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Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Cecil's Legacy

"The wild beast hunts, two a day for five days, are magnificent. There is no denying it. But what pleasure is there in seeing a puny human mangled by a powerful beast or a splendid animal killed with a hunting spear"

- Cicero

Besides books on zoos and aquariums, I really enjoy books about animals in the wild, particularly ones about the scientists studying them in the field.  Jaguar, by Alan Rabinowitz, falls into this category, and there are many others along this line on my book shelf.  One of my all-time favorites is Cry of the Kalahari, by husband-and-wife naturalists Mark and Delia Owens.  The Owenses studied and lived among the lions, hyenas, and jackals of Botswana's Kalahari Desert, sometimes having the animals roam through their very campsite.  Among the special animals that they got to know was a lion that they christened "Bones."

Bones was near dead when the Owenses found him, with a broken leg and skinful of porcupine quills.  Throwing scientific detachment out the window, they darted the ailing lion, dressed his wounds, set his bones, and nursed him back to health, even going so far as to shoot some game for him so that he wouldn't hunt and stress his leg while it was trying to heal.  Bones eventually recovered fully and became the dominant male of a nearby pride, as well as one of the most special animals in the lives of Mark and Delia Owens.  When they recounted his tale to a pair of visiting American tourists and hunters, their guests were moved to tears by the beauty of the story.

A few days later, those same Americans (a husband and wife, just like the Owenses), shot a lion.  Care to guess who it was?

Few (if any) approaches to wildlife conservation are as controversial as the role of trophy hunting.  The idea of killing wild animals - especially those belonging to species which are decline, maybe even threatened or endangered - is unsettling to many people.  I sympathize.  I feel the same way.  I became a zookeeper because I like animals.  Whenever I hear a visitor make a joke about turning one of our alligators into boots, or comparing our buck to the deer they've shot on hunting trips, I get irritable.  Why can't you just appreciate the animal?, I want to scream, Why does it have to be a trophy?

With that being said, I find myself surprisingly, for lack of better word, irritated at the outcry over Cecil, the Zimbabwe lion who was recently killed by an American trophy hunter in circumstances of dubious legality.  Not because I think that said hunter is anything other than an asshole - I have a hard time believing that he didn't know what he was doing was illegal, especially in light of the fact that he plead guilty to charges of poaching in the US previously.  I'm annoyed because so much of the fuss is from people who don't actually bother to understand the case, but just want to be outraged over something.

Lion hunting is legal in Zimbabwe - the problem here is that the animal (an individual who was popular with tourists) was lured out of a protected area, gut-wounded, and died after two days of agony.  If the lion (or a different one with less of a popular following) had been outside the protected area on his own and killed cleanly, there would have been no legal issue at all.  People would still have been angry about it... but only if they heard about it, which, since it would have been legal, they likely wouldn't have.

A big part of my irritation is that these things just snowball into rage storms on the internet, not actually doing anything productive other than letting us feel good about ourselves and make the issue about us.  "Oh, you're sad about cecil?  Well I'm sadder.  Look at this petition I'm signing.  Look at this meme I'm posting.  Look at this nasty Yelp! review I'm giving the dentist who shot him.  Look at me, look at me, look at ME!"

It was like that black rhino hunt.  Remember that?  It was all over the news a few months ago?  Of course we don't, we all got distracted by something new.  And then, something else will happen and our collective rage will be switched over to that new cause, and Cecil will be forgotten as quickly as he he first appeared.

All of this ignores serious questions that need to be addressed.  Are we seriously going to discuss the role of trophy hunting in conservation?  Because if we are, we need to accept it's not as black or white as an online petition says it is.  On one hand, yes, you are killing otherwise healthy animals, animals that would be mating and making more animals, to say nothing of sending a questionable message to local people ("I, a rich American, can kill this lion.  You, a poor Zimbabwean, cannot").  On the other, sometimes attaching a monetary value to an animal is what is needed to save it.  When Pere David first saw his namesake deer, it survived in only once place on earth - the imperial hunting reserve in China.  Ecotourism can be used to raise money to protect wildlife and their habitats in a non-lethal manner, it is true - but that has drawbacks as well. Ecotourists generate less revenue per person than hunters do, and they tend to require more infrastructure - more hotels, more roads, more power and water usage - than a single hunter who is actually stalking quarry in the bush itself.

Also, how about we get our house in order, too?  Where the hell was all of this outrage as North Carolina plotted to pull the plug on the only wild population of red wolves left in the world?  Not that people even approach this level of concern for the plight of the grey wolves out west.  And oh, yeah, let's not forget that here in the US we have our own species of big cat, the jaguar, which is clinging to the borderlands by the tips of its claws.  And now we have presidential candidates who want to build a wall along the entire US-Mexican border, cutting jaguars, ocelots, and Mexican wolves off completely from a part of their range.

I dislike trophy hunting.  Whenever I see a gleeful idiot mugging a dead animal for the camera, I sigh and shake my head.  At least show some respect, I think, some appreciation for the magnificent life you just ended for fun.  But money for conservation has to come from somewhere, and there is a limited amount of ecotourism or grant money out there.  Eventually, countries and governments end up in competition for it.  I fear that as more countries ban trophy hunting of wildlife, that will just make it more valuable to the countries that do... and possible encourage unethical practices like those we saw in this case.

If we, as a society, feel that trophy hunting is simply too repugnant to be allowed, then so be it.  We'll need to make sure that we're still finding ways to fund wildlife conservation.  I suppose I should be happy that Cecil's death at least is getting people to talk about lions and their conservation... but they aren't talking, their screeching.  As part of a profession that has to deal with the odd-bit of media screeching itself, I get exasperated.  If you want to truly honor Cecil and give him a legacy, you can do better than write a Yelp! review for a dentist who has never even seen your molars.

You can help start a conversation about making sure that large carnivores still have a place in our world for generations to come.  That would be a worthwhile legacy.

Monday, August 3, 2015

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

"Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun."
-Noel Coward

The dog days of August are upon us... though why they call them "Dog Days" I don't understand.  The dogs don't want them.  No one does.  It's hot, muggy, and miserable, and I feel like the second I step outside, someone is draping a damp roll of carpeting over me.  It's miserable, but I have to be out in it.

Most people don't.

If I ever ran my own zoo, I seriously think I might propose a new strategy.  We'd be open from 6 AM or so until 10 in the morning.  Then, we'd shut down and everyone would have siesta time.  We'd reopen at 3 in the afternoon until 7 or so in the evening.

It makes no sense to me that zoos are at their busiest at midday in the summer.  After all, we aren't the only ones that hate the heat - the animals do too.  They aren't going to be active or playful or engaging when its 95 degrees - they'll be in the shade, in a burrow, or in their (possibly air-conditioned) holding buildings.  For some animals, like polar bears and snow leopards, this seems obvious.  For others, especially the tropical animals, it's less so.  On two occasions I've been to Africa on wildlife-watching trips.  In each case, we went for an early morning game drive, and a second one late in the afternoon, early in the evening.  In the midday, we stayed in camp - there was nothing to see out there at the time of day.

During the summer heat, we keepers have our hands full keeping our animals comfy.  Monitoring visitors is another challenge.  Sunburn, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke are common problems in the summer, especially with infants (I've seen idiotic parents prancing around on 100 degree days with babies that must have been straight from the hospital) and the elderly.  I've had to call ambulances more than once on barely-conscious guests I've had to drag into the shade on blistering days.

It's amazing to me how much easier it is to adapt animals to cold than heat.  I've seen zebras and kangaroos and cheetahs in the snow, seemingly perfectly  comfortable as long as they have somewhere to go to get warm.  On the other hand, many northern animals, such as wolverine and moose, do very poorly in hot, humid weather, and as a result relatively few facilities outside of the native range house those species.  For visitors, heat is obviously much more dangerous than cold.  When it's cold, visitors stay home and bundle up.  When it's hot, they troop outside and expose themselves to as much heat as possible.

Aquariums are great to visit year-round, any time of day.  No matter what it's like outside, you'll generally be comfortably indoors.  A zoo visit, however, is at its best in the fall or spring, or maybe on a mild winter's day.  Or, if you go in the summer (after all, that's when our vacations are), go early in the day and beat the noontime heat.

And then enjoy that siesta.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Sporcle Quiz: Sea Dragons

In Poseidon's Steed, marine biologist Helen Scales explores the world of seahorses.  She barely introduces, however, their very remarkable cousins - the sea dragons.  I took the liberty of highlighting one of the three living species earlier this month, but can you find all three - they're hiding amidst some imposters...

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Documentary Review: The Blue Planet - Seas of Life

"Our planet is a blue planet: over seventy percent of it is covered by the sea. The Pacific Ocean alone covers half the globe. You can fly across it non-stop for twelve hours and still see nothing more than a speck of land."

- Sir David Attenborough

When the first public aquariums opened in the 1800s, many milestones were achieved in rapid succession.  One of these was the first ever photograph of a living fish, for the first time introducing many people to a glimpse of life under the surface of the water.  Today, we have far better cameras, SCUBA gear and submersibles, and much larger and more naturalistic aquarium displays with many more species on display.  Still, the vast majority of people will never see the mystery and majesty of life in the ocean.

In an effort to correct this, BBC Natural History Unit (the same studio that produced Life in Cold Bloodhas produced one of the most spectacular documentary series every filmed - The Blue Planet: Seas of Life.  Filmed over five years at approximately 200 locations (and narrated by Sir David!), Blue Planet is the most ambitious, complete overview of ocean life on earth.  Many of the behaviors and species featured had not been filmed before, and the filmmakers crossed the boundary between documenting and discovering.  For example, three years were devoted to solving on of the persistent questions of marine mammal biology - where do blue whales go on migration?  It seems remarkable that, for the single largest animal that has ever lived, we didn't know the answer to such a basic question before, but it just goes to show how mysterious much ocean life is.

The ocean is often treated monolithically, as one entity of unbroken water.  In reality, it is home to habitats and ecosystems as diverse from each other as are the habitats on dry land.  The fifty-minute episodes of the series explore a variety of marine habitats, such as coastlines, frozen seas, and the open ocean.  Some of the most spectacular footage comes from the bottom of the ocean, where scientists and filmmakers use submersibles similar to those used to explore the Titanic to investigate life in one of the most inhospitable environments we could imagine.  The first episode, for instance, features footage of the carcass of a gray whale, having sunk to the bottom of the sea.  Over the course of a year and a half, hagfish, sleeper sharks, and other scavengers reduce the behemoths to bones.

If I have one quibble with Blue Planet, it's that its focus is a little... biased.  Watching some episodes, it would be easy to get the idea that the sea is almost exclusively full of mammals.  Whales, dolphins, and seals dominate the series, with penguins, polar bears, and sea turtles probably getting more than their share of screen time as well.  Among the fish, it's the sharks that dominate.  And don't get me wrong, those animals are cool, but for me the real pleasure of Blue Planet and its sister series (such as the famous Planet Earth) is the chance to discover something brand new, something incredibly unique.  I mean, there is a creature out there with a Latin name that translates to "Vampire Squid from Hell?"  Can we please talk about that one a little more?

One modest quibble aside, I absolutely love this series.  Its beautiful shot, sometimes moving (especially the scenes of a successful attack of an orca pod on a young whale), and, like the ocean itself, flows effortlessly and clearly from episode to episode.  Because so much ground (... or water) is covered in the series, sometimes I feel like the viewer doesn't get a chance to learn too much about any one topic or animal before being ushered along to the next one.

That's okay.  There are millions of species scattered across seemingly endless amounts of ocean, too much for any one series to cover.  The Blue Planet, I like to think of, is something of a teaser... and invitation to dive in for more.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Touch Tank

Unless you're a diver, as I am not, you may find that aquarium animals can be a bit harder to relate to than traditional zoo animals.  Tucked away behind glass, you can't hear them or smell them.  In a way, the displays are just like those fish screen-savers you see - movement and color, but removed, distant, and alien.

A major goal of zoos and aquariums is to inspire the public to develop an appreciation for wildlife. It can be hard to get people to feel a connection or be inspired to care about something so separate from us.  We're an interactive species, and we like to use all of our senses (well, not all of them at all times...).  The result, cropping up at aquariums and nature centers around the world, is the touch tank.

The concept of the touch tank is pretty simple.  It's a tank where you... touch things.  Living things, specifically.  Virtually every aquarium large and small has a touch tank these days, where visitors can get their hands in the water to feel fish, mollusks, and other aquatic organisms, under the careful supervision of aquarium staff.  I haven't been able to find out much on the history or origins of the tanks, but I know they've been going back for decades.  Growing up, the National Aquarium in Baltimore was the aquarium I visited most frequently, and I remember their touch tank well.  It was removed a decade or so ago to make way for new exhibits, but came back in a big way this year with the aquarium's new Living Seashore exhibit.  Here, horseshoe crabs, whelks, starfish, and moon jellies can be gently handled by visitors.

By far, the most popular touch tanks around the country are sharks and rays.  People love sharks... and by "love," I mean "tend to be terrified of," so giving visitors a chance to touch a shark (of a small, harmless species) is an incredible experience that many participants won't soon forget.  Years ago, temporary sting ray feeding stations (all named, invariably Sting Ray Bay) were traveling around the zoo world.  They were so popular that many zoos decided to host them as permanent fixtures.  The rays are made "safe" for visitors by having the stinging barbs at the end of their tails trimmed off, a painless procedure (so I'm told) that in no way     harms the ray.

Speaking of safety, though...

Obviously aquarium officials are going to make sure that touch tanks are safe for visitors - hence no piranha or moray eel touch tanks that I know off.  The question is, how safe are they for animals?  Doubtlessly there are some fish and invertebrates which are relatively well-suited for these types of enclosures.  They have to be comfortable in shallow water and tolerant of disturbance and handling; fish that will get stressed too easily need not apply.    The fact that people are reaching in and out of the water also raises the possibility of contaminants entering the water - lotions, perfumes, soaps, etc.  Perhaps these are the sorts of things that the filtration systems can easily handle.

Supervision is essential.  I'm willing to believe that a horseshoe crab will tolerate plenty of stroking on its carapace.  I have a hard time believing that it will put up with banging - all visitors need to be monitored closely and instructed on what is appropriate or not.  Lastly, having time limits and break-periods for the animals is also a must.  When a friend and I visited Adventure Aquarium recently, it seemed like we reached each touch station right as it was going on break.  Sure, we were a little frustrated that we barely got chances to touch the sharks and rays, but we understood - the animals needed rest and privacy.

I think there needs to be more research done into exhibit tank vs touch tank fish - water quality, stress levels, lifespans - just to give some hard, empirical data to examine.  From what I've seen, however, a well-planned touch tank - one that is manned responsibly and stocked with appropriate species - can be a tremendous boon to any aquarium.  Certainly it gets people relating to fish and other aquatic creatures and making personal connections, and that should be a key goal of any aquarium.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Zoo History: Secrets of Mermaids

"The secrets hitherto known only to fishes and mermaids are laid open to all who choose to know them."

- Daily News

The earliest zoos have their origins in antiquity, being present in ancient cultures around the world.  Aquariums, not surprisingly, have a much briefer, more well-documented history - the technology and understanding of biology needed to keep wholly-aquatic animals alive in captivity came to us much more recently.  

While fish had been kept in bowls and ornamental ponds for some time, the major breakthrough in aquarium-keeping came about in the mid-1800s with the discovery of symbiosis - essentially, fish and plants could be kept in a tank together, each aiding the survival of the other through respiration and excretion.  While not the initial discoverer, the credit often goes to Philip Henry Goose, a Victorian naturalist who was coping with a nervous breakdown through a vacation to the beach.  Experimenting with keeping fish in tanks, he eventually achieved some level of success and presented his findings to the Zoological Society of London.  The Society was convinced to give the aquatic displays a try, and the first public aquarium (called, perhaps inevitably, "The Fish House") was opened.

The earliest aquarium, opening in 1853, was a humble one.  We would see more variety and more attractive habitats at a modern pet shop.  There were no sharks or other very imposing sea creatures, and the tanks were small, along the lines of what we would expect for home aquaria these days.  The creatures of display were those of the local rivers and streams, as well as fish and invertebrates of the North Sea, transported to the Zoo in casks of seawater via railway.  Still, it was a tremendous novelty, the first of its kind - among the other firsts occurring here, the first photograph of a live fish (a pike, taken by Count Montizon) was taken

Nor was the aquarium quite as successful as Goose believed it would be - he and his colleagues had developed a method for keeping fish alive for longer than was previously possible, but it was by no means sustainable in the long-term.  Keepers frantically tried to keep the plants and fish alive, adjusting the lighting and pumping water, sometimes by hand.  Temperature regulation was another problem, and exhibits were often either too hot or too cold.  Eventually, the whole thing was given up as a fiasco and the aquarium folded.
Domestic Aquarium, Shirley Hibberd.  Rustic Adornments for Homes of Taste, 1891
A new aquarium did not appear at the London Zoo for fifty years.  By this time, enormous developments had been made in the keeping of aquatic creatures.  The phenomena was not limited to the zoo world, but had spread to the home environment also, with an explosion of hobbyists, amateur naturalists, and professional keepers and breeders fueling the business.  Such an explosion of interest led to great changes in the way we take care of fish and aquatic invertebrates.  We have more detailed knowledge about feeding and husbandry.  We have more sophisticated technology for life support - filters, skimmers, pumps, chillers, etc.  Some species are bred in captivity with great ease, and our knowledge of their veterinary care is far beyond what Goose and his colleagues could have ever dreamed of.  

I wonder what those earliest fish keepers would think if they were to visit a modern public aquarium.  They could go to the Newport Aquarium and meander through acrylic tunnels through the tanks, or watch shark rays glide past the enormous windows of their theater-like tank.  They could have gone to the National Aquarium in Baltimore and descended through the ramps of the Atlantic Coral Reef tank, watching SCUBA divers service the exhibit.  Or maybe if they were feeling adventurous they could have petted the sting rays at the South Carolina Aquarium while gulls, ibises, and other marsh birds swooped overhead.  The site of whale sharks and giant manta rays at the Georgia Aquarium would have doubtlessly left them speechless.

Our modern aquariums are beyond anything that the Victorians could have dreamed of, yet they are the ones that made it possible.  They showed the world that fish could be kept alive in aquaria (albeit briefly), the inspired others to improve upon the methods.  That's the wonderful thing about innovation, in this field or any other - every improvement paves the way to future improvements that the original innovators could hardly imagine.

I wonder what we would think about the aquariums of the future.  I like to think that they'd be something we couldn't believe.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Scooping Poop Under the Sea

"I never drink water.  Fish pee in it."
-W.C. Fields

From the perspective of a zookeeper, especially one who mostly takes care of mammals and birds, with a smattering of herps thrown in, the world of an aquarist is just weird.  For one thing, your day is confined, largely, to a single building, indoors all day long, whereas we trek back and forth across acres and acres of zoo.  There is less focus on managing individuals animals, more on managing tanks and schools.  Outside of marine mammals, there is less focus on training and behavioral enrichment, though there have been changes on this frontier also.  Feeding aquarium fish is much different than feeding most zoo animals.  (There are exceptions to all of these).

And then, of course, there is the major difference.  There is no poop to scoop.

Fish do poop, of course.  So do aquatic invertebrates.  It's just that their excretory byproducts tend to vanish into the water that surrounds them.  That, of course, is the same water that they spend their entire lives immersed in, breathing and swimming.  Just because we can't readily see or smell the droppings doesn't mean they aren't there.  And it doesn't mean they aren't a problem.

Plenty of aquatic zoo animals love to defecate in their pools.  Hippos, tapirs, and capybara are notorious for it, but so do penguins, flamingos, and crocodilians, to name a few.  The difference between these guys and fish is that they can survive on land - you can empty the pool, drain it, bleach it, scrub it, or power-wash it before refilling it.  With fish, that's not much of an option - not unless you move them to an entirely different tank while you clean and reset their old one with clean water.

There are two methods that aquarists can use to keep the water clean for their fish.  One is a partial water change - remove a certain amount of the water (20%, 50%) with a siphon and hose and replace it with clean water.  The siphon vacuums among the substrate of the exhibit, sucking up not only water but uneaten food and droppings which collect at the bottom.  The idea is that nastiness (that's a scientific term right there) gets collected before it accumulates.  The second option is some sort of filter - chemical or mechanical - that removes or purifies contaminants in the water.  Protein skimmers agitate the water and, well, skim off the bad stuff that floats to the top.  Often all of these options are used together.

With the earliest aquariums, the dream was to create perfect, self-contained ecosystems of plants and animals, whereby the plants would purify the water and the animals would support the plants.  Unfortunately, it didn't work out too well in long-term studies.  The idea has gotten some new attention, however, with an increased focus on biological purifiers.  For example, mollusks like oysters and mussels naturally filter water as they feed.  Perhaps aquariums could someday culture colonies of shellfish to purify at least some of their exhibit water.  Not only would it help clean tanks in an environmentally friendly manner, it would serve as an educational demonstration to visitors on the importance of oysters and their relatives in maintaining healthy aquatic ecosystems.

Water changes and filters are the same basic methods used to take care of home aquariums - the scale is just multiplied tremendously.  Take the mess made by your little goldfish, then imagine what the whale sharks of the Georgia Aquarium can do.  Dealing with filters and water changes and skimmers and such is a major reason that I was never able to get too much into working with aquariums.  I felt like I was spending more time taking care of machines and pumps than I was animals.  The thing is, though, is that those machines and pumps are what keep the animals alive.  When  they fail, the consequences can be horrific.

That, in the end, is why I think I'll stick to my land animals, my rake and shovel.  The job may be harder and more physical and certainly smellier, but it's also a whole lot simpler.