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Wednesday, July 23, 2014

National Zookeeper Week

"“Those of us who have chosen a life with animals know we have chosen well. Having a conversation with a lion is a fine way to start one’s day. For that matter, so is tossing tidbits to a toucan, or medicating a cobra. There’s something there, in the lion’s luminous eyes, in the gaudy splendor of the toucan, in the cobra’s sibilant protests: it’s magic. It’s the stuff of fairy tales to interact with animals like these, even in a scientific setting, and in spite of repetitious, routine chores. You should envy us, for we are the most fortunate of humans—we take care of the animals at the zoo.” 

- Dana Payne, Woodland Park Zoo

Happy National Zookeeper Week!

This week, we celebrate the zookeepers (and aquarists) who make our institutions work.  They are the ones who come in every day - even Christmas, even Thanksgiving - to care for the animals as their facilities.  They brave scorching heat and freezing winter, working through heat waves and hurricanes alike.  They prepare diets of every description imaginable.  They provide enrichment to keep animals physically and mentally healthy.  And, of course, they scoop mountains of poop.

Being a zookeeper has its challenges and its rewards.  They welcome new animals into the world, and watch as old, beloved ones leave it.  They share their passion for wildlife with visitors of all ages... and deal with some of the less savory elements of the public.  They work all hours, do the impossible in the service of their animals, and then limp home with a baffling variety of injuries.  They aren't motivated by money (although some more would be nice...) or by glory (though of course we are all awesome), but by the simple desire to do their job as well as possible and provide their animals with the best of care.

Next time you visit a zoo or aquarium, try to take a moment to greet a keeper, maybe ask a question or two, and thank them for their hard work in keeping the place going and the animals cared for.  We appreciate it!  That being said, the job is also its own reward... I never wanted another one.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Naming Cliches

Yesterday's post about animal names got me thinking... there are a lot of cliche animal names out there.  For every person who comes up with a brilliant, witty, original name for their dog, there are a lot of Dukes, Jakes, and Bears (though come to think of it, I've never seen a "Fido" or "Rover").  Here are some other over-used named for zoo animals.  They're certainly better than some of the options discussed yesterday, but we could still probably try to use a little less often...

Camel: Omar
Chimpanzee: Darwin
Gorilla: Kong
Jaguar: Maya
Lemur: King Julian
Leopard: Bagheera
Lion: Simba*, Aslan
Kangaroo: Boomer
Macaw: Rio
Tiger: Shere, Khan, Lily
Turtle: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello
Warthog: Pumbaa

*Want to be really unoriginal?  Consider naming your animal after what the species is called in its native region (i.e.: "Simba" is Swahili for "Lion")

I always liked the name "Humphry" for a llama... because it's like a camel, only "hump free"... hee hee hee...

Monday, July 21, 2014

Hi! My Name Is....

"Like the pine trees lining the winding road - I got a name, I've got a name,
Like the singing bird and the croaking toad - I got a name, I've got a name"
- Jim Croce, I Got a Name

When I was a young'un, just getting started in the keeper world, the zoo where I was volunteering had a litter of five cheetah cubs born.  This was big news - the first in the zoo's history - and it made national papers, which in turn led to lots of correspondence for the zoo.  Many of these letters that flooded in, besides congratulations, offered up naming suggestions for the cubs.  When visiting the cheetah section one day, I saw one such letter taped to the refrigerator, suggesting the names Anita, Bonita, Clarita, Conchita, and Dorita (I don't know if anyone every told his person that cheetahs weren't from Latin America).

Anita and Bonita (or is it Clarita and Conchita?) frolicking in the leaves

Scrolled across the bottom of the letter in angry Sharpie writing was a note from one of the cheetah keepers: "This is why we don't let the public name our animals!"

It's a sad fact, but not all zoo animals get names.  This is in part dependent upon what kind of animal we're talking about.  If you have a flock of thirty flamingos, you probably won't name them all.  You'll have a number for each of them, but a name, no - how would you tell who was who anyway (besides looking at their ID number, usually on a band around the leg)?  For some animals managed as a group, there might not even be an individual number - just a group ID.  Reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates tend not to be named either, unless they are individuals who stand out for some reason.  Well, in many cases; when I was a reptile keeper, I think I named just about every snake, lizard, and turtle I cared for, even if the name existed only in my mind and nowhere on paper.

Which raises a second point... names also come about depending on the keepers in question.  I know plenty of old-time keepers who don't name animals... even primates, bears, and big cats, which in my opinion have way too much personality to just be a number, or "the female leopard."  They say that it anthropomorphizes the animals, or sends "the wrong message" to the public that the animals are pets.  They may have their own private house names for the animals, but would never tell a member of the public.

For a zoo's most famous, most charismatic animals, however, house names are common knowledge among the general public.  How these animals get the names depends on circumstances.  Most animal names come from the keepers.  There may be a specific rhyme or reason to the names - at one zoo where I worked, babies were always given a name starting with the same letter as their mother to help keep track of family lines - or it may be something that the staff just likes the sound of.  There's been an increasing trend of naming animals in the language of their origin country - another excellent reason to learn Swahili, Spanish, Hindi, or Portuguese.

Sometimes, the right to name an animal is given to a donor.  And then there are the naming contests...

I fear public naming contests.  Seriously.  I've heard the names that people come up with.  "Barry"... the bear.  "Ellie"... the elephant.  Oh, and the black and spotted leopards?  You guessed it - "Blackie" and "Spot".  It would fine if this was from the kids, but really, the adults?  Folks like this make our would-be cheetah namer sound like a fountain of originality.  In an effort to reduce such tragic naming accidents (I can only imagine the possibility of an animal dying from shame after being saddled with a colossally stupid name), zoos have tended to rig naming contests... well, not "rig", but more like "limit the options to  acceptable outcomes."  Three or four suggested names will be made available for voting, all pre-screened by staff.

One bit of zoo etiquette - if you learn the house name of a zoo animal, treat it as a cool tidbit of knowledge.  Don't feel the need to scream it at the animal over and over again at your next visit.  He or she knows you aren't the keeper and they will... not... care.  All you will do is annoy the animal, its exhibit mates, its keepers, and every person in a fifty yard radius.

The most complicated and ornate naming rituals are associated with the giant pandas (actually, the most complicated and ornate everything are usually associated with giant pandas).  Panda cubs are, in the traditional Chinese fashion, given their name at a naming day celebration when they are 100 days old.  Names are invariably Chinese in origin, carefully selected for each cub.

That's good... I'd hate to think of an animal as rare as a giant panda going through life with some of those names I've heard people suggest...

"I don't care HOW much money the donor has, we are NOT naming the panda Frank!"

Saturday, July 19, 2014

From the News: Quincy Man Arrested after Swimming in Aquarium Shark Tank

After some recent posts, I was worried that I might be giving the impression that people only did ridiculous, stupid stuff when visiting zoos, not aquariums.  So, to even the scale a little bit, here's a gem from New England Aquarium.  To be fair, the title is - slightly - misleading.  The man in question jumped into the aquarium's main tank, which does have sharks, but not especially large or dangerous ones.  Still...

Many aquariums do, in fact, have programs that allow visitors to dive with their animals.  I'm thinking especially of Georgia Aquarium's program of swimming with their whale sharks.  Still, if you desire such an opportunity, probably best to arrange it through the aquarium.  Don't go taking the initiative and do it yourself.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Zoo History: The Fishmonger's Son

The life of Carl Hagenbeck Jr. changed forever the moment the fishermen walked into his father's office.  Carl Sr. was a fishmonger, and he had a contract with these sturgeon fisherman to purchase their catches - all of it.  It just so happened that this time, their catch included six young seals, captured in the Elbe.  Not knowing what else to do with them, Carl's father tossed the seals into a holding tank and put them on display for a small fee.  To his surprise, the seals were a sensation; when the novelty wore off, he sold them at a profit and bought more animals to display.  In 1866, Hagenbeck offered his son, Carl Jr., a choice - inherit his father's vastly more profitable and reliable fish business, or take over their fledgling, modest exotic animal business. Carl chose the later.

Over the years, the Hagenbeck business grew by leaps and bounds until it was the foremost animal dealing company in the world.  With agents in every colonial port in Africa and Asia, Hagenbeck was responsible for importing many species which had never been seen in Europe or the United States before: the first black rhino, elephant seal, Mongolian wild horse, and African manatee, for instance.  The pygmy hippos that he sold to the Bronx Zoo in 1912, the first of their kind in America, sold for $12,000, the greatest price the zoo had paid for an animal up to that point.

When Hagenbeck's success began to encourage other dealers to enter the exotic animal trade, he found a way to beat the competition by providing an even more extraordinary service.  In capturing wild animals for zoos and circuses, agents were assisted by indigenous peoples, as exotic and unfamiliar to Europeans as the animals they sought: “no less wild then the beasts”, Hagenbeck declared.  Soon, he began arranged "ethnological exhibitions" - importing indigenous peoples from around the globe to tour Europe and essentially become a human zoo.  Lakota from the United States, Saami from Scandanavia, Bedouins from North Africa, and Ceylonese "devil dancers" from Sri Lanka were among the groups featured in these shows.

The exotics business - animal and human - provided Hagenbeck with the wealth and prestige that he needed to unveil his most ambitious project to date.  He had made his fortune supplying the zoos of Europe and America.  Based on his observations, he decided that he could do them one better.  Purchasing a potato field outside of Hamburg, Hagenbeck opened a zoo unlike any the world had ever seen before.  Among his many skills, Hagenbeck was a very capable trainer - unique in this era for his belief in training with positive reinforcement instead of brutal punishments - and he used this skill to learn how far and high animals could jump.  Armed with this knowledge and combined with his natural flair for showmanship, Hagenbeck designed the world's first "modern" zoo - open air enclosures, mixed-species habitats by geographic area, and predators and prey seeming to live alongside one another, but actually separated by hidden moats.  In essence, he created the naturalistic zoo exhibit.

The idea took a while to catch on - many of the older guard of zoo directors were horrified by the idea - but catch on it did.  Though Hagenbeck's zoo was destroyed (along with virtually every other German zoo) during World War II, his legacy lived on in the exhibits that sprang up in zoos around the world.  Animals that would have otherwise been banished to cramped indoor cages of iron bars and tile walls were given grass, soil, water, trees, rocks, and, most importantly, the chance to express natural behaviors.  The face of the modern zoo was changed forever.

And how different it might all have been if those fishermen had tossed six young seals back in the Elbe.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Book Review: Visions of Caliban: On Chimpanzees and People

"Whether we finally think of Caliban as an animalized human or a humanized animal, for the other characters of the play he lurches, anatomically and behaviorally, somewhere in between, a disturbing specimen of continuity between human and animal.  The image of Caliban suggests that we are not alone, that we endure on an island-planet troubled, pestered, shadowed by a bestial double."

Outside of Central Africa, humans and chimpanzees have a relatively brief history with one another.  Whereas lions, elephants, and many other animals were well known to the Greeks and Romans, chimps first appeared on the European scene in the early 1600s, when explorers from West Africa brought back the first word of human-like "monsters" in the jungles of Angola.  William Shakespeare - as far as we know - never saw a chimpanzee in the flesh.  He did, however, shortly afterwards write a play depicting a tropical paradise inhabited by a half-human creature.  The play was The Tempest.  The creature he called "Caliban."

In Visions for Caliban, Dale Peterson and Jane Goodall examine man's relationship with our nearest relative (well, apart from the bonobo) through the lens of Shakespeare's character.  Caliban - who has been variously portrayed as an animal, a monster, or an indigenous person oppressed by colonizing Europeans - has always fascinated audiences and been subject to various interpretations.  Caliban represents a sort of mirror to the reader, challenging them to look into it and define what makes them human and him an animal.  The problem with mirrors, we find quickly, is that you don't always like what you see in them...

Much has been written about man's inhumanity towards man.  Visions of Caliban says much about man's inhumanity to chimp.  Peterson and Goodall take the reader across the world, from the African forests where chimpanzees are captured, often pulled from the dead bodies of their mothers, for illegal sale, to the biomedical labs where they wait out their lives in sterile confinement.  We also meet chimpanzees kept as pets - dressed up in silly clothes, performing on stage, or otherwise serving to entertain people.  In one of the most disturbing passages, Peterson encounters a chimpanzee living in an old restroom, attached to a pipe by a two-foot-long leash of chain.  What makes this all the more chilling is that the ape's owner cheerfully introduces the chimp as his son, and then precedes to cuddle with him.

Lest we paint too grim of a portrait of chimpanzee life, it is important to note that the book does convey images of hope (if there is one message you get from many of Goodall's books, it's that she is an optimist at heart).  The reader encounters abuse and misfortune, but there are just as many people out there trying to improve the lot of chimpanzees.  There are folks who are rescuing and rehabbing apes, trying to give them more natural lives.  There are people campaigning for improved living conditions for chimps in laboratories, and for the banning of chimps in the entertainment industry.  Already public opinion and international law have begun to move in favor of chimpanzees... it's just that there is still so much further to go.

One subject that is barely broached in the book is that of chimpanzees in zoos (outside of Africa, that is... we do see some horribly mistreated animals living in ramshackle zoos in West Africa).  Goodall addresses that topic towards the end of the book.  Not surprisingly, based on her past experiences, she states her preference for seeing chimps in the wild.  That being said, she also admits that this idyllic life in the wild is rapidly fading from existence - destroyed by habitat loss and the bushmeat trade - and wonders "if many - even most - of these increasingly persecuted individuals, given the choice, would not opt for life in one of the better zoos."

The subtitle of Peterson and Goodall's book is "On Chimpanzees and People."  If you want to learn more about chimpanzees, then read one of Goodall's many other books.  Visions of Caliban reveals much more about people than it does apes... and it makes you wonder who should be calling who a monster...

Monday, July 14, 2014

Sporcle Quiz: Public Aquariums

A while back, I put out a call for aquarists, seeing if I could find anyone who could help me make this page a little more representative of the other half of the zoo community.  No dice.  So, I figured I'd have to do it all by my lonesome.  My first ever species fact profile of a fish - the green moray eel - is a step towards being more representative.  This Sporcle quiz is a next step.

It's surprising how few aquariums there are compared to zoos... but I guess it shouldn't be.  Aquariums are much more expensive to maintain, what with all of their life-support systems and such (and feeding, too... no on in an aquarium is living off of hay or other cheap foodstuffs).  Seawater either has to be pumped in (hence the prevalence of aquariums in harbor towns), or artificially made at great expense.  

Still, I was kind of shocked that there were so few aquariums... 72 cities total (and that includes Washington DC, which is now, alas, lacking in the aquarium department) - some of which have aquariums that double as zoos, or are really just a few fish tanks.  And how do some big cities like Los Angeles and Minneapolis/St. Paul not have aquariums?

I didn't do too super of a job on this quiz, but maybe you'll do better...

The National Aquarium in Baltimore, overlooking the Inner Harbor