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Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Killing Keiko

Earlier this year, I shared a post about the now-released book Barle's Story, describing the life of a young polar bear rescued from life in a Mexican circus.  Today, I thought I'd share another story about another upcoming book - Killing Keiko.  The animal in question in this book is far more famous than Barle, but is usually better known by the name that he appeared in on the big screen: Free Willy.  Keiko's story, told by one of the biologists that monitored his release, is an important lesson about who should make decisions based on what is best for animals, not agendas.

What follows below is an excerpt from an article on Live Trading News.

Did Hollywood Kill Free Willy?

Did Hollywood Kill Free Willy?

Posted by Shayne Heffernan

It’s a scene etched in the minds of movie-goers: a captive killer whale vaults over a jetty to the open ocean, free at last to join his family in the wild.

In real life, however, Free Willy‘s fairy-tale ending never came true.  Despite international attention and tens of millions donated to his release, Keiko — the killer whale whose story inspired the Warner Brothers movie and its three sequels — suffered an excruciating, lonely and completely avoidable death.

“The public has been misled about Keiko, and I’m not ok with that,” said veteran animal behaviorist Mark Simmons, author of Killing Keiko, a new book available August 14.  Simmons led the Animal Behavior Team charged with Keiko’s release and spent years working in Iceland to prepare Keiko for his return to the wild. Ultimately, the team’s success would prove to be undone by management’s agenda to disregard behavioral science and elevate an urgent need for a timely and Hollywood ending.

“What’s so shocking about this story is that animal-rights activists put their publicity driven agendas over the life of this whale,” said Simmons, one of only a handful of people who’ve had nearly three decades of up-close interaction with killer whales.

Simmons continues, “Keiko endured a long, slow and physiologically punishing death caused by illness, starvation and dehydration.  He did not successfully integrate with other whales.  He did not learn to forage for food.  He never stopped longing for human interaction — something he’d been accustomed to for 20 years.”

Read the rest of the article here.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Satire: Round Animals

I was starting to do some work today on a post about why guests shouldn't feed zoo animals, when this video came up.  I've seen it a few times already, but thought I'd share it here.  It just shows the logical extension of what would happen if we fed wild animals like we feed ourselves.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Protect and Serve

I've spent about half of my life working with wild animals of every sort, but I'll always have a soft spot for dogs.  I'm not referring to "dogs" as in members of the Candiae - wolves, foxes, etc - but rather... dogs.  The pet ones.  I had dogs for much of my childhood, and my parents still have one, who I like to pamper and fuss over on those infrequent occasions when I actually visit home.  When I finally achieve some stability in life, I hope to have dogs of my own.  I had a lot of fun with dogs growing up, whether playing in the yard, going for walks, or just plopping down on the couch together, watching a movie.

One thing I never did with my dogs, however, was take them to the zoo.  They weren't allowed in, and with good reason.

I can usually tell when a dog has snuck into zoo grounds.  The animals are quick to let us know.  It may start off with the indignant screaming of llamas, the whooping of primates, or the cries of cranes - every animal starts to make noise.  Usually, lots of it.  This is especially true when a stray dog or one that's slipped its leash comes tearing through the zoo, running wild and panicking every animal it encounters.  Some, like the birds, are terrified.  Others, like the large carnivores, seem to be saying, "Bring it on!"

There is only one situation in which dogs are generally welcome on zoo grounds, and that is if they are service animals.  Now... what does that even mean?

A service animal is a dog (infrequently a miniature horse, but that need not distract us) trained to assist a person with an ADA recognized disability.  It could be a seeing-eye dog for the visually impaired, for instance, or a dog trained to recognize the onset of a seizure.  These dogs are all business - usually wearing a vest or some other identifier, calm and collected, more professional that most people I know.  These dogs seldom cause a fuss among the animals; when they do, they tend not to add fuel to the fire by barking or running or pulling at the leash, like a usual dog would do when confronted with, say, a full-grown grizzly.

Service dogs can't go anywhere in a zoo that people can go - they can't enter enclosures with animals, such as a kangaroo walk-through or an aviary.  On a recent visit to Jacksonville Zoo, I was in one of the aviaries when a service dog walked in (against zoo rules).  The panic it caused was extraordinary - within seconds, the air was filled with ducks, ibises, and man-sized storks, all raining feces down in a smelly, terror-fueled rain.  Not a good experience for anyone... especially those who got hit.

Such occasional incidents aside, service dogs in a zoo usually work fine.  Their handlers just need to accept some basic rules of courtesy.  For example, if your dog is causing some animals to panic, please just keep moving.  What really irritates me, though, are the recent headaches of fake service animals.  These are dogs that do NOT assist people with ADA disabilities, but are just... pets.  Oh, some are called therapy dogs and are used to comfort people with emotional problems, which is great, but they are not service dogs and are not trained as such.  The line for what makes a dog a therapy dog is a blurry one, and it would be easy to end up with the zoo being opened up to every dog that came in.

This would be bad for the animals, as we've seen (and God help us if a dog jumps into an enclosure, a problem I've had to deal with before).  It's bad for the zoo - imagine the liability if a person gets bitten by another visitor's dog.  It's also not great for the dogs themselves - I'm sure some of the smells (especially the more scatological ones) would be fascinating for the dogs, but imagine the stress and terror that a small dog is going to feel when it sees a tiger staring at it, licking its lips!  If people have a dog in the zoo and say it's a service animal, I'll take them at their word... but watch them.  If they can't control their animal, or it causes problems, it's time for them to leave.

The only thing worse, I fear, that people smuggling dogs into the zoo in their purses, as I've seen, is leaving them locked in their cars while they visit the zoo, especially on a hot summer day.  It would be great if zoos could have kennels to accommodate pets while they visited the facility, but I'd worry about liability, let alone the possibility of abandonment.

If in doubt as to whether or not your dog is appropriate for a visit to the zoo, call ahead and ask.  If the zoo says "yes", try to follow their rules and show courtesy to their animals.  If they say "no", it means "no."  Zoos and aquariums are full of wonderful animals.  You don't need to bring your own.

PS: As for the ever-popular service monkeys... just a bad idea.  Between the prospect of disease transmission, escape and interaction with zoo animals, or the likelihood of other visitors trying to touch it and getting bitten, it's a nightmare.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Movie Review: Zebra in the Kitchen

When a young country boy named Chris finds out that his family is moving to the big city, he's faced with the conundrum of what to do with his beloved pet - a mountain lion named "Sunshine."  He's told to release the cat back into the wild... only to secretly sneak it into the moving van to his family's new home.  Now stuck in the city with a full-grown mountain lion on their hands, Chris and his family do the only thing they can - turn the cat over the ramshackle, decrepit city zoo.

Zebra in the Kitchen was one of my favorite movies growing up.  I almost dread watching it these days because it's so terrifically cheesy - with partying chimpanzees and bike-riding bears - that I'm afraid it'll spoil childhood memories.  Still, when I was eight or so I thought it was the best movie ever, and why wouldn't I? By that age I was already determined to be a zookeeper when I grew up (I've since become a zookeeper of course, still working on the growing up part), and this was the first movie I'd ever seen about zookeepers.

Generally, the zookeepers in the movie come off in a positive light.  Sure, their zoo is an absolute dump, but that's not their fault - the villains in the movie (and often in real life) are the penny-pinching politicians.  Apart from Chris (and Sunshine), the protagonists are the zoo staff who want desperately to help give their animals better lives.  With Sunshine miserable and unhappy in his new caged home, they invite Chris to come and help volunteer at the zoo.  What Chris does with this position of trust is spring his wild cat buddy out of jail... and let every other animal in the zoo loose as well.

As one would expect in a movie (and a kid's movie, too boot), comic relief ensues.  Animals roam around causing all sorts of trouble, but no one gets hurt.  Eventually everyone winds up back in the zoo (including Sunshine), while the townspeople, moved by the animals, work together to transform the zoo into a great new home for all the animals.  Everyone lives happily ever after, especially Chris, who grows up to become a zookeeper, taking care of Sunshine everyday.

It's such a sweet ending that I can almost forget my one major qualm with the movie.  The filmmakers missed out on the chance to teach one major lesson in this movie - wild animals like mountain lions don't make good pets.  The relationship between Chris and Sunshine is glamorized so much that I bet that, if walking out of the theater, a young boy came across an orphaned wild animal, he'd jump at the chance to take it home.  I know, I know, it's a kids movie, not meant for heavy lessons... but some lessons are best learned early.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Satire: SeaWorld announces shift from orcas to sharks

I want to open this one up with a simple reminder... this one is SATIRE.  The reason I feel the need to emphasis this is that an amazing number of people who read this when it first came out insisted that it was real, which only led to further SeaWorld bashing.

I've had this sitting on my computer desktop for a while, but was waiting for the right time to share it (as in: when I didn't have anything else to post).  That being said, with "Shark Week" this month and the recent announcement from SeaWorld about their planned renovation and expansion of their orca habitats, I thought now was as good a time as any other.  Enjoy!

On March 7, California State Assemblyman Richard Bloom introduced the Orca Safety and Welfare Act. If passed, the bill would outlaw the use of orcas for "entertainment" or "performance purposes." Bloom told the press that the measure was inspired by the documentary Blackfish, which criticized SeaWorld for keeping orcas in captivity, and even suggested that the practice could turn so-called "regular killer whales" into "people-killer whales."

In the months following the release of Blackfish, SeaWorld fought hard in the press to counter the charges brought by the film. But once Bloom introduced his bill, the aquatic theme park decided to take a different tack. Today, in a stunning turn of events, SeaWorld announced that it would be replacing its orcas with great white sharks in all its shows. Even famed company mascot Shamu was replaced — by a shark named Chum.

Read the rest of the article here

Sunday, August 24, 2014

From the News: Seneca Park Zoo recycle roadkill

Big cats and other large carnivores are some of the most difficult animals to enrich in a zoo setting, mainly because one of the most important parts of their life - killing other large animals - is not permissible in zoos in (many) countries.  That being said, predation doesn't end with the kill, and there is a world of difference between eating a bowl of ground meat and tearing through a hundred pound carcass, ripping skin and breaking bones, possibly dragging the whole thing hundreds of yards to a private spot to feed.  

I've seen an adult tiger tackle a deer carcass before, and it's horrifying and amazing.  He picked up the carcass - a big adult buck - by the throat and slung it around like a rag doll.  When the other keepers and I would approach too close to the fence, he would throw a protective paw over it and roar at us from a blood-stained mouth, warning us to keep back from his prize (never mind that we were the ones who gave it to him in the first place).  It kept him busy for a week, until even the biggest of bones was gone.  

Congratulations to Seneca Park Zoo (and they're not the only ones!) for taking steps to boost the quality of care for their apex predators.  And "boo" to the whiny nay-sayers quoted in this article... even PETA agrees that this is a good idea, for Pete's sake.

Lioness Amali feeds earlier this month at Seneca Park Zoo. The idea of feeding roadkill to zoo carnivores evolved into an organized food program. The zoo won’t accept deer that have been dead for more than 10 hours. (Photo: NEETI UPADHYE/@neetiu_dandc/ , STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Talk is Cheap

"An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

This one isn't strictly zoo-related, but it describes a pet-peeve I've been dealing with a lot at work lately, and one which is seen pretty commonly in every work environment, not to mention personal lives.

Among my many major personality problems, the one that frequently causes me the most trouble is this:

My mouth is three or four times faster than my brain.  And once it gets going, there's no stopping it.

As a result, at the end of every staff meeting at work, I have to sit down in a quiet, isolated place and remind myself: what did I just tell everyone at work that I was going to do?  Usually, the end result is a long list.

There are lots of idea people out there.  People who can go to work and see what needs to be done, or what should be done, or what could be done, to make their facility better.  I generally think of myself as one of these - when I walk around the zoo, I'm forming a constantly-growing project list at the back of my mind.  The problem is it tends to stay there.  Idea people are a dime a dozen.  What really matters is actually doing what you tell yourself needs to get done.

The challenge that I've come up with lately has been making the transition from a thinker to thinker AND doer (there are plenty of "doers" out there in the sense that they come in to work, do what they are supposed to and nothing more, and lack all capacity for creative thought).  Making paper lists helps; it helps me keep track of what I'm promising, and keeps me from adding additional things to the list until I've started knocking some of the older items off the list.

Getting stuff done is good for the animals - everyone knows that training, enrichment, improvements to exhibits, etc, are all important to the well-being of animals.  Knowing that doesn't do any good.  It actually needs to be done for it to make a difference.  It also is good for your career.  It differentiates the people who just talk a good game from the people who will follow through and make good on it.

I recently met a curator from another zoo who told me that whenever one of his keepers came to him wanting something - a new piece of equipment, a fancy enrichment item, permission to engage in a new training program, tuition to a class, whatever - he would always say "yes"... the first time.  If, six months later, that fancy new equipment or enrichment item was still in the box it was shipped in, or the manual from that professional development class is collecting dust on a shelf somewhere, with no new ideas to show for it, that was it.  No new toys for Christmas this year until you showed that you played with the ones from last year.

So far, I'm making some progress on my challenge.  Some projects are getting knocked out.  Some exhibit improvements have been made, some new enrichment items added to the routine.  I've even started another training project.  But it's easy to rest on laurels and slide back into just daydreaming, so the next time I hear myself spout off about the latest new idea, I'm going to have to keep reminding myself...

Talk is cheap... SHOW me something...