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Thursday, January 30, 2014

Shark Ray Success

As I believe I have mentioned in an earlier post, I really don’t do fish, bony or cartilaginous.  Still, I made a promise to myself that I was going to make this blog more aquarium friendly, and that means more fish stories.  With that in mind, I’d like to share some of the most exciting news from the aquarium world today – the birth of six (seven if you count the stillborn) shark rays at the Newport Aquarium.

A shark ray (also called guitarfish) is pretty much what it sounds like – a fish that looks like a cross between a ray and a shark… and a guitar.  Sharks and rays are actually very closely related, both being fish with skeletons of cartilage.  I don’t know much about these guys and have never seen one before.  That shouldn’t be too surprising, because I’ve never been diving in the Indo-Pacific region, and as far as I can tell they are exhibited at Newport, and Newport only.  This marks the first birth of this species in captivity.

Here's some old footage of the aquarium's shark rays, just to give a feel for them...

Sweet Pea, the proud mamma herself, hasn’t been on display lately – recognizing her need for privacy, the aquarists removed her off-exhibit, but monitored her via remote cameras.  I think that is actually one of the coolest parts of this story (besides, I mean, the actual birth) – that the birth was first noticed by a curator checking up his charge with his tablet… at home… at 5AM.  The staff was on the scene in minutes. Devotion!

Congratulations to Newport Aquarium on their historic first.  I hope to get out way one of these days, but maybe if they have enough success, captive-bred shark rays will be seen at aquariums across America.  Good luck with the little ones!

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

The Scoop on Poop

When zookeepers/aquarists meet and greet, there are a few conversational motifs that pop up more frequently than others.  They often talk about and compare their bites and scratches, showing off scars and telling the stories behind them (as well as the near misses).  They may trade stories of escapes and recaptures, or births and hand-rearings.  Stories about the things that visitors say and do also tend to be popular (especially joking about the wrong names that visitors use for animals). 

And then there is the poop.

I like to think that the good folks on Scrubs put it best... and in song!

Poop is pretty central to the job description of many zookeepers (varying by section – hoofstock keepers may move several wheelbarrow loads of the brown stuff every day, amphibian keepers may barely notice it).  As the Inuit are said to have a hundred names for snow, so zookeepers can differentiate between a seemingly endless stream of feces. 

For example…

There are the soccer-ball-sized spheres of elephant dung, the grape-like pellets of giraffes, the stinky black links of big cats, and the nebulous blobs of bears.  Monkeys and birds, accustomed to a tree-top world where poop drops a hundred feet to the forest floor and is never seen (or smelled) again, pay little mind to where they drop their loads.  Some animals poop at random.  Some, like llamas, are considerate and will poop in neat communal piles for your cleaning convenience.  Others are less considerate – hippos have specialized hairs on their tails that let them spray their poop across the surrounding area (useful for marking territories!).  A reptile may poop once a week.  A small mammal may poop so much that by the time you’re done cleaning its exhibit, it already looks like you were never there.

Keepers differentiate between which poop is the hardest to clean up, which is the hardest to find, and, of course, which is the smelliest (I’d have to put polar bears on this list, blaming the diet – the fish makes it stink and the dog chow makes there be a lot of it!).  It is perfectly normal – commonplace, even – for keepers to discuss fecal matters over the lunch table, often with the aroma of said feces drifting up from their boots.  (If you’re LUCKY it’s just on the boots… ever had a spider monkey poop in your hair?).

Guess who?

Zookeepers tend to talk a lot about poop, perhaps in part for psychological reasons.  “Poop” is one of the first things that many visitors think of when they think of zookeeping.  It’s not unusual to hear visitors make snide cracks about the animal droppings and the people who have to (“get to”, I mean, “get to!”) clean them up.  A little bathroom bravado might be our subconscious way of coping with a festering inferiority complex on that particular subject… I usually reply to guests by likening it to changing your kids’ diapers – a labor of love.  That and it’s the price we pay for getting to work with awesome animals!  Well, that and dealing with the freezing cold, scalding heat, crazy hours, and low pay… I digress.

Instead of simply sweeping (shoveling?) poop aside, maybe we should be putting it front and center.  After all, poop isn’t just a mess that we clean up everyday – it’s a tool that offers insight into the lives of the animals.  Animals with different diets have different droppings (hyena droppings, for instance, are often white, the result of all the bones they eat), and produce it in different quantities (in the wild, sloths come down to the ground once a week to do the one thing they can’t do in a tree – defecate).  On a recent safari to South Africa, our guide patiently found samples of black and white rhino dung, and showed us how to tell the difference, based on the different diets of the two species.  Animal droppings – feces and urine alike – have important roles in animal behavior, whether it be marking a territory (tigers urine-spraying trees, rhinos building their dung piles) or helping to catch your next meal (many carnivores will roll in herbivore dung to mask their smell from their prey). 

As any vet will tell you, feces are also a goldmine of data about animal health and wellbeing.  They offer a noninvasive way to check for parasites, read hormone levels, or gage other aspects of animal health.  Keepers are attuned to noticing how much poop an animal produces, checking its consistency and location; differences from the norm could be signs of disease.  Seen under a microscope, a dollop of fecal matter is a zoo in itself, full of all sorts of microscopic critters.  Zoo professionals aren't the only ones with an interest in the droppings of wild animals.  Field biologists can obtain all sorts of useful information from scat, from food intake and breeding status to (with enough samples) the genetic health and relative size of a wild population.  This is especially helpful for them, because unlike zoo staff, field biologists may go for a very long time without actually seeing the animals they study.

To top it all off, kids love poop!  Sure, they pinch their noses and make faces, but at that age they're all very much attracted to the icky stuff, and what's ickier than poop?  There are probably some cool exhibits that could be built around fecal matter, and some awesome stories that could be told.

We joke about it, we grouse about it, we endure endless cracks about, and we often track it home with us, much to the dismay of long-suffering family and friends.  Poop – dung, droppings, feces, the brown stuff – is still a very important part of our job.  When you actually take the trouble to consider it, you’ll see that poop has a big role in the lives of the animals, and is worth a second look (maybe even a sniff, if you must).

Being around poop all the time does have its obvious drawbacks.  At one zoo where I worked, the old-time keepers spoke of the Monkey House curse.  The theory was that being surrounded by constantly pooping monkeys all the time, through the power of suggestion, made you need to go to the bathroom all the time!  Which reminds me, it could be worse – we could have to clean up after people.  I take back what I said about the polar bears… that’s one gross animal.

Monday, January 27, 2014

From the News: Jacksonville zoo to build critical-care center for endangered manatees

Jacksonville zoo to build critical-care center for endangered manatees

Zoos and aquariums are often flooded with calls from members of the public asking them to take in injured wildlife.  Maybe it's an injured hawk by the side of the road, a mangy fox, or a chipmunk that's been roughed up a bit by the family cat.  When people see an animal that needs help, many of them turn to the local zoo.  That, in itself, is an encouraging thought.

What makes this harder for the zoos, however, is that we're not really made for this sort of work.  Many of us are not wildlife rehabilitators.  Granted, we're often happy to give non-releasable animals a home - there are plenty of species common in zoos (such as bald eagles and black bears) that zoos don't breed for this very reason - they're saving those spaces for injured or orphaned wild animals who need a home.  As for rehab, though?  Generally not (though many aquariums have excellent marine animal rescue programs).

Shuffling wild animals in and out of the collection makes vets nervous from a quarantine perspective, however.  Injured or orphaned wild animals are also very needy in terms of resource and time commitment, and not many zoos really have the personnel to devote to feeding baby birds every hour, or constantly exercising a hawk with a healing wing.  Every space taken up by Canada geese or gray squirrels represents space and resources that aren't going towards endangered species which the zoo is trying to sustain.  In these cases, the zoo generally acts as a facilitator, directing the visitor towards a wildlife rehabilitator who will be able to get the animal back on its feet... or wings... or belly, depending on the species.

For some species, however, there is very little a private individual wildlife rehabber can do.  Say, a manatee, for instance...

One of the most beloved mammals in the United States, the manatee is also one of our endangered species icons.  Between cold snaps and motor boat collisions, there are several injured or ailing manatees that need assistance every year, with few places able to provide it.  Several of the Florida zoos and aquariums have stepped up the challenge of providing care to manatees in need, either rehabilitation or (in the event their injuries prevent them from returning to the wild), sanctuary.

It's wonderful to see Jacksonville Zoo making a commitment to providing a better future for manatees.  Every zoo should follow this example in finding some way to contribute to the conservation of an endangered local species.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

From the News: Zoo animals adapt to Southern New England climate

Zoo animals adapt to Southern New England climate

As was recently discussed, there are many ways that zoo animals (and even frost-bitten keepers) can cope with the winter chill.  This has been especially true during this year's "polar vortex", which has brought unprecedented cold to many parts of the United States.  I always appreciate articles like these in the winter, helping to explain to visitors how zoos cope with the weather and highlighting the keepers' commitment to their animals.  Good luck, and hope spring comes soon!

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Book Review: The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes

"Perhaps more than any other living creates, [cranes] evoke the retreating wilderness, the vanishing horizons of clean water, earth, and air upon which their species - and ours, too, though we learn it very late - must ultimately depend for survival."

There are few animals which have had as prominent a role in human culture across the globe and throughout the ages as the cranes.  Among the world’s largest flying birds, the fifteen species of crane inhabit ever continent except Antarctica and South America.  Across their broad range, they have been worshipped and celebrated by local peoples, woven into myths and legends.  In Asia they are symbols of good luck, peace, and longevity.  In North America, some Native American tribes claimed decent from the crane.  In Australia, the native crane – the brolga – was so closely associated with the native Aborigines that European colonists called it “the native companion.”  At any rate, the long association between our species and the world’s cranes has been largely positive for us, detrimental for the birds.

In The Birds of Heaven: Travels with Cranes, renowned nature writer Peter Matthiessen travels the world in search of all fifteen crane species.  His quest takes him to all five continents where the birds are found, from the Demilitarized Zone on the Korean Peninsula to Florida to the Sudan.  Along the way, he is joined by prominent ornithologists, including the founders of the International Crane Foundation in Wisconsin, the only facility in the world to display and breed all fifteen species.  Matthiessen describes each bird in the context of its environment and its relationship with the local people, and explains how the birds, so revered by early humans, have become imperiled.   He also describes efforts being made to restore them to their rightful places, and shares some success stories – the return of the Eurasian crane in Western Europe, for example, or the slow by steady return of the whooping crane in North America.

Cranes pose some of the greatest conservation challenges in the world.  They are large and beautiful, making themselves prominent targets for hunters.  They enjoy helping themselves to our crops and fields, inviting the wrath of farmers (though the author describes several cases of local people cheerfully feeding “their” cranes).  Unlike many other large birds, such as flamingos and many storks, they are territorial, keeping themselves at low population densities for much of the year.  Perhaps most problematically, many are migratory, leaving themselves at the mercy of several national governments as they follow their ancient migration routes (routes which, in the case of some species, carry them over the highest mountains of earth).

Instead of viewing these factors – especially the later – as overwhelming obstacles towards saving cranes, Matthiessen sees them as opportunities for humans to band together, uniting in the cause of saving some of our most emblematic birds.  The first chapter details a “conservation cruise” down the Amur River, with Russian, Japanese, and Chinese naturalists (hailing from countries that have historically been rivals) working together to formulate a plan to save the imperiled cranes of northeast Asia.   The parties involved may not agree of much, including the names of the birds that they are trying to save (the alternate name “Japanese crane” for the red-crowned crane does not sit well with some members of the expedition), but all are agreed that cranes are magnificent birds, well worth saving.

After reading Matthiessen’s excellent book, accompanied by beautiful illustrations by Robert Bateman, any reader will be forced to agree. 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Species Fact Profile: Kori Bustard

Kori Bustard
Ardeotis kori (Burchell, 1822)

Range:  South and East Africa
Habitat:  Open Grassland, Bushveld, Semi-Desert
Diet:  Insects, Reptiles, Rodents, Seeds, Roots, Melons
Social Grouping: Solitary or Small Flocks
Reproduction: Polygamous, female alone incubates 1-2 eggs in shallow scrape for 23-24 days, chicks remain with mother well after fledging at 4-5 weeks, sexually mature at 2 years
Lifespan: 26 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern, CITES Appendix II

  • At 11-19 kilograms and 1.2 meters in length, they are the largest of the bustards and one of the heaviest flying birds in the world
  • Bulky body with a long, thick neck and long legs; the face and neck are grey with a distinctive black crest, the rest of the body is brown on top and white underneath
  • There are two geographically distinct subspecies: A. k. kori (southern) and A. k. struthiunculus (northern)
  • They are primarily terrestrial, and are reluctant to fly unless in danger; they are often seen walking behind grazing ungulates or visiting recently burned areas to capture exposed or flushed prey
  • Known to consume Acacia gum, but it is unknown if they eat the gum itself or the insects within the gum.  The Afrikaans name for the bird is Gompou, or "gum peacock"
  • Predators include lions, leopards, caracals, jackals, and eagles; if confronted with a predator, they will spread their wings and tail to appear larger, growl as predators
  • Unlike many birds, kori bustards can drink water by sucking it, instead of scooping it up with their beaks and tossing it back
  • Carmine bee-eaters sometimes perch on the backs of bustards, catching insects stirred up by walking bustards; the bee-eaters in turn will warn the bustards of approaching danger
  • The male's courtship display consists of strutting with the crest raised, neck inflated, and tail feathers cocked while emitting a low-pitched "boom" call
  • They do not have a preen gland, but produce powder down and dust bathe
  • Thought to make small, local migrations is response to changes in rainfall or food supply
  • Threatened by habitat loss and hunting, they have a low tolerance of human activity.  They have a slow reproductive rate and will not breed during stressful years

Monday, January 20, 2014

Penguin Awareness Day

"I'm a penguin and I'm a bird,
I'm a penguin and I'm a bird,
I'm a penguin and I'm a bird, and I can fly!"

- Great Big Sea, "Horatio the Penguin"

Happy Penguin Awareness Day!

(Why do some zoo animals get their own days (i.e., penguins, rhinos, elephants) and others don't?  When is International Asian Hornbill Day, or National Chameleon Day?)

There are - depending on who you ask - seventeen or eighteen or so species of penguin, ranging from the stately emperors of the Antarctic to the little blue fairies of Australia.  They are found in southern oceans from the icy southern seas to almost the equator off the coast of Ecuador.  All are flightless, but only in the sense that they can't soar through the air.  Seen underwater, as many zoos and aquariums provide the opportunity to do, they really do fly...

Many zoo visitors gloss over birds, but penguins hold a star-power that rivals big cats, primates, and pachyderms.  Zoo and aquarium collections tend to feature the penguins of the temperate zone - the African penguin and Humboldt's penguins, especially - since these are the species that are the hardiest in warm weather (as a kid, it seriously blew my mind to learn that there were penguins in Africa).  Antarctic penguins, hailing from a frozen land too cold for germs, tend to sicken and decline when kept in warm weather; zoos that do keep these species generally house them in special climate controlled environments.

Like pretty much every other species on earth except for man and his ecological associates, the penguins of the world are in decline.  Their food sources are being fished out to dangerously low levels, leaving penguins unable to feed their young.  Their nest sites are being destroyed by guano harvesters, who use the birds' droppings for fertilizer.  Climate change threatens to drastically change their marine food chains.  Oil spills ruin their feathers.  Floating trash strangles and suffocates them.

A lot of people don't realize it, but the bird that first received the name "penguin" wasn't, in fact, a penguin.  It was the great auk, a giant flightless alcid (puffin-relative) from the North Atlantic.  You'll never see a great auk at the zoo, though - the last one was strangled to death in 1844, the egg is was incubating smashed underfoot.  When Europeans encountered other black-and-white, flightless sea birds in the southern oceans, they passed the name down to the "new" penguins.

Penguins inherited their name from the great auk.  Hopefully they won't share its fate.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Zoo Joke: Joe's Zoo

So I'm fresh out of zoo jokes - clean ones, anyway - apart from some one-liners.  I found this on YouTube, though, and figured I'd share it (I claim no responsibility for quality of said joke).

I had a substitute teacher in High School who never did much actual "teaching."  Instead, when he would cover our classes, he would spend half the time telling long, elaborate, overly complicated jokes, full of all sorts of details that we would have to remember.  Then, in the last thirty seconds of class, he would suddenly wrap it up and get to the punch-line, which was invariably really corny.  Kind of reminds me of this guy's joke.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Amphibian Ark

Let’s play a game.  Close your eyes and rattle off the names of the first five endangered species that you think of.  Let me guess – elephant, rhino, panda, gorilla, and tiger?  Don’t try telling me that you didn’t name at least two or three of those.  In the media, in pop culture, and, yes, in the zoo, it’s the big charismatic mammals that attract the most attention.  Which is frightening, in a sense, because it means that fewer and fewer people are paying attention to one of the most important conservation crises in the world: the great amphibian extinction.

Nearly a third of all amphibian species known to science are threatened with extinction… and that’s not even counting the ones about which too little is known to determine their status.  The causes are varied – habitat loss, overexploitation, competition with invasive species, climate change.  As if these threats weren’t daunting enough, there’s also the most sinister threat that amphibians face – Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, the chytrid (pronounced “kit-trid”) fungus, which is infecting and wiping out frog populations around the globe.  Over 160 amphibian species have gone extinct in recent years, and many more are facing severe threats, which extinction in the wild a likely outcome.  Unfortunately, zoos and aquariums are only posed to sustain and save a tiny handful of amphibian species from extinction.

Amphibian Ark is a coalition of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the IUCN, and the Amphibian Survival Alliance.  As its name implies, the Ark recognizes that for many amphibian species, the most straight forward method of protecting the species – safeguarding wild habitats – will not be enough to save these species.  You can use fences and armed guards to protect habitats from hunters and loggers, but how can you stop the spread of a microscopic parasite? 

The Ark’s goal is to create sustainable captive breeding populations of endangered amphibians to ensure that the species are not lost, even if they disappear in the wild (a fate which has already befallen many species, such as the Panamanian golden frog).  Whereas these captive breeding programs are carried out with the support and participation of a European and American zoos, the Ark is unique in its commitment to keep conservation local; their plans involve the establishment of captive breeding colonies in the range countries of the amphibians.  Not only does this keep local communities involved in conservation, it frees up their overseas partners to start working on conserving the next endangered amphibian species, developing expertise and building up the population before handing that species off to its own range country.

I’ve always felt that if zoos really wanted to get serious about conservation, they would focus their collections on where they could do the most practical good.  In that case, each of the larger zoos would have an amphibian house (also ideally a turtle house, devoted to that equally imperiled group of animals).  Conserving golden frogs or Puerto Rican crested toads isn’t as glamorous as breeding rhinos and snow leopards, but it’s just as important (if not more so!) and a heck of a lot cheaper – an entire species of frog, toad, salamander, or caecilian can be maintained in less space than it takes to maintain a single individual big cat or bear. 

Captive propagation through the Amphibian Ark is only part of the solution towards saving endangered amphibians.  Some species have already been successfully reintroduced into the wild, or are undergoing reintroduction efforts.  Others face far grimmer circumstances – it remains to be seen how or even if animals can be returned to habitats infested with chytrid fungus.  For some species, the Amphibian Ark might seem like an Ark with no Ararat.  Nevertheless, as long as these species survive – even if only in captivity – we have future options. Once they are gone, they are gone…

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Zoo History: Jumbo

“The elephant destined to become the most famous animal in the world was captured as a youngster, probably in Ethiopia in 1861, sold to a Bavarian animal dealer, sold again to the menagerie at the Jardin des Plantes in Paris, then exchanged for an Indian rhinoceros and shipped to the London Zoo, where he arrived on 26 June 1865, half-starved, incredibly filthy, and covered with sore.  

His name was Jumbo…”

~ David Hancocks, A Different Nature: The Paradoxical World of Zoos and Their Uncertain Future

Thus began the life of perhaps the most famous elephant to ever walk the face of the Earth.  Jumbo was perhaps the first zoo celebrity.  Famed for his massive size (even for an elephant) Jumbo stood 11 feet six inches tall at the shoulder.  His tremendous growth was fueled by a ravenous appetite: his keepers fed him 200 pounds of hay, bushels of oats and yams, over a dozen loaves of bread, and several buckets of apples, oranges, onions, and figs every day, washed down with swigs of whiskey and water.  The great pachyderm earned his keep, in part, by carting small children around on his broad back.  Jumbo would have been a big boy by any standards, but to a nation that was just becoming acquainted with elephant, he must have been a true behemoth.

Managing a bull elephant is a challenge even in the modern zoo setting, so in Victorian England one can only imagine the problems Jumbo could pose.  Little was known of elephant biology back then, so when Jumbo began showing what his keepers described as “fits of insanity”, the zoo became alarmed.  Traditionally, it was assumed that these rages were musth, the sexual rut that turns normally placid bull elephants into sex-crazed smash monsters.  Later examination of Jumbo’s remains revealed that they were likely caused by impacted molars, the result on his improper diet.  At any rate, all the keepers of the London Zoo knew was that Jumbo was scary when he was mad.  And he was getting mad more and more often…

Jumbo and his keeper Matthew (sometimes listed as Michael) Scott at the London Zoo

When American showman P.T. Barnum offered to take the problematic pachyderm off of London’s hands for $10,000, the zoo thought it’s problems were solved.  In reality, they were just beginning.
All of England was outraged.  Everyone, from school children to members of Parliament, decried the sale and fought tooth and nail to keep Jumbo in London.  Barnum was not swayed.  “Fifty millions of American citizens anxiously awaiting Jumbo’s arrival!” he declared in the face of the pleas of British citizens.  The deal was done.  No one, however, had explained it to Jumbo.  The elephant refused to go.

It’s hard enough to move an elephant these days when it doesn’t want to move.  Imagine doing it without modern technology on your side to even the odds!  After several days of trying to coax and cajole Jumbo into his shipping crate, the cause was suspected.  Matthew Scott, Jumbo’s keeper, was said to be giving his charge secret hand signs to stay put.   The only keeper who could manage Jumbo in his rages, Scott had a lot to lose if Jumbo left for America, as he profited heavily off of the elephant rides that he presided over.  This in turn had made Scott unpopular with the zoo administrators, and it is likely that, without Jumbo, they might have decided that they didn’t need him any longer.  A suspicious Barnum decided to offer Scott a job with him in America.  Coincidentally, Jumbo immediately decided to enter his shipping crate and sail for America.

Jumbo was everything that was promised in America, and he became the star of Barnum’s circus, traveling about the country in his own private rail car.  His newfound success was short-lived, however; on September 15th, 1885, a runaway train in Ontario struck Jumbo.  The elephant was big, but the train as bigger.  

Barnum was as quick to profit off the elephant in death as he was in life, selling the bones and the heart and mounting the skin, stuffing it so much that its height was increased by a foot.  He touted the story of how Jumbo had died, supposedly saving the life of his beloved elephant traveling companion by leaping in front of the train.
Jumbo's body being prepared at Ward's Natural Science.  The famed taxidermist Carl Akley, then an apprentice at Ward's, worked on stuffing the body.

Jumbo never sired any children, but his legacy lives on in his name.  You see, he wasn’t named after the word “Jumbo”, meaning “big” – the synonym for big comes from his name.  Every time we speak of jumbo jets or watch the jumbotron at a sporting event, we pay unwitting tribute to the magnificent African elephant that captivated two nations and became a legend in his own time.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

From the News: Audubon and San Diego Zoo begin animal breeding center in Algiers

Okay, initial confession - when I first saw this article title, I totally thought "Algiers" as in Algiers, Algeria, maybe for breeding addax, oryx, and other endangered Sahelo-Saharan antelope.  I thought, "Wow, I never really thought that conservation breeding was that big of a thing in Algeria, but who knew?"  Plenty of zoos in Africa, after all.  Then I actually got around to reading the article.  My bad...

The site of the newest conservation breeding facility?  Maybe next time...

Few resources are as precious to the modern zoo as "space."  That is the one of the key factors in determining what species zoos will focus on caring for - do you have enough room for enough animals?  Keeping healthy, genetically viable populations means having the space for all the animals needed; a typical breeding program may require a population of 200 or more animals to achieve stability.  For many species - particularly antelope and other hoofed mammals, which tend to require lots of space with large groups - there simply isn't enough room in conventional zoos.  This has led the AZA to create a network of breeding facilities dubbed the C2S2, or "Conservation Centers for Species Survival."  These include the San Diego Global Safari Park (formally San Diego Wild Animal Park), The Wilds in Ohio, White Oak Conservation in Florida, Fossil Rim in Texas, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Front Royal, VA (affiliated with the National Zoo).

This month, ground was broken on a new facility in Louisiana, this one under the leadership of the Audubon Zoo and the San Diego Zoo.

Some of these facilities are open to the public - The Wilds, San Diego, and Fossil Rim - while others (including the planned Louisiana facility) are not.  That isn't there primary goal.  Instead, it is to provide designated space for species to reproduce in sufficient numbers to bolster zoo populations and make captive populations sustainable.  Privacy helps - while some species of zoo animals breed readily in seemingly any environment (I'm pretty sure I could lock two lions in my spare room and have cubs within a few months), others require a calmer, quieter environment, away from the public eye.

Hopefully more of these institutions will develop over the years.  Having several C2S2 facilities reduces the likelihood of a disease or other catastrophe (this one is in Louisiana, so let's just say it - HURRICANES!) wiping out a captive population.  The more space, the more species can be saved, and that's the best news possible, both for the zoo and aquarium profession and for, well, everybody.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

How Much for that Rhino in the Window?

"I do not understand what it is that drives a man, or woman, to pick up a rifle and shoot an elephant, or a lion, or a leopard, or a kudu, for sport... But whatever one thinks about hunters and hunting should not cloud a judgement about whether they can be good for conservation."

- Raymond Bonner, At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa's Wildlife

Dallas Safari Club auctioning black rhino hunting permit

Tonight - as I type this, in fact - someone is planning to kill a rhino.  Actually, I suspect that pretty much all of the time there is someone, somewhere, planning to kill a rhino, but this one is different.  This isn't taking place in a poacher's camp site, or in the shadowy lair of some organized crime boss.  This is happening publicly and - chillingly to some - proudly, right here in the USA.  Dallas, Texas, so be precise. It's the reason why that will surprise many.

Rhinos are one of the poster-children of the ongoing extinction crisis, with all five species threatened to varying degrees.  Two of the Asian species - the Sumatran and the Javan - are among the most endangered mammals on the planet, with Africa's black rhino not that far behind.  Saving rhinos is a priority for many conservationists, but it's an expensive one.  Setting up protected areas isn't enough, as poachers have shown a complete willingness to track the last rhinos down anywhere.  Guards need to be hired, trained, and armed.  Populations need to be monitored constantly.  Nor is saving rhinos "safe", as many park rangers and wardens have been killed defending their charges.

The southwest African nation of Namibia, home to about a third of the world's wild black rhinos, came up with a controversial solution to raise some cash for rhino conservation.  Through the Dallas Safari Club, it is auctioning off the rights to hunt one of its rhinos - an aged bull, deemed surplus to the population, who could be culled without harming the species at large.  That doesn't change the fact, however, that a critically endangered rhino is going to die, which doesn't sit well with many conservationists.

I've got mixed feelings about the hunt.  I can accept the science behind it - an elderly male, outcompeted by younger bulls, won't be breeding anyway, and it's probably bound to die before too much longer anyway (how do they guarantee that they shoot the right rhino, though?  I'd hate to go, "Oops, my bad, that was actually a pregnant female... do over?").  DSC is hoping to raise anywhere from a quarter-million to a million US on his hunt, which can do a lot of good for rhino conservation.  And I'd hate to understate the important role that hunters have played in the conservation of wildlife around the world (which is only fair, since some of it they did drive to extinction in the first place...)

At the same time, I've never been too comfortable with trophy hunters - and not just because it's a rhino.  That being said, I've had the chance to watch black rhinos in the wild on two occasions and seen them countless times in zoos (including at the Dallas Zoo, not far from where this auction is taking place).  I've also cared for white rhinos, and had the chance to hand feed and stroke Indian rhinos.  They really are magical animals (metaphorically - nothing I repeat NOTHING to do with the horn!), and the thought of putting a bullet in one for fun doesn't sit well with me.  Also, I worry about the message it will send to local Africans. "No, silly, these animals aren't for you to shoot... they're for rich (presumably white American) people to shoot... now, if I catch you in this park again, we're pumping you full of lead!"

I understand that it's easy for armchair animal lovers in Europe and North America to bemoan the upcoming death of this majestic animal (though I do have fingers crossed that some billionaire will swoop down, win the auction, and then shred the permit).  It's the government of Namibia, along with other African and Asian countries, that ultimately will decide the fate of the rhinos in their lands.  I hope that they find a better way.

Until then, I hope that they put the money - however much it is - earned from this hunt to good use, and that it goes some way towards saving the species.  They owe the black rhino that much...

Friday, January 10, 2014

Zoo Review: Salisbury Zoo

Last month I took a break from the big zoos and aquariums to profile a smaller one.  Here's another.

Separated from the rest of the state by the Chesapeake Bay, the Eastern Shore of Maryland is like a state in itself.  The hustle and bustle of Baltimore and the DC suburbs are replaced with small towns, meandering rivers, and open agricultural lands.  This unique character is also reflected in the region's only zoo, located in the peninsula’s largest city.  One of the few remaining zoos that does not charge admission, the Salisbury Zoo displays a small but impressive collection of North and South American wildlife.

Located in a wooded park along a tributary of the Wicomico River, the Salisbury Zoo takes full advantage of its natural surroundings.  The zoo’s most attractive exhibits are the ones in which the local woods and waters are incorporated into the displays.   A pier takes visitors out over the water, where pelicans and swans mingle with free-ranging wild birds.  The exhibits of white-tailed deer, wild turkeys, and critically endangered red wolves are simply fenced in stretches of forest; how often do zoos get the chance to show their animals in their actual native habitat?  In what I considered to be the most beautiful exhibit, sandhill cranes wade through the shallows of the creek, ducking in and out of view behind the brush. 

Speaking of “ducks…”

I think it must be listed in the charter of the zoo, somewhere, that ducks must be placed in every enclosure, including any mixed-species exhibit where they won’t get eaten.   For such a small zoo, I counted nearly two dozen species of duck, goose, and swan, from little ruddy ducks dipping and diving in their pools to comical Orinoco geese to elegant black-necked swans.  I later learned that Salisbury is also home to a museum completely devoted to duck decoy carving, so I guess the zoo staff aren’t the only ones really, really into ducks.  Not judging – a little specialization never hurt anyone…

If ducks aren’t your thing, fear not – the zoo has a lot of non-waterfowl residents, including such perennial favorites as spider monkeys, alligators, flamingos, and bison.  Large carnivores are represented by red wolves (part of a display of native Eastern Shore wildlife), jaguars, and the Andean bears for which the zoo is perhaps best known (one female, recently deceased, earned local celebrity status as the oldest known Andean bear in the world, nearly 38 years old!). 

There are a lot of mixed-species exhibits (many involving ducks), which make for some very dynamic, interesting sights.  In one exhibit, cotton-top tamarins share an enclosure with agoutis and various South American ducks.  In another, beavers, turtles, owls, herons, and – you guessed it – more ducks share a wetland display.  Capybara, rhea, and guanaco roam another exhibit, while macaws screech from their perches in the middle of the yard.  In what was perhaps the most surprising mixed species exhibit that I’ve ever seen, herons and egrets flitted around basking alligators, sometimes perching within a foot of the giant reptiles (I did hear a lot of visitors wondering if the birds were actually gator food...).

If I had to offer one critique of the Salisbury Zoo, it would be that it lacked a certain cohesion.  Exhibits are arranged seemingly at random along meandering paths – some of the exhibits, such as the coatis, ocelots, and tamarins, I’m sure I would have missed if I hadn’t bumped into a zoo employee who mentioned them.  Apart from the native wildlife – beavers, otters, deer, wolves, eagles – located on the Delmarva Trail (“Delmarva” = Delaware + Maryland + Virginia, the name of the peninsula) and a Tropics Trail rainforest loop (featuring sloths, flamingos, and various birds), there are no grouped exhibit areas, no themes, no unified educational message.  The abundance of waterfowl, also, appears to be counterbalanced by an almost complete lack of reptiles and amphibians (alligators, iguanas, and a few turtles/tortoises are all I saw) – there is no reptile house, or any indoor exhibit areas, for that matter.  Being free of admission, the zoo is often used by residents as a nice place for a jog or stroll, taking in the sights of a few animals along the way.  It could be much more, though.  While most of the exhibits were very nice, there were one or two which look like they could stand to be replaced (bear and jaguar), but show me a zoo that doesn’t have an old exhibit or two.

As it is now, Salisbury is a beautiful small zoo with a lot of potential. The zoo’s collection is focused towards the Americas (which makes sense for a small zoo without the space for elephants, giraffes, rhinos, and other huge African and Asian mammals).  A new exhibit of red-necked wallabies, however, is announced as the start of a new Australian area, which will open in stages over the next few years.  It will be interesting to watch the Salisbury Zoo grow and develop in the years to come.  

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Species Fact Profile: Addax (Addax nasomaculatus)

Addax nasomaculatus (Blainville, 1816)

Range:  North Central Africa (Historic Range North Africa)
Habitat: Desert, Semi-Desert
Diet:  Grasses, Leaves
Social Grouping: Male-led herds of 5-20 animals
Reproduction:  Breed year round, one calf born after 257-264 day gestation period, calves weaned at 23-39 weeks, males are sexually mature at 2 years, females by 3 years
Lifespan: 25 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Critically Endangered, CITES Appendix I


  • Body length 1.5-1.7 meters, shoulder height 0.95-1.2 meters, weight 60-125 kilograms (males are slightly larger than females); both sexes have spiral horns about 75 centimeters long
  • The hooves are wide with flat soles to help the addax walk on loose sands
  • The short, glossy coat is sandy or white in the summer, darkening in the winter; there is a black tuft of fur on the forehead, a white X-shaped marking on the face, and a scraggly beard of long hair on the throat
  • Addax differ from the closely-related oryxes through their large, square teeth (more like cattle) and by their lacking facial glands
  • Most active at night, they will often dig "beds" in sand under boulders or bushes; they spend most of their lives without access to water, receiving their moisture from the plants in their diet
  • Males establish territories and try to keep fertile females within the boundaries of those territories
  • Addax cannot achieve a very high running speed, and cannot maintain it for long; they tire quickly and will die of exhaustion if they are chased for too long, which has made them very vulnerable to human hunters in jeeps (their natural predators are lions, leopards, and hyenas)
  • Traditionally migratory, they once formed aggregations of over 1,000 animals; the population now stands at fewer than 500 animals in the wild, due to desertification and hunting
  • Kept as a semi-domesticated animal by the ancient Egyptians around 2500 BC, based on evidence of tomb carvings
  • There are possible efforts to reintroduce the species into the wild using the large captive population (it is commonly kept as a game animal in hunting ranches in the United States)

Monday, January 6, 2014

Book Review: Condor: To the Brink and Back - the Life and Times of One Giant Bird

[He] was furious and terrified, and with good reason: in a matter of hours, his colossal range had shrunk to four hundred square feet… Giant wings and telescopic eyes were not going to do him any good in here.  On the other hand, [he] was alive, which is more than you could say for many of the condors he’d grown up with.”

You would have had to have been one hell of an optimist, back in the 1980s, to say that the California condor had much hope for survival.  North America’s largest bird was described as having “one wing in the grave” – between the hunters and the habitat loss, the electrocutions and the poisonings, the condor seemed to be on a collision course with extinction.  So dire was its outlook that many conservationists were ready to write the bird off as a martyr to the cause.  When a bold plan to save the condor was announced – to capture every known bird and bring them into captivity in a last-ditch effort to breed the birds back from the edge of extinction – the naysayers were furious.  Better, they felt, to let the condor go extinct in the wild as a free bird, to face “death with dignity.”

The giant vulture did not, of course, go extinct – it was saved through captive breeding programs housed at the Los Angeles Zoo and San Diego Wild Animal Park.  Eventually, enough birds were produced that reintroduction could be attempted.  Today, there are free-flying condors in the skies of not only California but Arizona as well, with more releases being contemplated. The population is still heavily monitored and requires constant logistical support (i.e.: rehabilitation of injured or sick birds), but it’s in far better shape that it was when the birds were in the low double digits.  Together with the sagas of the red wolf and the black-footed ferret, the story of the California condor is one of the most inspiring conservation tales of the 20th century.  It’s been so successful that many Americans have taken it for granted, having virtually forgotten both the crisis and the bird.

Fortunately, NPR environmental correspondent John Nielsen is happy to remind everyone about how close we came to losing one of our world’s most majestic birds.  In Condor: To the Brink and Back, the Life and Times of One Giant Bird, Nielsen paints an extraordinarily detailed portrait of the condor.  He (briefly) describes its ecology and natural history, showing it in a context that no longer exists.  He describes how the bird was brought to near extinction through a variety of factors, from museum hunters and egg collectors to gold miners and developers.  Most excitingly, he describes the bitter struggles that broke out as different conservationists and bird lovers fought over how best to save the condor from extinction.  It serves as a reminder that, while everyone involved may have the interests of the animal at heart, not everyone’s plan of action will result in a happy ending.

Unlike some conservation stories of the past – such as the return of the American bison – much of the condor story plays out in very recent years, which means that Nielsen is able to interview many of the key players in the story.  He introduces us to the biologists who monitored and trapped the last remaining wild birds, the zookeepers who cared for them, and the officials who faced the sometimes difficult task of drumming local support for the birds in the places where they were to be introduced (one of the chapters that I found most interesting details a hostile town hall meeting where the local people view the condors as evidence of a federal government takeover).  Nielsen is able to interview people of divergent viewpoints and let them speak for themselves, asking the reader to decide where his or her own feelings and sympathies lie.

Conservation tends to be a rather gloom and doom profession.  Every time we turn around, this species is in decline and that habitat is disappearing and we’re all going to die.  Every once in a while, however, we get a win.  Not a perfect win, in this case – the California condor will probably always require considerable monitoring and support to survive in the wild.  Still, a world with condors is certainly better than one without, in my opinion.  John Nielsen’s Condor shows us what we nearly lost, and helps us celebrate that which we saved.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Aquarists Wanted

In a recent blog post, I expressed some zoo-related New Year's Resolutions for 2014.  I've also made some concerning the blog itself (sorry I've barely posted the last few days - Holiday festivities and all...).  Foremost among them, I would like this blog to a be a bit more representative of the other half of the zoo profession: aquariums.

Outside of a brief stint as a volunteer at the now-closed DC aquarium, I know relatively little about what goes on in aquariums.  I've been to plenty, and written reviews of a few, but unlike my zoo reviews, these have all been layman's visits.  I haven't written any fact sheets about fish or aquatic invertebrates (or any invertebrates, for that matter).  This is unfortunate, as there are a lot of exciting issues surrounding aquariums - separate from those of traditional zoos - which I just haven't felt competent or informed enough to write about.  The nearest I've gotten is hosting a guest editorial or two about orcas in captivity, which doesn't really apply to 99% of the aquariums in the world.

See? I have no idea what this is... in my computer, it's just listed as "White Fish"... this is why I need help.

SO - if you are an aquarium keeper or someone with a lot of interest in the wet zoos, and you're reading this, I'd love to have some help.  Maybe an article or two?  Consider it an opportunity to spread the word about your profession and passion, and help make it known to others.  Interested?  Then shoot me a message at Thanks in advance!

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Thursday, January 2, 2014

From the News: Denver Zoo sponsors global research and conservation projects

After recent tirades, I just wanted to start the year off right by sharing a story in the news about a zoo doing its part for wildlife conservation around the world.  I doubt many people could find Mongolia on a map (even if it is a very big country, it's one that's rarely in the news).  Few zoos display animals from Mongolia, and most of the "sexy" conservation projects are in the rainforests, Arctic, or African plains.

I would love to see every accredited zoo make a commitment to sponsoring at least one patch of habitat around the world, together covering wildlands on every continent, ideally in every country.  Exhibits could focus on the wildlife, landscape, and culture of those regions, and funds could be raised that would directly support conservation and research in those areas.  Think of the difference that could make!