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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Zoo Year's Resolutions

On the last day of 2013, I figured that I'd start working on my New Year's Resolutions.  Lots of the usual promises that I don't intend to keep - eat healthier, exercise more (and not cheating by counting work as exercise), clean up the apartment once in a while.  I've also made a few work-related resolutions, which I've decided to share:

1) Enrichment for All!

I try to do daily enrichment for some of the animals that I work for, generally the ones that we all regard as the "smart ones" - primates, carnivores.  I want to expand on that and do enrichment for every species in the collection, the tortoises, sloths, the flighty birds that I hate having to count and recount every morning...  We repeatedly see that virtually all animals are more intelligent than we previously thought they were (that or people are getting dumber...), so who's to say that you have to be big and furry to benefit from some extra TLC from the keepers?

A key feature of this blog has been the species fact profiles.  I make these so that I can share exciting less familiar zoo animals with the public.  Everyone thinks that lions and giraffes are cool, but compared to a capybara or a cassowary?  I mean, come on!  I plan on researching and writing fact sheets for all of the animals that I care for... and I encourage all the other keepers out there to do the same.  Not only does it make you look super-smart when talking to visitors (more on that later), but having more knowledge about your animals - their captive management, their lives in the wild - can help lead to better care, and thereby make you a better keeper.

It would be easy to get the impression that I don't like visitors.  That's patently untrue.  I don't like stupid people.  Some of them just happen to visit my zoo.  I realize, however, that zoos and aquariums are doomed to failure unless they engage the public and make the visitors care about wildlife and conservation.  This year, I want to reach out to visitors more - solicit questions, chat them up, share interesting news with them (including ways that they themselves can make a difference for animals).

4) Walk the Walk!

Speaking of which, I want to be greener myself, both at home and in work.  Walk or bike more, drive less.  Compost and recycle.  Eat less meat (I can't force myself to go cold turkey... pun intended) and use sustainable seafood and palm oil.  And, at the risk of earning my girlfriend's wrath, keeping the thermostat just a hair lower in the winter.  Sure, I can't make too huge of a difference myself - but a lot of people working together can.

5) Go to the Zoo... Again!

This isn't just about having a fun day out, or getting more material for blog posts.  Visiting other zoos and aquariums frequently helps me come up with new ideas to bring back to my workplace, and the sharing of new ideas is what makes our profession grow.  Sometimes it's a great idea of how to do something.  Other times it's a warning of what not to do.  In any case, great learning opportunities abound, and you can show your support for other institutions.

6) Get Involved!

Zoos and aquariums have lots of programs and opportunities to help protect the future of endangered species.  They only work, however, if people get involved.  This year, I want to join some committees, work with Species Survival Plans, and get involved in professional development.  Just like #4, one person can make a difference by himself or herself, but can make a much bigger difference as part of a greater unit.

Okay, it's New Year's Eve and I'm still typing this?  Time to go:

7) Get a Life Outside of Work!

This resolution I may break...

Monday, December 30, 2013

Natural Born Killers

I found a snake in the wolf exhibit earlier this year.  That’s not entirely accurate – I actually found half a snake.  The week before that it was an opossum.  Earlier that month some visitors ran to me in a panic to let me know that the wolves were trotting around with a duck – still alive – in their mouths, taking turns handing the prize off to one another like an Olympic torch.  Our wolves may have spent all of their lives in zoos, but when they turned to look at me, their quacking prize held tightly in their jaws, their eyes said it all 

– Still got it.

I was proud of our pack... until I saw the news about the cheetahs over at the National Zoo.  It made our wolves look like rank amateurs. 

A major part of the zoo transformation of the last several decades has been environmental enrichment, or providing stimulus that improves the psychological well being of captive animals.  A key component of enrichment from the zoo perspective has been allowing animals to engage in behaviors that they would in the wild.  Otters, seals, and other aquatic animals are given water features to swim in.  Primates and parrots are given climbing structures.  Bears and apes are encouraged to forage for food.  Beavers are given logs and branches to gnaw on.  All good, wholesome, educational, and, above all, non-controversial, right?  Well then there are the predators.

Predators kill things.  It’s what they do.  The entire body of a predator – be it a cheetah, a harpy eagle, a sand tiger shark, or an emperor scorpion – is a machine that enables it to capture and kill other animals.  Wouldn’t the natural extension of environmental enrichment be to allow predators to… well, predate?

In turns out, there are plenty of reasons not to offer zoo predators live prey.  For one thing, there is the increased risk of injury – potentially fatal injury – to the predators.  If I were a rabbit or rat suddenly thrust into an enclosure with a python, I don’t think that I would “go gentle into that good night”, I would fight and bite like my life depended on it.  Which it would.   As someone who has been bitten by several, I can attest that rats have a nasty bite, and more than one snake keeper has checked on their prized pet to find a feeder rat calmly gnawing on the severed head of the vanquished snake.  Now, when I put a rat in with a snake, I’m not intending for it to have a fair fight.  I’m intending for it to become a meal.  This isn’t Gladiator

Unbeknown to many, the Ancient Romans were pioneers in the field of zoo feeding enrichment...

Of course, most often it’s the predator that does the killing, but not always cleanly.  At one zoo I worked at, I watched a clouded leopard spend an hour toying with a terrified bunny that had made a serious wrong turn somewhere.  The cat snatched the rabbit up, carried it for a while, dropped it, batted it around, and basically made the last forty-five minutes of its sad, lagomorph life a living hell.  Rabbits, if you’ve never had the pleasure, are screamers, which added to the gruesomeness experience.

That brings up one of the major reasons that we don’t usually feed live prey – public objections.  A lot of people would be upset by seeing a predator dispatching prey in front of their children, especially if it was done in an especially brutal manner (primates have an evil genius for torturing small animals they capture, pulling the wings off of birds or throwing the headless carcasses of rabbits at the viewing window – it really helps you remember how close to humans they are).  Of course, zookeepers and aquarists are all animal lovers, so it can also be hard for them to watch animals kill other animals.

Not surprisingly, public attitudes towards live prey vary according to the prey.  One study published in Zoo Biology reported that almost all visitors were fine with feeding live insects to lizards, fewer with the idea of live fish being fed to penguins, and fewer still with live rabbits being fed to cheetahs.  Interestingly enough, approval ratings were higher for feeding live prey off-exhibit than on public view.  Not surprising – I wonder how many Americans would still eat meat if they had to see the cow or pig enter the slaughterhouse.

Most zoos feed live invertebrate prey, others use live fish, especially for enrichment (if you’ve ever seen a fishing cat dive into a glass-fronted pool to snag a fish, it’s pretty awesome).  Rodents and rabbits are usually fed deceased, though live prey may be offered in some cases, such as a snake that isn’t showing interest in any other food.  Various zoos – balls, paper bags, cardboard boxes, papier-mâché “prey” – are used to simulate “killing prey.”  Predators may be fed with carcasses of rabbits, chickens, goats, or deer to allow them to rip up their “prey” naturally.  The feeding of live mammals – especially those other than rodents – just isn’t commonplace at many zoos.  In some countries, it’s actually outlawed.

Some visitors that I talk to think that I feed the big cats by throwing in a live goat once a week, while others seem to think that I have persuaded them somehow to become vegans (the cats, not the goats… the goats are already vegans).  While the truth is much closer to the first theory than the second, most of the large carnivores in zoos will never hunt and kill live prey… at least, not prey provided by the keepers.  That makes it all the more exciting for them when that hapless squirrel or rabbit or duck finds its way into the enclosure… and doesn’t always find the way out.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Species Fact Profile: Cane Toad (Bufo marinus)

Cane (Marine) Toad
Bufo marinus (Linneaeus, 1758)

Range: Northern Mexico through northern South America
Habitat: Forest
Diet: Insects, Crustaceans, Gastropods, Plant Matter
Social Grouping: Non-Territorial
Reproduction:  Males congregate in still water to call for mates (can reproduce year round), up to 30000 eggs, reproduce in second year, eggs hatch in 2-7 days
Lifespan: 10 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status:  IUCN Least Concern

  • On average, measure 24 centimeters long and weigh 110 grams; the sexes look alike
  • Grey/olive/brown dorsal skin is covered with many warts, while the ventral skin is yellow or white with brown speckles; a high bony ridge is formed on the snout
  • During the colder or drier parts of the year, they remain underground in shallow excavations
  • They secrete a white, viscous poison (bufotoxin) from their large paratoid glands; this can result in vomiting, paralysis, or death if a predator ingests it, or touches it to a mucous membrane
  • Newly-metamorphosed juveniles are diurnal, but become nocturnal as adults
  • Despite the nickname "marine toad", they have little tolerance for saltwater and will die in seawater
  • They have been been introduced around the world (Australia, New Guinea, Philippines, Fiji, Caribbean, Hawaii, USA), both accidentally and deliberately, in an attempt to control cane beetles.  They are considered a major invasive species, killing native predators which lack immunity to their poisons and outcompeting native amphibian species
  • Some Australian predators (frogmouths, water rats, ibises) have learned to safely eat cane toads, flipping them on their backs and eating the soft underbellies, avoiding the toxic glands on the back


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas!

I'm not going to pretend that anyone is actually reading this on Christmas Day - I hope most of you have better things to do!  I do, however, want to take a moment to send a special Christmas greeting to all of the zookeepers and aquarists who are working today.  Zoo animals are an inconsiderate lot, as a whole, and don't especially care if it is Christmas - they still demand to be fed and cleaned up after.

So Merry Christmas to all the keepers working today, especially those far from home.  I hope you finish up quickly and a have at least a little time to enjoy the holiday outside of work!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Zoo Joke: The Viper

One weekend, Mr. Brown took his kids to the zoo.  He did not enjoy this visit, mostly because it hadn’t occurred to him that there would be snakes there.  Mr. Brown was TERRIFIED of snakes, and yet he allowed his kids to drag him into the Reptile House, where he was confronted with snake after snake after snake.

Especially terrifying to him were the deadly vipers, coiled menacingly in their displays.  In fact, when he stared at them from certain angles, it seemed that there was nothing between him and the snakes (and in the back of his mind, remembered how dirty his own windows were).  It seemed like the snakes could crawl right out and get him.   For the next several days, he had trouble sleeping, so possessed was he by nightmares of venomous snakes coming to get him.

One dreary day, Mr. Brown was sitting in his office, staring out the window and trying not to think of snakes, when he heard a knock on the door.

“Who’s there?” he called.

“Mr. Brown, this is the Viper, let me in!”  boomed the voice from the other side of the door.

“What?” gasped Mr. Brown.

“I said, this is the Viper, open the door!”

“You… you… you can’t come in!  Go away!” Mr. Brown exclaimed.  He searched around the room, hoping to find some place we could hide, some object he could use as a weapon to defend himself.

“Mr. Brown, I am the Viper, I must come in!”  The handle of the door began to turn.

Consumed with terror, Mr. Brown collapsed in a dead faint in the middle of the office floor.  As he lost consciousness, he heard again:

“Mr. Brown, this is the Viper!  I’m here to vipe the vindows!”

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Winter of our Discontent

One of the most constant questions that I get from zoo visitors is, “What do you all do with the animals during the winter?”  It’s a question that I can get so tired of answering that I have to remind myself that it really is a legitimate question, one that a lot of guests wonder about.  My zoo has a decent number of tropical animals, we don’t have any indoor exhibits, and we’re in a part of the country that can get pretty cold in the winter (not “Fargo” cold, but cold).  Even though we are open year round, not many guests come by in the dead of winter to see the animals.  I suppose it’s easy for them to suppose that we crate everyone up and ship them all down to Florida or someplace.  That WOULD be nice…

In truth, most of our animals handle the winter weather just fine.  Some, like bison and bears, don’t even seem to notice the cold (or if they do, it’s while thanking heaven that summer is over).  Others, like the reptiles, can’t stand the cold and have to be moved inside.  Most of the animals are in between these two extremes.  Some might be locked inside at night or in the worst of the weather, but most will be fine as long as they’ve got shelter.  “Shelter” means different things to different animals; for some it might be a block-building with a gas heater and heat lamps, for others it might be a wooden lean-to.  At any rate, all will be given lots of bedding, fed extra well, and be under the watchful eyes of the keepers, who will make sure that everyone is warm and safe, and adjust the animals’ care as needed.

A better question?  What do the KEEPERS do in the winter.  The answer: suffer.

I should have stayed a reptile keeper.  That’s what I remind myself every winter; every year, I feel a little less capable of handling the cold.  In the good old days, I could wear shorts year round – all I needed to do was make the thirty yard dash from the car to the 80 degree, tropical paradise in which I worked.  Now I have to wear so many winter clothes that the simple act of going to the bathroom is preceded by a fifteen-minute ceremony of removing four or five layers until I can even find my fly.  In comparison, the animals have it easy – even the ones who stay outside year round can just hunker down in a nest box or doze under the heat lamp.  We HAVE to be out and about…

It’s not just the cold, either – every aspect of the job in winter makes life harder.  Locks freeze; you have to squeeze them in your bare hands or breath in them or hold a lighter under them to melt the ice inside of them.  Water bowls freeze up (to be fair, in the summer this headache is replaced with algae), and the ice has to be chipped out, and then removed from the exhibit so that animals don’t cut their feet on it.  Poop is frozen to the ground.  Heavy snowfall can damage exhibit roofs.  Tools become brittle and break.  Heat lamps have to be tended to endlessly: is the bulb burning out?  Is it too close to something flammable (like, say, your bird’s right wing)?  Animals are pooping and peeing in their bedding more, which needs to get cleaned out more.
Of course, there are advantages to the winter as well.  Peace and quiet is nice; on those rare days when it’s cold enough to keep the crowds away but not too cold to work outside, a lot of projects can get done.  A lot of the animals seem to prefer the winter to the summer, being more comfortable in snow than heat.  This is obvious for a lot of the North American and Eurasian animals, but even a lot of the tropic species aren’t the wusses that guests seem to think they are.  This is especially true after a snow fall – it’s amazing to watch kangaroos, lions, and zebras playing in the white stuff.  Plus, snow has awesome enrichment opportunities – hide food in it, make snowmen for your animals to pounce on, stash some in the freezer to bring out in the summer… and it’s fun for keepers too!  Provided that it doesn’t come down in six foot increments and threaten to collapse every structure in the zoo…

See, he doesn't look TOO miserable!

So winter at the zoo isn’t ALL bad.  It can actually have it own charms, which are, of course, best appreciated from inside the break room, especially if your zoo is lucky enough to have a working coffee/hot-chocolate maker, and especially especially if someone was wise enough to bring in donuts that day.  As long as the animals are okay and no keepers lost fingers to frostbite, it’s all good.  Besides, spring (and the crowds… and mulching… and weeding… and all of those other jobs) will be there before you know it.

Happy first day of Winter!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Zoo Conservation Outreach Group

Conservation is the goal of all reputable zoos and aquariums.  While captive breeding and public education and inspiration play a role in this, most conservation always goes back to the field.  Few zoos, however, are capable of fielding their own expeditions to the wildernesses of Africa and Asia to study and protect endangered species; those that can are inevitably the larger, wealthier institutions, such as WCS and the Smithsonian. 

One of the easiest and most exciting ways for North American and European institutions to contribute to conservation is to support the Zoo Conservation Outreach Group.  ZCOG is one of the leading forces in the conservation of Latin American wildlife, working to save a number of iconic species.  Some, such as the Andean bear, Andean condor, and Chilean flamingo, are found in many zoo collections.  Others, such as the giant armadillo and the mountain tapir, are not.  Contributors to ZCOG can earmark their donations to go towards various programs with diverse goals.  One of the major goals of the Andean Bear Program, for instance, is to rehabilitate and release confiscated or injured bears, putting them back into the wild.  Other projects are focused on species so little known and poorly studied that the priority is obtaining even the most basic information about them.

The Zoo Conservation Outreach Group is also committed to building the leadership capacity of Latin American zoos and aquariums and in creating a collaborative conservation network throughout the Americas.  One of the ways that it accomplishes this is by helping to arrange for Latin American zoo professionals to receive training in the United States, giving keepers and curators the resources needed to build up their own institutions back home.   Scholarships are provided by AZA members, giving participants the chance to learn record-keeping skills in Wheeling, study crocodilian husbandry in St. Augustine, or attend several other professional development opportunities.

Contributing to conservation in the field is important, as many people would doubtlessly agree.  But why is it important to build zoo leadership in Latin America?  The first and most obvious answer is that it will improve the quality of life for animals held in Latin American zoos.  But why have zoos in South America anyway?  Or Africa?  Wouldn’t it be easier just to contribute directly to field conservation all of the time?  I’m sure that would be the easy short-term answer, but the ZCOG approach is thinking long term.

In the end, the decision to conserve the Andean bear, the solitary crowned eagle, or the giant anteater can’t be made in New York or London – it must come from the people who share their countries with these animals.  The trend of urbanization and loss of contact with nature isn’t unique to Europe and North America, but is occurring in Latin America as well.  For many Brazilians or Ecuadoreans, their only contact with many kinds of native animals may very well be in a zoo.   Zoos provide an opportunity for visitors – including the decision makers of the future – to have the chance to understand and encounter their natural heritage.  It should be in part the responsibility of American and European zoos - especially those housing Central and South American species - to help make these encounters possible.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Sporcle Quiz: Animal Discoveries

"There is little hope of discovering new species of large quadrupeds"
Georges Cuvier (1769-1832)

Even within his own lifetime, the famous French naturalist saw himself proven wrong time and time again.  Who would have guessed, though, that even now - in 2013 - a new species of large mammal (one of the largest in South America!) was waiting to be discovered?  Yet that was what happened earlier this week with the discovery of the world's fifth - and smallest - species of tapir!  

Scientists make one of the biggest animal discoveries of the century: a new tapir

In honor of this exciting new discovery, here's a Sporcle Quiz devoted to just a few of the other many, many times that good old Cuvier was proven wrong.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Book Review: Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives

 "Zoos argue that they are fighting for the conservation of the Earth, that they educate the public and provide refuge and support for vanishing species. And they are right. Animal-rights groups argue that zoos traffic in living creatures, exploiting them for financial gain and amusement. And they are right."

One of my favorite non-fiction, non-animal books of all time is John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.  In this book, the author moves to Savannah, Georgia and becomes caught up in the real-life (you couldn’t make this stuff up) drama and escapades of the city’s… colorful residents.  The author finds himself with a front row seat to scandal after scandal, cumulating in murder.

What Berendt did for Savannah, journalist Thomas French does for Tampa's Lowry Park Zoo in his Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives.  French takes us inside of the rapidly growing, constantly changing zoo, introducing us to its keepers, vets, and animals, while exploring the role that they play in saving endangered species.  He also takes us through a number of scandals, some of which some of the interested parties wouldn’t hesitate to call murder.

French opens up his book with one of the most controversial episodes in recent zoo history: the decision to transfer a herd of elephants, slated for culling in their native Swaziland due to overpopulation, to zoos in the United States.  Some of those elephants wound up (after considerable strife, which French documents faithfully) in Lowry Park, which built a new compound to receive them.  Part of the writer’s skill is how he uses stories like these to teach lessons to the general reader.  Prior to the elephants' arrival, he explores the controversy of zoos keeping elephants at all.  As they settle in, he explains the free-contact/protected contact divide among elephant keepers.  The later point is not an academic one, as French explains while recounting the past death the zoo’s former elephant keeper.

The zoo that the author takes us through is a magical kingdom, full of wonderful experiences.  Injured manatees are nursed back to health and prepared for release and return.  Zoo staff travel the world to help study endangered species in the wild (the book describes one of the last expeditions to see the Panamanian golden frog in the wild).  The bond between keeper and kept (including a chimp with a thing for his female keepers) is explored in great detail.  It is also a place of danger.  One of the most haunting chapters of the book describes the deaths – very different, but both violent – of the zoo’s two most famous residents.

A backdrop to the book’s animal protagonists is the rise and fall of Lex Salisbury, the zoo’s director, who was accused of using the zoo’s resources (and animals) for personal gain as he planned to open his own private zoo.  The Salisbury saga is more than about personalities (though there are some over-sized ones dominating it).  It is about the conflicted nature of a zoo and its mission.  What does a zoo stand for?  What are its priorities?  Is it for people first, or for animals?

Zoo and aquarium keepers will enjoy French’s book – it will doubtlessly remind many of them of the dramas and internal struggles at their own zoos (hopefully on an exaggerated scale).  Who this book is really meant for, however, is for the folks on the outside looking in – the general public.  Easily readable and highly enjoyable, it offers a very intimate peak into the life and inner-workings of a zoo.  It doesn’t whitewash the faults or gloss over controversies, nor should it.  It does, however, portray the Lowry Park Zoo – as with most zoos – as what it really is: a group of very devoted, very passionate people, committed to the wellbeing of their animals and determined to make a difference, both in the zoo and around the world.

Monday, December 16, 2013

From the News: Komodo Dragon among six reptiles killed in fire at San Antonio Zoo

I've never had the pleasure of working with Komodos, but I have worked with over a dozen other species of monitor lizards, and have found them to be the most intelligent, most personable, and most charismatic of reptiles.  They are very special animals, and I sympathize very much with the loss and sorrow the the San Antonio keepers must be feeling now.  At least they were able to save many of their other charges.  I hope that they are able to determine the cause of the fire and rebuild - though some animals, like some people, can't be replaced.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Species Fact Profile: Aldabra Tortoise (Geochelone gigantea)

Aldabra Tortoise
Geochelone gigantea (Schweigger, 1812)

Range: Aldabra Atoll (Seychelles)
Habitat: Scrub, Grassland, Mangrove Swamp
Diet: Grasses, Fruits, Invertebrates, Carrion
Social Grouping: Solitary or in Herds
Reproduction:  Mating season is February through May; up to 25 eggs are laid in a shallow nest hole, hatchlings appear 4-8 months later.  Fertility seems to be low, both in the wild and in captivity, with less than half of the eggs hatching
Lifespan: 150 years + (up to 200 years?)
Conservation Status:  IUCN Vulnerable, CITES Appendix II

  • Rivals the Galapagos tortoise as the world's largest tortoise species: body length is 1.2 meters, with a weight of 250 kilograms; record-size individuals are 360 kilograms.  Males are larger than females and have longer, thicker tails
  • The carapace is brown or tan; the shape varies from island to island, depending on whether the tortoises are browsers and grazers.  Despite this variation, no subspecies are recognized
  • Aldabra tortoises can be distinguished from the similar looking Galapagos tortoise by the presence of a "keystone" scute on the carapace, directly above the neck
  • The neck is very long, allowing tortoises to reach tree branches 1 meter off of the ground; many plants on the islands grow their seeds low to the ground to escape the attention of tortoises
  • Despite their bulky size, they can swim and are surprisingly buoyant; their ability to float has allowed them to spread natural to islands throughout the Indian Ocean
  • Most of the islands where they are found have little drinkable water; as such, they are capable of obtaining most of their moisture from plants in their diet; they will also dig shallow watering holes, mud wallows, or burrows
  • Through clearing bushes and felling small trees, these tortoises create patches of grassland called "tortoise turfs", which serve as habitat for many species
  • Adults have no predators, but eggs and hatchlings may be preyed upon by crabs, birds, and feral cats
  • Approximately 75% of the Seychelles tortoise species are now extinct, having been killed off by colonists and sailors.  They have been protected by law since the late 1800s
  • Captive breeding and reintroduction programs have resulted in the establishment of populations on Zanzibar, Mauritius, and Reunion.  On some of these islands, the Aldabra tortoise is used as an ecological substitute for now-extinct giant tortoise species
  • As China uses the giant panda as an "animal ambassador", the Seychelles will sometimes gift Aldabra tortoises to other nations as a good-will kept.  A pair were donated to China in 2010

Saturday, December 14, 2013

What's the Matter with the Media?

"Whoever controls the media, controls the mind."
~ Jim Morrison

Warning: This one is an angry one…

This post is not meant to be political in nature.  Which is ironic, considering that its main sentiment is most prevalent in political discourse (usually from conservatives, occasionally from liberals).  Still, I think most readers will find themselves having thought or said this at least on occasion:

I am so SICK of the biased media!

I can’t be the only one who has noticed a ton of anti-zoo items in the news lately.  After Costa Rica announced that it was closing its government zoos, CNN breathlessly asked “Should AMERICA close ITS zoos?”  Every high profile zoo animal death gets dissected in the news, as does every keeper death or mauling (they are still talking about the lion incident in Dallas, and that was weeks ago!).  There was Toronto and its elephants.  SeaWorld has had its own share of headaches, what with Blackfish and then the resultant celebrity exodus (I find the performers to be despicable hypocrites – they were fine partnering with SeaWorld when there was no controversy)*.
As of this week, the Smithsonian National Zoo is the whipping boy of choice after a few incidents in the zoo’s cheetah section.  Don’t worry, National – I’m sure the media will find someone else to pick on next week!

I’m something of a masochist, so whenever I read online articles, I instantly scroll down to the comments.  That’s where the crazies are**.  They think we take all animals straight from the wild, like we did sixty years ago.  They think that all zoo animals live in tiny cramped cages.  They refuse to believe that anyone who visits – let alone works in – a zoo can possibly really care about animals.  They think we should send all of the animals to “sanctuaries”… whatever the hell that even means.  The news article writers don’t say these things themselves, but they certainly set the stage and influence opinions.

Now, they do say positive things about zoos occasionally – usually describing the birth of an animal, especially pandas.  That’s nice (even if it makes them fair weather friends at best).  But still, they miss out on the REAL news, the important news that zoos and aquariums do.  Whenever I post a “From the News” item about something of real importance – a first breeding, a wild animal rescued and rehabilitated, an endangered species returned to the wild, etc – I have to DIG to find it.  It’s not on the front page of CNN or Yahoo!

I hope the media gets its act together and decides that just jumping on the anti-zoo bandwagon is only telling a tiny part of its story.  (I don't think that most of them are really anti-zoo per se - they don't pay enough attention to do that.  They just want a juicy story, and if it's not a birth, a scandal will be just fine).  Until then, I'll keep reaching out to everyone I can to tell them the truth about zoos.  I'll also do my best to make sure my zoo never becomes someone else's whipping boy.

Part of the reason I made this blog is that I wanted to make the world of zoos and aquariums more accessible to the general public.  I wanted to share stories and insights.  I wanted people to understand what zoos and aquariums do and why they have an important role in play in preserving wildlife for future generations.  I haven’t been alone in this – there are several other zoo and aquarium professionals out there also spreading the word (though unfortunately, it seems we spread it mostly to each other).

I just wish that we weren’t the only ones sharing the good news.

*I’m not pretending that keeping orcas or elephants in captivity isn’t controversial – even within the zookeeping profession.  I’m just saying, a little balanced analysis of the subject would do everyone some good, not just screaming “Free Willy!”  You know what, kids? They DID free Willy in real life.  He died alone, unable to adjust to life in the wild…

** Even in my despair, I never fool myself into thinking that the people who have time to sit around and comment on Yahoo! articles all day are representative of the general public.  After all, if I’d based my prediction on the 2012 US Presidential election on news article online comments, I would have guessed that Mitt Romney would have won in a landslide.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Zoo Joke: Jesus is Watching You...

One night, a jewel thief is creeping through a museum, helping himself to precious gems, when suddenly he trips a burglar alarm.  Hearing the sirens going off, he slings his bag over his shoulder, rushes from the building, and flees into the adjacent park.  The sirens are getting louder and closer, and he knows the police are hot on his trail, so he hops a fence and decides to hide... in the city zoo.

Running to the first building that he finds, he tests the door, finds it unlocked, and ducks inside.  Then, leaning against a wall, he stops to catch his breath.  It is then that he hears the voice.

"Jesus is watching you!"

The burglar jumps with a start and shines his flashlight around.  He sees no one.  Thinking that he must have imagined it, he starts to look around for a place to hide, when he hears the voice again.

"Jesus is watching you!"

Again, the burglar takes out his light and shines it around.  Again he sees no one.  He walks around in the darkness, looking for the unseen speaker, when he hears the voice one more time:

"Jesus is watching you!"

Spinning around, he shines his light and this time sees the speaker - a small, green parrot, sitting on a perch.

"Hey, you, bird!" the burglar says, "Was that you saying that, 'Jesus is watching you?'"

"Yep," the parrot replies.

The burglar sighs, relieved.  "You scared me for a minute.  Say, what's you're name little guy?"

"Fluffy", says the bird.

"Fluffy?  What a stupid name.  What idiot names a bird 'Fluffy'"

At that instant, the burglar feels something smooth and dry brush against his leg, then hears a soft hiss from behind him.

"The same idiot," the parrot said, "that named the cobra 'Jesus.'"

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Zoo Review: Beardsley Zoo

Up until now, the zoos and aquariums reviewed here – National, Bronx, Audubon – have been big ones, some of the biggest in the country, in fact.  There are, however, many excellent small zoos and aquariums around the country, so today I decided to highlight one of them.

Bridgeport, Connecticut was home to P. T. Barnum, the renowned showman whose name is now best known for its attachment to the famous circus.  While at home, Barnum exercised his animals in the city park.  Years later, that park became home to a city zoo, which today is one of the finest small zoos in the Northeast.  Beardsley Zoo (the only zoo in Connecticut) specializes in animals of the Americas, though East Asia also makes an appearance in the collection in the form of two great cat exhibits – Amur tigers and Amur leopards.

It was winter when I first visited Beardsley Zoo, so I straight away went to the one indoor animal exhibit – the Rainforest.  A lot of zoos attempt rainforest exhibits, but many of them I find disappointing – zoo designers have a hard time resisting the urge to fill these buildings with large mammals, which destroy the plants and make the “rainforest” a desert.  Beardsley’s building, however, doesn’t fall into this trap – the building is filled with several attractive exhibits of small rainforest creatures, many of them in mixed species exhibits.  Several kinds of monkeys – Goeldi’s, golden lion tamarins, sakis, howlers – climb through branches while toucans, ibises, teals, and parrots flit about.  Waterfall-fed pools house caimans and mata mata turtles.  Side displays include frogs, snakes, pygmy marmosets, and vampire bats.  Perhaps the star of the building is the ocelot (interesting fact: the world’s first successful artificial insemination of an ocelot took place at Beardsley Zoo!). 

Immediately outside the Rainforest is a yard of Chacoan peccaries, an interesting pig-like species not commonly seen in zoos.  If the outdoors are still too cold and gray for visitors, a beautiful, historic greenhouse is only a dash away.

Those visitors who do opt to stay outside will be well rewarded.  A looping trail passes by hoofstock and large carnivores – tigers and leopards, pronghorn and bison and deer.  Prairie dogs, eagles, alligators, and imposing Andean condors round out the collection.  One of the coolest exhibits in my opinion was a cozy viewing bunker, which allowed visitors to peer out into the habitats of not one but two critically endangered wolves – the red and the Mexican gray (both wolves that zoos have partnered with the USFWS to reintroduce into the wild).  A third wild canine – stunning maned wolves – are across the path.

Amur leopards are the newest addition to the zoo, but more new exhibits are coming.  As I toured the zoo, I passed by a sign announcing a new Andean bear exhibit, while another sign described the upcoming Pampas exhibit, providing a new home for the peccaries, as well as new rheas and giant anteaters (the South American grasslands – home to amazing species – are one of those amazing habitats that are too often ignored by zoos). 

A small zoo like Beardsley is unlikely to have the big budget and financial backing of a huge zoo like the Bronx.  Its campus is limited – something that really hinders the ability to add the largest of animals, like elephants and rhinos – and each new addition must be planned carefully.  There were a handful of exhibits that looked like they could use a replacing (that being said, those are at every zoo).  Taken as a whole, I was extremely impressed with Beardsley.  Its Rainforest building was one of the best I had seen.  Its collection was small but diverse (I mean, apart from three wolves) and full of species that are of great conservation value to zoos.  Its new exhibits show innovation and a willingness to try things that haven’t been done before.  Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo is a great example of a smaller zoo that can have big plans and do great things.  I can’t wait to see how the zoo develops over the next few years!

Saturday, December 7, 2013

Zoo History: The Halls of Montezuma

"The discovery of the American bison, as first made by Europeans, occured in the menagerie of a heathen king... With a degree of enterprise that marked him as an enlightened monarch, Montezuma maintained... a well-appointed menagerie."

~ William T. Hornaday, The Extermination of the American Bison

The Philadelphia Zoo often goes under the moniker of America’s First Zoo.  It is not.  The title is sometimes contested by the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago and the Central Park Zoo in New York, but neither of those is the oldest, either.  The Central Park Zoo bought the Halifax Zoo, which was opened in 1847, but that wasn’t the oldest American zoo either.  Not by a long shot…

When Hernando Cortes and his conquistadores entered the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan in 1519, the expected – and encountered – many wonders, from towering pyramids to treasures of gold and silver.  They also encountered a zoo.  A big one.  A very big one, actually.  It made such a tremendous impression on the Spanish treasure-seekers that, when writing their accounts, many members of the expedition wrote more about the zoo than they did about any other aspect of the city.

Montezuma’s zoo would have been the envy of any European ruler of the era – the collection was so vast that 300 keepers were required to care for the beasts.  Over five hundred turkeys were needed daily to feed the animals, especially the eagles and hawks; of the two buildings in the zoo, one was devoted to the birds of prey.  The mammalian carnivores, in contrast, were fed daintier treats – portions of the carcasses of human sacrifices (of which there were no shortage of) were fed to the big cats. Twenty ponds – ten freshwater, ten saltwater (!?!) – housed fish and aquatic birds.  The menagerie also contained a section of “different” people (dwarves, the deformed, etc), a trend which has been seen throughout history and around the world.

What kinds of animals lived in the Aztec zoo?  It’s hard to say for sure, given that the only written accounts we have of it are of the Spaniards who, being strangers to the New World, were unfamiliar with the animals housed there.  We can probably infer that the lions and tigers that Cortes saw were pumas and jaguars.  We have descriptions of bears, monkeys, sloths, wolves, and armadillos, as well as aviaries of brightly colored birds, the plumage of which would later adorn Aztec robes.  Reptiles were also abundant, including turtles, crocodilians, and one uniquely American addition to the bestiary:

They also have in that cursed house many vipers and poisonous snakes which carry on their tails things that sound like bells.  These are the worst vipers of all, and they keep them in jars and great pottery vessels with many feathers and there they lay their eggs and rear their young.” (del Castillo).

Rattlesnakes (which don’t lay eggs, by the way) weren’t the only American legend that the Spanish met in Tenochtitlan.   In another enclosure, the visitors encountered a “Mexican bull”, described as the greatest rarity in the collection:

It has crooked Shoulders, with a Bunch on its Back like a Camel; its Flanks dry, its Tail large, and its Neck cover’d with Hair like a Lion.  It is cloven footed, its Head armed like that  of a Bull, which it resembles in Fierceness, with no less strength and Agility.” – De Solis (from Hornaday)

This was to prove to be the first encounter between Europeans and the American bison… a relationship which did not work out terribly well for the later.

In many ways, Montezuma’s zoo seemed superior to those of Europe both in its completeness, its quality of animal care (many of the species bred there, according to the Spaniards), and its innovation (how do you capture and transport bison and bears across a continent when your civilization hasn’t even invented the wheel?).  There was a lot that Europeans could have probably learned from the menagerie in Tenochtitlan (perhaps even animals that were there but have since gone extinct, never described by western science?), but it was not meant to be.  Two years later, Cortes attacked the city and destroyed it.  Before the city fell, many of its besieged citizens were forced to eat the animals from the menagerie.

Today, Mexico City has risen from the ashes of Tenochtitlan and is one of the largest cities in the world.  Like many great cities, it boasts an excellent zoo, featuring native and exotic animals from around the world.  Montezuma, it’s fair to guess, would have been delighted.

"The Ruler's Animals" from the Florentine Codex

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Sporcle Quiz: Mammal Maps

I stumbled across these quizzes today and thought they were pretty cool.  I had thought about making similar ones earlier, but just couldn't find decent maps...

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Risky Enrichment

Elephant keepers around the world were dismayed by the tragic news from Melbourne Zoo this week, when the zoo’s elephant calf died unexpectedly. The cause of death was a tire, given to the elephants as an enrichment item, which somehow became stuck around the calf’s neck overnight, causing it to suffocate.  It was a heartbreaking loss, and I’m sure that I join virtually everyone in expressing condolences to the zoo staff (and the other elephants).

A few of the comments that I’ve read in articles on the death have expressed confusion over how the calf’s death came to be.  A tire?  In with the elephants?  Why?”  The understanding is that if the tire hadn’t been there, the elephant wouldn’t have died, and that it was therefore preventable.  So what was the tire doing in there in the first place?

Like many keepers, I recognize the importance of enrichment for zoo animals, and I try to incorporate it into my daily work routine, especially for primates, parrots, and carnivores.  The problem with doing daily enrichment, however, is that you have to keep it fresh; give your bears two or three spices to smell day after day, very quickly they are going to get bored of it and it will lose the novelty.  The challenge, then, is to come up with new toys, new games, and new experiences for the animals every day (or at least often enough that they won’t be overused).  Constantly thinking of new enrichment means constantly creating new scenarios where something can go wrong.

There have been so many days when I have given animals enrichment, than woken up in the middle of the night with the horrified feeling that I might have made a major mistake.  I haven’t lost an animal to enrichment yet, but I do have an endless, imaginative inventory of ways that I could…

The toy will shatter and the animal will stab itself in the heart... 

The animal will try to eat the toy and choke to death... 

The toy will clog up the exhibit pool’s drain and the pool will overflow and the animal will escape/drown/catch a cold... 

The animal will throw a toy through a window and escape...

This last one did give me serious concern as I watched a young bear repeatedly pick up a bowling ball in her front paws and hurl it around the exhibit.  I was able to get it away from her before she threw it through the window.

On another occasion, I spritzed some perfume on the branches of an indoor tamarin enclosure.  Immediately upon letting the monkeys back in, I became convinced that the perfume was too strong and that the monkeys would all die of some wonky fumes.  I spent the next hour holding the door to their building open to try and air it out, fanning their exhibit frantically.  The tamarins seemed more concerned about my bizarre antics than they did the lemon scented perfume.

Given the risks (and the sleepless nights) is it worth it?  I like to think so.  If we wanted to keep the animals as safe as possible, we would just put them in plastic bubbles or in padded rooms… which in turn would drive them crazy from boredom and cause them to hurt themselves (which would defeat the purpose of said bubble/padded room).  Even without enrichment, animals could drown in pools or fall from climbing structures.

"Hey, I bet if we climb just a little bit higher and then pretend that we're about to fall, we can make one of the keepers have a heart attack or pee themself!"

We try to reduce the risks of enrichment to the best of our ability.  We have approval policies to make sure that enrichment is safe (aka, no razor blades for the monkeys…).  We base enrichment off of what has worked in the past, either at our own institutions or at other facilities.  We have lists of toxic browse vs. safe.  We observe and monitor and evaluate new enrichments.  We do our best.

That being said, sometimes tragedy does still strike, as it did in Melbourne.  When it does, we just try to learn from it and do our best from then on.  

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


"You don't see sick animals in the wild.  You don't see lame animals in the wild, and it's all because of the predator: the lion, the tiger, the leopard..."
- Tippi Hedren

Last month, I wrote a post about the Turtle Survival Alliance, one of my favorite conservation NGOs and one that I have supported in the past.  That got me thinking how there are a lot of excellent organizations out there doing a lot of good towards protecting wildlife around the world, and it would be worthwhile to highlight some of those.  This time, I thought I’d highlight one of the newer conservation non-profits: Panthera, devoted to the conservation of the world’s wild cats.

The big cats – lions and tigers, leopards and jaguars, snow leopards, cheetahs, and cougars – are among the most magnificent and charismatic species on our planet today.  They are also, to varying degrees, endangered.  Being apex predators, their positions in life are far from secure: not only are they threatened by hunting, but they also require large tracts of habitat to sustain themselves and their prey base.  With ecosystems are threatened or destroyed by human activity, the big cats are usually some of the first species to be affected.

Thankfully, the big cats are some of the most appealing and beloved of wild animals to many people (especially those not living in proximity to wild ones), and it has been easier to galvanize support for their conservation than it is for many other groups of animals.  Panthera is involved in field-based research and conservation on four continents to understand how big cats are being impacted by humans and what steps can be taken to ensure their survival.  For some species, such as the snow leopard, projects have largely focused on gathering data on elusive animals, little of which is known in the wild.  For other species, the emphasis has been on more immediate conservation solutions.  For example, a recent trend in South Africa among certain Christian sects has resulted in an increased demand in leopard fur.  Panthera has worked with local communities to encourage the use of realistic fake leopard fur, which it helps to distribute to these communities.

What is most refreshing about Panthera isn’t just its commitment – it’s the ambition that its leadership shows.  At a time when many conservationists scramble to hold onto the few remaining packets of wild lands left, Panthera dreams big.  While there are many scientists working with the cheetahs of Africa, Panthera leads research on the critically endangered Asiatic cheetah (once found across the Middle East and South Asia, now confined to Iran).  Working with the Iranian government and the United Nations (an advantage of being a non-governmental organization is that you can cross political lines that governments can’t), Panthera is working to increase our knowledge base of Asian cheetahs and find solutions to allow cheetahs and local peoples (especially herders) to coexist.

Panthera’s jaguar initiative is even bolder.  It visualizes a continuous corridor of jaguar habitat stretching across the entire range of the jaguar, from Mexico to Argentina.  Fragmentation and genetic isolation are some of the greatest threats to endangered species in the wild.  The goal of this project is to ensure that jaguar genes can flow freely from the Sonora Desert of northern Mexico southward to Patagonia.  Of course, no government (let alone several working together) will create one giant, multi-national park, barring humans and allowing the animals complete protection.  Instead, this plan relies heavily on private involvement, convincing landowners and communities to allow jaguars to pass unmolested through their lands.   Such a vision would seem impossible for many, until you realize that the world’s first jaguar preserve was created by Panthera’s CEO, Alan Rabinowitz.

Virtually all zoos (and a surprising number of aquariums) display at least one species of wild cat, big or small.  Seventeen species of felid, from massive lions and tigers to diminutive sand cats and black-footed cats, are managed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, with other species maintained in other zoos around the world.  Cats are some of the biggest draws when it comes to attracting visitors into our zoos; in other words, they have been good to us.  We should be good to them.  Every zoo or aquarium should make an effort to contribute in whatever way it can towards the conservation of species in the wild.  For those that display cats, especially the big ones, contributions to Panthera may be one of the best ways to make a difference.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Species Fact Profile: Bali Mynah (Leucospar rothschildi)

Bali Mynah (Rothschild’s Mynah, Bali Starling)
Leucopsar rothschildi (Stresemann, 1912)
Range:  Northwest Bali (Indonesia)
Habitat: Monsoon Forest, Acacia Savannah
Diet: Insects, Worms, Fruits, Seeds
Social Grouping: Flocks up to 40
Reproduction: Breed Oct-Nov, nest in tree cavities (often made by woodpeckers), 2-3 eggs incubated by female for 14 days, both parents provide food after hatching, chicks fledge at 3 weeks, sexually mature at 2-3 years old
Lifespan: 5 Years (Wild), 15 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Critically Endangered, CITES Appendix I

  •  Length 25 centimeters, weight 85-90 grams; plumage is almost entirely white, with black wing- and tail-tips, bare blue skin around eye,a  long drooping crest (longer in males than females), yellow bill, and grey-blue legs
  • Extremely arboreal for a starling, it only comes to the ground to drink (a form of predator avoidance)
  •  Fresh water is scarce throughout parts of range, so mynahs are believed to obtain much of their moisture from the juices of ripe fruits
  • The mynah is Bali’s only endemic vertebrate, and serves as the fauna symbol for island; it is featured on Indonesian 200 rupiah coin
  • Possibly extinct in the wild, predominately due to illegal capture for pet trade, as well as habitat loss and competition with the introduced black-winged starling

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Book Review: Mr. Hornaday's War

December 1st... Happy birthday to William Temple Hornaday!

By the closing years of the nineteenth century, just about anybody with an ounce of common sense would have written the American bison (popularly known as the buffalo) off as a lost cause.  The herds that once darkened the Great Plains and sustained the Lakota, Cheyenne, and other plains Indians were now a thing of the past – even the sighting of a solitary animal was considered impossible.  The largest land animal in the New World had been slaughtered for its meat, for its hides, and for the purpose of starving the last free Indians into submission.  So when a pugnacious young taxidermist from the Smithsonian Institute went west in search of bison specimens for a museum display, it’s not surprising that those who knew best told him that he was wasting his time and ought to go home.  We’ll never know how different the world would have been if he had.

William Temple Hornaday was a small man in life, but he has since achieved giant status as a founding father of American conservation.  Read any book of the legacy of zoos in America or the foundation of the conservation movement and his name is sure to pop up once or twice.  He appears as a supporting role in the biographies of Theodore Roosevelt and other giants of the era, but always on the periphery.  At long last, however, he has been given the credit he has been due: an excellent new biography by Stefan Bechtel for once tells the exciting, complicated life of one of the most remarkable men in American history, one who not only saved the American bison from extinction (with, Hornaday might grudgingly acknowledge, some help from a few others), but also changed the world of zoos forever.

Bechtel focuses his narrative on Hornaday’s first great crusade - the salvation of the American bison.  After collecting (read: killing, more on that later) some of the last free bison on the face of the earth for the Smithsonian, Hornaday became an activist agitator for the preservation of the species.   His book The Extermination of the American Bison is perhaps the first wildlife book that not only seeks to educate the public but to inspire it, calling upon the American citizenry to save its vanishing bison.  As the years wore on, Hornaday became increasingly concerned about the fates of fur seals, wetland birds, and other species being hunted into oblivion.  Concern gave way to anger.  Anger gave way to action.

Hornaday’s concern led to the establishment of the Smithsonian’s National Zoological Park.  Though he was instrumental in establishing the zoo and collecting its first animals, his involvement ended shortly thereafter.  Infighting with Smithsonian Secretary Langley led to his resignation.  What Washington lost New York gained, however; Hornaday was later recruited to plan, build, stock, and run the New York Zoological Park (now known as the Wildlife Conservation Society, informally the Bronx Zoo), what many consider one of the greatest zoos in the world.  Of course, at the time zoos were popping up all over Europe and America.  What made these zoos remarkable, however, is that they were established not only for education or amusement, but for the conservation of species through captive breeding.  Hornaday’s vision was eventually realized with the release of Bronx Zoo bred bison to the plains of the American west.  Hornaday saw himself as a soldier engaged in a war with diverse enemies – hunters, developers, politicians – with the prize being a very existence of wildlife in America.  It was a war that he fought for the rest of his life, and was determined to win.

Hornaday has always been a hero of mine, but like all heroes, he was human, and had his faults, which Bechtel does not shy from showing.  He did, after all, begin his career as a hunter, a hired-hitman for science who traveled the world collecting specimens for sale to museums.  I don’t know how many bison were left on the plains when Hornaday went out seeking specimens for his exhibit, but there were twenty less by the time he was done.  His expedition to Borneo resulted in the killing of over forty orangutans, a total that would make most modern poachers blush.  Hornaday of course was not alone in this – his good friend Theodore Roosevelt was also one of the “repentant butchers” who turned to conservation after having spent much of his life gunning down various animals (and kept on hunting even afterwards…)

Bechtel also calls plenty of attention to perhaps the most infamous escapade of Hornaday’s career: Ota Benga, the pygmy in the zoo.  The author explores Hornaday’s racial attitudes and, as he would with any Victorian-era naturalist, finds plenty of faults.  He does, however, refrain from taking the easy road and painting Hornaday as a flat-out racist, but portrays him as a complicated man in all aspects, including his relations with other races.  His exploitation of Ota Benga is weighed against his time in India, when he tended to famine victims and personally led a search party for a missing Indian child.

A person should be judged, I’ve always felt, by the world that they left behind them.  William Temple Hornaday, for all of his faults and occasional excesses, should feel no shame in this regard.  He created two of the world’s finest zoos, both of which have contributed tremendously to the conservation of endangered species.  He helped save the American bison, and while the species will never reclaim its former glory, it at least is no longer in danger of extinction.  Perhaps most importantly, he helped awaken a passion for wildlife conservation in the hearts and minds of millions of fellow citizens for generations.  I consider myself one of these, and I thank Hornaday in part for that.  Likewise, I also thank Stefan Bechtel, for helping to share the story of William Temple Hornaday with the world.

Mr. Hornaday’s War at