If anyone asked Lauran West ’16 as a child what her favorite animal was, she never hesitated, and her answer was always “penguins.” So imagine her excitement when she was hired for a two-month internship at the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha, Nebraska to care for and feed the tuxedoed birds.

West, a biology major with a zoology concentration, landed that dream internship this past fall and loved every minute of it. Along with the penguins, she took care of the puffins, murres, and toucans, helping with diet preparation, administering medications, cleaning exhibits, and feeding them. She also got to help build rookeries (nurseries) for the birds.

Not only do zookeepers take care of the animals’ physical needs, West said, it’s important to stimulate all their senses so they don’t get bored in the exhibits. That means activities with laser pointers, music, bubbles, mirrors, bouncy balls, and painting (penguin Picassos, perhaps?).

“Being able to work directly with them has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life,” West said of the penguins. “I enjoyed observing the animals up close and personal while studying their behaviors.”

Her most valuable lesson of the internship, she says, was learning how a zoo operates. “There is a lot that goes into maintaining a zoo, and keeping the animals safe, healthy, and comfortable is its number-one priority.”

West, from Wathena, Kansas, didn’t come to Missouri Western knowing she wanted to work in a zoo, but when she seemed to be continually drawn to biology classes, she made up her mind.

“It was refreshing to be able to get out of the classroom and outside for field work, and I knew animals were always a passion of mine.”

West said a study away trip to Belize, which included a lot of snorkeling and studying ocean organisms, was the highlight of her college career.

She said she also appreciated the passion of her professors for their subjects. “They encouraged students to get excited about what they were learning, and they cared about students’ successes.”

West is currently an animal caretaker/performer at SeaWorld San Antonio in Texas.

Eventually, she says, she would like to travel to other countries to observe animals in their natural habitats and conduct studies about the impact of environmental changes on them.

But she’ll always have Omaha. And the penguins.