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Sunday, July 5, 2015

Book Review: Poseidon's Steed: The Story of Seahorses, From Myth to Reality

“But seahorses hold a secret intimacy, a special reward for the keen-eyed.  And perhaps deep down I held on to a childhood suspicion, an irrational part of me that didn’t quite believe that seahorses really do inhabit the oceans.  Seeing one felt like glimpsing a unicorn trotting through my garden.”

When visitors come to the zoo, they expect to see specific animals – monkeys and bears, giraffes and zebras.  When they go to the aquarium, on the other hand, their expectations are a little more general.  They expect to see… fish.  And for the most part, they are all just that – fish.  There are very few groups of fish which stand out in the mind of the visitor, sharks being one obvious exception.  There is another group of fish, however, which is so unique, so spectacular, so utterly different from anything else in the sea that any aquarium visitor can identify it in a moment.  Those are the seahorses.

Seahorses are like no other fish; in fact, for a long time, early scientists weren’t even sure that they were fish.  Maybe they were crustaceans.  Or baby dragons.  Or who knows what.  What is known is that throughout human history and culture, from the folklore of pre-Columbian Latin America to the rock paintings of Australia to the treasure hordes of the Middle East, people have recognized that seahorses are special.

In Poseidon’s Steed: The Story of Seahorses, From Myth to Reality, marine biologist Helen Scales takes readers on a tour through the world of seahorses, both as they exist in real life and as they exist in our collective imagination.  Starting with a description of her first ever encounter with wild seahorses while diving of the coast of Vietnam, she welcomes the reader to the world of the most remarkable fish in the sea.  We are treated to detailed descriptions of the courtship and mating of seahorses, the only animals on earth where males get pregnant and experience childbirth (and I appreciate Scales anticipating and answering the question I’ve always had – then what makes them males?)  We explore sea horses in myth and culture, from ancient societies to Pokemon.  I’d always vaguely thought of seahorses as being pretty cool, but it wasn’t until reading some of the descriptive passages of their lives, their behaviors, and their courtships that I really realized just how bizarre and unique they really are.

Most distressingly, we’re given a glimpse into the dangerous world that seahorses find themselves in today.  Like rhinos, tigers, bears, and turtles, sea horses are threatened by the demand of their bodies for Traditional Chinese Medicine, and Scales’ description of the history and philosophy of TCM is the best I’ve read ever.   As a counterbalance, however, we’re also taken to a unique Filipino fishing community, where community-based conservationists are using seahorses as a flagship species to save their endangered reefs from dynamiting, poisoning, and overfishing.

Seahorses in captivity – both in public and private aquariums – receive a special chapter.  Scales describes the birth of the modern aquarium, and notes that seahorses were some of the first fish to be displayed in them.  She then offers a behind-the-scenes look at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga, TN, describing the care and breeding of seahorses in modern aquariums.  While emphasizing the need to protect seahorses in the wild, Scales calls attention to the importance of zoos and aquariums in introducing the public to seahorses and other animals, giving them a chance to meet and become infatuated with such unique creatures.

I’m somewhat of a wimp around water, and have never taken to SCUBA diving, so I don’t expect to ever meet a seahorse out in the wild.  Not that I should expect to, anyway; the author notes the great difficulty that she had in finding them, having searched for them on countless unsuccessful dives before finally encountering one.   Still, seeing seahorses in aquariums, and having them as a reminder that there are still wild ones roaming the oceans of the world, is enough for me.  It’s certainly enough to remind me what Loren Eiseley once wrote – “If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water.”

And, he might have added, “It is called the seahorse.”

Friday, July 3, 2015

Just When You Thought It Was Safe...

Just in time for one of the busiest beach weekends of the summer in the United States (to say nothing of Shark Week), we've had a spat of shark attacks on the eastern seaboard.  Seven shark attacks have occurred off the coast of North Carolina in three weeks, some of them in very shallow water.  An eight-foot hammerhead has been seen cruising off the coast of Ocean City, Maryland, one of the most popular resort towns in the mid-Atlantic.  A Florida fisherman was yanked bodily from his kayak by a shark he hooked (though you could certainly argue that that was on him).

We have a complicated relationship with sharks (to say nothing of other potentially dangerous animals) in our culture.  On one hand we have the folks to love to sensationalize them, hence their roles in books and movies and TV shows.  Plenty of people fear them - a kill order is out for a 4 meter shark that attacked and severely injured a bodyboarder off the coast of Australia.  Other people try to downplay the danger sharks, crocodiles, bears, and other big predators pose, pointing out the accurate statistics that attacks are very rare.

That's true.  But they do happen.  And with more people crowding into what once was solely the domain of animals, they happen more often.

Instead of either alternatively sensationalizing or glossing over the danger that certain animals pose towards people, I would love to see more zoos and aquariums address it practically and realistically.  The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore features an exhibit, Polar Bear Watch, that describes how residents of Churchill, Manitoba, co-exist with the big white bears that roam their streets.  A nice idea - but maybe they could take a page from the Naples Zoo in Florida and instead focus on how the residents of Maryland could better coexist with the American black bears which are becoming more common in the western and central parts of the state, from how to discourage bears in your yard by securing your trash and putting food sources away, to how to behave if you suddenly encounter a bear.

Pretty much every zoo in the southern US has a pool full of big ol' gators - how about making these displays a teachable exhibit of human-alligator conflict?  Like sharks, alligators are often attracted to fishing piers by fisherman cleaning their catches and tossing scraps to the waiting gators - a behavior which teaches alligators (and sharks) to hang around expecting food.  Or rattlesnakes - maybe teach people that if they fear having rattlesnakes in their yards, there is a solution besides killing snakes (which is equally likely to get you bitten) - learn to make your yard less attractive as snake habitat.

As mountain lions begin their slow but steady march to the east, reclaiming lands that have been cat-less for decades, it would be good for human residents to learn how to coexist peaceful with their new neighbors.  Similarly, coyotes are cropping up across the east, filling in the gap left by wolves.  They've trotted past the White House and popped up in Central Park, spreading concern wherever they go.

Focusing on the dangers that animals can pose to people can be unpopular in some circles.  To some zookeepers, it would seem to be its own form of sensationalizing, putting too much focus on the relatively few times that attacks do occur, too little on the more frequent cases where humans imperil animals.  I get what they're saying.  I do know, however, that - as evidenced by the aforementioned shark in Australia - when an animal does kill or harm a person, it leads to retaliatory measures against the animals, and not just the "perpetrators" (to say nothing of possibly sparing any human victims the damage that they'd suffer).

In terms of improving human attitudes towards the big predators in our own backyards, a little prevention is much better than a draconian cure.

If you're not a zookeeper or aquarist and actually DO get holidays like the Fourth of July off, don't let all this put you off.  It's still safe to go into the water... probably.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Diving In

Taken as a whole, my family has been very supportive of me in my career as a zookeeper.  There are, however, two career-relevant ways in which I know that I let my father down.  Firstly, I never took an Invertebrate Zoology course in college ("How could you not?  It's 99% of all animals!").  Secondly, I never learned to scuba dive.

This diver at the National Aquarium in Baltimore is a celebrity and she knows it

These twin fixations of my dad's are probably attributable to the fact that he studied marine biology in college.    I, on the other hand, never felt too drawn to the aquatic world.  Drowning was one of my major phobias growing up.  I didn't learn to swim until an embarrassingly late age, and I'm still not very good at it.  I have a complete inability to open my eyes underwater, no matter what.  If there was a window for becoming a diver, I think I missed it.

Which is a pity, because diving is a phenomenal opportunity to explore a part of the world that, until a few decades ago, was completely off limits to humans.  Being unable to see beneath the surface of the water is like being in a library and being unable to open three-quarters of the books there.  Divers get to explore a world of underwater ecosystems, from coral reefs to kelp forests, that I'll only get to know from documentaries and aquarium displays.

You see some diving going on in zoos - mostly for maintaining the largest aquatic exhibits - but not too much, and many zoos have no use for it.  It's mostly used in enclosures that have fish sharing a habitat with other aquatic animals, such as hippos (many zoos with underwater viewing of hippos fill the tanks with cichlids and other fish to help keep the water clean). Obviously the pool can't be completely drained because of the fish, so staff have to dive to clean the pool.  Again, SCUBA diving in zoos is pretty rare, limited mostly to the bigger institutions.

In aquariums, however, diving is an essential part of animal care.  Staff are SCUBA certified and enter the larger tanks frequently for feeding, cleaning, or to monitor the health and well-being of the inhabitants.  Some even allow special visitors the chance to join the staff on dive sessions; Georgia Aquarium, for example, has a program to let visitors dive with their whale sharks in a 6.3 million gallon tank.  In many ways, divers are some of the biggest attractions at the aquariums.  Watch a diver appear in a tank, one at which no visitors were gathered previously, and then watch the crowds materialize.

Even those of us who can't dive can still get a chance to interactive with divers.  Among the most impressive educational additions at many aquariums are special communication systems that let aquarium divers talk with  their audience outside.  It's a great way to stir up interest about the aquatic world and help visitors make a personal connection with the institution, the staff, and the animals.

I volunteered briefly with an aquarium, taking care of a small section of marine creatures - moray eels, chambered nautilus, leopard sharks.  Moving along the catwalk behind the tanks, tossing in food and siphoning off waste, I never really felt a connection with the animals, nothing like the first time I went behind-the-scenes at a zoo with a giraffe or a tiger.  Instead, I felt like I did when I was in the public area, like there was a barrier between me and the animals still... and there was - the surface of the water.  The only animals in the section that I really did feel like I related to were the loggerhead turtles, who would put their heads above the surface for me to feed.

If I had been able to dive like the aquarists were able to - to put on a mask and flippers and tank and splash through the surface, it would have been much different.  I would have been able to enter a different world, where animals float overhead or drift around you, seemingly free from gravity.  As it was, I was just a spectator - but a spectator to something incredible.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Zoo History: Zarafa's Long Walk

"It's like God's.  God is really only another artist.  He invented the giraffe, the elephant, and the cat... He just goes on trying other things."

- Pablo Picasso

Most zoos have some individual animal with celebrity, rock-star status.  Maybe it's an animal that's lived at that particular zoo for an extremely long time, or a prolific mother, or maybe it's the one and only representative of that species in captivity, either in the country or the world.  In the early days of the modern zoo era (the early-and mid-1800's), many of the creatures that we think of as iconic zoo animals were just beginning to make regular appearances in the cities of Europe.  To the people seeing them for the first time, they must have seemed more like magical monsters than actual animals, and it's not surprising that some of these creatures became famous as individuals.  Jumbo, the London Zoo elephant who eventually traveled to America, was one such creature.  Zarafa was another.

The giraffe that would eventually become known as Zarafa (the name was not really used until years after her death) was probably born in the Sudan, not far from the Blue Nile.  It was near there, at any rate, that she was captured by a band of Arab hunters, put on the back of a camel, and transported first to Khartoum, then to Alexandria.  It wouldn't have been strange for her journey to have ended there in an Egyptian menagerie.  Fate however - and more specifically the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt, Mehmet Ali Pasha, had other plans.

Egypt was at the time part of the Ottoman Empire, which covered much of the Meditteranean world.  Included in that empire was Greece, which was currently struggling for its independence; supporting Greece or threatening to support her were various European powers, all eager to weaken the already fading Ottomans.  In an attempt to persuade the French to end their support of the Greek rebels, the Viceroy decided to send them a gift.  Centuries ago, the Portuguese tried to win the favor of the Pope by sending him a rhinoceros.  The Egyptians decided to send the French a giraffe.  They also sent one each to Britain and Austria.

After reaching Alexandria, Zarafa, accompanied by her Arab and Sudanese guardians and some milk cows, took a ship to Marseilles, in France.  The ship wasn't exactly outfitted for its unique cargo; in a fit of inspiration, a hole was cut in the deck to allow her to poke her neck out.  After a month at sea, the giraffe arrived in France on Halloween of 1826, and spent the winter in Marseilles.  The question, then, was how to get her to Paris, 900 kilometers away.

In the end, the decision was made to walk it.  Sea travel was deemed too dangerous, so on the 20th of May, 1827, the still young, still growing giraffe set out on foot.  Joining her mixed-Arab-and-bovine entourage was the French naturalist Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.  Concerned about the effects of the rain and cold on his charge, he ordered a yellow, two-part rain slicker, along with matching boots, for the giraffe.  As she began her march to the capital, she passed through Avignon, Orange, Montelimar, and Vienne.  For viritually every Frenchman and Frenchwoman she encountered, she was the first giraffe they'd seen, and the crowds turned out; 30,000 came to cheer her as she passed through Lyons.

Six weeks after beginning her March, Zarafa arrived in Paris, where she was presented to the King and deposited in the menagerie at the Jardin Des Plantes.  Over 100,000 people came to see her, and she set off a style for all things giraffe, from giraffe-colored clothing to towering giraffe hairstyles for ladies.  When she died about 18 years after her arrival in Paris (the British and Austrian giraffes survived for far shorter periods of time), her body was mounted; it can now be seen in the La Rochelle museum.

Even today, after millions of Americans and Europeans and Asians have seen giraffes, after several generations of giraffe captive-births, and after endless TV shows and nature documentaries, giraffes still retain their magic and their powers to dazzle us with their unique beauty.  How much more extraordinary would it be to see one for the first time ever, without even have ever suspected beforehand that such an incredible creature was found in this world.

Zarafa mounted at the museum of natural history in La Rochelle, France

Monday, June 29, 2015

Keys to the Kingdom

"I turn my head and you may go where you want,
I turn it again, you will stay 'til you rot.
I have no face, but I live or die by crooked teeth."

-Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere

I don't go to the doctor for a physical nearly as often as I should.  If I did, it would probably only be a matter of time before he asked me about the giant welt that always appears to be on the front of my right thigh.  Knowing what I do for a living, he'd probably assume that it's something work related... and he'd be right.  I wasn't kicked by a zebra, rammed by a goat, or otherwise hit by an animal (not there, at least).

Instead, that red spot is the exact location where, all day everyday, half-a-hundred keys slam up and down into my leg as a I walk.

Even by zookeeper standards, I have a ridiculous number of keys on my work key ring, and they seem to be breeding and multiplying, because it seems that there are more every week.  There are animal keys, and staff area keys, and gate keys, and public area keys, even a key to the paper towel and toilet paper dispensers in the bathrooms.  Through years of painstaking practice, I've managed to memorize the order and location and the subtle differences between the keys on the ring, until I can usually find the one I'm looking for on the first or second try.  I seriously have had nightmares where a tiger or bear is loose and coming right at me, and I'm standing at a door trying to fumble my way in to safety, but I can't find the right key.

The only thing more exasperating that figuring out which key to use is losing them.   You imagine that some insidious prankster is going to pick them up, somehow know what they go to (which would be impressive, since I rarely can remember) and then let the monkeys out for a gag.  When I stand up, the first thing I usually do is pat around my waistline looking for my keys and radio - even if it's my day off and I was at the movie theater or something.

Obviously this wouldn't happen if I was smart and returned the keys to my belt clip after every use, but I'm stupid and lazy, so I don't always do so.  Often, I leave them in the lock while I pop into an exhibit.  Unfortunately, my main animal key, that one that opens most of the exhibits, is so old, used by generations of keepers before me, that it's slightly worn down.  That means a) it doesn't open locks as well as it used to and b) if left in a lock, it tends to fall out.  Lots of time spent kicking around leaf litter or mud or snow looking for keys that have dropped out.

Once, I had to catch a big male kangaroo for an injection, leading to one of the more exasperating key lose adventures of my career.  The simplest way to do this was for me to grab the big guy's tail, slowing him down so that another keeper could grab his body, then the shot could be administered.  I did my part and grabbed the tail.  The second keeper didn't do hers.  Seconds later, I was inventing a new sport, kind of like water-skiing on dry land while holding on to a 'roo tail, only later it transitioned from skiing to being dragged across a yard that seemed to mostly consist of prickly plants and kangaroo droppings.  By the time I pulled my face out of the mud (I hoped it was mud, anyway), I noticed that my keys, which had up until a few minutes ago had been stabbing me in the leg over and over again as I was dragged around, were now gone - the belt loop had torn off.  It took a half hour of pacing the yard (under the smug, watchful gaze of the male kangaroo) before I found them.

Another annoying thing about keys is the noise that they make.  When walking around the zoo, I often find myself holding them tightly in one hand so they don't jangle.  It's especially useful of a trick when you're trying to creep up on animals, or visitors who are misbehaving.

Maybe the zoos of the future will be super high-tech, and all of the exhibits will be opened by retinal scans, or thumbprints (I hope not - I think I wore my fingerprints off years ago), or something like that.  Then maybe keys won't be needed.  Until then, I'll be slouching around the zoo, my right side pulled a little lower to the ground by the weight of a few pounds worth of keys.

I'll try not to jangle too much.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Star-Crossed Lovers

Willa: You couldn't understand, could you?
Vince: Yes, yes, yes! I think I do!  I don't turn you on anymore because you've got the hots for a gorilla!
Willa: It's not sexual...
Vince: He's clearly more attractive than I am, isn't he?

After several years of working with zoo animals, I've gotten used to the idea that every once in a while, I'm going to meet an animal that fixates on me, personally.  Sometimes it's one that hates my guts, sometimes it's one that wants to be best friends... and sometimes, there's an animal that wants to be more than friends ("I'm flattered, but sheesh, tone it down, this is a professional atmosphere...")

I've had a fair number of animal crushes - a cockatoo that wanted to snuggle constantly, and would viciously attack anyone - especially any female human - who was standing to close to her favorite boy-toy.  There's been a spider monkey, a crane, and an African crested porcupine, each who had a claim on me (I sometimes wonder what would happen if they all met suddenly - an epic fight?  Angry accusations of cheating?).  At any rate, it's hard to do your job when you've got a porcupine trying to make love to your left shoe.

Not that workplace "romances" can't be helpful - sometimes the pair bond between a keeper and an individual animal is so strong that the animal really does consider the keeper to be its mate, which can not only be useful in some breeding scenarios, but also is great for providing other keepers with comedic materials for years to come.

Evidence this fellow (Meet Walnut, the crane who fell in love with her zookeeper) at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.  TL;DR version: Walnut, an endangered white-naped crane, hates other cranes, but loves Chris, her keeper.  By going through courtship rituals and artificial insemination, Walnut's valuable genes have been passed on to the next captive generation.

walnut solicits chris
Walnut solicits Chris. (Warren Lynch/SCBI)

What I'd never heard of before was members of the public falling in (non-platonic) love with a zoo animal.  But, then this story from Japan made the rounds.

I'll be completely honest - I've seen lots of gorillas at lots of zoos and have no idea what makes this guy - rather than any of the others - so special.  If you're going to pick a gorilla to fantasize about, why not Durrell's Jambo, or Binti Jua at Brookfield Zoo - they at least have celebrity hero status as well as good looks.  Sorry girls, but from the way the zoo describes it, he's already spoken for... and I doubt any of you really want to take up the argument with any of the female gorillas.  Maybe watch King Kong a few times until the fantasy passes.

50 Shades of Silverback: Shabani, weighing around 180kg at the Higashiyama Zoo in Nagoya in Aichi prefecture, central Japan. The 18-year-old silverback with brooding good looks and rippling muscles is causing a stir at the Japanese zoo, with women flocking to check out the hunky pin-up.
Shabani, the 18-year old gorilla at the Higashiyama Zoo, gives the camera his "come-hither" stare.  Getty Images

Thursday, June 25, 2015

What Makes Work Meaningful? Ask a Zookeeper, by Livia Gershon

"The job of a zookeeper provides a sense of meaning in ways that many careers don't.  It's a chance to do something that matters on the enormous scale of species preservation and at the tiny level of a little monkey with a fading heartbeat, while learning new skills at all times."

Awesome article I found reinforcing something that I think most of us in the trade have long known - we have the best jobs of anyone, anywhere.  Apparently, there's some scientific backing to that opinion.  At the bottom of the article excerpt below, I've provided two links.  One leads to the rest of this article.  The second leads to the full text of an article that suggests that, more than any other modern career, zookeepers consider their careers to be a true calling/cause/mission.

zookeeper operating on a monkey

Dressed in a stained sweatshirt and serious workboots, brown hair swept up in a messy ponytail, Meghan Nemes carefully removes a cafeteria tray covered with vegetable scraps from the cage of an enormous tortoise named Rob. Then she scrubs the concrete floor, hoses it down, sweeps, and puts the food back.

“I already cleaned him once, but he decided to pee,” she says.

Nemes has a degree in zoology and nearly a decade of work experience. She estimates that she spends 90 percent of her day scrubbing, sweeping, mopping, and disposing of the feces of dozens of species of animals. Yet, when she talks about her work, she practically vibrates with excitement.

“I have always wanted to work with animals,” she says. “You have to be able to go with the flow. You have to expect the unexpected.”

Read the rest of the article here.

Also, check out The Call of the Wild: Zookeepers, Callings, and the Double-Edged Sword of Deeply Meaningful Work, by J. Stuart Bunderson and Jeffery A. Thompson.