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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Zoo History: Strangers in a Strange Land

Many of the modern European zoos had their origins in the royal menageries of Europe - the London Zoo from the Tower of London Menagerie, the Jardin des Plantes from the French kings' menagerie at Versailles.  Many of the modern American zoos began as collections of pets and other animals donated by the public.  The zoos of Africa and Asia developed around colonial port cities.

Then there are the zoos of Australia.  In some ways their origin stories mirror those of the rest of the world... with an unusual, added twist.

Today, Australia is famed for its unique wildlife, found nowhere else in the world - kangaroos, koalas, wombats.  From the time of its discovery to the present, this wildlife has confounded the rest of the world.  It also had the effect of severely unnerving the new colonists of the land... as well as disappointing them.  Kangaroos and koalas had no special value in the eyes of the newly-minted Australians.  They had no practical economic value.  Worse yet, for the transplanted Britons and Scots and Irish... they were just really weird.

To correct both of these perceived shortfalls, the founding fathers of nineteenth century Australia formed what became known as Assimilation Societies.  These societies were established with the purpose of introducing new species of plant and animal to Australia.  Some of these species would be introduced for economic purposes, like agriculture, others for game or sport, and others still for ornamentation... just to remind folks born in Europe of home sweet home.

Some of these species, such as water buffalo and camel, still roam the Australian Outback.  Others, like ostrich, never really took off.  Others plague Australia today, decimating its native fauna (although these societies were not responsible for the introduction of European rabbits, a species which they took some blame for).

Today, Australia is one of the most protective nations in the world when it comes to its wildlife treasures.  It's easier to get blood from a stone, it's been said, than getting animals out of Australia (legally).  Likewise, Australia also makes it extremely difficult to introduce animals into their country.  A long series of invasives - from the rabbit to the cane toad - have taught them that.

Before the acclimatization societies could do too much damage, they fell out of favor.  Even by the dawn of the twentieth century, these organizations began to face criticisms for the risks that they posed to native species (which began to slowly but surely become a point of pride for Australians).  Instead, these acclimatization societies became zoos.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Lady and the Tiger

One of the big news stories this week that does NOT involve the presidential race has been the tragic and fatal mauling of a woman at a safari park in China.  The tragedy involved two women who left their car in a drive thru safari... only for a moment, but that's all it took.  One of the women was seized from behind by a tiger, the other was killed while she tried to rescue her.

Because it's 2016, the incident was caught on film.  I've opted not to show it here out of respect for the woman's family, but if you're feeling morbid (and I'll understand if you are), I promise, you won't have any trouble finding it online.

Safari parks as a whole make me nervous.  Obviously incidents like this can occur, especially when large carnivores are involved.  Mostly, it makes me nervous having people given the opportunity to interact with wild, often potentially dangerous animals with no supervision.  Animals can be hit by cars by careless drivers, they can be harmed by malicious guests, they can be fed inappropriate diets, the list goes on.  Sure, you could say the same about visitors interacting with animals in the wild.

That's fair.  The wild, as a whole, makes me nervous too.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Zoo Review: Potawatomi Zoo

Like many American zoos, the Potawatomi Zoo (it's actually pretty easy to pronounce if you just break it up and go slowly) had very humble beginnings - originally, it was simply a duck pond.  A duck pond grew with the addition of a herd of deer, then a herd of bison.  Today it is one of the finest medium-sized zoos in the Midwest, boasting an impressive collection of cats, primates, and ungulates.  A recently unveiled master plan promises to make even more positive changes.

At only 23 acres, the zoo houses a wide variety of species, all without managing to feel cramped.  There didn't strike me as being an especially clear layout to the zoo, except for a rough grouping by continent.  No area was especially enormous or in depth, but each covered a basic selection of the continent's most iconic species... where appropriate for a medium-sized zoo.  Africa, for instance, consisted of grassy yards for zebra and Watusi cattle (mixed with crowned cranes).  A small troop of chimpanzees is found nearby, visible in either an outdoor yard or through the windows of their indoor holding building.  More primates, including the colobus monkeys which form the zoo's logo.  Lions, one of the zoo's many big cats on display, occupy what is, to be charitable, a pretty mediocre exhibit nearby.  African wild dogs have a much more naturalistic enclosure over by the hoofstock.

Asia is a much smaller section, largely dominated by the cats - tigers, snow leopard, and a breeding group of critically endangered Amur leopards (a mother and her half-grown cubs were on display when I visited).  Red pandas occupy a very attractive exhibit, and white-naped cranes, muntjac, and Bactrian camels are also found here.  The animal that I was most interested in seeing, however, was the takin.  Potawatomi has had lots of success in maintaining, training, and breeding these rare Himalayan ungulates.  It's hard to say why I enjoyed their exhibit so much - it was just a simple, open yard on a slight hill - maybe its simplicity just made it seem more natural than an exhibit filled with gunite rockwork and mountains.

Australia largely consisted of a walkthrough habitat, home to emu, black swan, red-necked wallabies, and kangaroos.  Kookaburras and honeyeaters occupy side aviaries.  More birds - as well as the vast majority of the zoo's reptile and small mammal collection (Jamaican fruit bats, banded mongoose, golden lion tamarins, etc) are located in an education building - complete with classrooms.  Outside, spider monkeys spend the warmer months on islands in a small lake.

The final area is a catch-all of the Americas; it may have been my favorite.  I loved the giant anteater exhibit (viewing the anteaters from underneath the exposed roots of a giant fake tree).  Also impressive were what I took to be two of the newer exhibits, one for bobcat, one for North American river otter.  Grassy yards housed bison, peccary, and alpaca,  flamingos strolled around a lagoon, and prairie dogs gamboled about in front of a winter holding building for American and Chinese alligators.  A small petting barn rounds out the zoo.

After going through a bit of a decline in recent years (many of the keepers I spoke to on my visit indicated that many of the exhibits had been empty until recently), the Potawatomi Zoo is surging and expanded.  Last year it unveiled its master plan, which is visible on the zoo's website.  It calls for several new exhibits to be built - some new ones for existing species in the collection, some for new faces - giraffes, bears, and wolves, to name a few. 

I find this really reassuring.  While many of the newer exhibits were excellent, I definitely got the sense that some parts of the zoo seemed overcrowded and might have benefited from fewer species.  The adjacent leopard and snow leopard exhibits, for example, I felt could have been merged to form one larger exhibit for one species (though I must admit, I was impressed by the way the keepers used layers upon layers of shelving to increase the three-dimensional space available for the cats.  Likewise, I wasn't tremendously impressed with the chimp exhibit... until a keeper told me that it was much smaller, originally, and the zoo filled in the moat to give the apes much more land space.

At any rate, the zoo seemed to buzz - at every level - with energy and enthusiasm, and it's hard not to see that great things are in the works there.  I look forward to the realization of the zoo's master plan - one which continues its trend of great new exhibits while moving the occupants of its older exhibits into new, high quality homes.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

A Coat of Any Color

"Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors they are? That ghastly whiteness it is which imparts such an abhorrent mildness, even more loathsome than terrific, to the dumb gloating of their aspect. So that not the fierce-fanged tiger in his heraldic coat can so stagger courage as the white-shrouded bear or shark."
- Herman Melville, Moby Dick
The fish connoisseurs that Emily Voigt met while researching The Dragon Behind the Glass want Asian arowanas – but not just any Asian arowana.   They wax eloquently about the shape of the fins and the length of the barbels, but mostly they talk about color.   Some speak of the illustrious “Super Red” (red being a lucky color in many East Asian cultures), others of luxuriant gold.  The highest selling fish of all was a coveted albino, lurking in a wall-sized tank in a darkened room.

Fish aren’t the only group of animals in which there is a high demand for unusually-colored animals.  Voigt mentions a collector who had an entire private zoo of only white animals.  Many popular pet reptiles and amphibians and birds are bred for unique color morphs.  The wild budgerigar – the little Australian psittacine that is often referred to as a parakeet or budgie – is yellow/green.  Visit a pet store and you’ll encounter cloud white and sky blue, among other colors.  Likewise, I went herping a few years ago with a friend in Florida.  When he spotted and caught a snake off the trail, I had a hard time recognizing it as a corn snake – perhaps the most commonly kept snake in the United States.  I had a hard time reconciling the pallet of color morphs that I saw in pet stores and zoo education departments with the burnt orange serpent, far less gaudy but much for appealing (in my eyes),  that my friend held in this hands.

White tigers, of course, are celebrities among zoo animals, and though they seem to be fading out of AZA collections, they still have a tremendous amount of popular support in the private sector (with some apologists even insisting that they are a separate subspecies).  White alligators have become very popular in recent years, popping up in aquariums and zoos around the country; the first one I ever saw was a rental, on display at one major zoo as a summer attraction.  White rheas and white deer are fairly common.  There are white lions in a handful of zoos (though these look nowhere near as striking as white tigers); as far as I know, none of the famous white “spirit bears” of Canada’s coastal rainforests are on display anywhere.

Excluded from the list are black jaguars and black leopards, which do occur in the wild, in some parts of the species’ range being fairly common.   Even so, these black cats have a much stronger pull on the imagination of our visitors than the spotted ones; guests will stare at a black panther for minutes on end, maybe only passing a glance at a spotted exhibit-mate.  In contrast, many unusual color morphs – white tigers and white alligators, for example – are the descendants of perhaps a single mutant animal born in the wild.  These normally would not survive, but by being brought into captivity, were propagated (sometimes incestuously) to produce similar-looking offspring.  Other color morphs, like the endless array of patterned python, were the result of generations of selective breeding, with new varieties coming out every year. 

Color morphs are often the result of selective breeding, which, in the case of zoo and aquarium animals, I tend to disapprove of.  Partially because I worry about the prospect of inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity.  Mostly because I like the idea of keeping the captive stock as close as possible to the wild ancestor.  Voigt, upon seeing selectively-bred Asian arowanas, felt dubious about their prospects for survival if they were ever to be used for reintroduction efforts.  Selective breeding hadn’t just changed their color – it had changed their nature.

Of course, you could say that selectively breeding captive animals so that they can’t survive in the wild could also be an advantage, thereby reducing the likelihood of a species escaping and becoming an invasive pest.  In the pet trade, also (especially in the reptile trade, which has a history of smuggling issues), color morphs can serve as proof that an animal was captive-produced and not taken illegally from the wild.

Reputable zoos try to present animals to the public as they are, not as a vision of what the public might find to be more visually impressive.  This is doubly true if such selective breeding results in inbreeding or other genetic problems.  We should strive to present the animal as an animal, a natural phenomenon, not the result of our own genetic tinkering.  An Asian arowana selectively bred to be a different shape or size or color not found in nature is, in its own way, no longer an arowana.  It ceases to be a natural creature and becomes yet another display of human domination.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Book Review: The Dragon Behind the Glass

“No one could decide how to think of the Asian arowana anymore – as a precious mythical object or a mass-produced commodity or a dangerous invasive.  Only one thing was clear: it was no longer just a fish.”

In public aquariums across the world, a recurring exhibit gallery is the Amazon River.  This isn’t surprising, as the Amazon is home to many of the world’s most remarkable freshwater fish, a rogue’s gallery of which can be found at many institutions.  They include the arapaima, the red-bellied piranha, the pacu, the redtail catfish… and the silver arowana.  To me, the arowana was always an American fish – I had no idea that there were actually several species of arowana scattered across four continents.  And I certainly had no idea that one species was, as the subtitle of a book I just read put it, “the world’s most coveted fish.”

Yet that is exactly how journalist Emily Voigt describes the Asian arowana (Scleropages formosus) in her book, The Dragon Behind the Glass.  The title eludes to the dragon-like appearance of the Asian arowana, an aquarium fish capable of commanding prices of $150,000 on the pet trade for a superb specimen… and a fish that fuels sufficient jealousy and greed to inspire kidnappings, sabotage, and even murder. 

Voigt goes on a globe-hopping quest to get under the scales of the arowana, and into the minds of the people who have made it the ichthyologic super-star that it is.  The book encompasses a colorful cast of characters, from a Singapore-based breeder known as “Kenny the Fish” to a wealthy businessman who rebuilds his house specifically to accommodate a specially-made tank to show off his priceless fish to the smugglers who do prison time for illegally trafficking in the species.   She travels to Borneo to try and find the fish in its native habitat, and even to the reclusive, junta-ruled world of Myanmar in search of a potential new species of arowana, a mission driven by feuding biologists and necessitating a legal changing of her name (“That, if I had to pick a moment,” she admits, “was when I began to suspect that my relationship with the arowana was not 100 percent healthy”).

The Dragon Behind the Glass is more than a fish story, however.  It raises the interesting question of how to protect a rare species in our interconnected, commoditized world.  Is the secret strict government protection?  Many of the scientists that Voigt interviews feel that this only adds to the mystique of the fish and makes it more coveted by collectors.  Should the species be prolifically mass-produced in captivity and sold to whoever wants on?  That could remove the incentive to protect the wild species, as well as the habitat that supports it.  How to face the challenge that the arowana is threatened in its range countries, yet is an invasive pest elsewhere?

Like it or not, the arowana is a valuable commodity to collectors, as well as a priceless treasure for scientists (I won’t give any secrets away, but the scientific scheming and double-crossing that surround Voigt’s quest for arowana in Myanmar  would read just as easily as a novel as it does scientific journalism).
Some of the breeders that Voigt encounters maintain that their mass-production of captive arowana for the pet trade is saving the species from extinction and that their fish could be used to replenish wild stocks if the species were ever to go extinct in the wild.  Voigt seems to counter with the argument that a captive fish is, ecologically speaking, a dead fish and that reintroduction programs don't work.  In this particular case she's right - with their specialized breeding for color and body shape, Asian arowanas are slithering down the path to domestication.  I wish, however, that she'd explained more fully that this isn't the case for many reintroduction programs, including those that involve fish - sturgeon, for example, which are being raised in captivity and released in their native range in the United States.  That being said, the author barely touches public aquariums in the book, so it makes sense that she's focused on the practice of private, home aquariums.
One aspect of the book that I greatly enjoyed was its concept of how we perceive rarity.  Many collectors, the author maintains, desire the Asian arowana because of its rarity, because of the value and prestige that they see it as possessing.   In this, it's very similar to a far rarer avian treasure from another book I just read, Spix's macaw.  I can relate and understand.  When I visit a zoo or aquarium, I usually gloss over the lions and giraffes and black-tip reef sharks.  I make a beeline for the species that I've never seen before, especially if I know I won't be able to see it anywhere else.
Which raises on interesting point.  After reading this book, I did a little research.  There are about a dozen zoos and public aquariums in this country that are listed as having Asian arowana.  Some of them I have visited without ever having remembered seeing one.  I don't have any in my photo collection, but then again, I usually don't focus too much on fish.  Maybe I did see one and just never thought enough to photographic, to sit and watch it for a while.  Maybe, all things considered, I just didn't think it was that special.
Now I know better.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

From the News: 'Dory' Bred in Captivity for First Time

Some people have interpreted the movie Finding Nemo and its recent sequel, Finding Dory, as having an anti-captivity message.  If they do, then it's pretty ironic - after each movie was released, the home aquarium trade saw a tremendous spike the desire to own the movies' signature species, the clownfish and the blue tang.  While clownfish are available as captive-bred specimens, every blue tang in an aquarium was born in the wild.

Until now, that is...

It's yet to be seen what impact this historic first birth, achieved by the University of Florida Tropical Aquaculture Lab and Rising Tide Conservation, will have on the blue tang trade.  Is this a one-time fluke? Is this the start of a process by which blue tangs will become abundant, sustainably-produced aquarium fish?  Or will this only fuel the craze for tangs and allow more people to purchase wild-caught ones not knowing the difference?  Only time will tell...

One thing that this will not change, however.  Blue tangs - with their large adult size, large tank requirements, and long lifespan - are not suitable pets for amateurs or beginners.

All blue tangs in tanks today, like this one, have had to be caught from the wild.