Search This Blog


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Birth of a Pangolin

Forget about the National Zoo's latest panda... the baby that has most of the zoo community talking this summer was born in Florida this weekend.

Among the most endangered mammals on earth are the pangolins, the eight species of so-called "scaly anteaters" that inhabit Africa and South Asia.  Harmless, insectivorous, and nocturnal, their main defense from predators is their scaly hide, which allows them to curl up into an armored ball, much like an armadillo does.  Unfortunately, that offers little protection against those who would illegally collect them for sale in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

A major challenge in the effort to save pangolins has been the great difficulty associated with keeping them in captivity. Zoos have struggled to keep them alive, let alone create a captive insurance colony.  Not only has this limited the role of zoos in breeding the species, but it's made it difficult to know what to do with confiscated pangolins which are rescued (alive) from traders.  Turn them back into the wild?  They'll just be recaptured immediately.  Besides, often they are too weak and sickly by the time rescuers get to them.

Due to the difficulties in maintaining pangolins, most zoos won't even try, refusing to create a demand for wild-caught animals which will further drain the wild populations.  Not even a few months ago, I received an email that had been sent out by the IUCN to zoo directors, curators, and managers across the United States.  It advised us that we might have some shadowy figure offer us pangolins in the near future - and that we should know that the source was not legitimate and not to support them.

Until the day before yesterday, the only pangolin in captivity in the United States that I'd even known about was at the San Diego Zoo.  I'd never heard of this Pangolin Conservation Center in St. Augustine, Florida - perhaps they deliberately keep a low profile to protect their animals.  I tend to be a little leery of private, unaffiliated non-profits - I believe organizations can do the most good when they marshall their resources and work collaboratively.

Still, when an organization does the seeming impossible, I'm inclined to show some respect.

Congratulations to Justin Miller at the Pangolin Conservation Center for the birth of a white-bellied tree pangolin!  If this success can be replicated, both with this species and with others, it very well may represent a turn in the tide for pangolin conservation.

A newborn female White-bellied Tree Pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis) being weighed, photo by Justin Miller of Pangolin Conservation.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Zoo History: Prairie Phoenix

There are times when the fight to save endangered species seems like a losing game.  The list of defeats is a long one, and each win seems temporary at best, a phyric victory that comes at another species' expense at worst.  Here and there, however, are little glimmers of hope.  There are three species in particular - three US natives - that I tout the stories of frequently, citing them as examples of both why the struggle is worth while and why zoos in particular matter.  One is the California condor; the second is the red wolf (though there seems to be a regretable amount of backsliding on this one as of late).  The third is an obscure, handsome little weasel that at times seemed more like a ghost than a real, flesh-and-blood animal.

John James Audubon (for whom the Audubon Zoo and Audubon Aquarium of the Americas are named) is best known for his bird paintings.  He also painted other animals, however, and it was in one of these paintings that he introduced western science to a striking, weasel-like mammal, a tawny, bandit-masked little beast portrayed in the act of robbing a bird nest.  That was the scientific world's first introduction to Mustela nigripes, the black-footed ferret, at the time a resident of the seemingly endless prairie dog towns that covered the American West.  It was a new find for Audubon but a familiar face to the Blackfoot, Crow, and other first nations of the plains, many who considered the ferret sacred and used its pelt for ceremonial regalia.

Audubon's painting captured the ferret's likeness well, but it was wrong in one sense - bird eggs don't feature too prominately on the menu of the ferret.  Instead, it feeds almost exclusively on prairie dogs, slipping stealthily down burrows to hunt and kill the ground squirrels.  Unfortunately for the ferret, as much as it loved prairie dogs, settlers hated them, considering them pests fit for eradication.  The prairie dogs themselves were too numerous to drive to extinction, but there numbers were diminished sufficiently that, if you were an animal that ate only them, you were in trouble.  Coupled with introduced diseases, the ferret vanished from the face of the plains.  Soon, Audubon's print was all that left... and some people thought that he must have made the critter up entirely.  Even those who did believe in the ferret thought it must be extinct by the middle of the twentieth century.

Miraculously, a small colony was discovered in South Dakota in 1964.  The ferrets, believed to be the last of their kind, were brought into captivity to start an emergency captive breeding program... and they all died.  By the dawn of the 1980's, the black-footed ferret was believed to be extinct... again.

Second chances in conservation are rare.  Third chances are almost unheard of.  And yet, that is what scientists were offered when a taxidermist in Meeteese, Wyoming, told authorities that he had just been presented with a freshly killed ferret in 1981.  The taxidermist in turn had been given the body by a local rancher, who had himself been given it by his dog, who had killed it one night.  A new population of ferrets was discovered, though it was vanishing quickly beneath the onslaught of distemper and plague.  The decision was made to try captive breeding again, and a final effort was made to save the species.  This time, there was a little more success.

Captive breeding began at a facility in Wyoming.  The partnership expanded to include other government agencies, as well as AZA-member zoos.  Participants included Louisville Zoo, Toronto Zoo, Phoenix Zoo, Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.  The tiny population had be managed carefully to reduce inbreeding, as there were no new founders that could be drawn upon.  Ferrets that were past their reproductive prime were sent to other zoos to serve as display animals, educating members of the public about this endangered but little-known species.  Slowly, the population was built up.

It wasn't simply a matter of keeping ferrets alive in zoos in genetically-healthy numbers.  The challenge was also how to help reestablish the species in the wild.  Disease was a major cause of the ferrets' decline, so immunization was of key importance.  Wild ferrets eat only prairie dogs, so zoo ferrets had to learn to hunt prairie dogs.  Facilities responded by placing prairie dogs in enclosures full of soil and allowing them to burrow, then allowing the ferrets to roam the actual prairie dog burrows, filled with the scent of actual prairie dogs.  Besides finding food, ferrets had to learn to avoid becoming food for larger animals.  At some facilities, a taxidermied-badger was affixed to a remote-controlled car and this "RoboBadger" was used to teach ferrets that badgers were dangerous.

In 1991, the moment of truth came and the first releases occurred in Wymong.  Today, there are 24 reintroduction sites across eight US states and the three countries that formed the historic range of the ferret -  the United States, Canada, and Mexico.  What has been most inspiring about the efforts has been the vast array of partners which have come together to help ferrets return to the wild.  They roam across federal and state land, of course, but private landowners have welcomed ferrets to their property.  Several Indian nations have likewise allowed ferret releases on tribal land.

Today there is a secure captive-breeding population, which is providing surplus ferrets for reintroduction across the west.  Ferrets are also being translocated from site to the site in the wild to protect genetic diversity.  More reintroduction sites are being identified and explored.  In short, the black-footed ferret isn't safe by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a whole lot safer than it was when the only known specimen of the species was a corpse dangling from the jaws of a farmer's dog.

Which is just as well... because I doubt that we'll be getting a fourth chance.

Learn more about the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Program at

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Sumatran Sunset

Like many zookeepers, I've got a soft-spot for the obscurities - those little known, often endangered beasties that the rest of the world has never heard of.  Becoming acquainted with an animal that no one else even knows about - looking it in the eye, smelling its breath, hearing it move, maybe even touching it - is an incredible experience, and I spend a lot of my non-work time trying to collect such experiences.  Last year, it brought me halfway across the country to the Cincinnati Zoo so I could meet a very special animal up close and personal.

Of the world's five remaining rhinoceros species, three - Africa's white and black rhinos, Asia's Indian rhino - are fairly well represented in zoo collections.  I've seen all three many times, have seen two in the wild, have touched and hand fed two in captivity, and have worked with one as a keeper.  A fourth species, the critically endangered Javan rhino, is not found in captivity at all.  The fifth, and most unusual, was the main object of my trip.  His name is Harapan and he is, at the moment, the only Sumatran rhinoceros outside of Indonesia.  That's about to change... but not in the  way that I'd hoped.

It's rare that a little-known creature like the Sumatran rhino makes the international news.  It's rarer still when it happens twice in a week.  The first was bittersweet, to announce the imminent transfer of Harapan to Indonesia, where he will participate in a captive-breeding program to save the species.  The second was just plan bitter - the Sumatran rhino has been declared extinct in Malaysia.  A species that once ranged across Southeast Asia is now limited to a few tiny pockets on one island... and shrinking fast.

The early efforts to establish captive-breeding populations of Sumatran rhino failed pretty badly and probably did more harm than good - too little was known about the species needs and reproduction biology, which are so different than those of other rhinos.  By the time Harapan and his older siblings came along - a testament to the work that Cincinnati Zoo put into saving the species - the writing was on the wall.  You can only have so much of a breeding program with a single pair of animals.  Eventually, individuals would have to be imported to the US, or the US animals would have to go back to Asia.  

Given the precarious state of conservation in Indonesia, and the fact that Cincinnati has developed a track-record of work with this species, I have to say the first option seems most likely to succeed to me.  Anyway, the decision is made, and Harapan is Sumatra bound... or at least will be at some time this year.

There's a lot of blame to go around for the fate of the Sumatran rhino, which seems somewhat certain.  We can blame the European colonists who shot up the rhinos in the colonial area.  We can blame the palm oil plantations that replaced their forests, and the indifferent consumers who fueled the trade.  We can blame practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine who decided that a rhino horn was worth more than a rhino, and we can blame government officials who never made saving this species a priority.  Mostly, we can blame everyone - there have been several hard-working people dedicated to saving this animal, but no huge public muster of support.  There is no Cecil-style outcry surrounding Harapan's species - people were outraged at the death of an individual, but ignore the loss of a species.  

The day I met Harapan, he never bothered to saunter out into his outdoor exhibit; luckily, I'd arranged with one of his keepers to meet him in his private quarters.  Ushered into the behind-the-scenes holding barn, I found him behind sturdy barriers, eyeing me curiously, sniffing, occasionally offering his orange, shaggy hide up for a scratch.  Nearby, other keepers carefully sorted, washed, and hung the Ficus leaves and branches that were to be his afternoon meal (figuring out what to feed Sumatran rhinos was one of the major challenges in getting them to thrive in captivity).  

I talked with the keeper for a while, mostly about the fate of the Sumatran, a subject upon which she was extremely knowledgeable.  She'd been there for Harapan's birth, as well as that of his siblings and the death of his parents.  She'd told me about the planned import of more rhinos, and how that fell through.  Her gut feeling was, given more rhinos, with what the staff know now, they could breed more - that Harapan and his siblings weren't a fluke.  Then she shrugged.  Politics, she said, simply, and went back to gazing at the rhino.  I left that barn with some cool souvenir photos... and a wicked case of depression.

I've gotten to work with a lot of incredible zoo and aquarium animals, and have seen countless more at other institutions.  Some I've been lucky enough to see in the wild, whether a fleeting glimpse or an intimate encounter.  Still, I have a feeling that, decades from now when I'm old and grey and ready to go extinct myself, there are a few that will hold more meaning to me than others.  I know that one of those will be the memory of a gray, drizzly day in Cincinnati when I reached through the bars of his pen and scratched the backside of America's last Sumatran rhino.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Zoo Review: Metro Richmond Zoo

On the outskirts of Virginia's capital city is one of the region's largest zoos, the Metro Richmond Zoo.  What makes this facility so unusual among large zoos is that it is not AZA-accredited, and is privately owned and operated (not that those two things are mutually exclusive).  Originating as the private animal collection of owner and founder Jim Andelin, the Metro Richmond Zoo features an impressive collection of hoofstock and  (especially) primates.  It is also something of a trendsetter in human-animal interactions; there are many features I've seen repeated over and over at facilities (especially privately-owned ones), and they all seem to have been inspired by what the owners of those facilities first saw in Richmond.

The zoo boasts an enormous collection of hoofstock, and most of the facility is given over to large paddocks for various hoofed animals.  The African plains sections features addax, impala, zebra, and kudu, along with storks, cranes, and ostriches.  White rhinos and cheetahs are also found here, along with giraffes, which can be fed from a special platform.  A nearby looping path takes visitors through the woods, where North American ungulates - bison and bighorns, elk and pronghorn, roam together.  The path then cumulates in an Asian forest, where takin, blackbuck, tahr, and mouflon roam a wooded hillside.  A closer look at the Asian species can be obtained on the Safari Train Ride, which also travels to a second African grasslands area, this one only visible from the train.  Visitors who wish to get a unique perspective of the rhinos, cheetahs, and antelope in the other African area can do so from the Safari Sky Ride, taking guests over the heads of the animals.

The owner of the facility seems to have a special fondness for primates to a degree that seems almost obsessive.  Rows of lemurs, marmosets, tamarins, and New and Old World monkeys can be found towards the center of the zoo.  Unusual among a non-AZA facility, Richmond also has a strong collection of apes - siamangs, orangutans, and chimpanzees can all be seen in moated island exhibits.  Near the apes are the large carnivores - in addition to the cheetahs, the zoo houses snow leopards, lions, tigers, and Asian black bears.  Rounding out the collection are assorted small mammals and birds, including fruit bats, sloths, binturongs, kangaroos, and African small-clawed otters (a rarely-exhibited relative of the Asian small-clawed otters often seen in zoos).  

The bird collection is also impressive in its scope - besides the tall birds sharing habitats with the African ungulates, there are Chilean flamingos, African penguins, and a walk-through aviary of ducks, pheasants, ibises, and spoonbills.  The birds most likely to be remembered by visitors, however, are, ironically, the budgerigars, small, brightly-colored parakeets often seen in pet stores.  That's because the zoo allows guests to enter their budgie exhibit and feed the birds from seed-sticks, a trend which has spread to many other zoos.  The tiny reptile collection is anchored by alligators and Galapagos tortoises, though a reptile building has opened since I visited last, starring a Komodo dragon.

Years of working in public and private zoos alike have left me with a certain amount of leeriness towards the later - a zoo that is run and operated by a single person can be subject to some pretty strong whims, some harmless, some not.  (An example - right out of college I looked pretty closely at working at Metro Richmond Zoo... but was a bit discomfited by the fact that all staff, I was told, were required to participate in the Christmas pageant, complete with camels and other live animals).  I also tend to be a little more suspicious of zoos that haven't been vetted by AZA behind the scenes as well as in front.  

That being said, I enjoyed Richmond and left with a good vibe.  The exhibits were a mixed-bag; some were fantastic (I really liked the North American ungulate exhibits), and some looked like what they were - home-made with poles and wire.  There were a few things I saw that I wasn't quite sure I liked the look of - the state of some of the tortoise shells, for instance, with one looking really bad - but I don't know if they came to the zoo like that (a problem I've dealt with before), so I'll reserve judgement on that point.  I did see evidence of conservation fundraising, and the staff that I talked to were friendly, courteous, and seemed knowledgeable.  

Lots of zoos have visited Richmond and gotten ideas and inspiration which they've implemented at their own facility.  So yes, I would definitely give Metro Richmond Zoo another look while I'm in the area.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

From the News: World's Biggest Pet Store

I know, I know, on some professional level, I really should disapprove of this place for selling exotic animals like sloths, mongooses, and tamarins to the general public.  On the other, who am I kidding?  If this place was in my town, I would totally spend all of my time wandering down the aisles.  Maybe if I visited enough, they would let me use a little moped like the owner gets to use.

Zajac feeds the sloths carrots and cucumbers.

Zajac feeds the sloths carrots and cucumbers. Photographer: Eriver Hijano

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Book Review: At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa's Wildlife

"I villagers living around a park make money from wildlife... the park becomes the villagers' bank and the wild animals in the park their assets... people are not likely to rob their own bank, and will report those who do."

The plight of Africa's wildlife seldom makes the headlines in the west.  When it does, it's rarely for a good reason.  Most recently, the attention of the world was called to Zimbabwe following the killing of the famous lion known as "Cecil."  There was a lot of noise, a lot of passion, and a lot of heat generated by the killing all of which was, predictably, forgotten as the next scandal du jour came along (and I don't even remember what that was, probably something to do with Donald Trump...)

Everyone had an opinion about Cecil's killing.  Not many people (on either side of the debate) had one that was based in fact or experience.  And very few of the opinions offered on the subject took into account one of the most important factors - the people of Africa.

As it happens, most discussions about African wildlife omit African people entirely.  That is an issue that journalist Raymond Bonner addresses in At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa's Wildlife, his analysis of decades-worth of wildlife conservation efforts across South and East Africa.  Using the international ban on elephant ivory as his major case study, Bonner explores the interplay between Africa's wildlife, her people, their governments, and the western NGOs that often dictate conservation policy to them.

The main conclusion that Bonner comes to is that, if Africans are expected to conserve their wildlife, it has to be made worth their while.  The decision of best to do that, he feels, should be left to them.  In America and Europe, we often assume that the answer is easy - tourism.  Americans and Europeans will come to Africa to see and admire wildlife, Africans will prosper, and the wildlife will be saved.

Not so fast, Bonner says.  Firstly, he argues that tourism alone won't solve Africa's financial woes - other sources of income are needed as well... ivory, for instance (many African nations used proceeds of ivory sales to fund their conservation programs.  When ivory sales were banned, they lost that income).  Similarly, surprisingly little tourist money finds its way into the pockets of the local people who are actually living alongside the animals, including child-snatching leopards and crop-raiding elephants.  Secondly, what right do we (the west) have to tell African nations how to manage their resources?  There are plenty of endangered species in the United States - do Kenyans dictate how to manage (or fail to manage) red wolves?

It's easy to read Bonner's book of failed policies and rampant poaching and feel gloomy about the future of the continent's wildlife.  It's also easy, if you are so inclined, to take exception with his focus on conservation of wildlife for Africa's peoples and feel that he doesn't care too much about wildlife.  You would be wrong on both counts.  Bonner's fixation on finding profitable solutions to managing Africa's wildlife is because he sees it as the only viable, sustainable way to safeguard elephants and rhinos for the future.  He also is able to point out several examples of local people taking ownership of their wildlife and finding ways to profit from their local wildlife, protecting it from poachers and learning to happily live alongside it.

In the end, we cannot fence or guard our way into a future for wildlife.  Wild animals, whether in the western United States or eastern Africa, will survive only as long as there is the will (or at least the passive acceptance) of the people to allow them to.  Africa holds, in trust for the rest of the world, some of the most spectacular animals on the face of the planet.  If we expect them to do for us, it is only fare that we help them shoulder that load.  Sometimes, that means sustainable utilization (euphemism for hunting) to cover costs and manage populations.

An elephant deprived of its ivory isn't a pretty sight.  An Africa deprived of its elephants, however, would look even worse.