Search This Blog

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Zoo Joke: Andy and the Elephant

After graduating college, Andy decided to take a year off to travel and see the world.  First he went through Asia, then Europe, then he found himself in Africa.

While on safari in Africa, Andy saw an elephant, limping heavily.  Andy got out of his car warily and approached the elephant cautiously.  The elephant in turn walks towards him, approaching with obvious pain.  When he gets to within a few feet on Andy, he lifts his front right foot up.  There, embedded in the sole, is a massive thorn.  Andy pulls it out with some effort, and the elephant trumpets in relief.  He affectionately massages Andy with his trunk for a moment, then lumbers off.

Before he walks away for good, he turns back to Andy and winks.

Years later, Andy is a successful businessman, married, and settled in his new life.  One day, he is visiting the city zoo, passing the elephant exhibit.

He is about to pass by, when one of the elephants approaches the railing and, to Andy's disbelief, winks at him.  Then, he slowly lifts his front, right leg and waves it at Andy.  Andy is shocked.  He can't believe it.  Overjoyed, he hops the fence, jumps into the moat, and scrambles over to the elephant with arms wide open.

The elephant in turn rushes towards Andy... then snatches him up with his trunk and bashes him against the wall of the exhibit in front of the horrified crowds.

Probably wasn't the same elephant.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Madness of Musth

Besides the general concerns about having enough space or large enough social groupings, the greatest challenge to the keeping of elephants in zoos has been ensuring reliable breeding.  In recent years, there's been a tremendous amount of research done on assisted reproduction in elephants.  The reason for this isn't that elephants won't reproduce naturally in a zoo - they will, fairly readily.  The problem is that breeding requires a male.  And a male means musth.


"Musth," from the Hindi for "Madness" is a period of super-sexual aggression among adult male elephants.  Even the most placid bulls becomes the pachyderm equivalent of the Incredible Hulk, behaving in a violent, unpredictable manner, thinking only two thoughts - smashing things and female elephants.  Wild elephants are known to take out their fury on other species, chasing giraffes or killing rhinoceroses.  During musth, the temporal glands of a bull elephant leak a black, tar-like substance, while the penis dribbles constantly.  Swelling in the head causes eye pains and toothaches.  Testosterone levels increase by as much as 60 times.  Strangest of all, no one quite knows why this happens.  There is no correlation between when bulls enter musth and when females are reproductively receptive.  Bulls in musth are as likely to interact with females that are in estrus as those who are not.

In the logging camps of South Asia, the traditional method of dealing with a bull is musth was simple.  Chain hum up, starve him, deprive him of water, and wait for him to come back to his senses.  Isolation was also prescribed - no female elephants to tempt him, no male elephants to provoke him.  For much of the history of the American zoo, the traditional method was even simpler - don't.  Many zoos refrained from breeding due to the need of having a male... or out of fear that their female would give birth to a male. The fears weren't unfounded.  Elephants are big, powerful animals who are capable of accidentally injuring or killing a keeper... and with bulls in musth, it wasn't an accident.

The situation has changed considerably in recent years.  Most zoos now work their elephants protected contact-instead of free-contact, greatly reducing the risk on injury.  As many zoos redevelop their elephant facilities, they are including specialized bull quarters, powerful enough to contain a male in musth.  As more zoos are capable of housing these animals - potentially the most dangerous in the zoo - the more successful breeding can take place.

This in turn will help to establish a future for elephants in American zoos - and considering how things in the wild are looking, we can use every elephant birth we can get.

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Elephants In The Room

With almost certainty, there is no wild animal which has a more complicated, intimate relationship with humans than the elephants.  Sometimes I think that one or two of the large carnivores – the lion, the wolf – might rival it, but then I settle back on my original position.   Elephants have been used for warfare on three continents, sharing the battlefields on the ancient world with Alexander the Great and Hannibal of Carthage.  They have worked the forests of South Asia as loggers for millennia.  They have been worshiped as gods, hunted for sport and ivory, and carried kings and emperors upon their backs.   They have fought and died in the Coliseum and been gifted to rulers as symbols of power and might.  In the modern era, they appear frequently on TV and in the movies.  Tourists flock to see them in the parks of Africa and Asia.  They are the stars of zoos and circuses.

For most of us, our experiences with the great big beasts are confined the last sentence.  Elephants have been displayed in America since before there was an America, and certainly before there were any formal zoos here.  Throughout the late 19th and most of the 20th centuries, a zoo could hardly be considered a zoo at all unless it had an elephant, preferably a gigantic specimen who was tolerant enough of children to permit rides.

Those days may not be with us for much longer.


With the exception of the whales and dolphins – which only a tiny handful of American facilities display – elephants are the most controversial of zoo animals.  They are the species that people are most likely to be critical of the keeping of.  Even some keepers I know are dubious about the suitability of elephants to life in a zoo… though none are foolish enough to express their opinion to an elephant keeper.  Those guys are intense.

So what is it about elephants?  Their size dictates that they require large enclosures – the most frequent critique leveled at zoos is that they can’t provide large enough spaces for them.  Their intelligence means that they require consider stimulation, often provided by training and enrichment.  Their social nature (of females and their young, at any rate) means that an exhibit must be large enough to accommodate a group of at least three.  They are one of the most expensive and labor-intensive of zoo animals, usually requiring a dedicated staff, that is not shared with other animals.  For most of zoo history – at least until the shift began away from working with elephants free-contact – they remained the most dangerous of zoo animals, responsible for the most zookeeper fatalities.

Today, most zoos with elephants are going in one of two directions.  Some zoos are doubling-down and expanding their habitats, investing heavily in large, state-of-the-art exhibits that provide room to roam and are equipped to handle multi-generational female herds in a protected-contact setting; most new facilities are also capable of managing reproduction… which often means maintaining at least one bull.  Other zoos are washing their hands of elephants, taking the expense and resource requirements into account and deciding they can’t commit.

There’s nothing wrong with choosing the latter option.  A zoo could reasonably decide that they’d rather spend the 5-10 acres working with 10-20 other species, some of which could be of very high conservation potential.  It’s better not to keep a species in some cases than to keep it in facilities that are unsuitable.  I think the movement away from the “You aren’t a real zoo unless you have elephants’ mentality has been a wonderful trend in zoos… though it hasn’t seemed to have spread as readily among members of the public, who will criticize an elephant-less zoo.

any rate, I think that the decision on whether a zoo can manage elephants or not belongs to animal care professionals who have experience with elephants... not grandstanding politicians, as often proves to be the case.  Likewise, if a zoo decides that they do not want to manage elephants, that should be their decision, and no politician should strong-arm them into keeping pachyderms just because they are a big draw.


I do, however, feel that there are zoos that do elephants and do them well.  Obvious among these are the facilities that can devote large tracts of land to their elephants, such as the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the North Carolina Zoo.  Plenty of urban zoos manage the species just fine as well – the Dallas Zoo, the Lowry Park Zoo, Zoo Miami, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, and the National Zoo being a few examples.  Size isn’t everything.

What does make a suitable elephant habitat?  Space is important, yes, both in terms of quantity and quality – are their dirt areas for digging, pools for wallowing, shade structures, etc?  Is the zoo able to maintain an appropriate social grouping – a minimum of three?  Are the keepers able to implement sufficient training and enrichment to provide physical and mental stimulation, as well as to provide appropriate care for the surprisingly delicate bodies of elephants?

When the PAWS sanctuary of California took in the TorontoZoo elephants, they boasted of their spacious paddocks.  What they can’t boast of, however, is getting their elephants managed as a cohesive social group, and the three elephants from Toronto were never maintained as a herd at PAWS.  Furthermore, the hands-off approach of the sanctuary meant that some elephant care procedures, such as maintaining proper foot health, become more difficult without constant training from the keepers.  Both American elephant sanctuaries have also had incidence of tuberculosis, a serious disease that also occurs in the zoo populations, showing that sanctuaries don’t necessarily provide better veterinary care, or that a big enough roam to walk around solves all ills.

Given proper environments and care, elephants will thrive in a zoo setting.  For proof, look no further than the two recent imports of African elephants from Swaziland toAmerican zoos since the turn of the millennium.  Wild-born elephants, accustomed to roaming small, crowded national parks, settled in comfortably in American zoos and have adjusted to the zoo routine, learned the workings of protected contact, responded positively to training, and have even bred.

Elephants are big animals, and they take a big commitment to ensure proper care.  They definitely aren’t for every zoo.  Heck, I’ll say they probably aren’t for most zoos.  But I feel like it is incorrect to claim, as some zoo critics do, that they cannot be happily and healthily maintained under human care.  

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Two Zebras, One Head

Having completed an exhilarating 12 hour day today (the first of what I suspect will be many as the season picks up), I'm going to go ahead and go to bed.  And by "go to bed" I mean start on all the paperwork that I was probably supposed to be doing while I was at the zoo today before other stuff came up.  If you're looking for entertainment tonight, I'm going to have to pawn you off with this zebra meme.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Riches of Zookeepers


If there is one single aspect of zookeeping that turns off many applicants, or sends the most new keepers back out the gate, it's the salary.  Not the sloshing around in fecal matter.  Not the bone-melting heat of summer or the bone-chilling cold of winter.  Not the assorted bites, scratches, kicks, and sprays of urine and/or vomit (from animals, mostly, but hey, I've had some crazy unruly visitors before).

Nope, it's the pay.

How much an entry zookeeper makes varies based on location and institution, usually hovering somewhere between the "Eh, I'm getting by okay" and "Oh boy, saltines for dinner again!" range.  I don't know if I've ever seen a zoo offering minimum wage per se, but I do know a lot of keepers who were watching the "Fight for $15" drama unfold with considerable interest.

It doesn't help that most zookeepers and aquarists have college degrees, which often mean that there are student loans to payback.  It also doesn't help that most zoos and aquariums are located in cities, where rent is usually considerably higher.  So what's a keeper to do?  Take on a second job, maybe a third.  Get a roommate.  Mooch off of family and more fortunate friends.  Tighten the belt, and be opportunistic.  I've never seen such ferocity at a feeding frenzy as entry-level staff when free food is available.  At one of my earlier zoos, making less than $10 an hour in a very expensive East Coast city, my colleagues and I were in a perpetual state of hunger.  When a leftover pizza from a birthday party at the zoo was brought into the break room, I almost lost a finger in the scramble for a slice.


Typically, I can't complain too much about the salaries.  With the exception of the aforementioned hell-hole (where the tyrannical owner once shared his favorite philosophy with me - "Keepers are like Kleenex.  You use them up, then get a new one"), most of the places that I've worked have paid a reasonably wage.  I live pretty cheap as it is.  Most importantly, I don't have student debt, which is a major advantage for a young adult.  Eventually, I got promoted high enough to get a salary that allows me a fairly comfortable existence.  Even so, in my early years as a keeper, there was a year or so where my parents insisted on giving me a grocery allowance, not trusting me entirely not to starve myself to death in the name of misplaced pride.

Keepers complain about salaries, but not as much as you'd think.  Sure, they swap tips for second jobs and roommates and such, and joke affectionately about significant others who are the breadwinners, but it's almost considered bad form.  Maybe it's because they know we all are or were in the same boat at some point, but largely it's because none of us do this for the money, and they fear they'd come across as less committed or too materialistic if they seemed overly focused on matters like money.  I get that.

The thing is, keepers do need to eat.  They need a place to live.  They need gas, or bus fare, or a bike to get to work (unless they are lucky enough to live within walking distance, as I've been before).  We aren't volunteers.  We want to do this, but a livable wage is required.  We'll never be rich, and I don't think any of us expect that.  I do, however, hate when people try to shame anyone who expresses concerns about the salary as "not caring enough" - as in, "If you REALLY wanted to be a zookeeper, you wouldn't mind the salary."

Now, all of this is complicated by the fact that many zoos - almost all AZA ones, at any rate - are nonprofits, so no one is drowning in cash (if you couldn't tell, my humanitarian-of-the-year boss mentioned a few paragraphs up was not AZA, and was certainly not a nonprofit).  Zoos and aquariums are expensive to run as it is without boosting keeper salaries.  Besides, they want to put a lot of that money back into the animals - improved habitats, better care, etc.  I get that too.

The one thing that I wish some directors and curators would understand better, though, is the cost its taking, summed up in one word - turnover.  Animal care is like most professions - there is an element of pure talent, coupled with the need for experience and training.  When good keepers who have the potential to become great ones drop out because they just can't afford it anymore, you need to replace them with new ones.  New keepers that need time to be trained, and will spend a few years as inexperienced-mistake-makers.  If you have one keeper working a section for ten years rather than five keepers doing it for two years each, you're going to have a much more experienced, productive employee, one who will be more responsive to the animals, notice things more quickly, and work more efficiently.

Zoo administrators are willing to invest in other aspects of the organization - facilities, exhibits, tools, equipment.  Surely we're worth investing in a little more, too.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana)

Pronghorn
Antilocapra americana (Ord, 1815)

Range: Southern Canada, Western United States, Northern Mexico
Habitat: Grassland, Brushland, Desert
Diet: Forbs, Shrubs, Grasses, Cacti
Social Group: Large, loose groups of up to 1000 individuals (both sexes, all ages) in autumn and winter, breaking into smaller groups, segregated by sex, in spring and summer.  In wetter areas, males are territorial, with female groups passing through the territories of different males
Reproduction: Breeding from July through October.  Usually a female has a single fawn after her first pregnancy, twins after that.  Weaned at 4-5 months old, mature at 16 months
Lifespan: 10 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern, CITES Appendix I


  • ·         Shoulder height 87 centimeters, head-tail length 128-150 centimeters, weight 47-70 kilograms.  Stock body supported on long, slim legs.  Males about 10% larger than females.  Northern pronghorn larger than southern
  • ·         Upperparts bred-brown to tan, underparts and rump are white.  Two white bands across neck.  Males have black patches on the face and side of the neck beneath the ears.  Northern pronghorn tend to be darker than southern pronghorn.  Hair is dense, filled with air to provide insulation, guard hails are hollow, overtop finer, shorter underfur
  • ·         Horns are unique that they are like antelope in consisting of a keratin sheath on a bony core, yet like deer in that they are forked and the outer sheath sheds annually.  Both sexes have horns, but those of the male are enlarged, with forward-facing prongs below backward-pointing hooks
  • ·         Fastest land mammal in the Americas, with speeds up to 86 kilometers per hour and capable of maintaining 70 kilometers per hour for several kilometers.  Speed likely evolved in response to now-extinct predators, such as American cheetahs.  Adaptations to bone structure make pronghorns excellent runners but poor jumpers; in their natural state there are few obstacles to jump over, but in a human-shaped landscape they have difficulty with fences
  • ·         Active both day and night, with peaks just before sunrise and after sunset.  Daily movements vary depending on seasons, travel more in winter
  • ·         Predators of fawns include coyotes, bobcats, and golden eagles.  Adults may be preyed upon by wolves and mountain lions.  Speed is main defense, but will also use horns and hooves.  When fleeing danger, will erect white fur on rump as a warning to others
  • ·         Only surviving member of the family Antilocapridae (means “Goat Antelope”).  Closet relatives uncertain, may be the giraffe and okapi.  First seen and described by 16th century Spanish explorers, not formally records until Lewis and Clark expedition
  • ·          Believed to have been 35 million before Europeans, reduced to 20,000 by 1920s due to hunting and habitat loss (fragmentation, fencing, competition with livestock); peninsular and Sonoran subspecies listed under US Endangered Species Act, recovery projects underway.  Legally hunted with permits in all western states.
  • ·         Feral population briefly existed in Hawaii in the late 20th century




Friday, April 21, 2017

Have You Seen Me?

Earth Day is, by its very nature, a holiday with activist inclinations.  This year, it looks to be taking advocacy even further, as "Marches for Science" crop up across the country, supported in part by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

As a reminder of what the struggle is about, a group of scientists are sounding a final warning call for 25 species of plants and animals - species which they suspect may already be extinct.  In some cases, specimens haven't been observed in decades, but their fate is still uncertain (unlike other species, like the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, which have been officially declared "Extinct" by the IUCN, but still have occasional unconfirmed sightings).

The list of the probable-goners includes a duck, a parakeet, a tortoise, and a tree kangaroo, among others.  Each one in many ways represents a failure - a failure of us to protect a species, which is now presumably lost forever (just not definitively yet).  It's sad to think that some of these species could have been saved with better habitat protection, better regulation of hunting or harvesting, better attention to the spread of invasive species, etc.  Some of them could have conceivably have been saved if zoos and aquariums had taken an interest early on and created insurance colonies for future reintroduction.

Mostly, I wonder what species will be on this list 25 years from now... species that we'll be kicking ourselves for not having done more for.



The Pink Headed Duck has remained elusive since it was last seen in 1949. Photo credit: Philip Nelson via Global Wildlife Conservation.