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Wednesday, July 31, 2013

From the News: Zoo Mice Becoming Prairie Pioneers Thanks To Lincoln Park Zoo Recovery Program

We often think of the large, powerful, highly visible animals being the ones that have the greatest impact on an ecosystem.  To an extent, that's certainly true.  Often, however, it's the smaller, more cryptic species which are really the drivers of biodiversity.

Kudos to the Lincoln Park Zoo for a) focusing on a small, overlooked, underrated, highly important species and b) paying attention to one found locally.  That every zoo should do the same!

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Zoo Review: Virginia Zoo

Prior to my most recent visit, I hadn't been to the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk in over a decade.  It's amazing how much the facility has evolved since then.  The African area - Okavango Delta - has gone from a single enclosure to a sprawling trail with over a dozen exhibits, including mandrills, red river hogs, lions, elephants, and giraffes.  The old pachyderm building has been demolished.  An entirely new Asian area - Trail of the Tiger - opened up.  Tigers, of course, are the stars here, but orangutans, Malayan tapirs, two species of bear, and two species of gibbon also have new habitats.  The last vestige of the old zoo that remains is the somewhat shabby (and I'm saying this as a friend...) reptile/small mammal house.  Hopefully, this final structure will be replaced with something equal to the caliber of the newer exhibits.

There are a lot of great things about the Virginia Zoo.  Many of the new exhibits are spacious, natural, and attractive; especially noteworthy are the tiger, orangutan, rhino, and lion exhibits.  There are some pretty innovative features too.  In the Asian area, visitors can watch the red pandas draped over a tree limb directly over the main pathway with nothing - no nets, no glass, nothing - in between.  The African area allows guests a behind-the-scenes peek of the elephant and giraffe facilities.  Even one of the older displays, the prairie dog exhibit, got visitors crawling through tunnels for a peek of the prairie dogs at eye level.  The zoo also has a surprising collection of species uncommon in other zoos, including mountain zebras, blue dwarf geckos, and my first ever Australian brush turkey (actually a megapode).

There were a few things I didn't especially like.  The enclosures in the reptile/small mammal house were kind of mediocre (the ocelot exhibit especially struck me as pretty bad), but to be fair, name a zoo that doesn't have one or two older exhibits that just need to be replaced.  While the main exhibits of the African and Asian areas were very nice, some of the small animal enclosures were a little disappointing, viewing wise.  The glass-fronted bird and reptile displays in Africa had horrible glare issues, making it impossible to see inside.  The Asian aviary was also hard to see into.  The layout was a bit chaotic, and while I didn't mind too much having to trek from one end of the zoo to the other with long periods of no exhibits, I did hear some visitors getting irate. What probably annoyed me the most was how many of the exhibits featured visitors looking down (sometimes almost directly) on the animals.  I've always felt that it's best to see animals at eye-level, if not slightly elevated.  Ever seen a bongo from directly overhead?  I have now...

A few (let's be honest, minor) gripes aside, it was a treat to get back to Norfolk and see all the great improvements that Virginia Zoo has made over the years.  I hope that it continues to flourish and develop as Virginia's largest AZA-accredited zoo.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Species Fact Profile: Aardvark (Orycteropus afer)


Orycteropus afer (Pallas, 1766)

Range: Eastern and Southern Africa
Habitat: Grassland, Savannah
Diet: Ants, Termites
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction:  Mating season varies throughout the range; 1 young is born after a 7 month gestation period; young are naked with their eyes open at birth, weaned at 2 months, independent at 6 months, and sexually mature at 2 years
Lifespan:  18 Years (Wild), 23 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern

  •  Body length 100-160 centimeters, weight 40-82 kilograms; the squared-off head has a very long nose and rabbit-like ears; the tail is thick and tapering tail, the very muscular limbs end in thick-nailed digits
  • Short hair is often worn-off in adults; fur color is tan-brown, with females tending to be lighter than the males
  • Dentition consists of peg-like molars and premolars, no incisors or canines (all teeth are present in embryos)
  • Capture social insects with long sticky tongue, breaking into nest mound with powerful claws.  They seem immune to the chemical defenses of ants and termites, while their tough skin deflects insect bites.  A feeding aardvark may consume 50,000 insects nightly
  • Forage at night, spending days in burrows with multiple entrances and several chambers; these burrows may extend 6 meters underground and be 13 meters long.  An aardvark may have several burrows scattered across its home range
  •  Aardvark burrows provide shelter for a wide variety of other animals, including warthogs, wild dogs, hyenas,  and various birds, reptiles, and small mammals
  • Sometimes persecuted by farmers, who view their holes as inconvenient or dangerous; they are also declining in some areas due to elimination of their food source through pesticides; in some areas it is also hunted for its meat, skin, claws, and teeth (used to make charms or curios)
  • Sometimes called the “ant-bear” or “anteater” (to which it is not closely related), the name "aardvark" is from the Afrikaans/Dutch for “earth pig”
  • Belong to order Tubulidentara, only mammalian order represented by a single living species; the aardvark's closest living relatives are elephants, hyraxes, sirens, elephant shrews, and tenrecs

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Keepers of the Kingdom

My boss has been at our zoo for three decades now, working her way up from groundskeeper to curator.  As one would expect from someone who has spent a long time at one zoo, she has a lot of stories about the zoo, the animals… and the keepers.  When talking about the earliest keepers, the ones who were there when she started all of those years ago, she has a special nickname – “animal janitors.”  They were good for coming in and cleaning up poop, and not much else.  Nor did they especially aspire to be anything else.  It was a job.  They came, they did it, they got paid, and they went home.

How many careers can say that they have changed as incredibly (and positively) over the past few years as that of zookeeper?  The zookeeper of today bears little resemblance to that of a half-century ago.  The importance of education has been greatly expanded; a college degree is required at many institutions, and graduate degrees are commonplace.  Some colleges have developed entire programs devoted to the training of future zookeepers.  Keepers are expected not only be to be educated, knowing the natural history and care requirements of their charges, they are also expected to be educators.  While many zoos have education departments these days, it is the animal keepers themselves that the public is most eager to meet and talk to.

Education, of course, is a tool of the zookeeper’s primary mission – conservation.  Zoos participate in breeding programs that may be regional, national, or international in scope.  Keepers raise funds for conservation projects, an example being the famous “Bowling for Rhinos” events.  Some zoos allow their staff to become directly involved in conservation projects in the wild.  In the past, zoos could be justly accused of being drains on wild populations, as animals were pulled from the wild to fill exhibit spaces.  Now, they represent the last hope for some endangered species, from the Kihansi spray toad to the California condor.  It is the keepers who make these conservation triumphs possible.

I once heard Tony Vecchio, director of the Jacksonville Zoo, address a group of zookeepers at a training session in Wheeling.  Vecchio told us that, in the past, when he would address a gathering of keepers he would tell them that he himself had been a keeper years ago, to suggest a common bond.  “I don’t do that anymore,” he then said, “because what you all do as keepers now is so far beyond anything that I ever did, there’s just no comparison between the two.”  He’s right.  Today’s best keepers practice training.  They use enrichment.  They constantly strive to improve the quality of lives for their animals.  And they themselves are constantly improving.  Within another fifty years or so, maybe the zookeepers of the future will be as far beyond what we do now as we are beyond those who came before us.

Happy National Zookeeper Week!

*Note about Title: I’d heard the nickname “Keepers of the Kingdom” given to the new generation of zookeepers a few years ago and found it to be very charming.  It is also, I later found, the title of a book about zoos written by Michael Nichols.  No reference to this book is intended

**Where practical.  If you are an amphibian keeper and don’t train your salamanders, I’m not looking down my nose at you.  (If you DO train your salamanders, get in touch with me right away, I totally need to get a guest article out of you!)

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Sporcle Quiz: Rhino and Tapir Countries

Rhino and Tapir Countries

All five rhino species are threatened - to varying degrees - with extinction.  See what countries are still holding on to these magnificent animals (and tapirs too, because... why not?)

Monday, July 22, 2013

Horns of Dilemma

Explaining how a large, rare mammal came to be on the brink of extinction can be a challenge in many cases.  Often, there are several factors which conspired to bring it to the edge - habitat loss, natural rarity, introduced disease, etc.  For the two African rhino species, however, the story is much simpler - the horn.

Whether for dagger handles in Yemen or purposes of medicinal quackery in East Asia, rhinos have been hunted heavily for their horns for centuries.  The three Asian species have the added threat of habitat loss, but it truthfully doesn't seem to matter in the end - the case of the two African species shows that poachers will go to the ends of the earth to secure a rhino horn.  When I was in South Africa recently, park rangers told me that they never, ever even alluded to a rhino's whereabouts over their radios, for fear that eavesdropping poachers would learn where to find their favorite prey.

I've heard the idea floated in the past that maybe we should accept the inevitable - that the demand for rhino horn is too huge to fight - and try other strategies than protection.  Dehorning rhinos in the wild has been tried... but it reduced the ability of females to protect their calves, and poachers began shooting hornless animals out of spite.  Besides, the horn grows back, and poachers find even the smallest nub to be profitable.    Some folks have mentioned farming rhinos for their horns - lopping of horns as soon as they are large enough to sell, then waiting a few years for a new horn to grow.  These suggestions are usually made by people who have no idea how demanding a task breeding rhinos can be.  Also, you still have to worry about poachers raiding your breeding stations to take the horns for themselves.

South Africa - which has invested a lot of money and man power into protecting its rhinos - has accumulated quite a stockpile of confiscated horns over the years.  They want to start selling it off, hoping to ease the demand for rhino horn and possibly make poaching unnecessary.  Others fear that this will only make it easier for poachers to sell their illegal horns.  Besides, those confiscated stores will run out at some point.  Do we really want to be adding to the demand for rhino horn?

Read the comment section of any article of rhino poaching and someone will inevitably propose a more draconion solution.  Poison rhino horns and let them slip into the market.  Let people learn that you're playing Russian roulette every time you use "horn" medication.  If I thought that this would only affect the people you actually were responsible for rhino poaching, I might be on board with it.  But what happens when someone gives rhino horn to their small child with a fever?  Besides, people will only be willing to pay even more for "pure", uncontaminated horn.

The only way to protect rhinos, in the end, is to eradicate the demand for their horns.  The Chinese and Vietnamese governments need to step up to the challenge of not only actually enforcing laws against the use of endangered species in Traditional Chinese Medicine, it needs to educate people that these "medicines" DO... NOT... WORK!  Rhino horn = fingernail!  You are paying a fortune to drive a magnificent animal to extinction for absolutely no value to yourself, beyond the placebo effect!  Only when we are sure that no one wants a rhino horn can we be sure that no one will kill for one.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Book Review: Wild Cats of the World

Scrawled at the top of Sunquist and Sunquist's Wild Cats of the World are the words "The Ultimate Reference to Every Species Worldwide."  I normally try to discourage braggarts, but in this case, it is no ideal boast.  The Sunquists do a remarkable job of gathering, summarizing, and presenting data on the world's cat species (not all of the currently recognized species - some species have been split into two).

For all of the big cat species - and a handful of the smaller ones - there are more detailed books already written.  Schaller, for one, has entirely scholarly works devoted to lions and tigers.  If your interest is solely in pumas or cheetahs, you would probably be better served with one of those species-specific texts with fifty pages devoted to territory marking alone.  What makes the Sunquist book so useful is the attention and detail that it pays to the less well known species.  Sure, there isn't much information available on some species, such as the Chinese desert cat and the Borneo bay cat, but what scant information is available can be found here.  I found this book to be an especially useful reference for those species which are maintained in zoos but which are not subject of other books - clouded leopard, Pallas cat, etc.

Wild Cats of the World provides the information that a specialist would need - charts of body measurements and diet composition (by fecal and stomach content) for example.  It also contains plenty of information that the general reader would find useful and interesting.  For the cat keeper, the generalist keeper, or just someone interest in felids, this book will prove a useful library addition.

Wild Cats of the World at

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Zoo Joke: Penguins

A police officer is sitting in his car by the side of the road, when he suddenly does a double take: a pick-up truck has just cruised by, with a dozen penguins riding in the bed.  Flipping on his siren, he swoops down on the pick-up and pulls it over.  Striding over to the driver-side window, he motions for the driver to step out.

"Sir," says the officer.  "I can't help but notice that you've got a lot of penguins in your truck."

"That's right," replies the driver.  "I'm taking them to the zoo."

Well, the police officer can't think of anything wrong with that, so he just smiles and waves the driver off on his way.

Later that day, the same police officer is still watching traffic, when, to his surprise, the same pick-up truck - driven by the same driver - drives by, still with a dozen penguins in the bed.  Shaking his head in disbelief, the cop chases after him and pulls him over.

"Sir!", he exclaims to the driver, "I thought you said that you were taking these penguins to the zoo!"

"I did," said the driver, amiably.  "And we had a great time!  We're going to the movies, next."

Friday, July 19, 2013

From the News: Two Persian Leopard Cubs Born, First in Fifty Years

Two Persian Leopard Cubs Born, First in Fifty Years

Ok, so the title of the article doesn't quite tell the whole story... it should read that the first cubs have been born in 50 years in a Russian national park.  The cubs have been produced as part of a breeding program to reintroduce the endangered big cats back into the wild.  And where did the parents for this breeding program come from?  The Lisbon Zoo!

Reintroduction programs aren't as common as we wish they are, and they are seldom taking place with large carnivores.  Breeding big cats and bears in captivity is easy.  Finding a suitable habitat to release them into (one that isn't already at carrying capacity), getting the support of local players (government, residents, etc), and preparing the zoo-borns for life in the wild is a far greater challenge.

Congrats to all parties concerned on his historic event.  Hopefully, from the Persians in the Southwest to the Amurs in the Far East, Russia will once again be leopard country!

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Zoo Review: Maryland Zoo in Baltimore

If it were located anywhere else in the country, the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore - formerly known as The Baltimore Zoo - would probably have the great reputation that it deserves.  Instead, it has the rotton luck to be perpetually in the shadow of the nearby Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC, which a) boasts a much larger collection and b) is free.  The other animal attraction in town - the National Aquarium in Baltimore - usually grabs the headlines, the attention, and the tourist dollars.

That being said, Maryland Zoo is a gem of an institution, one that is in no way inferior to the National Zoo... just different.  For one thing, it's more spread out and feels wilder than its DC counterpart - there are no rows of animal houses here, and the exhibits are interspaced with more trees and rocks.  Even without the budget of the Smithsonian to back it up, many of its exhibits are spacious and attractive, and some are truly beautiful.  The opening display for the zoo's African Journey trail features a herd of handsome sitatunga antelope - along with hornbills and cranes - frolicking at the base of a thundering waterfall.  The collection may be smaller than National Zoo, but in many ways it's complimentary.  Many popular animals that you won't find in DC - penguins, polar bears, giraffes, chimpanzees, rhinos - can be found in Baltimore, and vice versa.

Probably one of the best features of Maryland Zoo is its Children Zoo - once rated the nation's best, and still easily in the top ten.  Focusing on the wildlife of Maryland (I'm a sucker for native animal exhibits - every zoo should have one), kids can hop on giant lily pads, explore a labyrinthine cave (complete with a wooly mammoth skeleton playground), pet the goats in the barnyard, or watch river otters swim overhead.  I'm pretty sure that every child in central Maryland has been photographed at least once in the zoo's giant model oriole and heron nests, situated in the Marsh Aviary exhibit.  Many zoos have built bigger or grander kid zoos since, but Maryland Zoo's children zoo in many ways wrote the original book on introducing kids to nature in a zoo setting.

Maryland Zoo has had many conservation success stories over the years.  For example, it's renowned for its involvement in the Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project and had an active and early role in Project Golden Frog, devoted to saving the Panamanian Golden Frog.  The zoo is perhaps known best of all for its breeding successes with African penguins.  After having shuttered many exhibits a decade ago, the zoo is finally announcing its first new major exhibit in years - a renovated home for its penguin colony (see news link at bottom).  Hopefully, it will be the first of many expansions and renovations.  The Maryland Zoo may not be the biggest zoo in the mid-Atlantic, but it is certainly one of the best.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Sporcle Quiz: Pythons of the World

Name the Pythons
Esoteric?  Definitely.  Hard? You Bet.  Go on... give it a shot!

Species Fact Profile: Green Tree Python (Morelia viridis)

Green Tree Python

Morelia viridis (Schlegel, 1872)

Range: Southern Indonesia , New Guinea, Cape York Peninsula (Australia)
Habitat: Rainforest
Diet: Small Mammals, Reptiles
Social Grouping: Solitary, Non-Territorial
Reproduction:  Reproduction has never been observed in the wild.  Variable breeding season is influenced by weather, and breeding may not occur every year.  In captivity, anywhere from 1-25 eggs are laid per clutch, usually in a tree hollow. Eggs are incubated and protected by female.  Males are sexually mature at 2.5 years, females at 3.5 years
Lifespan:  20 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status:  IUCN Least Concern, CITES Appendix II

  • Average length 1.2 meters, but sometimes over 2 meters in length
  • Coloration varies by locality, but adults are usually vivid green with a broken stripe of yellow or white scales down the spine; juveniles may be red, yellow, or orange.  In some populations, some adults may retain their juvenile coloration for their entire lives
  • One of the most arboreal of python species; they have a characteristic method of coiling themselves on branches, forming a saddle with their head resting in the middle
  • Primarily active at night (when nocturnal prey is most active), they will usually only change their positions at dawn or dusk to avoid revealing their location
  • Popularly believed to be bird specialists, there is actually no evidence for this, based on the analysis of the stomach contents of wild pythons
  • The primary method of hunting is to wait in an ambush position in the trees (sometimes for two weeks), holding onto a branch with the prehensile tail and striking out when prey approaches
  • Some pythons - especially juveniles - will wriggle their tail as a lure to attract prey within striking range
  • Predators include birds of prey, monitor lizards, dingos, and quolls - camouflage is the primary defensive mechanism
  • In some parts of its range, it overlaps with - and competes with - the closely related carpet python (M. spilota).  The two species hybridize in captivity.
  • Very similar in appearance to the unrelated emerald tree boa (Corallus caninus), down to method of coiling on branches.  The two species are often mistaken for one another in captivity; zoos often display them side-by-side as an example of convergent evolution
  • Despite a sometimes irascible nature, their coloration and the ease with which they allow themselves to be viewed (coiled prominently with their head in the center) has made this species very popular in pet trade (for medium-to-advanced hobbyists).  In the trade they are often called “chondros” (the former genus name was Chondropython)

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Tyger, Tyger, Burning... White?

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright, In the forests of the night,  
What immortal hand or eye, Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
-          William Blake

I’ll never forget my first white tiger.  Going to the National Zoo when I was a kid was a once-a-year treat, and one of the highlights of each visit was the tigers.  I had to time the visit properly – the cat would only be on display at certain times of the day – and when I reached the railing of the exhibit, it was always a rush.  Who would I see?  One of the ‘boring” (forgive the jadedness of youth) orange Sumatrans?  Or the beautiful white Bengal?  Then I remember the surprise of coming one day to find a sign up at the tigers – National Zoo was no longer going to display white tigers.

White tigers were a super novelty back in those days – now it seems that they are everywhere.  With them has come a debate among zoo professionals.  There are those who see the white cats as great assets for a collection, sure to bring in visitor dollars which can then be channeled towards important conservation work.  Then there are those who favor the au natural, dismissing white tigers as freaks.  And those, to cat keepers, are fighting words…

The arguments against white tigers are threefold.  Firstly, that white mutation (not albinism – white tigers have blue eyes, not pink) is almost nonexistent in nature.  When it was first discovered in a white tiger captured in India, it was preserved for future generations through inbreeding (some prefer the more sanitized verb “line-breeding”). Inbreeding brings a reliable stream of white tigers… it also brings some medical issues.  The one white tiger I’ve cared for was incredibly cross-eyed, to the point that we’d joke that it was safe to go in with him – he’d never be able to focus on a person to pounce.  He was also dumb as a sack of hammers, compared to our orange female, but I’m not sure if I can blame that on the coloration or not…

Secondly, white tigers take up space that could be used for other tigers.  The AZA has given conservation priority to three subspecies of tiger – Amur, Malayan, and Sumatran.  Tigers are expensive animals to house and feed, and every white tiger takes up resources that could (and arguably should) be going to one of these three subspecies.  White tigers tend to be Bengals (or Bengal-Amur crosses) and therefore useless for breeding program purposes.  Space is always a commodity in demand in zoos, and white tigers eat up a lot of it.

Lastly, white tigers just aren’t “real” animals in the sense that they are our creation.  Sure, once every million births or so one may occur in nature, but we humans have been mass producing them for movies, circuses, and casino acts.  What does that say to visitors?  Regular animals aren’t cool enough or worthy of conservation, that we need to make them “better”?

White tiger fans, however, will tell you that there is nothing wrong with their cats, thank you very much.  Wild whites have been documented (once or twice), it’s true.  They also argue that the money and attention that they bring to zoos far outweigh they cost of their food and their housing, and that they are captivating ambassadors for all wild tigers.  In other words, that they earn their keep.

I’m no fan of white tigers.  Nor are the majority of zookeepers that I know.  The public, however, seems to demand them, as they do other “novel” animals (i.e., the explosion of white alligators we’ve seen in recent years).  If I was a zoo director struggling to drive the gate, I can’t say that a white tiger on display might not do the trick.  Valid arguments can be made for both sides, and the issue is far from black and white… pun intended.

Monday, July 15, 2013

From the News: Giant Panda Gives Birth to Twins at Zoo Atlanta

Giant Panda Gives Birth to Twins at Zoo Atlanta

At this time, three of the four US zoos to exhibit giant pandas have successfully bred them at least once (everyone's looking at you, Memphis).  That which was once considered impossible - the breeding of pandas in captivity outside of China - is now starting to become almost commonplace.  When I was a kid, there were only two pandas in the US, both at the National Zoo.  Now, we come increasingly close to the possibility of the US being a producer of pandas, a source instead of a sink.
I've got mixed feelings on pandas and the politics associated with them, but that's a subject for another day.  In the meantime, congratulations to Zoo Atlanta for their historic accomplishment.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

From the News: More than 150 accused in online wildlife sales

More than 150 accused in online wildlife sales
Not directly a zoo issue per se, but many of the species kept in our collections are threatened by the illegal wildlife trade...

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Species Fact Profile: Black Swan (Cygnus atratus)

Black Swan

Cygnus atratus (Latham, 1790)

Range:  Australia (Includes Tasmania)
Habitat:  Lakes, Rivers, Wetlands
Diet:  Aquatic Plants, Grasses, Insects
Social Grouping: Pairs, Family Groups, Loose Colonies
Reproduction: Monogamous (often for life), breed February through September; a nest of sticks and leaves is built on a floating mound in water; the 5-6 eggs are incubated for 35-48 days by both parents, chicks fledge 150-170 days, are independent at 9 months, and sexually mature at 18-36 months; juveniles form their own flocks
Lifespan:  40 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern

  • Body length 110-140 centimeters, wingspan 160-200 centimeters, weight 3.7-8.7 kilograms (males are slightly larger than females)
  • Black plumage with some white wing feathers, a red bill, and red or pink irises; juveniles are gray-brown with lighter bills than the adults
  • Black swans have the longest neck in relation to their body size of any swan species; the neck is often curved into “S” shape
  • Birds molt after the breeding season and unable to fly for a month or so
  • The least territorial of all swans, they sometimes form colonies
  • Largely sedentary, they will become nomadic in times of food scarcity
  • Adults have few predators, but eggs and fledglings can be taken by ravens, raptors, gulls, predatory marsupials, and rodents
  • They have been introduced to Europe and North America; vagrants have been reported in Indonesia and New Guinea
  • A subspecies (C. a. sumnerensisi) was hunted to extinction present in New Zealand; birds of Australian stock were then introduced to New Zealand and have become established
  • Considered a crop pest in some areas, they hunted legally during a short annual season
  • State bird of Western Australia, appearing on Coat of Arms and flag; important in aboriginal lore (in most versions, swans were originally people; in some versions they were originally white and were given black feathers by crows)
  • Prior to 1697 discovery, “black swan” was European metaphor for something that couldn’t exist

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Book Review: The Anteater of Death

No, the title of this post is not a typo.  That is actually the title of an actual book.  It's the sort of title which just leaps out at you from a library shelf.  Doesn't that totally sound like the name of a punk rock band?  But I digress...

In The Anteater of Death, veteran mystery novelist Betty Webb introduces readers to the fictitious Gunn Zoo and its plucky protagonist, zookeeper Theodora "Teddy" Bentley.  When the body of a murdered man is found in zoo's giant anteater enclosure, it is up to Bentley to uncover the killer (why are the cops never able to solve these murder mysteries on their own in these books?)

Anteater would be a fairly typical novel, except of course that it is set in a zoo.  It's rare that we really see our profession depicted in any depth in pop culture (and even more rare when it's depicted even somewhat accurately... I'm looking at you, Kevin James).  The Gunn Zoo might be a little too perfect to be believable, the characters might be a little too earnest and preachy (Webb's attempt to sneak some education into her story).  Murder mystery aside, Bentley might see more animal action in a week than most zookeepers will see in three lifetimes (breaking up wolf fight, giraffe giving birth, kid falling into bear exhibit, etc... all in the space of, what, three days?).  It's still cool to see a (somewhat glamorized) version of ourselves in a novel for all to read...  Many keepers will definitely sympathize with Teddy as she struggles with her family's disapproval of her job/lifestyle

The Anteater of Death is by no means super-high-brow fiction, and I doubt that the movie rights are being haggled over as we speak.  Still, Betty Webb (a former zoo volunteer, to boot) does what so many of us try and fail to do - tell visitors a story about zoos and their role in the world.  If she has to wrap it in a murder mystery to get visitors to swallow it, so be it. Once they take the first sample, they might decide the hidden lessons aren't so bad after all.

PS: If you try and enjoy this book, be sure to check out its Gunn Zoo sequels - The Koala of Death and The Llama of Death

Monday, July 8, 2013

RIP Theodore H. Reed

Veterinarian Turned National Zoo into International Destination

Zoos and aquariums, even the smallest, are incredibly complicated, a combination of personalities, committees, organizations, animals, missions, sometimes-conflicting purposes, and finances.  Sometimes it seems impossible for anyone to make anything significant happen.  Now and then, however, along comes a man like Dr. Reed of the National Zoo to show the zoo community that one man can, in fact, make a difference...

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Zoo Review: Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center

Before I begin this review, I feel a disclaimer is in order.

When I visited the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, two of the aquarium's most popular attractions – the seal exhibit and the aviary – were closed for repairs.  Having never visited this institution before, you’d think that these would be pretty disappointing, and they were.  That being said, I like to think that being in the profession makes me a lot more understanding of such things than many visitors would be – it’s not like I’ve never had to pull a very popular animal from exhibit for any number of reasons.  I tried to base my review on the parts of the aquarium that I did see.

And I loved it!  VAMSC has taken the cake, as far as I’m concerned, as one of the best aquariums in America.  What makes this so amazing is that it does this almost entirely with native Virginia wildlife – a few reptilian exceptions – and without cetaceans.  Exhibits are innovative and fun – visitors can view sharks from what appears to be the control deck of a submarine, or pop up in an acrylic dome in the middle of the Komodo dragon display.  Visitors could look behind-the-scenes to observe a sea turtle nursery to see how aquarium staff were helping to protect endangered sea turtle species.  For the first time that I can recall, I went to an otter exhibit were someone actually had the foresight to have benches – rows of them – facing the animals to encourage visitors to sit and stay for a while.  The tomistoma exhibit is probably the single best, most beautiful indoor crocodilian habitat I’ve ever seen in a zoo or aquarium; I consider myself lucky that I was the first one there in the morning and caught the crocs at eye level right up against the glass, before the crowds drove them away.   

What makes the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center so spectacular is space.  Most of the great aquariums – Baltimore, Chicago, Atlanta – are urban attractions, and have to deal with an urban footprint.  The VAMSC has room to spread out its campus, and is does so magnificently.  The animal collection is divided into two buildings, separated by a meandering nature trail.  One functions as more of the traditional aquarium, the other as more of a native reptile and amphibian house (this second building also houses the otters and the aviary).  As I walked along the trail, climbed its observation towers, and peered out through windows in the buildings, I saw pelicans, mergansers, and loons swimming by.  A (wild) bald eagle scooped a fish out of the water in front of dozens of astonished visitors!  In some senses, the best exhibits at the aquarium were the ones the aquarium never developed.

There is a trend among aquariums, I feel, to dumb-down a bit lately until they become small, indoor zoos.  I’ve noticed aquariums going for less and less fish species and displays and relying more on “zoo animals” to win visitors over – big cats, hippos, primates, etc.  It’s refreshing to see an aquarium that, by and large, is sticking with being an aquarium – and a native one at that.  Any vacation to Virginia Beach would be incomplete without a trip to the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Sporcle Quiz: Official National Birds

[debating on America's national bird]
John Adams: The eagle.
Thomas Jefferson: The dove.
Dr. Benjamin Franklin: The turkey.
John Adams: The eagle.
Thomas Jefferson: The dove.
John Adams: The eagle!
Thomas Jefferson: [considers] The eagle.
Dr. Benjamin Franklin: The turkey.
John Adams: The eagle is a majestic bird!
Dr. Benjamin Franklin: The eagle is a scavenger, a thief and coward. A symbol of over ten centuries of European mischief.
John Adams: [confused] The turkey?
Dr. Benjamin Franklin: The turkey is a noble bird...

-1776 (the Musical)

The bald eagle (for better or worse) is the national bird of the United States of America.  Can you name the official national birds of the some other nations?

Independence Day

Happy Independence Day to our American readers (which, according to Blogpost, is about 90% of you)!

The 4th of July is the day that we celebrate the United States of America.  America is much more than 50 states (and DC... and Puerto Rico... and a few other territories).  On this 4th of July, I would encourage readers to think of another America, an older America.  An America which was here before the name "America."  I am referring to wild America.

America is a land of cities and farmlands and suburubs, but it is also a land of prairie, forest, mountain, and wetland.  It is home to some to the most extraordinary wildlife on the face of the planet; in fact, probably more diverse and abundant wildlife than any comparably developed nation in the world.  It has had it's ecological scars and defeats - the loss of the passenger pigeon, the decline of the American bison, the eradication of large carnivores, the pollution of waterways and estuaries, to name a few.

It has, in recent years, also had it's triumphs.  Gray wolves once again howl over the Yellowstone, and red wolves prowl the swamplands of North Carolina.  Bald eagles, American alligators, and certain other species, once written off as doomed to extinction, are now practically common.  Black-footed ferrets, California condors, and red wolves were once extinct in the wild and found only in zoos; now, they have been returned to the wild.  The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has reported that, for the first time, the bay's aquatic health indicators are improving (not terrifically, but it is a step in the right direction).  Amid the constant doom and gloom, rays of hope shine through.

Even after some hard times, the United States remains the most powerful nation on earth.  America likes to think of itself as a global leader... it can be a global leader.  Recently, President Barack Obama reaffirmed the US commitment to fighting global warming; in another statement, he promised American support to combat poaching in Africa.  These are all positive words, but words require action to back them up.  I hope it's forthcoming...

In the meanwhile, enjoy the 4th of July.  As you are celebrating America, take some time to celebrate the other, original, wild America.  It is beautiful, inspiring, majestic, and fragile.  And it needs our help.