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Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Guest Editorial: Why I Love to Work Holidays (Thanksgiving Edition) by The Middle Flipper

Check out more of Cat's writings at her blog, The Middle Flipper!

Why I Love To Work Holidays: Thanksgiving Edition

Knowing that Thanksgiving is in a mere four days, I felt inspired to share one of the best days ever to be a marine mammal trainer.

Thanksgiving! It comes before Christmas!  (But not, this year, before Hannukah)

Don't get me wrong, I know lots of people work on Thanksgiving.   I'm continually surprised at the sheer number of people who DON'T realize people have to go to work on such a big holiday.   The lack of logic is astonishing.  I'm compelled to ask these people a series of questions in the form of a Working During A Major Holiday Quiz:

1) How do animals in zoos, aquariums, shelters, pet stores, veterinary hospitals, or ranches eat, receive husbandry care/habitat cleaning on Thanksgiving?
    a) Their caretakers come in on Thanksgiving and care for them
    b) The animals order Chinese food, because everything else is closed
    c) The animals with any dexterity (this can apply to birds with capable beaks) adeptly let themselves and the rest of the lot out of their enclosures.  And in Toy Story fashion, have a running-with-scissors type day eating all the food and partying, making sure to clean up after themselves and  return to where you think you left them

I'll have the capelin casserole!
2) Where would you go on Thanksgiving if you received a critical injury, such as: severed limbs, myocardial infarction, donut overdose, and/or car accident?
     a) The ER
     b) A witch doctor
     c) CVS for some band-aids

Band-aids.  For those life-threatening holiday emergencies.
3) Follow up to question number 2.  Of the aforementioned places, how many of them require actual human beings to work in order to provide appropriate care?
    a) 0.  Robots are the new thang
    b) 3.  D'uh.
    c) 1.  Witch doctors don't care about Thanksgiving

"WTF is Thanksgiving?"
4) Your car runs out of gas next Thursday.  What do you do?
    a) Go to the gas station, like usual.  Because you know, people are working.  On
    b) Pump your own gas and leave an IOU
    c) Siphon gas out of someone else's car, then say you're grateful.

Give the kid a break.  Where else was he supposed to get gas on a holiday no one works on?
Let's also not forget the poor souls who have to work at Our Favorite Giant Stores so we don't miss a nanosecond of Black Friday.  While we are stuffing our faces (and subsequently resting our faces in a face-down position due to Food Coma), a whole lot of people are hard at work making sure you have the best Black Friday experience, because we can't possibly just enjoy a holiday without showing your gratitude for life by buying a TV for 92% off at 3am.  But I digress.

Unless they're lining up for free pumpkin pie, count me out.
Those of us in the animal care field must work on all holidays, because the animals still need to eat.  Beyond that, they need their habitats cleaned, training goals still need to be met, and you know what?  You're supposed to spend holidays like Thanksgiving with your close family and friends, so it is very fitting you spend several hours with the animals you adore.

Now, I'm sure everyone has their own unique experience with working Thanksgiving at their facility.  It just so happens that this year I have Thanksgiving off, so I'll work on Christmas.  But I'm going to share my favorite things about working Thanksgiving and holidays.  

For most of my career, the facilities I've worked at close for Thanksgiving.  Side note: No one shows up at the places I've worked at during times we've been open on the holiday.  They're too busy waiting in line for their discount sock warmer at Large Department Store.

Top Ten Things I Love About Working Thanksgiving As A Marine Mammal Trainer

1) Traffic is NONEXISTANT.  Zip, zap, zam, you're at work in no time.  You still, to some extent, get to sleep in on the holiday.  Even if your shift is at 6am, you know you've got the road to yourself so just enjoy those 15 extra minutes of sleep.

No school busses! No slow drivers! 
2) Everyone is in a great mood.  Really.  No weepy, pissed off trainers to be seen here.  Not that I've worked with many people who are wired like that, but everyone is excited because it's Thanksgiving, we're closed, we get to play with animals and go home and eat until our stomachs rupture and we end up in the ER (where hopefully, someone is working).

Hopefully, he's working.

3) No shows, no programs.  As much as I love to share my knowledge and passion for the animals with guests (because that's why zoos and aquariums exist), it's really nice to have one day where you have nothing but fun with the animals.  I don't have to worry about little things such as: accidentally eating garlic humus for lunch right before a dolphin interaction (wherein I try not to breathe anywhere near my helpless guest), my out-of-control saltwater hair, does my uniform match.

I can just play!
4) Wearing whatever you want.  As long it's animal safe.  If it's warm, I don't have to cover up my tattoo sleeve.  You can run around in a  crazy bathing suit.  Or comfortable sweat pants.  Or an ugly sweater.

Sean Connery? Or marine mammal trainer on Thanksgiving?
5) You typically don't work a full day.  Everything that needs to get done gets thoroughly accomplished in 3/4 of the time, because there aren't programs or shows.   

Couldn't find a relevant image for #5, so here's a picture of stuffing.
6) The animals are almost always super attentive.  I don't know why exactly, but it is likely to do with the fact that it's such a variable day.  Everyone is laid back.  They're getting massive amounts of food in a session for just playing with a football.  

Throw me the ball! I'm open!
7) …. and there's always that one animal who doesn't get into it.   They don't want to eat a lot.  They'd rather go back to the same daily schedule.  You might have 99% of your animals fed out by noon, but there's always one who's the limiting reagent (LR).  So what do you do with an LR animal? Well, you respect what they want.  Maybe you don't get out as early as you would had every animal been on board with the plan, but you're not going to deny an animal food because you want to get home to your green bean casserole.

I'd prefer to savor my meal today, thank you.
8) You do special little things when you're not feeding animals.  At one facility I worked at, one of my bosses put on the Macy's Day Parade in a conference room on a big screen TV.  In between sessions and after all the buckets were cleaned, we'd watch the parade for 30 minutes, then go back out and do another round of sessions.  

If you celebrate Thanksgiving, you should make this a tradition at your facility, too!

9) We can play whatever music we want over the sound system.  No more Elevator Music! No more Public Domain Banality!  Want an hour of gangster rap? Sure!  Feeling like some Lo-Fi? Go for it.  Want to have a football game on over the speakers?  Just make sure no one on your staff hates your team, or you're getting pushed in a pool for sure.

For your Thanksgiving nostalgia, enjoy the calming sounds of this gentlemen quartet
10) I've already said this, but it's so important to me that it's worth saying again.  The best thing about working Thanksgiving is I get to spend it with some of the most important beings in my life.   I get to wake up, play with all the animals I love and people I adore, and then I come home and eat a lot of stuffing, and mac n' cheese, and bread, and fruit salad, and pumpkin pie, and…

Oh hurry up, Thanksgiving.

So yeah, we're working hard while a lot of people are relaxing and enjoying their day off.  But we love every minute of it.  It's a special experience that not many people get.   

Wait, before I let you go, let me admit that, like anything in life, there are some down-sides to working Thanksgiving.  

The Cons To Working on Thanksgiving As A Marine Mammal Trainer

1) You don't consistently get to spend the holidays with your family

2) You don't usually get the entire Thanksgiving weekend off, even if you're off for the holiday 

3) Trainers can't even afford Black Friday prices

and the last con to working Thanksgiving as a marine mammal trainer:

4) Black Friday for trainers is actually the massively depressing process by which you attempt to squeeze back into your wetsuit Friday morning after eating 3,349 metric tons of stuffing.

Now, fellow animal caregivers: share your favorite parts about working holidays! I'd love to hear it!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Call for Submissions

Tomorrow I'll be posting a guest column contributed from the blog The Middle Flipper.  I've been following it for a little while now and have found it to be very enjoyable and informative; I've recently also had the pleasure to start chatting with the author, which has been a delight.  I'm very excited to be able to share her writings.

Now, I know that there are people looking at this blog - I see the daily stats reports, so I know you're out there, spread over dozens of countries in six continents (so far, no bored researchers in Antarctica have found their way on yet...).  Some of you have even starting commenting, which has been awesome.  What I would really love is submissions - editorials, open-questions, anecdotes, essays, even stories or poems or pictures that you want to share.  I haven't had many guest editorials yet (and the ones that I have gotten I've have all been cases where I approached the author), but the ones I have gotten have been among the most popular and eagerly discussed posts thus far.

Got an opinion?  Of course you do!  So share it with everyone!  E-mail me at, and let your voice be heard!

From the News: An important win for black-footed ferret reintroduction

Thanksgiving, of course, is this week (for Americans, at any rate), and with it come a certain series of traditions.  Most of them are culinary - turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, etc.  There are also those ridiculous pageants put on by elementary school children dressed up as pilgrims and Indians (with their construction paper feathers sticking up in the back).  And, of course, there are sales and shopping sprees as Christmas creeps earlier and earlier each year.

The one Thanksgiving tradition that I never cared for was the whole everyone-go-around-the-table and say what you are thankful for routine.  My family never did it growing up, but I've been forced to participate in it at other situations.  Never liked it - partially because it always seemed too sappy, partially because it just seemed to encourage braggarts ("This year, I'm thankful that I just got a new job which pays more than any three of you put together...).  You could see how stuff like that could get annoying, right?

So anyway, to try and put a positive spin on that for this Thanksgiving, I thought I'd do a "From the News" that we could all be thankful about.  Often, these items are bad news, such as the recent red wolf tragedy.  Other times, they are about good news of a small scale, such as a birth at one zoo or another.  Today's item is great news: it celebrates a new milestone in the struggle to restore one of the most endangered mammals in the world, one that was long thought to be extinct.

For Thanksgiving this year, I am thankful that we still share the world with animals like the black-footed ferret.  I'm thankful that there are people who are willing to work hard and selflessly to save a species from extinction for no reason other than it exists and needs help.  And I'm thankful that I get to work in a profession that helps make miracles like this possible.

Happy Thanksgiving!  Good luck to those of you working Thursday!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Zoo History: A Rhinoceros for His Holiness

"for the king's ships kept going to Tarshish with Hiram's servants, and once every three years the ships of Tarshish would arrive bearing gold, silver, ivory, apes, and peacocks"
The Bible, Chronicles II

China is the sole nation on earth where giant pandas are found naturally, and the Chinese government controls the supply of pandas found in zoos around the world.  The government provides pandas to zoos in other nations - sometimes as gifts, more often on loan - for reasons that have as much to do with politics and publicity (probably more so) than with research and conservation. 

The most famous exchange, of course, was that which followed US President Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972.  Besides opening up relations with the communist state, Nixon received Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling, the giant pandas who came to live at the National Zoo in Washington, DC.  The Chinese, in turn, received musk-oxen.  How musk-oxen were chosen over eagles, bison, and a host of other emblematic American species is beyond me...

Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling were not the first exotic animal ambassadors to make their appearance on the world stage.  Zoos have existed for thousands of years, often in the form of royal menageries, and across those millennia kings, queens, pharaohs, and other rulers have exchanged animals with one another.  References to the practice can even be found in the Bible ("... camels bearing ivory, apes, and peafowl").  Sometimes these exchanges have been straight up trades as rulers sought to bolster their own collections; the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II traded his giraffe for the Caliph of Egypt's polar bear.  Some were gifts, such as the lions that became the nexus of the Tower of London menagerie.  Some were even ransoms; when Richard the Lionhearted was captured following the Crusades, part of his ransom was two white gyrfalcons, the most prized of falconry birds.

Few animals had (almost) the impact on world history and politics, however, as an Indian rhinoceros that found itself in Lisbon, Portugal in 1515.

The rhinoceros itself had been a gift to the Portuguese from the Sultan of Cambay in modern India.  It was then sent on the long, perilous, and (one can only imagine) extremely uncomfortable voyage back to Europe via Africa.  King Manuel of Portugal was himself a collector of beasts and tried to show off his new prize by staging a fight between the rhino and an elephant, based on the ancient belief that the two are bitter enemies.  The fight never happened as the elephant fled in panic.  With his gladiatorial ambitions thwarted, Manuel turned from pleasure to business.

At the time, Portugal was competing with Spain (the only other major seafaring power in Europe at the time) for papal grants to the newly discovered lands of the New World.  Eager to curry favor, Manuel decided to gift his rhino to Pope Leo X.  The animal was shipped to Rome, stopping along the way for an audience with the King Frances of France.  Alas, Francis was to be the last monarch that the rhinoceros would meet.  The ship sank of the coast of Italy and the rhino was drowned.  The animal - and Manuel's hopes of using it to bribe the Pope and win his favor - were lost.  How the world might have changed if it had reached Rome and delighted the Pope as the Portuguese had hoped can only be imagined.  It may very well have changed the history of the world dramatically if Portugal, not Spain, had gone on to dominate the Americas.  Then again, maybe not - perhaps the Spanish would have countered with some equally outlandish animal and re-won the Pope's favor.

Although the rhino died far from home, in a sense it did achieve a form of immortality.  The beast was seen by many Europeans, and a description reached the famous German painter and printer Albrecht Durer.  Durer executed a somewhat fanciful rendering of the animal, complete with armor plating and a horn on its shoulder, that for centuries became the standard image of the Indian rhinoceros. 

It's uncertain as to whether Pope Leo X ever saw a copy of the engraving.  If he did, it's all that he ever received of what was to be his rhinoceros. 

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The One Thing I Never Want to Hear from Zoo Staff Again

The most dangerous phrase in the language is, "We've always done it this way."
- Grace Hopper

A while back, I wrote a post – my most popular so far – called “The Ten Things I Never Want to Hear from Zoo Visitors Again.”  It made the rounds on the internet and the Facebook groups, and inspired a lot of comments and proposed additions.  Based on that success, I decided I was going to write a sequel devoted to my coworkers (past, present, and, I’m predicting, future) – the things I never want to hear from them again. 

There were a lot of things I’ve had colleagues say over the years that I’d just as soon never hear again.  “I thought you were taking care of the [insert animal] today?”  “It’s okay, I know [insert animal] are dangerous, but he/she likes me!” (usually preceding a bite or mauling), and “But it’s cold/hot/gross!” (you only hear this one from the new keepers, generally speaking – it thins the ranks).  After careful consideration, however, I decided that there was only one thing that I constantly heard from colleagues that I was tired of.  In a sense, it’s the phrase that holds our profession back the most and is the source of most, if not all, of our problems.

“Well that’s the way we’ve always done it…”

I don’t believe in change for the sake of change.  If there is a formula that works very well, there’s no harm in sticking with it.  Both animals and staff respond well to routine, and it makes mistakes less likely.  At the same time, however, there are plenty of things which do NOT work well.  Likewise, we’ll never know if things that work okay now can work better unless we try other methods out.  Besides if the keepers who talk about how “they’ve always done it” always did things the way they were when they started in the profession, nothing would ever change for the better.

A few examples….

“We’ve always…” kept all cats in a zoo confined to one areas.  Never mind that some species – cheetahs, clouded leopards, and the smaller cats – wound up being extremely stressed by the proximity to the bigger cats, to the point where it suppressed reproduction and impacted their health.

“We’ve always…” fed maned wolves a meat-based diet.  I mean, they’re wolves, right?  It turns out, maned wolves are heavily omnivorous, with plants making up a big part of their diet.  Instead, we were causing kidney problems due to excessive protein.

“We’ve always…” gone in with zebras, and put them in mixed species exhibits.  In the wild zebras are found with all sorts of other herbivores, and they look like pretty striped ponies, so what’s the harm?  Turns out, male zebras can be extremely aggressive, both to smaller herbivores (most zoos that display zebras in mixed-exhibits pair them up with larger species) and to keepers (they used to be one of the leading causes of death to zookeepers).

“We’ve always…” fed snakes live prey.  A lot of zoo visitors are surprised when I tell them that most snakes will readily take pre-killed prey.  It turns out, it’s not unusual for a rat or mouse, confronted with a snake, to decide to go out with a blaze of glory and attack the reptile.  A lot of snakes have been badly injured or killed this way.

“We’ve always…” moved animals with nets and lassos.  Sometimes that’s the way you have to do it.  In other cases, however, it’s amazing what a little training, combined with clever facility design, can do.  Among other things, it reduces the likelihood of animals being injured during capture.

Come to think of it, “we’ve always” got all of our animals from the wild, kept them in concrete and tile boxes, watched them live brief, miserable lives, and had them cared for by uneducated and untrained roustabouts. 

These examples are all a bit over the top. They’re meant to be.  The point is, every time in the past that a keeper looked around, saw something that wasn’t working or could be done better, and suggested a change, I’m sure they were told you-know-what.  Sometimes (most of the time, I suspect) there is a reason that it was always done that way.  Maybe it really does work after all.  Maybe other methods were tried and found unsuccessful.  That’s fine.  That’s still a better reason than “Well that’s the way we’ve always done it…” 

That doesn’t mean it’s the way we always have to do it, though.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Monday, November 18, 2013

Zoo Joke: Pandas

A bored waiter is sitting around a diner one especially slow evening when, to his surprise, a panda comes strolling through the door.  The panda takes a seat up at the counter and orders a hamburger, which he scarfs down in three bites.  He then slides off of the stool and makes his way for the door.

The waiter is about to say something about paying the bill when the panda suddenly turns around and, from nowhere, pulls a handgun out from his fur.  Before the waiter can event react, the panda fires a shot, hitting the waiter in the leg.

"Why, why would you do such a thing?!?" the waiter yells as he clutches his leg in pain.

"I'm a panda," replies his assailant.  "Look it up."  Then, without another word, he flees.

Within a hour, the injured waiter is in the hospital, being treated for his injury.  As he lies in bed recovering, he recalls the panda's last words to him, and has a friend bring him a dictionary.  Flipping to the "P"s, this is what he finds:

Panda [pan-duh] noun - black-and-white bearlike mammal found in southwest China.  Eats shoots and leaves.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Species Fact Profile: Pygmy Hippopotamus (Choeropsis (Hexaprotodon) liberiensis)

Pygmy Hippopotamus
Choeropsis (Hexaprotodon) liberiensis  (Morton, 1849)
Range: W. Africa
Habitat: Lowland Rainforest, Wetlands
Diet: Herbs, Leaves, Grasses, Fruits, Shoots
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Breeding has only been observed in captivity.  May mate either on land or in the water; after a gestation period of 6.5 months, a single calf (rarely twins) is born.  Calves are weaned at 6-8 months and are sexually mature at 3-5 years old.
Lifespan: 40+ Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Endangered, CITES Appendix II

  • Much smaller than common hippo: length 1.5-1.75 meters, height 75-100 centimeters, weight 180-275 kilograms
  • Anatomical differences with the common hippo include having eyes located on the sides of the head (instead of the top), reduced webbing on the feet, a smaller head in proportion to the body, and a black-green coloration
  • Little studied in the wild.  It is believed to spend much of its day in the water and emerge at night to feed.  Not thought to be territorial, but believed to avoid one another by scent marking through their home ranges by spraying feces
  • Have been observed in deep burrows alongside riverbanks, sometimes with underwater entrances.  It is not believed that the hippos dug these burrows themselves, but they may have enlarged them
  • Leopards are the only known predator of adult pygmy hippos, but crocodiles and pythons may also prey upon juveniles and calves
  • Habitat loss is the major threat to the species, with hunting for the bush-meat trade also posing a threat.  The Nigerian subspecies C. l. heslopi (the only subspecies apart from the nominate) may already by extinct
  • The existence of the pygmy hippo was controversial for many years - some scientists though it was a stunted or juvenile common hippo, others an extinct form of prehistoric hippo.  It was not accepted as a "real" animal until the first live specimens arrived in Europe in 1911
  • A pygmy hippo was gifted to President Calvin Coolidge by Harvey Firestone in 1927; “Billy” went to live in the National Zoo, and is now ancestor to most the US captive pygmy hippo population

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Zoo Review: Smithsonian National Zoological Park (Part II)

Part II: The Review
So, having spent a lot of time around the place, what do I think of the National Zoo?  A mixed bag, but largely positive.  First off, let me state that there are few institutions that do as much for conservation as the Smithsonian National Zoological Park.  It was probably the first zoo in the world founded specifically with conservation as a goal – the American bison, specifically (absent from the zoo for several years, but scheduled to return for the zoo's 125th anniversary).   The zoo has had great breeding success with many species, including some that traditionally have proven extremely difficult to propagate, such as the kori bustard.  The zoo’s Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, VA had proven essential to breeding many delicate endangered species, such as maned wolves, black-footed ferrets, and clouded leopards.  Furthermore, this zoo was almost single-handedly responsible for saving the golden lion tamarin from extinction. 

Unlike many zoos, which don’t communicate enough with the public about the work that they do, SNZP is very vocal in describing how it makes a difference to wildlife around the world.  The Smithsonian participates and leads research projects around the world.  A partnership with George Mason University is helping to train the next generation of conservation biologists. 

At the same time, knowing what I do about the zoo, I sometimes feel frustrated that it doesn’t do better.  Most of these thoughts have to do with the zoo itself – its campus, its collection.  As the nation’s zoo, I feel that the zoo should be a leader and innovator.  It used to – a while back SNZP produced many revolutionary, exciting new displays.  Amazonia, for instance, was one of the best rainforest immersion exhibits I’d ever seen (probably because, unlike many other ones, it didn’t try to cram an ark-load of large mammals in its rainforest).  The Invertebrate House was (and still is) innovative and unique.  Most surprising of all is the O-Line, which allows the zoo’s orangutans to travel between their two exhibits with a series of cables and towers directly over the heads of visitors.  When the zoo proposed its plan for this exhibit, other zoos said they were nuts.  It turned out to be brilliant.
I’m not sure where all the innovation has gone – the most recent few exhibits – Asia Trail, American Trail – have lacked imagination.  I’m not saying that there was anything wrong with them, the individual animal enclosures all seemed well-suited to the animals.  It just didn’t feel like there was an underlying message, a grand idea holding it all together.  (This, to be fair, is a problem I have with the Smithsonian museums as a whole – they’re collections of stuff.  Really cool stuff, to be sure, but still, just a bunch of stuff grouped together).  The Reptile, Bird, and Small Mammal Houses had the same effect on me – a bunch of boxes with animals.  Some of the boxes were cooler than others, some were… boxes with a branch or two.

There were a few concerns I did have about the animal collection, as well.  Take the wolves, for instance: the new American Trail features generic gray wolves.  AZA recommends that, for purposes of sustainability, zoos should maintain either red wolves or Mexican gray wolves.  That was the case that irked me the most (mostly because, within my recent memory, first red and then Mexican wolves were displayed at the zoo, in that same enclosure), but there were other examples of animals being displayed that I felt could or should have been replaced with managed species.  Again, as the nation's zoo, I feel that the National Zoo should set an example to other zoos in all aspects of what it does, including collection planning.

It also wouldn't hurt if the staff at the zoo was a little more communicative.  I saw a lot of clusters of keepers hanging around and just talking, ignoring the public.  In all the years that I've gone, I've rarely seen a keeper interact with a visitor outside of a scheduled talk or demonstration.

Cleanliness could also be improved a bit, especially regarding pest control.  I saw more mice than zoo animals in some of the older animal houses; lots of the guests I saw in Small Mammal House thought that the mice were the exhibit animals!

This are all nitpicky, mind you.  The Smithsonian National Zoo is a great institution with a storied history and a bright future making contributions to conservation.  It rates among the best zoos in America.  The best, however, can always get better...

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Zoo Review: Smithsonian National Zoological Park

A word in advance: this is going to be an obnoxiously long review.  I’ve visited the National Zoo more perhaps than any other zoo (excluding the ones that I’ve worked at), so I’ve had lots of time to observe and ponder it.  This will be a two-part review.  Part I, published today, will give a description of the zoo.  Part II, published tomorrow, will be the actual review.

There are a lot of incredible zoos in the United States, large and small, but there is only on National.  Located in northwest Washington DC’s Rock Creek Park, the Smithsonian National Zoological Park is one of the largest and most famous zoos in the country.  Like all other parts of the Smithsonian, it is open to the public free of charge and is considered a must-see by tourists visiting the nation’s capital.  The animals that most visitors are most keen to see, of course, are its most famous residents: giant pandas, including a newly born cub.  For a long time, it was the only US zoo to display pandas, the original pair being a “good-will” gift to President Nixon from the People’s Republic of China.

Part I: The Description
Most of the zoo’s exhibits branch off of a long, meandering road that runs straight through the park.  Unlike many zoos, National Zoo’s collection is still largely organized taxonomically, instead of geographically.  The great apes – gorillas and orangutans – are found in one building, the great cats – lions and tigers  - are grouped together in side by side yards (accompanied by smaller cats), and separate buildings contain the reptile, bird, small mammal, and invertebrate collections.  There are some deviations from this theme – there is an Asian Trail, an African Trail (which, to be honest, also contains maned wolves from South America), and, newest of all, an American Trail.  Amazonia, a South American rainforest building, is tucked away at the bottom of the zoo.

Asia Trail is home to the zoo’s famous giant pandas, along with red pandas, clouded leopards, sloth bears, fishing cats, and small-clawed otters (which pretty much makes it an Asian Carnivore Trail).  The zoo wouldn’t want anyone to risk missing the pandas, so they can be observed both in their outdoor yards and indoors.  Apart from the perpetually sleeping pandas, many of the animals on Asia Trail are somewhat reclusive; I’d say only once or twice have I ever walked the trail and seen every species, and only the red pandas and otters are likely to be out every time.  The trail also features an overlook of the zoo’s newly expanded elephant habitat.  The Asian elephant herd can be seen from several viewing points outside (including from a suspension bridge and a special educational outpost), as well as from the recently renovated Elephant House. 

Africa Trail, across from Asia Trail, features zebras and antelopes, but it is the cheetahs that are the stars here.  The newly opened American Trail displays otters (with underwater viewing) and beavers, along with wolves, ravens, and bald eagles.  Gray seals and California sea lions inhabit side-by-side pools, with underwater viewing and stadium-seating to facilitate views for the sea lion training demonstrations.  Amazonia, the South American rainforest building, is down the trail.  It features a gallery of giant river fish and a brief walk-through forest, populated by birds and small monkeys.    Andean bears are found outside.

Birds, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, and small mammals are found in a series of animal houses, most of which are lined alongside the zoo’s main road.  The collection in each is impressive.  The Reptile Discovery Center (RDC) would have to be my favorite; when I was a kid, I remember it having bearded dragons, leopard geckos, and other pet store species, along with a few exotics.  Now, it features reptile and amphibian rarities from around the world – Philippine and Cuban crocodiles, radiated tortoises, fly river turtles, Fiji iguanas, and Japanese giant salamanders, to name a few.  One of the newer displays offers guests a peak into an Appalachian salamander research lab, where zoo scientists study local amphibian declines (I’m told that this exhibit was controversial in its conception – some folks in Congress didn’t like the idea of federal monies going to an exhibit that criticized mining and implicated climate change in species decline).  Komodo dragons, Chinese alligators, and Aldabra tortoises are outside.

Go around the back of the RDC and you’ll find yourself in the Invertebrate House.  When it opened, it was one of the first major invertebrate displays in the country, and it is still one of the best.  Exhibits range from corals and anemones to an open-fronted display of orb weaver spiders.  Guests get a behind-the-scenes peek at the workings of the building - they can talk to invert keepers from across a counter, watching them prepare diets or tend quarantine tanks.  The giant octopus is the most popular display, especially during feeding demonstrations.

As to the other two animal houses – Bird and Small Mammal – eh.  They both boast of cool collections.  Small Mammals have the zoo’s famous golden lion tamarins, as well as meerkats, hyraxes, and naked mole rats.  The Bird House has one of the only kiwi exhibits in the country (which isn't to say you'll see them... you won't), as well as hornbills, macaws, and indoor and outdoor free flight aviaries.  A series of outdoor pens house an enormous flock of American flamingos, cranes (including rare whooping cranes), cassowaries, and rheas.  Still, the indoor exhibits in both buildings are somewhat bland, and both could probably use a major overhaul (which, to be fair, I believe is in fact being planned).
Review to be continued...
Want more pictures of the Animals of the National Zoo?  Click here

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Zoo History: Ota Benga

"They are remarkable mimics ... and ... are fond of playing… their antics are childish... and... if caught young they are said to make excellent servants”

~ St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 26, 1904

I thought I’d try something new here and begin a new category of posts: Zoo History.  Though we think of them as a modern invention (and the modern zoo as we know it dates back to the early 1800’s), zoos do have a very long history, longer perhaps than any other cultural institution.  Captive collections of exotic animals date back thousands of millennia, appearing in places as varied as Ancient China, Ptolemaic Egypt, and Aztec Mexico. 
Ironically, the first post I’ve written for this new series isn’t about animals – it’s about a man.

Ota Benga was probably born in the 1880s, in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Even today the Congo is considered a fairly mysterious place, and back then it was practically a lost world, with exciting discoveries – the gorilla, the okapi – emerging all of the time.  One of the most extraordinary discoveries that Europeans and Americans found there was the Mbuti – the pygmies.  Ota Benga was of these people.  The Mbuti were barely considered human by many people at the time, especially by neighboring tribes, who captured them and sold them as curiosities.  Ota Benga was taken by slave traders before being rescued by an American, Samuel Phillips Verner. 
Verner’s motives weren’t entirely humanitarian: he had actually be sent to Africa to recruit “native performers” for an upcoming exposition in the US.  Ota Benga was recruited, along with several other Mbuti, and left for America.  Except for one visit shortly afterwards, he was never to return to Africa. 

Ota Benga performed at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase exposition in St. Louis, where he was exhibited alongside other indigenous peoples from around the world (he met and befriended the Apache chief Geronimo there).  At the close of the exposition, Verner briefly took Benga back to Africa before the pair returned to the United States.  Needing a place for the Mbuti to stay while he took care of some business, Verner first housed Benga as a living exhibit the American Museum of Natural History.  When those living arrangements proved unsuitable, Verner sent him to WilliamT. Hornaday of the Bronx Zoo.
Benga roamed the zoo grounds, was encouraged to “act native” – shoot arrows, build hammocks – and befriended an orangutan.  In might have been the later the put the idea in Hornaday’s head to place the Mbuti on exhibit… in the Monkey House.  He was supported in this by the New York Zoological Society’s president, Madison Grant (who went on to become famous for his advocacy of eugenics and racial “hygiene”).  Not surprisingly, Benga’s exhibition proved controversial… but not for the reasons that you might expect.  The main argument against it was it some clergy felt that displaying a “primitive” human alongside other primates amounted to an endorsement of Darwin’s theory of evolution.  Benga eventually left the zoo.

Ota Benga never returned to Africa, but his remaining life in the United States did not improve. He was placed in an orphanage, got a job, and pined away for home.  Return to Africa was made almost impossible by World War I, and the Mbuti sank into depression.  On March 20, 1916, he took his life.

Monday, November 11, 2013

From the News: A wolf bounty? Not in N.C.

The world's rarest canid just got a little rarer with the illegal killing of two red wolves in North Carolina last month.  Efforts are being made to track down the perpetrators, as detailed in the article.  Red wolves aren't numerous enough to cause damage to human economic interests, and they live in only a few protected areas.  There is no justification for this kind of crime - an animal that poses no threat to man, one that is of no value to him dead, and one that so many people have tried so hard to nurse back from the edge of extinction.
Hopefully the criminals behind this will be caught and punished as severely as is legally possible (including, I would hope, bankrupting the bastards and funneling whatever resources they have towards red wolf conservation).  We almost lost this species once.  We can't let that happen again.


Saturday, November 9, 2013

Movie Review: Hatari

You couldn't make a movie like Hatari! today.  You just couldn't, for any number of reasons.  That's really not a bad thing - if it was tried today, there would be protests, and justifiably so - but this was the 1960's, and hardly the craziest thing done for a movie...

Set in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), Hatari! stars John Wayne and Red Buttons as animal dealers in East Africa.  They lead a band of ex-pats from around the world in capturing giraffe, antelope, and other animals for sale to zoos and circuses.  After one of their number is gored - nearly fatally - by a rhino, they struggle to fill their orders and care for their beasts, all the while tending to an unexpected visitor - a photographer from the Basel Zoo who has come to photograph and document their work.  This being Hollywood, the female photographer of course falls in love with John Wayne, because apparently that's what every woman in the movies did back then.

What makes Hatari! so fascinating to watch is that - apart from the mediocre acting - it's all real.  All of the animal captures took place between the actual actors and real wild animals.  In the films final hunt, Wayne and his crew actually DO lasso and subdue an adult black rhino, the rhino really does get loose, and the actors really do recapture it.  (Most of the capture scenes had to be redubbed to cover up Wayne's swearing at the animals).  Wayne, Buttons, and company lasso giraffes, chasing them down with speeding cars.  They drive full blast through herds of wildebeest.  They net and wrangle vervet monkeys and muscle buffalo into transport crates.  Can you imagine if Brad Pitt or Russell Crowe planned to do any of this - with actual wild animals - today?  Public outcry would be deafening.  I've never figured out if/how many animals were injured or even killed during the filming of this movie. 

One of the questions that I commonly receive from zoo visitors is "Where do you get your animals?"  Some seem to think that we are a sanctuary, only taking in injured or neglected animals.  Others seem to think that I spend my weekends flying down to the Amazon, catching jaguars in pit-traps.  Instead, I tell them about SSPs and breeding programs and all that good stuff, and that few large mammals in zoos today were born in the wild.  Still, it is important to remember that every animal in our collections today has ancestors that were truly wild, and the cost to acquire those animals wasn't measured in dollars alone. 

Hatari! might not be the most realistic look at the life of an animal dealer (at the very least I doubt there was all that romantic drama going on between captures), but it's still a fun movie with some cool animals and beautiful scenery, one that offers a glimpse of our profession's past.

PS:  For music lovers out there, another reason to check out this film - it is the origin of Henry Mancini's famous Baby Elephant Walk.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Turtle Survival Alliance

A well-known scientist once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: "What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise." The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, "What is the tortoise standing on?" "You're very clever, young man, very clever," said the old lady. "But it's tortoises all the way down!"

—Stephen Hawking, 1988

Ask a typical zoo visitor to name an endangered group of animals - they will probably reply with big cats, elephant, rhinoceroses, or great apes.  Some may suggest sharks, corals, whales, or - if they've been paying attention to the educational campaigns - amphibians.  Few, however, would think of chelonians - the turtles and tortoises. 

With their ancient lineage, key role in culture, and the seeming abundance of some species, it's hard to imagine a world with turtles.  It's ironic, however, that these animals, so renown for their slowness, are now racing towards extinction.

Conservation in the wild has proven difficult for many tortoises and freshwater turtles.  Not only are their habitats vanishing, but they are also suffering from heavy overexploitation.  Turtles and tortoises are used in many traditional Asian medicines and cuisines.  The rarer a species becomes, the more desirable it is for the pet trade; poachers and smugglers have channeled untold animals away from wild populations.  For many chelonians, captive breeding is essential for survival of the species.  The Chelonian Taxon Advisor Group of the AZA manages more species than any other TAG, but that still only makes a tiny dent in the number of endangered shelled reptiles.

In 2001, a new organization was founded to combat the threats that face turtles - the Turtle Survival Alliance.  With a goal of zero turtle extinctions in the 21st century, it has initiated and supported field projects across four continents to study endangered turtles and tortoises and aid in their conservation.  TSA personnel collect biological data on turtles in the wild, conduct population surveys, educate local people about the importance of turtles and tortoises, and provide care for confiscated animals.

Currently, TSA is working on its most ambitious goal - the establishment of its Turtle Survival Center in South Carolina.  The TSC will be a secure research and breeding facility, propagating some of the world's most endangered turtles and tortoises.  While TSA will continue its commitment to conservation in situ, for some species the wild is just not the safest place to be anymore.  It's not a totally unique idea - off-exhibit facilities have been established by zoos in the past for captive breeding, most famous of all being the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, VA.  Other facilities have been devoted to a single taxa, such as the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin.  Large scale breeding of endangered turtles requires more space - and for some species privacy - than can be provided in a typical zoo reptile house.  For many species, the TSC may prove a last hope for sanctuary in an increasingly dangerous world.

Many keepers, aquarists, and other wildlife professionals started off as kids who loved animals.  For many of us - myself included - encounters with turtles were among our early, formative experiences with wildlife.  It would be tragic if these ancient, plodding creatures faded away in our lifetime.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Where the Magic Happens

It's dark as a dungeon and damp as the dew,
Where the dangers are many, the pleasures are few..."

~ Merle Travis, "Dark as a Dungeon"

When I started off working in zoos, the most amazing part of the job was the proximity of animals.  It seemed that every time that I turned my head, there was another one right behind me, each more incredible than the one before.  These close-up encounters often took place in the keeper buildings, or night houses, where animals went when not on exhibit. 
These buildings are where many of my most treasured early memories of zoo animals took place – smelling the fish on a polar bear’s breath, feeling an okapi’s tongue wrap around my hand, or looking directly into the eyes of a lion from six inches away.  These are the places where animals are often fed, where medical procedures take place, and where training is conducted.  In a sense, this is where the magic happens.
Which, in a sense, is also kind of a shame – the holding buildings tend to be pretty boring, once you get past the initial shock of seeing the animal.  They aren’t natural, nor are they aesthetically pleasing – they aren’t meant to be.  They are meant to be easily cleaned and they are meant to be secure – this is where you want your animals when a storm is raging outside or when snow is piling up.  You’ll find some creature comforts in them, to be sure – perches for monkeys and birds, pools for tapirs and hippos, hide boxes for small mammals – but it’s all very functional.  The perches will be simple cut branches or boards, the pools won’t be fed by cascading waterfalls.  If you ever want to know what zoo exhibits themselves looked like fifty years ago, just go back into the holding areas.  It's for this reason that many zoos tend to ban photography of their holding areas, they just aren't that impressive (it is with that consideration in mind that I am only showing pictures of public behind-the-scenes areas on this post).

Animals spend varying amounts of time in these buildings.  Some may be locked in only for the ten minutes it takes each day for the keeper to go outside, clean up the exhibit, and scatter some food.  Others may be brought inside at night, or for months at a time during inclement weather.  Some may be back their almost permanently, whether for breeding purposes, medical purposes, or just because no one knows where else to put them at that moment.
The keeper areas are “our” place as well as the animals’ place, and we make them our own.  Notes on the white board, irreverent cartoons and drawings, little “souvenirs” from the animals (i.e., a thoroughly demolished enrichment item) adorn the walls and shelves.  It’s where keepers tend to congregate to chat, sharing gossip about animals and coworkers alike.  Here, far from the madding crowd, our biggest concerns are whether the floors are draining (why is the drain never in the lowest point?) or whether the hoses are coiled properly.  It’s our territory.  But does it have to be that exclusively?

Behind-the-Scenes view of the elephant and giraffe holding areas at the Virginia Zoo

Many zoos offer behind-the-scenes tours of at least some of their exhibits, either as a special package or as part of a zoo camp or other educational program.  Bearing this in mind, doesn’t it make sense that we start designing our off-exhibit areas with a mind towards being, well… exhibits?  We probably don’t want endless lines parading through our dens and barns, but it would be neat to be able to bring special guests back behind-the-scenes to meet the animals up close and learn how the keepers do their job, maybe watch a training demo or see some enrichment, or get the inside look at an important breeding program.  This could also be practiced in other traditionally non-public areas of the zoo, from the commissary to the hospital to the horticulture greenhouse.  Even if there are no animals in the commissary, visitors would be fascinated to see the amounts and varieties of food our animals consume.  Even if there are no patients in the hospital, it’s still cool to see all of the equipment and gadgetry.
Of course, making this work requires keeping the keeper areas presentable… tools put away, sections tidied, NOT leaving those little fruit stickers all over the walls and furniture.  It also means rethinking how we design our behind-the-scenes areas.  If we wouldn’t feel comfortable having at least some visitors see it, maybe it’s not ideal.  Too many of the older exhibits that I’ve worked in have keeper areas that are dank, depressing, and – in many causes- uncomfortable and borderline unsafe to work in.  Having the public eye fixed on our workspaces might help us keep them on par with the exhibits that they support.
Obviously we will always need some private areas in the zoo for a variety of reasons (quarantine, very sensitive animals, etc).   Tours or viewing windows into keeper areas would not be appropriate for all exhibits, but each zoo or aquarium has, I’m sure, at least one where it might prove very effective.  Some zoo directors will bemoan the lack of naturalism, the thwarting and undermining of their naturalistic immersion exhibits with peeks into the bunker-like keeper areas.  A lot of keepers, I suspect, would resent the intrusion of guests into their work spaces, even if only the occasional tour, or peeking through a window.  Still, I feel that offering guests a glimpse of behind-the-scenes can give them a better understanding of who we are and what we do.

Window in the diet prep room at the National Aviary, allowing visitors to watch keepers at work