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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Zoo Review: Audubon Aquarium of the Americas

The Aquarium’s flagship exhibit, the Gulf of Mexico, is sponsored by BP.    There were a few other oil companies on that very prominent sponsorship sign, but British Petroleum was front and center.  I’ll let that sink in for a moment.  Sharks, rays, and other fish swim around an oil drilling platform.  The signs around the exhibit extol the unexpected virtues of oil drilling for wildlife habitat.  No matter what I saw in the aquarium that visit, I couldn’t get past that sponsorship sign.

The Gulf of Mexico wasn’t the only exhibit where oil reared its head.  At the sea otter exhibit upstairs, the signage talked about the plight of otters facing over-exploitation for their fur.  I didn’t see any pictures of the Exxon Valdez.  Granted, the frog exhibits nearby made a passing mention to the threat of raising temperatures (without direct mention of global climate change or man’s role in it).  

I really wanted to like the Aquarium of the Americas.  I did.  No one could deny that the aquarium had a compelling story.  After Katrina, the aquarium suffered incredibly; though the structure itself survived, thousands of fish – dependent on life support systems, did not.  The agony and sorrow that the aquarists must have suffered as they returned to work and found most of their collection dead I cannot imagine.

Still, for a variety of reasons,  the aquarium just failed to impress me terribly.  Maybe it was because I had spent the previous day thoroughly falling in love with the affiliated Audubon Zoo, so the aquarium came as a bit of a let down.  I don’t mean to say that there was anything terrible about the place – I certainly didn’t hate it.  I just felt that, as far as aquariums go, I’d seen far better.  The glass of the sea otter and penguin exhibits was impossible to take photographs through.  I didn’t like the signage too much.  The staff and volunteers that I saw didn’t seem seem too concerned or inclined to control the hordes of teenaged visitors running around, yelling, and banging on glass.

And I hate to sound jaded, but for all the hype I'd heard about the place, the collection was only… okay.  Sure, the sea otters were cool, and you don't see those too often, but there really wasn't anything that knocked my socks off, like I'd seen at other aquariums -  Adventure with its hippos, Newport with its shark rays.  The African penguin exhibit was alright, but the sea otter exhibit left me pretty unimpressed, and the Amazon rainforest measured up pretty poorly compared to the rainforest at National Aquarium in Baltimore.  Yeah, Audubon still has its famous white alligators (also at the zoo), but those have become increasingly common in zoos and aquariums, nowhere near the novelty that they once were. 

And then there was the whole BP thing.  It’s not unreasonably to take money from companies that pollute or otherwise damage the environment.  If I was building an orangutan exhibit, I’d at least consider sponsorship from companies that use palm oil in their products.  You could think of it as them partially atoning for their sins.  Still, allowing corporate money to influence our message should not be allowed.  Yes, oil drilling does present a benefit to some species by providing habitat - that should be mentioned in an exhibit.  Should that allow us to paper over all of the ways that oil drilling is detrimental to other species?  No matter how much money a donor has, integrity should never be for sale.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

By Any Other Name...

The beginning of wisdom is calling things by their proper name
 – Confucius
At one zoo where I used to work, a major part of my job was to give educational talks about our animals.  I learned quickly that the biggest hits were the animals that I could take out from their enclosures to meet the public, especially if guests were allowed to touch.  My biggest star was a young binturong that I had helped raise.  He was probably the best outreach animal I’d ever worked with – curious, eager, playful.  Grasping his prehensile tail like a leash, I’d walk him along a railing, inviting visitors to catch a whiff of his scent, so strangely like buttery movie popcorn.  Some visitors were even given the chance to touch his tail.  I’d give a short (under five minutes) talk about binturongs – what they were, where they came from.  Guests loved it.  When I’d meet those same visitors an hour later, or on a later visit, they all remembered their interaction.   They just could never remember what the animal was.

My little rock-star, shortly after he was born. 
Get enough zookeepers together and I guarantee, they will start going off about the things they have heard visitors call animals.  Some of them are understandable – if they  can’t tell an alligator from a crocodile or a seal from a sea lion, that’s not surprising, and it offers a window for us to begin a conversation.  But what do you do when they call a giant anteater a gorilla (after all, they both walk on their knuckles)?  Or decide that penguins are baby whales?  I’ve heard parents teach their children that okapis are the result of giraffes mating with zebras.  Is there any way to salvage that conversation, or do you keep walking?
These conversations with colleagues can be amusing – there are several threads along these lines on the facebook group “You Know You’re a Zookeeper When…”, but they are a sign of something far more serious.  Our job is to inspire people to care about wildlife and want to conserve it.  How can we do that if people can’t even figure out what the animal is?!?  I recall one visitor, seeing a display of tuatara (one of the most unique, most extraordinary reptiles on the planet), identify them as iguanas and comment that they were all over her parents’ yard in Florida.  It was no good trying to convince her that these animals were in need of protection; she knew they were everywhere, hadn’t she seen them?
Is it that visitors are born with a certain number of animals in their heads, and that there is no room to add new ones?  Doubtful – before The Lion King and Meerkat Manor, who outside of the profession had heard of meerkats?  For an extinct example, who but the most die-hard dinosaur buffs knew Velociraptor before Crichton and Speilberg introduced it to the world?

There needs to be a way for zoo and aquarium professions to make their animals better known to the public, and a simple sign (which - let's be honest - no one will read anyway) at the front of the exhibit just isn't going to cut it.  

Animals talks, interactions, media appearances... some of my older, more set-in-their-ways colleagues shudder at the thought of them.  "Whoring out the animals," they call it... so be it.  If it gets people to talk about the animals in a positive light, doesn't cause undue stress to the animals, and allows them to keep their dignity, then I am all for it.  If people don't know that an animal exists, how can they  care enough about it to help save it?

Despite my disappointing results with the binturong, I still like to think that I reached someone.  So take your kinkajou to a news station, or your tawny frogmouth out to meet visitors.  Do some interactions or keeper talks, use whatever animals you deem suitable and help your guests to broaden their horizons.

It's not that hard to teach an old dog new tricks.  I want to see how hard it is to teach an old visitor a new animal.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Why I Became a Zookeeper

“They say that a child who aspires to be an engine driver very rarely grows up to fill that role in life.  If this is so, then I am an exceptionally lucky person, for at the age of two I made up my mind quite firmly and unequivocally that the only thing I wanted to do was study animals.  Nothing else interested me.”

Thus begins famous British zoologist Gerald Durrell’s A Bevy of Beasts, a memoir of the young Durrell’s apprenticeship/crash-course in zookeeping at the Zoological Society of London’s Whipsnade facility.  I can relate to Durrell’s feelings on the subject – they're very similar to my own.  Growing up, some of my classmates wanted to be firefighters, or doctors, or baseball players.  I wanted to be a zookeeper.  Unlike the vast majority of people that I went to school with, my childhood wish came true.

I often wind up having this conversation with people, either guests on zoo grounds or casual acquaintances to whom I am introduced.  When you tell someone that you are an accountant or a cashier no one asks for a lengthy explanation as to how and why you wound up in that profession.  Zookeeping is slightly different.  

Some of the guests who I encounter ask me if this is my summer job (even in winter), or if I'm still in school.  Others ask if I'm studying to be a vet.    I sometimes feel that my answers fail to satisfy them: that they don't understand how anyone with a college degree would actively aspire to work in a job in which the daily routine largely consists of a shovel, a pile of fecal matter, and the application of the one to the other.  A job which is known for its low pay, unforgiving schedule (animals don’t care if it’s Christmas morning), and sometimes brutal working conditions…

Other people have more romantic visions of the job.  They think that it's a life of danger, every day narrowly escaping death at the claws of a big cat, the jaws of an alligator, or the fangs of a snake.  Others see me as some sort of bargain-basement Dr. Doolittle, with a monkey perched on one shoulder and a parrot on the other, spending my days playing with animal friends.    While there have been moments in my career where my life has been in danger, these occurrences are very few and far between.  And while I truly do care for (dare I say love?) most of the animals that I work with, I’ve never fooled myself into thinking that they all loved me back.

I suppose I became a zookeeper, at least in the beginning, because I’ve been fascinated with wild animals and wanted to make them a part of my daily life.  As the years have passed, however, so my feelings have changed as well.  I still love the animals and value every day spent with them, but now the job means so much more to me.  It’s a job unlike any other I could imagine – physically, mentally, and, at times, emotionally challenging.  It’s a chance to educate people about a part of the world that they are losing touch with.  It’s a chance to take a stand for conservation and do my part to save endangered species and their habitats.  It’s a chance to save a little bit of the magic that we still have left in the world.

That’s what gets me out of bed and going to work every morning.  That’s what gives me the drive to do the job and do it to the best of my abilities.  That’s why I became a zookeeper.

Thursday, May 2, 2013


Welcome to the Zoo Review, a news/editorial blog by and for zoo and aquarium professionals and those with interest in the profession.   With full-time jobs and real lives (with real animals) to tend to, we might not update this quite as often as we would like, but will still aim for one or two posts a week.   

Topics of posts will include:

·         Updates and opinions about goings on in the zoo and aquarium world
·         Book/documentary/movie reviews
·         Reviews of zoos and aquariums
·         Quizzes and games

Like what we’re posting (or hate it)?  Topic of interest that you want us to write about? Have an opinion?  Have something that you want off your chest?  Share it!  Guest writers are more than welcome, and we look forward to your input and telling your stories (don’t worry, anonymity will be preserved).  Shoot us an e-mail at, to let us know what you think!

To start off with a little bit of fun, we thought we'd introduce our first quiz, hosted by Sporcle!

Animal Name Origins