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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book Review: Gathering of Animals

By the time William Bridges joined the staff of the New York Zoological Society, often known as "the Bronx Zoo", in 1935, the zoo had already been open to the public for 37 years. Long enough for the park to become established and mature, young enough that many of the society's early luminaries - Raymond Ditmars, William Beebe, Lee Crandall - were still active.  This makes him wonderfully well-suited to write the biography of the institution.  In Gathering of Animals: An Unconventional History of the New York Zoological Society, Bridges, the Society's Curator of Publications, details the first seventy-five years of the history of one of the most extraordinary zoos on earth.

Bridges' story starts with New York in the late 1800's, home to a series of small, decrepit menageries, but lacking a true, scientific zoological park, as Philadelphia and Washington, DC could boast.  This changed when a series of the city's elite joined together to form a zoo.  A site was found in Bronx Park, and a leader was found in the famous conservationist William T. Hornaday, the taxidermist who had largely been responsible for the establishment of the Smithsonian's National Zoo.  A large part of the motivation for creating the zoo, for the Board of Directors as well as Hornaday, was to save North America's most iconic land mammal - the American bison.

The early years of the modern zoo were full of toil, trial, and tribulation, and Bridges details all of these in great detail.  There are sagas of births, deaths, escapes, and the challenges of trying to take care of a collection of animals that no one on earth (except for a tiny handful of other zoos of the age) had every tried to care for before.   Almost every anecdote is usually spiced with the querelous commentary of Hornaday, a prolific letter-writer with an opinion on everything.Some are amusing, like using a walrus pup to assist in moving an ornery polar bear.  Others are disastrous, such as the pestilence that wiped out the zoo's ape collection.  Some seem wrong, like the methods used to "discipline" recalcitrant elephants.  And some, such as the saga of Ota Benga, just seem bizarre.   True, while many of these challenges can seem exasperating and bone-headed to the modern zoo professional, but it's important to remember that hindsight is 20/20, and much of what we now accept as basic knowledge of exotic animal husbandry was learned, trial and error, at institutions like the Bronx.

Portions of the book, scattered about, are devoted to the zoo's sister institution, the New York Aquarium.  These are especially interesting, as the public aquarium was a far newer institution than the zoo, with a far steeper learning curve.  It would have been fascinating to have had more details about the aquarium's history.  Had Bridges written his book later on, he would have seen the history of the Zoological Society expanded to include the annexation, renovation, and rebirth, of three other New York City zoos - Prospect Park, Queens, and Central Park (the history of the later described in some depth in Peter Brazitis' You Belong In a Zoo!).  In many ways, the most frustrating part of Bridges' story is that it ends too soon... like writing the biography of a person, but ending at age thirty, right when they have achieved some stability in life but are still in their prime.  So much as happened to the Society in recent years, not least of all the reinvention of itself as the Wildlife Conservation Society, with active field work, research, and conservation projects across the globe, a future which is only hinted at towards the end of Bridges' book.

I've worked for several zoos thus far in my career, some of which have been fairly young (as in, founded within my lifetime).  I've always wondered what it would be like to work at a facility that was older than my great-grandparents... and Institution (capitalized, you'll note), with a History (also capitalized).  William Bridges wrote a fine history of the New York Zoological Society.  Somebody else needs to write a sequel about the next seventy-five years...

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

An Oryx Sequel

One of the earliest triumphs of modern zoo biology has been the rescue of the Arabian oryx.  From the tiny nucleus of nine animals that formed the world herd at the Phoenix Zoo*, sufficient animals were bred in captivity to allow the reestablishment of wild populations throughout the Middle East.

History is being repeated... only this time, with the even more endangered scimitar-horned oryx.  While reasonably common in zoos, game parks, and private collections around the world, the scimitar-horned oryx has been driven to extinction in its native North Africa by hunting, competition for resources, and desertification.  Zoo professionals and biologists from four continents have collaborated to send 100 captive-bred oryx back to Chad, where they will form the first attempt to reintroduce this beautiful desert-dweller back into the wild.  If successful, these will be the first wild members of their species in 15 years.

The best of luck to those animals which are given the chance to reclaim the homeland of their species... and congratulations to all those involved who have worked tirelessly to make this possible.  Amid the doom and gloom that so often characterizes conservation efforts today, it's always wonderful and inspiring when we see a species take one step back from the edge of extinction.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Zoo History: Cheetah Coursing

“Shaitan was a good-looking young cheetah with a very affectionate way about him: indeed, he was more like a great dog than a cat.  When we was still he looked a gawky beast, but potentially beautiful; it was only when he got into action that one realised his surpassing perfection: all his clumsiness disappeared: his legs, which, when he was still, seemed too long for his slender body, were hardly visible when he was at the height of his speed.  During the brief space of his utmost endeavour, there was nothing of four legs that Shaitan could not catch.”
~ Patrick O’Brian, Hussein: an Entertainment 

Hunting, for sustenance or for sport, is perhaps the oldest category of human-animal interactions.  It predates every human society and has been known in virtually all cultures and in all classes.  Whereas peasants often hunted on a small scale, setting snares and taking a little meat for their table whenever they could, the most powerful and prestigious members of society often organized elaborate, massive hunts in search of big game.  Hunting came to signify more than a means of acquiring protein for one’s family; it became an exhibition of man’s dominion over the natural world.  Man eventually began to further this dominion when he domesticated the first animal – the wolf – and incorporated it into the hunt as his new partner, the domestic dog.  Over the centuries, he came to make use of several other animals as hunting partners, including falcons, hawks, and ferrets.  Of all these hunting partners, the most valuable, the most prized, and the most surprising was the cheetah.
It is uncertain as to exactly when and where the practice of cheetah coursing (the name given to the use of trained cheetahs for the hunt) began; what is certain is that humans have been taming the spotted, speedy cats for thousands of years. Unlike dogs or cats, cheetahs underwent no physiological change as a result of being kept in captivity (virtually all coursing cheetahs were wild caught), so historical records and artistic representations are all that scholars have to pinpoint the origin of coursing. 
Images of a collared individual, apparently being brought as tribute to the pharaoh, appear on an Egyptian tomb from 1450 BC, while in the Caucasus, a silver vase found in a burial mound dating back to 2300 BC depicts collared cheetahs.  The Egyptians were famous for their penchant for keeping and taming wild animals, having experimented with the domestication of gazelles, hyenas, and other wild animals, so there is some basis to the theory that Egypt was the point of origin for cheetah coursing.  Some authorities believe that it arose in Arabia, where cheetah coursing and falconry were considered essential methods of capturing prey in the desert. Other scholars believe that cheetah coursing has its origins in Persia and that the Arabs only became familiar with it after their conquests took them into modern-day Iran.  There are records in Persian royal poetry of kings hunting with cheetahs as early as 400 AD; it is known that the sport was clearly established in Persia by 650 AD.  Seventh century tomb murals in China depict hunting with both cheetahs and caracals; the sport was later taken up by the Mongol conquerors. At any rate, the geographic locale most often associated with cheetah coursing is India.  
Most people, including several naturalists and other wildlife experts, consider the cheetah an exclusively African species, and it is true that the speedy cats are now found almost solely on the African continent.  Within historic times, however, there was also an Asiatic population, extending through Persia and India.  Today, all that is left of Asia’s cheetahs is a remnant population of 60-70 individuals dozens in Iran, compared to the thousands left in Africa.  This small population continues to suffer from habitat loss, depleted prey base, and persecution, and it remains uncertain as to how much longer it will survive.
Coursing cheetahs were also present in Europe, though not to the degree that they were in Asia.  The first animals began arriving in the thirteenth century in the courts of Europe, from Russia to England.  Virtually every noble household in Renaissance Italy and France had its own coursing cheetahs, while the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, an accomplished and expert falconer, had cheetahs marching in his wedding parade.  Charlemagne, William the Conquerer are other famous monarchs known to have practiced the sport.  Paintings and drawings of trained cheetahs, often depicted as collared and riding behind their masters on horseback, were produced throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.  “A cheetah trained for the hunt,” along with an Indian elephant and the customary gold and jewels, was among the gifts sent to Leo X to celebrate his coronation as Pope.  In 1764, a full 12 years before the cheetah was first formally described by western science, England’s Duke of Cumberland imported two “tigers” (based on paintings and descriptions, they were certainly cheetahs) from India for coursing, an event that was memorialized in George Stubbs’ painting A Cheetah with Two Indians.  Three cheetahs (and their six keepers) were gifted to the English King George III by the Tippoo Sultan in 1799.  Though popular and exotic, cheetahs were never considered to be an especially important component of the royal hunt in Europe, and were regarded more as curiosities and status symbols than hunting partners.

This demand for cheetahs became a large drain on the wild population.  So many animals were captured and removed from the gene pool (virtually none of whom would ever mate again) that it doubtlessly had an effect on the wild population.  The hunters, then, were removing adult cheetahs from the wild before they were capable of breeding, preventing cubs from being born in the wild and thereby replenishing the population.  Trapping was indiscriminate, with no regard for age and sex; the use of pits, however, trapping animals prior to the breeding season, suggests that animals that were in their reproductive prime were most likely to be caught.   The removal of females from the wild was doubtlessly also detrimental to the population.  Later during the year, after cubs were born, females would range for food, returning after a hunt to their dens in order to nurse their cubs.  If a female was trapped while out hunting one day, she would never return to her den and her cubs would starve.  If cubs were found by humans, they were often abandoned, being seen of little value for hunting; it seems unlikely that many (if any) of these cubs, deprived of their mothers’ care, were able to survive to adulthood
Many cheetahs were also removed from the wild to provide diplomatic gifts – several were exported to China, Mongolia, and even Western Europe, either for use in coursing (as was the case with the Duke of Cumberland) or for exhibition in royal menageries.  The trapping of India’s cheetahs remained at high levels into the twentieth century until there were none left.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the scarcity of Asiatic cheetahs was making itself felt in the courts of the Indian nobility.  Eventually, the remaining practitioners of the sport of coursing began to import cheetahs from Africa.  The importation of African animals was not only a sign of the drastic decline of the species in Asia, it also led to the belief – firmly entrenched in some naturalists – that the cheetah was never, in fact, native to Asia, and that all cheetahs used over the last several centuries had been imported from Africa. 
In modern times, someone will occasionally bring up the idea of reintroducing cheetahs back to India, using individuals from the Iranian population; similar plans have been proposed for using some of India’s few remaining Asian lions to reestablish a population in Iran.  No definitive plans have been announced, and considering the geopolitical tension that has surrounded Iran for the last several decades, it seems unlikely that any will be coming in the near future.  As for cheetah coursing, it seems, like the Asiatic cheetah itself, to have largely gone extinct.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

From the News: Florida Aquarium leaders visit Cuba

Of all the factors that play into wildlife conservation, on that cannot be understated is politics.  Countries increasingly cooperate on conservation programs, and those programs can be thwarted when relationships between those countries sour (efforts to protect big cats in Southwest Asia have been long put on hold due to enmity between the US and Iran).  In other cases, poor relationships between countries are good for nature - evidence the flourishing wildlife living in the Demilitarized Zone of the Korean Peninsula. 

The US embargo of Cuba has, whatever one may think of it for political reasons, probably done some good for Cuba's coral reefs by reducing the number of beachfront resorts which cover so much of the Caribbean.  The chance to study those reefs - so close to US shores - and collaborate on shared marine conservation issues is an opportunity US institutions should jump on.

The establishment of a partnership between Florida Aquarium and the National Aquarium of Cuba would be a great example of science and conservation transcending political differences to the benefit of all parties.  Whatever one's political beliefs, clean water, healthy reefs, and restored wildlife should be good news for anyone.  

Leaders of Tampa's Florida Aquarium visited Cuba over the weekend to discuss a possible partnership on reef restoration research. TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Social Network

I made a new friend at a training course I attended earlier this year.  At the end of the week, we were sitting together during a break, and I was flipping through my camera, showing her some of the pictures I'd taken during the course, some of which she was in.  When she asked me to send those to her, I mentioned that I'd be putting them up on Facebook when I got the chance.  That didn't help her any, it turns out... she's not on Facebook - the possibility of which hadn't entered my mind for a moment.

I was in college when Facebook made the scene, and for the first few years, it stayed there - in college.  Now it's open to everyone, anywhere, and has been joined by Twitter, Tumblr, YouTube, and a profusion of blogging, along with other social media.  Political campaigns are waged over Facebook, and virtually every business and company uses social media - some companies may have employees with the sole job of maintaining their social media presence.

Zoos and aquariums have proven no exception.  I remember when zoos didn't even have websites... then, when they developed their first, really, really bad websites.  Embracing social media came swiftly enough, and now zoos and aquariums use it to engage their visitors, as well as audiences around the world.  Social media makes the experience more interactive for guests.  Vote in our naming contest!  Share pictures or videos of your family and friends at the zoo (but not illegal pictures)!  Write a review of your visit!  Give a caption to this photo!  All efforts to get people talking about their experience and build up interest in the community.

Of course, zoo and aquarium visitors aren't the only folks on social media... so are many employees... and here's where social media can start causing problems.  Zookeepers tend to be fairly young, so it's not surprising that many have embraced social media.  And, like many young people (and plenty of older ones), they sometimes put up stuff that they shouldn't.  Photos are particularly problematic - they can show behind-the-scenes areas, which, let's be honest, often look somewhat ratty.  They can show things that can be taken out of context (i.e.: an animal that is sedated for a medical procedure, but looks dead).  They can create the false impression that the animals are "pets" or "babies", or depict unsafe actions which may encourage non-animal-professionals to do unsafe things.  It's not surprising that many zoos and aquariums have strict policies on the use of cameras behind-the-scenes by staff.

I confess, I'm that annoying paparazzi guy at our zoo who pulls out a camera at the drop of a hat... but none of my behind-the-scenes pics go up here (let alone on my personal Facebook page, where they could come back to haunt me).

Perhaps my favorite aspect of Facebook and social media is the sense of community that it has created.  Zookeepers around the world are now linked together in online groups, closed to animal care professionals, such as "ZooKreepers", "You Know You're a Zookeeper When", and other, more specialized groups (cat keepers, parrot keepers, etc).  A lot of great ideas and bits of advice come from these sites and keepers ask questions and share ideas.  A lot of laughs also get shared as pictures and stories make their rounds.  We tell stories of birth and deaths and escapes, and yes, dear visitors, we do talk about you (and our bosses...)

Of course, a lot of fights also pop up on here, as animal care folks tend to be some of the most cantankerous, self-righteous, hyper-critical people on the net.  Private sector versus public!  Circuses versus zoos versus sanctuaries!  Pro-Seaworld vs Anti-Seaworld!  And don't even get me started on the fiasco we had with the Copenhagen giraffe this last winter.

In these forums, things sometimes get heated, and people say things they shouldn't... especially about people they work with (forget the NSA, on Facebook, everyone is watching you!).  Some folks have gotten in trouble - sometimes deep trouble - at work for what they post online, thinking that they are anonymous.  It's good that we have a forum where we can - with relative privacy - discuss our business, but on the internet, any privacy is just that... relative.

I had early disdain for Facebook, but have, over the years, become addicted to it (though I still resist Twitter and the other heads of the social media hydra).  It can be a great tool for sharing stories and ideas with the rest of the world, as well as for gaining new ideas and insights ourselves.  But, like any tool, there is a proper and an improper, a safe and a dangerous, way to use it.  Be aware of that.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Zoo Review: Newport Aquarium

Compared to zoos, public aquariums tend to be rather new institutions; while many American zoos are over a century old, many of the nation's greatest aquariums have opened up in the last thirty years or so.  Among these is the Newport Aquarium, located across the Ohio River from Cincinnati, Ohio.  Compared to many aquariums, the collection is very... fish-focused.  There are no marine mammals - no mammals at all, actually, at the time I visited - and the bird collection is limited to penguins.  Here, the fish are the stars.

It would perhaps not be a mistake to say that the reputation of the facility rests on the back of one fish - the bowmouth guitarfish, also known as the shark ray.  The Newport Aquarium was the first in America to display this unique species, and still has the largest number of the fish in this country; at the beginning of this year, it also celebrated the first captive breeding of the species, though unfortunately none of the pups survived.  The four shark rays share their massive home with several other sharks - sand tigers, nurses, black- and white-tip reefs - as well as rays, groupers, and a massive loggerhead turtle, among other sea creatures.  This enormous habitat can be viewed from several vantage points, including  the spectacular Shark Ray Theater, where feeding demonstrations take place behind, from above, and from an incredible tunnel which passes through the exhibit, allowing sharks to swim above, around, and even below the feet of delighted aquarium visitors.

Shark rays are only one of the extraordinary aquatic creatures displayed at Newport.  Other exhibits include the Pacific giant octopus, the Japanese spider crab, and a psychedelic jellyfish gallery, where different species of jellies and nettles drift behind gilt frames and beneath eerie lighting.  A separate gallery takes visitors through the rivers of the world, taking guests on a tour of aquatic habitats from the Rio Negro and the Congo to the waterways of northern Kentucky.  The planners of the aquarium apparently had a special fondness for tunnels - in addition to the main shark ray exhibit, there are also tunnels through a coral reef, a Pacific coastline, and an Amazon river forest, where arapaima, pacu, and catfish swim through flooded temple ruins.  

Not all of the creatures on display at Newport are fish and marine invertebrates.  Special galleries also highlighted frogs, turtles and tortoises, and crocodilians; the later was home, at the time of my visit, to "Mighty Mike", a fifteen-foot long American alligator, as well as a pair of white alligators and the juvenile forms of many other crocodilians.  The final exhibit most visitors see (besides a last look at the shark ray exhibit) is the penguin habitat, where five species of Antarctic/sub-Antarctic penguins splash and dive in front of guests.

What impressed me the most about Newport Aquarium was the interactive nature.  Everywhere I looked, guests were actively engaged with staff and volunteers.  There were two touch tank areas - one featuring traditional touch tank species (sea stars, snails, etc), another with small sharks.  There was also a tortoise encounter area.  It was a relatively slow day when I visited, so a small flock of African penguins was taken for a stroll down the halls of the aquarium; visitors also have the option of booking private encounters with the aquarium's penguin ambassadors.  Signage was interactive, with lots of video clips and rotating signage.  There were several feeding demonstrations and keeper talks throughout the day, giving guests plenty of chances to meet with staff.  Volunteers seemed to be everywhere.  The frog area was especially noteworthy for its interactive nature - kids (and adults) could play Frogger, listen to recorded frog calls, or climb through a frog-themed jungle gym.

If I had one complaint about Newport, it would be that at times the fun, interactive nature got to be... too much.  Whenever I tried finding a quiet time to sit and watch the penguins, it seemed like yet another pep-rally-style penguin talk was starting.  My time spent watching the shark rays in Shark Ray Theater was limited by how long I could put up with the constantly looping educational video, which was very geared towards kids.  It could see it all being great for energizing and engaging young visitors, but for someone who just wanted to observe animals, it could be a bit overwhelming and exasperating.

I've never considered myself much of an aquatics person, and when I visit an aquarium I tend to gravitate towards the birds, the mammals, and the reptiles and amphibians.  My visit to Newport Aquarium, however, left me with increased interest in the life aquatic... and how great an aquarium can be if it concentrates on being an aquarium.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Eaten by an Anaconda

I was just a kid when the movie Anaconda came out.  At the time it was pretty scary and exciting - watching it now, I doubt that I could make it through it with a straight face.  There's a scene towards the end where the monster snake swallows Jon Voight, then vomits him out onto Jennifer Lopez.  As the slime-coated bad guy lands against her, he glances up and winks.

I can't help but wonder if this scene was the inspiration for Discovery Channel's latest idiocy.

Coming fresh off the heels of pseudo-scientific Shark Week, the DC now presents "Eaten by an Anaconda", in which some jackass in a special suit will get himself swallowed by an anaconda and then emerge, alive, supposedly without harming the snake.  For one thing, I wonder how they actually found an anaconda big enough to swallow an adult human.  Then, I want to know how they thought this wouldn't harm the snake even a little.  Lastly, I want to know how Discovery Channel thought this would be a good idea to show, and what happened to a channel that used to do so much for educating and inspiring our minds.