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Monday, October 16, 2017

Zoo Review: Zoo New England - Stone Zoo

Located just north of Boston, the Stone Zoo makes up one half of Zoo New England, the other half being Boston's Franklin Park Zoo.  Over the course of its chaotic history, it grew from a small collection of local species in 1905 to a major zoo (complete with elephants, sea lions, and orangutans) in the 1970s, to closing its gates in 1990, following severe budget cuts.  Though it was able to reopen two years later, zoo lost most of its large animals and rapidly sank into decline. 

Community support rallied around the flailing zoo, however, and Stone Zoo has gradually begun to build itself back.  It will likely never again be a major zoo complete with the large collection of big mammals that it once had.  Instead, it is growing into a role of a small zoo for a small town, doing well with the space and resources it has.

Prior to his death in 2000, the star of the Stone Zoo (and its last holdover from its golden years) was Major, the polar bear.  Major may be gone, and the zoo no longer exhibiting polar bears, but his legacy can be found in the zoo's Yukon Creek trail.  American black bears occupy the site of the former polar bear exhibit and are visible nose-to-nose through large windows.  Along the meandering, wooded trail, visitors may encounter bald eagle, North American porcupine, Canada lynx, and arctic fox.  A small paddock of caribou rounds out the section.

More cold-weather animals may be seen in the Himalayan Highlands, where the stars are the snow leopards.  The leopards inhabit a rocky, hillside enclosure, secured behind thin wire mesh.  Wrapping around the back of the snow leopard exhibit is one of the zoo's finest habitats, a sprawling yard for markhor - spiral-horned Asian mountain goats which are a preferred prey of snow leopards.  The markhor may look down at visitors from the rocky heights of their exhibit, or descend to ground level to graze in a grassy meadow.  Located nearby are yaks and rarely-exhibit black-necked cranes (only the second time I've ever seen these gorgeous birds).

Treasures of the Sierra Madre highlights the species of the US-Mexican borderlands, with jaguars and pumas being the stars.  The former can be seen in an exhibit that resembles an abandoned mining camp, splashing in the water tanks for climbing through the derelict equipment.  Among the ruined abobe buildings, widows provide peek glances at snakes, bats, Gila monsters, and tarantulas, while meshed-in enclosures house roadrunners and coatis.  Chacoan peccaries (not from the Sierra Madre, but perhaps serving as a stand-in for collared peccaries, root around in a dusty yard formerly occupied by coyotes.

The best exhibit in the zoo is the beautiful, spacious Mexican wolf habitat, located in a quiet edge of the zoo.  The enclosure encompasses a stretch of woodland on a steep hillside; looking at it, I had a hard time making out where the edge of the enclosure were.  Visitors may walk along the bottom of the hill, or trek upwards and enter a viewing cave (furnished with recreated Southwestern cave paintings and a wolf sculpture) for a peek into the habitat.  I did not actually see the wolves the day of my visit, but the habitat compared favorably to many wolf exhibits I've seen around the country.

Rounding out the collection are habitats for gibbons and other primates, North American river otters, American alligators, and sandhill and whooping cranes, as well as the obligatory zoo petting barn.  There are two indoor exhibit spaces - one is a small education building (Animal Discovery Center) with tanks of small reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates.  The other is the aptly named Windows to the Wild which is... a horseshoe-shaped building with windows into a row of habitats.  Tree kangaroos, prehensile-tailed porcupines, rhinoceros hornbills, Inca terns, hyacinth macaws, rock hyraxes, and cotton-topped tamarins are among the species seen here.  In the center of the courtyard is a lagoon of American flamingos.

While I enjoyed the collection, Stone Zoo's exhibits struck me as an odd mix of the great and the mediocre.  Some of the exhibits I loved - the markhors, the wolves, the North American cranes.  Many were average - the puma, the jaguar, the gibbons.  And others struck me as just disappointing.  Among the later were some of the smaller exhibits set along the Yukon and Sierra Madre trails.  What irked me about those habitats is that they were just poles and wire - which are easy and cheap exhibits to build, the advantage being that you could make them as big as you want to, almost.  Every time we try making one of those exhibits at my zoo, the dimensions keep growing as we build, thinking, "Oh, might as well add a little more while we're at it..."  The advantage would be, I'd hope, that some of the exhibits - such as the lynx, coati, and fox - could be expanded and improved without too much effort or expense.  I think the varied nature of the exhibits made the mediocre ones harder to understand.  For example, seeing the gorgeous whooping crane exhibit, with the broad stretch of water, shared with several duck species, and lots of tall plants... and then the black-necked crane in what is basically a dog run with grass.  Some of the smaller exhibits just generally seemed to be after-thoughts.

Still, I acknowledge that it has been a bumpy ride for the Stone Zoo, and I'm glad to see that it is back on its feet.  Hopefully, it's reached a financially sustainable, comfortable spot - a zoo the right size for its community - and will continue to develop its facilities, improving where it needs to, growing when it can.  The worst days, I hope, are far behind it now.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

He Otter Know Better

Here is a Dixon, a North American river otter at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, riding a tiny boat.  Nothing else matters today.  The facebook captions, contributed by zoo visitors, are some of the best I've ever read.  My week is now complete.  Thank you.

Image may contain: one or more people and outdoor

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Vaquita CPR

Yesterday, we shared the news about the efforts of several aquariums to save a stranded baby whale.  Today, efforts commenced to save a few dozen little dolphins.  The difference?  Unlike the baby beluga at the Alaska SeaLife Center, these 30-50 vaquita represent all that is left of their species.

Efforts have begun to herd the last vaquitas into a semi-captive situation.  There, they will hopefully breed... or at least, stop dying.  This will allow the Mexican government to continue its efforts to clear the seas of the nets that have drowned several of their conspecifics.  If this succeeds, it could be the greatest wildlife rescue since the California condor.

Image may contain: sky, outdoor and water

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Baby Beluga, or "The New Fiona"

For much of the first half of this year, the country was captivated by the saga of Fiona, the baby hippo hand-reared at the Cincinnati Zoo.  As we watched her grow up, it was hard to imagine even the possibility of anything more adorable.

Looks like the challenge has been accepted.

A beached baby beluga has been rushed to the Alaska SeaLife Center for emergency care.  Staff at the Center are being aided by marine mammal staff from the Shedd Aquarium, SeaWorld, and the Georgia Aquarium, among other facilities.  Hopefully the baby will continue to thrive.  If possible, it will be released back into the wild.  If it survives but cannot be released, it will be rehomed in an aquarium where it can be with other belugas.

At any rate, it's worth pointing out that people are only able to help this beluga calf because of experience gained working with cetaceans born and raised in aquariums.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Freedom from the Press

I once read a novel in which a character compared talking to the police like tap-dancing on top of an avalanche.  With a lot of skill and some practice, you can stay upright, but you can't get off, and you can't steer.

I feel like the author could have just as effectively replaced the word "police" with "reporters."

Over the years, I've had to give a number of interviews to the press.  I've done stories for new babies, deaths, new acquisitions, new exhibits, wildlife rescues, and special events.  I've done stories about completely unrelated things that have happened at other zoos that people (for some reason) wanted our opinions on, and those annoying reporter-job-shadow stories.  And, of course, every year, like clockwork, I have to do a story on how animals cope with the cold in the winter and how they cope with the heat in the summer.

Almost all could be described in one word.  Cringeworthy.

Before I go any further, I'd like to say, I am ALL FOR a free press.  It's just that most of the reporters that I've had to work with over the years are really bad writers.  And really bad film editors.  And none of them seem to have any clue on how to tell a story, or even to turn a decent phrase.  They all have a tendency to swerve back and forth between using highfalutin, overly officious language one minute and talking to their audiences like they are three-year-olds the next.

And heaven help us with quotes... I once was doing a story on some endangered addax calves born at our zoo.  I talked at length with the reporter about how endangered they are, about collaborative breeding programs, about reintroduction efforts.  At one point, one approached the fence looking for a treat, and I made a comment to the effect of, "They really love to eat."

Guess what was THE ONLY quote that made it into the story?

Equally exasperating is the attempt to infuse as much drama as possible into each story.  I was doing a story about storm prep at the zoo, and the reporter made me reshoot one segment multiple times because she felt I wasn't putting enough drama and passion into it.  Apparently, she wanted me to convey, with tears in my eyes, that it was my only hope that some of our animals would survive the oncoming storm.  No, this wasn't Irma... or Harvey... or Katrina.  We ended up getting some moderate rain.  That's it.

I suspect this is because reporters given the zoo beat in our town are from the revolving-door pool of new reporters who are given the fluff pieces.  Each one of them seems determined to make every story a Pulitzer-winner, and you can tell that they are imagining each headline as it'll look scrawled across the front page of The New York Times.

As much as I hate doing interviews, I still try to volunteer to be the one to do them, if only because I worry about my coworkers doing them.  Many of them aren't as jaded as I am, and get that deer-in-the-headlights vibe when speaking to a reporter, with the result that they tend to babble.

There's a line to walk with reporters - be honest, by all means.  But never say anything that you don't want to see in tonight's news.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis)

Black Mamba
Dendroaspis polylepis (Gunther, 1864)

Range: Sub-Saharan Africa (less common in Western Africa)
Habitat: Wooded Savannah, Rocky Hills
Diet: Small Mammals, Birds
Social Grouping: Asocial outside of mating.  Maintain home ranges, but not highly territorial and will share dens with other mambas or other snakes
Reproduction: Breeds October and November.  Females lay up to 17 white, elongated eggs (often inside a termite mound) 2-3 months after mating, which hatch after 80-90 days.  Young receive no parental care after eggs are laid
Lifespan: 11 Years (Wild), 20 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern

  • Africa's largest venomous snake, up to 4.3 meters long (usually up to 2.5 meters) and weighing up to 1.6 kilograms.  The body is long and slender with a narrow head (often described as "coffin shaped").  Second longest venomous snake after the king cobra
  • Olive-brown to grey in color; the common name is believed to refer to the inside of the mouth, which is black or dark blue.  Underside is light gray.  Younger snakes are lighter than old ones
  • Considered the world's fastest snake, though its speeds are often exaggerated - it can move at 20 kilometers per hour for a short distance
  • If threatened and unable to retreat, the mamba will rear up (sometimes enough to look a person in the eye), open its mouth, and expand the skin of its neck into a narrow, cobra-like hood
  • Short, fixed fangs deliver a potent neurotoxin/cardiotoxin mix, capable of killing an adult human within 20 minutes.  Venom causes paralysis, causing death through respiratory failure.
  • Active by day, often basking in trees in the morning before hunting (climbs well, but is less arboreal than the green mambas), retiring to a refuge such as a hollow log, termite mound, or rock crevice at night; this lair may be permanent
  • Males compete for females by intertwining their bodies and wrestling; they do not use their venom when fighting each other
  • Originally divided into two subspecies, now considered to be one.  Previously considered to be the same species as the green mambas, though they are now recognized as distinct.
  • Latin name translates as "Tree Cobra with Many Scales"

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Death by Tourist

A common refrain among people who are opposed to zoos and aquariums is that the proper way to view animals is in the wild.  It certainly is true that ecotourism has been on the rise in recent years.  I've traveled across the US for wildlife-watching opportunities, whether it be the sandhill crane migration in Nebraska, whale-watching off the New England Coast, or seeing crocodiles and alligators side-by-side in the Everglades.  I've also gone abroad, to Africa and to Latin America.  I've loved these trips and the experiences they've provided, as well as the knowledge that my expenses are helping to support the conservation of these species.

Not everyone has as much fun.

Ecotourism can be a bit anti-climatic and, sometimes, uncomfortable.  For every David Attenborough moment you have, there's a lot of sitting and waiting, or driving and waiting, or other-things and waiting.  I had a hard time getting photos of the cranes in Nebraska because my fingers were too frozen to properly work the camera.  I've been drenched in the rain while birding ("chance of light showers" my butt...) and burned to a crisp because I was too busy watching wildebeest to remember to reapply sunscreen.  And, truth be told, I saw more species - more closely, and at greater ease, and displaying more behaviors - in one day at a mid-sized zoo than I did in a week in Belizean jungle.

Not everyone has that kind of patience.  When I went to Africa for the first time, I occasionally heard grumbles from people who had paid a lot of money and didn't feel like they were getting their money's worth, just because there weren't any elephants on view at that moment... even if we'd seen dozens the day before.

The end result has been the establishment of some unsavory practices in ecotourism around the globe.  People trying to force wildlife encounters, or engaging in unsafe practices (for humans and animals) to make them occur.  They may bait animals, creating dependence and increasing aggression, while causing poor health by feeding improper foods.  They may over-habituate animals, which can lead to aggressive begging and potentially endanger tourists.  They may harass animals by getting too close too often; cheetahs in East Africa are particularly known for abandoning their kills under the pressure of being surrounded by minivan-loads of encroaching tourists.  Sometimes, they may take wildlife captive, label themselves as "sanctuaries", and charge visitors for petting encounters.

A recent National Geographic article has highlighted recent examples of this exploitative practice in the Amazon, where toucans, sloths, anteaters, caiman, and other rainforest animals are kept as tourist playthings by local people.  While I've written before about the benefit of zoos in the developing world... this is not what I had in mind, and this is not the role that they should play.  This isn't about educating local peoples and connecting them to their wildlife heritage, all in a setting that provides for optimal animal care.  This is mistreatment of animals, forced into repeated contact with humans without a chance for privacy or escape.

I always encourage readers to do their research when visiting a zoo or aquarium.  Look for accreditation by AZA, EAZA, ARAZPA, or another accrediting body. Maybe look at pictures and skim the website for red flags.  Please do the same when patronizing animal attractions abroad, whether it be a sanctuary, a zoo, a tourist experience, or an animal encounter.  Ask yourself if it's good for the animals involved.

No selfie is worth the lives of animals.

In the Amazon, day trips that include wildlife interactions are increasingly popular, though they pose welfare and conservation concerns, advocates say.  Here, tourists crowd in on a pink river dolphin outside Manaus, Brazil.  The dolphin's scratches are a result of battling with other dolphins for baitfish.  Photograph by Kirsten Luce, National Geographic.