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Sunday, June 30, 2013

From the News: Endangered Rhino Born Via Artificial Insemination

Another victory for reproductive technology!

Scientists are learning more and more about the reproductive biology of the three rhino species commonly kept in captivity - the black, the white, and the Indian.  It makes me hopeful that eventually there might also be some application to the even more endangered Sumatran and Javan rhinos.  Javan rhinos are non-existent in captivity, Sumatrans represented by a tiny handful of specimens.  No one is going to be saving them via a captive breeding program (not unless things go California-condor-bad and the situation is so dire that every living animal must be brought into captivity).  Still, if sperm and eggs can be obtained (via carcasses of poached wild animals), maybe something can be done...

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Zoo Joke: Peanuts

One morning at the courthouse, a police officer marches four teenage boys in front of the judge.

"Your Honor, these kids were causing a disturbance at the zoo this morning," he says.

The judge frowns and glares at the boys.  "Young men, I have very little tolerance for juvenile deliquency.  I want each of you to tell me your name and tell me what you did wrong."  He then motions to the first boy, who steps forward.

"Your Honor, my name is Michael, and I threw Peanuts to the bears", he says.

The judges sighs and says, "Well, that's not so bad, just don't do it again," and he dismisses the boy.  The next boy steps forward.

"Your Honor, my name is David, and I threw Peanuts to the gorillas."

"Alright," says the judges, "Just don't do it again.  Who's next?"

"Your Honor," says the third boy, "I'm Jacob, and I threw Peanuts to the elephants."

"Ok, you can go," says the judge.  His Honor then takes a glance at the fourth boy.  His clothes are in tatters, he is missing some teeth, he has two black eyes, and his arm is in a sling.  "Good heavens!" exclaims the judge, "what happened to you?!?"

"Your Honor," the fourth boy mumbles, "my name is Peanuts."

Friday, June 28, 2013

Book Review: Stolen World

After the Second World War, the newly independent nations of Africa and Asia began clamping down on their wildlife exports, forcing American and European zoos to either become a) self-sustaining or b) smuggle.  The mammal folks quickly adopted the first option (largely out of necessity - I mean, how do you smuggle a RHINO?). Stolen World, by Jennie Erin Smith, explores the second option.

Smith details the exploits of Hank Molt and Tommy Crutchfield, two seasoned reptile smugglers.  Molt traveled the world from Africa to New Guinea, loading up suitcases with Boelen's pythons, Fiji iguanas, and other priceless reptiles.  From his compound in Florida, Crutchfield oversaw an empire of herpetoculture, becoming one of the richest men in the business.  As sometimes partners, sometimes rivals, they introduced several new species to the American pet trade and changed the face of reptile-keeping in this country.  They also broke quite a few laws, and both spent some time in jail.

 Smith doesn't preach or harp in her fascinating dual-biography: if she had been, it's doubtful that either of these men would have been as willing to candidly share their secrets and stories with her.  Instead, she offers a unique insight into a world that few people have even imagines.  Still, it's hard for a zookeeper, especially a reptile keeper, to not cringe at the thought of how many snakes, lizards, and chelonians must have died as Molt and Crutchfield set out to make their fortunes.

Smith doesn't spare the rod when it comes to the zoos - many of the most prominent zoos in the US were dependent on Molt and Crutchfield to fill their exhibits, and some offered considerable assistance to the smugglers.  Even the most reputable of zoos found themselves wrapped up in the sometimes shady dealings.  John Behlar of WCS Bronx Zoo stands out as one of Smith's protagonists (or, if Molt is the hero, I guess that would make him the antagonist) who takes a stand against smuggling.  Yet even he nearly succumbs to temptation when he sees a chance of sourcing critically endangered ploughshare tortoises for his zoo.

I've had many pet reptiles over the years, but my favorites are the ridge-tailed monitor lizards I own now.  They were captive bred by a hobbyist friend of mine, who bought their parents from a dealer.  After reading Smith's Stolen Worlds, I watch them bask in their tank and wonder, "How exactly did their ancestors come to this country?"  I wouldn't be surprised if it was in the bottom of one of Hank Molt's suitcases...

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Guests Behaving Badly

Two news stories of note caught my eye within the past few days.  At least one has gone viral, which you may have seen.  The other hasn't, probably due to lack of accompanying video.

Fed Up Gorilla Gives Taunting Kids at the Zoo a Scare They Won't Soon Forget

Zoo Bans Whole School After Pupils Bare their Backsides at Monkeys

When I catch guests behaving badly, I try to convey a simple message: for our animals, this is their home.  They deserve to be treated with respect.  Some people just need the lesson put to them in a different way: "If you were sleeping in bed, you wouldn't want people pounding on your door or walls, would you?"  Makes sense...

Some people need a more... direct approach.  I caught some kids at one zoo where I worked pounding on the fennec fox glass (and when your ears are THAT big, that pounding must be annoying) and shouting.  I tip-toed up to them, tapped one on the shoulder, and then thrust my face into his and loudly chattered gibberish while making crazy faces.  As the startled kid stumbled back back, scared and confused, I smiled and said, "See?  You don't like it either..."

A small percentage of our guests (and as much as we bitch and moan, it is a small one) cause problems.  When it's a small child, you have to assume that they don't know better and that it's a learning experience, for them and their parents.  "No, that's not how we say hi to the animals," or, my favorite, "Excuse me Miss, but if your son doesn't stop chasing that swan, it's going to turn around and break your child's arm..."  People tend to be selfish, so it never hurts to remind them why it is in their interest to behave.

Of course, when the rule-breakers are older kids ("Old enough to know better, too young to care") or adults, you may have to be a bit firmer.  It has long been past the point where I have become willing to throw people out of the zoo, or threaten to call the police ("I don't care how badly you want a picture, get your ass out of that exhibit NOW!")  The important thing is to remember to be polite while doing so (not because they deserve it, but to cover your own backside if they complain).  With issues of visitor conduct and animal safety, I've never had a supervisor fail to take my side.

Zoos can be a wonderful place for visitors to learn about wildlife and wild places.  They can also be lots of fun.   It only works, though, if they are willing to behave in respectful manners at the zoo - respectful towards the animals who live there, towards the other guests who are also trying to have a good time, and sure, why not, towards the staff as well.  It is our job to foster that kind of respectful environment.

Until then, I'll keep rooting for that gorilla...

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Sporcle Quiz: Sea Turtles

The loggerhead, featured in the last post, is one of several species of sea turtle found in the oceans of the world.  All are outstanding marine specialists.  Unfortunately, all are - to varying degrees - endangered.  Can you name all the species of sea turtle?  No excuse for not getting at least one!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Species Fact Profile: Loggerhead Sea Turtle (Caretta caretta)

Loggerhead Sea Turtle

Caretta caretta (Linnaeus, 1758)

Range: Atlantic (includes Mediterranean Sea), Pacific, and Indian Oceans
Habitat: Open Ocean, Shallow Coastal Waters, Estuaries
Diet: Benthic Marine Invertebrates (Sponges, Coral, Anemones, etc), Fish, Vascular Plants, Algae, Jellyfish, Squid
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction:  Mating season varies by geography; polygamous, with male courting several females, and females mating with several males (one clutch of eggs may be fathered by several males).  Females may store sperm from previous matings.  A clutch of over 100 eggs is laid near water and hatches after an 80 day incubation period.  Sex of the young is determined by incubation temperature.  
Lifespan: 45-65 Years
Conservation Status:  IUCN Endangered, CITES Appendix I

  • The world's largest hard-shelled turtle, body length is 70-95 centimeters with a weight of 80-200 kilograms.  Some specimens are much larger - the record is 213 centimeters long, 545 kilograms
  • Skin is yellowish-brown, the shell is reddish-brown
  • Sexes are indistinguishable when young - as adults, males have thicker tails, shorter plastrons, wider and less-domed carapaces, and wider heads (the common name refers to the large head)
  • Primarily active by day.  Observations of captives show alternation between periods of swimming and periods of resting on the bottom of the enclosure.  The average dive lasts for 15-30 minutes, but turtles can stay submerged for up to 4 hours
  • Sharks are the primary predator of adults.  Juveniles may be preyed upon by seals, orcas, moray eels, and parrotfish.  Hatchlings and eggs are preyed upon by raccoons, foxes, snakes, crabs, and various birds and fish - they are especially vulnerable immediately after hatching, when traveling from the beach to the ocean 
  • Females can be territorial and aggression between females is common.  This can consist of ramming and butting
  • Migrate to avoid cold-stunning and lethargy, which can occur at temperatures below 10 degrees Celsius
  • There are two proposed subspecies - the Atlantic and the Indo-Pacific.  There are also differences observed between different populations (e.g.: Mediterranean loggerheads are smaller than those found in the Atlantic Ocean)
  • Over 100 species of 13 phyla have been found living on the carapaces of loggerhead turtles, making them "living reefs"
  • Capable of naturally hybridizing with other sea turtle species, including the hawksbill and the green sea turtles.  These hybrids may be fertile
  • Threats include disturbance of nest sites, hunting for meat and eggs (illegal now in many countries), entanglement and drowning in nets, and diseases such as Fibropapillomatosis, which causes the formation of external tumors
  • The loggerhead is the official state reptile of South Carolina and the state saltwater reptile of Florida

From the News: Red Panda Recovered After National Zoo Escape

Red Panda Recovered After National Zoo Escape

I've had a few minor animal escapes occur at zoos where I've worked - prairie dogs, parakeets, owls, nothing major.  Once I had a marmoset get out, but all I had to do was leave the door to the keeper area open for a few minutes and he came right back in.  Even so, these minor escapes left me jittery and nervous until the animal was back where it belonged (and thankfully I always got my critter back safe and sound).

Having a high profile animal escape - in the middle of a major city - with the entire search being eagerly followed on the news and social media.  That must have really sucked.   I'm glad NZP got their panda back in the end.  I'm sure a few keepers went straight home at the end of the day and went straight for a calming beer.

Friday, June 21, 2013

From The News: "Big Cats Almost Made it to the Big House"

Natural disasters are hard enough for "normal" people, let alone people who also have to consider the well-being and safety of wild (in some cases potentially lethal) animals.  Best wishes to the folks up in Calgary Zoo as they cope with the floods. 

Emergency preparedness isn't just about what you do during a crisis: a big part of it is what you do BEFORE the crisis.  Every zoo or aquarium should have an emergency plan for any disaster - human or natural - that could strike their facility, be it a hurricane, an earthquake, or, especially in some parts of the world, warfare, civil unrest, or terrorism.  If your institution doesn't have a plan... might be time to get on that.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Return of the Native

The Bog is probably the single least popular exhibit at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore.  In fact, I’m willing to bet that many visitors don’t even realize that it is an exhibit – many probably think that the zoo’s been getting a little lax with its weed-eating near the entrance of the Children’s Zoo.  It’s a pity that this space, part of the zoo’s Maryland Wilderness exhibit, is so ignored – it’s devoted to one of the most endangered animals in the state: the bog turtle.

Now, I like The Bog – the recreation of an actual bog, the same sort that might house bog turtles in other parts of the state, is an impressive achievement.  It’s just that tiny turtles don’t really compete very well with chimps, lions, polar bears, and all of the other zoo animals in the eyes of the visitors.  To be fair, Maryland Zoo does try to educate visitors about the bog turtle and its plight. The bog turtle is not the only endangered Marylander that the zoo is involved with – it has also played an active role in the conservation of the Baltimore checkerspot, an especially beautiful butterfly which happens to be the state insect.  

Every zoo and aquarium in the world has its own bog turtle or Baltimore checkerspot – that endangered (or at least threatened) species, perhaps still at large in the surrounding area, perhaps extirpated.  The Texas zoos have their prairie chickens, the Louisiana zoos have their pine snakes, and the western zoos have their black-footed ferrets.  A coalition of Texas zoos has banded together to save their endangered prairie chickens.  Los Angeles and San Diego helped coax the California condor back from the edge of extinction.  Recently, Phoenix Zoo became involved with the Mount Graham red squirrel, a highly endangered subspecies of red squirrel, once thought to be extinct.

I feel that every zoo or aquarium should get involved –directly – with the conservation of at least one endangered species.  That doesn’t necessarily mean a heavy hands-on approach: live captures, super quarantine breeding facilities, reintroductions, etc.  Instead, it can mean fundraising, or perhaps habitat restoration, either on or off zoo grounds. It also mean, at the very least, calling public attention to the species and its plight.  We talk a lot to our visitors about conservation, but how often do we actually give them practical information on how to save an endangered species.  (“Save elephants, don’t buy ivory”… seriously, who among our zoo guests is actually buying ivory?).  The more local an endangered species is, the more likely it is that visitors will be able to make a positive impact on its survival.  

Zoos and aquariums provide a great opportunity for visitors to learn about the amazing animals which share our world.  This shouldn’t, however, blind them to the equally amazing species which share their very own backyards.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

From the News: "Baboon Killed After Escaping from British Zoo"

Baboon Killed After Escaping From British Zoo

An animal escape is never a pleasant situation to deal with, especially when the animal involved is a potentially dangerous one.  With the exception of a parakeet flying off into the sunset, every escape that I've been present for has ended satisfactorily, with the animal back in its enclosure safe and sound.  Nine times out of ten, all I've had to do is give the critter a clear pathway to get home and it's gone willingly enough on its own; the typical escaped animal is scared, confused, and just wants to get back to where it knows it belongs.  All you need to do is give it a chance to calm down.

That being said, when the escapee in question is a dangerous one - a big cat, a bear, a large primate - things can get hairy.  Giving the animal "a chance to calm down" may be a luxury that you can't afford.  Through visitors and non-animal staff into the mix and the chance for danger increases dramatically; they may panic or agitate the animal, startle it into dangerous action, or (worse yet) mistake themselves for action heroes and try to capture it themselves (I've seen it... never works out too well).   It's an even greater challenge when the escape spills out from the (relative) control of a zoological facility into the outside world.

The decision to use lethal force against an escapee is never one to take lightly.  I skimmed the comments section after the article and read a lot of posts demanding to know why tranquilizers weren't used.  These drugs can take a while to take effect, and it can be hard to predict how an adrenaline-crazed animal is going to respond to the dosage (this is not TV - the animal doesn't feel the pin-prick and then pass out on the spot).  I wouldn't presume to Monday-morning quarterback on whatever happened at this zoo.  I am, however, sorry for their loss.  I can't say if I would have made the same call that they did or not - again, wasn't there, didn't see what happened - but I know it couldn't have been an easy call.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Book Review: Rewilding North America

No one can suggest that Dave Foreman shies away from the little controversy.  The founder of Earth First!, Foreman is best remembered for his 1990 arrest for conspiracy to commit eco-sabotage.  In more recent years, he has emerged as one of the leading proponents of the rewilding school of conservation, and is one of the founders of the Rewilding Institute.  In my sophomore year of college, I had the opportunity to attend a lecture by Foreman, one which completely changed my outlook on conservation forever.

In Rewilding North America: A Vision for Conservation in the 21st Century, Foreman describes the environmental situation in America.  Many writers have described quite clearly the negative ecological trends that the world has seen in recent years – and Foreman sums these up plainly in the first section of his book – but few then go on to offer what he does: hope.  Hope, that is, coupled with a specific blueprint for its realization.  

At a time when conservationists are scrambling to hold onto what little wilderness remains, Foreman challenges his readers to go on the offensive.  He envisions a North America that is almost defined by conservation – chains of protected areas that link wilderness areas from the Yukon to the Sierra Madre.  Focusing on the large American carnivores – the wolves, bears, and big cats – Foreman takes what seems like a ecological pipedream and makes it seem realistic and tenable.    When you put down this book, you are literally struck with the awesome realization “It could work…”

Foreman has little to say of zoos in his book, but perhaps it is time that zoos had more to say about rewilding.  Many (not enough, but many still) are involved with at least some reintroduction programs, from black-footed ferrets to southern brook trout.  It's time to see what good zoos and aquariums could do it restoring the ecosystems in their back yard.  Perhaps even more importantly, we could do a better job of sharing these rewilding stories with visitors.  I have seen dozens of jaguar exhibits at zoos around the country, all of them set in Latin American jungles.  When I talk to visitors about the jaguars at our zoo, I don’t talk to them about Amazonia, I talk about Arizona – I tell them that this is OUR American big cat, and about its recent reappearance in the US.  Guests are usually shocked.

Rewilding North America is a book that is guaranteed to reinvigorate and reignite the passion of the constantly defeated conservationist.  After reading it, you become inspired to go out, look around, and see what you can do yourself to make Foreman’s vision a reality.  That, perhaps, is the best part of Foreman’s vision – it’s grassroots and it’s local.  Americans are infamous for telling the rest of the world – Africa, Asia – how to conduct their affairs, in conservation and in virtually everything else.  Perhaps we should get our own house in order first.

Rewilding North America from The Rewilding Institute

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Sporcle Quiz: Crane, Stork, or Flamingo?

After reading up on the Saddle-Billed Stork, try out your crane/stork knowledge with our next quiz!

Species Fact Profile: Saddle-Billed Stork (Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis)

Saddle-Billed Stork

Ephippiorhynchus senegalensis (Shaw, 1800)

Range:  Sub-Saharan Africa
Habitat:  Open Wetland, Rivers, Floodplains
Diet:  Fish, Crustaceans, Frogs, Reptiles
Social Grouping: Solitary or Paired
Reproduction: Monogamous (possibly for life); nest on a platform of sticks in a tree near water, usually used for several years (will sometimes use nests built by other birds); the 1-5 (usually 2-3) eggs are incubated by both for parents 30-35 days; chicks fledge at about 3 months of age and become independent shortly after
Lifespan: 12 Years (Wild), 35 Years (Captivity - Maximum)
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern, CITES Appendix III

  • The tallest African stork (possibly the tallest in the world), stand 135-150 centimeters tall, 140 centimeters long, with a wingspan of 2.4-2.7 meters.  Weight 5-7.5 kilograms - males are slightly heavier than females
  • Both sexes look (largely) alike, with a black head, neck, wings, and tail and white underparts.  The massive bill is red with a broad black bands and a yellow shield in front of the eyes (the "saddle" for which the species is named).  Males differ from females in having brown irises; females have yellow iris
  • They lack a voice box; juveniles may make begging sounds, but adults are largely silent, except for bill-clattering, done during copulation or as a warning
  • Males display for females with a "flap-dash", running to and from female while flapping the wings, exposing the white wing patterns inside
  • While primarily solitary, sometimes groups of up to 12 birds are observed; the species becomes less territorial outside of the breeding season
  • Weaver birds will sometimes build their nests alongside saddle-billed stork nests for protection
  • Primarily sedentary and territorial, they may become nomadic and more sociable in times of drought
  • Hunt alone but within sight of each other, either by standing still in shallow water and waiting for prey or by walking through reed beds, stabbing with the beak and trying to startle prey
  • Prey is often washed before being swallowed headfirst; in the case of spiny catfish, the spines are snipping off before the fish is eaten.  Drink copiously after feeding
  • Distinctive bent posture in flight, with the heavy bill dangling below the body
  • Very shy in the wild, but in protected areas can become very tolerant of humans, even tame
  • Captive breeding is still uncommon, and has been achieved only in pairs where the male has been left fully-flighted, not pinioned
  • Sometimes referred to as "the African jabiru", though it's closest relative is not the South American jabiru, but the black-necked stork of Asia and Australia (also sometimes called a jabiru)

Monday, June 10, 2013

Zoo Review: Audubon Zoo

The Audubon Zoo has a wonderful collection of animals from around the world, but its best exhibit is, by far, the one that comes closest to home.  Twenty years or so after its opening, the Louisiana Swamp exhibit is still the crown jewel of the zoo.  With the exception of the Arizona Sonora Desert Museum, it's doubtful that any other zoo approaches this level or detail and realism in displaying its native wildlife.  The alligator pool - home to several large gators - reminded me not of any other zoo gator exhibit I've seen, but of my first view of a wild alligator in the swamps of South Carolina.  The foxes and raccoons made me feel like I'd stumbled around a corner and actually seen a wild animal, unplanned and unexpected.  Otters, black bears, bobcats, and nutria round out the collection, along with an impressive assortment of swamp reptiles.  Even the concessions fit into the immersion effect, as guests could sit on the porch of a cajun shack and chow down on fried catfish and pecan pie.

This isn't to say that the other exhibits of Audubon weren't noteworthy.  The new Latin American exhibit, Jaguar Jungle, was a masterpiece in realism, with carved Mayan ruins modeled off of actual structures from Central America (more often it looks like zoos build their temple ruins - a cliche in themselves, I admit - with leftover props from Nickelodeon's Legends of the Hidden Temple).  The South American pampas yard was a beautiful stretch of marsh and lake, populated by tapirs, capybaras, screamers, and a flotilla of waterfowl.  The African Savannah was equally noteworthy.  The reptile house was one of the best I'd seen anywhere - both in terms of collection (ranging from crowd-pleasers like Komodo dragons to the obscure and seldom-seen, like Texas blind salamanders) and the exhibits themselves (the underwater viewing of Chinese alligators was especially impressive).

What made so many of the exhibits so believable was the plant life - I have never seen such an incredibly lush zoo (and staff I spoke to said that before Katrina, the vegetation was even denser!).  The aviary was so thickly planted that the ibises, shelducks, and other birds were easily lost in the greenery.  In the Louisiana Swamp, the fact that all of the plants were native only strengthened the immersive appeal.

Best of all, this was no zoo resting on its laurels.  The first exhibit I saw upon entry was the Asian elephant exhibit.  Anyone who has visited a lot of zoos has seen an elephant exhibit like this -  a small, gray, dusty yard with two elephant cows plodding around.  What they might not see is the massive construction site next door as the zoo prepares to expand its habitat size by several times (no zoo is going to be perfect, but every zoo should be willing to try anyway).  Audubon used to be consecutively ranked as one of the worst zoos in the United States.  Its continued renovation of itself has lead to it becoming celebrated as one of the best.

One of the newest features at the zoo is a non-animal attraction: a waterpark.  I've been told that this addition has resulted in thousands of extra (paying) visitors a year.  I know plenty of purists that I've worked with who would balk at this - "It's a zoo not an... an... an AMUSEMENT PARK!" - and I can certainly understand what they're saying.  With exhibit/breeding/holding space being such a precious commodity in zoos, I can understand not wanting to use any of it for purposes not directly related to the mission.

That being said, a zoo does have to support itself, and if waterparks and other attractions can serve as a lure to bring in visitors who otherwise might not come, there is something to be said for that (and heaven forbid visitors to a zoo have fun!). (Also, to be fair, the zoo isn't as limited for space as some other facilities may be - Audubon operates an off-site conservation breeding facility).  A zoo in this position, however, should probably be prepared to demonstrate how attractions like this (or ziplines, another popular new novelty) contribute to the zoo's overall mission.  It especially helps if you can find a way to tie it in as an educational or animal-themed component.

The zoo does not stand alone.  It is part of the Audubon Nature Institute, which also includes the Audubon Insectarium and the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas, both located across town near the city's riverfront.

If you have the time and opportunity when visiting New Orleans, you should definitely try to ditch the city and get into the surrounding wilderness.  If not - and even if you can - take a break from Bourbon Street and catch a streetcar down to the Audubon Zoo.

PS: I can't end a review of Audubon without telling one of the most ridiculous stories about the place.  One of the most popular features of the zoo is the slight rise of land called "Monkey Hill".  There are no monkeys on it - the attraction is the hill itself.  Community leaders had it built so the children of notoriously-flat New Orleans could experience what a hill was.  Audubon Zoo does sit on some of the highest ground in New Orleans,which is partially responsible for the minimal damage the zoo suffered during Hurricane Katrina.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

From the News: Pet Lions in Kabul

The $20,000 pet lion that lives on a Kabul rooftop

Over the course of my zoo career, I've gotten the opportunity to work with all eight of the big cat species.  Three (lion, leopard, snow leopard) have been as a volunteer, the other five (tiger, jaguar, puma, cheetah, and clouded leopard) were as a paid keeper; I've also worked with six of the smaller cats.  Each of these cats have, in their own way, been inspiring to work with. I've loved going to work with them every day.  And I've never EVER wanted to go home to one.

I once heard a comment to the effect of, "Make a dog 10 times bigger, and it still wants to play catch.  Make a cat 10 times bigger and it wants to &$*(%(@ eat you."  When I took care of these big cats, I went into the enclosures with cheetahs and clouded leopards.  The others... never.  Some of these cats had been wild born and orphaned.  Others had been hand-reared as pets before being turned over to a zoo.  If I'd gone into a enclosure with a lion or tiger, jaguar or leopard, I doubt that I would have come out alive... or at least with as many body parts as I'd gone in with.

You see, to me this seems obvious.  That being said, it's amazing how many morons I meet at work every day who coo at the cats and talk - seriously - about how they'd love to have one.  In some states, this is perfectly legal.  Many visitors fail to understand that a big cat, even a well-fed one (and keeping a big cat well-fed is an expensive operation) is still a very dangerous animal, not a big striped-or-spotted kitty.

This guy in Kabul may like his pet now.  Maybe he'll be okay for a month, maybe he'll be very lucky and nothing will ever happen.  But every twit who keeps a big cat as a personal pet just encourages others to do the same.  The more people with big cats - or venomous snakes, or non-human primates, or other "pets" - the more likely someone is to get hurt.  Or worse...

PS:  Looking back at this entry, I realize that I focused far too heavily on the negative consequences for HUMANS keeping an exotic pet.  This is a bad habit that I got into when I realized that people were much more likely to do the right thing regarding animals when I told them what was in it for them (as helping animals never strikes some people as a worthwhile activity by itself).  Here is the other side of the coin: how wild animals suffer from being kept in the pet trade:

Illegal Wildlife Trade Flourishes in Sumatra

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Geographic Fatigue

All good things which exist are the fruits of originality”

- John Stuart Mill

To the best of my knowledge, no zoo has ever attempted a major exhibit of New Guinea wildlife.  Plenty of zoos – particularly those with large bird and reptile collections - have Papuan animals in their collections, and lots of zoos have Australian areas, but I’ve never seen an actual New Guinea exhibit.  On two separate occasions at two zoos that I worked, I tried convincing management to consider the possibilities – cassowaries and birds-of-paradise, crocodile monitors and tree kangaroos, a lorikeet aviary as a revenue-generator...  No one ever did show much enthusiasm, and eventually I dropped it.  It’s a pity, I thought at the time… it would have been nice to have tried something different for a change.

Ever since zoos began making the transition from taxonomic-based exhibits (Cat Houses, Monkey Houses, Bear Dens, etc) to geographically-themed areas, a few trends have arisen, some of which have become borderline clichés.  At any given major zoo, there will be an African savannah, complete with giraffes, zebras, and lions.  There will also be a rainforest – either Latin American or Southeast Asian – the climax of which will often be a tiger or jaguar lounging on some temple ruins.  Australia became trendy a few years back (especially among smaller zoos, which don’t have the room for the larger African and Asian species), with kangaroo walk-throughs and lorikeet/budgie aviaries becoming increasingly prominent.  The zoos that can afford to do so have added Arctic areas, starring the ever-popular polar bear.
Focusing on these narrow geographic areas helps zoos feature most the charismatic mega-fauna (big, popular animals) that the public craves, and they are tried-and-true crowd pleasers.  There are, however, problems with these constant repetitions of exhibit ideas.  For one, it can be boring, and as much as we may hate to admit it, the promise of entertainment is one of the main ways that we coax guests into the gate.  When I travel around the country, I always make a point to stop in at the local zoo or aquarium; half the time, that’s the main reason for the trip in the first place.  Many people do not, of course, largely with the belief that zoos are basically the same.  If we turn every zoo or aquarium into a carbon-copy of the next, we will fulfill that expectation.  
Obsession with a few geographic exhibit areas also threatens conservation efforts.  Some endangered species do not belong to these favored exhibit regions, and zoos may be unwilling to add them to their collection for that reason.
Lastly, I would question whether some of these geographic regions really are that educational anyway.  Animals from all over a continent – especially a very large and diverse one – can be lumped together, but what does that tell anyone?  One zoo that I visit fairly often has gazelle from the Sahelo-Saharen region of North Africa, okapi from the DR of Congo, and penguins from the coast of South Africa lumped together as part of an Africa section.  Another zoo I visit often has a South American aviary; all the birds are from South America, but some aren’t found with a thousand miles of the others.  If we’re going to use geographic zoo exhibits to teach visitors, shouldn’t they at feature animals that would actually live together, both in terms of geography and habitat?
Some adventurous zoos have broken the mold.  Minnesota Zoo opened its “Russia’s Grizzly Coast” a few years back to critical acclaim.  The Ethiopian Highlands at WCS’s Bronx Zoo remains a standard bearer of excellence.  Madagascar exhibits have begun popping up all over the place (the next fad?).   
Who knows, maybe there's hope for New Guinea yet…

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Book Review: Sailing with Noah

Whenever I move (and this profession has made me move for than I care to think about), one of the biggest headaches is lugging my library from one residence to the next.    I’ve accumulated a lot of zoo books over the years, some dealing with specific aspects of the job (exhibit design, training), others with specific animals.  I also have a fair number of books about zoos in general – books that offer a wonderful first introduction to the world of zoos for folks outside of our industry, while still providing lots of entertainment and enlightenment for those of us on the inside.

Of all of these books, my hands down favorite has always been Jeffery Bonner’s Sailing with Noah: Stories from the World of Zoos.  Written by one of the luminaries of the zoo and aquarium world – formerly of the Indianapolis Zoo, now CEO and President of the Saint Louis Zoo, Bonner’s book contains all that you would expect from a zoo man’s memoir.  There are funny tales of animal escapes (luring an escaped chimpanzee in with carry-out pizza), scary tales of animal escape (a cobra on the loose), births, acquisitions, and rescues.  His heartbreaking chapter describing the infamous Christmas Eve primate house fire in Philadelphia – resulting in the deaths of 23 monkeys, lemurs, and apes – will chill the soul of anyone who has ever worked with primates.

Bonner is a good writer – and a funny one, at that – and his book reads so easily that it’s easy to miss the true importance of his work.  Between all of these anecdotes and yarns, he offers the reader a vision of why zoos and aquariums matter.  It’s one thing to tell visitors vaguely that their visit contributes to conservation and education in some abstract sense, and another to confront them with the realities.  Zoos make a big difference in the fight to save endangered species, a message that Bonner drives home chapter after chapter.  He recounts all of the famous (at least famous among zookeeper) examples – he tells of black-footed ferrets and golden lion tamarins – but he also introduces several much less renowned species, teetering on the edge of extinction, from American burying beetles to Armenian vipers.  I picked up this book expecting to read about primates and carnivores, but it was Bonner’s chapter on the Partula snails of Polynesia which stayed with me as the most fascinating text.

Sailing with Noah is a wonderful book, one which I would love to see have a wider distribution.  Zoos and aquariums engage in very important missions – captive breeding, education, research – all geared towards ensuring animals a place in our world for future generations.  It’s always been a source of frustration for many zoo professionals that few people outside of the zoo community recognize or realize what we do.  Perhaps with more storytellers like Jeffery Bonner, we can start getting the word out a little more.  I urge anyone interested in zoos, animals, and conservation to read this book… and then recommend it to all of their friends.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Sporcle Quiz: World's Largest

In honor of the capybara, the topic of yesterday's post, here's a new quiz on Sporcle, challenging players to identify some of the world's largest animals!

Play Largest Animals Quiz!

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Species Fact Profile: Capybara (Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris)

Hydrochoerus hydrochaeris (Linneaus, 1766)

Range:  North and central South America
Habitat: Lowland Habitats close to Water (Swamps, Seasonally Flooded Savannah)
Diet: Grasses, Aquatic Vegetation, Fruit
Social Grouping: Family Groups of 10-30: a dominant male with his harem and some subordinate males; Temporary aggregations may consist of over 100 animals, the rare solitary individuals are usually males
Reproduction:  Following 150 day gestation, females give birth to 1 litter of up to 8 young at end of the rainy season; the highly developed young form a crèche and suckle from any female; young are sexually mature at 12-18 months
Lifespan: 10 Years (Wild), 12 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern

  • The world's largest rodent - head and body length is 106-134 centimeters, shoulder height is 50-62 centimeters.  Weight is 35-66 kilograms.  Females are slightly larger than males
  • The head is large and blunt with a heavy muzzle, the legs short, the tail rudimentary, and the toes ending in hoof-like claws.  The sparse, course hair is yellow, brown, or red in color
  • Males differ from females in having a large scent gland (Morillo) on top of the snout, which secretes a sticky fluid
  • They have several aquatic adaptations - eyes, ears, and nostrils hight on the head, partially-webbed toes, and a large amount of fatty tissue to give neutral buoyancy in water
  • The name Capybara is from the Tupinambi for "master of the grasses, referring the llanos habitat where they are the most numerous
  • They are strong swimmers and take to the water when frightened, staying underwater for as long as 5 minutes; they also mate in water
  • All members of the herd defend territory, and may recognize other group members by scent from the glands on the anus; territories encompass feeding grounds and wallowing areas
  • Primarily crepuscular, they may become nocturnal in areas where they are heavily persecuted by humans; their large body size leaves them prone to heat stress
  • Predators include jaguars, caiman, and anacondas; if danger is sighted, they will give an alarm bark
  • Have been extensively hunted for meats, hides (yielding high-quality leather), grease (used in the pharmaceutical trade); they are also hunted as a pest, seen as a crop-raider or competitor with livestock.  In some areas, attempts have been made to farm them commercially, as they have more efficient digestion than cattle
  • Capybara meat is popularly eaten during Lent in some parts of South America, as they are considered "fish" by the Catholic Church, due to a colonial-era decree

Zookeeper's Journal: Capybara are some of the most charming animals I've ever worked with... or would be, if not for two factors.  One concerns their use of water.  Highly aquatic, they require large pools, preferably deep enough to completely submerge within, as they would in the wild.  Unfortunately, they show equal fondness for defecating in the water as for swimming, which makes cleaning up after them something of a chore.  Secondly, there is the issue of aggression.  Despite their placid, cute appearances, capybara can be viciously savage towards on another, inflicting powerful bites with their chisel teeth.  When you have a compatible pair, it's fantastic, but introducing two strange capybara to one another is often fraught with tension...

Saturday, June 1, 2013

From the News: "German zoo announces first-ever ‘test tube kittens’"

German Zoo Announces First Test Tube Kittens

Thought I'd share a quick news item; to summarize the attached link, Germany's Allwetter Zoo has announced the birth to two Asian golden cat, Catopuma/Pardofelis temminckii, kittens through artificial insemination.  I've never seen one of these gorgeous cats myself - ZIMS doesn't list any in North American zoo collections - but it's a great triumph for the zoo.  

When zoo folks first began talking about AI, I was kind of leary about it initially.  I felt, at the time, that the best way to reproduce animals in a zoo setting was to do it naturally as possible (boy meets girl, as it were).  The more I've looked into the practice, however, the better and better an idea it seems in many circumstances.  It's a lot easier, cheaper, and less stressful to ship a vial of sperm than it is to send a whole animal across the country or world.  There's also the possible advantage of collecting sperm from wild animals for use in captive breeding programs - add new genes to the zoo population without pulling them out of the wild one.

I do worry slightly about the social implications of AI - for species that rely on learning more than instinct, could it lead to "socially uneducated" animals, unpracticed on how to interact with one another?  It reminds of the hand-rearing fiasco of a few decades ago - baby animals were pulled from their mothers to be hand-reared, the end result being that they didn't know how to raise their own babies later on (which meant that THOSE babies then had to be hand-reared).

Anyway, that's just a rambling thought.  Congrats to Allwetter Zoo and best of luck with their cats!