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Friday, August 29, 2014

Protect and Serve

I've spent about half of my life working with wild animals of every sort, but I'll always have a soft spot for dogs.  I'm not referring to "dogs" as in members of the Candiae - wolves, foxes, etc - but rather... dogs.  The pet ones.  I had dogs for much of my childhood, and my parents still have one, who I like to pamper and fuss over on those infrequent occasions when I actually visit home.  When I finally achieve some stability in life, I hope to have dogs of my own.  I had a lot of fun with dogs growing up, whether playing in the yard, going for walks, or just plopping down on the couch together, watching a movie.

One thing I never did with my dogs, however, was take them to the zoo.  They weren't allowed in, and with good reason.

I can usually tell when a dog has snuck into zoo grounds.  The animals are quick to let us know.  It may start off with the indignant screaming of llamas, the whooping of primates, or the cries of cranes - every animal starts to make noise.  Usually, lots of it.  This is especially true when a stray dog or one that's slipped its leash comes tearing through the zoo, running wild and panicking every animal it encounters.  Some, like the birds, are terrified.  Others, like the large carnivores, seem to be saying, "Bring it on!"

There is only one situation in which dogs are generally welcome on zoo grounds, and that is if they are service animals.  Now... what does that even mean?

A service animal is a dog (infrequently a miniature horse, but that need not distract us) trained to assist a person with an ADA recognized disability.  It could be a seeing-eye dog for the visually impaired, for instance, or a dog trained to recognize the onset of a seizure.  These dogs are all business - usually wearing a vest or some other identifier, calm and collected, more professional that most people I know.  These dogs seldom cause a fuss among the animals; when they do, they tend not to add fuel to the fire by barking or running or pulling at the leash, like a usual dog would do when confronted with, say, a full-grown grizzly.

Service dogs can't go anywhere in a zoo that people can go - they can't enter enclosures with animals, such as a kangaroo walk-through or an aviary.  On a recent visit to Jacksonville Zoo, I was in one of the aviaries when a service dog walked in (against zoo rules).  The panic it caused was extraordinary - within seconds, the air was filled with ducks, ibises, and man-sized storks, all raining feces down in a smelly, terror-fueled rain.  Not a good experience for anyone... especially those who got hit.

Such occasional incidents aside, service dogs in a zoo usually work fine.  Their handlers just need to accept some basic rules of courtesy.  For example, if your dog is causing some animals to panic, please just keep moving.  What really irritates me, though, are the recent headaches of fake service animals.  These are dogs that do NOT assist people with ADA disabilities, but are just... pets.  Oh, some are called therapy dogs and are used to comfort people with emotional problems, which is great, but they are not service dogs and are not trained as such.  The line for what makes a dog a therapy dog is a blurry one, and it would be easy to end up with the zoo being opened up to every dog that came in.

This would be bad for the animals, as we've seen (and God help us if a dog jumps into an enclosure, a problem I've had to deal with before).  It's bad for the zoo - imagine the liability if a person gets bitten by another visitors' dog.  It's also not great for the dogs themselves - I'm sure some of the smells (especially the more scatological ones) would be fascinating for the dogs, but imagine the stress and terror that a small dog is going to feel when it sees a tiger staring at it, licking its lips!  If people have a dog in the zoo and say it's a service animal, I'll take them at their word... but watch them.  If they can't control their animal, or it causes problems, it's time for them to leave.

The only thing worse, I fear, that people smuggling dogs into the zoo in their purses, as I've seen, is leaving them locked in their cars while they visit the zoo, especially on a hot summer day.  It would be great if zoos could have kennels to accommodate pets while they visited the facility, but I'd worry about liability, let alone the possibility of abandonment.

If in doubt as to whether or not your dog is appropriate for a visit to the zoo, call ahead and ask.  If the zoo says "yes", try to follow their rules and show courtesy to their animals.  If they say "no", it means "no."  Zoos and aquariums are full of wonderful animals.  You don't need to bring your own.

PS: As for the ever-popular service monkeys... just a bad idea.  Between the prospect of disease transmission, escape and interaction with zoo animals, or the likelihood of other visitors trying to touch it and getting bitten, it's a nightmare

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Movie Review: Zebra in the Kitchen

When a young country boy named Chris finds out that his family is moving to the big city, he's faced with the conundrum of what to do with his beloved pet - a mountain lion named "Sunshine."  He's told to release the cat back into the wild... only to secretly sneak it into the moving van to his family's new home.  Now stuck in the city with a full-grown mountain lion on their hands, Chris and his family do the only thing they can - turn the cat over the ramshackle, decrepit city zoo.

Zebra in the Kitchen was one of my favorite movies growing up.  I almost dread watching it these days because it's so terrifically cheesy - with partying chimpanzees and bike-riding bears - that I'm afraid it'll spoil childhood memories.  Still, when I was eight or so I thought it was the best movie ever, and why wouldn't I? By that age I was already determined to be a zookeeper when I grew up (I've since become a zookeeper of course, still working on the growing up part), and this was the first movie I'd ever seen about zookeepers.

Generally, the zookeepers in the movie come off in a positive light.  Sure, their zoo is an absolute dump, but that's not their fault - the villains in the movie (and often in real life) are the penny-pinching politicians.  Apart from Chris (and Sunshine), the protagonists are the zoo staff who want desperately to help give their animals better lives.  With Sunshine miserable and unhappy in his new caged home, they invite Chris to come and help volunteer at the zoo.  What Chris does with this position of trust is spring his wild cat buddy out of jail... and let every other animal in the zoo loose as well.

As one would expect in a movie (and a kid's movie, too boot), comic relief ensues.  Animals roam around causing all sorts of trouble, but no one gets hurt.  Eventually everyone winds up back in the zoo (including Sunshine), while the townspeople, moved by the animals, work together to transform the zoo into a great new home for all the animals.  Everyone lives happily ever after, especially Chris, who grows up to become a zookeeper, taking care of Sunshine everyday.

It's such a sweet ending that I can almost forget my one major qualm with the movie.  The filmmakers missed out on the chance to teach one major lesson in this movie - wild animals like mountain lions don't make good pets.  The relationship between Chris and Sunshine is glamorized so much that I bet that, if walking out of the theater, a young boy came across an orphaned wild animal, he'd jump at the chance to take it home.  I know, I know, it's a kids movie, not meant for heavy lessons... but some lessons are best learned early.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Satire: SeaWorld announces shift from orcas to sharks

I want to open this one up with a simple reminder... this one is SATIRE.  The reason I feel the need to emphasis this is that an amazing number of people who read this when it first came out insisted that it was real, which only led to further SeaWorld bashing.

I've had this sitting on my computer desktop for a while, but was waiting for the right time to share it (as in: when I didn't have anything else to post).  That being said, with "Shark Week" this month and the recent announcement from SeaWorld about their planned renovation and expansion of their orca habitats, I thought now was as good a time as any other.  Enjoy!

On March 7, California State Assemblyman Richard Bloom introduced the Orca Safety and Welfare Act. If passed, the bill would outlaw the use of orcas for "entertainment" or "performance purposes." Bloom told the press that the measure was inspired by the documentary Blackfish, which criticized SeaWorld for keeping orcas in captivity, and even suggested that the practice could turn so-called "regular killer whales" into "people-killer whales."

In the months following the release of Blackfish, SeaWorld fought hard in the press to counter the charges brought by the film. But once Bloom introduced his bill, the aquatic theme park decided to take a different tack. Today, in a stunning turn of events, SeaWorld announced that it would be replacing its orcas with great white sharks in all its shows. Even famed company mascot Shamu was replaced — by a shark named Chum.

Read the rest of the article here

Sunday, August 24, 2014

From the News: Seneca Park Zoo recycle roadkill

Big cats and other large carnivores are some of the most difficult animals to enrich in a zoo setting, mainly because one of the most important parts of their life - killing other large animals - is not permissible in zoos in (many) countries.  That being said, predation doesn't end with the kill, and there is a world of difference between eating a bowl of ground meat and tearing through a hundred pound carcass, ripping skin and breaking bones, possibly dragging the whole thing hundreds of yards to a private spot to feed.  

I've seen an adult tiger tackle a deer carcass before, and it's horrifying and amazing.  He picked up the carcass - a big adult buck - by the throat and slung it around like a rag doll.  When the other keepers and I would approach too close to the fence, he would throw a protective paw over it and roar at us from a blood-stained mouth, warning us to keep back from his prize (never mind that we were the ones who gave it to him in the first place).  It kept him busy for a week, until even the biggest of bones was gone.  

Congratulations to Seneca Park Zoo (and they're not the only ones!) for taking steps to boost the quality of care for their apex predators.  And "boo" to the whiny nay-sayers quoted in this article... even PETA agrees that this is a good idea, for Pete's sake.

Lioness Amali feeds earlier this month at Seneca Park Zoo. The idea of feeding roadkill to zoo carnivores evolved into an organized food program. The zoo won’t accept deer that have been dead for more than 10 hours. (Photo: NEETI UPADHYE/@neetiu_dandc/ , STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Talk is Cheap

"An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

This one isn't strictly zoo-related, but it describes a pet-peeve I've been dealing with a lot at work lately, and one which is seen pretty commonly in every work environment, not to mention personal lives.

Among my many major personality problems, the one that frequently causes me the most trouble is this:

My mouth is three or four times faster than my brain.  And once it gets going, there's no stopping it.

As a result, at the end of every staff meeting at work, I have to sit down in a quiet, isolated place and remind myself: what did I just tell everyone at work that I was going to do?  Usually, the end result is a long list.

There are lots of idea people out there.  People who can go to work and see what needs to be done, or what should be done, or what could be done, to make their facility better.  I generally think of myself as one of these - when I walk around the zoo, I'm forming a constantly-growing project list at the back of my mind.  The problem is it tends to stay there.  Idea people are a dime a dozen.  What really matters is actually doing what you tell yourself needs to get done.

The challenge that I've come up with lately has been making the transition from a thinker to thinker AND doer (there are plenty of "doers" out there in the sense that they come in to work, do what they are supposed to and nothing more, and lack all capacity for creative thought).  Making paper lists helps; it helps me keep track of what I'm promising, and keeps me from adding additional things to the list until I've started knocking some of the older items off the list.

Getting stuff done is good for the animals - everyone knows that training, enrichment, improvements to exhibits, etc, are all important to the well-being of animals.  Knowing that doesn't do any good.  It actually needs to be done for it to make a difference.  It also is good for your career.  It differentiates the people who just talk a good game from the people who will follow through and make good on it.

I recently met a curator from another zoo who told me that whenever one of his keepers came to him wanting something - a new piece of equipment, a fancy enrichment item, permission to engage in a new training program, tuition to a class, whatever - he would always say "yes"... the first time.  If, six months later, that fancy new equipment or enrichment item was still in the box it was shipped in, or the manual from that professional development class is collecting dust on a shelf somewhere, with no new ideas to show for it, that was it.  No new toys for Christmas this year until you showed that you played with the ones from last year.

So far, I'm making some progress on my challenge.  Some projects are getting knocked out.  Some exhibit improvements have been made, some new enrichment items added to the routine.  I've even started another training project.  But it's easy to rest on laurels and slide back into just daydreaming, so the next time I hear myself spout off about the latest new idea, I'm going to have to keep reminding myself...

Talk is cheap... SHOW me something...

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Zoo History: Menageries and Mummies

Although the word "zoo" (short for "zoological park" or "zoological garden") is a relatively recent invention, the institution itself has existed for millennia all over the world, from Ancient Assyria to Aztec Mexico.  Each culture has placed its own unique twist on the custom of exotic animal keeping, from the Chinese with their "gardens of intelligence" to the bloodbaths of the Roman arenas.  Some of the oldest and strangest collections of exotic animals, however, come out of Ancient Egypt.

The Egyptian fascination with keeping exotic animals was two-fold.  Firstly, there was a desire to utilize wild animals for practical purposes, perhaps even resulting in domestication.  This approach was predominately aimed at addax, gazelles, and other antelopes, but also included hyenas (for use as hunting animals) and lions, for use in war.  That none of these efforts ended up succeeding doesn't mean that the idea behind them was one resigned to antiquity - throughout the 19th century, additional efforts were resumed by Europeans and North Americans.

The second aspect of Egyptian zookeeping was a religious one.  The Egyptians were famed for their fondness for cats, but animal worship extending far beyond that.  Look at the pantheon of Egyptian gods and you'll see a zoo-load of animals... or at least the heads of a zoo.  From the jackal-headed Anubis to crocodile-headed Sobek, many of their gods had the heads of animals.  The result was a worship of living animals as representations of the gods, with animals being cared for my priests in temples, often being mummified after death.  

A mummified Nile crocodile, on display at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park

The climate and landscape of Ancient Egypt is far different from that of modern Egypt, and animals such as hippopotamuses, crocodiles, and lions could be found where they are now absent.  That being said, stocking a menagerie worthy of a pharaoh and his court required beasts more sensation that those found in their backyards.  As early as the fifteen century BC, Queen Hatshepsut sent out what may have been the first zoo collecting expedition down the coast to Somalia, returning with monkeys, leopards, and a giraffe.  Other animals were brought in as tribute or sent out as gifts to other rulers.  In 1100 BC, the pharaoh sent a crocodile and a hippopotamus as a gift to Tiglath-Pileser I, King of Assyria.

As Egyptians encountered other cultures through conquest and trade, the zookeeping tradition developed as well.  When Alexander the Great added Egypt to his empire, he left one of his generals, Ptolemy, to rule, giving rise to the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which ended with the suicide of Cleopatra.  In a parade in Alexandria to celebrate the feast of Dionysus, elephants, ostriches, and antelope paraded down the streets, while carts contained cages of peafowl, parrots, and other birds.  As described by James Fisher in his Zoos of the World:

"The people of Alexandria with a taste for 'more exciting' animals were not disappointed.  The procession included 24 lions, 14 leopards, 16 [cheetahs], six pairs of one-humped camels, a 'white bear', a giraffe, a gigantic snake said to be 45 feet long, and, wonder of wonders, a rhinoceros."

Like many wonders of the ancient world, the menageries of Alexandria is gone.  Even more unfortunately, most the wildlife in the former Egyptian Empire is also gone.  Every year the Sahara pushes further south, and  the wildlife of Africa becomes increasingly isolated within smaller protected areas.  With the current political situations in North Africa, it is unlikely that anyone is going to be making wildlife conservation top priority anytime in the immediate future.  Only by remembering what was lost, however, can there be hope of recreating a better future for animals - and people - in Egypt.

A mummified baboon, on display at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.  Because of their religious significance to the Ancient Egyptians, the hamadryas baboon was also known as the "sacred baboon"

Monday, August 18, 2014

Decisions, Decisions

"I am the absolute monarch of my domain, which stretches from that staircase to this desk."
- Mary Doria Russell, Children of God

I am the emperor of unimportant decisions.  I can choose to rearrange perching in my bird exhibits.  I can decide what enrichment to implement on a given day.  I can trim the plants in my exhibits.  And I don't want to brag, but when it came time to target train animals in my section, I was given the supreme honor of picking what color the targets were to be.

Anything bigger than that, I usually need to get permission from someone.

A lot of the time, when I go to ask my curator or director for permission or an opinion on something I want to do, they look at me in a baffled way that implies that they don't care and leave me to my own devices.  That being said, I've learned from watching other keepers that it definitely does not pay to assume that they will be okay with whatever you want to do and figure that it's better to ask forgiveness than permission. 

Of course, my curator has to answer to the director and directors have to answer to... who exactly?  

Unless a zoo or aquarium is privately owned by a single individual, someone down the line has to make the ultimate decisions (and even then, you have to answer to USDA or some other agency).  Traditionally, most zoos and aquariums were run by cities or other government entities, so it was the mayor who had the final say-so.  Today, the lines of governance for many institutions are less clear.  Some institutions are quasi-governmental, also being run by non-profit boards of directors or commissions.  The people who sit on these may be governmental types, or they may be professionals or academic experts, or they may be wealthy donors or interested community leaders.  Together with the institution's director (though now many institutions have a president or CEO instead), they set the course for the management of the institution.

The question is who should make the decisions about the management of the zoo or aquarium?  I feel that the more stakeholders who are involved in the process, the better the outcome, but for each issue there is someone who should be listened to more, an opinion that should carry more weight than others. 

 For all things pertaining to the animal collection, I strongly feel that the curator (representing the animal staff) and the vets should have the loudest voice.  Yes, the mayor or CEO might really like gorillas and think that they are the perfect addition to your zoo, but if the people who actually will have to manage said apes think that it's a poor decision - the zoo doesn't have the space or resources, or there are other priorities at this time, or one of a thousand other reasons - their warnings should be heeded.  If an animal needs to be shipped out as part of a breeding program that is important for the long-term survival of the species, that recommendation should be followed... even if the members of the community will miss that animal.  If an animal's quality of life is in serious decline and the curator and vet advocate euthanasia, their opinion should not be dismissed just because other decision makers don't want to admit that it may be the best choice.

(Of course, all of this implies that the curator, vet, and animal staff will all agree on what the best decision is, which seldom happens.  They do, however, all tend to band together against bad decisions imposed from the outside).

Everyone has an area of expertise, whether it is finance or animal care or community relations, and everyone should be willing to voice opinions on their areas of expertise.  They can voice opinions of other areas, of course, but sometimes it's important to know what you don't know.  That doesn't mean rubber-stamp the decisions made by those who do claim expertise, but certainly offer their ideas consideration.

This article popped into my head while I read an editorial up from Canada, advocating independence for the Toronto Zoo.  After the incident with the elephants last year, I have little doubt that many of the keepers there have little love for their governing body.  Not everyone involved in governing a zoo will have the same idea of what is best for the institution.  At the very least, however, there should be no doubt that everyone is on the same side - making their institution better.