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Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Zoo Review: Racine Zoo

I visit Chicago fairly frequently, and as such am pretty well-acquainted with the zoos of that city - Lincoln Park, Brookfield, Shedd Aquarium.  On my most recent visit into town, I decided to shake things up a bit and scout a little further afield.  It was that trip which brought to the Racine Zoo for the first time.  I wasn't entirely sure what I was expecting - I know I wasn't expecting to encounter a handful of species which, in my years of zoo-going, I'd never seen before.  Racine has quickly rushed towards the top of my favorite-little-zoo list.

One of the great things about visiting the small, less-famous zoos is that I generally haven't scouted them out so much.  When I visit a well-known zoo, like Omaha, for the first time, I've already heard so much about its famous exhibits or must-see animals that it's like I've already been there.  Not so at Racine.  Wandering inside the gates, I first made my way to the Australian walkabout, where visitors can take a meandering path through a grassy yard grazed by wallaroos, kangaroos, and emu.  Black swans paddle a small pool in the center, while Guam rails inhabit a small side enclosure.  Outside of the exhibit is a feeding aviary for budgies and cockatiels.  A farmyard with domestics and a playground are nearby.

Towering over the zoo is the castle-like Vanishing Kingdom, a red-brick tower that houses the primate and carnivore collections.  Inside its gothic interior, fossa, coati, lemurs, and tamarins line the halls.  A semi-circular glassed-in enclosure houses a hybrid orangutan, while gibbons have access to outdoor enclosures.  Dominating the hallway, however, is the lion exhibit.  On nice days, the lions are more likely to be found outside in a grassy yard (I caught myself wondering about the wisdom of switching out the lions for snow leopards or Amur leopards, which are not only smaller but could comfortably spend more of the year outdoors).  Adjacent to their exhibit are enclosures for Canada lynx and Amur tiger.  Down the path, a small island exhibit is split down the middle into two very different habitats - an arid desert yard, for meerkats, on one side, with a pool for African penguins on the other. 

I was casually enjoying the zoo up until this point... when I walked outside and found myself facing an enormous aviary.  Eagles?  Condors?  I wasn't sure what I'd find until I walked inside... and I'm not being melodramatic, I swear I actually gasped.  I had no idea that Racine is one of only two zoos outside of Asia to exhibit the magnificent lesser adjutant stork, which I observed standing on a platform at the top of the aviary (the other is the Bronx).  The aviary itself was gorgeous, wooded and grassy with meandering streams and shallow pools.  Sharing it with the storks were tufted deer, which approached quiet close to the small wooden deck where visitors could observe the storks from inside the aviary.  Immediately outside the aviary, I had to do another double take - a concrete mountain stood across the path, its top crowned by a handsome goat-like animal with massive horns.  The pair of tur on exhibit at this zoo are, to my knowledge, the only ones in the New World, and I spent about half of my camera battery on the male alone.

Andean bears are far more common than tur or adjutants in zoos, but I will give Racine props for the most attractive habitat for this species I've ever seen.  South America's only bear can be seen from either a high viewing deck or through viewing windows that peer into a cave dwelling. 

The zoo's newest habitat is the Land of Giants trail, home to giraffe, black rhinoceros, and mountain zebra.  It looked like more construction was in process, so I'm not sure if more exhibits are to come.

I almost missed the tiny reptile, amphibian, and fish collection, tucked into what I thought was a supply closet near the bathrooms at the entrance.  This didn't dazzle me too much - I think it might have been better suited just doing one or two larger exhibits than a clutter of tanks (many of which held juveniles of species that there would be no room to house as adults).  Featured in this room was a darkened display case of fruit bats.

One extraordinary asset that Racine Zoo has is its location.  It lies smack up against Lake Michigan, which forms a beautiful backdrop to the education stage.  On a quiet, drizzly day like the one I visited on, with no visitors in sight, it was possibly to walk though the park and hear only the gentle lap of the waves on the beach.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Zoo History: Gomek the Great

“Far more sinister, the natives said that the crocodile had killed a number of village people.  They had a name for the reptile: ‘Louma Whalla Coremana Dikana,’ which described his evil nature, size, and ferocity.  Crocodiles may all look alike, but Gomek they could tell apart from others.”

- The Legend of Gomek, William Adams

Throughout the history of zoos and aquariums, there have been certain, individual animals who have enjoyed a unique celebrity status.  Just as with human celebrities, the cause for their fame may vary.  Maybe they were the first member of their species to be seen outside their homeland.  Maybe they were just an unusually large or strangely colored individual.  Or perhaps they had some sort of unique history. 

Whatever their cases, almost all of them have one thing in common – they are mammals.  Almost all.  There is a very tiny clique of other animals who have achieved star status.  Among those, the one with the most striking life story might be Gomek.

The life of the saltwater crocodile who would one day be known as Gomek began in the jungles of New Guinea, possibly as early as the 1930s.  The crocodile would have reached adult size by the time World War II touched the island.  There’s not much we can surmise about Gomek’s early life, but by the 1960’s, he had started to earn something of a reputation among the natives of the Fly River.  There were probably three reasons for this.  One was that he was very black.  A second was that he was very big.  And third, and most importantly, was that he had taken to killing and eating them.  In their eyes, he wasn’t just a crocodile – he was Louma, a crocodile possessed by an evil spirit.

Eventually, the rumors reached the ears of an Australian crocodile hunter (not that Australian crocodile hunter) named George Craig, who was operating out of eastern New Guinea (what is now the nation of Papua New Guinea, then overseen by the Australian government).

After catching the croc with a harpoon to the back, Craig (and the twenty men it took him to tow the beast), Gomek was transported to an enclosure on nearby Daru Island.  It was then that he was given his name, Craig’s backhanded compliment to a stingy colleague of his.  In contrast to his savage reputation on the river, the captive Gomek was a rather placid, easy-going animal… though still capable of exploding into action at the sight of a food pail.  When Australia granted Papua New Guinea (including Daru Island) independence, Craig moved back to Australia.  He took Gomek with him, installing him at Marineland Melanesia, an aquatic theme park on Australia’s eastern seaboard.  There, Gomek was bigger and bigger audiences… and he got bigger and bigger himself.

It was Gomek’s size which brought him to the attention of American adventurer and animal-dealer Arthur Jones, who purchased the big croc in 1985.  Jones was accompanied by film star Bo Derek when he flew down to Australia to meet his new acquisition that year; soon, Gomek was bound for the United States.  For four years, Gomek was housed at the Jones ranch, before making one final move – to the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, in 1989.

Gomek lived at St. Augustine until his death in.  The Farm’s goal was to acquire living representatives of every species of crocodilian in the world, and Gomek was their crown jewel.  Housed in a special tank with underwater viewing and an adjacent grassy lawn, the saltwater crocodile was featured on billboards and radio ads across the south.   Feeding demonstrations were packed as horrified guests watched the giant hurl himself towards keepers offering nutria and other treats.  With the possible exception of the first white alligators to be discovered and exhibited, I can think of no crocodilian to ever rival Gomek’s star  power.

In April of 1997, Gomek was found lying at the bottom of his pool, having suffered a heart attack in his sleep.   He was between 60 and 80 years old, measured seventeen and a half feet long, and weighed nearly a ton.  Even in death he would retain his celebrity status; following his necropsy, his massive body was stuffed and installed in a customized pavilion, furnished with New Guinea tribal artifacts (I always wondered what Gomek’s human victims would have thought if they’d see what became of their killer). 

St. Augustine would eventually acquire a new giant saltwater crocodile – Maximo – and that is who I found grinning at me through the glass during my first visit to the park.  He was the first saltwater crocodile I’d ever seen in the flesh, and I was incredibly impressed.  Still, there was only one Gomek. 

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Happy Croctoberfest!

I should have done this post much earlier this month... depending on where you are in the country, it may now be too late.  For this year, at least...

Anyway, do you like beer?  How about crocodiles?  If the answer to both is "yes", great news!  There's an exciting new opportunity at many US zoos to enjoy the former while contributing to the conservation of the later.  If the second question is no, focus instead on the liking beer part.  If, as is my case, the answer to the first question is no, suck it up and do it anyway, for croc's sake.

Croctoberfest is an autumn celebration that many zoos and aquariums have kicked off to raise funds for crocodilian conservation around the world.   The actual content of the event may vary widely from institution to institution.  At most, however, it's a combination of beers, food trucks, and animal demonstrations, perhaps combined with raffles or live auctions, all working to raise money to protect crocodilians in their natural habitat. 

As I said, I should have posted this at the beginning of the month, or late September, ideally.  Many institutions have already celebrated this month; some, such as Clyde Peeling's Reptiland, as early as the first.  Check out your local zoo or aquarium to see if they celebrate Croctoberfest.  If you missed it this year, it just means you have to get an early start for 2017!

Friday, October 21, 2016

There May Be Blood. There Won't Be Sleep

Due to a collective lack of imagination, every military macaw I've ever encountered, regardless of sex, has been given a military rank for a name.   Usually "Sarge" or "Major", maybe a "General" or two.  As it was, the bird that I was dealing with at the moment was named "Sarge."  I was currently coming up with a few other choice names for him.

You see, Sarge had escaped, and was now perched on a fence rail just a few feet from me.  I could either call for backup, have someone bring me a net (an object which Sarge knew and loathed on sight), and try to scoop him up before he took off... or I could grab him by hand.  No gloves, mind you - just four fingers and a thumb, up against a beak that could crack nuts with a twitch.  Oh, and I should mention... I wasn't one of Sarge's favorite people.

I had just been promoted to Senior Keeper, and my now-direct supervisor was not a forgiving sort.  Granted, I wasn't the one who'd let Sarge fly out of his holding pen, but the person who did was a direct report to me, which made it my fault, in the eyes of the boss.  Confronted with the possible loss of a finger on one hand (ha ha ha) and certain loss of position on the other, I made a decision.

Edging close to Sarge, I wiggled the fingers of my left hand provocatively in his face.  "Bite me, bite me" they seemed to scream.  Sarge watched them with greedy eyes as they got closer and closer... and didn't watch my right hand, snaking around from behind.  With one snatch, I caught him by the back of the neck.  I don't remember much of the hundred-yard dash back to his enclosure, holding a screaming, thrashing, macaw that was hell-bent on revenge.  I just remember the satisfaction of hearing the door click shut behind me as I tossed the bird back in.

It was something of a letdown that night when I recounted that day's triumph to my girlfriend.  I don't know if I was expecting an "Oh my God, you're my hero" or "Wow, that was so brave."  Instead I got a sixteen-and-a-half minute lecture on safety and the relative value of my fingers compared to military macaws (I'd made similar calculations, but came up with a different answer than her).  The bird had to be grabbed, I insisted, if only to save it from a certain death on the lam.  Okay, she replied... but why did I have to be the one to grab it?

I've gotten a few variations on that question since from various people who I know mean well.  Okay, there's a hurricane coming, or three feet of snow... I get it that the animals need to be taken care of, but why do you have to be the one out in the storm?  Okay, there's a fight between two alligators... why do you need to break it up?   Okay, so this animal needs to get on a 2AM flight at the airport... why do you need to be the one to drive it there?

The first animal escape I was present for, as a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed volunteer of age thirteen, was a crane.   I thought I'd catch it single-handedly, thereby winning the admiration and respect of the entire keeper staff, who would then be so impressed with me that they'd hire me on the spot, sparing me the waste of high school or college.  Instead, I was gently but firmly banished from the scene until the bird was recaptured by hands far more competent than mine.  Those hands, if truth be told, already had some scars, and at least one of them I knew was missing a finger.

When you are a volunteer, or an intern, or are new on the job, there's always someone more experienced out there... sometimes, lots of someones.  That's the person/people who will make the sacrifices, take the risks.  It's expected of them, the product of their experience, their knowledge, and their demonstrated commitment to the job.  They get in some pretty crappy situations... sometimes literally, like getting bathed in diarrhea while nursing a sick animal.  They get hurt sometimes, like getting taloned by a wounded eagle that's been found on the side of the road and needs to be rescued.  And they get a lot of sleepless nights, as anyone who has ever had to hand-rear a rejected baby animal can attest.  There are times when it really, really sucks... say, after waking up after an awful night of sleep on the commissary floor, listening to a hurricane rage outside, and knowing that you will soon be soaked to the bone.

Still, I get a sense of pride sometimes when these things happen to me... well, not the diarrhea one.  There is no pride to be had there.  When these times come, and I look behind me and see volunteers, interns, and new keepers, it makes me feel like I've made it.  Like after a lot of years of being a kid pretending to be a zookeeper, I actually made it, and now there are young people who look to me to see how I'll handle a situation, so that they might do the same some day.  And it's my job to take risks, and make sacrifices, so they don't have to.

It can feel like quite a responsibility some times... but at least I still have all my fingers.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Shield-Tailed Agama (Xenagama taylori)

Shield-Tailed Agama
Xenagama taylori

Range: Northeastern Africa
Habitat: Scrubland, Desert
Diet: Insects, Fruits
Social Grouping: Small Groups (One Male, Several Females)
Reproduction: Females lay eggs after rainfall, 5-8 small white eggs buried in short tunnel.  Eggs incubated for 45-50 days.  Capable of having multiple clutches per year.  Sexually mature by the end of their first year.
Lifespan: 5 Years
Conservation Status: Not Evaluated

  • Body length 10 centimeters, weight 20 grams; males smaller than females
  • Coloration varies from tan to red, often with some black speckling; juveniles may have white speckling, but this tends to fade with age
  • Breeding adult males display bright blue color on their chin when exciting; sometimes present in females too, to a lesser degree
  • The small, flat tail of the agama is used to block up the entrances of the burrows that it uses at night to shelter from predators
Zookeeper's Journal: It's always struck me as amazing, over the years, which animals are the one's that really stick with you.  When I first started working with reptiles, of course I was the most excited about the crocs, the Komodos, the big constrictors... and with an eye towards working with venomous snakes in future.  Years later, the reptiles that I remember the most fondly, however, were the little lizards that I'd never even heard of before I found myself working with them.  The shield-tails (sometimes given the adorable nickname "turnip tails") are one of my absolute favorites.  They were so low maintenance, and yet I could lose lengthy stretches of time watching them scurrying around, popping in and out of crevices (I loved to rearrange their rock pile every week), displaying to one another, and then zipping around again, maybe in pursuit of a cricket.  So many visitors bustled through our reptile house focusing on the big, spectacular (and often immobile) animals.  So much excitement, action, and (occasionally) drama was there waiting for them, if only they'd looked at the smaller displays!

Monday, October 17, 2016

From the News: Hurricane Matthew and Sea Turtles

A sea turtle from the Georgia coast floats in a tank at the Georgia Aquarium. The aquarium is tending to turtles brought to the aquarium from the Georgia Sea Turtle Center on Jekyll Island last weekend. The Jekyll Island facility was evacuated as both staff and turtles escaped the threat of Hurricane Matthew. Photo: courtesy Georgia Aquarium

Earlier this month, the zoo and aquarium community was watching with bated breath as Hurricane Matthew bore down on the Florida coast.  Naturally, most of our collective attention was focused on zoos - the staff, the animals, and the facilities - that were in the path of the storm.  Thankfully, the damage was relatively minimal, especially considering what might have been.

A nice reminder in the news today - not all of the animal victims of the storm are zoo animals or pets.  Wild animals are impacted as well.  Among other news items, I saw that hundreds of sea turtle nests were destroyed by the storm, while many baby turtles were thrown ashore, weak and confused.  It's fantastic to see that, even as they clean up their own storm damage, zoos and aquariums throughout the south are still chipping in to help save as many of the affected sea turtles as possible.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Satire: Gorilla returns to Zoo enclosure after spending five minutes with British public

Earlier this week, a gorilla briefly escaped his enclosure at the London Zoo.  Unlike the Harambe incident in Cincinnati earlier this year, there was no immediate danger to any visitors.  This is (not really) his story... but it's probably not that far off.  Most times when a zoo animal gets out of its enclosure, its first reaction is "Man this stinks, how do I get back in?"