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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

The Bee's Knees

"How doth the little busy bee improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day from every opening flower."

- Isaac Watts, Against Idleness


This Wednesday finds us smack dab in the middle of National Pollinator Week, a seven-day celebration of pollination.  According to the USDA, a full three-quarters of flowering plants and over a third of our food crops rely on pollinators.  Pollinators come in endless shapes and sizes, from butterflies to giraffes.  They are active by day and by night; among the night-shift are several species of bats, most notably the long-nosed bats which, through their pollination of agave plants, are responsible for tequila. 

In the eyes of most of the world, however, first and foremost among the pollinators is the honeybee.


It surprises many people to realize that the honeybee is not a native of this country.  Originally found in the Old World, it has since spread throughout the globe, with only Antarctica remaining uncolonized.  Its immense popularity among humans isn't just due to its essential pollination duties.  It also produces honey, a food stuff that is incredibly popular among humans and wild animals alike.  Honey has been a dietary staple for millennia; honeycomb found in the tombs of the pharaohs has been sampled by archaeologists, a feat which is only possible because it has no expiration date.

The sweet, unfortunately, comes with the sting, and honeybees are capable of defending their hives vigorously, though the individual bees will die after delivering their sting.  Honeybees are (largely) inoffensive, however, though they are often blamed for stings that are inflicted by their more aggressive look-alike cousins, the wasps.  I put the "largely" in parentheses due to the variations among species, especially the infamous (and exaggerated) Africanized "killer bees" which made their first appearances in South America and have gradually worked their way up north.

Many zoos display beehives, often fronted with glass to allow observation of their inner workings.  This provides an excellent educational opportunity for visitors, as it allows for a peek into some of the most sophisticated social structure of any animal.  Even without this, bees are worthy of as much attention and study as any mega-mammal.  Their long history with human culture, their outsized role on our economies and agriculture, and the fascinating interplay that they have with other species in their ecosystem is extraordinary.    Plus, they need all the help they can get right now.

Beehives in the US have been in decline due to a variety of threats, from pesticides to invasive parasitic mites to loss of food sources.  These threats don't just hurt our honeybee domestics - they also impact the immense host of native pollinators (including several species of wild bees) which our ecosystems depend on.  Lots of attention has been paid to honeybees, which have professional caretakers and amateur hobbyists working on their behalf.  The situation is a lot more precarious for the wild ones - ones that don't form massive hives that make them easy to observe and study and length, and whose absences are more easily missed.

A beekeeper, wearing his protective suit, prepares to install a new hive.

Ways that you can help native pollinators in your backyard are to landscape with the native plants that they feed on and to limit your use of pesticides.  Bees have given us so much benefit over the past several millennia.  The least we can do is try to return the favor.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Species Fact Profile: San Esteban Chuckwalla (Sauromalus varius)

San Esteban Chuckwalla
Sauromalus varius (Dickerson, 1919)

Range: San Esteban Island (Gulf of California)
Habitat: Desert
Diet: Leaves, Fruits, Flowers
Social Grouping: Males form hierarchies and harems
Reproduction: Mating season is April through June.  Up to 16 eggs laid between June through August; eggs hatch around September.
Lifespan: 25 Years
Conservation Status: CITES Appendix I



  • Largest of the five chuckwalla species, an example of island gigantism.  Body length up to 60 centimeters, total length up to 75 centimeters.  Body weight up to 2 kilograms.  Males tend to be larger than females
  • Skin color is gray with yellow or tan patches, with a darker face.  Females are duller than males with fewer patches
  • When threatened, the chuckwalla will run into a rock crevice and inflate its body to make it more difficult to extract; they will also wedge themselves in with their tail and claws
  • Males are territorial, displaying dominance over other males by head-bobbing and doing push-ups atop rock heaps.  Territories are marked using scent glands on the legs.  Males become more territorial during times of plenty, less so during times of scarcity
  • Gain all of their water from the plants they eat; don't urinate, excrete salty crystals instead
  • Name "Chuckwalla" comes from the Shoshone name for the animal.  The Latin name translates to "Flat Lizard with Speckling"
  • Locally common, but considered endangered due to its very limited geographic range.  In the language of the Seri people, San Esteban is called the "Island of the Giant Chuckwalla"
  • The Seri translocated these lizards to several others islands as a food source (sometimes crossbred with other chuckwalla species); none of these populations have survived to the present that
  • Threatened by the introduction of invasive predators and competitors, as well as over-collection for the pet trade.  Sometimes killed by humans who mistake them for Gila monsters



Sunday, June 17, 2018

Father's Day

Children who visit zoos, no matter what their actual background, tend to be a somewhat culturally conservative lot, especially when it comes to families.  Show them an exhibit with three animals in it and they'll be sure to interpret it as the following - a mom, a dad, and a baby.  Show them an exhibit with two, especially if one is bigger than the other, and you've got a mom and a baby.

There's definitely a parental disparity among the animal kingdom.  In many species, dad deposits his sperm and skedaddles.  Parenting tends to be a single-sex job.  This Father's Day, let's tip our hats to some of the great dads of the zoo and aquarium world.

Tamarin and marmoset dads take possession of their infant children almost from the moment when they are born.  This frees up the mother to forage, thereby allowing her to get the nutrition she needs to produce milk for the twins. 

Rhea fathers go a step further.  They don't just babysit... they sit on the babies.  As in, them and them alone.  The females deposit their eggs and leave them.  The responsibility for incubating the eggs (shared between the sexes in ostriches) falls entirely to the male.  The responsibilities don't end there.  After the eggs hatch, the chicks get taken under their father's wing and he ushers them across the pampas until they are grown.

Seahorse fathers take it a step even further.  It's not true, as is ofttimes claimed, that the male's get pregnant, per se.  Instead, the females pass the eggs over to the male, who carries them until they hatch.

Happy Father's Day to all the human dads out there, who would do anything for your kids.  Well, maybe anything except getting pregnant.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

Zoo Review: Vivarium de Quito

The Quito Zoo, located in Guayllabamba, features an impressive selection of Ecuador's native birds and mammals.  It's collection of reptiles and amphibians is somewhat less spectacular.  This is unfortunate, as Ecuador (which includes a section of the Amazon Rainforest) possesses some of the most incredible herpetofauna in the world.  Fortunately, visitors to the country's capital have an opportunity to see some of the country's most beautiful and unique species in a very special facility - the Quito Vivarium.

Unlike the Zoo, the Vivarium is located within the city itself, a short cab ride away from many of the hotels and attractions.  It is a small compound, consisting of a main exhibit building and associated lab space and holding facilities nearby.  You won't find enormous exhibits here - no dusty yard of plodding Galapagos tortoises, nor pools of massive crocodilians.  Instead, you will encounter a cross-section of the amphibians and reptiles of Ecuador, displayed in habitats that replicate their natural environments so well that they would look at home in the finest US reptile houses.


When my Ecuadorian colleague suggested we visit the Vivarium, I was dubious.  I've seen too many cheesy reptile tourist attractions, both in the US and abroad, where animal welfare and education place far behind sensationalism and photo ops.  I expected to see a few crocodiles, some tortoises, maybe a viper in a sensational snake show, and then a boa constrictor or iguana passed around for a photo op.  Instead, I saw lots of animals in nice, well-designed enclosures complete with educational graphics.  I sat in on an informative, interactive (but non-exploitative) educational presentation about snakes.  I discussed (via my translator) the research that the facility does on the reptiles and amphibians of Ecuador.  Most important of all, I got the sense that this was no tourist trap.  It is a facility for the local people to come and get to know their natural heritage.

One of the rules of the Vivarium is that photographs are not allowed so as not to annoy the animals in their enclosures.  I honored that rule there - the single animal photo that I am displaying here was taken with the permission of the staff during a conversation I had with a biologist there.  It is an Andean marsupial frog, a species I had never encountered before.  Actually, almost all of the animals I saw there represented species that were new to me.  For example, many American zoos display the bushmaster, the world's largest viper species.  The Vivarium has them... as well as a different species of bushmaster that I had never even heard of before.  As much as I loved the Vivarium, I was sad upon leaving that I barely can remember or recall many of the animals I saw.  It wasn't until I left that I realized how much I rely on my photographs to help me remember and process my zoo and aquarium visits.

If you find yourself exploring Ecuador, the odds are you'll fly into Quito.  If you do, make a point of visiting this extraordinary little facility.  It will give you a deep appreciation for the beauty and diversity of Ecuador's reptiles and amphibians.  It will also give you the satisfaction of supporting a place that works to make a better future for these animals, both in the wild and in the hearts of the Ecuadorean people.



Friday, June 15, 2018

Crane on the Run

When discussing the challenges associated with owning an exotic pet, one that needs to be brought up is escape.  Owners are responsible for their animals, whether or not they are in their physical custody at a given point.  If an animal escapes, they are responsible for any harm or damage that animal may inflict while on the loose.  They are also responsible for what happens to the animal.  

An escaped creature can have anything happen to it, whether it escapes from a zoo or a private owner.  It may run into traffic and get hit by a car.  It may be eaten by a predator.  It may freeze in the winter.  Or it may live for several years and happily get by.  That's what happened to a flamingo that escaped from Utah's Tracy Aviary and became a local legend with years' worth of sightings.

The picture above was circulating online, depicting the fugitive crane.  The bird's right wing appears to be pinioned, which at the very least should make it easier to catch.

Recently, a grey crowned-crane has turned up in some northern Californian backyards... which is a few thousand miles from where one would naturally occur.  No zoos have so far announced that they have a bird on the lam.  Whatever the case, I hope he gets caught up soon and finds his way to his home, or to a new suitable one if no owner steps forward.

It can be a hard place out there for a crane, after all.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Can You Commit?

"Oh, it's so sweet!  I want one!"

While I doubt that most - or even many of them - would stoop to larceny to fulfill their dream, I do spend a lot of time every day hearing visitors repeat some version of that quote.

Dutifully, a docent will usually emerge like a mirage at this point and give an unsolicited lecture about why that would be a bad idea and how exotic animals don't make good pets.  It's a standard educational talking point at AZA zoos and aquariums.  But how accurate is it?

It would seem obvious that most wild animals don't make good pets.  That's because they're wild.  It took countless generations of selective breeding to get our current domestic pets to where they are now.  That's why we don't (well, at least shouldn't) take gray wolves or African wild cats and bring them home and expect them to cuddle up with us.  They'd tear our faces off in no time.  A wild-caught European rabbit given to a child as a pet would probably have a heart attack and die in minutes.

That being said, I suppose that having spent most of my life working with non-domestic animals has given me a less-mystified view of keeping exotic animals.  In many ways, some species aren't much harder than a dog or a cat in the hands of a qualified caretaker.  Once you get the diet and the enclosure and the proper vet care in place, a sloth really is less of a handful than a Pomeranian.  The problem is, of course, that people who are not qualified seldom realize that they aren't qualified.  There are sanctuaries filled with animals that someone thought they could manage, then realized they couldn't.  Well, I suppose the lucky ones are the animals with owners who realized they were in over their heads.  The less lucky ones died.

Salvador Dali taking his pet giant anteater for a walk.  Even for a surrealist, this is kind of an inconsiderate move, and I'm forced to conclude that Dali (who also had a pet ocelot) was somewhat of a jackass.

Ownership of exotic animals is increasingly regulated on a local level, though a recent ruling at USDA did loosen some restrictions on persons with small numbers of less-dangerous animals.  In some states you won't find anything more exotic than a gerbil outside of an accredited zoo.  In others, it's the wild west.  Largely, if people want to do it, and they've got the money for it, they'll do it, legally or otherwise.  Before acquiring an exotic pet (any pet, really), here are the questions I think need to be asked.

1) Is it legal?  If it's not... don't.  That simple.  Your animal's quality of life will not benefit from its being kept hidden in a backroom and/or confiscated, and then quite possibily euthanized after a suitable approved home can't be found.  Illegal ownership only serves to tarnish the practice of exotic petkeeping, which never has the best of reputations.

2) Is the animal sourced ethically?  By this I mean more than asking if it's been taken from the wild (possibly in violation of CITES or other laws).  In the case of mammals (especially primates) was it taken from its mother at too young an age?  Was it inbred to promote some genetic quirk, such as a color morph?

3) Why do you want it?  This is a tricky one of answer, but one of the most important questions.  An exotic animal is a living, breathing being, not a prop or a fashion accessory to be used for shock value.  Getting an animal on a whim or to make a statement or because it's a fad is a great way to guarantee that you'll get bored with it sooner rather than later.  Which brings us to #4...

4) Can you commit?  Will you be able to meet the physical, social, behavioral, medical, nutritional, etc requirements of this animal for the duration of its life (first fun check - do you know how long it can be expected to live?)  Especially in the case of reptiles, never get a juvenile with the understanding that you can find a new home for it once it gets big.  You probably won't.  Come up with contingency plans - who is going to take care of your lemur, your serval, your whatever if you are no longer able to?  What will it cost to properly care for and house the animal - can you really afford it?

"Exotic pet" is kind of a catch-all term for animals are variable as geckos and jaguars.  Some are a lot easier to satisfy the requirements for, are subject to far fewer laws, and require much less expense and challenge.  Some are very difficult and would be best left to professionally run institutions with a full time staff of trained keepers.

So if you find that, alas, you can't commit to a sloth or a red panda, don't sweat it.  Just go to your local zoo (maybe even see if there are volunteer or behind-the-scenes tour opportunities).  You can think of it as your pet that we take care of for you - you just pop in and see it, and we'll scoop the poop.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

The Great Zoo Robbery

Career Counselor: So, have you ever had a full-time job before?
Client: Yeah, I worked at the zoo for a while.
Career Counselor: Great!  And what did you take away from that?
Client: Defiantly not a penguin.

Staff and students at Gainsville's Santa Fe College Teaching Zoo were devastated late last month by the theft of several animals from their facility.   Thanks to the outstanding work of the local police, suspects were arrested and most of the animals - including a squirrel monkey and a prehensile-tailed skink - were recovered days later.  Two box turtles and two gopher tortoises - both Florida natives - remain unaccounted for.  


Zoo professionals spend a lot of time worrying about their charges escaping and coming to harm (or, depending on the species, harming someone else).  Try as we might, we can't explain to our animals that they are better off in their enclosures then, say, running loose on the interstate outside our gates, or in the woods outside the park while winter inches closer every day.  To that end, we just do our best to make sure enclosures are secure and animals are checked regularly.  

What is a lot harder to prepare for, and a lot harder to protect from, is theft by humans.


There are three main reasons why someone might steal a zoo animal - mischief, malice, and money.  Some might see it as a funny prank.  Others are just sadistic and want the animal so they can harm it, eat it, copulate with it, whatever.  In most cases, however, it's the money angle.  Many species that are found in zoos and aquariums are endangered, and endangered means rare, and rare means expensive.   In some cases, I was shocked at how expensive they could be.  A few years back, I decided that I wanted to celebrate my new home by getting a pet snake.  I already new exactly what I wanted - a black-headed python, a species which I had worked with at two zoos previously and had seen in several others.  And so, convinced that they couldn't be that pricey if so many zoos had them, I went shopping for one.  

$1500.  That's what I was looking at for a single snake, never mind that I wanted a pair.  I quietly re-evaluated my pet plans. At about that time, I read You Belong In A Zoo! by Peter Brazaitis, which includes an entire chapter devoted to a series of mysteries thefts at the Bronx Zoo's World of Reptiles.  Well, I thought, that's one way to get a pet. 

I never gave any thought to lifting a baby from a zoo I knew, but that was also just me.  If I had taken it upon myself to steal a baby python, at the very least I would have been able to provide for it, mostly because I'm a zookeeper.  Many people who would rob zoos of their animals would have no idea what to do with the animal once they got it.  Monkeys, reptiles, and parrots, the species most likely to be pilfered, require specialized care, with special diets and veterinary requirements.  If the thief finds that they are unable to satisfy those, are they likely to turn themselves in or risk getting caught dropping the animal back off at the zoo?  Not likely.  More likely, the animals will suffer.


I hear lots of visitors make jokes about animals - wallabies, sloths, tamarins, penguins - wanting to take them home to cuddle and love.  I seldom say anything, because I know that 99% of the time, it's just talk.  Still, it's worthwhile reminding visitors that there is a reason that some animals are in the zoo, and not in Petsmart - they don't make good pets and they have special care needs.  Of course, if someone is already committed to breaking the law and risking jail time for their own personal gratification, animal welfare probably doesn't rank too high on their worries list.

I'm glad that most of the Santa Fe critters have made it back home.  Hopefully, the rest will join them soon.