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Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Sporcle Quiz: Animal Name Origins (Birds)

My first Sporcle Quiz (Animal Name Origins, featured on the very first post of this blog) was recently selected as a Curator's Choice at Sporcle... whatever that means.  So, building off that success if another name origins quiz, this one featuring birds.  Enjoy!

Monday, April 28, 2014

Peregrine Fund

"I know he'd be a poor man if he never saw an eagle fly..."
- John Denver, Rocky Mountain High

"Man emerged from antiquity with a peregrine on his wrist."
-Roger Tory Peterson

There are few groups of animals that are more universally admired than the birds of prey.  Eagles have been the symbol of warrior cultures around the globe, from Aztec Mexico to Ancient Rome (and, later on, an upstart collection of thirteen newly independent colonies in North America).  Falconry was the obsession of the Medieval World, with one's social status clearly linked to what type of bird one was permitted to use; the sport still has adherents around the globe.  Birds of prey have inspired art and poetry and legends around the world... which makes it all the more ungrateful of us that we nearly exterminated so many of them.

Birds of prey have been threatened by the same "usual suspects" that have driven so many species to the edge of extinction - hunting, habitat loss, pollution.  The later was especially prevalent in the mid-1900s, when the pesticide DDT was shown to have played a key role in driving down numbers of osprey, bald eagle, and peregrine falcon.  Fortunately, being such beautiful, majestic, and charismatic species, the raptors (for so birds of prey are often called) had their devoted protecters to counterbalance their persecutors.  

Among those protectors was Tom Cade, an ornithologist at Cornell University.  Cade was concerned about the loss of North American raptors and set about to save them, using a combination of new technologies and ancient falconry techniques.  While some scientists like Rachel Carson were spreading the alarm and raising awareness about DDT, Cade was actively taking steps to save imperiled species.  Through captive-breeding and reintroduction, Cade and his allies were able to reestablish populations of peregrine falcon; today, the species is one of the rare few to have been removed from the Endangered Species List (in the good way, not due to extinction).

The peregrine falcon might have been saved, but there are still plenty of other endangered raptors around the world, from diminutive Mauritius kestrels to massive harpy eagles, capable of bringing down a small deer. The success experienced with the peregrine was applied to those species, and the organization known as the Peregrine Fund was born.  Headquartered at the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho, the fund focuses on the captive breeding of endangered raptors, as well as the education of the public and an instilling of appreciation for birds of prey.  

The Fund also supports and leads research on poorly studied raptors around the globe, trying to determine their statuses in the wild and decide what steps need to be taken to preserve them before they, too, become threatened.  Some of the species that the Fund works with are high-profile conservation poster-children, such as the California condor.  Others, like the orange-breasted falcon and the New Guinea harpy, are considerably less well known.

In most zoos, the role of raptors tends to be somewhat limited.  Most zoos have a few non-releasable native raptors, either as exhibit birds or as educational program birds.  A few of the larger, showier, more dramatic species are kept as exhibit animals.  Other than that, they tend to be ignored.  This is unfortunate - birds of prey have helped shape our cultural psyches and have played prominent roles in art, history, and religion for thousands of years.  Several species, including the bald eagle, the osprey, and the peregrine (and, yes, to a lesser degree the condors) have been ushered away from extinction and are now in some cases thriving.  

There are other battles to be fought, however, in saving the remaining species from extinction.  The Peregrine Fund has had many successes, but it shouldn't have to fight those battles alone.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Night Shift at the Zoo

"Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!'
- Bram Stoker, Dracula

"Thrill me, chill me, fulfill me, creature of the night!"
- Rocky Horror Picture Show

The world is a different place after dark.  Places that are comfortable and familiar to us during the daytime become strange, forbidding, sometimes even sinister once night settles in and the lights are out.  We are a diurnal species, as most primates are, and a very visual one.  For most of us sight is our dominant sense, and it is only when we are immersed in darkness that we realize how woefully inadequate our other senses – hearing and smell and touch – are at night, as we startle at strange sounds and grope about in the darkness.

I am reminded of that every single time I walk around a zoo after dark.

Okay, so yes, this is a jaguar, not a clouded leopard.  The picture works better for the article, okay?

There have been myriad reasons which have brought me to work at night.  Sometimes it has been because I am, I freely admit, a neurotic mess and feel that I have to come in to double-check a lock or make sure a heat lamp is working, even if it’s midnight.  Other times, it’s a planned occasion – staying late for a special event, or checking up on an animal, or working way too late on a special project that just can’t wait (at one zoo I stayed until midnight four nights in a row rushing to finish an exhibit by its promised opening date).

It’s an eerie feeling, being alone in a zoo after dark.  Even when you can’t see anything, there is the sense of being watched, which is perfectly fair because you are being watched. 

Unlike humans, animals don’t have the luxury of being able to sleep soundly all night.  For prey species, night is when they can move under cover of darkness; unfortunately, most predators see better at night than most prey animals.  For desert dwellers, the cool of the night provides the opportunity to leave the dens and burrows where the days have been spent in hiding from the murderous sun.  Amphibians often prefer the night to the day; their moist, permeable skin dries out too easily when exposed to the sun.  Even among the animals that are active during the day experience night much more differently than we do – their keen noses and sharp ears compensate for their reduced vision.

It’s fascinating to walk around in the dark; you won’t see many animals (well, none at all if you don’t use a flashlight), but what you can see is astonishing.  Nocturnal animals come to life in ways that will never happen during the day.  During my four-night stay at work on the aforementioned rush exhibit project, I got the chance to make friends with one of our zoo’s newest residents, a young female clouded leopard.  For days after we’d released her into her exhibit, we never saw her during the daylight – only through peaks into the door of her den – and guests never saw her.  At night, however, she was extraordinary, a ghost; I’d have my flashlight trained on an empty branch in her enclosure, and she would materialize on it before my eyes.  The first time I went to check on her, she popped up on a limb three feet in front of me without making a sound – one minute there was nothing, the next her eyes were boring directly into mine. 

And it wasn’t just the clouded leopard that I gained a new perspective on.  I’d play my light over the waters of the alligator pool, catching the glow of their eyes shining back at me.  The hoots of owls rang through the night.

It’s not only the zoo animals that turn themselves on after dark.  An amazing array of native wildlife can show up when the guests are gone.  Opossums, raccoons, foxes, armadillos – depending on where you are in the country, you can see all sorts of nocturnal visitors.  Of course, rats also show up after dark; I highly recommend camping out one night to see what sort of pests show up that you’ll never see during the day, save for the damage they do and the mess they leave.

Small animals that are kept indoors become divorced from the natural rhythm of night and day that the outdoor animals experience.  For these creatures, the keepers control their light cycles by artificially providing day and night controlled by timers.  In the case of some nocturnal animals, the days may be spent in artificial darkness (thereby encouraging the animals to be active while visitors are present), while the lights are turned on at the end of the day to allow the animals to experience day, when they would sleep. 

Not many keepers regularly experiences nights at the zoo (though some zoos employ special night keepers who stay throughout the night, monitoring the zoo and feeding and shifting animals as needed).  Even fewer visitors are given the chance, though this is changing.  Many zoos are starting to showcase nocturnal animals through reversed-lighting.  More and more zoos are offering night tours and sleepovers, complete with nocturnal animal activities (and usually smores).   There is at least one zoo out there (albeit in Singapore) which is open exclusively at night, allowing visitors to explore the nocturnal world.  Remembering my encounter with the clouded leopard, I would love to see more chances for small groups of visitors to explore the zoo after dark, getting to see some of our animal at their best.  Imagine watching a pride of lions stalk across their exhibit in the moonlight, or seeing a wolf howling, silhouetted against the moon…

In some ways, darkness is an equalizer of sorts.  It robs us of our sense of superiority and puts us back in our place in the natural world, back when we were nothing more than nervous primates, huddled in the dark and terrified of leopards.  Being in a zoo at night time can be a chilling, exhilarating experience that drives home the magic and power of animals. 

There’s a clouded leopard for each and every one of us out there, just waiting to enthrall us…

Saturday, April 26, 2014

From the News: Zoo TV now in every room at Ronald McDonald House

Zoo TV now in every room at Ronald McDonald House

In past articles, I've stated my argument that technologies like TV and the Internet are no substitute for actually encountering and learning from animals in person.  However, it also stands to reason that a trip to the local zoo or aquarium is not possible for everyone, for a variety of reasons.  Some folks don't live near a zoo or aquarium.  Others can't visit for medical reasons.  

It was with that in mind that I applaud the addition of Zoo TV to the Ronald McDonald House.  Kids who are in this house already have a world of problems that they are facing, and deserve every chance for diversion and fun that they can get.  Going to the zoo and enjoying the animals with family is a normal part of almost every American kid's experience growing up.  Hopefully, this will help recapture some of that norm.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Species Fact Profile: Malayan Tapir (Tapirus indicus)

Malayan Tapir
Tapirus indicus (Desmarest, 1819)

Range: Southeast Asia, Indonesia
Habitat: Rainforest
Diet: Fruits, Leaves, Grasses, Tubers
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Seasonally monogamous, courtship involves chasing and vocalizations, breed May-June, single offspring (rarely twins) produced every other year after a 390-410 day pregnancy, offspring are weaned at 6-8 months, independent by 2 years, and mature by 30 months
Lifespan: 25 Years (Wild), 35 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Endangered, CITES Appendix I

  • Largest of the world's tapir species: body length 1.8-2.5 meters, height 0.9-1.1 meters, weight 250-540 kilograms; females tend to be considerably larger than the males
  • Prehensile snout formed from the combined nose and upper lip (resembles an elephant’s trunk)
  •  Short black fur with a prominent white “saddle” on the hips; newborns black with white stripes, fading by the age of six months
  •  Very good swimmers, may walk along the bottoms of deep rivers
  • Primarily active at night; have a poor sense of sight, but good senses of smell and hearing
  • Adults have few predators (occasionally tigers and leopards); thicken skin acts as a defensive mechanism, making it harder for predators to get a grip; attacked tapirs while try to crush or scrape off their assailants against a tree
  • Traditionally hunted for meat or as retribution for crop raiding, but face little direct persecution from humans (local Muslims considered their flesh unclean due to tapirs’ resemblance to pigs); primarily threat is loss of habitat due for agricultural purposes
  • The world's only tapir species found outside of the Americas

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Earth Day, Everyday

"Earth First... We'll Trash the Other Planets Later!"
- Bumper Sticker

Since 1970, April 22 has been celebrated as Earth Day, an annual event set aside to celebrate our planet and educate ourselves and each other about what can be done to protect it.  It's a lovely sentiment, but it's the "day" part that I have trouble with sometimes.  "Well, I tossed a can in the recycling bin today, back to the dumpster tomorrow!"  Everyday should be Earth Day.

As wildlife organizations, zoos and aquariums often take a special part in Earth Day, with many institutions (mine included) holding special educational programs in honor of the day.  Conservation is, after all, the main work of a zoo, whether it's through direct action (captive breeding, reintroduction, fundraising, research) or education and building awareness.  Different zoos and aquariums are able to contribute to varying degrees, based on the size of the budget, the available opportunities, and the vision of their staff (as there are plenty of small zoos which do lots for conservation). 

Zoos and aquariums can also have a big conservation impact on a very direct, very local level - by changing how they run their own facilities.  There are a lot of ways to make a difference, from what light bulbs you install to what kind of vehicles your zoo has.  Here, in honor of Earth Day, are some tips on greening up your zoo or aquarium ("your" as in either the one you work at or the one in your community).

Recycle!  It seems like a no-brainer, but so many people don't.  It can be hard to have recycling work properly in public areas - so many visitors don't look where they throw things, and your plastic bottle bin will be filled up with half-eaten hot dogs before you can blink.  Still, with the right signage and the proper placement of bins, you can capture a lot of recyclables that would otherwise go to the dump.  At the very least, make sure you have recycling available in staff areas.  In theory, they should know better...

Compost!  Zoos mean animals, and animals produce a lot of you know what!  Not only is there poop, but there is also hay, soiled bedding, uneaten food, and all of the leaves, pine needles, and other biodegradable debris we clean up daily (granted, some fecal matter is not compostable - primates, for example).  Don't let it go to the landfill, compost it!  Somewhere out there is a farmer who would love to fertilize the crops with your zebra manure.  Maybe you can even sell it - many zoos offer "Zoo Doo" (or something with a name along those lines) for sale to their visitors.

Go Native - Not so much an issue for aquariums, but zoos tend to have a lot of landscaping areas, which can be demanding in terms of water, fertilizer, etc.  Why bother with fancy flowers from around the world?  Grow native plants.  They are specially adapted to your local climate conditions and will thrive with less work.  It also reduces the likelihood of exotic plants becoming established.

Wild Habitats - Sort of a subset of the previous point, create niche habitats for native wildlife in zoo grounds.  Put up bird baths, flowers for hummingbirds and butterflies, "toad abodes", bat boxes, etc.  Set aside a little space for the native wildlife to establish itself.  Granted, there have to be some limits - you don't want to invite the foxes and raccoons to raid your waterfowl ponds.  Still, it's amazing how excited visitors get when a chipmunk, a squirrel, or some other native critter crosses their path.

Build Green - We all have old, dilapidated exhibits that are a pain to maintain and have zero energy efficiency... can't be helped.  What can be helped is how we plan, build, and maintain our new facilities.  For every major building project, strive for LEED certification.  Whenever possible, seek ways to reduce the environmental footprint, whether through alternative energy sources, green building materials, or other options.  

Sell Green - Most of our facilities have gift shops and concession stands, if not actual restaurants.  Those facilities exist 1) for the convenience of visitors and 2) to make money.  Nothing wrong with either of those.  We should, however, add 3) to further our conservation mission.  Items sold in the gift shop and food served in the restaurant should be selected with sustainability at least as a factor.  Those facilities that serve fish, for instance, should pay heed to the Monteray Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Guide, which helps steer visitors towards environmentally sound seafood choices.  Whenever possible, buy locally produced foods and materials (and have vegetarian options - GOOD vegetarian options - available!).  Consider selling Snareware or other products made by conservation partnerships abroad.

If your institution isn't doing at least some of these things, then maybe you should start asking yourself (and management!) why and seeing what you can do to change this.  If you are doing them, good job... but don't pat yourself on the back too much yet.  Now you need to spread the word so that all of your visitors can understand what it is you're doing and learn how they can also make a difference in their own way.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Guest Article: You Know You're a Zookeeper When... by Sarah Bell

Sarah Bell is a primatologist and a multimedia journalist. She runs a blog called Endangered Living that serves not only to educate people about conservation and science related happenings, but also to help people understand the path she took to become a primatologist and to serve as a guide for those who will come behind her.

I'd realized that it many of my posts, I used zoo-lingo which readers outside the profession might not recognize.  I came across Sarah's blog recently while I was looking for ideas for making a zoo glossary. Besides a good glossary, I found her blog to contain a lot of wonderful insights into the world of conservation biology (zoos included).  Below is her article "You Know You're A Zookeeper When...", reproduced here with her permission.

Check it out, and then head over to her own blog for some other great articles!

A little while back I was working on a paper for a linguistic anthropology class and I reached out to some zoo keepers on Facebook to ask them what some terms were that applied (or had meanings specifically) to zoo keeping. These are some of the terms that they came up with! I provided the definitions. Now keep in mind that every zoo does things just a little bit differently, so don’t be offended if a definition is different from one you may use, just leave it in the comments!


Enrichment- Enrichment is something given to animals to stimulate their brains, give them something to play with or recreate natural behaviors.

Positive enrichment- Positive enrichment is an enrichment that an animal really enjoys

Negative enrichment- Negative enrichment is not strived for, but occasionally happens when keepers try new enrichments. This may mean that the animal showed no interest in the enrichment or was afraid of it, but it is still considered enrichment because it put something new into the animals environment

Food motivated- This is a term for an animal that prefers to be rewarded with food during training exercises

Weight trained- This is an animal whose weight is monitored daily to keep it in a good zone so that they do not stay over weight(like most zoo animals) and are more likely to respond to training exercises

Copulation- Animals mating, often times in my experienced used during daily animal logs where animals attitude, behavior and health is documented daily it was used in a slightly joking manner if an animal tried to “copulate” with you. ex. “Cheryl the crow copulated with my pony-tail today”

10-4- A radio term meaning,” okay, I heard you”

Scent- A type of enrichment that may include perfume, feathers from another bird, snake shed, herbs, or extracts

Attention motivated- An animal that prefers human attention or praise for preforming a behavior rather than food.

1.0.0 / 1.1 / 0.0.1 …ect.- This number system is used to document sex. 1.0.0 is a single male, 1.1.0 is one male and one female, 0.0.2 is two of unknown sex.

Leucistic- More common than albinism and most often seen in animals in zoos that the public labels as “albino.” This is a reduced pigmentation rather than a total lack of it.

Hoofed Stock- Animals that have hooves, like antelope, giraffe and zebra.

Temp check- Reptiles need to be kept at higher temperatures and need both warm and cool spots in their enclosures, so the temperatures need to be checked throughout the day.

Diet prep.- This is the time in the morning spent preparing all of the diets for the animals in the keepers care.

Commissary- This is the place where diet prep takes place. No human food allowed!

Keeper 1, 2, 3… ect. This refers to the level of the keeper. Normally you enter a job at keeper 1 and move up through the ladder.

“Herping”- This isn’t exclusive to zookeepers but I have not yet met a non-zookeeper who participates in “herping.” It refers to the act of going out into the wilderness and catching amphibians and reptiles either to keep as pets, but most often just for fun to release after catching.

Browse- Refers to tree branches that are used for enrichment. Either as something fun to tear apart or to eat.
Puzzle feeder- A type of enrichment that forces the animal to make an effort to get their food, normally by moving around plastic pieces or twisting something.

SSP- Stands for Species Survival Plan, which is an internationally organized breeding program run by the AZA.

AZAAZA stands for Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Only accredited zoos are considered to be held to the highest standards. There is a European version as well.

AAZK- American Association of Zoo Keepers. There is normally a chapter at each zoo and they will meet up to have talks given by keepers on new techniques. Basically its a community to encourage everyone to constantly know the newest information around the zoos.

crate baiting- You place a treat in a crate to get an animal to go inside of it.

Positive reinforcement training- The only approved type of training at zoos. This means that there is no punishment, but there is no reward if the asked behavior is not preformed. Normally the animal is ignored for five seconds and then asked again.

Shift- Moving an animal from one enclosure to another.

Cue- The signal that tells an animal to do a behavior. It could be visual or auditory.

Knockdown- For large or dangerous animals they are knocked down for medical procedures. Meaning that they were knock unconscious with the use of drugs.

Necropsy- A postmortem for a human it is called an autopsy, for an animal it is called a necropsy.

Station- A command that tells an animal to be in a specifically predetermined place.

Binturong Popcorn- After giving some attention to a binturong, or a Malaysian bear-cat (related to neither the bear or the cat) you will smell like binturong popcorn. This is because they will normally rub all over you to scent mark you and they happen to smell like freshly popped (if slightly dirty) popcorn! It is a very distinctive smell.

BOP- Stands for Bird of prey. You can talk about a BOP run, or an area with a lot of BOP, or BOP meat which is ground meat specifically for BOP. At the zoo I worked at in Florida, it got started because that is how the meat came labeled.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Happy Easter

"We apologize for the lack of candy this year.  The Easter Bunny has been regrettably delayed..."

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Book Review: Snakebite Survivors' Club

"The image of the overflowing snake-pit had since left me, but a more particular, more threatening vision had taken its place: a single snake seething at my feet, a wave of chevrons and diamonds breaking yellow and brown, then the instant of sharpness and blood nudging scarlet from the puncture marks... the snakebite sequence began as a recurring dream.. and... I began to believe that I was going to die of snakebite."

It is doubtful that any group of animals holds the collective sway over the human psyche as much as the snakes.  In human societies around the world and throughout history, snakes have been worshiped or feared, killed on sight in some societies and venerated and adored in others... sometimes within the same culture.

Even the smallest snake can have an enormous impact on people - at one zoo where I worked, I saw an adult woman sprint away from me as fast as possible, running smack into a wall in her effort to escape the two-foot rosy boa I was holding... fifty feet away from her.  The bigger snakes - the pythons, the anacondas - have a proportionally even larger impact on us.  So do the venomous species.

Author Jeremy Seal is terrified of snakes.  All snakes, really, but he holds a special spot of horror in his heart for the world's deadliest species, the thanaopidia, and snakebite is a source of constant terror to him.  In an effort to conquer this fear, he sets off on a mission through geography and history, traveling five continents in search of people of who survived the bites of four of the world's most feared snakes.  In India, he encounters snake charmers and their cobra costars.  In Australia, he meets one of the lucky few people on earth to have survived the bite of the taipan.  In East Africa, he meets a reptile wrangler who survived a bite from a black mamba.  And perhaps most bizarrely of all, in the good ol' US of A, he introduces us to a woman who's crazed backwoods preacher of a husband tried to murder her with the rattlesnakes that he handled as part of his sermons.

These lucky folks (as far as anyone who gets bitten by a taipan or a black mamba is really "lucky") form his titular Snakebite Survivors' Club: Travels Among Serpents.

I enjoyed Seal's book a fair bit, but there are two caveats I'd offer any reader.  The first goes out to the folks who are especially interested in snakes - don't get your hopes up.  The snakes themselves don't appear too much throughout the book.  Instead, you'll get a lot of history lessons and a lot of biographical back-stories building up to the fateful meetings.  Secondly, the book jumps around a lot from chapter to chapter, continent to continent.  One minute you're getting a history of colonial Australia, the next page your on the other side of the world with a totally different set of characters, and then back again.  I eventually got frustrated to the point where I went through and read all of the African chapters first, then all the Indian, and so on.

So Seal's book is a lot more about people than it is snakes.  It makes sense.  For the most part, the people in this book don't get bitten by snakes by complete accident - they are bitten because they (or, in the case of the preacher's wife, someone else) get themselves bitten. For a man who has acknowledged ophidiophobia, Seal does a wonderful job of not biasing his readers against snakes, nor does he succumb to sensationlisism and fear-mongering (I've spent some time in East Africa, and if one tenth of the stories I heard people say about black mambas were true, there wouldn't be a soul left in all of Africa).

Instead, Jeremy Seal's Snakebite Survivors' Club offers an intimate view of people, snakes, and what happens when they meet in the worst of possible ways.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

From the News: Public flocks back to Paris zoo after six-year break

Paris is home to what many consider the oldest "modern" zoo in the world, the Jardin des Plantes.  It is also home to the Vincennes Zoo.  Like many older zoological parks, Vincennes was showing its age, and six years ago the decision was made to close it for major repairs (I personally would love the chance to shutter my zoo for a few years, tear it down, and rebuild it... and I'm sure I'm not alone in that).  The zoo is now reopened and, by all accounts, is a hit with the public.  Best of luck to the staff and animals.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Tell Me a Story...

"Stories are like spiders, with all their long legs, and stories are like spiderwebs, which man gets himself all tangled up in but which look so pretty when you see them under a leaf in the morning dew, and in the elegant way that they connect to one another, each to each."

- Neil Gaiman, Anansi Boys

I like talking to visitors. 

It’s a failing, I’ve been told by some coworkers, especially those of the “We became zookeepers so we didn’t have to deal with people!” stripe. 

Not the kind of talks that involve explaining why they can’t feed the monkeys, or that there’s a reason we have two rows of fencing separating them from the bears (and no, it’s not a challenge).  And yes, they can say some things that drive me up the wall.  But I still like talking with visitors.  I like talking to them about our animals, both in the zoo and out in the wild.  I like building support and enthusiasm for their local zoo (or, if they are out-of-towners, encouraging them to come back).  But mostly, I like telling stories.

The stories I like to tell, of course, are about the animals.  Some of them are just funny anecdotes: animal does something cute and unexpected, or animal gets the better of a keeper, or animal shows incredible behavior.  (This being the social media age, I make a point of not telling stories I wouldn’t want to see plastered all over the blogosphere).  Stories are a useful tool – they can disarm a visitor, encourage them to sit and stay a little longer, and sometimes even help them learn something.

Mostly I tell stories to make a connection.  In a sense, this entire blog is a series of stories, some I admit being more engaging then others.

We’re a storytelling-species.  We’ve been swapping yarns since the Bible was a rough-draft and before anyone knew even how to put pen to paper.  In cultures where writing was never developed, stories were still passed on from generation to generation.  Put a bunch of strangers in a room and they’ll make small talk about movies, TV, music – all stories.  Put a bunch of friends together and they’ll talk about the stories of their daily lives.  Being a storytelling species, we value good storytelling.  That’s why Steven Spielberg has billions and why the absolutely atrocious novel that I’ve tried to write off and on for years lurks in a folder under the sink, where even I don’t have to look at it.

Above all, stories shape the way that we think and feel about the world around us, and they can have a big impact on how we interact with that world.  Want a real life example?  No matter how you feel about the subject of orcas in captivity, there’s no doubt that the movie (I won’t call it a documentary) Blackfish has started a lot of people talking about SeaWorld, and not a lot of it in a manner that SeaWorld has liked. 

Actually, it was Blackfish which got me on this train of thought in the first place.  Many of the best stories I know are the ones from the world of zoos and aquariums.  I often find myself breaking these out at work, either to explain to a dubious guest why we need zoos, or to given the background to the story of an animal.  We have great stories in our zoo world.  The only downside is we stink at sharing them.  Instead, we tend to rattle of facts, thinking that if we spit enough of them out, like watermelon seeds, one or two of them will stick somewhere.  They seldom do.  We should work on that.

What I would like to see is an inter-zoo (possibly sponsored by AZA, or EAZA, or some other governing body) documentary team.  The purpose of this team would be to produce films for popular audiences detailing stories from the world of zoos.  True stories, which in many ways are the best kind.   

Remember when March of the Penguins came out and EVERYTHING was penguins for months?

I suggested this once before to a group of zookeepers and they all said that they thought it would just come across as propaganda and backfire.  I’m not proposing we make, say, a Blackfish rebuttal documentary, or films bashing PETA, ZooCheck, or other organizations that we often find ourselves in opposition with.  We wouldn’t even be addressing those folks at all (though I do worry that we’ve let them set the tone of conversations about zoos too much).  Instead, we should be worrying about giving people a reason to cheer for zoos and aquariums, a reminder of what good things we do, and what we can continue to do with their support.

Some ideas of documentaries I’d love to see made:

·         American Phoenix: detailing the fall and rise of the California condor, one of a handful of species snatched from the edge of extinction by zoos.  Similar programs could be made for the Arabian oryx, black-footed ferret, and other species.  Not only will it build PR for zoos and support for the condor, it’s also a (reasonably) happy-ending story.  In these days of conservation doom and gloom, we want people to see that there have been successes as well as defeats.

·         Saving the Suarez Seven: detailing how some unlikely allies – the AZA and (*gulp*) PETA worked together to remove seven abused polar bears from a Mexican circus and find them homes in American zoos.  A story that shows that even opposing parties can put aside their egos and do what’s best for animals when the need arises.

·         Last Wave of the Golden Frog: sort of the other side of the coin as the condor film, this would focus on the amphibian extinction crisis, using the Panamanian golden frog as a poster child.  It would show that although the frogs are gone in the wild they survive in zoos, and effort are being made to save other amphibian species from a similar fate

Besides these major productions, small zoos and aquariums can tell their own stories.  It’s easy – just document what you do!  Rehabbing an injured or orphaned animal, or taking in an unwanted or illegal exotic pet?  Working with a critically endangered species, maybe even one with reintroduction potential?  Have a really locally famous critter in your zoo?  Take pictures, take video, post signs, post stuff on your website!

In other words, tell a story.  Everyone wants to hear it.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Zoo Joke: The Senior Keeper

A new keeper arrives for his first day at the zoo, working in the Reptile House.  He is anxiously awaiting his instructions and training, when the door opens and, for the first time, he sees his supervisor.

The senior keeper is a battered man with a peg-leg, a metal hook in place of his right hand, and a patch over his left eye.  The new hire is extremely nervous, but curiosity gets the better of him, and he asks a question.

"Um... sir?  If you don't mind me asking, what happened to your leg?"

"Well," the senior keeper replies, "I was hosing out the crocodile pools when I stopped paying attention for a moment.  A big croc rushed out of the water and bit my leg off at the knee."

"Oh, wow!  And, uh, what happened to your hand?"

"Well, a cobra bit my finger, so I had to act quick and cut the whole hand off before the venom could spread."

"Wow!  And your eye, how did you loose that?"

"Oh, well, a pigeon pooped in my eye."

"... and that's how you lost your eye?"

"Well, not quite.  You see, it was my first day with the hook..."

Friday, April 11, 2014

Satire: Progressive Zoo Houses Animals in Natural Destroyed Habitat

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Zoo History: The Life and Times of Willie B.

By the early 1980's, the Grant Park Zoo in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the saddest municipal zoos in the country.  It was dilapidated.  It was run down.  It had even been named one of the ten worst zoos in America by Parade Magazine - and considering how bad a lot of other zoos were back in those days, that was really saying something.  Perhaps the most poignant, depressing symbol of how bad things were at the zoo was the zoo's star attraction, Willie B.

Willie B. was a lowland gorilla.  Named for mayor William B. Hartsfield, his life was typical of many other zoo gorillas at that time.  He had been born in Africa, the captive breeding of gorillas still something of a rarity at that point.  He was housed in a small, tiled cage, alone - alone, that is, except for a small television set, which (apart from his keepers and visitors) was his sole companion.  He got fat, he got morose, and he behaved rather like a person would if they were kept in a small tiled room with just a TV.  He was depressed, and he was depressing in turn.

 The Atlanta Zoo's bad publicity finally prompted the city and concerned citizens to do something about it.  Some folks called for the zoo to be shut down; others had a vision of a zoo that could be something more than a series of cinderblock boxes fronted with iron bars.  A new leadership team, headed by Dr. Terry Maple, was given authority to make drastic changes to the zoo.  Their first priority - Willie B.

In 1988, after 27 years of nothing but tiles and TV, Willie B. stepped outside for the first time since he had arrived at the zoo.  It must have been a horrifying experience for him - everything so new and different, from the feel of the wind to the sound of birds to the smells in the air.  I wonder if he felt tempted to rush back inside to what was safe and sterile and familiar.  He adjusted well, however, and soon the zoo staff felt it was time to introduce him to the last component of his life that he had been missing - other gorillas.

In 1994, Willie B sired his first child, a daughter named Kudzu.  Over the next five years, four more children, including a son (Willie B. Jr) were born). The lone gorilla had become a silver-backed patriarch, surrounded by bounding, playful youngsters and placidly feeding females.  When he passed away in 2000 at the age of 41, he was surrounded by family.

When a zoo gorilla dies, he or she leaves a hole in the hearts of their troop, as well as their keepers.  Willie B. left something more.  His plight had helped turn the Atlanta Zoo - dirty, ramshackle, inhumane - into Zoo Atlanta, one of the world's finest zoos and one now renown for its excellent gorilla habitat, with twenty-some apes calling its lush Ford African Rainforest exhibit home.  His history also inspired the zoo to reach out and rescue Ivan, a gorilla like Willie B. who had lived in isolation in an inappropriate environment (this time a shopping mall).

Willie B was cremated after death.  Most of his ashes are entombed at Zoo Atlanta, while a small portion were scattered in Africa.  Today, the zoo boasts of the Willie B Conservation Center, and a life-sized statue of the gentle giant watches over the zoo.

Zoos are not perfect, as anyone can tell you, but they are constantly changing, struggling to improve themselves, their facilities, and the quality of life that they offer their animals.  Anyone needing a reminder of this can look to the life of Willie B.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Sporcle Quiz: Waterfowl of the World

Following up on the North American Ducks quiz from last month, here's another set of duck, goose, and swan pics - some from Sylvan Heights, others from other zoos - showing the waterfowl of the rest of the world.  Happy ducking!

Monday, April 7, 2014

From the News: Plight of the Pangolins

Despite my longstanding irritation with the media, CNN has won some begrudging respect from me for its "Change the List" program.  Written by columnist John Sutter, it is a series of articles meant to shine a light on some important - but perennially uncovered - stories that affect the world.  Previous examples have included rape culture and river pollution.  The most recent issue to be highlighted is the decimation of wildlife for Traditional Chinese Medicine, both in Asia and abroad.  Instead of focusing on rhinos, tigers, and other charismatic mammals, Sutter has chosen as his poster child one of the world's strangest, least known mammals: the pangolin.

The idea the Sutter has is that the pangolin's plight (I'm writing in the singular, though there are multiple species across Africa and Asia) is so dire because so few people know about it.  Those who do know about it tend to be the folks exploiting it.  By spreading awareness of the species, he hopes to influence some positive change and enhanced protection.  It's a concept that's at the heart of many zoo education programs (not entirely applicable in this case - pangolins fare notoriously poorly in captivity) - people need to know what they are losing, and they need to be engaged with animals in order to protect them.  The first step is teaching them what it is...

No telling how much impact the Sutter stories will have on pangolins.  Every few posts in the comments section you get someone complaining "Who cares?  Don't we have bigger problems to worry about?" (apparently not, in their cases - they had the time to read and post).  A few news clips in the US or UK does not automatically equal protection or enforcement in Africa and Asia.  Still, the only way that we know that no one will save the pangolin is if no one cares at all.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Zoo Review: Sylvan Heights Bird Park

Strictly speaking, it’s slightly misleading to call Sylvan Heights a “Bird Park.”  Sure, it has a ton of birds on display and, with the exception of a few dart frogs, only displays birds.  That being said, the collection isn’t what you would call a representative sampling of the world’s birdlife.  Many of the most popular zoo bird species – such as penguins and storks – are absent, while other popular groups – raptors, parrots, ratites, etc – are scarce.  There are a few game-birds, a few cranes, some flamingos (three species, more than I think I’ve seen at any zoo), but overall not a ton of variety.

That being said, if you’ve ever wanted to see what it looks like when as many duck, goose, and swan species as possible are assembled in one collection, this is the place for you.  To be fair, the name used to be "Sylvan Heights Waterfowl Park."

As it happens, that was kind of what I was looking for when I visited Sylvan – observing and photographing birds that I was unlikely to see anywhere else – so I had a great time.  The vast majority of the species are kept in a series of free-flight aviaries, each arranged by continent: North America, South America, Eurasia, Africa, and Australia.  Each aviary contains several species flying, swimming, diving, and waddling about, sometimes crossing the trail right in front of you or perching on railings just inches away.  Over one hundred waterfowl species are maintained here, including all of the swans and all of the whistling ducks.  As near as I can tell, the only species not seen here are those that a) no one on earth has in captivity or b) arctic species that can’t handle the North Carolina weather.

Every aviary becomes a sort of scavenger hunt; challenge yourself by getting a laminated species guide at the front gift shop and seeing which birds you can find.  I’ve heard many a smart-ass mammal keeper say that they think all ducks look alike.  One stroll through Sylvan should show them the error of their ways.  You can see beautifully colored Baikal teals, red-breasted geese, and mandarin ducks.  You can contrast the pink-eared duck, with its bizarre flapped bill with the prehistoric looking magpie goose, a species so unusual that it’s been banished to its own family.  A handful of species are found in separate exhibits.  Nene, also called Hawaiian geese, stalk along a rocky hillside enclosure, while highly endangered white-winged wood ducks occupy their own pool.

Sylvan Heights only opened up the public relatively recently; prior to that, it was the breeding center of Mike Lubbock, one of the world’s most successful aviculturalists and the man responsible for the first captive breedings of over a dozen waterfowl species.  Lubbock still leads the facility, which also includes extensive off-exhibit breeding pens.  Birds produced there find their way into the collections of zoos and aquariums, stocking their aviaries and pools.  It remains to be seen how Sylvan Heights will develop as a public attraction, but if it’s newest exhibit – a walk-through budgie feeding aviary where friendly flamingos greet visitors – is any indication, it will be a tremendous success.

They might even branch out from ducks a bit…