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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Fear Factor

"E. G. Boulenger, the zoo's aquarium director in the 1920s, called the entrance to the reptile house, and the conflict between fear and fascination that habitually played there, the site of the zoo's one truly 'interesting psychological entertainment.'"

I love snakes – always have.  I find them to be very beautiful, their movements almost poetic.  I think bats are pretty awesome too, from the hopping, scurrying vampire bats to the massive flying foxes.  Vultures, hyenas, crocodiles – the animals that chill the blood of many people – are all fascinating to me.  There is, however, one group of animals that I’ve never liked.  I refer to the spiders… tarantulas especially.  Tarantulas terrified me growing up.  They terrify a lot of people, true, but few people find a large, hairy spider thrust upon them in their professional life.

When I accepted a job at one zoo, I found that accepting responsibility for the reptile house also included a small invertebrate collection.  There were the classic, staple invertebrates – Madagascar hissing cockroaches, emperor scorpions, giant millipedes… and a geriatric rose-hair tarantula.  No one was quite certain where she’d come from, just that she’d been there for a long time, over a decade.  No one could tell me much about her, or even really how to care for her.  The other keepers just dropped crickets in the top of the tank, poured water from up high to fill her bowl when it was dry, and then slammed as soon as she made the slightest movement.  They were all terrified of her.
So, to be fair, was I.  I told my colleagues that I would feed and water her, but that if I caught her out of her tank, wandering on the loose, she could expect no mercy from me.

After a while, the spider and I settled into a cautious truce.  Eventually, I began to grow more comfortable around her, to the point where I did the previously unthinkable – I touched her.  It started with only a few cautious taps on the back, then turning into more a stroke.  Eventually, I could even pick her up with some degree of confidence.  I never grew to like it, but it was a rewarding experience.  Not only had a overcome a lifelong fear, but I was now in a position to introduce visitors to tarantulas and help them overcome their own fears.
Fear, I learned through working with tarantulas, snakes, and other scary beasties, is a powerful emotion.   It is both a repellent and an irresistible lure for many people.  People are drawn towards what they fear, hence the popularity of reptile and invertebrate exhibits at many zoos.  The biggest challenge I have found in educating zoo visitors is starting a conversation, in getting them to want to talk.  Fear helps remove that obstacle and provides an opening for our conversation.  When I hold a snake or spider, people are full of questions:

Isn’t that dangerous?”  “Aren’t you scared?” “Is it poisonous? 
There are thousands of species in zoos across the country.  Some are cute and fluffy.  Others are beautiful and majestic.  Others give people the willies.  Ultimately, however, all species are deserving of conservation.  Once visitors start talking to us about the animals, we can steer the conversation in the direction we want – talking about how snakes, spiders, and bats play an important role in their ecosystems, and how we should be willing to respect and appreciate them.  That doesn’t mean we have to  love them or cuddle them.

Happy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Zoo Joke: Mongoose

A zoo is planning a new Small Mammal House, and the director is busily working trying to get the new animals together for it.  The dwarf mongoose is one of his favorite animals, so he decides to obtain a breeding pair.  Sitting down at his laptop, he prepares to fire off an email to an animal dealer with whom he has dealt in the past.

"Dear Sir," he writes, "I would like to place an order for two mongooses..." Then he stops. 

"Mongooses?  Is that right?" he muses.  He deletes what he wrote and starts again.

"Dear Sir, I would like to place an order for two mongeese..."

Wait, no, that doesn't sound right either.

"... for two mongi..."

No, that's not it.

After a few minutes of careful thought, he deletes what he has written and starts anew.

"Dear Sir, I would like to place an order for a dwarf mongoose.  Actually, why don't we make it two?"

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Zoo Review: Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium

Founded in 1892, the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium is one of the largest zoos in the northeast United States.  What started off as one big building filled with rows of cages is now spread across more than 70 acres of beautiful parkland, home to thousands of animals from around the world.
As its name implies, it has long been famed for its commitment to aquatic exhibits – the original 1967 AquaZoo (at the time home to the only Amazon River dolphins in the US) reopened in 2000 as the two-story PPG Aquarium.  One of the nation’s best zoo aquariums, it features innovative exhibits of fish and invertebrates, such as a crawl-thru tunnel underneath massive sting rays.  Popular displays include three species of Antarctic penguins, a sea turtle nursery, and a two-level ocean tank, home to sharks and barracuda.  More aquatic exhibits are found outside in the new Water’s Edge habitat, which provides above-and-underwater viewing of polar bears, sea otters, and sand tiger sharks (plans call for the addition of walruses, which are currently unavailable).

Apart from aquatic species, the zoo is renowned for its highly interactive children’s zoo – Kid’s Kingdom.  Considered one of the best children’s zoos in America, Kid’s Kingdom allows visitors – especially children – to experience animals on their terms and learn about animals by acting like them, such as crawling through burrows to observe meerkats.  Kids can climb and explore jungle gyms, watch sea lions, otters, and beavers swim underwater, walk among deer and kangaroos, or meet snakes and bats eye-to-eye.  A barnyard features domestic animals from around the world.
Other zoo animals are found throughout other themed areas of the zoo.  African Savannah has lions, black rhinos, antelope, and ostriches, cumulating in the giraffe and elephant house (Pittsburgh Zoo has a history of success in breeding African elephants).  The endangered big cats – Amur tiger, Amur leopard, and snow leopard – are the stars of the Asian Forest, though the new Komodo dragons offer some competition.  Aside from the aquarium, one of the zoo’s most famous exhibits is its Tropical Forest, where gorillas, Borneo orangutans, and mandrills are the most popular of the many species of primates on display. 

Pittsburgh Zoo does have its limitations, of course.  Most of its exhibits are the byproducts of its 1980’s renovation and master plan, meaning that some of them are beginning to get a tad dated (the bear dens, the oldest remaining exhibits, are still awaiting replacement).  Kid’s Kingdom and the Aquarium are nice new additions, but some of the other displays just seem a little bland; Tropical Forest was considered a masterpiece at the time of its creation, but the best part of it these days is seeing the gorillas in their outside yard (I wish that some of the other primates were so fortunate as to have their own outside access).  There really isn’t much of a bird or reptile/amphibian collection, though the former is partially excused by the presence of the excellent National Aviary, also in Pittsburgh.    
That being said, the facility is hardly sinking into decay – as it has renovated its children zoo and aquarium, so the other exhibits will also be renovated and replaced in time.  Meanwhile, the zoo can boast of displaying a conservation commitment matched by few other zoos in the region.  The zoo is involved in the field conservation of several flagship species in its collection, including polar bears and cotton-top tamarins, as well as African wild dogs (a species no longer at the zoo after an unfortunate incident in 2012).  The sea turtle head-start program is on public view at the aquarium, and the zoo is involved in the conservation of two native Western Pennsylvania aquatic species – the hellbender and the paddlefish.  A new off-exhibit conservation breeding facility (with an emphasis on elephants) is currently in the works.

I don’t make it out to Pittsburgh as often as I would like to, so sadly I don’t get to watch the zoo grow and develop like I do some others.  Still, I am sure that it will continue to flourish, reinventing itself as a great destination committed to wildlife conservation.  It’s certainly worth keeping an eye on!

Monday, October 28, 2013

Book Review: Jaguar

An individual animal is safe in a zoo.  A species, however, is not saved in one.  Zoo and aquarium professionals know that the survival of any species cannot be ensured solely by keeping a population alive in captivity – of greater importance is safeguarding species in the wild.  To this end, many zoos and aquariums fundraise in order to support conservation and research in the field.  Few institutions can match the commitment to in situ conservation as the Wildlife Conservation Society.  In turn, few researchers fielded by WCS have been more celebrated than Alan Rabinowitz.

Currently the CEO of Panthera, an NGO devoted to the protection of big cats, Rabinowitz has studied wild carnivores in the field for over thirty years, with notable accomplishments in Latin America and Southeast Asia.  He is perhaps most famous, however, for his work with jaguars in Belize, a study which cumulated in the establishment of the world’s first jaguar preserve in the Cockscomb Mountains.  The struggle to establish this sanctuary is described in his book, Jaguar.
This isn’t a technical book full of charts of skull measurements and range maps – that’s published elsewhere.  Instead, it’s a window into the life of a field biologist, as seen by Rabinowitz.  We experience his triumph at each discover, such as live-trapping jaguars for radio-collaring – his agony at the death of each animal, and the alternating despair and elation he feels as he tries to safeguard a future for jaguars in the tiny Central American nation.  He survives accidents that prove nearly fatal and battles the depression and isolation that often haunt a biologist far away from home, and struggles to find acceptance among the Mayan Indians he lives alongside.  In one of the book’s most tragic chapters, he loses the life of one of his assistants to the bite of a fer-de-lance.  Above all, Jaguar, explains how one man found a purpose in life in protecting one of the most majestic predators in the world, a purpose which has since grown and carried him on to other achievements.

In an age when so much of the news concerning wildlife is full of defeat and despair, Rabinowitz shows readers that there is hope for wildlife, even the largest of predators.  Such efforts, he shows, are unlikely to succeed without the support and benefit of local peoples.  Rabinowitz worked hand-in-hand with local villagers, employing them as guides and assistants.  He shared his knowledge about jaguars with them, and was willing to learn from them in turn.  The resultant Cockscomb Basin Jaguar Preserve benefited not only the jaguars and the species that shared their habitat, but also the local Mayans, who were able to obtain employment and an improved standard of living by utilizing the reserve for ecotourism, rather than lumber.
Zoos receive little to no mention in the book, but Jaguar remains a powerful reminder of what a zoo or aquarium devoted to wildlife conservation can achieve.  Although Rabinowitz has since left WCS, his legacy has been not only the creation of parks and the discovery of new species, but the inspiration of a new generation of field biologists and conservationists eager to do their part to help save the world’s wildlife. 
Jaguar at

PS: In 2014, Rabinowitz follows up with a new book on his favorite cat, An Indomitable Beast: The Remarkable Journey of the Jaguar.  This book deals much more heavily with the role of the jaguar is culture and legend; it also has a chapter pertaining to jaguars in zoos.  Rabinowitz does make a few disparaging remarks about jaguars in captivity throughout the book (a little ungracious, I thought, considering who funded his early work), but he realizes that zookeepers are likely to have some unique insights into the cats and their personalities.  

(Also, to be fair, Rabinowitz lobs his barbs at the zoos of his childhood - the Bronx Zoo doesn't display jaguars anymore, and hasn't for some time - as well as shoddy  tourist traps in Central America.  He doesn't really say pass judgement on modern, accredited zoos, except to express concern that someday, that could be all that remains of big cats.)

And indeed, he finds many keepers sharing common themes - jaguars are warier, cagier, less sociable, tenser, more investigatory, and, in a pinch, fiercer than the other big cats.  He also receives fresh confirmation of their fabled jaw power, hearing how they easily destroy toys and enrichment items that withstand the assaults of lions and tigers.  Keepers comment on how jaguars always watch them, while lions and other big cats quickly accept their caretakers as part of their routine.  All of this meshes pretty closely with my experience with captive jaguars.   The other big cats become social, sometimes downright friendly, in captivity.  Jaguars always make me nervous.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Sporcle Quiz: Marsupials

Recently, the San Diego Zoo announced the opening of its Conrad Prebys Australian Outback, new home to the zoos koalas, wallabies, wombats, and Australian birds.  San Diego has a long history of involvement with Australian wildlife: for a fair number of years, it was once the only zoo in the United States to exhibit koalas, and still can boast of the largest breeding colony outside of Australia.  Visiting San Diego as a kid brought me my first encounters with not only koalas, but wombats, Tasmanian devils, and other Australian species (to say nothing of my first okapi, first bonobo, first takin, and a few thousand other "firsts"). 

The difficulty in acquiring Australian species - especially mammals - has resulted in many zoos glancing over the continent in their master plans.  The zoos that do feature Australia tend to do so with a single yard or 'roos and emus, maybe a few birds in side enclosures.  For the institutions that are lucky enough, however, to display wildlife from Down Under, there is a unique opportunity to introduce visitors to a world of wildlife that few people have ever even imagined.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Guest Editorial: Blackfish - The Tale Untold, by Carson Jones (Animal Trainer)

Blackfish has made me upset. But not how you might think. I am sure many people are leaving theatres across the globe on a crusade to free killer whales of captivity, and with a new-found belief that Sea World is the corporate equivalent to Satan. I am upset, because the film isn’t true.

It is a highly polarizing and dramatized opinion. It is just that, nothing more than an opinion. I’m upset because as an animal trainer the film criminalizes my behavior, my co-workers' behavior, and the decisions of animal trainers across the country. I don’t work for Sea World. I don’t train killer whales. But this film has attempted to enrage and enflame the public concerning animals and captivity.
For those unaware of this production, the film presents the life story of Tillikum, an orca at Sea World Orlando. It starts with his capture in the 80’s and ends with the tragic death of trainer Dawn Brancheau in 2010. The film presents an enraged animal in a “psychosis” developed because of captivity. It criticizes the decisions made concerning this animal and presents Sea World as a corporate entity intent upon the continued exploitation of these amazing creatures. But the film only presents half the facts and attempts to use dramatic music and video clips to make generalizations about the care of these animals in captivity that are far from true.

The film uses footage of killer whales being taken from the wild 40 years ago to strengthen their case against the captivity of these animals and to criminalize Sea World in particular. But the problem is that the Sea World of 1980 is not the Sea World of today. The Sea World of 2000 is not the Sea World of today. Frankly, the Sea World of a week ago isn’t the Sea World of today. The facts are that the animal care and training industry is a constantly evolving thing. Facilities across the globe like Sea World are putting time, money, and energy into the continued exploration of these animals and how we as humans can best take care of them in captivity. Standards and practices are constantly evolving and changing based off of what we known and are learning about the animals as a species and the specific personalities and behaviors of the animals we work with on a daily basis.

Furthermore, the film attempts to blame Sea World for the death of Dawn Brancheau and the death and injury of others in the field. But in reality, no one is to blame. Working with large wild animals is an unpredictable business and every trainer knows that. Every single trainer understands the inherit risks involved in working with animals like this. Furthermore, every trainer understands the unique risks of working with animals in a free contact situation. But we still do it. Are we crazy? Maybe a little, but we also develop bonds and relationships with our animals that are like nothing else in the entire world.

Blackfish says that Tillikum is in a psychosis. That he is emotionally destroyed because of captivity. But if you watch the footage of that animal during a training session, you will realize that those claims are not at all true. The video footage of that animal shows an excited, intelligent animal that wants to work for his trainer. He is 12,000 pounds. If he doesn’t want to do the behavior, he’s not going to do it. You can tell by the training footage included in the film itself that Tillikum is fully engaged, motivated, and by all mean “happy” during training sessions. This is a far-off picture from the one that Blackfish attempts to create.

I sat in the theatre for ten minutes after the credits stopped rolling and cried. I was that upset by the twisted image the film had portrayed. The film attempted to question the very nature of animals in captivity. It tried to shake my beliefs… and it failed. Director Gabriela Cowperthwaite can use all of the dramatics she would like to shock her audience into believing that training these animals in captivity is wrong and that these animals serve no purpose in place’s like Sea World other than to make money entertaining. But she is far from the truth.

Sea World is a business that is true. They do have to make money. But they also invest millions in research, conservation, and education. I have been to camp at Busch Gardens Tampa Bay (another Sea World Parks and Entertainment attraction), and their animals get the best of everything. They are in a unique situation compared to much of the animal care industry in that they are for-profit and have lots of money to spend on their animals. They spare no expense when it comes to food, veterinary care, enrichment, and training. If their animals need something, they get it. Those animals are lucky to reside at the facilities they do because many other animals don’t have it quiet so perfect.

That does not mean that Sea World hasn’t made mistakes. Everyone takes the information that they have and attempts to formulate the best decision for their animals, their staff, and their facility. Sometimes it isn’t the easy decision, the fun the decision, or the decision that we emotionally believe is right. It is the best decision that we can make with the information that we have at the time. There isn’t perfect animal care anywhere in the world, but we are working towards that goal. The animal care industry has changed so much in the last fifty years and it would be a shame to let it all go to waste now.

These animals are not in captivity for the simple purpose of the money they bring in. They are ambassadors for their wild counterparts. They are there to educate, motivate, and inspire people to care for the environment around them. Without facilities like Sea World, there would be millions of people that would have never been able to make a connection with an orca. They would have missed the chance to experience the awe and the power of these amazing creatures. They would have never been given a reason to care about animals like these in the wild. Sea World is there to make people care. They are there is impact people in a way that pictures and videos cannot.

I cried in that theatre because there are going to be children across this country that don’t get to go to places like Sea World because their parents have seen the film Blackfish. They are never going to make that connection with the animals and they are never going to care. That thought destroys me.
We are facing an era where words have to become actions. We have to stop idealizing about saving animals on this planet and actually go out and do it. Sea World is doing it. Animal trainers, like myself, are doing it. But people have to care. People have to decide that it is unacceptable that 96 elephants are killed in Africa everyday. They have to decide that it is unacceptable that Orangutans are literally burned alive during intentionally set forest fires due to the increasing global demand for Palm Oil which goes into our cookies and cakes. People have to decide that these animals are worth saving. Orcas are not endangered at this time, but without our help at some point they will be.

Don't go see this film, but if you do then understand that there is so much more to the picture than what is presented. I urge you to continue to support Sea World, their trainers and more importantly their animals. I urge you to decide to care. I urge you to help us save the animals of this planet and I fervently believe that Dawn Brancheau would have told you to do the same. I didn’t know her, and I don’t pretend to have. But by all accounts she was a damn good trainer and a damn good person. As a fellow animal trainer, she feels almost like family. Although this tragic incident occurred more than three and half years ago, as a community we mourn her loss everyday and fight on to save the animals and the planet we all love so much.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

From the News: Halloween Candy for Orangutans - Without Palm Oil

Breeding endangered species in zoos is a noble enough goal, but it is a quixotic effort if there is no remaining wild to introduce them back into.  Habitat loss is the major cause of endangerment for many species, as more people claim the few remaining wild places left on earth.  For many Southeast Asian species - orangutans, clouded leopards, Sumatran rhinos, and tomistoma, to name a few - a leading cause of habitat loss is clear-cutting for palm oil plantations.

It wasn't until I began talking with other zookeepers years ago at a workshop that I learned about the palm oil crisis.  Ever since then, I've tried to change my buying habits at the grocery store.  It's tough - palm oil is in a lot of things that I bought, many of which I was sad to have to give up (i.e., a favorite dessert).  In some cases, the palm oil free products that I buy now are more expensive than the ones I used to get.  In other cases, I haven't been able to find a substitute product.  It's not made easier by the fact that palm oil can be listed under half-a-dozen names on ingredients lists.

A good cause-action campaign should do two things.  First, it should convince its audience that there is a problem (both what the problem is and why it is, in fact, a problem).  Secondly, it should tell them what steps to take to help.  In many cases, this means telling them what not to do (i.e., don't buy certain products).   Ideally, it also means directing them towards a more positive action ("Don't buy bottled water, get a reusable water bottle!").  To learn more about how to make a difference, check out the Palm Oil Crisis page, provided by the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo.

October is here, and many zoos are having/have just had their Halloween events.  Halloween means candy.  Candy means palm oil.  And for many species, palm oil can mean extinction...  Now that's scary...

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

"We Save Species"

I'm going to let this one largely speak for itself - it's a beautifully made video put out by the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, describing what the zoo does to protect endangered species and the habitats that support them.  I would love to see every zoo and aquarium devoted to conservation and education produce something like this, with perhaps larger ones for regional and national associations (AZA, CAZA, BIAZA, etc).  Granted, the accomplishments might not all be on the same scale - smaller zoos, smaller budgets - but accredited zoos and aquariums, working together, are helping to make sure that wildlife has a place in or world for generations to come.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Species Fact Profile: Komodo Dragon (Varanus komodoensis)

Komodo Dragon
Varanus komodoensis (Ouwens, 1912)

Range:  Indonesia (Komodo, Rinca, Flores)
Habitat: Monsoon Forest, Savannah
Diet: Carrion, Ungulates, Snakes, Lizards, Rodents
Social Grouping: Solitary (may congregate around food sources)
Reproduction: Mating season is May-June; males compete for access to females.  In July and August, the female lays about 25 eggs in a depression, which hatch after a 9 month incubation period.  Females are sexually mature at 9 years, males at 10 years.  Parthenogensis (females reproducing in the absence of a male) has been observed in zoos.
Lifespan: 50 Years (Maximum)
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable, CITES Appendix I

  • The world’s largest living species of lizard, males can (in rare cases) grow more than 3 meters long and weigh up to 90 kilograms (females are usually smaller, weighing less than 50 kilograms)
  • The long, heavy-set body has stocky legs and a muscular tail; the grey-brown scales of the adults are reinforced with small pieces of bone (called osteoderms), while juveniles are yellow, gray, green, and brown.
  • Komodo dragons will often seize their prey from an ambush position; large prey animals are allowed to escape, with the dragons following it and waiting for the prey to bleed to death (secretions from the bite prevent blood from clotting and cause infection)
  • Voracious eaters, they are capable of consuming 80% of their body weight in one sitting
  • They are a famous example of island gigantism (island species growing much larger than their mainland counterparts); one theory suggests that the dragons evolved to feed on the now-extinct dwarf elephant, Stegodon
  • Juveniles are at risk of cannibalism from adults, and spend their first year of life in the trees
  • They are considered very intelligent; zoo specimens tame easily, engage in play behavior, and learn to recognize their individual keepers
  • On rare occasions, they have been documented to attack, kill, and eat humans
  • The species was not documented by western science until the 1910's' the first specimens appeared in European zoos in 1917
  • The species is threatened by habitat loss and the loss of its prey species (poaching of the deer they feed on) - it is no longer present on the island of Padar

Thursday, October 17, 2013

From the News: National Zoo to Reopen Friday

National Zoo to Reopen Friday

With the government shutdown (finally) over, the National Zoo will reopen for the first time in two-and-a-half weeks.  As emergency essential personnel, zookeepers have been reporting to work every day of the shutdown - after all, animals still need to be fed and cleaned up after.  I hope that they were able to use their visitor-free time productively, and are ready for the gates to reopen at the end of the week.  Back to work everyone!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Satire: Fast Freddy's Zookeeping Tips

Okay, so yesterday's post might have been a little dour... here's something to help cheer up.  After all, all of us know a guy like this, no matter where we work.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Beyond Reproach

Many members of the zoo community have followed the recent events at the Toronto Zoo with great concern.  The antics of the animal rights activists have been documented and described in great detail by the group known as Zoos Matter, and do not need to be rehashed here.  Every zoo professional will have their own reaction to the elephant issue as it played out in Toronto, from anger and disgust (the reaction I’ve seen the most of) to denial (“It could never happen here!”) to indifference (“doesn’t apply to me…”).

After thinking about it in some depth, I’ve settled upon my own course of action.  It takes the form of a new philosophy, summed up in two words: Beyond Reproach.

Now, I am in no way suggesting that the keepers of the Toronto Zoo were in any way responsible for the misfortune that has befallen them, that they themselves were not “beyond reproach.”  Instead, I am saying that this is a reminder that there are those forces outside of our institutions who do not wish us well.  There are people – some with a feeling of guilt, some without such moral qualms – who like reading bad news about zoos and aquariums.  When an animal dies (as all animals, zoo or wild, must), when an escape occurs, or when a keeper is injured or even killed, they take some satisfaction in it, seeing their feelings about zoos validated.  When positive news happens – the birth of an animal, the opening of a new exhibit that improves the quality of life for animals – they are quick to put a negative spin on it.  They are a small but vocal group, and nothing we do will make them happy. 

Knowing that there are people waiting to lay traps for us is the first step towards avoiding them.  We need to be proactive and give anti-zoo activists as little ammunition as possible.  The way to do this is to carry out our duties in a manner that is beyond reproach.  This extends up and down the chain of command, from the director to the curators to the keepers, aquarists, educators, horticulturalists, and everyone else who is a part of the zoo’s mission.  Upper-level management, not surprisingly, has the potential to make the most dramatic, high-profile impact.  Build exhibits that aren’t going to be considered “good” for a few years; build habitats that will stand the test of time and be considered ideal for the foreseeable future.  Plan your collection wisely – if you can’t commit to a species and its needs, it would be better not to have it.  Involve your institution in as much conservation, education, and research as possible.  Don’t just give your zoo or aquarium a mission statement, give it a mission.

            That also means getting involved at the local level.  Practice what you preach and follow green practices: recycle, compast, reduce waste! If you have a Halloween event, strive to be palm oil free; if you serve seafood, try to do so sustainably (better yet, make sure to include vegetarian options on your menus!).  Become an asset to your community, reaching out and integrating yourself with as many like-minded organizations as possible, such as museums and parks.  Don’t just make your institution available for field trips; integrate yourself into school curriculum (including higher education!).  Be the local wildlife experts, the ones that folks can come to with questions.  Build bridges with your Department of Natural Resources.  Get to know your community and civic leaders, and make sure they know you.  The Toronto Zoo incident was brought about in large part by local politicians throwing the zoo and its staff under the bus.  Make sure your mayor, county commissioner, city council, governor, et al know your institution and understand its importance to your community.

While it is easy for the folks on the front-lines to quip about how leadership is or isn’t doing its job, there is plenty that the keepers themselves can do to protect their institutions from attacks from the anti-zoo crowd.  The first part doesn’t involve too much in the way of change, since many keepers are already committed to it: provide the best possible care for the animals.  Don’t just feed and clean.  You may not be able to help it if your zoo has a lousy exhibit or two – most do – but you can provide awesome furniture and enrichment to make up for it.   Use training, where appropriate and possible (and you may be surprised at where it proves possible).  Keep your eyes and wits focused on the animals at all times – you may spot little problems and prevent them from turning into big ones.  If you see things that are wrong or could be improved, work to change them (within the system, in a constructive manner).  Always, always, ALWAYS look for ways to do better.

Once you've done your daily duties to the best of your ability, go beyond them!  Get involved in the greater zoo and conservation communities.  Attend some professional development courses, if you can, and share what you learn.  Join some list-serves or committees.  Become a studbook keeper or program manager (seriously, we should set a goal of zero vacancies).  If you've been in the profession for a while, mentor a new employee.  If you are a studbook keeper, committee chair, or other leader in the field, find ways to encourage involvement with other zoo professionals.  The more people working together, the more we can accomplish.

The harder part, for many zookeepers, will be the second part: engaging the public.  Too many keepers make the trite crack (I’ve made it before too!) that they work in a zoo so they don’t have to deal with people.  The support of the public, the money that comes in through the turnstile, is assumed, a given.  That is a dangerous assumption that we can no longer make.  The anti-zoo crowd, while vocal, is a relatively small one, and they know it.  Their goal is to change the minds of people who would otherwise support the zoo.  While many people love and support zoos and aquariums, many more are indifferent – maybe folks who haven’t been to the zoo for years, or who do go, but see it as an interchangeable entertainment option – deciding between either the zoo or the theme park or the movies for an outing. 

 We need to strengthen our ties to our current audience, reminding them why they fell in love with their zoo in the first place and encouraging them to deepen their commitment.  We need to connect with people who have had only casual bond with their zoos, introducing them to the zoo as we know it – magical places where people and animals come together.  And yes, we need to reach out to the anti-zoo folks as well.  As infuriating as they can be (“And right back at you!”, they would reply), it is important to remember that they are motivated by love of animals.  That gives us something in common at a core level, and can be used to find some common ground.  Do they understand that zoos have been responsible for saving some species from complete extinction?  Toronto Zoo itself has been involved in several breeding and reintroduction programs, including the black-footed ferret and the Vancouver Island marmot. 

Some folks will never be happy with what we do, and we never may win them over.  To the rest of the world, however, zoos and aquariums can be teachers, leaders, and partners in the global conservation movement.   To accomplish this, however, we need to make sure that we are doing our own jobs to the best of our abilities.  We need to be beyond reproach.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Zoo Joke: Kangaroos

A zoo opens up a new kangaroo exhibit -  a beautiful green, grassy field encircled by a handsome wooden fence.  There is a big ribbon-cutting ceremony and half the city comes out to watch the kangaroos turned out into their new habitat. 

The next morning, the kangaroo keeper comes in to find all of the kangaroos are out of the exhibit.  After herding them back in to their enclosure, he calls for the zoo's carpenter.

"We must not have built that fence tall enough," he exclaims.  "Those kangaroos can really jump.  Put up a new fence, and make this one ten feet tall!"  The carpenter obliges and has the new fence installed by the end of the day.

The next morning, the kangaroos are all out and about again.  The keeper calls the carpenter back.

"That wasn't high enough either!  We need an even taller fence, make this one fifteen feet tall!" 

The carpenter complies, but it does no good - the next morning the kangaroos are out again.

Over the next week, the scenario played itself out, again and again.  The kangaroos would get out every night.  The keeper would have the carpenter build a taller fence, but the kangaroos would still be loose in the morning.  Finally, the carpenter was summoned back to the exhibit, this time asked to make the fence sixty feet tall.  Fed up, he threw his hammer down in frustration.

"I was hoping you would figure this out on your own," he shouted at the zookeeper, "but it would probably help more if you would CLOSE THE DAMN GATE behind you when you leave the kangaroo exhibit!"

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Sporcle Quiz: Animals of the National Zoo

Government shutdown got you feeling down?  Cheer up, and take an online field trip to the National Zoo.  Don't worry, the animals will all still be there when it reopens...

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Friends Pages

As part of the experimentation process (figuring out how this whole blog thing works), I'm trying to find new features to add.  The newest addition is a link to Friend's pages, linked at the bottom of the home page.  Suggestions for other pages to add?  Send an e-mail or leave a comment and I'll add them!

A Problem with Pandas?

It happens every time anyone - anywhere - writes an article, makes a documentary, or even mentions the words "giant panda."  Someone will then make the pronouncement that giant pandas are a doomed species, one that is just hopelessly incapable of surviving in today's world, and that we should just write it off instead of throwing money at its conservation.  The argument is an intellectually dishonest one, one that I suspect some people bat around in order to absolve us, as a species, for responsibility for the decline of the panda.  Giant pandas were plugging along fine until humans started to hunt them and destroy their habitat.

There is no denying that pandas hold an incredible fascination in the minds of many people.  Desmond Morris of the London Zoo scientifically dissected their draw - the anthropomorphic face, the clumsy appearance, even the sound of the name - and pronounced them the most lovably-made animal on earth (never mind their infamously bad temper among zoo professionals).  They are considered to be one of the most recognizable animals in the world (truly remarkable when you consider that they weren't described to western science until after the American Civil War).  The internet explodes with the birth of every zoo panda cub.  To many visitors, one of the signs of being a "great zoo" is having a panda - I'm always baffled when visitors to our own small zoo ask if we'll get pandas ("You have all this bamboo here!").  The answer is "no."

The question that I'd love to ask in return is "Are pandas worth it?"  Not in the sense of are they worthy of being saved - any endangered species is, and pandas do have an umbrella-species effect; conservation efforts to save panda habitat in China also benefit other species that share that habitat.  I also wouldn't question the importance of Chinese zoos having pandas; captive breeding has proven very important to the survival of the species, and an argument could certainly be made that the Chinese people have the right to see the animals that their government dollars are going to save.  In fact, if the Chinese want to give away a pair of pandas now and then to other countries as tokens of good-will, I'm fine with that, as long as the animals receive good care and the moves don't impact the survival of the species.  What I wonder about - dare I say doubt - is whether WE (being the US, UK, and everyone else who is not China) should be in the panda breeding business.

Compared to the Chinese breeding centers, US zoos are only a drop in the bucket towards growing the captive panda population.  Since all pandas remain the property (I hate the word, but it's true) of the Chinese government, and are called back after a few years, we're not forming a sustainable US population.  Each panda birth takes up a lot of staff time and a lot of zoo resources.   Could those resources be better used elsewhere?  There are a lot of endangered carnivores in US zoo collections that could always use more championing - sun bears, clouded leopards, maned wolves.  Couldn't they get a little of that attention, a little more of that financial support?

Pandas are huge draws for zoos; anecdotally, I've heard plenty of folks in Washington, DC say that the year that their zoo was panda-less, there was a drop in tourism.  But why do we have to accept that giant pandas are inherently cooler than sun bears - they are smaller than pandas, and guests love small?  Or Andean bears, with their beautiful markings, maybe not as striking as a panda's but handsome nonetheless? Or any kind of bear?   Pretty much any bear is more active than a giant panda, to be sure, which largely sleeps and eats bamboo.

There's a whole zoo full of amazing animals that most visitors have never heard of.  Maybe we can help them pick a new favorite animal to obsess over.

Friday, October 11, 2013

From the News: Elephant Kills Keeper at Springfield, Missouri, Zoo

John Phillip Bradford, 62, had spent three decades working with the animals he loved.  Zoo staff have suggested that there was a link between this incident and the recent death of the zoo's elephant matriarch - social confusion among the herd?  At any rate, the comments section of any news article are inevitably going to be filled with angsty anti-zoo folks at this point.  All that I feel needs to be said are condolences to the family of the zookeeper.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Species Fact Profile: Whooping Crane (Grus americana)

Whooping Crane

Grus americana (Linnaeus, 1758)

Range: Formerly Canada and United States
Habitat: Wetlands 
Diet:  Crustaceans, Fish, Frogs, Berries, Grain
Social Grouping: Paired, Family Groups, Small Flocks
Reproduction: Monogamous for life, elaborate courtship displays and dances/calling, nest on mound of vegetation near water, 2 eggs usual (only one usually raised to maturity), both parents incubate for one month, fledge at 80-100 days, independent at 9 months,  mature at 3-5 years old
Lifespan:  30 Years (Wild), 35-40 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Endangered, CITES Appendix I

  • The tallest bird in North America, standing 130-150 centimeters tall with a wingspan of 200-230 centimeters, weighing 6-7.5 kilograms; males are larger than females
  •  Plumage is entirely white plumage, except for red and black markings on face and black wing tips; the crown of the head is bare red skin covered with short black bristles
  • Undergo an annual migration of 4,000 kilometers from their summer nesting grounds to their winter feeding grounds in the south
  • Predators include bears, wolves, foxes, wolverines, and coyotes; raptors (especially golden eagles) are the major threat during migration; cranes fly at very high altitudes to avoid predators
  •  Population reduced to 16 individuals by mid-20th century; threats included loss of habitat, disruption of migration routes, hunting for food, egg collection, and collision with power lines  
  • Species was saved through a multi-facated approach: monitoring of wild populations, captive breeding/reintroduction (utilizing some fostering with related sandhill cranes), and the teaching of new migration routes (using ultra-light aircrafts); there are now about 300 whooping cranes in wild


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

From the News: Socorro Dove Returns to Mexico for First Time in Over 40 Years

Socorro Dove Returns to Mexico for First Time in Over 40 Years

I think it would be safe to say that if you interviewed 1000 zoo visitors, probably not a single one would have heard of the Socorro dove or know of its story.  As we saw a while back with the case of the Bermuda skinks, sometimes it is the least known, most obscure species that are in the gravest need of help.  When most people think of zoos, they think of elephants, bears, big cats, and primates.  Ofttimes, however, the most important work in the zoo is done with these little known species.

Every time I hear someone say that all zoos should be closed, I'm tempted to say, "Fine.  Have it your way.  I guess you're also fine with a world where the Arabian oryx, red wolf, California condor, and a bunch of other species have all gone extinct."  No one's ever given me that good of a reply to that.

I guess now we can add the Socorro dove to that list.  Congratulations to all parties involved in helping to pull this bird back a little bit further from the brink of extinction.

Zoo Review: Wildlife Conservation Society (Bronx Zoo)

I like to think of myself as an understanding person, and I tend to have a hard time staying mad at people.  That being said, I don’t know if I will ever be able to forgive my friends for rushing me at the Bronx Zoo.  I could have happily spent a week exploring the campus – hell, the World of Birds alone could have eaten up a day – but was forced to have four hours.  Okay, to be fair it was supposed to be three, but I was our navigator and I pretended to be lost on our way out so that I could sneak in a few more exhibits…

There are lots of good zoos in the United States.  There are a handful of truly great ones.  There is only one Bronx Zoo.  I don’t think I’ve ever been so impressed and so inspired by a zoo.  It’s not just the exhibits – though the displays are masterpieces.  It’s not just the exciting and colorful history, though that too is incredible.  Nor is it the collection of animals, even though there were many species there that I – who have been involved in zoos for years and have visited dozens – had never seen before.  It’s the commitment – not only to the zoo’s animal collection, but to animals around the world.  

The formal name of the Bronx Zoo – and its sister institutions – is the Wildlife Conservation Society.  The word “conservation” is banded about a little loosely these days, but no one can match the commitment of WCS.  From the plains of Patagonia to the jungles of Sulawesi, WCS conducts, funds, and supports research and conservation work in dozens of countries around the globe, and is one of the leading forces for wildlife in the world.  It has sponsored some of the biggest names in wildlife research – George Schaller, Alan Rabinowitz – and has led to many exciting discoveries.  WCS supports projects that go beyond the animals in its own collections.  None of its institutions display jaguars, for instance, but the society (through Rabinowitz) was instrumental in creating the world’s first jaguar preserve in the Cockscomb Basin of Belize.

I was thinking about all of this vaguely as I entered the zoo, but mostly I wanted to look at animals, and since I didn’t have much time, I had to look fast.  American bison were, fittingly, one of the first species we saw; “fitting,” I saw, because it was the desire to save this species from extinction that largely led to the formation of the Bronx Zoo in the 1800s under the leadership of the zoo's first director, William T. Hornaday.

The Asian collection was particularly stunning – beautiful, spacious, wonderfully landscaped habitats of tiger, snow leopard, and red panda lay off the main pathway, while marshy yards house Pere David’s deer, black-necked cranes (one of many “firsts” for me), and Asian waterfowl.  The Jungle World building was considered a state of the art masterpiece when it first opened, and it has lost none of its glory.  Densely planted islands of jungle housed langurs, gibbons, and tree kangaroos while small-clawed otters and Malayan tapirs meandered in their pools.  Outside, the excellent monorail ride took us past rhinos, elephants, more tigers, and an impressive collection of rare Asian hoofstock – barasingha, babriussa, and gaur, among others.

The Asian collection was hard to top, but Africa gave it a run for its money.  The African Plains was one of the first natural zoo exhibits in American zoo history, and it still compares favorably to many newer zoo exhibits.  Here, lions survey antelope herds in a predator-prey exhibit. Giraffes and zebras are found nearby, as are spotted hyenas and African wild dogs.  In the most beautiful of the African exhibits, a troop of geladas (baboon-like primate endemic to Ethiopia) and a herd of ibex roam an enormous grassy hillside.  The exhibit is so large that animals easily wander in and out of view.

As wonderful as all of these exhibits are, it was the animal houses that impressed me the most, mainly because they featured so many species that were new to me.  The World of Reptiles (immortalized to me in Peter Brazaitis’ You Belong In A Zoo!) was full of beautiful exhibits with magnificent reptiles – painted terrapins, lace monitors, anacondas.  I’m sure that the average visitor is most interested in the crocodiles, but the animals that I was most interested in were the Kihansi spray toads.  These quarter-sized amphibians were driven to extinction in their native Tanzania through loss of habitat.  The Bronx and Toledo Zoos have worked together to save the species, not only breeding them in captivity when none remained in the wild, but assisting the Tanzanian government in recreating the lost habitat and reintroducing the species to the wild.  The new Madagascar exhibit housed lemurs, fossa, crocodiles, and tortoises; while the inside of the building is full of natural habitats, the outside contains the Victorian-era splendor of the zoo’s old Lion House (which it previously was).  The World of Birds delighted me even more.  The exhibits were magnificent – some of them multi-story – and full of birds that I have never seen before: capercaille, maleo, pink pigeon, cock-of-the-rock, and more.  Small wonder that many zoo experts consider the Bronx Zoo bird collection to be America’s finest.

Despite all of these wonderful animals, I left the zoo dissatisfied… there wasn’t enough time!  How could I have visited the Bronx Zoo and not seen the famous Congo Gorilla Forest?  I missed out on the Aquatic Bird House AND the Sea Bird Colony, meaning that even with all the new animals I got to see, I missed out on the adjutant storks and Magellanic penguins.  And who knows what the Children Zoo would have been like?  Well, my friends wanted to get out and beat the traffic, so I guess I can understand them wanted to leave a little early.  I guess I’ll just have to go back and see the rest of the zoo later…