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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Redesigned Zoo Where Humans Stay Hidden, by Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan

I came across this article today and thought it was interesting - though perhaps not as well-explained as I would have liked it to have been (though in fairness to the author, she does emphasize that this is a very rough draft of an idea).  The concept of minimizing the visitor impact on the animal is of obvious value, especially for sensitive species, as well as species which are part of ongoing reintroduction efforts.

That being said, there are plenty of intelligent zoo animals, such as primates and bears, which seem to enjoy interacting with the public, provided they are given opportunities for privacy and escape from the public eye. What works for some species may not be as advantageous for others.

A Redesigned Zoo Where Humans Stay Hidden Could Be Better For Animals, 
by Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan

A Redesigned Zoo Where Humans Stay Hidden Could Be Better For Animals

Even the most zoo-friendly amongst us probably harbor mixed feelings about the undeniable psychological and physical toll that captivity takes on animals. The Danish architects at Bjarke Ingels Group think they've designed a better way. A Zootopia, if you will, where humans are usually hidden from animals by grass shelters and mirrored pods.

According to ArchDaily, Ingels and co presented a design for a new master plan of Givskud Zoo, an almost 50-year-old zoo in Denmark, at a press conference today. The design—which it bears mentioning is still very premature—imagines almost 300 acres of zoo divided into continents, which visitors access by a number of ramps, bridges, and tunnels burrowed into the landscape. In some areas, visitors would hide inside hollowed out log piles. In others, shelters would be embedded in grassy hillocks near the animals. At the crux of the park, a wide stone bowl lets them climb up to observe the parkland and access trails through the open territory. 

Read the rest of the article here

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Does Not Compute

I had trouble deciding what to write about today.  I decided to jog my thought process by doing a little web browsing, maybe look at a few zoo sites, or check some of the animal care groups on facebook.  While I was at it, I thought I'd catch up on some data entry.  That's something I'm technically supposed to be doing at work, but never seem to have time to, and besides, we only have one (occasionally) working laptop there anyway.

Not that my personal laptop is doing much better - it froze every other minute (sometimes for ten minutes at a stretch), dropped pages, and spent forever opening pages which turned out not to exist.  All sorts of exciting new programs seem to download themselves all the time without my knowledge or permission, none of which are stopped by my useless virus protection.  My internet connection is lousy, my laptop is getting old, and my major accomplishment for the evening is me not putting my boot through the screen.

I really hate computers.  And then, suddenly, I knew what to blog about - me hating computers.

You know, it's downright amazing how many picture options come up when you do a Google Images search for the words "punch" and "computer"...

Virtually every profession these days involves computers in some capacity.  In some cases it is more obvious than others, but pretty much everyone relies on email, the internet, book-keeping software, or at the very least a word processor. Zoo and aquarium keeping have, like many other fields, been brought into the computer age, sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes kicking and screaming.  Often kicking and screaming, actually.  That the director, the marketing coordinator, education curator, and other office-types need computers is fairly obvious, but what about the keepers?  Whenever we raise the question of getting better computers (or at least a second equally-crappy one), I imagine the folks at city hall scratching their heads...

"Why do a bunch of pooper-scoopers need computers at work, anyway?"

There are actually a lot of things zoo staff need computers for.  A major component of the job is record-keeping.  Many zoos now use specialized record-keeping programs - ZIMS, TRACKS, ARKS, and all sorts of other fancy acronyms - to keep track of animal data on subjects ranging from diet and behavior to enrichment and training.  Not only does this data prove useful to current keepers, allowing them to organize information about their animals, it is also essential for historical data.  I often find myself looking back at data from keepers years ago (such as changes in diet over time, or how behavior changes prior to a pregnant animal giving birth), and I expect keepers in the future will find uses for the data we collect now.  The alternative to putting it in convenient, readable, searchable computer programs are stacks and stacks of paper records that get waterlogged, lost, burnt, or are just plain unreadable.

A second way in which computers are essential to zoo and aquarium keepers is research.  The field of animal care is constantly changing with new developments, and new information and discoveries are being made all the time.  Some of this is shared in online articles and encyclopedias.  A whole lot of it, however, is from emails, listserves, and, surprisingly often, facebook.  A day doesn't go by without me getting a half dozen emails on a listserve on topics ranging from animal placement (i.e., trying to find homes for confiscated or non-releasable animals) to behavioral problems to exhibit design.  The same is true with facebook - special groups devoted to zookeepers allow animal keepers from around the world to quickly, easily, and informally exchange information and bounce ideas off of one another.

None of these explanations goes over tremendously well at work.  I think some folks just develop images of zookeepers hiding in the office all day playing Farmville instead of working.  So, until someone in our department wins the lottery and buys us a new computer (or, more likely, takes the money and retires to Cancun the next day), I'll keep bringing work home with me... and cursing this laptop the whole time.

Friday, July 25, 2014

From the News: Patricia Wright, lemur expert, at Seneca Park Zoo

"The Seneca Park Zoo has been an amazing partner in this. You need someone who is going to stick with you and keep funding the things you need."
- Patricia Wright

Even a relatively small zoo can have an outsized impact, both on conservation and on the lives of its visitors.  The article doesn't explain what led to Patricia Wright's transformation from housewife to lemur expert, but it's hard to imagine that the zoo had no impact in the transition.  Whatever the role of the Seneca Park Zoo in her story, it's inspirational to see how one person - no matter at what stage of life - can make a difference for endangered wildlife, even if its at the other end of the globe. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

National Zookeeper Week

"“Those of us who have chosen a life with animals know we have chosen well. Having a conversation with a lion is a fine way to start one’s day. For that matter, so is tossing tidbits to a toucan, or medicating a cobra. There’s something there, in the lion’s luminous eyes, in the gaudy splendor of the toucan, in the cobra’s sibilant protests: it’s magic. It’s the stuff of fairy tales to interact with animals like these, even in a scientific setting, and in spite of repetitious, routine chores. You should envy us, for we are the most fortunate of humans—we take care of the animals at the zoo.” 

- Dana Payne, Woodland Park Zoo

Happy National Zookeeper Week!

This week, we celebrate the zookeepers (and aquarists) who make our institutions work.  They are the ones who come in every day - even Christmas, even Thanksgiving - to care for the animals as their facilities.  They brave scorching heat and freezing winter, working through heat waves and hurricanes alike.  They prepare diets of every description imaginable.  They provide enrichment to keep animals physically and mentally healthy.  And, of course, they scoop mountains of poop.

Being a zookeeper has its challenges and its rewards.  They welcome new animals into the world, and watch as old, beloved ones leave it.  They share their passion for wildlife with visitors of all ages... and deal with some of the less savory elements of the public.  They work all hours, do the impossible in the service of their animals, and then limp home with a baffling variety of injuries.  They aren't motivated by money (although some more would be nice...) or by glory (though of course we are all awesome), but by the simple desire to do their job as well as possible and provide their animals with the best of care.

Next time you visit a zoo or aquarium, try to take a moment to greet a keeper, maybe ask a question or two, and thank them for their hard work in keeping the place going and the animals cared for.  We appreciate it!  That being said, the job is also its own reward... I never wanted another one.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Naming Cliches

Yesterday's post about animal names got me thinking... there are a lot of cliche animal names out there.  For every person who comes up with a brilliant, witty, original name for their dog, there are a lot of Dukes, Jakes, and Bears (though come to think of it, I've never seen a "Fido" or "Rover").  Here are some other over-used named for zoo animals.  They're certainly better than some of the options discussed yesterday, but we could still probably try to use a little less often...

Bear: Bruno
Camel: Omar
Chimpanzee: Darwin
Gorilla: Kong
Jaguar: Maya
Lemur: King Julian
Leopard: Bagheera
Lion: Simba*, Aslan
Kangaroo: Boomer
Macaw: Rio
Rabbit: Peter, Thumper
Skunk: Stinky, Flower
Tiger: Shere, Khan, Lily
Turtle: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello
Warthog: Pumbaa

*Want to be really unoriginal?  Consider naming your animal after what the species is called in its native region (i.e.: "Simba" is Swahili for "Lion")

I always liked the name "Humphry" for a llama... because it's like a camel, only "hump free"... hee hee hee...

Monday, July 21, 2014

Hi! My Name Is....

"Like the pine trees lining the winding road - I got a name, I've got a name,
Like the singing bird and the croaking toad - I got a name, I've got a name"
- Jim Croce, I Got a Name

When I was a young'un, just getting started in the keeper world, the zoo where I was volunteering had a litter of five cheetah cubs born.  This was big news - the first in the zoo's history - and it made national papers, which in turn led to lots of correspondence for the zoo.  Many of these letters that flooded in, besides congratulations, offered up naming suggestions for the cubs.  When visiting the cheetah section one day, I saw one such letter taped to the refrigerator, suggesting the names Anita, Bonita, Clarita, Conchita, and Dorita (I don't know if anyone every told his person that cheetahs weren't from Latin America).

Anita and Bonita (or is it Clarita and Conchita?) frolicking in the leaves

Scrolled across the bottom of the letter in angry Sharpie writing was a note from one of the cheetah keepers: "This is why we don't let the public name our animals!"

It's a sad fact, but not all zoo animals get names.  This is in part dependent upon what kind of animal we're talking about.  If you have a flock of thirty flamingos, you probably won't name them all.  You'll have a number for each of them, but a name, no - how would you tell who was who anyway (besides looking at their ID number, usually on a band around the leg)?  For some animals managed as a group, there might not even be an individual number - just a group ID.  Reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates tend not to be named either, unless they are individuals who stand out for some reason.  Well, in many cases; when I was a reptile keeper, I think I named just about every snake, lizard, and turtle I cared for, even if the name existed only in my mind and nowhere on paper.

Which raises a second point... names also come about depending on the keepers in question.  I know plenty of old-time keepers who don't name animals... even primates, bears, and big cats, which in my opinion have way too much personality to just be a number, or "the female leopard."  They say that it anthropomorphizes the animals, or sends "the wrong message" to the public that the animals are pets.  They may have their own private house names for the animals, but would never tell a member of the public.

For a zoo's most famous, most charismatic animals, however, house names are common knowledge among the general public.  How these animals get the names depends on circumstances.  Most animal names come from the keepers.  There may be a specific rhyme or reason to the names - at one zoo where I worked, babies were always given a name starting with the same letter as their mother to help keep track of family lines - or it may be something that the staff just likes the sound of.  There's been an increasing trend of naming animals in the language of their origin country - another excellent reason to learn Swahili, Spanish, Hindi, or Portuguese.

Sometimes, the right to name an animal is given to a donor.  And then there are the naming contests...

I fear public naming contests.  Seriously.  I've heard the names that people come up with.  "Barry"... the bear.  "Ellie"... the elephant.  Oh, and the black and spotted leopards?  You guessed it - "Blackie" and "Spot".  It would fine if this was from the kids, but really, the adults?  Folks like this make our would-be cheetah namer sound like a fountain of originality.  In an effort to reduce such tragic naming accidents (I can only imagine the possibility of an animal dying from shame after being saddled with a colossally stupid name), zoos have tended to rig naming contests... well, not "rig", but more like "limit the options to  acceptable outcomes."  Three or four suggested names will be made available for voting, all pre-screened by staff.

One bit of zoo etiquette - if you learn the house name of a zoo animal, treat it as a cool tidbit of knowledge.  Don't feel the need to scream it at the animal over and over again at your next visit.  He or she knows you aren't the keeper and they will... not... care.  All you will do is annoy the animal, its exhibit mates, its keepers, and every person in a fifty yard radius.

The most complicated and ornate naming rituals are associated with the giant pandas (actually, the most complicated and ornate everything are usually associated with giant pandas).  Panda cubs are, in the traditional Chinese fashion, given their name at a naming day celebration when they are 100 days old.  Names are invariably Chinese in origin, carefully selected for each cub.

That's good... I'd hate to think of an animal as rare as a giant panda going through life with some of those names I've heard people suggest...

"I don't care HOW much money the donor has, we are NOT naming the panda Frank!"

Saturday, July 19, 2014

From the News: Quincy Man Arrested after Swimming in Aquarium Shark Tank

After some recent posts, I was worried that I might be giving the impression that people only did ridiculous, stupid stuff when visiting zoos, not aquariums.  So, to even the scale a little bit, here's a gem from New England Aquarium.  To be fair, the title is - slightly - misleading.  The man in question jumped into the aquarium's main tank, which does have sharks, but not especially large or dangerous ones.  Still...

Many aquariums do, in fact, have programs that allow visitors to dive with their animals.  I'm thinking especially of Georgia Aquarium's program of swimming with their whale sharks.  Still, if you desire such an opportunity, probably best to arrange it through the aquarium.  Don't go taking the initiative and do it yourself.