals exhibit.

Alex said, “Last semester I started studying just the basic behaviors of what they were doing inside their exhibit. This semester I started focusing just on the giraffes because they started licking the fence a lot and they do things that are not found in nature.

“What we want to get them to do is act like they would in the wild.

“I am studying how they act in general inside the barn and outside and coming up with ways that maybe we can fix some of the replacement behaviors that they are doing,” he added.

Fifer said Alex and the other two research interns, who came in this semester from Bearden and West high schools, provide a valuable service to the zoo.

“Observational studies are huge when it comes to animals in captivity and a lot of times our existing staff just does not have the time to figure this kind of stuff out. Alex is looking at these particular questions and trying to answer something that we want to know the answer to but we just do not have the time to answer,” Fifer added.

Alex said the opportunity to conduct research at the zoo, versus learning in a classroom, has been incredible.

“In a classroom they are teaching you research that has already been done and when I came here I got to develop my own research and do everything my self,” he said.

“I got to do research to see what had been done and come up with something that was all my own.

“That has made me learn so much more than I ever have from just sitting there and having someone else teach me.

“I get to work with the animals and I have been able to get really up close and personal with them and that has been an incredible experience,” he added.

“That is the ultimate goal,” Fifer said. “For both him and us to benefit from the work he is doing here.”

Alex plans to go into veterinary medicine and hopes to be accepted at The University of Tennessee College of Veterin-ary Medicine.

“They have a really good zoological medicine program so I could work with animals like this and not just cats and dogs,” he said.

Alex’s research is already yielding results and he has ideas of how to curb some of the replacement behaviors he has noticed in the giraffes.

“[There are] enrichment toys you could put inside the cage. Like right now, they do not have feeding areas with available alfalfa and such, and I was thinking maybe if we had some hanging up they would engage in feeding instead of licking the fence all the time.

“When we have some trees out here and they are in bloom they love to go out there and lick the leaves and branches, and that is much more similar to what they do in the wild,” he said.

At the end of the semester Alex will present his research his mentors at the zoo.

“I will present it to them and say this is what I observed, this is what I found and this is what we can do, and they will take it into their own hands and the keepers will figure out if that is something that can be implemented,” he said.

 

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