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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Book Review: Tibet Wild: A Naturalist's Journeys to the Roof of the World

"Bears, snow leopards, and I like the jumble of limestone which covers some slopes and ridges, a place of strangeness and beauty.  The gray and faintly pink rocks are worn smooth by the elements into congealed shapes of gargoyles and goblins.  When I walk among these pinnacles, domes, and cliffs, it's like being in a strange and silent city, caves in the rocks like dark windows and doors leading into an alternate world."

Before there was Jane Goodall, and before there was Dian Fossey, there was (and still is) George B. Schaller.  Perhaps the world's most renown field biologist, Schaller has spent decades in the field around the world, providing science with its first, most intimate glimpses into the hidden lives of some of the world's most charismatic mammals.  He has been the friend and patron of many of today's leading field biologists, such as Alan Rabinowitz (and he maintains an active role in Rabinowitz's NGO Panthera).  He has studied the mountain gorillas of the Congo, the lions of the Serengeti, and the giant pandas of Sichuan. He was the first westerner to ever see a live snow leopard in the wild.

The snow leopard is one of the stars of Tibet Wild: A Naturalist's Journeys to the Roof of the World, a reminiscence of Schaller's years of involvement in the conservation of wildlife in Central Asia's Tibetan Plateau.  One of the highest, coldest, driest places on earth, the plateau nonetheless supports an amazing variety of wildlife.  Herds of yaks, gazelle, deer, wild sheep, and wild asses are preyed upon by wolves and snow leopards.  Tibetan brown bears forage through the mountains and meadows.  Pikas churn the soil like the prairie dogs of the New World.  An endless variety of birds, from snow buntings to massive vultures, soar across the skies.

It's hard to imagine a more desolate place outside of the polar regions, but there are people here too, and they make up a major part of Schaller's experience.  For generation, the plains have been roamed by nomadic herds, driving their sheep, goats, and yaks across the plateau in search of grazing.  Today, like people all over the world, they find themselves increasingly torn between what life used to be and what they want it to be in the future.  Communities are settling down, building roads, and incorporating more technology into their daily lives.  Immigrants are moving in, attracted by gold mines or by the prospect of hunting (more on that in a moment).  As the human communities change, the wildlife feels the pinch.  Pikas are blamed unjustly for depleted soil conditions caused by overgrazing and are poisoned in mass.  Human-bear conflicts increase, leading to more and more dangerous encounters.  Grazers crash into fences meant to confine once-migratory livestock herds.  In many of the villages that Schaller visits, only the elders remember the presence of some species.

The snow leopard may be the most glamorous of the species Schaller encounters, but the star of the book is perhaps the species least known outside of the Tibet - the chiru, or Tibetan antelope, which graces the cover of the book.  Rivalling the oryx and the rhinoceros as a possible source of the legend of the unicorn, the chiru is the source of some of the finest fleece in the world - Schaller describes how an entire shawl can be pulled through a wedding ring.  Recently, the species has come to the attention of the world's fashion markets, and the resultant slaughter has been dreadful (made worse, in part, by an insistent by incorrect belief that the fleece is shed naturally and that no animals are harmed in the production of the shawls).

Schaller is a naturalist of the old-school... and I mean that he can sometimes come across as a misanthropic crank.  His writing gives the impression of a man who is happiest out in the wild; in fact, he says the happiest his family has ever been was when he, his wife, and their two boys lived out on the Serengeti.  Schaller acknowledges readily that conservation must work for local people to make it work at all - he pens several little fables about pikas to teach Tibetan children in order to broaden community support for the little critters.  Still, he seems irritably dismissive of ecotourism.  For a man who's drawn a paycheck from the Bronx Zoo for years, he has a dim view of captive breeding in most cases.  And he seems to view the current genetics-driven craze of conservation biology with somewhat sardonic amusement. 

Still, no one has done more to open up the world of animals to science than Schaller... even if we get the impression that he'd rather ignore the whole hullabaloo, shoulder a pack, and head over to the next mountain range.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Zoo Joke: The Thrift Shop

The budget was always tight at the City Zoo, but there was always one perk to look forward to.  Every December, the zoo administration doled out a small sum to each department of the zoo, to be spent however that department saw fit.  It wasn't a huge amount, but it was enough to pick up whatever odds-and-ends the keepers felt that their section needed.

When the hoofstock department got their year-end reward, the head keeper summoned the newest member of his staff to his office in the giraffe barn.  "I want you to take the money and go down to the thrift store on Elm Street.  Buy us some duct tape, some zip ties, two new scrub brushes, and some coffee filters."  At that moment, a fat fly - one of the hundreds that always filled the barn, attracted to the giraffes' manure - landed at the edge of the head keepers desk.  With lightning speed, the head keeper smashed it into jelly with a tattered old flyswatter. 

"Oh, will you look at that," muttered the head keeper, looking at the stained, tattered swatter, coated with years' worth of fly guts.  "You better get a new flyswatter while you're out, too."

At the end of the day, the head keeper was at his desk, looking through some reports, when the new keeper entered.  He held out a mug of coffee to his boss, who took it eagerly.  They chatted briefly about the ins and outs of the day, what animals were doing what and so on.  Finally, the keeper pulled a receipt from his pocket and put it on the desk.

"Well, I got the zip ties and the duct tape, and I got the scrub brushes and the flyswatter, but I couldn't find any coffee filters.  Sorry about that."

"Oh?  How'd you filter this coffee, then?" the head keeper asked, taking a sip.  "I thought we ran out of filters a few days ago."

"Oh, easy.  I just used the flyswatter."

"You... what?"

"Oh, don't worry boss.  I know what you're worried about and no, I didn't get your new flyswatter dirty by mixing coffee with it.  I just used the old one instead."

Thursday, December 1, 2016

'Tis the Season of Gimme! GImme! Gimme!

The day after Thanksgiving is generally known as Black Friday, and it hallmarks the start of the Christmas shopping season (officially, anyway - it seems to be creeping up earlier every year).  To counter the big-chain superstores, the day after has become known as "Small Business Saturday", and - Sunday being for rest, of course - the next week kicks off with "Cyber Monday."

In the remote chance that you have any money left in your bank account after that, you are then urged to take a more charitable turn of mind and celebrate "Giving Tuesday."

It's no surprise that zoos and aquariums are all over Giving Tuesday.  Money is needed for renovations, for capital improvements, for new exhibits and the staff support them, and, oh yeah, just to keep open.  Even the smallest of facilities generally has at least one staff member who has the full time job of making the rounds with an empty sack and a meaningful look in their eye, trying to scare up some donations.  The bigger facilities may have an entire department.

It's not so stressful if you're one of the free zoos (few as they are) - it can be a little frustrating if you charge admission, as people feel like they've already given enough... though there was one free zoo where I worked where I was confronted by an angry guest who said that he felt uncomfortable having to walk by the donation box at the entrance.  Could we please put it someplace more discreet so he didn't feel guilted whenever he brought his kids?

I myself, being a zookeeper, am perpetually short of funds, which makes the holiday season one of stress as well as festivity, though I'm sure many people feel the same way, no matter how much they make.  Still, I'm a sucker for a zoo, and have been known to ruefully bid a few dollars goodbye at this time of year (or when the AZA's Conservation Endowment Fund comes knocking each year).  Fortunately, there is a very meaningful way that you can support your local zoo or aquarium without spending much in the way of money or time. 

Not all donations have to be money.

When money goes to a zoo or aquarium, it may get channeled into several funds.  It may go into the operating budget, which keeps the zoo going.  It may go to a specific animal, or a conservation program, or towards the endowment of a specific position.  The easiest way to raise funds is to do so in the name of a new exhibit, especially for a high profile animal - everyone loves to put up money for physical improvements to the zoo that they will enjoy for years to come.  Where money often has a hard time making its way?  To the very necessary, not-very-sexy expenses that make the zoo run on the keeper level. 

Many of these items are relatively cheap (compared to, say, a new polar bear exhibit) but are super essential to the staff.   You know what I want for Christmas, for the zoo?  A microwave that I can use without fear of it exploding.  Some kid-safe paint to make animal artwork with.  Some non-holey pillow cases for snakes.  Towels!  Garden clippers - my current pair is too dull to cut butter, let along a particularly obnoxious vine.  Last year, I was the rock star of the zoo when I brought in a dog kennel that I found in my parent's basement on a visit home, one that their dog had outgrown years ago.  That kennel has since crossed the country back and forth several times on animal shipments.

So as you are cleaning out your garage or closet this year, making room for the new stuff you plan to acquire for the holiday season, consider regifting some things to your local zoo or aquarium.  It's not going to earn you a giant tax write-off, but we'll really appreciate it.  I promise.

Of course, you can still us money if you want to.  I promise we won't so no to that, either.

Or baked goods.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Aquarium Update

Just a quick update to follow up on yesterday's post.  Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies is safe!  Aquarists were able to regain access to the facility and the animals are all safe and well.  The facility is closed to the public at this time... not that I think Gatlinburg is about to be swarmed by tourists for a little while.

In unrelated news, Bei Bei, the giant panda cub at the Smithsonian National Zoo, is recovering nicely after life-saving surgery was necessary to remove a near-fatal blockage of bamboo in his intestines.

All in all, a lot for the zoo and aquarium community to be thankful for as November winds up.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Gatlinburg Aquarium in the Path of Wildfire

Natural disasters pose some of the greatest threats to captive animal collections and those who care for them.  In some cases, there are steps that caretakers can take to reduce the risk to the animals.  During the recent hurricane, for example, many of the Florida zoos bustled their animals into secure shelters, while staff bunked down next to them to provide care during the storm.

That's an option that exists with zoo animals.  It's a heck of a lot harder with aquariums.

Currently, Tennessee if being threatened with a series of wildfires.  Thankfully no human life has been lost so far, but the damage has been extensive, and it isn't over yet.  Among the structures in the path of the flames is Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Aquarium animals can't be evacuated with the ease of zoo animals (to the extent that moving zoo animals is easy).  They are reliant upon their life support systems, and it's not like you can plop a fish in a bucket of water and rush it away to safety.  That and the fact that there are lots of fish...

The staff at the aquarium have been force-evacuated to get them out of harm's way.  The aquarium is outfitted with remote monitoring, allowing staff to ascertain that, as of now, anyway, the building is okay and that power is working - which means that pumps and filters are working.  Rain is reported for the area, so hopefully the fires will be contained and extinguished soon.

Until then, best wishes and thoughts to the Aquarium of the Smokies.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Zoo Joke: The Red Sweater

A keeper is on his first week of the job, still diligently shadowing his new curator, when the call goes over the radio.  A nasty tom turkey is chasing children around the petting barn.  The curator sighs and glances over at the new keeper.  "Do me a favor, will you?  Run into my office - there's a red sweater hanging on a hook by the door.  Would you grab it for me?"

The keeper nods and runs to the curator's office.  He sprints back with the sweater and hands it to the curator, who immediately puts it on.  The curator then proceeds to calmly stroll up to the turkey, grabs it, tucks it under one arm, and carries it off to a holding pen.

A few days later, the new keeper is still working alongside the curator, when the radio sends out another call.  "A child has fallen into the alligator exhibit!"  The curator immediately responds, "I'm on my way!" then tells the new keeper to grab his red sweater and meet him over a the alligator exhibit.  The newbie sprints and makes it to the exhibit just as the curator does.  He passes the sweater to the curator, who pulls it on in a hurry, then jumps into the alligator exhibit.  Carefully sidestepping the alligators, he grabs the frightened child and hurries him to safety.

The next day, the new keeper asks his curator, "What's the red sweater for?"  The curator replies, "I put it on whenever there is a dangerous job to do and I think I might bleed.  That way, visitors don't see me injured and panic."

Well, a few weeks of peace and quiet go by.  By chance, the next time an emergency goes out over the radio, the newbie is standing next to the curator.

"A bulldozer just plowed through an entire section of fencing!" screams the voice on the radio.  Three lions, two tigers, a polar bear, and a cassowary are on the loose!"

The curator nods grimly, then turns to some other keepers who are standing nearby.  "Johnson, go get the gun team ready.  Pat, make up some tranquilizer darts .  Murphy, start getting visitors to safety."  He then turns to the newbie.

"I know, I know, get the red sweater..."

"Well, yeah.  Also, right next to it, there should be a pair of brown trousers..."