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This Place is for the Birds

Megan Henning ’18 discovers new skills during zoo internship

Megan Henning '18 outside the Smithsonian National Zoo's historic 1928 Bird House.

Megan Henning ’18 outside the Smithsonian National Zoo’s historic 1928 Bird House.

The large doors to the shelter slowly opened, surprising the flock of pink flamingos inside and sending them scurrying outside in a mass of frantically flapping wings where Megan Henning ’18 and other colleagues waited. They held up tarps, forming a wall and leading the birds to their destination—a new pen at the Smithsonian National Zoo’s historic 1928 Bird House.

Henning’s stint as a flamingo whisperer was just one of many fond memories during her summer at the zoo. Over the course of her three months there, Henning got to know many inhabitants of the bird house, which is home to hundreds of species of birds from all over the world.

“It was a lot more than just making sure the birds were fed and that their exhibits were clean,” Henning said. “I grew emotionally attached to them—and the people I worked with too—but especially the animals I worked closely with. I could tell that they looked forward to me coming in there each day.”

Henning worked specifically with greater rheas, training them to enter their shelters and to step onto weight scales on command. She also helped with heron walks and worked with a particularly uncooperative emu.

“For some reason, every time I would go into his shelter, he would start falling asleep and want me to pet him,” Henning laughed. “So I never trained him because every time I tried, he would just fall asleep. He was such a goofball.”

Jordana Todd, an animal keeper and internship supervisor at the zoo, said Henning showed great enthusiasm and passion for her work and noted the bond she formed with the birds she cared for.

“Work as an animal keeper is very rewarding but can also be physically demanding and unpredictable,” Todd said. “Animal keepers rely heavily on teamwork and communication to support each other and achieve our animal care goals. Megan was able to further develop those skills, which she can apply to any job she takes on in the future.”

Megan Henning '18 with one of the greater rheas she took care of at the zoo.

Megan Henning ’18 with one of the greater rheas she took care of at the zoo.

In addition to her work at the bird house, Henning toured several other departments at the National Zoo. She found the elephant exhibit to be especially informative, since the large mammals are the topic for her senior paper in biology. Her internship experience culminated with a final presentation, which also tested her public speaking skills.

“I learned ways to better explain to people why zoos are important, and that’s what I really want to do,” Henning said. “A lot of animals in zoos are endangered, and some of the bird species at the Smithsonian are going extinct or there are none left in the wild. Without zoos, we wouldn’t be able to help replenish them as a species.

“I tested myself a lot with this internship,” Henning added. “At first I didn’t think I would be capable to do as much as I did and as well as I did, so I surprised myself. I definitely have a better knowledge of birds and animal care now.”

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