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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Proyecto Titi

Proyecto Titi | Conserving Colombia's Wildlife

Every once in a while, I like to use a blog post to highlight an organization that is out working for animals in the wild.  Some - such as Turtle Survival Alliance, Amphibian Ark, and Panthera - are concerned with protecting certain groups of animals.  Others are focused more on geographic areas; Polar Bears International focuses on the Arctic, ZCOG on Latin America.  Still other groups focus on a single species.  Such a group is Proyecto Titi.

Proyecto Titi is devoted to the conservation of one of the world's most endangered primates, the cotton-top tamarin.  Highly popular in zoos around the world, these squirrel-sized monkeys are endemic to the rainforests of Colombia, and as the forests have vanished, so have the tamarins.  Founded in 1985, Proyecto Titi has worked to raise awareness about the tamarins' plight and find solutions to lead to its conservation.

The advantage of being an organization that focuses on one species found in one country is that Proyecto Titi can get to know the communities it works with very well and find ways to better help people and animals coexists.  For example, a contributing cause of habitat loss in Colombia is the clearing of trees for fuelwood, as many poor, rural communities cook over open fire.  Solar ovens were introduced, but for a variety of reasons were not deemed successful.  Project leaders than worked with communities to create new, environmentally-friendly, more fuel-efficient ovens that helped families lower their need for fuel wood and thereby lower their impact on the forest.  Likewise, Proyecto Titi was helped local communities clear up the forest AND turn a profit at the same time by making and selling eco-mochilas - colorful handbags that are made from plastic trash bags that would otherwise be polluting the rainforest.

Besides community involvement, Proyecto Titi is involved in researching cotton-tops (a lot of their research is linked on their website, check it out!) and working to increase awareness about this endangered primate. In both of these goals, the organization has been supported by zoos participating in the Cotton-Top Tamarin Species Survival Plan; many zoos which display cotton-tops show their support through financial contributions to the Project.

Protecting cotton-top tamarins doesn't just help the primates.  It also helps to protect the entire forest ecosystem in which they exist.  Proyecto Titi is an excellent example of using a flagship species to rally support from all interested parties - scientists, zoo professionals, and, above all, local peoples - to protect an endangered species in an endangered habitat.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sporcle Quiz: Name the Sharks

Okay, so Shark Week has come and gone, but sharks are always in style!  After Monterey Bay Aquarium released its final great white shark, there are no great whites in captivity anymore.  Very few aquariums around the world hold whale sharks or great hammerheads.  There are still a lot of awesome sharks out there, from the tiny to the terrifying.  Learn to ID some of them with this quiz!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Zoo History: The Great White Sharks of Monterey Bay

There's an old joke about two kids going off to school, talking about their classes for that day.  One of them sagely points out that she thinks that history should be the first class taught every day, before any more of it happens.  It's a joke, of course, but one with an important lesson - history is always being made.

Zoos and aquariums are always making history, albeit history that is seldom noticed by the rest of the world. A big part of that is the achieving of historical "fists" - such as being the first institution to breed a particular species in captivity and rear it successfully, or the first to obtain knowledge about an animal's behavior or biology.  Some of the most celebrated "firsts", however, are being the first (and only) institution to display a species... or the first to keep it alive for any length of time.

It was the later achievement that the Monterey Bay Aquarium could boast of with its great white sharks.

The great white shark is perhaps the most iconic of ocean creatures.  It's certainly the most feared.  That being said, it is one that you won't see in any public aquariums.  You'll see sand tiger sharks and nurse sharks, leopard sharks and zebra sharks, even a whale shark in a tiny handful of aquariums around the globe... but not the great white.  Not, unless, you went to Monterey Bay Aquarium in the early years of the 21st century.

Monterey Bay Aquarium literally has great whites in its back yard.  The massive sharks are attracted to the area, as they are to other shorelines of the world which boast healthy breeding populations of fatty, nutritious seals and sea lions.  With such an extraordinary, celebrated, yet little-known predator so close to their facility, it's hardly surprising that aquarium biologists showed interest in the great white, and considerable sums of money were poured into researching it.   Compared to the other apex predators of the world - lions, polar bears, saltwater crocodiles - amazingly little is known about the great white shark.  Monterey's staff took steps to rectify the situation by capturing, tagging, and releasing sharks in the nearby waters.  Over 100 sharks were tagged, allowing scientists to start collecting basic information - where do they go?  How do the grow? How do they breed (this being studied through DNA analysis)?

The aquarium also wanted to try doing what had never been done successfully before - exhibit a great white shark.  It had been tried in the past at SeaWorld, as well as Monterey itself, with a young shark captured in 1984 dying about two weeks later after it refused to feed.  Keeping great whites in captivity is a Catch-22.  They don't do well in aquariums because we know so little about their needs in captivity.  We now so little about their needs because they don't live long enough to study.  Still, with the knowledge gained at Monterey, the decision was made to try, and a young, small shark (the target animals from the study) was captured and - with the greatest of care - transfered to the aquarium.

Between 2004 and 2011, six sharks were displayed at the aquarium, the longest for about six months.  Each shark was eventually released back into the waters where it was captured.  The sharks not only attracted considerable attention to the aquarium - nearly one million visitors came to see it in 2004 - but it also provided a great ambassador for the aquarium's efforts to study and save the species.  Julie Packard, the aquarium's executive director, called the shark "the most powerful emissary for ocean conservation in history", and I'm not saying she's wrong.

Last year, the aquarium announced that it was "taking a break" from exhibiting great white sharks.  The shark is up for additional government protection, which is certainly a good thing, but would make the matter of removing one from the ocean a bureaucratic nightmare.  It's possible that the keeping of the species may never be attempted again.  That's not the end of the world, though.  What's important is that thousands of people were given a rare chance to see the ocean's most infamous predator as they never would before, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium continues to use its voice and its resources to push for the conservation of great whites and other marine species.

Besides, there are lots of other incredible shark species which are on display in aquariums around the world.  

Visitors watch a male great white shark at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in 2006. (VERN FISHER/The Herald)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

From the News: Buffaloes, gentle giants of the plains, return to the National Zoo after a decade

Curator Steve Sarro feeds a bison leaf-eater biscuits in the barn at the Smithsonian's National Zoo on Aug. 21 in Washington. (Yue Wu/The Washington Post)

This year, the Smithsonian National Zoological Park celebrates its 125th birthday.  It does so, in part, by welcoming back the animal that lead to the zoo's creation - the American bison, popularly (but incorrectly!) often called the American buffalo.  The impetus for a National Zoo came from Smithsonian taxidermist William T. Hornaday, who was deeply concerned about the slaughter of North America's most iconic (and formerly most abundant) large mammal.  Hornaday didn't last too long in DC for a variety of reasons, but his passion and commitment for wildlife conservation eventually gave rise to New York's Bronx Zoo.

Not terribly sure how I feel about this new exhibit.  I'm not saying that in a snarky "I don't approve" way, but in a literal, not sure, rather ambivalent way.  Yes, I certainly appreciate the important role that bison play in the zoo's history... and, indeed, in America's collective conservation history.  It's always good to show people a "win" for wildlife now and then, a sign that the loss of our wildlife can be halted, or even reversed.  That can inspire people to work towards efforts to save other endangered species.  And it's true, I certainly missed the bison when they left the zoo years ago.

That being said...

Bison are safe.  No, we probably will never see herds of millions roaming the plains anyway - some idiots put Omaha, Topeka, and Oklahoma City in the way - but they are in no danger of extinction.  William Hornaday and Theodore Roosevelt would probably be dancing the hornpipe with excitement if they could see how many bison there are today - in zoos, in ranches, and in public and private lands.  There are, however, a lot of animals which are still in danger, and the failure to create sustainable captive breeding populations for them is one of the problems they face.  Ungulates (hoofed mammals) are a diverse, wonderful group of beasts, but one that has been on a bit of a decline in zoos over the last few decades.  That's because instead of bongo, onager, and guar, most zoos display the same tiny handful of species, such as giraffe, plains zebra, and... American bison.

Now, the National Zoo does a heck of a lot of good for conservation, so I can hardly begrudge them some space for the animal that earned them their existence.  And bison do have a place in DC - they are, after all, practically the national animal.  It's just that I always like to look out for the underdogs (or in this case, undercows)... the animals that no one is saving because no one even knows about.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Watch Your $^&*#$ Language

"I'm going to kill you..."

That's never a phrase that you want to hear behind you in a dark room.  It's especially disconcerting when the voice that says it isn't even human.

I have no idea what prompted Sweet-Stuff, our Education Department scarlet macaw, to say that to me that one day.  In part because I'd always thought we were close buds (which never meant that I trusted him).  The other part was that I'd never heard him say that before... or after.

When people think about parrots, they think of two things - bright colors and talking.  Mostly the talking.  Perhaps cartoons and movies and jokes have overstated the power, but there is still a fair bit of uncertainty as to how much parrots can learn and how much they can understand of what they are saying.  The traditional viewpoint was that parrots were just... well... parroting, repeating sounds without any understanding of what they are saying... sort of like very small children.  Also like very small children, they have a talent of picking up on the least-appropriate words possible and repeating them.

Lately, research has suggested that parrots aren't the bird-brains we all think they are, and that some actually do possess considerable understanding of what the human sounds they make mean. The poster-parrot for this school of thought is the late Alex, an African grey parrot who was under the care of scientist Irene Pepperberg.  During her years of studying Alex, Pepperberg reported Alex (Avian Language EXperiment)  learned over 100 words and what they meant in relationship to one another.  He could use words to indicate which of two objects was larger, for example, or different colors and materials.  Like many sign-language-using apes, he also coined phrases for new objects by combining the names of objects he knew.

The ability of parrots to talk depends on the species and the circumstance in which they are raised (birds kept with other birds seem more likely to focus on each other and less likely to mimic people, I've noticed).  It amazes me how many people will talk to the parrots at our zoo and are baffled that the birds aren't simply echoing back every word they say to it.  I try to explain that the parrots see (and hear) hundreds of people a day, and that there is no reason for them to especially care about the sounds that one particular visitor is making.

Should zoos teach their parrots (and other "talking" birds, like ravens and mynahs) to talk?  Touchy question... some people say absolutely not.  Using human speech isn't a natural behavior, they feel, and it sends the message that parrots are great pets.  Others feel that it highlights the natural mimicry abilities of parrots and is useful for demonstrations and education programs.  Besides, no matter what, most zoo macaws I've worked with have picked up a few words - "Hello", "Good Bye", "Pretty Bird" are the standard phrases - and repeat them whenever they want to.

As Sweet-Stuff showed me that one day, you can never tell what a parrot will take into his head to mimic.  The moral of the story, however, seems to be to be careful what you say around the zoo.  You never can tell who is listening...

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Book Review: Night Kill

Zookeeping keeps getting more and more dangerous.  If the animals or the crazed visitors don't get you, you still have to worry about killers among your colleagues.  At least, that's the lesson that I'm getting from my fiction library.  Besides Betty Webb's Gunn Zoo mysteries (starting with the absurdly titled Anteater of Death), we now have a second series of zookeeper murder mysteries, starting with Night Kill, by Ann Littlewood.

Iris, a big cat keeper at a fictitious zoo in the Pacific Northwest, finally thinks that she's got a chance of reconnecting with her distant husband, a reptile keeper at that same zoo.  Her hopes are dashed, however, when her husband's body - or what's left of it - is found in the lion exhibit one morning.  Everyone else chalks it up to a tragic misadventure... especially after it's found out that the hard-drinking hubby had a stomach full of booze at the time of death.  Iris just isn't so sure...

Night Kill is considerably darker than Webb's Gunn Zoo stories... which is odd, because both deal with murder.  It is also a fair bit more realistic, in my opinion.  Whereas Webb's zoo is bright, cheery, and almost obnoxiously perfect, Littlewood's reminds me of most of the places where I've worked - gritty and on the edge of falling apart behind the scenes.  Webb alludes to the rough financial situation of many zookeepers, but her heroine is a heiress (try saying that three times fast) who shuns her family's wealth for love of animals. Littlewood's keepers scrim, save, fret about money, and barely get by.  The level of detail in Night Kill is also impressive, whether the narrator is describing the creak of a shift door, fluster of an animal capture, or the long, lonely nights waiting up with an animal in need.

If you enjoy Night Kill, be sure to check out Littlewood's sequels - Did Not Survive and Endangered.,204,203,200_.jpg

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Advocates for Animals

Earlier this week, I wrote a post asking readers to voice support for the red wolf reintroduction program in North Carolina, threatened by political interests.  As soon as I finished the post, I followed my own advice and sent off an email to US Fish and Wildlife Service, asking for them to continue to support red wolf reintroduction.  I didn't send the email from my official work email account, however, nor did I mention that I was a zookeeper.

I would have liked to, but I wasn't sure if I was allowed to.

Zookeepers, aquarists, rehabbers, and other wildlife caretakers tend to be a loud, unruly lot.  We strive to do the best possible job taking care of our own animals, and always try to do it better.  We tend to be critical (sometimes unbelievably so) of those who we disagree with in terms of animal care.  Many of us are young, impassioned (despite whatever jaded attempts at worldliness and cynicism we sometimes try to cultivate) and became zookeepers as much because of idealism as we did love of animals.  Put simply, we want to change the world.

Now, the bosses upstairs? Meh...

Well, I mean, I get it.  I understand that the directors and presidents and board members also care about animals.  It's just that they have to be more careful than we are, because they are responsible not for chopping the feed and shoveling the poop, but for bringing in the money that keeps the facility open.  To do so, they would just as soon be on good terms with everybody.  When the zoo brass does take a hard stand on an issue, it tends to be one safely on the other side of the world, like the bushmeat crisis in Africa (after all, who among our guests is eating gorillas).  The solution?  We ask them to give money.

The problem is that it can be very hard to get people to make a change to save animals on the other side of the world (unless our guests really are eating gorillas).  We need to make a change here.  And that means challenging people to learn more and do better.  It can mean challenging people to rethink what they already think they know.  And yes, that can mean offending people.

Consider rattlesnake round-ups, where rattlesnakes are collected in large numbers (often by pouring gasoline down their dens, harming or killing other species in the process) and then killed in a cheerful, carnival-like atmosphere.  It's a proud tradition in parts of the American South.  It's also barbaric and ecologically destructive.  It would be great to see a southern US zoo take a stand against it, through educational programs and displays... though doubtlessly it would offend some visitors who participate in these events, or have friends that do.

Or consider palm oil.  Many people could probably tell you that deforestation is the leading threat to orangutans, clouded leopards, and other Southeast Asian rainforest dwellers.  Fewer could tell you exactly what is responsible for much of that habitat loss - palm oil plantations.  Recently, some zoos, led by Cheyenne Mountain, have begun speaking up about palm oil and it's impact of wild habitats and are making their voices heard.  It's still nowhere near loud enough, though... remember all that fuss about tuna until it became "Dolphin Safe"?  That's the level of attention we need for this.

The polar bear in the room, of course, is global climate change, a threat to all ecosystems, everywhere.  Not only does it imperil Arctic dwellers like the polar bear, it impacts a host of other species, from sea turtles (in which the sex of the egg is determined by temperature) to addax and other North African antelope (threatened by drought and desertification).  Yet how many US zoos and aquariums actually speak up about climate change?

Very few... because they know that about half of the electorate typically votes for a party that doesn't take global climate change (NOT global warming) seriously... and the other half doesn't like being preached to.  For many zoos, politicians hold the purse strings... or they are dependent on wealthy donors who might not like having their business practices critiqued.  A zoo that is seen as being too "political" could find itself in trouble, possibly have its funding cut in retribution, or even have its tax-exempt status questioned.  Besides, guests don't want to come to the zoo or aquarium to feel bad, they want to have a good time seeing animals. Why, the director/CEO may ask, risk chasing them off with doom and gloom?

Part of it is because it's our job.  The major part is because only by educating people can be inspire change.  People can't work towards fixing a problem until they know there is a problem.  We don't have to beat people over the heads with negative messages and gruesome graphics and depressing figures until they go home and swallow the contents of their medicine cabinet all at once (or, more likely, just don't renew their membership).  Too much negativity can shut people down, make them feel overwhelmed and unwilling to care.  What we can do, however, is find positive messages behind and try to rally visitors behind them.

Outside of the St. Louis Zoo (one of my favorites, I might add) is a very large metal sculpture, depicting several life-sized animals.  Its name also serves as the zoo's motto - "Animals Always."  It's a fitting motto for St. Louis, one of the zoos which does the most for wildlife conservation around the world (including in its own state of Missouri).  It would be an even better motto for the zoo and aquarium community as a whole.

We should strive to make as big and positive a difference as possible to animals around the world, in the zoo and in the wild.  We should not be afraid to speak up about what we feel is wrong and negatively affecting animals and their habitats.  We should pick our battles... but never surrender principles.