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Thursday, December 14, 2017

From the News: Want to buy a zoo?

It's one thing to find a souvenir from the zoo under your Christmas tree... it's another to find the zoo (or at least a deed to one) itself.  Seriously, didn't Matt Damon make a movie about this or something?

The Bayou Wildlife Zoo in Texas is for sale by its owner, one Clint Wolston, yours for the sum of $6,000,000.  That seems a bit on the high side for me, especially considering what some first hand visitors have told me about the facilities... not that I even have one million to drop on a new zoo anytime in the near future.

Still, it's nice to hope that someone will swoop in and purchase the place, giving it lots of attention and energy and enable it to grow and flourish.  I just don't think it'll be me...

Clint Wolston, owner of Bayou Wildlife Zoo, feeds "Pee Wee" a white rhino, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017, in Galveston County, Texas. Owned and operated by Wolston since 1985, the zoo is currently for sale for the princely sum of $6 million. (Steve Gonzales/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Book Review: Where the Wild Things Were

"Talk after talk, northern seas to tropical jungles, the conclusions rang in accord, as with a gavel: Big predators were not just missing; they were sorely missed.  It brought to mind a medical phenomenon haunting many amputees; the phantom pains of a missing limb.  These top predators - these missing limbs - were still deeply felt."

The apex predators - big cats and bears, wolves and crocodilians, sharks and eagles - have long been a source of inspiration, wonder, and, yes, terror to our species.  They've been venerated in our art, and folklore, displayed in our zoos and aquariums, sometimes treated as rivals or enemies, other times treated as gods or ancestors.  But what do they mean in the greater scheme of things?  How do they really fit into the natural world?  Are they simply parasites living off of the suffering of their prey, or do they serve a greater purpose?

Wildlife journalist William Stolzenburg analyzes that question, and his answer is a definite vote for the essential role of apex predators.  In Where the Wild Things Were, Stolzenburg travels the globe and meets with scientists to explore how predators don't just fit into their ecosystems, but how they shape them.  Using examples as varied as the wolf of Yellowstone National Park to the starfish of a tidal pool in Puget's Sound, it is demonstrated that the presence of top predators benefits an ecosystem by keeping other species in check.  Remove the predator and some prey species will flourish, but at the expense of others, out-competing them and possibly even driving their neighbors (and themselves) to local extinction.  Similarly, removing a top predator can allow smaller, subordinate predators to explode in numbers, which in turn impacts the species that those animals prey upon.

Science isn't science without experimentation, and Stolzenburg is able to draw upon many case studies to support his position.  Some are created in laboratory or controlled settings, sometimes under a microscope lens, sometimes in less-conventional surroundings (picture a college professor traveling several hours twice a month, just to throw some starfish - literally - out of his research pool and back into the sea).  Others are the experiments that we create ourselves... albeit unintentionally.  Consider, for example, Barro Colorado Island, created with the formation of the Panama Canal.  In the absence of jaguar, harpy eagle, and other predators, some species were able to increase their numbers dramatically, and the forests are suffering as a result.

Of course, no examination of the impacts of an absent predator restored would be complete without the most famous of case studies, the return of the wolves to Yellowstone.  Stolzenburg describes how wolves do more than kill and eat elk - there are a lot of elk in Yellowstone, after all, too many for all the wolves to even make a dent in their numbers.  Instead, the returning predators, by the very presence, change the behavior of the prey species, forcing them to act in a manner that, while making them less vulnerable to predation, lessens their negative role on the environment.  Instead of sitting in one spot and eating every last scrap of greenery, for example, the elk keep on the move constantly so as not to attract the attention of the hunters.

Where the Wild Things Were portrays apex predators not as they are often depicted, as killers lusting after hot blood and fresh meat, but as the gardeners of Eden, who through their actions preserve the diversity and species richness of their environments.  They need not be giant or fierce (at least to our eyes) - some are tiny, some are obscure.  All, however, have a role to play in maintaining biodiversity.  The question is, are we wise enough to allow them to carry out that role?

Our failure to do so may have terrible consequences for nature.  As Stolzenburg says, "The biggest and scariest of carnivores may be more dangerous bu their absence."

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Zoo Under the Christmas Tree

I meant to have more of a profound, interesting, and, ultimately, labor-intensive post tonight... and then I realized that Christmas is two weeks from today... and 95% of those days, I work.  So I had to get shopping done... first online... then at actual stores because I feel back about shopping online and thereby contributing to the decline of actual stores... than back online about an hour later, after I remembered why those stores were in decline in the first place.

One place I have not gone shopping yet is the zoo... emphasis on the "yet."

A zoo or aquarium can be a fantastic resource for holiday shopping for an animal lover, and I don't just mean red panda plushes.  There are several unique, exciting, animal-themed gifts that are available.  Many zoos sell paintings produced by zoo animals, often accompanied by a photo or fun facts about the artist.  Others may sell bookmarks of laminated feathers or snake shed, or perhaps Christmas ornaments that contain feathers or fur.  For the gardener in your family or circle of friends, you may even be able to acquire a bag of zoo-produced compost. 

If it's not an animal-item per se that you are interested it, there are other options, as well.  Many zoos and aquariums sell free-trade items produced in communities around the world.  Among the most popular is snare-ware, jewelry or artwork made from actual wire snares pulled from the African bush.  These snares are a major cause of mortality for many African species, as they indiscriminately kill or maim a wide range of animals for the bushmeat trade.  The snares are collected, removed from the bush so they can do no harm to wildlife, then turned over to African villages, who fashion items for sale abroad.  By purchasing them, you are providing funds to impoverished rural villages, while at the same time supporting the removal of deadly snares.  That wire probably looks better on your best friend's wrist as a bracelet than it would around a cheetahs leg.

And lastly, if you are looking to cut down on consumerism, you could always opt out of possessions and into... experiences.  Go diving with whale sharks at the Georgia Aquarium.   Meet a rhinoceros at the Lowry Park Zoo.  Paint with African penguins at the Newport Aquarium.  Be a zookeeper for a day with a guided tour behind-the-scenes.  Heck, just buy a friend a membership and give their family something to do year-round.

Purchasing some of your Christmas gifts at your local zoo and aquarium is a great way to support a local conservation organization.  And, because many items are specially sold or priced to benefit conservation programs, domestically or internationally, you can be sure that your gift isn't just a gift to the recipient, but to wildlife in need, as well.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Hippo of the Year

Earlier this week, Time Magazine announced its person of the year - people of the year, in this case, as they chose to honor the women who have spoken out against sexual assault as part of the #metoo movement.  Prior to that, there was a lot of speculation over who should receive the honor, fueled mostly in part by President Trump's announcement that he would "probably" be Man of the Year, but wasn't interested.

Cincinnati Zoo decided to get ahead of the drama and through a hat of their own into the ring.

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It's tongue-in-cheek and very cute, but it did make me wonder.  Why isn't there an Animal of the Year Award?  Just like people, animals have the power to make the news and change the world.  For example, in 2015 the world was gripped by the story of Cecil, the Zimbawean lion who was killed by an American trophy hunter.  Cecil's death started an enormous conversation on the ethics and value of sport hunting, and he became a rallying cry for those opposed to the practice.

In 2016, of course, there was Harambe.  Like Cecil, Harambe's death stirred a tremendous amount of attention and debate.  Unlike Cecil, his death largely denigrated to a series of tasteless memes and jokes.  Any chance to turn it into a force for good for gorilla conservation seems to have been lost.

Which brings us to Fiona...

2017 has not, taken as a whole, been a positive year in the eyes of many.   Besides the sexual assault scandals detailed by Time, there have been rampant mass-shootings, natural disasters, terrorism, political unrest, and, oh yeah, the prospect of nuclear holocaust.  And in the midst of that mess, a premature baby hippo is born.  Fiona's story did what no politician or celebrity has been able to do - give people something to root for as her story played out in the public eye.  It didn't matter who you were - everyone wanted that little hippo to make it.  And, despite tremendous odds, she did, and is now a thriving star.

If there is any animal that made 2017 bearable for the world at large, it would have to be Fiona.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Andean Bear (Tremarctos ornatus)

Andean Bear (Spectacled Bear)
Tremarctos ornatus (Cuvier, 1825)

Range: Northwestern South America (Andes Mountains)
Habitat: Cloud Forest, Dry Forest, Scrub
Diet: Fruit, Bromeliads, Cacti, Bamboo, Small Vertebrates, Carrion
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Breeding April-June.  1-3 cubs born between December and February.  Gestation period 5.5 - 8.5 months (variation due to delayed implantation).  Cubs stay with mother for over 1 year, become sexually mature at 4-6 years old.
Lifespan: 20 Years (Average, Wild)
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable, CITES Appendix I

  • Largest carnivore in South America. 1.2-2 meters, 70-90 centimeters at the shoulder.  Tail 7 centimeters long.  Short muzzle and ears.  Males weigh 100-175 kilograms, females weigh 60-80 kilograms
  • Coat is black or brown, sometimes with a reddish tinge.  Highly variable white or cream-colored marks around the eyes (hence the other common name of "spectacled bear"), sometimes extending onto the neck or chest.  These markings may be absent in some individuals.
  • Active by day.  Excellent climbers.  Make nests in trees for foraging or for resting and sleeping.
  • Adults have no predators.  Cubs may be threatened by pumas, jaguars (though the two overlap little in the wild due to habitat preferences), and adult male Andean bears.
  • Make seasonal movements up and down mountains, traveling to lowlands in cooler weather and back up the mountain during warm.
  • Only bear species in South America, and the last remaining member of the genus Tremarctos, the prehistoric short-faced bears once found in North and South America
  • Threatened by habitat loss, hunted for skin, meat, fat, and claws.  Sometimes persecuted as an agricultural pest, as it occasionally raids crops or takes livestock

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

From the News: Visitors dumbfounded by balloon penguins at Chinese pop-up 'zoo'

Visitors dumbfounded by balloon penguins at Chinese pop-up 'zoo'

And now, from the same country that brought you a dog and tried to pass it off as a lion, we proudly present, the amazing penguin balloon!  Seriously, did they think that no one was going to notice?

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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

It's the #selfiepolice!

An ongoing source of frustration for zoo and aquarium professionals has been the enormous popularity of wild animal selfies.  These usually come in two forms. 

In one, an actual wild animal is captured by people for a spur-of-the-moment photo-op.  Sometimes, the animal in question is in obvious distress, such as a dolphin that has become beached and, instead of doing anything useful, everyone grabs their iPhone.  In other cases, it can be less obvious.  Suppose that you and some friends are out hiking and you spot a desert tortoise.  Everyone picks it up and passes it around for pictures - and the tortoise unloads its bladder, which is kind of what tortoises do.  Everyone laughs, it's gross, finishes with their pictures, and puts the tortoise down to go on its merry way, right?  Well, maybe not really "right" - because that tortoise just shed its water stores... and it's the desert.

The second scenario involves animals that are held in captivity for the express purpose of selling photo opportunities to tourists.  Maybe it's a sloth, or a monkey, or a declawed tiger cub.  Most of us inherently feel these are wrong.

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Recently, instagram made it its policy to post a warning for searches of pictures of people posing with animals (i.e. - #slothselfie) on the grounds that these pictures promote unsafe or harmful conditions for animals (similar to how posts that seem to advocate, say, suicide might be barred)..  It's a step that shows a lot of initiative in slowing the craze of wildlife selfies...

Though I do feel like I have to play devil's advocate here for a moment.  We have a lot of ambassador animals with our zoo's education collection, and some of them are touchable by members of the public, under the direct supervision and control of zoo staff.  If a parent takes a pictures of little Billy petting a ball python and posts it, is that in violation of this policy.  I have a ton of pictures of myself with animals accumulated over the years, though I tend not to post those on social media.  I also, however, have a few pictures of myself in field conservation work - say, holding hellbenders for measurements, or displaying snakes that I've caught as part of a field survey.  Do those count as "harmful" wildlife selfies?  Sure, those were taken as part of legitimate scientific work... but what if it was just me out herping with some friends?  What if we display pictures of what we found before releasing it?

These are all things we'll have to be wary of as this new policy sets in, and it may be necessary for some corrections to be made.  We've done it in the past - MasterCard said at one point that they would no longer support animal attractions (mostly with exploitative photo-ops in mind), but when it was brought to their attention that this impacted zoos and aquariums, they reversed course.  For now, let's hope that this is simply a positive step in limiting the spread of images that encourage people to treat exotic animals as toys rather than living things.