Reading Wildlife Personalities

By Matt Hawkins
October 24, 2014

Don’t be surprised if biochemistry major Ilia Medina ’15 of Chicago, acts like an animal whisperer on occasion. After all, she’s spent more than 1,000 hours during college working with animals, capped by an eye-opening summer internship at the Peoria Zoo.

Medina worked with staff in the zoo’s African exhibit, which brought her in close contact with exotic creatures such as lions, zebras, colobus monkeys, red river hogs and 500-pound Aldabra tortoises. The experience brought biochemistry labs to life and clarified her long-term career goals.

“This summer reinforced my desire to help endangered lions and other animals,” she said. “Through zoos, I want to make sure efforts to educate the public about why conservation is important in a time when there are more endangered species than ever.”

Medina assisted with animal testing and medical responsibilities in addition to daily feeding and cage cleaning. She also helped transfer a red river hog to another zoo.

“Not a lot of people can say they’ve been face-to-face with a sloth or an Aldabra tortoise,” she said. “This isn’t work, it’s an outlet for me. There’s always something to do with animals.”

As a result of extended interaction with animals, Medina forged bonds with the wildlife as she learned to read personalities and emotions. She discovered the creatures had keen recognition skills and would run — or crawl — to greet her even when she was outside enclosures in street clothes.

Her favorite creature, George, the 500-pound Aldabra tortoise, seemed attached to the intern.

“He was the sweetest animal I worked with,” Medina said. “As soon as I’d walk into the cage, he’d walk up and put his nose on my leg because he wanted me to pet him.”

Evenings brought out the best moments of the summer, though. As lions were let back into their cages at night, they would let loose thunderous den calls. 

“The roars shook the building,” Medina said. “That was so cool as the last thing we heard.” 

Away from the cages, Medina praised the zoo staff who mentored her over the summer. The staff showed her a handful of methods to communicate with the animals and shared their wildlife.

“When I hear zoo keepers talk about low populations of animals they wish the zoo had, it makes me want to help because I would be able to have an impact,” she said.

Medina will use this experience, previous internships at Brookfield Zoo and volunteer hours at Peoria Humane Society to launch a career working with wildlife. Veterinary school is the likely next step toward her dreams.