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Friday, February 16, 2018

No Such Thing As Bad Publicity?

There is on inherent difficulty in using stories and popular culture to teach visitors about animals.  In much local folklore and culture, the animals themselves are not portrayed too kindly.  Sometimes, the association of an animal's status in culture is a very negative one, which can have significant impact on its conservation status and efforts to preserve it.

Consider the dhole - a pack-hunting Asian wild dog.

Last year, I was speaking with the curator of another zoo, commiserating over the pounds and pounds of paperwork that were needed to transport or import species that could potentially become invasive to our environment.  We were going over the list of species that the Fish and Wildlife Service has listed as potential invasives - anacondas, meerkats, flying foxes... and dhole.  I'd always wondered about that, and I asked him.  What made the government so concerned about dholes getting loose in America and destroying the America?

"I don't know," he replied after a while.  "Someone must have read too much Kipling."

Rudyard Kipling is best known as the author of The Jungle Book, the tales of the man-cub Mowgli and his upbringing in the jungles of India.  The characters of Baloo and Bagheera, Kaa and Shere Khan are well known to many readers.  One of the less-known stories from the work is Red Dog, when Mowgli's adopted wolf family must fight to defend their home from a fierce outside invader.

"The dhole, the dhole of Dekkan - Red Dog, the Killer!  They came north from the south saying the Dekkan was empty and killing out by the way.  When this moon was new there were four to me - my mate and three cubs... At the dawn-wind I found them stiff in the grass - four, Free People, four when this moon was new  Then I sought my Blood-Right and found the dhole."


To the British colonial authorities of India, the dhole was perceived as a vicious killer, one deserving of no compassion and no conservation status.  In fact, it was believed that the best way to conserve wildlife in some areas was to exterminate the dhole - they were seen as beasts that would kill wantonly, destroying all the animals that they could catch and chasing the rest clear out of the region.  A similar prejudice was based across the ocean against the African wild dog.

Compared to most of the large carnivores of Asia - the bears and the big cats - the dhole is largely ignored, with few large-scale plans for its conservation.  There is no international "Save the Dhole" movement, no popular documentaries, no organizations using them as their logos.  I have a hard time coming up with any other explanation for this apathy/indifference other than the dhole's bad press.  Few people have heard of it, and of those who have, fewer still like what they have heard.

Very few American zoos house dholes - I have only seen them once, myself.  I found them to be gorgeous, engaging animals, full of activity, bustling with curiosity.  They are intensely social and devoted to one another - the picture I took above is the one moment I was able to get one off by itself.  It was a meeting that I had long been looking forward to - I had heard of dholes, but had never gotten the chance to observe one before.  It made me said to realize that so few people would get the chance to meet or experience these beautiful animals, all as a result of a chapter in a work of a fiction.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Sporcle Quiz: Literary Lions, and Tigers, and Bears


Apex predators just as lions, tigers, and bears have played on out-sized role in our culture, and it certainly shows in our literature.  Can you match the famous lions, tigers, and bears to their descriptions?

Monday, February 12, 2018

Beautiful Buzzards and Literary Lions

Before accepting his current role as Director of the Jacksonville Zoo, Tony Vecchio served as the Director of the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Oregon.  Oregon Zoo has a history of commitment to the conservation of the native wildlife of the Pacific Northwest, and during Mr. Vecchio's tenure, the zoo was preparing to join in efforts to save another iconic native species - the California condor.  And so, as zoo directors are wont to do, Mr. Vecchio got his begging sack and began going door to door.

The thing was, many of the local businessmen and moneybags didn't seem interested.  They heard the facts and the figures and the conservation story of the condor... and no one seemed too inclined to part with cash.  Then, during one of his frequent spiels, Mr. Vecchio ad-libbed a bit.  He mentioned that Lewis and Clark had encountered condors during their exploration of the area.   "Beautiful buzzard of the Columbia," they called it, even capturing one live.  Suddenly, folks were more interested.

Tony Vecchio recounted this story to me - and a room full of other zoo and aquarium professionals - during a workshop he was giving on the power of stories to motivate visitors and change behavior.  It also speaks to the power of animals in our culture and history.

Some zoos have utilized this fascination to help educate visitors about animals.  Many zoos use story-times to attract parents with small children, with an animal-themed story seguing into facts about the real, live animals.  Akron Zoo has an entire major section of its campus designated as Legends Of the Wild, with condors, jaguars, and other animals featured prominently in myth and culture.  William Conway's How to Exhibit a Bullfrog advocated for the inclusion of displays on an animal's role in culture and literature.

Perhaps more zoos could expand upon the concept, forging new partnerships to attract new audiences.  Animal-themed movies at the zoo, with keepers serving as "Mythbusters" (the Jennifer Lopez horror flick Anaconda, for instance, or Jaws at the aquarium.  Harry Potter and owls?).  Reaching out to churches, mosques, or synagogues to hold discussions on "Animals of the Bible/Koran/Torah.  Animal-themed yoga.  Animal-inspired music by orchestras.  Curriculum tie-ins with school literature classes - Life of Pi could be read by students, then incorporate a field trip to the zoo.  The possibilities are nearly endless.

True, few of these things have much to do with the animals themselves.  The anaconda in a 1990's horror movie bears little resemblance to the snake dozing half-submerged in a pool in the reptile house.  As Tony Vecchio discovered with his condors, however, if you can help people make a connection with the animal, no matter how tenuous, you have the foundation to start building a real relationship that may impact the species for the better.

Don't believe me?  Well, Oregon Zoo got its condor facility...

Saturday, February 10, 2018

I Grew A Culture In This Place

In Inca mythology, the Andean condor was considered to be the messenger of the Sun.  The Ancient Egyptians mummified crocodiles, baboons, and other animals, preparing them for eternity in the afterlife.  Not content with hawks or falcons, the hunters of the Mongolian steppes took prey the size of wolves using trained golden eagles.  And what American or European schoolchild never heard of the Big Bad Wolf, or Daniel in the lion's den?

When researching a species for the first time, I find the most fascinating aspect to be learning about an animal's cultural history - how it fits into the cultures, economies, art, religion, and history of the people who share its environment.  Some of the stories I have come across have been truly fascinating.  Consider the black-necked stork, the South Asian and Australian equivalent of Africa's saddle-billed stork.  In India, the Mir Shikar people had a ritual for young men seeking to marry.  They had to capture one of these imposing birds - alive.  The task was not without its peril - the custom was finally discontinued in 1920, when one young man was killed by the stork he was attempting to capture.

One of the most interesting things about an animal's cultural history is that is constantly changing.  A few years ago, very few people gave a moment's worth of thought to sloths.  Now, due to their portrayal in pop culture, they are - for reasons I still don't completely understand - some of the most popular of all zoo animals.  One hundred years ago, gorillas were moved in American and European culture as menacing, hulking brutes.  In part due to the increased exposure of humans to gorillas in zoos (especially "hero" gorillas Jambo and Binti Jua) and studies on the apes in the wild, they now enjoy a reputation as gentle vegetarian giants.  The same could be said for orcas - they went from the most feared creatures in the ocean to... Shamu.  It's ironic that the newfound public love for orcas, which started in oceanariums such as SeaWorld, is now causing that species to disappear from marine parks.  

History doesn't have to be ancient to be fascinating.  Any description of the okapi inevitably settles around the fact that the mysterious forest giraffe was unseen by European eyes until as late as the turn of the last century.  Play a game of word-association with anyone and mention the word "Raven", and you're almost sure to get the answer "Nevermore", a reference to the famous poem by Edgar Alan Poe.  Poe lived out his last years in Baltimore, Maryland, which named its football franchise the Baltimore Ravens in tribute.  Not surprisingly, the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore prominently features an exhibit of northern ravens, as well as having some in its animal ambassador program, who serve as mascots for the football team.  Is it a plug for attention?  Perhaps.  But it also serves as a method of tying the animal as a symbol or mascot to the real, living, breathing creature.

Oftentimes, the cultural history of the animal plays a direct role in its conservation.  The history of the sea otter, for example, would never be complete with a description of the fur trade, spearheaded by the Russians, which almost wiped this charming water-weasel from the face of the earth, with dire consequences for the kelp forests where it dwells.  Or, closer to home, how the extermination of the American bison was brought about largely by the US Army's efforts to deprive the Lakota, Comanche, and other Plains Indian tribes of their most important food resource, thereby starving them into submission.

The cultural role of an animal tells us a little about that species... but it tells us a lot about us.  It tells us how people through the world view animals and interact with them.  When properly understood and channeled, it can become another tool in the quest to save animals from extinction.  Many people in countries around the world do not realize that the animals that they share their lands with are unique to those lands.  Developing an appreciation of the fact that they have the only stories about those animals - that their's is the only culture to incorporate them - can provide an adding impetus to protect them.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Species Fact Profile: Fiji Banded Iguana (Brachylophus fasciatus)

Fiji Banded Iguana
Brachylophus fasciatus (Brongniart, 1800)

Range: Southeastern Fiji, (introduced to Vanuatu and Tonga)
Habitat: Rainforest, Cloud Forest, Wetlands
Diet: Leaves, Flowers, Fruits, Insects
Social Grouping:  Males are territorial
Reproduction: Breeding season in November.  Clutch of 3-6 eggs laid in a burrow, hatching after 7-9 months, during the rainy season.  Young independent at birth, though the female may guard the nest site.
Lifespan: 25 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Endangered, CITES Appendix I


  • Body length up to 80 centimeters, two-third of which is made up of tail.  Weigh up to 200 grams.  Size may vary by island
  • Emerald green scales.  Males have vertical blue or light green stripes on the body and the tail.  Females are solid green, sometimes with white or pale blue spotting.  Have some ability to change the color of their scales to match their background
  • Both sexes have short crests running down the spine.  The Latin name translates to "Banded with a Short Crest"
  • When threatened, change their color to a darker shade, near black, and lunge forward with their mouths gaping
  • With the two other Fijian iguanas (B. bulabula and B. vitiensis), they are believed to be the descendants of iguanas that rafted across the Pacific from the Americas thousands of years ago.  They are some of the only iguanas found outside of North and South America
  • Threatened by habitat loss, as well as predation of both adults and eggs by invasive mongooses and domestic cats.  Fully protected, subject to captive-breeding program
  • Historically has been smuggled heavily for the exotic pet trade; the entire population of Fijian iguanas in American zoos is descended from animals smuggled from Fiji
  • Considered a national treasure on Fiji, depicted on currency and postage stamps.  Regarded as the totem of some tribes, where the name of the animal may not be spoken aloud.  Other tribes are terrified of them

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Rockwell's Lion

There are, as my sagging bookshelves can attest, a lot of books written on the subject of zoos and zookeeping.  There are also a few movies on the subject.  What there are not, however, are many works of art focused on zoos.

Recently, I stumbled across one of the few that I'm aware of, and by one of America's most renowned artists.  Norman Rockwell's Lion and Zookeeper first appeared on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post in January of 1954.  Rockwell went on to create over 300 covers for the Post, many of them iconic to this day.  None of the rest included zookeepers.


Sunday, February 4, 2018

Are You Ready For Some Football?

Me?  Oh, no.  Not really.  I manage every year to figure out which two teams are making it to the Super Bowl (Superb Owl?), and pick up just enough factoids to bluff my way out of any football-themed conversation I'll find myself in.  After that, I got nothing.


Every year at about this time, zoos and aquariums attempt to tap into the enthusiasm of the Super Bowl through the assistance of those most reliable of sports pundits, the animals.  This usually is done by offering the animals two treats or enrichment objects, each decked out with the colors or logos of the teams.  The animal then "picks" the winner... though I'm always a bit confused.  If you release a lion into an enclosure with two treats, one "Patriots" one "Eagles", and he devours the "Patriots" one... does that mean he's supposedly voting that the Patriots will win?  Or is he demonstrating that the Patriots will be destroyed?

With so many animals at so many facilities participating, it's not surprising that you get a handful that, based on the sheer numbers and probability, have a track record for getting it right every year.  I prefer to think of it as one of those cases where an infinite number of monkeys eventually produce a script for Hamlet.

So, this year, those zoo animals rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles include Cincinnati Zoo's Fiona the hippo (because believe me, she knows something about beating ridiculous odds), the otters from Elmwood Park Zoo (which, coincidentally, houses the mascot eagle for Philadelphia), and Pinocchio, an Andean bear from the Salisbury Zoo (who just arrived from South America and, presumably, is very confused as to why American "football" players keep cheating and picking up the ball).


Those betting on the New England Patriots include April the giraffe, the lions of the Dallas Zoo, an orangutan from the Hogle Zoo, and Nick the dolphin from Clearwater Marine Aquarium.  Oh, and 95% of the human race.

A saltwater crocodile from the Fort Worth Zoo had his own option set up - two chickens suspended over the water - but the line snapped and both birds fell into the water, where both were promptly eaten.  Don't get too excited about the prospect of a tie.  Salty apparently has an awful track record of picking the winner.

If you're like me, the main attraction of the Super Bowl (besides food) is the commercials.  I'm especially excited this year that last year's biggest celebrity is getting her recognition during one.


Also, what Super Bowl would be complete without a friendly wager or two?  Philadelphia Zoo and Boston's Franklin Park Zoo have made a bet - the zoo of the losing team has to name a goat kid after the quarterback of the winning team.  Careful there - tensions are pretty high this time of year.  I wouldn't be surprised if next month, a jaguar in Philly isn't dining on a kid named "Tom Brady."