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Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Llama Blowout at the Houston Zoo

Leaf-blowers are my least favorite tool to use in the entire zoo.  This probably dates back to my earliest years as a keeper, where I was assigned the horrendously crappy job of blowing an entire barn's worth of goat and sheep pellets (euphemism for poop) and uneaten grain into one pile, and would get reamed out if I missed a single raisin-sized drop.  Leaf-blowers are great for scattering things to the four winds... less so at gathering them into one pile.

Well, I'm glad the folks at the Houston Zoo found a good use for one, at least.  That llama looks a lot happier to see a leaf-blower than I ever was.




Monday, June 27, 2016

Editorial: Lions and Tigers Don’t Belong in Zoos. But Some Animals Do.

This editorial (posted on Slate, by Matt Soniak) was interesting enough in that it actually tried to do something that very few people do in zoo controversies - find sensible middle ground.  It recognizes that yes, there are essential reasons for keeping zoos and aquariums around, and yes, some species do depend on them for their very survival.  I found some of the ideas in it a bit quixotic, however, and talking about "freeing" gorillas and tigers just strikes me as idiotic (no one seriously suggests "freeing" such animals, they talk of phasing them out through managed cessation of breeding).

Mostly, I enjoyed the comments, however, which is something I rarely do in online articles.  Instead of the typical "I saw a tiger and it made me sad" rubbish, people were actually weighing options for helping sustain the conservation efforts of smaller, more endangered species.  And all seem to have come to the same conclusion/

One reader put it best - "Could resources be better apportioned? Sure. But any plan whose real goal is making zoos go bankrupt because no one is going to pay to see a Sierra Nevada frog, is not only counter productive - it's dishonest and deceitful."


Shinda, a Western lowland gorilla, holds her newborn as they rest at the Prague Zoo in April - Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images

After a 4-year-old child accidentally fell into a gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo and forced the staff to euthanize an adult gorilla for the child’s protection in May, animal lovers rallied on behalf of Harambe, the gorilla, and against the practice of zoos in general. If the black-footed ferret had a Twitter account and a say in all this, I’m pretty sure it might have a different take. It is thanks to zoos’ efforts that the ferret survived at all. This success story offers a different alternative for what zoos could become. Rather than housing exotic animals that require habitat that far exceed what a zoo can reasonably offer, zoos should be converted into conservation centers equipped to help local struggling species find their footing again.

Sunday, June 26, 2016

Sporcle Quiz: Animals in Other Words


Because when you work at a zoo, it can be very important to be precise with language... in case you're trying to clarify as to exactly which kind of crane is coming down the main path at a given point.

Or I could just let the Marx Brothers make all of the animal puns...


Saturday, June 25, 2016

Washed Ashore - An Exhibit at the National Zoo

Sharks, swordfish, and other sea creatures recently debuted at the National Zoological Park - but not real ones.  Instead, the public was introduced to greater-than-life-sized sculptures of some of the ocean's most iconic animals - made of trash.  More specifically, they were made of trash from the ocean that has been carried back to the beaches by the tide.

Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea is on display at the National Zoo through September 5th.  As the summer heats up, more and more zoo and aquarium visitors will also be spending time on the beach.  It's important to remember that trash packed onto the beach also needs to be packed out, before it finds its way into the ocean, where it can harm marine life.

Washed Ashore Artwork

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Leave Dory Alone

The start of the summer usually marks the end of the zoo-and-aquarium visiting season for me.  Part of it is that I'm so busy at my own facility that I can't get away for very long.  Part of it is also that all of the other zoos and aquariums are usually so crowded that I'd rather wait until the fall.  Still, this last week I paid one last aquarium visit before the long slog of summer sets in and, despite the crowds, it was enjoyable enough.

Out of habit, both when working at my zoo and when visiting others, I tend to keep an ear half-cocked at all times to hear what visitors are saying.  Are they talking about the animals?  Are they learning anything?  Are they enjoying their visit?  What do they like?  What didn't they?  What are they talking about?

On this trip, the answer was easy.  Dory.  Everybody was talking about Dory, and every bluish fish was "Dory."  When visitors actually found the blue tangs themselves, the crowds, as they were, went wild.



This happens all of the time when an animal is portrayed in movies, especially movies geared towards kids.  Meerkats and warthogs rocketed to stardom following Disney's The Lion King.  For awhile, every sloth was "Sid", from Ice Age, only to eventually fade into the sloths from Zootopia.  And, of course, when Finding Dory's prequel, Finding Nemo, came out, everyone was all about clownfish.  Now that Marlin's memory-challenged side-kick Dory has a movie of her own, tangs are all the rage.

The difference between The Lion King and Finding Nemo, of course, is that relatively few moviegoers will then rush out and buy a meerkat.  Clownfish and tangs, however, are another story.

There's plenty of precedent.  When I was a kid, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were the coolest thing ever (this being before Michael Bay came along and ruined yet another childhood memory for me).  Lots of kids went out and got pet turtles.  Then, perhaps becoming frustrated because said turtles did not talk, do karate, or thrive on shared pieces of pizza, the kids ignored their shelled charges, many of which died in squalid conditions.  The same has happened with clownfish and tangs.

I have nothing against people owning clownfish... or tangs... or turtles (meerkats I may draw a line at).  What I am against is people making impulse buys that will support an unsustainable aquarium trade in wild-caught fish which will then die due to inadequate care.  I'm an exotic pet owner myself, and as much as zookeepers like to complain about them, the truth is that many of us are.  But I researched my pets carefully, got them from someone I know and trust, and invest in their care.  Which is important to me... because I also have several enclosures' worth of former exotic pets with owners who failed to care for them correctly.


So if you enjoy Finding Dory a lot, as many people seem to, and decide that you want to get a pet fish, good for you.  It may open a new hobby to you that leads to a lifetime of enjoyment.  But make sure that this is something that you will stick with, for the sake of the animals who will be in your care.  Start small, with species with simpler care requirements - certainly freshwater fish over saltwater, for beginners.  Get them from a reputable, sustainable source.  Be willing to provide appropriate housing, diet, and care.

If you can't keep it properly, don't keep it at all.  I'm sure Dory and her friends would be just as happy to be left alone.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Pancake Tortoise (Malacochersus tornieri)

Pancake Tortoise
Malacochersus tornieri (Siebenrock, 1903)

Range: East Africa (Southern Kenya, Northern Tanzania)
Habitat: Rock Kopjes (Isolated Rock Outcrops)
Diet: Vegetables, Fruit, Carrion, Invertebrates
Social Grouping: Sociable (Will share burrows)
Reproduction: Female lays single large egg per nesting, spaced 25 days apart.  May lay as many as 6 eggs per year.  Eggs buried in soil or sand, incubate for 180-240 days.  Sexual maturity based on body size (usually at about 8 years old)
Lifespan: 25 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable, CITES Appendix II


  • Body length up to 18 centimeters, but very flat - no more than 6 centimeters thick at thickest - leading to common name.  Weight about 500 grams.  Males are slightly smaller than females
  • Carapace is brown or beige with varying patterns of radiating, dark lines
  • Soft, flat shell is an adaptation for squeezing into rock crevices to avoid predators; it is so unusual among tortoises that the first scientists to observe these tortoises thought they were suffering from some sort of bone disease.  Flat shell also allows for rapid heat absorption
  • Flat shell also makes body cavity very small, meaning these tortoises can only lay one egg at a time.
  • World's fastest tortoise species, clocked at 18 meters per minute, also skilled climber.  The flat shell allows the tortoise to right itself quickly if it flips over
  • Declining due to habitat destruction and over-collection for the pet-trade; recovery is hampered by their slow reproductive rate

Friday, June 17, 2016

The Central Park Zoo Escape of 1874

"All citizens, except members of the National Guard, are enjoined to keep within their houses or residences until the wild animals now at large are captured or killed. Notice of the release from this order will be spread by the firing of cannon in City Hall Park, Tompkins square, Madison square, The Round and at Macomb's Dam Bridge. Obedience to this order will secure a speedy end to the state of siege occasioned by the calamity of this evening."


Perhaps one of the most extraordinary antecdotes of the Central Park Zoo's history is the one that never actually happened.  I should probably explain that a bit.  On November 9th, 1874, the New York Herald posted a sensational story describing how the animals of the zoo escaped en masse and wreaked havoc in New York.  A rhinoceros gored a keeper to death.  Tigers chased after society ladies.  Tapirs, anacondas, and hyenas ran amok.  It was the most horrifying spectacled the city ever saw until the September 11th attacks over 120 years later.

Only at the end of the article did the paper finally own up to the fact that “Of course, the entire story given above is a pure fabrication. Not one word of it is true.”  It was written by the paper after one of its editors witnessed the near-escape of a leopard at the zoo, and was meant to be a critique of the zoo's safety practices.  Still, how many people read to the end of a long newspaper article?  The Herald was criticized for inciting panic.

All citizens, except members of the National Guard, are enjoined to keep within their houses or residences until the wild animals now at large are captured or killed. Notice of the release from this order will be spread by the firing of cannon in City Hall Park, Tompkins square, Madison square, The Round and at Macomb's Dam Bridge. Obedience to this order will secure a speedy end to the state of siege occasioned by the calamity of this evening.