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Thursday, February 27, 2014

Zoo Joke: Snake Bite

Disclaimer: This is a joke.  It is meant to be taken as a joke.  It is not an accurate description of how to handle a venomous snake bite.  I may write a serious post about venomous snake bite at some point, but this is not it.  Just in case anyone reading this is actually dumb enough to check this blog for help during a medical emergency, you may consider yourself both warned and fully chastised.  

Two zookeepers are working in the Reptile House.  One of them opens up an exhibit door (without looking carefully first!) and is bitten directly in between the legs by an angry king cobra.  Panicking, his colleague rushes to the curator's office to ask for instructions.

"You're in luck," the curator said upon hearing the news.  "This isn't the first time that this has happened here, and we've worked out our protocol so it's foolproof.  Are you ready?"

"Yes!"  exclaimed the zookeeper, "Just tell me what I need to do to save him!"

"Ok, first thing you have to do is have him show you the bitten area," the curator explained.  "Then, get a sharp knife and make an incision over the bite.  Then, you need to put your mouth on it - forming a tight seal - and suck all the venom out and spit it out.  Make sure you don't have any cuts in your own mouth first, otherwise the venom will get into your blood and you'll die."

"Oh... and that's, um, that's the only way to save him?"

"The only way," confirmed the curator, sagely.

The keeper mumbled a "thank you", and then returned to his bitten colleague.

"What did he say, what did he say?!?" asked the bitten keeper, shaking with fear.

"I'm sorry, man," said his friend, patting him on the back.  "He said you're probably going to die..."

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Six Tips for Enjoying Your Zoo or Aquarium Visit

Snow is falling outside my window as I write this, but the coldest of winter seems to have passed.  The day after tomorrow is the last day of February, and then it will be March.  Spring is almost here.  And with Spring, the zoo comes to life.  Sure, the keepers have been there all winter, as have the animals, but without the visitors, the place is like a ghost town.

Millions of Americans flock to zoos and aquariums every year.  I assume that they have a good time, otherwise they probably wouldn’t keep coming back, and most of those that I talk to see to be enjoying themselves.  That being said, it’s not uncommon to come across cranky visitors, upset for a number of reasons.  And so, in anticipation of the onset of the busy season, I’ve come up with the following –

Six Tips for Enjoying Your Zoo or Aquarium Visit

Visitors admire a giraffe at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago

1.)    Choose Your Zoo Wisely

You heard it here first: NOT ALL ZOOS ARE CREATED EQUAL.  Some are big – so big that it would take days to explore them thoroughly, and visitors could get lost and starve to death in them.  Others are tiny hour-long strolls.  Some are very interactive, with lots of opportunities for petting or feeding, others are “look-don’t-touch.”  Most importantly, some take excellent care of their animals, others… less so. 

Think about what kind of day you want to have at the zoo and pick your zoo accordingly.  If you are one parent bringing six or seven young children, a full day of trekking around a two-hundred acre zoo with thousands of animals might be too overwhelming.  If you want to pet or feed animals, choose a zoo that allows that option.  Above all, do your homework and support a zoo that contributes to conservation and education while providing the best animal care possible. 

If you’re in the US, any zoo accredited by the AZA will be fine on this last point.  If a zoo is non-accredited, that doesn’t mean it’s a bad place or not worth visiting – I’ve been to some great non-AZA zoos.  Just check first.

2.)    Weather or Not

A lot of your enjoyment will come down to the weather and the time of year.  Sounds easy, just don’t go to the zoo in the dead of winter or when it’s raining, right?  Not so simple… A day with a light rain, or a cooler, overcast day might be the best possible day to go to the zoo.  Also, come early in the day, or later in the afternoon.  That’s when animals are often the most active, both in the zoo and the wild.

When is the worst time to go to the zoo?  The middle of a hot summer day when the temperature is in the triple digits and your sweat is boiling off of your skin, which is ironically when most people decide to go to the zoo.  Not only will you get sunburn, sunstroke, and a massive headache, you probably won’t see much of anything… AND you’ll still have to face giant crowds also competing to see nothing  When I studied abroad in Africa, we never even bothered looking for wildlife in the midday sun – we just sat around camp, lazed in the shade (much like the animals did) , and waited for the temperature to drop.

If a zoo has a lot of indoor exhibits – as many of the northern zoos do, having to shelter their animals from the long winters – winter may be the best time to go.  The same with aquariums – sure, the animals there are inside all year anyway, but there are typically fewer visitors then.

Inside the World of Birds display at the Bronx Zoo, it's always tropical, even in the middle of winter

3.)    Be Prepared

This one is really basic: especially if you are going to a zoo (and a big one especially), PLAN for it.  Wear comfortable shoes, clothes suited to the weather (layers are best – you can take them off or add them as need be), and a hat, sunscreen, and sunglasses if the weather so dictates.  Make sure your camera is charged; binoculars might be a good idea also, depending on the zoo.

Most zoos and aquariums sell food.  Pack yourself a lunch or snacks, if you’d rather save some cash; some zoos don’t allow food to brought in from the outside but have picnic areas outside, and most don’t allow food in animal buildings.  Feeding your personal snacks to the animals is never okay (no matter how much they beg).

Do some homework before you go to the zoo or aquarium to help get the most out of your day.  Ask yourself and your group what people want to see the most and plan accordingly.  If you have a group member who just loves seals and sea lions, try to find out if there is a feeding or training demo, and try to catch it.

Sea Lion training demonstration at the National Zoo

4.)    Speak Up!

If for any reason you are having a problem – you see something that looks wrong (like an animal that appears to be hurt or sick) or you have a question that is impacting the quality of your visit – ask someone! 

Right now, I take care of several animals that have “special issues” that we are aware of, and really aren’t that bad, but can look concerning to visitors.  I’d rather have a hundred visitors a day ask me if one of the monkeys is okay or not rather than have a single visitor see something wrong and not let me know.  Not only will you feel better knowing that either a) everything is okay or b) you have done your part to make it better, you might learn something as well!

Likewise, if there is something else you need – directions to a favorite animal, help finding bathrooms (you’d be amazed at how many people I’ve seen peeing in bushes in zoos around the country over the years) – ask an employee.  We actually do want you to have a good visit!

5.)    Follow the Rules

Seriously, we zoo-keeping folks are nice guys, really!  We just really, really hate it when people do stupid things, which they seem to do with great regularity.  I’m talking about hopping fences, banging on glass, poking animals with sticks, and tossing popcorn to the monkeys.

No one has ever had their zoo or aquarium visit improved by being yelled at by a zookeeper or other employee and humiliated in front of everyone else.  Likewise, no one enjoys being thrown out on their ear for failure to obey the rules.  Just don’t do it…  That brings me to the last rule, and the one I consider most important:

6.)    R-E-S-P-E-C-T!

      Show some respect to the animals.  If you go to the zoo expecting to see a lot of pet performers who want nothing more to oblige your every whim, you will be disappointed.  Animals will sleep when you want them to do something cutesy.  Animals will opt to stay in their off-exhibit housing.  Animals will hide from you, or not sit still for a good picture, or other such things. 

That’s because they are animals – living things with feelings.  If you expect them to be there to do what you want, you’ll get frustrated or upset, which will lead you to have a bad day, and possibly do something stupid (see #5).  If you treat a visit to the zoo as a chance to spend a day in the presence of exciting, wonderful animals that you otherwise wouldn’t share your day with, you’ll enjoy it, no matter what.

Just remember: you are a paying (if it’s not a free zoo) visitor, but you are still just that – a VISITOR.  The animals that you encounter at the zoo or aquarium live there.  It is their home.  Treat them with the courtesy that that entails.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

From the News: Sabah rhinos headed for US Zoo

These days, very few of the African and Asian mammals in zoos actually start their lives in Africa or Asia.  Most are produced by captive breeding programs.   When they are taken from the wild, it is usually for some unusual circumstance - an endangered species found orphaned, or confiscated from poachers and deemed unsuitable for release into the wild, or new bloodlines being desperately sought for a population.  What is happening now in Sabah is pretty unusual.

The Sumatran rhinoceros is one of the world's most endangered animals, making the white, black, and Indian rhinos seem downright common (the Javan rhino is even rarer still).  Unlike the three aformentioned species, there are also very few Sumatran (and no Javan) rhinos in captivity - at this time, Cincinnati Zoo is the only zoo in the world to display them.  Cincinnati is also the only zoo that has successfully bred this species in well over a century.  Therefore, (not surprisingly), it is to Cincinnati that the Sabah rhinos will go.

I'll finish this off by admitting a slight selfish bias - when I saw the headline, part of me hoped that the Sumatran rhinos mentioned would be heading somewhere out East - Bronx, National, Philadelphia - that would allow me to see them a little more easily.  Oh well... Cincinnati earned them.  Guess a road trip it is...

Hopefully, Cincinnati will be able to repeat their past successes and produce more Sumatran rhinos.  As more is learned about the needs of this species in captivity, maybe more rhinos can be sent to international zoos, and a sustainable captive population can be created as insurance for the wild one.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Zootopia: New Habitats Bring Wonder

This isn't quite a "From the News", or is it a guest editorial... it's just something someone passed along to me that I thought looked pretty cool.  Rotating exhibits are one of the hot new trends in zoo design, best highlighted by The Islands display at Louisville, which pioneered the method.

Of course, if you're going to have animals switch enclosures, the big question is "How do you get them from Point A to Point B?"  (Actually, that's probably the second big question - the big one is "Am I POSITIVE that I have all of the gazelles shifted out before I let the cheetahs over?").

Also, anytime I see one of those elevated walkways with primates, cats, or other animals traveling overhead, I wonder how likely it is that someone traveling beneath will get pooped or peed on.

Anyway, enjoy!

Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Wildlife Warrior

"I believe that education is all about being excited about something.  Seeing passion and enthuasiam helps push an educational message."


-Steve Irwin

I remember very well the day that Steve Irwin died.  I was in college still, back in 2006.  I had just woken up, my laptop was warming up, and the internet was loading while I went off to brush my teeth.  When I came back into the room, the toothbrush almost dropped from my open mouth.  The front page news announced the Steve Irwin, known to millions as “The Crocodile Hunter” had died. 

Had Irwin lived, today would have been his 52nd birthday.

Steve Irwin was one of my idols growing up.  It’s not that he made wildlife cool – wildlife is always cool – as much as he made it cool to be excited about it.  Specifically, he helped shine focus on the unloved, unappreciated animals – the snakes and sharks and spiders and, above all, the crocodiles.  He brought overflowing enthusiasm with him in every episode, treating every animal that he encountered as if it was the most awesome thing he had ever seen in his life, and acting like there was no one on earth he wanted to share it with as much as he did with you.    

Irwin wasn’t without his detractors.  At the time when he first exploded onto the scene via Animal Planet, I was volunteering at the Reptile House of my city zoo.  The keepers there detested Irwin.  They considered him reckless, his onscreen persona arrogant, and his attitude towards wildlife disrespectful (“Hey, I’m just going to grab this highly venomous snake and see what happens!”).  They felt that he encouraged his viewers to treat wild animals in a cavalier manner, like toys or props rather than living things.  They may have had a point.  I remember the first time when, alone in the back of the Reptile House, I caught myself doing a Steve Irwin impression with a carpet python.  The snake promptly bit me in the arm. 

Keeping that in mind, I think the problem that many zookeepers had with Steve Irwin is that they secretly wanted to be him.

I wouldn’t consider Steve Irwin a paragon for how to handle animals, or how best to interact with them, though he was obviously skilled at both (evidence: he survived for as long as he did).  I’m sure I wasn’t the only dumb kid (or adult) who got themselves hurt while imitating him.  I would, however, say that the good that he did far outweighed any negative side-effects of his bravado. 

 Looking back on him, I don’t think of the eye-rolls or head-shakes as he lunged on the back of a saltwater crocodile, plunging underwater in yet another life-and-death struggle.  I remember all of the herpetologists and reptile keepers I know who were inspired by Irwin, Jeff Corwin, and other wildlife hosts.  I remember him turning Australia’s reptiles from something to be feared, something that tourism agencies prayed that no one would notice, to proud symbols of the country.  I remember flipping to the bibliography of some of my favorite reptile books and seeing several scientific papers listed under his name and the groundbreaking accomplishments of his Australia Zoo, furthering our understanding of many species.  I remember seeing a species – one I’d never even heard of before - on his show, nestled in his arms, and thinking that that animal was the coolest thing ever.

We’ll never know what role Steve Irwin could have played in the conservation struggles that the world now faces.  Though the Crocodile Hunter is no longer with us, his legacy continues – through his wife and children (including his increasingly outspoken daughter Bindi – named for a crocodile, of course), his Australia Zoo team, and the legions of fans who had their views of wildlife  - reptiles especially – shaped by his show.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Species Fact Profile: Mandrill (Mandrillus sphinx)

Mandrillus sphinx (Linnaeus, 1758)

Range: West Central Africa
Habitat: Rainforest, Forest-Savannah Mosaic
Diet: Fruit, Seeds, Fungi, Eggs, Small Animals
Social Grouping: Troops of Hundreds
Reproduction: Harem breeders, breed July through October, usually single birth (twins observed in captivity) after a 6 month gestation period, females mature at 4-8 years, breed every other year
Lifespan: 46 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable, CITES Appendix I

  • The largest monkey in the world, up to 80 centimeters tall and (in rare cases) weighing up to 54 kilograms (males are twice as large as females) - large head, compact body, stubby tail held upright
  • Adult males have very colorful faces: bright red nose, bright blue sides of the muzzle, and yellow beard.  The fur of both sexes is olive green with paler underparts (Darwin wrote "no other member in the whole class of mammals is coloured in so extraordinary a manner as the adult male mandrill")
  • Days are spent foraging on the forest floor, nights in the shelter of trees for safety
  • The populations on the opposite sides of the Ogooue River may be different subspecies
  • Will occasionally take medium-sized vertebrate prey, such as porcupines, tortoises, and small antelope; prey is killed with a bite to the nape of the neck (the canine teeth may measure 6 centimeters long)
  • The leopard is the only major predator of adults, though juveniles may be preyed upon by crowned eagles or rock pythons
  • The social structure consists of bands of up to 40 animals, which congregate into large, stable groups of hundreds; one such congregation contains 1,300 mandrills, making it the largest gathering on nonhuman-primates ever recorded
  • Both captive and wild mandrills have been observed using tools, such as sticks to groom themselves
  • The species has declined due to hunting for the bushmeat trade (the large, noisy troops are easy for hunters to find); they are also threatened by habitat loss

Thursday, February 20, 2014

From the News: Taronga zoo puts down world's only captive leopard seal

Taronga zoo puts down world's only captive leopard seal

Not surprisingly - never having been to Australia or Antarctica - I've never seen a leopard seal.  I have, however, seen plenty of documentary footage of them (including a cameo in March of the Penguins), enough to know that they are, to put it scientifically, pretty bad ass.  Imagine a seal crossed with a crocodile and you get an idea of what we're talking about, one that has been documented taking human life (only one, mind you, but there aren't many people swimming around down there).

Seven years doesn't sound like a terribly long lifespan.  Since leopard seals have only been kept rarely and occasionally in captivity (the seal in question was the only in captivity worldwide, at this time), it's likely that there are basic aspects of their biology and husbandry which we just don't understand.  Not that the good folks at Taronga went out looking for a leopard seal to display - the late Casey was thrust into their lap, injured and near death, and they did the best they could for her (also meaning she was probably never in the best of health to begin with).  She was deemed unfit for release, and the zoo provided a permanent home for her.  Hopefully, the experience that they gained with her will be helpful for the rehabilitation or long-term care of any future injured or sickened leopard seals that wash ashore and need zoo or aquarium care.

Condolences to the folks at Taronga.  Euthanasia is never an easy decision to make, but sometimes it is the necessary one.  They can take pride in the fact that they were able to help such a unique and impressive creature and share it with the world.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Book Review: A Bevy of Beasts/Beasts in My Belfry

“They say that a child who aspires to be an engine driver very rarely grows up to fill that role in life.  If this is so, then I am an exceptionally lucky person, for at the age of two I made up my mind quite firmly and unequivocally that the only thing I wanted to do was study animals.  Nothing else interested me.”

I was in high school when I first stumbled across the name of Gerald Durrell, printed on the spine of a book in the school library.  I plucked it off the shelf, and in many ways I never put it back. 

Durrell has since become one of my favorite authors, a naturalist who wrote with crackling wit and endless humor as he describes – in the course of the thirty-odd books that he wrote - his life with animals.  In My Family and Other Animals, he took his readers back to his childhood in Greek island of Corfu; in The Overloaded Ark, the reader joins him in his first expedition as an animal collector in Cameroon.  It was that first book of his that I’ve always enjoyed the most however.  Its title is A Bevy of Beasts (sometimes sold as Beasts in My Belfry), and it describes a teenaged Durrell fulfilling his lifelong dream, which was the same as mine – becoming a zookeeper.

Having finally pushed the patience of his family (especially his long-suffering brother, the novelist Lawrence Durrell) to the limit with his animal-keeping antics, the young Durrell decides to seek more professional experience working with animals.  He winds up as a keeper at Whipsnade, the Zoological Society of London’s safari park out in the country.   Thrown in with the lions (well, not literally) on his first day, Durrell begins a crash-course in zookeeping under the tutelidge of semi-competent keepers. 

The reader follows Durrell as he moves from section to section during his stay, joining him as he cares for tigers, polar bears, wildebeest, tapirs, and a gentlemanly giraffe who has a goat for a best friend.  Durrell races around the countryside in pursuit of escaped deer, gets nearly trampled by a furious zebra stallion, and barely escapes a mauling from she-bears temporarily robbed of their cubs to help a photographer with his story (for which he is tipped the princely sum of two pounds ten… whatever that is).  Along the way, Durrell shares interesting facts about the animals, both natural, historical, and fictional.  No matter your interests, he has a story for you.

Whipsnade provided the setting in which a young man with an interest in animals began to turn that interest into something more.  His experiences there, along with his adventures as an animal collector in Africa and South America (detailed in many other excellent books), shaped Durrell’s views on zoos and what they could mean in terms of conservation.  Durrell envisioned zoos that devoted themselves wholly to their animals, eschewed giraffes and lions in favor of captive breeding of the most endangered species, and integrated themselves closely with conservation programs in the range countries of those species.  Many of these views were controversial at the time and led to Durrell being shunned by the old guard of the zoo community.  Durrell went on to prove them wrong by starting his own zoo.

A Bevy of Beasts is a highly enjoyable book for anyone interested in animals or zoos.  It would have special meaning, I think, to any young person hoping to take their first tentative steps into the profession.  Much like You Belong In a Zoo!, by Peter Brazaitis, A Bevy of Beasts is the story of a young man – one who no one ever thought would amount to much – setting off to follow their dreams and, in turn, making a tremendous difference for the world’s threatened wildlife.  

A Bevy of Beasts at

Saturday, February 15, 2014

What Happens When Zoo Contraceptives Work Too Well?

In keeping with this week's sort-of theme of breeding at the zoo, I thought I'd share the following article on contraception.  As breeding for more species has become increasingly successful, zoos and aquariums are having to find ways to actually STOP animals - even endangered species - from reproducing at certain times.  It's a relatively new science, however, and as the article shows, there are still challenges to overcome.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Romance at the Zoo

Happy Valentine’s Day! 

It’s that time of year when everyone is expected to start thinking flowers, candy, and – above all – romance!  Unless, of course, you work in a zoo or aquarium.  If you do, everyday is Valentine’s Day, and romance is always in the air! (Along with various unique aromas and the attendant flies)…

It may not seem it at first glance, but zoos are always concerned about romance – at least among their charges.  Romance among the human occupants is something entirely different (maybe more on that in a later post…).  Long gone are the days when zoos filled their collections by placing orders with Frank Buck, Carl Hagenbeck, and other animal dealers.  To be sure, some animals in zoo collections do still come from the wild, but fewer and fewer, especially among the larger mammals.  Part of this is the difficulty in navigating the permit process and international laws.  Part of it is a reflection of the fact that there really isn’t much of a “wild” to pull animals from anymore. 

End result: in many cases, if zoos and aquariums want animals, whether for education programs, exhibition, or future reintroduction programs, they have to breed them.

So, you take a daddy animal and a mommy animal, put them in a cage together, give them a chance to know one another, and boom, you get a baby, right?  The stork (conveniently found in the exhibit next door) pops over with a bundle in its beak.  Not quite…

Come to think of it, who brings the storks' baby?

For some species, captive breeding is extremely easy.  This is true of domestic animals (they wouldn’t be domesticated if they were hard to breed).  To a lesser degree, it’s also true many of the large, popular zoo animals, such as lions, giraffes, and zebras.  I’m pretty sure that I could take a lion and lioness, keep them in the cramped spare room in my apartment, add food and water, and a few months later I’d have cubs.  For prolific species, the concern is overpopulation – if everyone bred all the time and pumped out cute babies for display, we’d quickly have a problem of those cute babies growing up and having nowhere to place them… which leads to tough decisions that we’d all rather avoid.

Other species can prove difficult to breed for a variety of reasons.  The first captive birth of a gorilla occurred in 1956, with Colo at the Columbus Zoo.  That year also saw the first captive birth of cheetahs since the days of the Moghal Empire, when Akbar the Great’s hunting cheetahs produced a litter (and to be fair, he had 1000 cheetahs… someone was bound to give birth).  The Sumatran rhino calf born at the Cincinnati Zoo in 2001 was the first captive birth in well over a century.  But why are these species harder to breed?  A lion is a cat, and a cheetah is a cat… what’s the difference?

If a species isn’t breeding in captivity, it usually means that some essential ingredient is missing from the occasion.  For clouded leopards, it turned out to be privacy.  Most zoos use to house their big cats all together in one building.  Clouded leopards turned out to be easily stressed by the presence of bigger, scarier cats in close quarters and that impaired their breeding.  Given quarters removed from the lions and tigers, with a few other changes (such as taller enclosures – they like to be up high), breeding success improved. 

For flamingos, the opposite proved true.  Flamingos in the wild breed in massive flocks of thousands upon thousands of birds, and it turns out that they are most likely to breed in large congregations.  The more flamingos a zoo has in its flock, the more likely they are to breed, with 40 appearing to be the magic number where success becomes most likely.  Can’t accommodate forty flamingos?  Don’t worry – some zoos have used strategically placed mirrors to trick flamingos into thinking they are part of a bigger flock. 

Tomato frogs take it a step further – scientists at one zoo found that females are stimulated to release eggs by the jarring of several males clambering on top of her, trying to push each other out of the way (if you only have one male, it turns out that you can recreate this affect by holding the male on top of the female and wiggling him vigorously).

In some animals, reproductive success is triggered by changes in their environment.  Many birds base their breeding seasons of changes in day length; for these species, zoos may alter the light cycle with artificial lighting.  For reptiles and amphibians, changes in temperature may be the cue that is missing – many zoos chill their reptiles prior to breeding.

In some species, the female will mate with any eligible suitor.  In some (like cheetahs), she may be choosier, and do best when she has a variety of options.  In some species, males and females stay together year round.  In others, novelty is a turn-on, and the pair should only be brought together for breeding, and then separated again.  Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and all that.

Romance at the zoo isn’t allowed to go rampant and unchecked.  Many species displayed in zoos are part of Species Survival Programs – carefully managed breeding programs where matings are planned out to maximize the genetic health and sustainability of the population.  It sounds better if you try thinking of it as for rhinos and pandas. 

At present time, there are about a dozen species at my zoo that we are attempting to breed.  They range from large carnivores to waterfowl.  Some of them will take care of themselves on their own – all I’ll need to do is keep them fed and happy.  Some might require a little coaxing – putting out nesting material, minimizing disturbances, upping their diets.  Some I’ll have to wait, either for prospective mates to be introduced peaceably (not easy with some species), in others for one partner or the other to come of age.   Any progress will be duly noted, and husbandry and routines will be changed based on the outcomes.  If there are resultant offspring, there will be more changes still.

Keeping track of it all is a job in itself.  No way that we could do it all just on one day in February.  I guess it’s a good thing that for a zookeeper, everyday is Valentine’s Day!

PS:  Want to learn more?  Many zoos host "Sex at the Zoo" (not as naughty as it sounds) programs around this time of year.  Check and see if your local zoo has one!

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Zoo Joke: Talking Monkey

A zookeeper is reading the paper one morning when he spots an ad in the classifieds:

“Monkey, free to good home; comes with cage, perching, toys, and food.  Health certificate provided.”

It looked like a pretty great deal, and the zoo could use another monkey, so he decided to check it out.  He called the number listed and set up a time to go and see the monkey and meet his owner. When he got to the owner’s house, he was taken into the living room, where the monkey sat on its perch.  Before the zookeeper could say a word, the monkey began to talk,

“Please sir, please, whoever you are, take me away from this horrible man!”

“You can talk!” Exclaimed the zookeeper. 

“Indeed I can.  I was the prince of my troop back in Africa, and sent overseas on scholarship.  I studied at the finest universities… Harvard… Oxford… and received top marks, before graduating and traveling the world.  I am an accomplished painter, a recognized actor of stage and screen, and a music virtuoso.  I have performed in front of the kings of three different countries, as well as four Presidents and two Popes.  Then, this awful man came and kidnapped me, and now I just sit here, neglected and unloved.  Oh, won’t you please help me?”

Moved by the monkey’s pleas, the zookeeper agreed to take him.  Soon, he and the owner were loading the monkey’s cage and toys and other equipment into the zookeeper’s truck.

“He seems like a pretty incredible little fellow,” the keeper replied as they carried the cage across the yard.  “Very talented, too.  Why on earth are you just giving him away like this?”

“Because,” sighed the monkey’s former owner, “I can’t stand listening to those lies all day, everyday!”

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

From the News: Species Recovery in the Pacific Northwest

It was with a great dread that I went to search Google News for zoo stories today; I decided to make things easier for myself my omitting the word "giraffe" from the search.  Most of what came up next were the routine notices about births, birthdays, and deaths... and then I saw this:

After all of the bad press lately, it's great to see zoos and aquariums are still carrying on with the important conservation work that they do.  What they need to get better at, however, is sharing those stories with people, including those who might primarily think of a zoo as a place where people go to see animals in boxes.  A zoo - at least a good one - can be so much more than that.

I'm not posting this in the hopes that readers will suddenly decide on a lark to run to Sequoia Park Zoo and attend this lecture.  Instead, I hope it will encourage other zoos and aquariums to speak up more about what it is they do, and why everyone should care.

Among the species to be discussed at the lecture is the spotted owl, which is threatened by habitat loss and competition from/hybridization with the closely related barred owl (above)

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Final Farewell

"No one wants to die.  Even people who want to go to heaven don't want to die to get there.  And yet death is the destination we all share.  No one has ever escaped it... Death... is Life's change agent.  It clears out the old to make way for the new."
~ Steve Jobs

When I was in middle school, my social studies teacher gave our class an assignment.  We were each supposed to pick a controversial topic, outline the varied positions, and explain which one we supported and why.  Some kids chose abortion, some gun control, others the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (I chose public vs private management of endangered species, which was not a topic our teacher had any interest in… that paper did not get an especially good grade).  One boy in our class announced that he was going to do his paper on euthanasia… only I misheard him.  I thought he said “Youth IN Asia”, and wondered what was so controversial about kids in China and India.

It was the first time that I heard the word.  It certainly wasn’t the last.  It seems that every time I had a job interview for a zoo position, I was asked about my feelings on euthanasia.  When the time came for me to sit on the other side of the interview table, I asked it also.

When we discuss euthanasia, we are primarily talking about performing it on animals that are very sick, severely injured, or otherwise suffer from a poor quality of life that is unlikely to be reversed.  Most zoo and aquarium animals will live longer – in some cases, two or three times longer – than their counterparts in the wild.  Predators, starvation, drought, and inclement weather are replaced with a new series of killers – cancer, diabetes, organ failure, and other diseases.   The care of geriatric animals is one of the most rapidly developing fields in zoo animal husbandry, but in the end all animals must die, and in many cases it is through the agency of the zoo’s vet.  The question, most often, is when.

Opinions vary.  At many zoos, keepers privately accuse the vets of being too “needle-happy”, overly quick to suggest the use of euthanasia.  At my first zoo, the keepers dubbed the vet “Dr. Death.”  Some zookeepers (perhaps unable to stand seeing animals in pain or discomfort) are also quick to suggest euthanasia.  I currently work with one keeper who’s ready to put down any animal that so much as walks stiffly (which I find amusing in a morbid sort of way, since this guy can’t go three days without hurting himself.  If he were an animal under his own care, he’d probably have put himself down three times by now).  Other keepers are unwilling to face the realities of their animals’ mortality and try to force them to cling to life long after it should be obvious that the animal is suffering too much.  I don’t agree, but I do understand – a bear doesn’t get to be 35 years old without making some friends.

I’m always reluctant to suggest euthanasia myself.  It’s just so… final.  There have been plenty of times when I’ve looked at an animal and thought, “No way are you still going to be alive in the morning,” only to watch it completely rebound.  After all these years, I’m still reluctant to make the decision without consulting others.

Then there is the other side of euthanasia, the side that few people thought of until quite recently (Ah, I hear some of you say, I was wondering when we were going to get to the giraffe…)

There have been enough pictures of the dead giraffe floating around on the net.  I thought we could all look at some live ones for a change...

Zoos love the analogy of the Ark.  If zoo’s are an ark, however, they are a dangerously overcrowded one, one in which too few of the intended passengers are actually able to make it onboard.  Population management has been a primary concern for many zoo and aquarium professionals lately.  Gone are the days when zoos used to breed freely and unconcernedly, happy just to have babies to bring in the crowds.  Now, there are all sorts of questions that have to be asked:  Where will the offspring grow when they mature?  How related are the parents?  What is the genetic value of the parents – are their genes over-represented in the population? How many offspring are needed for a sustainable population?  These questions, in theory, keep the population healthy and prevent unrestricted growth from causing problems later on.
The problem is, accidents and miscalculations do occur.  You can’t guarantee that all of the breeding pairs you form will actually give birth to offspring (or that all of the offspring will survive), so you have to plan for extras.  But what do you do about a surplus?

I can’t help but think what happened at Copenhagen was avoidable.  I also don’t think this is as black and white as many people would make out.  Could another accredited zoo have been found to take the giraffe?  Animals that are sent to disreputable zoos have a way of turning up places where they shouldn’t – like in the hands of someone who can’t take care of them, or in a canned hunt (or, in the hands of someone who decides to breed even more giraffes).  Release back to the wild isn’t an option.  I don’t know what could have been done, but the giraffe was 18 months old, which makes me wonder if they couldn’t have used those 18 months to find another option.

At the same time, it feels a little hypocritical.  Do we really think that a giraffe values his life more than a cow, sheep, or pig?  One healthy giraffe was sacrificed for the population’s health.  We sacrifice how many animals bred solely for the purpose for our own consumption every day.  Are some animals okay to cull and others not?  Not many people would probably bat an eye at disposing of frog egg masses, or removing/pinning birds’ eggs to keep them from hatching.  What about rodents?  I can’t imagine the outcry if this involved a great ape…

This has been an uneasy thing to see playing out in the news.  I can’t say that I would have made this decision, and I would hate to see this become the norm.  I will say, however, that I think Copenhagen Zoo did the right thing in being very open, honest, and transparent about what they were doing and why (though I am still a little weirded out by all the smiling kids watching the giraffe dissection).  It took a lot of courage, especially in light of the backlash and death threats (which I never condone) that have resulted.

If zoo and aquarium professionals believe that what they are doing is right, they should never fear to share it openly.  Only by bringing things up to the light can honest discussions be had and decisions made.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Species Fact Profile: Alligator Snapping Turtle (Macrochelys temminckii)

Alligator Snapping Turtle
Macrochelys temminckii (Troost, 1835)

Range:  Rivers, Lakes, Swamps
Habitat:  Southeastern United States
Diet:  Fish, Frogs, Snakes, Aquatic Invertebrates, Turtles
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Mates in spring, nest near water edge with 8-50 eggs, incubation 100-140 days, sex determined by incubation temperature (moderate temperatures result in males, extremes result in females), sexually mature at about 12 years of age
Lifespan:  45 Years (Wild), Up to 70 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable, CITES Appendix III

·         One of world’s largest freshwater turtles: up to 80cm long, up to 113kg weight; unverified reports of turtles much larger (up to 180kg) exist
·         Carapace is covered with three pronounced ridges (often has algae growing on it for camouflage); neck, head, and (extremely long) tail covered with tubercles
·         Spend almost all of lives in water (rarely bask), generally only nesting females come on to land
·        Actively forages by night but “sits and waits” by day; the tip of tongue has a small, pink projection resembling a worm, used to lure prey into the turtle’s mouth
·         Good sense of smell, can sense presence of smaller turtles buried in the mud
·         Adults have no natural predators; eggs are vulnerable to raccoons, skunks, and other nest raiders
·         Declined due to over-collection for meat (protection varies from state to state), also threatened by habitat loss and water pollution
·         Some US states outside of the species range prohibit the possession of alligator snapping turtles, fearing they could become an invasive species

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Zoo Review: South Carolina Aquarium

Overlooking beautiful Charleston harbor, the South Carolina Aquarium is one of the nation’s newest public aquariums.  It is easily one of the most gorgeous.  On my first visit, I intended to only spend an hour or so – I had other plans for the day, and knowing that the aquarium (mostly) featured native species, I figured it wouldn’t take too long to give it a once over.  Instead, I spent more than twice as long as I intended, and was only left when I absolutely had to for a prior commitment.  

Even then, I kind of wanted to sneak back….

Many aquariums are like underwater art galleries – dark hallways, carpeted floors, hushed tones.  The South Carolina Aquarium, in contrast, was full of light, energy, and movement.  I have rarely visited an aquarium where I have not only seen so many animals, but also had so much fun.  From the great ocean tank which dominates the building to its marsh aviary, overlooking the harbor, I felt the aquarium was a treat to explore.  The single deviation from the native wildlife theme was found on the ground floor, where a gallery houses changing, traveling exhibits – when I visited, Madagascar was the themed display, with lemurs, frogs, snakes, and crocodiles featured.  Past exhibits have featured penguins and Amazon wildlife.

The Great Ocean Tank – two stories tall, 385,000 gallons of water, is the aquarium’s main exhibit.  Sharks and loggerhead turtles mill around divers during feeding demonstrations, which visitors can observe from rowed seating or overlooking balconies.  The second floor features more sea creatures – flounder, crustaceans, sea horses.  It also tip-toes into the state’s terrestrial ecosystems, exploring the importance of water to these habitats.  Bald eagles, river otters, and a host of native herps round out the collection.  This is the south, so of course there is an alligator exhibit – and what an alligator!  A beautiful, ghost-white giant lurks in a darkened enclosure, bobbing at eye level with visitors.  I normally eschew albinos and other color mutations, but ever since I saw my first one two decades ago, white alligators have always affected me. 

The second floor is also home to what I consider one of the most stunning aquarium exhibits I have ever seen.  The Salt Marsh Aviary implies the presence of birds, but it’s easy to overlook them in favor of the exhibit’s other occupants.  The walkway through the exhibit winds between open-topped tanks, swarming with stingrays and diamondback terrapins.  Visitors can purchase cups of chopped fish to feed the rays.  If you do happen to look up and notice the birds, you’ll be treated to a variety of gulls, ibises, herons, and gallinules.  Probably the coolest thing about this aviary is that its windows look out over the harbor, so you see wild birds flying by in the background – very closely.  I had a hard time telling if the gulls and pelicans that passed by were exhibit birds or wild ones.  Outside the aviary, a touch tank features horseshoe crabs and other marine creatures.

Two things impressed me immensely about the South Carolina Aquarium.  The first was the onsite conservation program.  Like many aquariums, this one devotes considerable resources to marine animal rescue and rehabilitation, especially sea turtles, in this case.  About 100 turtles have been processed by the Sea Turtle Hospital and returned to the wild, a great success story. 

What astonished me most of all, however, was the volunteer program.  It seemed that everywhere I turned, there were teenaged volunteers – and this was during a weekday, in the middle of the day, in the school year!  They were handling herps for demonstrations, manning the touch tank, assisting with keeper talks, or just patrolling the building to make sure guests could find someone if they needed help with anything.  When I questioned a few of them, they all seemed very knowledgeable and polite, and told me that it was part of a school program that allowed them to intern here.  What a great opportunity to get young people involved in conservation and education, and what a tremendous difference I saw them making in the experiences of so many visitors.  

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Zoo History: Recreating the Aurochs

Ever since its debut, Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park has changed the way that many people think about dinosaurs.  Its premise of resurrecting long-gone dinosaurs through DNA extraction is fictional, of course, but it has provoked widespread discussion about the possibility of bringing extinct species back to life through cloning.  The discussion has focused not on Tyrannosaurus rex or Triceratops, but on more contemporary species, ones which have gone extinct relatively recently at the hand of man: the quagga, the thylacine, the dodo…   

Our technology has advanced to the point where the conversation isn’t so much about whether it’s possible to resurrect extinct species, but whether it is ethical to do so.

What many people don’t realize, however, is that Crichton wasn’t the first person to advocate bringing an extinct species back from the grave.  In fact, it was being attempted before his birth (before the genetic age, even) on the other side of the Atlantic.                                

The sons of director of one of Europe’s most prestigious zoos, Lutz and Heinz Heck practically grew up in a zoo.  It’s not surprising then that both boys followed their father into the profession; Lutz followed his father as director of the Berlin Zoo, while his younger brother took over the directorship of the Munich Zoo.  The two earned reputations as some of the most progressive, trailblazing zoo leaders of their era, achieving many notable victories (including, at Munich, the first captive-bred African elephant). 

Like many highly successful people, the brothers sought additional challenges, and soon settled on perhaps the most brazenly ambitious goal imaginable: to resurrect an extinct species (keep in mind, this was in the 1930’s, before Watson and Crick unlocked the secrets of DNA).  The species that they selected was one that both brothers shared a deep passion for, for reasons which will be explored soon.  It was the aurochs, the massive wild bovine which is the ancestor of our domestic cattle.

Cave paintings showing aurochsen (plural of "aurochs") and deer

The aurochs had made a tremendous impression on the Heck brothers… and they had never seen one (nor had anyone else since the last ones were killed in the early 1600s).  Those historical records that do exist of the beasts attest to their power and majesty.  Julius Caesar, hunting the aurochs in Gaul (France) described it as “a trifle smaller than elephants… great is their strength and great is their speed.”  Caesar doubted that the beast would be possible to capture of tame.  In this he was wrong – the aurochs had been caught and tamed, resulting in the rise of its domestic form.  From the feedlot cattle in the western US to the sacred zebu of India, all domestic cattle are descended from the aurochs.  

The Heck brothers believed that, even if the aurochs was gone, its essence remained, hidden among its farmyard descendents.  They began a program of “breeding back”, selecting different cattle breeds for traits that they felt represented “pure aurochs” – size, horns, temperament, color – and tried to mix them together.  Eventually, they achieved some degree of what they considered success – an animal that looked and, in their best estimate, behaved like the aurochs of yore.  Similar efforts were made to recreate a second extinct species: the tarpan, ancestor of the domestic horse.  Both of these recreated animals were “reintroduced” into the forests of Central Europe.

History does not remember the Heck boys especially kindly, and with reason.  Scientifically, their work was of questionable value – they only managed to create animals that “looked right” as to what they expected an aurochs or tarpan to look like.  Their “neo-tarpans” were created in part by cross-breeding domestic horses with Przewalski’s wild horses, an act which would make many modern zoo professionals shriek with rage (contamination of the P. horse gene pool with domestic horse genes is a constant source of frustration to their breeding program).  The darker implications of the Hecks’ work have to do with the fact that it was 1930’s Germany…

Lutz and Heinz inherited more than a passion for zoos from their father; they also inherited his ultra-nationalism, the same sort of sentiment which swept Hitler into power.  To them, recreating Germany’s long-lost behemoth was less about ecology and more about restoring Germany’s greatness in the world; what could be a more potent symbol than recreating the nation’s largest animal?  The obsession with breeding, culling, and “blood purity” and control were mirrored on a darker and grander scale by the Nazi racial codes. 

Long after the Heck brothers died, their "recreated" aurochsen, such as this bull, live on.  They are now typically referred to as "Heck cattle"

The brothers also behaved in a less than honorable manner towards the zoos of conquered Europe.  A new movie, The Monuments Men, depicts the Nazi theft of artwork from across Europe to stock their own museums and collections.  A similar policy was adopted towards zoos, with prized specimens being shipped back to Germany.  World War II put a bloody, brutal end to many things in Europe; many of the “recreated” aurochsen and tarpans were destroyed during the war.

It’s very doubtful, though I suppose possible, that zoos in the future may showcase dodos and quaggas… or aurochsen and tarpans, for that matter (frankly, I’ll be satisfied if there are still rhinos and orangutans a hundred years from now).   These days, in the age of DNA, the sort of reckless breeding experiments employed by the Hecks brothers are frowned upon (so is stocking your zoo with animals stolen during war).

As the 21st century unfolds, zoos and aquariums will continue to face new challenges and controversies.  At times they can feel overwhelming.  We can help steer our future course in part by learning from the mistakes and misadventures of the past.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Evolution Revolution

"Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution..."
Theodosius Dobzhansky

By the time teacher John Thomas Scopes went on trial in Tennessee in 1925 for teaching evolution to his students, evolution had already been a controversial topic for decades.  Ninety years later, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution through Natural Selection is still a hot-topic, and its place in public education (and, more recently, that of Creationism or “Intelligent Design”) one of the longest fought battles of the culture wars.  Tonight, that battle continues at the Creation Museum in Kentucky, when Bill Nye (“the Science Guy”) squares off against creationist Ken Ham in a televised debate.

Without having seen the debate, I’m going to jump to two conclusions.  1) It will be very spirited.  2) No one who is watching it (on either side) will have their mind changed.  At all.

I’d always been interested in evolution, ever since I was old enough to understand it, and working with animals on a daily basis has only reinforced that interest.  I came to realize pretty quickly that not everyone was as accepting of the theory as I was. 

At one zoo, located in what is typically referred to as “the Bible Belt”, I was showing some visitors a beautiful Burmese python and describing its natural history and behavior.  In a sudden flash of inspiration, I lifted up the giant snake’s tail and invited the assembled guests to observe the two claw-like spurs on either side of the snake’s cloacae.  Those, I explained cheerfully, were remnants of the legs of ancestral pythons; I proceeded to describe how snakes had actually evolved from reptiles that did have legs, but had gone “legless” to facilitate hunting prey underground or in dense undergrowth.

Up until this point in the conversation, many of the assembled visitors had been staring at the python as if it was the most horrifying thing imaginable.  Now, they were fixing that look of bug-eyed horror at me.  One or two parents ushered their children away hurriedly.

A few weeks later, I was visiting the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History.  Visitors were crowded into a movie theater in the museum’s Hall of Mammals, meant to explain how mammals came to be.  A few seconds in, following the first use of the “E” word, I saw a couple stand up and pull their kids out of the theater.  “We don’t believe in that”, they staged whispered to their young daughter as they led her away.

I don’t know if there has ever been any formal polling done, but if there had been, I suspect we would find that a greater percentage of zookeepers, compared to the general public, believe in evolution.  There are several possible reasons for this, but the life sciences education that most keepers receive prior to entering the field probably has the most to do with it.  That and the reality of working with the animals directly on a daily basis and seeing behaviors, adaptations, and traits that many keepers find hard to explain otherwise (i.e.: snake “legs”).

Compared to many other “hot button” issues – same-sex marriage, abortion, health care, immigration – the teaching of evolution may seem, at first glance, to be somewhat unimportant.  After all, you may wonder, we’re here on earth, so why does it matter how we got here?  I used to agree with that viewpoint, and tried not to argue it too much.  That being said, I’m pretty conflict averse.

I’ve come to believe, however, that the teaching of evolution is important, for two reasons.  First, a critical mind needs to look at and evaluate evidence; currently, the scientific evidence (fossil records, DNA analysis, vestigial organs, etc) supports Darwin’s theory.  If students do raise objections or find problems with the theory, those should be vigorously explored.  No one should ever reject a theory – in science, in business, in politics – just because “I don’t want it to be true” (*cough*, climate change, *cough*)

Secondly, the teaching of evolution puts humans in perspective with the natural world.  The earth’s ecosystems, it says, were not made for the use and privilege of a single species.  Rather, we arose as part of a complicated world of ecosystems, in which all living things have a role.  In this later viewpoint, the religious community is starting to come around; whereas the Book of Genesis was once read to give humans dominion over the earth and all its creatures, free to use or exploit or destroy them as we see fit, it is now more often interpreted as stewardship of the planet.

The utmost goal of any zoo or aquarium should be conservation.  With that in mind, there is a point that needs to be made to every visitor, creationist or evolutionist: the animals that you see here today exist.  Whether they were each the direct creation of a supreme being or the byproduct of millions of years of evolution, they are here, the result of a process that neither you nor I nor anyone can pretend to understand in full.  Therefore, they should be treasured and protected.

I would hope that everyone could get on board with that theory