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Friday, October 2, 2015

Venomous vs. Poisonous, or, How to Exasperate a Reptile Keeper

I made it a few steps out from the back of the Reptile House before the crowd gathered.  It took that long for the first parent to notice the Chilean rose-haired tarantula crouched in the palm of my hand, and with one "Hey, look what he has!", I had half the zoo assembled around me.  Visitors edged closer, some excited, others wary, asking questions and coming in close for pictures.   One little girl approached and I knelt down, holding the hair spider low for her to see.

"Is he poisonous?" she asked, face screwed up with concern.

"Not even a little," I said cheerfully.  Those assured, she started to smile.  "She is, however, venomous..." Her smile died suddenly.  "But only a little!" I said.  

The crowd instantly gave me a little more space.

There are few ways to annoy a zookeeper more than using the wrong name for an animal (well, I mean, you could throw rocks... or hop fences... or, well, actually, there's lots of things that annoy us more.  Disregard).  The "Venom" vs "Poison" debacle is included with that.  This one is especially irritating to make zookeepers because it seems that the improper usage is plastered everywhere in pop culture.  Even scholarly works and serious journalists sometimes use the wrong terms.  Heck, I've seen zoos and aquariums use the wrong terms.  It drives keepers nuts.

That being said, it never really bothered me much.  I was willing to take advantage of a teachable moment with the tarantula, but hearing visitors call a snake or spider "poisonous" never really got me too worked up.  After all, where are they supposed to learn the difference?  I don't remember it ever being taught in school.

Anyway, this month I'm going to be talking a lot about venomous (and poisonous!) animals, so I figured it would be best to just have the difference spelled out here.

"Venomous" vs "Poisonous," Explained With Adorable Talking Animals
Web comic by Rosemary Mosco explains the difference between venom and poison

Venomous Animals are ones that inject a toxin into their victim (be it predator or prey), using fangs, stingers, or other weapons.  Examples of venomous animals include spiders, scorpions, king cobras, wasps, and, just because, the duck-billed platypus.

Poisonous Animals administer toxins through touch or absorption or ingestion.  Many amphibians, such as poison dart frogs and cane toads, are poisonous, as are some butterflies, blowfish, and a surprising number of birds (and by surprising, I mean the fact that there are any).

In simple words - venomous means it bites you, you die; poisonous means you bite it, you die.  

Poisonous VS. Venomous

It's a pretty accurate summation.  Some animals, like the snake eluded to in the first cartoon, are both.  They have a venomous bite, but their flesh may also be poisonous if ingested.  Also, just to be clear, being poisoned or envenomated won't necessarily kill you, but it will have some sort of effect on your body.  Get it?  Got it?  Good...

With that out of the way, we can move on in.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Hot Stuff, Coming Through

Working with wild animals in a zoo or aquarium setting has always been my dream job.  There is, however, also an element of danger to it.  Large carnivores, such as big cats, bear, and crocodilians, pose the most obvious hazard, but danger can come from other quarters as well.  Large herbivores can be equally dangerous with their horns and hooves and sheer size.  Birds can be surprisingly fierce, as anyone who has ever had to run for their life from a cassowary can attest.  I've never trusted primates at all.

And then there are the hots.

Within the animal care community, both professionals and amateur pet owners, "hot" is slang for "venomous", and "hots" are the venomous snakes, spiders, scorpions and other toxic species.  They pose a unique danger to their caretakers, often because, unlike lions and gorillas, their keepers work with them directly, with no protective barriers.  The powers of their venoms vary considerably.  Some species are technically venomous but pose no real safety risk to humans.  Others are unquestionably lethal.

This month, we'll be exploring the world of venomous and poisonous animals and how keepers care for them in a zoo setting.  Enjoy!

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Zoo History: Zoos of Death

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Japan and the United States were officially at war. Unlike the isolationist Americans, the Japanese had been at war for the several years prior to this, conquering a swath of territory across Southeast Asia.  With the entry of the United States into the conflict, however, the scope of the war in Asia was to change dramatically.  In fact, virtually every aspect of Japanese life was soon to be profoundly affected.  That included the zoos.

For a nation which had long been isolated from the rest of the world, Japan quickly caught on to the idea of western-style zoological parks prior to being opened to the west.  By the time of Pearl Harbor, Japan had over a dozen zoos on the islands, featuring the usual complement of animals from around the world - big cats and bears, elephants and giraffes.  At the beginning of the war, the Japanese felt assured that victory would be swift.  The zoos remained open, popular with the public.

Soon, however, the war caught up with the civilian population of Japan... and their zoos.  Keepers and other employees went off to war.  Food stuffs for the animals became scarcer and scarcer, with some animals succumbing to starvation.  Coal and oil sources were appropriated by the military, making it difficulty to heat animal houses.  Even the zoo itself began to disappear into the war effort, as cages and guardrails were dismantled for their metal, repurposed as weapons of war.  There were still, however, a fair number of animals in Japanese zoos.  Some were quite dangerous and that, in the eyes of the Japanese authorities, now no longer so confident, made mindful of the risk of air raids, was a problem.  The solution was a grim one.

Towards the end of the war, the order went out to put to death the potentially dangerous animals in every zoo in Japan.  Some were shot.  Some were strangled with nooses.  Some were poisoned.  Some (for reasons I still don't understand) were deliberately starved - one female elephant took a month to die.   When zoo officials resisted calls to destroy their animals, armed "vigilance committees" gave them a choice - you do it... or we will.  Even in death, the animals were called upon to serve the nation as propaganda pieces, further martyrs of the war whose deaths the military hoped would solidify anger against the Allies.

Many zoos in Germany and other European nations were also destroyed during the war (when Bernhard Grzimek took over the Frankfort Zoo after the war, it had one hippo to its name), lost to air raids.  Japanese zoos were relatively untouched in this way.  In contrast, the European zoos didn't experience what the Japanese did - the silent, systematic slaughter of every animal perceived to be a threat.

Like Germany, after the war, Japan rebuilt its zoos (though the grounds of the Kyoto Zoo were temporarily used as a camp site for occupation forces).  Former enemies, now allies, supplied new animals.  The Americans sent the first shipment in 1949 - a handful of turtles... a small start, but the beginning of the stream that later included native American animals (pumas, skunks, coyotes) and exotics (lions, parrots).  India, which during the war had been the site of Japanese invasions, sent an elephant, gifted by Premier Nehru himself.  Eventually, Japan became wealthy and secure enough to go on its own collecting expeditions, restocking the zoos with animals from around the world.  New zoos were constructed steadily throughout the postwar period.

Today, Japan is filled with many excellent zoos; it's sometimes amazed me that such a small country can hold so many (also, that it can hold so many people).   The deaths at the zoos of Japan may pale in comparison to the many, much worse horrors of World War II, but they were still a painful memory for many of the people of that country.  They serve as a reminder that not all victims of war are humans.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Satire: Idiot Zoo Animal With Zero Predators Still Protective of Young

Another piece of satire from The Onion (they get a lot of mileage out of zoos, don't they?).

To be fair, I've often thought about what I would say to the animals under my care if I could speak to them (I mean, I do speak to them, but if they could understand me).  What I would like to say most of all, I've decided, is a message to the deer, the antelope, the kangaroos, and all of the other flighty, perpetually skittish prey species that I work with: It's been ten years and we haven't eaten you yet, I promise, we're not just bidding our time... so calm the hell down.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Zoo Review: Brevard Zoo

Halfway down the Atlantic coast of Florida, Melbourne is often overshadowed by the bigger cities of the state – Orlando, Tampa, Miami, and Jacksonville – which lure many of the snowbirds and tourists.   For those travelers who are passing through, however, it’s worth making a stop at one of the finest zoos that I’ve seen in a long time.  With a diverse collection of animals set in beautiful, lush exhibits  with a unique adventure-theme, the Brevard Zoo is an extraordinary place.

Upon entering the zoo, visitors will find themselves at a central pool, where Chilean flamingos squabble and strut.  From here they are presented with the option of heading down four trails, each taking them to meet animals from a different region of the world.  To enter Wild Florida, visitors take a low wooden boardwalk over a swampy lagoon, with American alligators on one side and the far rarer American crocodile on the other.  Once across, they travel a meandering trail past the habitats of river otters (with underwater viewing), red wolves, and alligator snapping turtles, among other Floridians.  A spacious mixed-species yard houses white-tailed deer, wild turkey, bald eagles, and sandhill cranes, while non-releasable Florida raptors, such as red-tailed hawks and crested caracara, perch on trees scattered along the trail.

Upon being looped back into the center of the zoo, guests can encounter more exotic wildlife on La Selva trail.  Baird’s tapirs and giant anteaters are among the stars of this Neotropical trail, all found in densely planted enclosures, while capybara and coscoroba swans mill around a small pond.  Several mesh-enclosed aviaries house birds, sloths, and primates of various sizes, including king vultures and black-handed spider monkeys.  For many visitors, the star attractions are the jaguars, seen through viewing windows amid a boulder-strewn habitat.

Australasia opens up with wallabies, kangaroos, and emus in a dusty paddock, eventually feeding into a series of walk-through aviaries.  These house beautiful tropical birds not just from Australia but aronnd the world – lorikeets, hornbills, turacos, and waterfowl – as well as diminutive muntjac deer and fruit bats.  The trail ends up back at the wallabies, with two striking Australasians – cassowaries and Visayan warty pigs – across the trail.  As a finale, a small family of siamangs – the zoo’s only apes – can be seen on their island home.
Expedition Africa is the last of the four geographic trails.  It’s also the shortest, but featutres most of the zoo’s large animals. Starting up with some small-fry in the form of rock pythons and meerkats, the trail leads on to cheetah, white rhino, and Grevy’s zebra.  A sparsely-wooded savannah yard houses antelope and marabou storks, while giraffes can be seen at eye level from a viewing deck.  This deck also encloses an aviary that houses rock hyraxes among the birds.

A final, non-geographic area is Paws on Play, a children zoo/play park where kids can splash in the water, play with interactive devices, touch some domestics in a petting zoo, or meet one of the zoo’s animal ambassadors (unlike many zoos, these animals are typically on display when not on program use).  Also on zoo grounds, but off-view to the public, is the zoo’s sea turtle healing center, a facility devoted to the rehabilitation of sick or injured sea turtles.

The exhibits at Brevard Zoo are fantastic – apart from the Bronx Zoo, this might be the only zoo where I haven’t seen a single old-style enclosure that I thought really needed to be changed (probably attributable in part to its youth – it didn’t open until 1994).  What makes it truly unique, however, is the many opportunities for adventure and interaction.  Many zoos offer animal interactions – feed a giraffe, touch a stingray, let a lorikeet land on you – and Brevard does all of this (you can also pet a rhino!).  It also, however, offers special adventure tours.  Visitors to La Selva can zip-line their way through the jungle, checking out birds and monkeys at eye-level.  They can also kayak through Expedition Africa, not only getting an amazing view of the African animals, but also a chance to maybe observe some Florida wildlife as well. Or, take a paddleboat ride through the restored Florida wetlands.

None of this, of course, is meant to overshadow the tremendous conservation work done at Brevard.  Besides working with breeding programs and sending some money abroad, the zoo is very involved in the conservation of local species in need.  The sea turtle hospital is the most famous example, but the zoo also works with oyster restoration, Key Perdido beach mice, and diamondback terrapins, among other endangered natives.

Few - if any - zoos offer their visitors a chance to incorporate so much action, exploration, and interaction into their zoo visit as Brevard Zoo does.  It's a facility well worth keeping an eye on, as I suspect it will continue to prove a leader in taking the zoo guest experience to the next level.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

From the News: South Carolina Aquarium looks to wade into climate research

You talk to zoo or aquarium visitors about deforestation and habitat loss, they pound the table and agree with you.  You talk to them about over-hunting or poaching and they swell up with righteous indignation.  You talk to them about invasive species, they nod their heads sagely.  You talk to them about climate change... and expect at least one person in the crowd to start lobbing rotten produce at you.

Global climate change is one of, if not the, leading threat to many species today.  And not just polar bears and other Arctic dwellers.  Changes in weather patterns can turn grasslands into deserts.  The ratcheting up in temperature is disastrous for heat-sensitive amphibians.  And rising ocean temperatures (even slight ones) can prove lethal for coral, to say nothing of the species that live in coral reefs. That doesn't change the fact that among the US public (including zoo and aquarium visitors), the very concept of climate change, or global warming, is still controversial.  It isn't surprising that many curators and directors, fearful of incurring the wrath of the public, shy away from it and aim their metaphorical guns at less-politically-connected bad guys, like rhino poachers.

So hats off to the South Carolina Aquarium for being willing to tackle the great environmental issue of our day.  Zoos and aquariums are meant to educate, to inspire, and to conserve, and sometimes that means to advocate as well.  Sometimes that means sharing a message that may turn some people off.  The truth, however, should never be ignored just because it happens to be a tad inconvenient.

The South Carolina Aquarium wants to expand its research about the seas to include climate change.
The South Carolina Aquarium wants to expand its research about the seas to include climate change. File/Staff

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Life Not Taken

Earlier this week, there was tragic news of out New Zealand.  Samantha Kudeweh, a curator at the Hamilton Zoo, was killed by a Sumatran tiger at that facility.  Like keepers everywhere, I was extremely saddened to hear the news, and offer deepest condolences to her family, friends, and colleagues.

Samantha Kudeweh. Photo / Hamilton Zoo

I'd like to take a moment, however, to talk about the other participant in this tragedy - the tiger.

In the aftermath of the attack, there were rumors circulating that the animal was going to be euthanized.  Further interviews with the zoo management confirmed that these rumors are false - there is no intention to destroy the animal.  This is standard policy at virtually every zoo, aquarium, or other captive wildlife facility.

Many people seem surprised by this.  Whenever a zoo animal seriously harms or kills a keeper, I always see the question circulating in social media, will the animal be destroyed?  When visitors do something stupid or crazy and put themselves at risk of being harmed or killed by an animal (i.e., the woman in Memphis who decided to feed cookies to the lions), commentators tend to grouse, "Great, now this idiot is going to get killed, and it's the animal who will be put down as punishment."  That's not how it works with zoo animals.

I understand were people get this idea from.  After all, if a domestic dog bites a person, that's often the fate that awaits it, so why not zoo animals?  Because a lion or tiger isn't a dog.  We aren't expected to interact freely with them, day in and out.  I've worked with plenty of big cats that I've had special relationships with, many of which I think "like" me.  Most of them, I suspect, would still kill me if I went in with them.  Not because they're hungry, or angry, or anything like that... it's that they are a big cat, and would see me as a very big mouse to play with.  A tiger that kills isn't an unusually aggressive animal that poses an exceptional danger compared to other tigers... it's a normal tiger.  Same thing with any other zoo animal, even the ones that keepers do work free contact with.

Zoo staff will, if necessary, shoot to kill an animal if it poses a clear danger to someone, or if it is an immediate escape risk.  They will not "execute" one after the fact.  For example, during the wild dog incident at Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium a few years back, one of the dogs was shot while staff and police tried to rescue the child.  After it was realized that the child had been killed, there was no reason to kill the rest of the pack. If my colleagues see me being savaged by a bear, they will shoot it to try and save my life.  If the bear has already killed me, they know killing the bear won't bring me back, so why compound the tragedy by destroying the animal?

Animals have intelligence, and animals have emotions.  I've never doubted that, nor can anyone, really, who spends a lot of time working with them.  It's not a human intelligence or human emotions, however, and we need to remember that.  Among other things, that means we can't pass moral judgement on a zoo animal.

Working with large carnivores, elephants, and other dangerous animals is a privilege that zookeepers embrace, along with the risks that come with it.  To hear the people who knew her talk about her, Sam Kudeweh felt that way, too.

She wouldn't have wanted anyone to hurt that cat.