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Monday, January 23, 2017

Book Review: Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo

"That is why we find the adult male orangutan so compelling.  In his eyes we see a precarious balance of ruthless strength and brutality on the one hand, and gentleness and serenity on the other.  The eyes of the male orangutan remind us of the awkward combination of angel and beast that characterizes the human soul."

People called them "Leakey's Angels", or sometimes "The Trimates" - the three young women who, in service of the Kenyan anthropologist Louis Leakey, devoted themselves to studying the world's great apes by living among them.  Jane Goodall was a young Englishwoman who's pioneering studies of chimpanzees made her perhaps the most famous living biologist of our time.  Dian Fossey, who studied the mountain gorillas of Central Africa, was immortalized in film by Sigourney Weaver in Gorillas in the Mist, the motion picture that shares a title with her book. 

Far less renown, far more overlooked is the third member of the triad.  Her name is Birute Galdikas.  Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo is her story.

It strikes me as a shame that Galdikas doesn't get more credit in the popular imagination, for in many ways she had the most challenging study subject.  Compared to chimpanzees and gorillas, orangutans are largely solitary.  Galdikas comments more than once about how Fossey or Goodall would be able to observe more behavior, more social interactions in an afternoon than she would see in months.  Months would pass without Galdikas getting so much insight to orangutan life as a glimpse of red fur, vanishing in the trees.  On more than one occasion, her study subjects expressed their displeasure at being followed by actually trying to kill her, looking her calmly in the eyes as they dropped dead branches onto her.

It's a testament to the perseverance of Galdikas and her then-husband, Rod, that the orangutans eventually accepted her, offering her fascinating insights into their lives.  She learned that orangutans are not as solitary as was initially believed, that they are capable of tool use (just like chimpanzees), and detailed the intricate relationships between mother and offspring.  In the later case, she learned more than she'd planned on when she became the foster mother to a handful of emaciated young apes which she had confiscated from illegal pet-owners.  In another case, she learned the truth behind one of the most horrifying local legends about orangutans... and almost certainly wished that she hadn't.

Field biology memoirs are always partially the story of the animals and habitats involved, partially that of the people.  Reflections of Eden teaches the reader a lot about orangutans, but it's also about Galdikas' struggles, personally and professionally, as she copes with indifferent bureaucracy and a culture which is simultaneously welcoming and sympathetic yet distant and labyrinthine.  Doubtlessly her greatest struggles, however, come from within her own family, as her passion for saving orangutans and love of Indonesia separates her from her husband and son.

Reflections of Eden is the story of a woman who set out to study a strange and little known world, and, bit by bit, found out that she had become part of it.  It is not a heart-warming, feel-good book.  If anything, the story gets bleaker after the book was written.  Since it's publication in 1995, the plight of wild orangutans has reached a critical new level, as palm oil plantations threaten to swallow the whole of Indonesia's rainforests.  Still, people won't fight to save orangutans if they don't know that they are in danger, and we won't know that they are in danger if we barely know them at all.


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Satire: Goodbye otters! 9 things that might take their place at the Newport Aquarium in 2017

Surfing lessons!  Monk seals!  Jonah: the Interactive Experience!  It took me a moment to realize that this was satire - Jonah being the giveaway.  Happily, the Newport Aquarium's otters will be off-exhibit only briefly.  It's good to see the news having some fun with the story.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Safari Showdown

Years ago, Discovery Channel debuted a television show called "Animal Face-Off."  The premise was simple.  Each episode was a comparison of two animals, their relative strengths and weaknesses, ending in a CGI duel-to-the-death.  Who would win if a saltwater crocodile fought a great white shark?  A polar bear versus a walrus?  A sperm whale versus a colossal squid?

I watched the show as kind-of a guilty pleasure, but got bored with it eventually.  The fights seemed too implausible in many cases.  I also never could quite get over its similarity to the Roman death games, though of course no one was actually killed in these.

I can easily understand the show's appeal to the public.  Zookeepers are constantly peppered with questions about animal fights.  Would a lion beat a tiger?  How about a gorilla?  Would a gorilla beat an orangutan?

Among zookeepers, the question of importance isn't who would win a fight.  It's who will start one.   Animal death matches might make exciting TV, but they don't exactly reflect optimal welfare.

The challenge is especially real in safari park settings, where large numbers of different species are housed together.  The challenge for curators and collection managers is to stock an exhibit that recreates the African savannah or Asian steppe without bloodshed resulting.

Predators, obviously, are out of the picture.  The lions and cheetahs at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park may have a panoramic view of the herds below, but that's as close as they get.  Herbivores require careful mixing too, however.  Hippos are seldom included in safari parks, in large part due to their irascible nature (I've read of hippos killing zebras).  Zebras for that matter are no angels, especially males.  White rhinos are typically okay, black rhinos... not so much. 

Even relatively docile giraffes can be problematic in some causes... even if it's only because they are provoked.  A bull giraffe at one zoo was constantly harassed by an obnoxious male eland, an antelope the size of a large cow.  Eventually, the giraffe had enough and with one swing of its neck, sent the eland flying like a golf ball.

Conflicts are most likely to break out between the males of similar species, which may view each other as rivals.  They are especially likely to break out during rut, the period of heightened aggression that prepares males for the breeding season.  The birthing season is also a risky one, as animals may display hostility to the young of other species, whereas they would ignore the parents.  Mothers, in turn, may react aggressively to innocent curiosity from other species.

There is a lot of trail and error that goes into creating a safe, well-balanced safari park.  While each species tends to have a characteristic demeanor, a lot of the success comes down to the individual personalities of the animals involved.  When in doubt, I always recommend erring on the side of caution.  A beautiful exhibit is a wonderful thing, but not at the expense of animal safety.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides)

Tawny Frogmouth
Podargus strigoides (Latham, 1801)

Range: Australia, Tasmania
Habitat: Open Forest, Woodland
Diet: Insects, Worms, Snails, Small Mammals, Reptiles, Frogs
Social Grouping: Pairs
Reproduction: Monogamous (may be for life).  Breeding season is August through December.  Nest on a loose platform of sticks in a tree, about 30 centimeters in diameter.  Both sexes incubate the 1-3 eggs.  Chicks fledge at 25-35 days.
Lifespan: 14 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern

  • Body length is 34-53 centimeters, weigh up to 680 grams (usually 350-500)
  • Sexes look alike: silver-gray plumage (slightly paler on the underside) streaked and mottled with black and rufous.  There is also a russet-red color phase.  The eyes are yellow; the wide, heavy beak is olive-gray.  Albino frogmouths have been observed.
  • Hunt from elevated perches, pouncing onto the ground to seize prey.  They will sometimes take insects on the wing, or sit still with their mouths open, snapping shut if insects fly inside.  Larger prey is beaten to death against a branch
  • Most active by night, usually just after dusk and right before dawn
  • Main defense is to sit extremely still with the head pointed up, resembling a broken branch
  • Major threat is road accidents; frogmouths pursue the insects attracted to car headlights and are then hit by cars
  • When threatened, adults give an alarm call to the chicks, indicating they should stay motionless.  Throughout the night, they give steady grunting noises.  Couples sing drumming duets.
  • During the winter, frogmouths spend much of their time in torpor to save energy, lowering their heart rate and metabolism
  • Three subspecies: the nominate (from eastern and southern Australia), P. s. phalaenoides (northern Australia), and P. s. brachypterus (western Australia)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Goodbye, Colo

I've heard a lot of people complain that 2016 took away many of the best celebrities that we have.  Well, now it's half-a-month into 2017, and we've already lost two of the most famous zoo-and-aquarium celebrities of our times.  Earlier this year, of course, we had the death of Tilikum, the infamous orca from SeaWorld.  Today, Columbus Zoo announced the passing of Colo, the world's first captive-born gorilla.  She was 60 years old when she passed away in her sleep.

Colo was rejected by her mother and was hand-raised by keepers.  At the age of two, she was introduced to her future mate, Bongo, with whom she had three children.  Having never gained first-hand parenting experience, Colo never raised her own children... but she did help raise her grandchildren.  By the time of her death, she was a great, great grandmother, with two dozen some descendants.  Some went to zoos around the country, but many remained with her in Columbus.

What makes Colo's passing truly remarkable is its testament to the changes in zoo animal welfare over the years.  Prior to Colo's birth in 1956, gorillas had never been bred in captivity, and it hadn't been the long ago when they were considered virtually impossible to keep alive in the first place.  Today, there are hundreds of gorillas in zoos around the world - virtually all of them zoo-borns - making them one of the most sustainable, most genetically-secure zoo populations.  We no longer worry about getting them to eat, or watch them fade away from depression and disease.  We now have large, vibrant family groups, and one of our greatest medical challenges is maintaining geriatric gorillas in good cardiac health; one of our main demographic challenges is managing young bachelor males.

Colo's passing doubtlessly has left a huge hole in the hearts of her many keepers and admirers.  It's been touching, however, to see the community rally around them with support and fond memories of a great, great grandmother of an ape.

Colo at her 60th birthday party, courtesy of Columbus Zoo

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Ringling Brothers: End of an Era

The news hit me like a bombshell last night.  After 146 years of being the iconic circus of the world, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey will be closing this spring.  Permanently.  The cause was simple - the business was no longer profitable.  A major contributing factor that was mentioned, however, was the company's ongoing feud with PETA, HSUS, and other organizations over its use of performing animals.  It was this decision which led Ringling to retire its traveling elephants last year.

Like many zookeepers, I've always been conflicted about circuses.  I have no doubt that Ringling's staff cares for their animals, and that the training methods of today aren't those of the past.  I also know that Ringling is a major contributor to elephant conservation, to say nothing of the most successful breeder of Asian elephants in North America.  Still, I've always had a hard time thinking of a life on the road as the best option for large animals.

The question that many zookeepers ask now is - after Ringling and SeaWorld, what's next?  Is it our turn?

Zoos and aquariums, it must be said, do have some advantages in the upcoming struggle.  For one, most are non-profits, which lets us contradict the "exploiting animals for money" claim.  Second, our facilities - including the enclosures, where the animals spend their days - are open to the public, providing visitors with a better understanding of how our animals live.  Third, the conservation and education message are out front and center, with much less of a blatant entertainment appeal.  It is hard to get visitors to take you too seriously if you have elephants in tutus and bears on bicycles.

Our biggest asset, however, is our audience.  Ringling wasn't shut down through government legislation.  It was worn down by attendance.  And forget the animal side of things for a second, because that does make sense.  A century ago, the traveling circus was the only entertainment available to small towns.  Now there are movies and video games and concerts, to say nothing of professional sports; haunted houses and farms appear in droves every autumn, and every empty storefront seems to have been converted into an escape room.  There are also zoos and aquariums - providing another outlet for viewing animals that once would have been seen only in circuses.

Oh, and let's not forget the one thing circuses are synonymous with - clowns.  Does anyone still like clowns?  Because when I hear the "c" word, I don't think Bonzo and Ronald McDonald.  I think of Pennywise from It and Twisty from American Horror Story.  That couldn't have helped.

Anyway, my point is, unlike circuses, zoos and aquariums are seeing increasing rates of visitors.  The public, for now, is still on our side.  And we need to keep them there.

How do we do it?

Be bold and be vocal.  Share our success stories - loudly.  Celebrate births.  Unveil new and improved habitats.  Tout our commitment to conservation programs.  And tell the story of what's happening in the wild.  Remind the public that endangered species are in a lot of trouble, and they need all the help they can get.

We also need to be as open as possible about our animal care.  To the end, Ringling has been plagued with accusations about how they beat or otherwise mistreated their animals.  All the keepers I know who went behind-the-scenes, however, said that they were impressed by the commitment and care shown to the animals.  It's just that the majority of people never saw that, never understood that.  We have to help them see and understand.  Do keeper talks.   Give behind-the-scenes tours.  Reply to comments on social media.

Above all, we return to my professional mantra, one which I developed in the wake of the Toronto elephant sagaBeyond Reproach.  Do your job like the eyes of the world are on you.   Because on day, they might be.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

From the News: Fitness Trackers Aim To Improve The Health And Happiness Of Zoo Elephants

Of course, the idea behind giving animals large enclosures, like in a safari park setting, is that they will use them to exhibit natural behaviors... most of which involve moving.  Animals in the wild, however, don't generally roam for fun.  They do it to find food, water, shelter, and mates, as well as avoid danger.  In a zoo environment, those needs are condensed, and, not surprisingly, animals don't move and exercise as much.

Musi, an African elephant, is one of Fresno Chaffee Zoo's five elephants enrolled in the Elephant Welfare Initiative. Courtesy of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo hide caption toggle caption Courtesy of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo

This innovative study will help increase the health of elephants in zoos by helping to answer the questions of how much exercise do they need, and how much are they getting.  Many zoos are already developing - or have recently renovated - their elephant exhibits to improve exercise options.  Changes include the addition of deep pools and the construction of walking trails to get the big beasts moving. 

As the research seems to suggest, a fit elephant is a happy elephant... and happy elephants make more elephant babies.  And as perilous as the situation has become for elephants in the wild, that can only be a good thing.