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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.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Last Stand of the Red Wolf?

When the red wolf was first reintroduced back into the wilds of eastern North Carolina, it represented a triumph of the conservation movement.  For the first time, a large carnivore that had been declared extinct in the wild was reintroduced to part of its former range.  It seemed to give hope to the prospect of other future reintroduction efforts around the world and affirm the possibility that wildlife conservation isn't necessarily a losing game.

More the fool us.

In recent years, there has been increased backlash against the presence of the wolves, from one landowner in particular.  There have been illegal shootings.  There have been threats against reintroduction staff.  And now, there has been political pressure to terminate the entire program, to call it quits on the red wolf as it were.  A review of the reintroduction program has been initiated.  Fairly soon, we will know if there is a future for red wolves in North Carolina... or anywhere outside of a zoo.

Heard anything about it?  No one has.  That's because most people don't deem it newsworthy.  Fish and Wildlife has extended the commenting period until the 26th of this month.  Please send an e-mail to the address below to let them know that you support red wolves and those who protect them.

Monday, September 15, 2014

From the News: Depressed woman commits suicide by crocodile in Samut Praken

This is a pretty awful story, and tragically, it's not the first time that someone has committed suicide-by-zoo-animal.  It happened a few years back at the lion exhibit at the National Zoo.  (This, of course, is discounting all of the unintentional suicides and homicides that happen when people do horribly unsafe things at the zoo). The zoo in question in this case has announced that they have since taken steps to add stronger fencing and other safety measures to keep this from happening, though I'm not positive how much it would have helped.   That being said, it's a good reminder that exhibits should be as hard for the public to get in as for the animals to get out.

There are (of course, in this day and age) pictures of the incident, but out of respect for the deceased they will not be shared here (and I chose a link to a website that has her body blurred out in the images that it shows).  Condolences to this poor woman's family and friends. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Zoo Review: Mill Mountain Zoo

Of the four AZA-accredited institutions in Virginia, three - the Virginia Zoo, Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, and Virginia Living Museum - are crowded on the southeast coast of the state, where the Chesapeake Bay spills into the Atlantic Ocean.  The fourth institution is clear across the state, tucked into the Blue Ridges mountains.  This is the small, often overlooked Mill Mountain Zoo.

When I say Mill Mountain is small, I mean it is small... very.  Carved into the side of its namesake mountain (best known for housing the giant metal star that overlooks the city of Roanoke), there is almost no flat space in the zoo, most of which feels crowded.  There are few large animals - the takin is probably the largest single animal in the zoo - and it's hard to imagine that in the 1970's, the zoo once housed an elephant.  In recent years, the most famous animal resident is probably the Japanese macaque "Oops"; as the name might suggest, she was an escapee, whose week on the lam was covered by national news.

The collection is skewed towards East Asia (a frequently neglected geographic area), which has a climate similar to southwestern Virginia.  This means that many animals are out on display year round (ideal, since, apart from the small reptile house, there are no indoor exhibits).  Mill Mountain can't boast of many of the more popular zoo animals, but it does have a collection of interest for a zoo professional, as it has many less-common species.  Takin, tufted deer, hooded cranes, and Pallas cats are among the species on display, along with more recognizable residents, such as red pandas, snow leopards, and red wolves.  The animal that I will always associate with Mill Mountain, however, is the wolverine - the first wolverine (come to think of it, the only wolverine) that I've ever seen.

A few years back, the idea was floated to relocate the zoo from its present location to a larger place in the lowlands, redubbing it "the Blue Ridge Zoo."  This idea was shelved and forgotten... more's the pity.  The zoo could have used more space... as well as a new start.  A lot of the enclosures I found somewhat unimpressive, especially the macaque, otter, and other small mammal displays.  You could tell that the keepers were doing what they could with what they had, but when you're working with a Behlen cage (basically a silo of wire on a concrete pad), your options are, understandably, limited.  Nothing that suggests that animals aren't cared for (bad zoos that I've visited I typically don't mention at all on here so as to avoid giving them any publicity)... just... uninspired.

Not to be too negative - I spent plenty of my career at small zoos with limited means.  Some of the exhibits, such the newer Eurasian black vulture exhibit, looked pretty good, as did the cougar display (the only open-topped puma exhibit I've ever seen).  The reptile house (staff built, I'm told) was pretty decent.  It just seems that it would be best if, instead of patching things up, the zoo got the chance to tear down and start fresh.

This Eurasian black vulture exhibit is better than it looks... just a lousy shot on my part.

Definitely worth a look if you're in the area.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Zoo Economy

"Zoo animals are different than most possessions, because zoos follow a fundamental principle: You can't sell or buy the animals. It's unethical and illegal to put a price tag on an elephant's head."

An interesting podcast that was sent my way!  In some ways, there are two zoo economies.  There is the one, by far the older (going back thousands of years, perhaps peaking in the 1800s with the big commercial animal dealers), where animals are bought and sold as commodities.  It's the basis of the private zoo and aquarium industries, as well as the private pet trade.   Then, there is the "new" zoo economy, which deals far less with money.  Animals are exchanged among zoos as part of breeding loans or other population management goals.  It allows small, financially-strapped zoos to acquire and display animals that would be far outside of their means to purchase otherwise.  There are also some animals - especially among many endangered species - which cannot be bought at any price.

Many zoos and aquariums (especially in the private sector) utilize the first economy.  Others use the second, especially when dealing with the accredited zoos that participate in species survival plans.  Many, however, use both - some species are exchanged as parts of breeding programs, whereas others (especially non-mammals) are purchased from professional specialized breeders.  Sylvan Heights Waterfowl Park, for instance, is a lovely facility open to the public, but its original purpose was to breed and sell waterfowl to other facilities.

That's enough from me... enjoy!

Bozie, a DC elephant, and Swarna, a recent arrival from Calgary, get to know each other.

             Bozie, a DC elephant, and Swarna, a recent arrival from Calgary, get to know each other.
Gabrielle Emanuel/Gabrielle Emanuel