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Monday, January 26, 2015

Conventional Wisdom

When I publish a Species Fact Profile, I try to make sure to include some data about the conservation status of the species in question.  Often, I do this using two criteria.  One is the listing of that species by the IUCN.  The other is its listing under CITES.  In a previous post, I've explained what the IUCN is and what it does.  Today, we'll take a look at CITES.

Prior to about the Second World War, the international animal trade was pretty foot-loose and fancy-free.  Commercial animal dealers such as the Hagenbeck family and Frank Buck filled orders for zoos, circuses, and private collectors; their main concerns were finding the animals and keeping them alive and healthy until they reached their destinations in Europe or America.  Even after the war, the collecting and trading business was reasonably unrestrained, easy enough to enter that a young Gerald Durrell was able to take his new inheritance and set off on a series of collecting expeditions to Africa and South America.

Today, the international movement of plants and animals is very tightly regulated, and rightly so.  Not only does the unrestricted movement of wildlife around the planet pose risks both medical (spreading diseases) and ecological (invasive species), it also can lead to over-exploitation of endangered species.  Nations nowadays have stringent quarantine and regulatory processes to protect themselves from some of these threats (that is, to protect themselves from imported plants and animals).  To protect the plants and animals themselves, we have CITES.


CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna.  Ratified in 1973 and implemented two years later, it is one of the most important international treaties regulating the trade of wildlife and the products of wildlife (skins, ivory, horns, etc).  Participation is voluntary, but all but a dozen or so members of the United Nations have signed it in a pledge to regulate the international wildlife trade.

Over 30,000 species of plant and animal are listed in the treaty, being placed on one of three appendices.  The appendix an animal or plant is listed as determines its trade status under the treaty.

  • Appendix I - Species that are the most threatened by international trade.  Commercial trade is illegal, except in unique permitted situations.  Example: Clouded Leopard
  • Appendix II - Species which may become endangered if not monitored carefully, or species which closely resemble Appendix I species and may be confused.  Captive bred specimens of Appendix I species are listed as Appendix II.  Example: Aldabra Tortoise
  • Appendix III - Species which one or more member country feels that it has a special need to protect, and asks other signatory nations to assist with.  This is especially used for species which are threatened locally, but not globally.  Example: Saddle-Billed Stork
Every three years, representatives of the signatory nations meet to discuss the treaty and any updates or revisions that they feel must be made to it.

CITES has done much to halt the trade of wildlife and its products, but it is not without its critics.  Some feel that by making it impossible (or at least far more difficult) for member nations to profit from their wildlife, the treaty makes it harder to protect it.  For example, an African country with a healthy population of elephants may want to sell ivory from its herds, or sell trophy-hunting licenses, but be thwarted by CITES regulations which ban the sale, or would prevent a foreign hunter from taking his or her trophy home.  That country, then, is not only denied the profits from its elephants (which would, it argues, be channeled back into conservation), but it looses its incentive to protect its elephants.  This has led some wildlife managers to declare, "The worse thing that can happen to an animal is that is goes on Appendix I of CITES.*"

Many species of crocodilian, such as this Siamese crocodile photographed at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, are endangered in the wild but thrive - commercially farmed, in some cases - in captivity.  CITES can complicate the trade in legally, sustainably harvested wildlife products, to the dismay of some authorities.

Defenders of CITES contend that allowing such exemptions would open a floodgate of illegal wildlife trafficking along with the legal.  If rhino horn, for example, can be legally sold from South Africa but not the surrounding countries, poachers across the continent will simply smuggle their horns into South Africa, where they can then sell it on the open market.

CITES raises headaches for zoos and aquariums as well.  It can make some species difficult to obtain, nearly impossible in some cases.  True, most zoo animals - especially the mammals - are now born in captivity, sometimes going back several generations.  That being said, new bloodlines are sometimes desired, and confiscated or rescued wildlife in other countries (non-releasable, taken from poachers or illegal owners) could be rehoused in American or European zoos.  The (non-CITES) intense restrictions and regulations on importing and exporting animals from Australia - even the most common species, sometimes even animals that are common enough to be considered pests over there - has driven many an American zoo director to the edge of insanity.  After all, they reason, CITES is about conservation, we're about conservation... aren't we supposed to all be on the same side?

As someone who has helped sift through the pounds and pounds of paperwork that animal shipments can entail, I will concur... CITES can be a huge pain in the butt.  It does, however, do a lot to limit the trade of endangered species to perhaps those few who can prove themselves worthy in the eyes of the conservation gods (or at least bureaucrats).  If a zoo or aquarium's rationale is just, hopefully they can make the cut and win an exemption or approval.  If not, perhaps a few thwarted acquisitions are a small price to pay for supporting a global conservation initiative. 

*Grahame Web, Crocodile Biologist, quoted in David Quammen's Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Bao Bao's First Snow


This little video clip made its rounds on the web a few weeks ago, but I'm just getting around to sharing it here now.  It shows Bao Bao, the National Zoo's panda cub, frolicking in the snow for the first time. Being a zookeeper in winter can be pretty brutal, especially if the animals you care for are the cold-hardy, outdoors-all-year type... which means you have to be outdoors all year too.  Moments like this, however - or watching a tiger pounce on a snowman you made for her, or otters sliding down a snowbank - make the numb fingers and runny noses more than worthwhile.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

From the News: Historic Toledo Zoo aquarium reopening after major overhaul


Last month, I shared a bit of news about the new aquarium opening up in Jacksonville, Florida.  New aquariums seem to be the rage these days, with new ones popping up left and right.  This, on the other hand, concerns the reopening of a rather old aquarium (older than many well known public aquariums), this one on the grounds of the city zoo.

There's a lot to be said about building brand new aquariums elsewhere in cities - for one thing, zoos tend to be located on the edges of town, where there is more space, whereas aquariums are often found downtown, especially along waterfronts.  That being said, I feel that there is a major benefit to having aquariums located within zoos.

Zoos are, by definition, parks for animals.  They tend to focus on large mammals, however, with some birds and reptiles thrown in for good measure.  This results in the overlooking of the enormous variety of fish and invertebrates in the world, the later making up the vast majority of animals on the planet.  Many fish and invertebrates are highly endangered and could benefit from more conservation attention; some are now found only in captivity.  By focusing more on these groups of animals, zoos could help educate the public about the overlooked majority of the animal kingdom.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

How I Became a Zookeeper

Apart from my initial "Welcome to the Blog" post back in May of 2013, my first post  - and the only one that I'd written prior to even thinking of starting the blog - was titled "Why I Became a Zookeeper."  At the time, I felt like that was all of the explanation that I needed on the subject, as it answered one of the most frequent questions that I got in life, at the time.

The longer I've been in the field, however, the more I find myself being asked another question.  This is a question posed by people who are where I was fifteen years ago, just getting ready to break into the field.  They've already figured out the "why", and have explained it themselves to their own friends, families, and teachers.  What they're having trouble with is the "how".  Some people ask casually, thinking that it might be a fun summer job.  For others, this is their passion, the life that they've dreamed of.  This is the job that they want.

Find a zoo.  Fill out an application.  Sit for an interview.  Accept the job.  Done, right?  Well, not quite so easy.  I am convinced that there is no job which is so competitive for as little as it pays as the keeping field.  A position at a large zoo like the National Zoo or the Bronx Zoo may attract several hundred applicants; even my tiny little zoo can have 100 people vying for a single animal keeper opening.  It can be an enormous challenge getting yourself noticed and rising to the top of the pile.

Todays post, then, is devoted to answering the new most frequent question I get asked at work (besides "Where are the bathrooms?" and "Which way are the monkeys?") - How do I become a zookeeper?

1.) Hit the Books

Doctors go to medical school, lawyers go to law school.  Police and firefighters and soldiers have their academies.  But what about zookeepers?  Do they need schooling, beyond high school?  And if so, where, and in what field?

A generation or two ago, schooling at a level beyond high school wasn't deemed necessary for a career in keeping - it may have even been a liability, as managers and curators might have felt threatened by a book-smart newbie who thought they knew everything.  In theory, most zoos and aquariums require their entry-level keepers to have at least a high school diploma, but competition for the relatively scarce openings means that a bachelor's degree is almost a requirement.  Degrees should be in something animal related, obviously - zoology, biology, animal sciences, or a related field.

Why the degree?  Why the student loans for a job that pays zilch?  Much of the job is routine work, it's true - preparing diets, scrubbing water bowls, and, of course, cleaning up poop.  You can do just that and do 90% of a keeper's bare-minimum job requirements... but that other 10% makes a huge difference.  Keepers need to know about the natural history and behavior of their charges in order to take the best care of them.  They need to understand nutrition, reproductive biology, anatomy, and basic veterinary medicine.  These days, a knowledge of behavior, especially as it can be applied towards training and enrichment, is often essential.  At the very least, a keeper often needs the academic skills to investigate and research problems they may face - and this job throws a lot of weird problems at you.

Based on my personal observations, I'd say aquarists, invertebrate keepers, and reptile/amphibian keepers tend to be the most academically inclined, the result of needing to know so much detailed information about such a wide variety of species (a large mammal keeper might care for half a dozen species in a month... a reptile keeper might hundreds).  Bird keepers tend to be next, followed by small mammal, than large mammal.

A lot of visitors are surprised that I went to school at all... let alone that I have more higher education than they do.

2.) Get Dirt (and worse) on Your Hands

In my second year of college, I was enrolled in a Domestic Animal Biology class, filled mostly with pre-vets. Part of the class was lecture, part was lab, and part was actual animal care.  A small barn, stocked with pigs and calves, chickens and sheep, and one ornery old horse, was set aside for us to care for, with mandatory, regularly scheduled chores being part of the class.  An astonishing percentage of my classmates washed out. They could rattle of anatomy and reproductive data no problem, but give them a shovel and point them towards a pasture of horse dung?  Give them a slop bucket and tell them to go into a pen with some frisky, hungry, occasionally bitey pigs?  No thank you.

A lot of people think they want to be zookeepers, until the realities set in.  It's dirty and smelly.  It's cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and often rainy in between.  You work holidays and weekends.  You get bitten and scratched and pooped on and peed on.  Animals that you care for get old, and pass away... or young and seemingly healthy ones surprise you and die.  Animals that you get attached to get sent to other facilities.  You get paid a pittance.

The best way to show potential employers that you want the job is to do the job.  Volunteer.  Intern.  Work part time.  If there isn't a zoo or aquarium near you, try a nature center, or a rehabber, or a pet shelter, or a vet's office, or basically anything that shows that you can handle the work.  Employers want employees who have a realistic idea of what the job will be like.  Not someone who thinks that they will play with animals all day, but someone who understands the challenges of the job and accepts them.  Not only will you build up a resume and give yourself experiences to draw upon later in life, you may shock yourself and find out that you don't like doing it at all!  Then you can change your direction before it's too late.

An extra tip for would-be aquarists or marine mammal keepers - get SCUBA certified.

3). Show Your Passion

The hardest to quantify, but the most important.  I've known great keepers with a PhD and great keepers with a GED.  I've met keepers who had tons of experience, yet still managed to stink at their jobs, and ones who had no prior experience and manage to rock the job anyway.  I've never met a great... or even good... or even tolerable, really, keeper who didn't have passion.  If you want to be a zookeeper or an aquarist, be prepared to show it.  Part of that is by preparing yourself through education and experience.  That's what will get you an interview.  Passion is what can help you carry that interview and turn it into a job offer.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Northern Raven (Corvus corax)


Northern Raven

Corvus corvax (Swainson, 1827)

Range: Europe (includes British Isles and Iceland), Asia, North Africa, Asia (excluding South and South East Asia), North America, Australia
Habitat: Tundra, Grassland, Desert, Woodlands, Cliffs
Diet: Carrion, Small Vertebrates, Eggs, Insects, Grains, Nuts, Fruits
Social Grouping: Solitary, Paired, Small Flocks
Reproduction: Monogamous, breed in February of March, 4-6 eggs laid in a solid nest, incubated for 20 days by female, chicks fledge at 6 weeks, are sexually mature at 3 years
Lifespan: 20 Years (Wild), 80 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern

  • Largest perching bird in the world, body length 54-67 centimeters, wingspan 115-130 centimeters, weight 690-1625 grams, females are slightly smaller than males
  • Glossy black plumage often has green or lilac sheen, the throat feathers are shaggy, bill is very thick and heavy-looking; juveniles are darker, browner than adults
  • Fairly sedentary, does not travel widely or migrate, chicks tend not to disperse further than 30 kilometers from hatching locations; populations at the edges of the range may make small, seasonal movements to avoid extreme weather.
  • Very vocal, with over 30 calls having been identified; they can mimic other animals (including human speech); non-vocal communication involves wing whistles and bill snaps
  • Very acrobatic fliers, have been seen flying upside for extended distances, doing somersaults
  • Among the most intelligent of birds, seem capable of learning innovative solutions, skill problem solvers; the appear to like playing games (sometimes with other species, such as otters), and will sometimes use objects as tools
  • Will form partnerships with other species, and have been observed following humans or cowbirds for nests to raid
  • Adults have few predators, but tend to be very wary, often will not approach suspicious looking carrion until other scavenging birds have tasted it first; parents will vigorously defend nest from predators.
  • Very prominent role in the mythology and folklore of Europe, the Middle East, and Native Americans (often depicted as a trickster figure) - prominent roles include Noah's Ark, King Arthur, messengers of the Norse God Odin, and guardians of the Tower of London, but are best known from Edgar Allen Poe's poem, The Raven
  • National bird of Bhutan, where the king wears the Raven Crown
  • Persecuted for years by farmers and gamekeepers (as they will occasionally prey on small livestock); they have been extirpated in some areas, but have been re-established in others, and are becoming more common in rural areas
  • Predation by ravens (especially of nests) has complicated conservation efforts of some endangered species, such as desert tortoises, Steller's eiders, and California condors, leading to culling in some conservation areas
  • A variable number of subspecies (8-11) are recognized acorss the species range, with the nominate form being in Europe

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Satire: Ecosystem Lecture


Normally, The Onion is one of my favorite go-to sources for zoo satire.  This one just didn't strike me as funny as some of the others one though.  The best satire is supposed to hold a mirror up to the real world and show an exaggerated version of it to teach a point.  In this case, however, the satire was a far tamer, more believable version of what we really deal with.

Area Dad Didn’t Shell Out $100 At Aquarium For Lecture About Ecosystem


MYSTIC, CT—Expressing frustration while viewing the Mystic Aquarium’s stingray exhibit with his family, local dad Jeff Palmer told reporters Wednesday that he didn’t shell out $100 of his hard-earned cash just to listen to a lecture about the ecosystem. “I paid good money to see some fish and big sharks with my kids, not hear a guy spout off about this coral species that’s going extinct,” said Palmer, adding that he had expected the marine expert talking about rising ocean temperatures to instead hold up a stingray that visitors could touch or, at the very least, feed it some type of fish that they could all watch it eat. “Come on, I didn’t drive all the way out here just to have some boring scientist list off a whole bunch of endangered species. Can’t I just watch the seals swimming around in the tank without another stupid speech about shrinking habitats?” At press time, Palmer was growing “pretty goddamn sick” of getting raked over the coals every time he tapped on the aquarium’s glass to get the attention of the sharks.