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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Holiday Orphans

Happy Thanksgiving!  And good morning to those of you going to work today!

Zoo and aquarium work is 365 days a year (or at least the animal care aspect is... don't get me started on the office folks...).  Whether it's Thanksgiving, Christmas, or the day of your best friend's wedding, the animals still need to be cared for, and the keepers need to come to work (though hopefully if it is the day of the wedding, someone will at least cover for you).  No problem if you work near your home and family - just go in early, get the job done (most US zoos and aquariums are closed on Thanksgiving), pop home and shower, and then go to Thanksgiving dinner...

Less easy if you've had to move away for work, as many keepers do in order to break into the field.  Some spend the holidays alone and come home when they can.  Some have their families visit them.  And some make new families, celebrating with coworkers and friends in their new home.

Happy Thanksgiving to all of the holiday orphans, who are spending this day away from home.  Everyone who visits your facility appreciates the sacrifices you make to provide the animals with care, everyday!

PS:  Working the holidays isn't all bad!  Read Cat's insights on spending Thanksgiving as a marine mammal trainer here!

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

The Genius of Zookeeping

When making the rounds on Facebook today, I came across these photos, posted by the Alaska SeaLife Center.  They depict a wonderful new method that their keepers are using to monitor the feet of the puffins under their care.  Captive puffins need to be monitored frequently for signs of bumblefoot - infection of the feet - but capturing and handling birds for examinations can be stressful for them.  Hence this beauty - a glass box with a mirror at the bottom.  The birds step up on the box, and the soles of their feet are reflected in the mirror for keepers to observe, all without touching the birds...


Occasionally, I've met visitors who are surprised by the amount of schooling zookeepers and aquarists require.  After all, don't we just shovel poop and make diets?  It turns out, brains are even more important than brawn in the field.  Part of it is schooling and book-learning, knowing as much as possible about the animals themselves - their anatomy, their behavior, their natural history, their nutritional needs.  A big part of it, however, has to do with the fact that zookeepers and aquarists are confronted, on a daily basis, with problems that no one else on earth has to deal with... often on a shoestring budget and with limited support.

As is seen with the puffins at Alaska, a lot of keeper ingenuity goes towards dealing with the day-to-day issues of animal care.  Other times, it goes towards training and enrichment, which has led to tremendous advances in both of those fields in recent years.  Why chase an animal around and risk injury to it (and you) when you can train it to enter a shipping crate and, in the case of some species, close the door behind itself?    How can an animal's behavior be directed in new, positive directions?  When keepers at the Phoenix Zoo, years ago, were confronted with Ruby, an African elephant who hated... well... everyone, they were initially at a loss.  Then they noticed that Ruby seemed to enjoy doodling in the dirt with a stick.  They outfitted her with elephant-sized paints and canvases and voila!  An artist was born, and Ruby became a much happier, better-adjusted animal.

Ingenuity also comes in handy during animal introductions, when injuries and accidents are most common.  Two examples that I've encountered?

Photos from Alaska SeaLife Center's Facebook page

  • Two capybara are to be introduced, though both have displayed aggression towards each other during past introduction attempts.  The attempted solution?  Let each animal roll around in the fecal matter of the other, masking their scent.  Soon, they won't recognize each other.
  • Two groups of spider monkeys are to be introduced.  At the exact moment of introduction, zoo staff place, outside the enclosure, a serval in a crate.  The monkeys are all so agitated by the appearance of   a predator that they don't notice the newcomers and unite in screaming and swearing at the cat (who, I must note, didn't seem too interested one way or another in the proceedings).
Problem solving skills are vital during captures and relocations, when escape is a likely outcome of failure.  In Gathering of Animals, Jeff Bridges tells the story of how keepers at the Bronx Zoo tried and failed to capture Silver King, a notoriously foul-tempered polar bear.  Finally, they used living bait - a playful young walrus wiggling safely out of reach so excited the bear that he ran head-long into his capture crate.  I once used a similar ploy on a condor with an egg fixation, getting him to follow me down a hallway by dangling a rhea egg in front of him.  We could have netted him, breaking his flight feathers and getting me bitten badly, but instead he followed like a lamb.  The bite came later.

Zookeepers are perpetually forced to think outside of the box by the unique situations that their jobs produce.  Sure, there is lots of protocol and training and workshop meetings these days, and antics like running a walrus through your polar bear exhibit are no longer considered practical.  Still, animals are unpredictable and prone to unusual, unexpected behaviors.  We need keepers who can, when the occasion arises, act the same way.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

Sporcle Quiz: Animals Named After Animals

The alternate common name of the bowmouth guitarfish - the shark ray - is a reflection of the fact that it seems to have traits of both sharks and rays.  It seems that a lot of time, we name animals after other animals, likening them to something more familiar.  For example, the binturong is sometimes called "bear cat", even though it is not especially related to cats or bears.

These names often reflect a physical trait of the animal - Does it have horns?  Call it a "Rhinoceros ______".  Does it have stripes?  Call it a "Tiger _____."  There are lots of examples that I could think of for animals that are named after other animals.  Some of them are featured in this new Sporcle quiz.  Enjoy!

PS: Animals from Avatar: The Last Airbender not included...

Friday, November 21, 2014

Species Fact Profile: Shark Ray (Rhina ancylostoma)

Shark Ray (Bowmouth Guitarfish)

Rhina ancylostoma (Bloch & J.G. Schneider, 1801)

Range: Indian Ocean, Western Pacific ocean
Habitat: Shallow seas with sandy or muddy bottoms, Coral Reefs, Mangroves
Diet: Crustaceans, Mollusks
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Fertilized eggs are retained within the female's body, usually 4-5 pups (range 2-11) are born live when they are expelled from the female's uterus, offspring are independent immediately after birth; females are sexually mature at 1.5-1.8 meters, males at 1.8 meters
Lifespan: 7 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable

  • Shark rays can grow to 2.9 meters in length and weigh up to 135 kilograms; females often grow larger than males
  • Named for their supposed intermediary appearance between sharks and rays, shark rays are a cartilaginous fish with broad, blunt heads, large flat pectoral fins, two dorsal fins (the front larger than the back), and a relatively slender tail
  • Coloration changes with age; the young are brown with pale spots and black bars, whereas adults are grey with small white spots and no bars; all ages are pale on their underside
  • The eyes of a shark ray are found on top of the head, and prey is largely found by smell; prey animals are pinned to the sea floor with the large head and eased into the moth, which is full of large flat teeth
  • Known to be preyed upon by tiger sharks; the thorn-like protrusions on the head and back of the shark ray are possible defenses against predators
  • While not considered an especially desirable food fish, shark rays are caught as bycatch by commercial fisheries.  They are also sought for their very large pectoral fins, used to make "shark fin soup", a delicacy in traditional Chinese culture.  Dynamite fishing and loss of coral reefs are also contributing the the decline of the species
  • Rarely displayed in captivity, and only very recently in the Americas; the first captive breeding of this species took place at the Newport Aquarium in 2014, though none of the pups survived

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Book Review: Gathering of Animals

By the time William Bridges joined the staff of the New York Zoological Society, often known as "the Bronx Zoo", in 1935, the zoo had already been open to the public for 37 years. Long enough for the park to become established and mature, young enough that many of the society's early luminaries - Raymond Ditmars, William Beebe, Lee Crandall - were still active.  This makes him wonderfully well-suited to write the biography of the institution.  In Gathering of Animals: An Unconventional History of the New York Zoological Society, Bridges, the Society's Curator of Publications, details the first seventy-five years of the history of one of the most extraordinary zoos on earth.

Bridges' story starts with New York in the late 1800's, home to a series of small, decrepit menageries, but lacking a true, scientific zoological park, as Philadelphia and Washington, DC could boast.  This changed when a series of the city's elite joined together to form a zoo.  A site was found in Bronx Park, and a leader was found in the famous conservationist William T. Hornaday, the taxidermist who had largely been responsible for the establishment of the Smithsonian's National Zoo.  A large part of the motivation for creating the zoo, for the Board of Directors as well as Hornaday, was to save North America's most iconic land mammal - the American bison.

The early years of the modern zoo were full of toil, trial, and tribulation, and Bridges details all of these in great detail.  There are sagas of births, deaths, escapes, and the challenges of trying to take care of a collection of animals that no one on earth (except for a tiny handful of other zoos of the age) had every tried to care for before.   Almost every anecdote is usually spiced with the querelous commentary of Hornaday, a prolific letter-writer with an opinion on everything.Some are amusing, like using a walrus pup to assist in moving an ornery polar bear.  Others are disastrous, such as the pestilence that wiped out the zoo's ape collection.  Some seem wrong, like the methods used to "discipline" recalcitrant elephants.  And some, such as the saga of Ota Benga, just seem bizarre.   True, while many of these challenges can seem exasperating and bone-headed to the modern zoo professional, but it's important to remember that hindsight is 20/20, and much of what we now accept as basic knowledge of exotic animal husbandry was learned, trial and error, at institutions like the Bronx.

Portions of the book, scattered about, are devoted to the zoo's sister institution, the New York Aquarium.  These are especially interesting, as the public aquarium was a far newer institution than the zoo, with a far steeper learning curve.  It would have been fascinating to have had more details about the aquarium's history.  Had Bridges written his book later on, he would have seen the history of the Zoological Society expanded to include the annexation, renovation, and rebirth, of three other New York City zoos - Prospect Park, Queens, and Central Park (the history of the later described in some depth in Peter Brazitis' You Belong In a Zoo!).  In many ways, the most frustrating part of Bridges' story is that it ends too soon... like writing the biography of a person, but ending at age thirty, right when they have achieved some stability in life but are still in their prime.  So much as happened to the Society in recent years, not least of all the reinvention of itself as the Wildlife Conservation Society, with active field work, research, and conservation projects across the globe, a future which is only hinted at towards the end of Bridges' book.

I've worked for several zoos thus far in my career, some of which have been fairly young (as in, founded within my lifetime).  I've always wondered what it would be like to work at a facility that was older than my great-grandparents... and Institution (capitalized, you'll note), with a History (also capitalized).  William Bridges wrote a fine history of the New York Zoological Society.  Somebody else needs to write a sequel about the next seventy-five years...

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

An Oryx Sequel

One of the earliest triumphs of modern zoo biology has been the rescue of the Arabian oryx.  From the tiny nucleus of nine animals that formed the world herd at the Phoenix Zoo*, sufficient animals were bred in captivity to allow the reestablishment of wild populations throughout the Middle East.

History is being repeated... only this time, with the even more endangered scimitar-horned oryx.  While reasonably common in zoos, game parks, and private collections around the world, the scimitar-horned oryx has been driven to extinction in its native North Africa by hunting, competition for resources, and desertification.  Zoo professionals and biologists from four continents have collaborated to send 100 captive-bred oryx back to Chad, where they will form the first attempt to reintroduce this beautiful desert-dweller back into the wild.  If successful, these will be the first wild members of their species in 15 years.

The best of luck to those animals which are given the chance to reclaim the homeland of their species... and congratulations to all those involved who have worked tirelessly to make this possible.  Amid the doom and gloom that so often characterizes conservation efforts today, it's always wonderful and inspiring when we see a species take one step back from the edge of extinction.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Zoo History: Cheetah Coursing

“Shaitan was a good-looking young cheetah with a very affectionate way about him: indeed, he was more like a great dog than a cat.  When we was still he looked a gawky beast, but potentially beautiful; it was only when he got into action that one realised his surpassing perfection: all his clumsiness disappeared: his legs, which, when he was still, seemed too long for his slender body, were hardly visible when he was at the height of his speed.  During the brief space of his utmost endeavour, there was nothing of four legs that Shaitan could not catch.”
~ Patrick O’Brian, Hussein: an Entertainment 

Hunting, for sustenance or for sport, is perhaps the oldest category of human-animal interactions.  It predates every human society and has been known in virtually all cultures and in all classes.  Whereas peasants often hunted on a small scale, setting snares and taking a little meat for their table whenever they could, the most powerful and prestigious members of society often organized elaborate, massive hunts in search of big game.  Hunting came to signify more than a means of acquiring protein for one’s family; it became an exhibition of man’s dominion over the natural world.  Man eventually began to further this dominion when he domesticated the first animal – the wolf – and incorporated it into the hunt as his new partner, the domestic dog.  Over the centuries, he came to make use of several other animals as hunting partners, including falcons, hawks, and ferrets.  Of all these hunting partners, the most valuable, the most prized, and the most surprising was the cheetah.
It is uncertain as to exactly when and where the practice of cheetah coursing (the name given to the use of trained cheetahs for the hunt) began; what is certain is that humans have been taming the spotted, speedy cats for thousands of years. Unlike dogs or cats, cheetahs underwent no physiological change as a result of being kept in captivity (virtually all coursing cheetahs were wild caught), so historical records and artistic representations are all that scholars have to pinpoint the origin of coursing. 
Images of a collared individual, apparently being brought as tribute to the pharaoh, appear on an Egyptian tomb from 1450 BC, while in the Caucasus, a silver vase found in a burial mound dating back to 2300 BC depicts collared cheetahs.  The Egyptians were famous for their penchant for keeping and taming wild animals, having experimented with the domestication of gazelles, hyenas, and other wild animals, so there is some basis to the theory that Egypt was the point of origin for cheetah coursing.  Some authorities believe that it arose in Arabia, where cheetah coursing and falconry were considered essential methods of capturing prey in the desert. Other scholars believe that cheetah coursing has its origins in Persia and that the Arabs only became familiar with it after their conquests took them into modern-day Iran.  There are records in Persian royal poetry of kings hunting with cheetahs as early as 400 AD; it is known that the sport was clearly established in Persia by 650 AD.  Seventh century tomb murals in China depict hunting with both cheetahs and caracals; the sport was later taken up by the Mongol conquerors. At any rate, the geographic locale most often associated with cheetah coursing is India.  
Most people, including several naturalists and other wildlife experts, consider the cheetah an exclusively African species, and it is true that the speedy cats are now found almost solely on the African continent.  Within historic times, however, there was also an Asiatic population, extending through Persia and India.  Today, all that is left of Asia’s cheetahs is a remnant population of 60-70 individuals dozens in Iran, compared to the thousands left in Africa.  This small population continues to suffer from habitat loss, depleted prey base, and persecution, and it remains uncertain as to how much longer it will survive.
Coursing cheetahs were also present in Europe, though not to the degree that they were in Asia.  The first animals began arriving in the thirteenth century in the courts of Europe, from Russia to England.  Virtually every noble household in Renaissance Italy and France had its own coursing cheetahs, while the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II, an accomplished and expert falconer, had cheetahs marching in his wedding parade.  Charlemagne, William the Conquerer are other famous monarchs known to have practiced the sport.  Paintings and drawings of trained cheetahs, often depicted as collared and riding behind their masters on horseback, were produced throughout the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.  “A cheetah trained for the hunt,” along with an Indian elephant and the customary gold and jewels, was among the gifts sent to Leo X to celebrate his coronation as Pope.  In 1764, a full 12 years before the cheetah was first formally described by western science, England’s Duke of Cumberland imported two “tigers” (based on paintings and descriptions, they were certainly cheetahs) from India for coursing, an event that was memorialized in George Stubbs’ painting A Cheetah with Two Indians.  Three cheetahs (and their six keepers) were gifted to the English King George III by the Tippoo Sultan in 1799.  Though popular and exotic, cheetahs were never considered to be an especially important component of the royal hunt in Europe, and were regarded more as curiosities and status symbols than hunting partners.

This demand for cheetahs became a large drain on the wild population.  So many animals were captured and removed from the gene pool (virtually none of whom would ever mate again) that it doubtlessly had an effect on the wild population.  The hunters, then, were removing adult cheetahs from the wild before they were capable of breeding, preventing cubs from being born in the wild and thereby replenishing the population.  Trapping was indiscriminate, with no regard for age and sex; the use of pits, however, trapping animals prior to the breeding season, suggests that animals that were in their reproductive prime were most likely to be caught.   The removal of females from the wild was doubtlessly also detrimental to the population.  Later during the year, after cubs were born, females would range for food, returning after a hunt to their dens in order to nurse their cubs.  If a female was trapped while out hunting one day, she would never return to her den and her cubs would starve.  If cubs were found by humans, they were often abandoned, being seen of little value for hunting; it seems unlikely that many (if any) of these cubs, deprived of their mothers’ care, were able to survive to adulthood
Many cheetahs were also removed from the wild to provide diplomatic gifts – several were exported to China, Mongolia, and even Western Europe, either for use in coursing (as was the case with the Duke of Cumberland) or for exhibition in royal menageries.  The trapping of India’s cheetahs remained at high levels into the twentieth century until there were none left.
By the end of the nineteenth century, the scarcity of Asiatic cheetahs was making itself felt in the courts of the Indian nobility.  Eventually, the remaining practitioners of the sport of coursing began to import cheetahs from Africa.  The importation of African animals was not only a sign of the drastic decline of the species in Asia, it also led to the belief – firmly entrenched in some naturalists – that the cheetah was never, in fact, native to Asia, and that all cheetahs used over the last several centuries had been imported from Africa. 
In modern times, someone will occasionally bring up the idea of reintroducing cheetahs back to India, using individuals from the Iranian population; similar plans have been proposed for using some of India’s few remaining Asian lions to reestablish a population in Iran.  No definitive plans have been announced, and considering the geopolitical tension that has surrounded Iran for the last several decades, it seems unlikely that any will be coming in the near future.  As for cheetah coursing, it seems, like the Asiatic cheetah itself, to have largely gone extinct.