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Monday, June 30, 2014

A Very Concerned Sea Lion

It's been a stressful day - in and out of work - so I figured a cute animal video never hurt anyone...

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Real Rio

I've never seen the movie Rio.  I hear plenty about it, however, every time the visitors to our zoo see a macaw or cockatoo.  "There's the bird from Rio!", the parents will exclaim, pointing out a blue-and-gold macaw casually chewing apart its perch. 

Sadly, it is not.  They'll probably never see the bird from Rio.  In another few years, I doubt that anyone will.

The blue birds from Rio are Spix's macaws.  Only about one hundred remain in the world, many a part of a tightly regulated breeding program, with others still likely tucked away in the aviaries of private collectors.  The species has vanished in the wild due to habitat loss and illegal collection for the pet trade.  In recent decades, the invasion of Africanized "Killer" bees, which compete with the macaws for the tree cavities in which they nest, have proven another dire challenge.

While I get a little irate at every bluish psittacine being "Rio" (just like I'm sure aquarists get sick of every red fish being "Nemo"), I do appreciate the sentiment that went into the movie.  Director Carlos Saldanha made the film in part to increase awareness of the plight of the critically endangered bird.  The story is fictional, however, but when reaching and educating the public, sometimes the larger story is the more important part.

While the movie has a happy ending, it's to be seen how the real story will end.

I don't have any Spix's macaw pictures of my own... you'll have to make due with this Hyacinth... or Google.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Check. Check. Triple Check.

I was about halfway home the other day when it hit me.  I didn't lock the bear exhibit.   

Before the thought was even fully formed, I'd executed a U-turn as impressive in its speed as it was its illegality and high-tailed it back to the zoo.  Leaving the car outside the front gate, I raced through the now-empty (well, empty of people) park, the increasingly worse scenarios running through my mind.

This is another reason I don't like primates.  I don't trust animals that will check your locks as soon as your back is turned...

I didn't lock the bear exhibit.

Crap, I bet the bears have figured out how to open the door.

Double crap, they're probably roaming the zoo right now.

I bet they've eaten five or six animals by now.

They're probably not even in the zoo anymore, they've probably scaled the perimeter fence and are running amok through downtown.

They've probably already eaten two kids!

Okay, so the last one actually did make a smile a little... I mean, there had been some bad field trips that day.

Well, you never heard anything in the news about escaped zoo bears laying siege to a mid-sized US city (and believe me, it would have made the news), so you've probably guessed that the later scenario didn't happen. Actually, none of the above did.  The lock, when I approached it, was, in fact, locked.  I tugged the shackle a few times just to be sure, then went back home.  I suppose it was a waste of time and a waste of gas.  Doesn't matter.  There is no way I would have slept soundly without knowing that I'd re-checked it.

Locks are my special phobia.  I should probably be glad that I was still in the vicinity when I thought to go back and re-check my lock - there have been nights when I've woken up at 3AM, convinced that I left every lock in the zoo unlocked.  Sometimes I've gone back to work in the dark to make sure all is well.  Other times, I've gotten to work super early the next morning just to make sure everything is secure.  I don't think I've ever had one of these paranoid fits and then found a lock not secured... but it freaks me out every time, so I always end of checking.

Sometimes (actually, fairly often), I find locks that other keepers forgot to close.  This just makes me more agitated - if they forget now and then, I reason, I must also.  I know that I have left things unlocked before, but strangely enough, it's never been one of those "Oh, I know I forgot something" situations that keeps me up all night.  It's just something I discover when I make my rounds the next morning.

It would be sensible, I suppose, to just pay more attention to each lock that I open and close and work.  That way, I could say, "Yes, I do remember checking the tiger lock.  I know it's good."  But it's just so second nature, and there's always so much else going on (counting animals, responding to a radio call, balancing 80 feed pans in one arm, etc) that it's easy to do it without realizing it.  Instead, I end up looping through the zoo all day, checking, double-checking, and (often) triple-checking locks.

With all the obsessive-compulsive tugging of locks, you'd think I'd remember to lock my apartment or car now and then.  You would be wrong.  Oh well, no one has broken in or stolen my car yet.  And at least I remember the important locks.  Like the bears...

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

From the News: Woman hops barrier at Memphis Zoo to feed lions cookies

Okay, so the incident at Toronto Zoo last month - the polar bear selfies - was just typical teenage stupidity (not saying you don't see it in adults, either).  And yeah, there was the drunk woman in the elephant exhibit at Denver last year, but again, she was drunk.  This one just smacks of mental illness... at least I hope that that's the cause.

It never ceases to amaze me how little common sense people display towards zoo animals. Just because the animal is born and raised in captivity does not mean it's a pet... especially if it's a large carnivore capable of killing you with one bite!

Occasionally, acts like this - failure to respect the zoo's safety measures - end in tragedy.  In other cases, the perpetrator escapes unharmed, which - while the preferred outcome - only serves to encourage other idiots in the future.

On a side note, it's great to see that other zoo visitors acted quickly to put a stop to this lunatic's antics.  They were able to call zoo staff via an emergency hotline number posted around the zoo.  A worthwhile idea, I think, for any zoo that doesn't have one.

Photo from WMC Action News 5

Monday, June 23, 2014

Bagheera and Company

"A black shadow dropped down into the circle.  It was Bagheera the Black Panther, inky black all over, but with the panther markings showing up in certain lights like the pattern of watered silk.  Everybody knew Bagheera, and nobody cared to cross his path, for he was as cunning as Tabaqui, as bold as the wild buffalo, and as reckless as the the wounded elephant.  But he had a voice as soft as wild honey dripping from a tree, and a skin softer than down."

- Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Books

Over the years, I've gotten the chance to work with all eight of the big cat species - some as a keeper, some as a volunteer.  Of the eight, my favorite has always been the jaguar.  The largest cat of the Americas has always struck me as the most perfect.  It compromises between the muscular bulk of a lion or tiger with the lithe grace of a leopard or puma.  It doesn't hurt, of course, that the coat is exceptionally beautiful.

That's for the spotted ones, of course.  There are also the black ones to consider.

When I worked with jaguars (and leopards before them), the question I got most from zoo guests was "Where are the panthers at?"  Never being one to miss a teaching moment, I would reply "The jaguars (or leopards) are this way...", to which they would always reply, "No, we want to see the panther..."  Sigh.

Stupid memes like this, which I found circulating around today, don't help.

No.  No, no, no.  Jaguars are endangered.  Leopards are endangered.  The black panther is not a species.  It's probably the world's most famous species which isn't a species.  So what is it?

When people talk about panthers, they usually mean one of three things.  They might be referring to Puma concolor, the cat also known as the mountain lion, cougar, puma, and a few dozen other things.  The highly endangered Florida subspecies, for example, is usually known as the Florida panther (but is never black).  Usually when people talk about panthers, though, they mean either a black leopard or a black jaguar.

Blackness in leopards and jaguars is the result of a color mutation called melanism.  Put simply, melanism (which has been documented in about a dozen species of felid) is the condition in which the fur, feathers, or skin of an animal has an exceptional amount of the pigment melanin, which makes the animal appear black.  

Another color mutation in wild cats which is equally well known is amelanism (sometimes confused with albinism), which leads to the mutant white tigers.  Unlike amelanistic white tigers, however, melanistic black leopards and jaguars are actually well documented in the wild, as their mutation does not impede their ability to survive.  In some study sites in tropical Asia, black leopards outnumber normal spotted ones, and in at least one, only black leopards were documented.  It makes sense.  A white tiger trying to hide in a tropical rainforest is going to stand out pretty badly, making it hard to catch prey unawares.  In contrast, an inky black leopard or jaguar prowling in the shadows of the forest floor is much harder to spot, pun unintended.

Sigh... this is not how it works...

In case the above picture put the question into your mind, what happens if a black jaguar and a spotted jaguar mate and produce cubs?  Some may be spotted, others may be black (you don't get a blended version, a litter of darker/spotty ones).  If the light does hit a black jaguar at just the right angle, however, you can still see spots.  See, Kipling isn't a completely inaccurate student of natural history.

Black panthers have been ingrained into our popular conception of animal life.  They are the mascot of an NFL team from Carolina, the name of a Marvel Comics superhero, and, perhaps most famously, the name of a political activist group from the 1960s and 1970s.  What they are not, however, is their own species.

So on that note...

Saturday, June 21, 2014

World Giraffe Day

It's the first day of summer (in the northern hemisphere, at least)!  And on the longest day of the year, we celebrate the tallest animal in the world.  It's the first ever World Giraffe Day!

Giraffes are one of the most iconic of zoo animals, and have been beloved by visitors for decades.  When the first captive giraffes arrived in Europe, they created a sensation like no other animal before them.  Today they are fairly common in captivity - they breed well and have a stable population.   They're an animal that many of us think we know.  They're tall, they have long necks, they eat leaves, come from Africa... what else is there to say?

In truth, sometimes I think giraffes are an iconic enigma.  There is so much we don't know about them.  For example, they seem so quiet and unsociable.  I've spent hours watching giraffes in Africa dotted across the landscape, seemingly paying no more attention to their distant neighbors than if they were termite mounds.  "Seemingly," I say... because we know now that giraffes are always communicating with each other with sounds too low for the human ear to register.

Another myth which has unfortunately became popularly believed is that giraffes are doing fine in the wild.  When we think of the endangered species of Africa, we'll mention gorillas, cheetahs, the white and black rhinos... not giraffes.  In truth, these exciting ungulates are threatened by habitat loss, hunting, disease, and genetic isolation.  And there are few things worse for an endangered species than no one acknowledging that you are endangered.

Giraffes are one of the main draws at our zoos.  They've been good to us.  We need to be good to them.  That means not only providing the best possible care for giraffes in zoos.  It means raising awareness, funds, and support for the protection of giraffes in the wild.

Learn more about Giraffe Conservation here!

Thursday, June 19, 2014


About once a month, I try to put out a Species Fact Profile, highlighting zoo animals that the lay person might not be super familiar with.  I actually started making these profiles years before I started the blog; they served as a helpful way for me to research and organize information about the animals that I take care of at work.  Once I write a profile, I usually don't even look at it again; just the act of researching it and writing it usually commits the information to memory, but it's good to know I have it written down somewhere if I need it.

And where does the information for these profiles come from?  A variety of sources.

I have a pretty decent reference library of my own, but such books are expensive, so it's hard to build it up too quickly.  Besides, there are a lot of animals for which there really is nothing written about in book form.  There are lots of scholarly books about lions and cheetahs, but I don't think the pygmy hippopotamus has ever gotten one (at least not one that I've seen).  Therefore, I do most of my research online.

Arkive rocks!  But don't take it from me... ask David Attenborough!

Luckily, in recent years, a new online resource has emerged for folks interested in wildlife.  It's called Arkive (like an "archive"... but an "ark"... cause there were animals on the Ark... get it?).  Arkive is a free online encyclopedia of life of earth, the result of a collaborative effort between WWF, IUCN, and several interested researchers from around the world (yours truly has written an entry or two for them).  It's still (and always will be) a work in progress, as new data is accumulated about new species, but it's done a wonderful job of trying to establish a uniform collection of knowledge about the species we share our planet with.  Information is arranged under simple headings like "Description", "Biology", and "Conservation." Links to online references are conveniently attached at the end of each entry.

One of the most popular features of Arkive is the library of images and video clips.  Much like Joel Sartore's "Photo Ark", it provides a wonderful visual record of species (in their natural habitat, whereas Mr. Sartore works with captive specimens).  Included among these are many species we are likely to loose in the near future, if we don't take action now.

Arkive has its limitations.  It's free, so don't complain too much when some species don't have entries yet (including some which really surprised me).  It's also not super detailed for many species, providing more of a summary than in-depth exploration.  It also ignores a category of information that I find especially intriguing - man's relationship with wildlife.  Sure, it tells you how we're killing off animals and destroying their habitats, but it doesn't tell you about the roles that these species have played in our culture and history, which is something I always enjoy exploring.

There are no perfect resources, of course... but Arkive does come pretty close to being the best for many species, especially those about which little has been written.  Hopefully, it will continue to expand and develop into a resource that covers every (known) species on earth!

Visit the Arkive online!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

(Don't) Grow a Backbone!

"If one could conclude as to the nature of the Creator from a study of creation, it would appear that God has an inordinate fondness for beetles."

- J. B. S. Haldane

This week, I heard some news that was as unexpected as it was disappointing: the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, DC announced the closure of its Invertebrate House, effective the end of the week.  The shuttering of its doors deprives the zoo community of one its most original exhibits - one of the few buildings at any zoo in the world devoted to the diversity of invertebrate life, both terrestrial and aquatic.  The Pacific octopus and sea anemones, the blue crabs and goliath bird-eaters and all of the other occupants, will have to find new homes at other institutions.

When we think of the typical zoo animals, we think of big mammals - bears, big cats, monkeys, giraffes.  Birds and reptiles might be added to the list as well, especially the most familiar, eye-catching species, such as flamingos, penguins, and crocodiles.  The fact is, however, is that these animals are not representative of the real animal kingdom.  The vast majority of animal life on earth are invertebrates.  One-quarter of all animal species (40% of all insects) are beetles.  When did you last see a beetle exhibit at a zoo?

To be fair, some zoos have devoted insect exhibits - Cincinnati and St. Louis come to mind - but there are also hordes of aquatic invertebrates.  Jellyfish, mollusks, urchins, anemones, corals... what about them?

Education is (or at least should be) one of the most important missions of a zoo or aquarium.  If the goal is to educate visitors about animal life, it doesn't make sense to ignore the 99% of the animal kingdom that forms the spineless majority.  Invertebrates are essential to life on earth - they drive many ecosystems and shape our planet.  They've had amazingly important roles in our culture, history, and economies.  Furthermore, there are endangered invertebrates - the Partula snails and the American burying beetle, to give some examples - that can benefit from captive breeding programs.  Some of these species zoos and aquariums are currently working with.  More could be saved, with more support and interest.

Some people may say that a tarantula doesn't have the glamour and appeal of a tiger.  True.  But don't sell the spider short - those zoos and aquariums which have opened invertebrate displays have found them to be enormously popular with the public.  Butterfly gardens are immensely popular, and have popped up at zoos and museums around the world.  Leaf-cutter ants are fascinating to watch as they march through display tubes, their leafy prizes hoisted over their heads.  Jellyfish are hauntingly beautiful as they drift through black-lit aquariums.

As it so happens, one of my favorite zoo memories ever concerns an invertebrate.  I was just a small child, visiting the zoo with my father and my best friend.  We arrived at the octopus exhibit just in time for a feeding demonstration.  I was amazed as the giant orange octopus unfolded itself from the crevice where it had been hiding and descended to the bottom of the tank, where a sealed jar of shrimp had been placed.  With effortless ease, the mollusk unscrewed the lid and helped itself to a snack.  The entire crowd was spellbound.

That feeding demonstration, it so happens, took place at the Invertebrate House at the National Zoo.

PS:  Just so I don't end on too glum of a note, there will still be one place to see invertebrates in DC after the zoo's exhibit closes next week... no, not Congress.  The Smithsonian Institute also maintains a collection of insects and other arthropods in the Orkin Insect Zoo, located on the National Mall in the National Museum of Natural History.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Satire: Ridiculous Zoo Signs

 Maybe the world is a more dangerous place than it used to be.  Maybe it's that people get hurt more easily than they used to, maybe it's because their feelings get hurt more easily than the used to.  At any rate, we live in a litigatious world.  Of the thousands of folks who enter zoos, aquariums, and other wildlife attractions daily, there are plenty who would happily sue if anything unfortuitious were to happen to them (to which I would reply, "Suckers!  We don't have any money to sue for! Bwa ha ha!"

The problem is that many of these same people are quite willing to do stupid stuff that puts them in harms way.  Maybe they go somewhere that they aren't supposed to, or do something against the rules.  Sometimes it ends in tragedy.  Other times, naught but hurt pride... or a camera snatched by a monkey, or a drenching of tiger urine, or some other unpleasant (but sometimes deserved) outcome.  In other cases, the visitor may be fine, but the animal may suffer.  In either situation, the obvious solution for the zoo or aquarium to cover itself is to put up a sign.

Problem: no one reads signs.  Ever.  I'm pretty sure that I could insert the text, "Come to the keeper office and ask for [me], first person to do so gets my next paycheck!" and no one would notice it.  That or they (correctly) assume that said paycheck is too small for the effort of finding the keeper office... I digress.

Anyway, if we want people to look at signs to get valuable information, maybe we need to make them a little more interesting.  Some possible examples can be found here.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

From the News: A monkey and a gorilla who became friends at Dublin Zoo

The two youngsters quickly became the best of pri-mates

A major trend in zoos over recent years has been the transition towards mixed-species exhibits.  It's lead to a lot of experimentation as different combinations have been tried over the years - some with positive results and some... less so.

As a general rules, primates have been some of the harder animals to incorporate into mixed exhibits.  They are intelligent, dexterious, and curious, often in the manner resembling a destructive, malicious child.  (Of course, I've never been too huge of a fan of monkeys to begin with...)

There have been plenty of successes with even them, however, and this new display at Dublin Zoo looks like it's going to be a big hit with the visitors and (most important) the animals living there.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Zoo History: The Priest, the Duke, and the Deer

The concept of the professional biologist - one who receives schooling and training in order to better study plants and animals - is a relatively new one.  Much of our early knowledge about the natural world comes from our hunter-gatherer past; our more recent knowledge, up until the turn of the last century, comes from gifted amateurs.  Charles Darwin went to school to become a doctor or a clergyman (but achieved neither career), not a field biologist; Alfred Russell Wallace barely went to school at all.

Many of the earliest naturalists made their investigations as a part-time hobby, and were doctors or churchmen.  Not only were these two of the few professions of their era that resulted in substantial schooling, as well as the leisure time to pursue a hobby such as natural history, but they had the added benefit of potentially sending their practitioners off into the world, were discoveries could be made.

One such explorer was Pere ("Father") Armand David, a Lazarist missionary from the south of France.  David had a passion for studying natural history - not only animals, but plants, rocks, and fossils as well.  It was perhaps this interest in the natural world which saw him sent off to China in 1862.  China was, at the time, a largely unknown country to many Europeans, and many of the specimens that David sent back to Paris were brand new to western science.  Among the new species that he discovered were the golden monkey, the Chinese giant salamander, and a black-and-white bear that would later go on to become one of the most famous animals on the planet - the giant panda.

In my mind, however, the most important discovery Pere David made is the one he made in 1865, when he peeked over a wall a few miles south of Peking.  The wall surrounded an imperial game park, one in which westerners were most definitely not allowed inside.  Beyond the wall, David spied a herd of deer; even at the distance he viewed them from, the could tell that they were a brand new species, different from any deer he had ever seen in his life.  There was a reason why: for the past three centuries, the deer had been found in that walled preserve and in that preserve alone.  They were likely the first species to ever go extinct in the wild but survive in captivity.  The Chinese called the deer milu, meaning "the four unlikes", saying that the deer looked like it had the parts of four different animals stuck together: cow, deer, horse, and camel.

Pleading with and bribing guards, David managed to secure skeletons and skins to send to Europe, where they were confirmed as a new species.  Shortly afterwards, European governments approached the Chinese directly to request live specimens, a request which was granted.  A small number of deer left China for zoos in London and Berlin.  They were the lucky ones - within a few decades, a combination of natural disasters and civil unrest (cumulating in the Boxer Rebellion) drove the species to extinction in its native China.

The story of the animal that became known as Pere David's deer could have ended there, and it likely would have if not for one man: the 11th Duke of Bedford.  The Duke collected most of the remaining deer and turned them loose on his Woburn Abbey where, protected from hunters, they bred.  As the herd increased in size, it was split up and animals were sent to other zoos and breeders, until over one thousand were to be found in collections around the world.  In some places, it has become so common that it is farmed for venison.

In 1985, the story of Pere David's deer came full circle, when two small herds were reintroduced to China, where they had been absent for decades.  One herd was released in Jiangsu Province.  The other was released in the former Imperial Deer Park where, 120 years ago, a curious French priest had peeked over a wall he wasn't supposed to peek over, and thereby saved a species from extinction.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Book Review: The Rhino with Glue-On Shoes

"Populations of lions, tigers, bears, and many other species that could once withstand a disease outbreak or natural disaster now need our help.  The health of each individual wild animal matters, whether it's free-living or captive."

If there is anyone who has crazier stories than a zookeeper, it's the zoo vet.  The keeper's crazy stories are diluted with the relatively calm days of routine care.  By the time a problem lands in the vet's lap, things are already out-of-the-ordinary.  In The Rhino with Glue-On Shoes, Dr. Lucy Spelman, former director of the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, and Dr. Ted Mashima collect some of the most unique into one enjoyable volume.

Stories are grouped into loosely themed sections; one, for example, describes how technological advances have changed the way that vets take care of wild animals (including the titular story, detailing Dr. Spelman's fancy footwork on an Indian rhino), while another describes the physical challenges of wrangling patients, be they camels or crocodiles.  The first section explores the close bonds that humans and animals form, including some unlikely examples.  My favorite story describes a green moray eel at the New England Aquarium, recently donated by the bartender who was keeping him as a pet, who refused to eat in his new home.  Fearing that the eel might starve to death, the aquarists invited his former owner to pay him a visit.  To their surprise, the eel responded immediately to the presence of his former caretaker, swimming over cheerfully for a snack, and willingly eating from that day on.  It's a poignant reminder that, when caring for animals, we have to consider their mental and emotional health as well as their physical health.

The subtitle of the book is "Surprising True Stories of Zoo Vets and Their Patients."  The cases involved aren't always zoo vets per se - not only are their aquarium vets, but there are also wildlife rehabilitators and field biologists as well - but the stories are often surprising.  It's especially enjoyable to see how Spelman, Mashima, and their contributors use the case studies involved to teach larger stories.  These could easily have been a collection of medical reviews, a sort of "House M.D." for zookeepers.  Instead, the authors present the medical cases as part of a greater lesson.

For example, one story details a white-tailed deer fawn "adopted" by two women who found it (in actuality, white-tail does often hide their fawns while they go off foraging; many "orphaned" fawns are actually taken while their mother is off, but intending to return).  The contributor could have made this a story about ear infection and diarrhea and all of the other problems the fawn was facing - and these are all covered.  What is also presented, however, is a warning about well-meaning people taking animals from the wild with negative results for the creatures that they are intending to help.  In many stories, a conservation connection is made.

Zoo-buffs and vet students will enjoy The Rhino with Glue-On Shoes.  The book's easily-written manner and explanatory manner, however, make it accessible to the lay-person as well.  It's a good read for anyone with compassion for animals who wants to learn about how their caretakers manage of the health of some very wild patients.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Zoo Joke: Search Warrant

A zookeeper is working in his section one day, when suddenly he feels a tap on the shoulder.  Turning around, he finds himself face to face with a police detective, flashing a bright, shiny badge in his face.

"I've received an anonymous tip that there are illegal drugs being stored at this zoo," the detective says, pulling an official-looking document from his pocket.  "I have a search warrant that authorizes me to search this entire facility until I find out if this is true or not."

The zookeeper, confused but not seeing any problems with this, agrees. He does, however, balk when he sees the detective trying to open a door that is secured with a heavy lock and chain.

"Um, I wouldn't go into that one if I were you," the zookeeper begins, cautiously.

Furiously, the detective turns on him.  "You see THIS?!?" he yells, brandishing the warrant in the zookeeper's face.  "This gives me the right to go anywhere and do anything that I deem pertinent to this investigation, no matter what anyone else says.  You got that?!?"  The zookeeper complies, backing away and apologizing.  Without another word, the detective produces a pair of bolt cutters, cuts the lock, opens the door, and walks through it.

Five seconds later, the zookeeper hears a horrified scream come from beyond the door, drowned out by an angry roar.  The detective comes tearing back out the door, running as fast as he can, with an enormous grizzly bear in hot pursuit.  With every pace, the bear is getting closer and closer until his jaws are snapping at the very coattails of the fleeing detective.

Dropping his tools, the zookeeper chases after the bear and the detective, screaming as he goes:

"The warrant!  Show him the warrant!"

Friday, June 6, 2014

Species Fact Profile: Chinese Alligator (Alligator sinensis)

Chinese Alligator
Alligator sinensis (Fauvel, 1879)

Range: Eastern China
Habitat: Wetlands, Ponds, Rivers
Diet: Aquatic Mollusks, Fish, Waterfowl, Small Mammals
Social Grouping: Solitary, Female with Hatchlings
Reproduction: Males are polygynous, mate in June (after start of the rainy season), nesting occurs from July through August, 10-50 eggs laid in mound-like nest constructed of plant material, incubation period of 70 days, sexual maturity reached at 4-5 years
Lifespan: 50 Years (Wild), 70 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Critically Endangered, CITES Appendix I

  • One of the smallest crocodilians at 2 meters long (possible that it once grew larger), weighing 40 kilograms.  Besides smaller size, differs from American alligator in upturned snout and more extensive armoring (including the belly and the bony eyelids)
  • Dark green-brown scales; juveniles are black with bright yellow bands
  • Females provide parental care for eggs, helping hatchlings escape the shell and carrying young to water; females may share a burrow with their young for their first winter
  • Very cryptic species - primarily active at night and spending 6-7 months of the year hibernating in underground burrows, emerging in late spring to bask
  • Once found throughout eastern China (and possibly Korea, based on ancient texts), now limited to a few agricultural pools within protected areas; reintroduction efforts hope to establish the species in parts of its former range (the captive population is thriving within China and around the world - the challenge is finding suitable sites for reintroduction)
  • Habitat loss is main threat to species, sometimes persecuted by humans due to occasionally predation on small domestic animals; skin is not considered commercially valuable in leather trade
  • Known as "the muddy dragon" in Chinese folklore, Chinese alligators were considered a possible inspiration for the Chinese dragon - associated with storms, rains, and flooding; Marco Polo described them in his writings
  • Only member of the alligator family (Alligatoridae) found outside of the Americas

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Zoo Review: St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park

Much like Sylvan Heights, St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park is a highly specialized facility.  For over one hundred and twenty years, alligators have been displayed at the farm (which moved location once during the course of its history), making it one of the oldest tourist attractions in the state of Florida.  While there are now countless alligator farms across the southern US - some high quality, some dingy pits - St. Augustine is easily one of the best, and certainly one of the best known.  It's main claim to fame: being the only facility in the world to display all twenty-four living species of crocodile, alligator, caiman, and gharial.

The American alligator is the star of the park, and alligators can be found throughout the facility.  A pen-full of hatchlings greets visitors as soon as they enter through the gift shop, while juveniles splash around in a pool (mixed with other species) just outside the education building.  A pair of albinos lurk in nearby pools (shaded to keep the sun off of them), while forty of the biggest alligators I'd ever seen lounged in a pen across the path.  The biggest thrill, however, was the park's largest exhibit: an enormous, natural swampland, with (if I had to guess) over one-hundred and fifty (that's right 1-5-0) adult alligators swimming underneath the elevated boardwalk or lounging on the banks.  I also believe I spied an American crocodile or two mixed in with the group.  It was the mating season when I visited, and there were times when all of the water beneath me seemed to be vibrating with the bellows of courting males or the thrashing of disputing bulls.

The alligators weren't the only attraction in the swampland - the trees above them were bursting with a different kind of animal attraction... this one completely wild.  Hundreds of wading birds - wood storks, roseate spoonbills, white ibises,   and half-a-dozen species of egret and stork were roosting in the trees overhead, building their nests at eye-level with the visitors.  It's easy to understand why - no raccoon, snake, or other predator is going to reach their nests, not if it means crossing the alligator-swarmed swamplands beneath.  For every visitor I saw in St. Augustine who was there to see the gators, I swear there were two or three folks with cameras as big as me who only came to photograph birds.

Most of the remaining crocodilian species can be seen on the Land of Crocodiles trail, where the reptiles are divided geographically: the Americas, Africa, and Asia.  The highlight for me was seeing several species that I'd never had the chance to view before: the Siamese crocodile, the black caiman, the New Guinea crocodile... as well as some species that I'd only seen once or twice before.  While the exhibit was a hit with me, I could understand how it might be less thrilling for the layperson.  With the exception of a few small bird and primate exhibits, it's all crocs, and the crocs are all in largely identical displays, side by side.  If the chance every came to completely redo the zoo, I'd really suggest spreading the crocodilians out and interspersing them with a few other species.

The one species not found in the Land of Crocodiles was one of the facility's star attractions: the saltwater crocodiles, stars of a modest Australia area.  Maximo and Sydney, the pair of salties, can be seen either at ground level or in an underwater viewing bunker, which double-functions as a sort of museum of saltwater crocodiles.  Maximo, the fifteen-foot male, was imported from Australia to serve as a replacement for the park's former saltwater crocodile, the even larger Gomek.  Gomek passed away some years ago, but is still on display: his stuffed remains are visible in a nearby building.

What also impressed me about St. Augustine was the visitor experience.  There were constant feeding demos and keeper chats, many of them featuring zookeepers casually strolling among behemoth alligators.  There were opportunities to feed alligators (not fish or other meat - the farm uses a commercial dry diet).  The snack bar was a comfortable place to lounge, overlooking the gators on one side and giant tortoises on the other.  Perhaps the neatest addition to the park is the new Crocodile Crossing zipline, which allows guests to careen overhead in an arboreal obstacle course above the crocodiles (including Cuban crocodiles... notorious for their jumping abilities).

St Augustine Alligator Farm does crocodilians very well... it doesn't do a whole lot else.  There is a decent collection of reptiles (the highlights including Komodo dragons, king cobras, and the biggest reticulated python I ever saw).  The bird collection is pretty small, but the species list includes some rarely seen species.  I was especially impressed with the Birds of Africa display, where marabou storks, crowned cranes, and massive Cape griffon vultures strut and preen.  The mammal collection is limited to a few primates, none larger than the ruffed lemurs.

That's fine with me - there's something to be said for specializing.  I've been to plenty of zoos that do primates or birds well.  I've never seen a facility that has done such a masterful job with crocodilians.  Many of the species kept here have bred here, including some hard to breed ones.  The Florida climate allows animals to be kept outside in natural sunlight year round (though some of the tropical species require additional heating in the winter).  I was given the chance to see behind the scenes and watch the staff, and the work done on training and enrichment of crocodilians was astounding.  It's for these reasons and others that St. Augustine Alligator Farm is home to the Crocodilian Biology and Captive Management class, were zookeepers from around the world come to learn the most advanced techniques in crocodilian care.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Monkey Business

"Monkeys are superior to men in this: when a monkey looks into a mirror, he sees a monkey"
~Malcolm de Chazal

When talking to visitors on zoo grounds, a question that frequently pops up is, "What's your favorite animal?" I usually try to brush the question off with a joke, "Oh, we're not allowed to have favorites, it makes all of the other animals jealous"  The fact of the matter is... I don't know.  It's not just that I don't have a favorite individual animal in the zoo (though I do keep a short-list).  It's that I don't have a favorite animal.  At all.

Over the years, I've gone through phases.  I loved reptiles in high school (this was when Steve Irwin was in his prime and catching crocs and wrangling snakes seemed like the coolest thing imaginable).  Hoofstock caught my eye for a while, but I spent most of my college years head-over-heels with carnivores.  Reptiles have made a bit of a comeback these days, though I also confess to being something of a bird-nerd.  

There are some animals that I've never gotten too into, however.  Elephants are cool, as are dolphins, but I never felt any special draw towards either of them.  Despite my newfound appreciation for birds, I'm always leery about parrots.  And my feelings about parrots are nothing compared to how I feel about monkeys.

The visitors, now they love monkeys.  They're easily some of the most popular animals at our zoo.  I get asked all the time if we go in and play with them, and gosh they must be so much fun to work with!  What would it be like to have one as a pet... oh my God, and you could dress it up, too (*shudder*)!

I never like to speak ill of any animal in front of a visitor, but I feel it's in everyone's best interests if I disabuse them of a few notions now and then.  Here's one that I feel I end up repeating a lot: there is probably no worse pet on earth than a monkey.  If someone gave me that choice of having to have a pet rattlesnake or a pet spider monkey, I'd take the rattlesnake, hands down.  Not that I'm saying venomous snakes are an ideal pet - they are not.  It's just that this seems to be a lot more intuitive to many people than a monkey would be.

The things that we love about monkeys - their intelligence, their agility, their playfulness - all conspire to make them terrible pets.  They are very inquisitive, and they can - and will - get into anything.  They are equally adept at getting out of anything, and few things are more stressful than trying to capture an escaped primate zipping through the trees.  They're very human-like... which means that disease transmission is a bigger risk from monkeys than it is from many other mammals (and this cuts both ways, too, which is why we ask very nicely that visitors do not feed the animals).  Another aspect of the human-like nature is a sometimes casual cruelty - people can say what they want to about cats, but I've seen squirrel monkeys and tamarins eagerly catch a songbird that flew into the enclosure and gleefully pull limbs off while the bird is still alive.  Cats at least eat their kills...  Monkeys are surprisingly strong, which is especially unpleasant when you consider that they can be very aggressive.  Perhaps it's the family resemblance, but captive monkeys seem to have much less instinctive fear of humans than other mammals do.  A medium-sized carnivore will give you some space when you enter its enclosure.  A monkey will be up in your face so fast that you'll smell it's breath.

Oh, and speaking of "smell"...

Monkeys are, to varying degrees, treetop dwellers.  They live in a world where, if you poop, it drops a hundred feet down to the forest floor where they never have to see it, smell it, or think about it again.  They typically don't go for toilet training or litter boxes.  Works fine in the jungle, less so in your home.  

Keeping a pet monkey isn't just a bad idea for you... it's bad for the monkey.  Monkeys are intelligent, social creatures.  Being in a house, waiting for you to come home and play with it isn't the life they were meant for.  Most people who keep monkeys keep one, which means that the animal stops being monkeys and starts being a neurotic little pseudo-person.  I cared for one such monkey back in my sanctuary days after it was surrendered by an overwhelmed owner.  That little capuchin had so many problems that, if he'd have been a person, he'd have had his own reality TV show in no time. Which reminds me, monkeys are much more long-lived than a dog or cat, so they'll need care for years and years.  And an unwanted monkey is not an easy animal to find a suitable home for when you decide that you're tired of it.

Most of the people I've talked to are easily convinced that a monkey isn't for them after all; I'm sure most of them were hardly serious about wanting one in the first place.  I'd say 99/100 of the remainder may still want one but will never actually take any steps towards getting one.  Folks I've talked to who do have a monkey are convinced that they've done the right thing, that their "child" is happier with them as part of a family than it would be in a zoo.  The zoo's monkeys don't have the fancy toys or clothes that their monkeys do, and by my own admission I never go in for kisses and cuddles.  

That's true... because I don't need to.  Our monkeys need me to provide food, water, shelter, medical care, and enrichment.  For companionship and affection, they rely on each other - the rest of their troop.  That's because they are monkeys, not little hairy people.  And they know it.  And I feel like it's my job to make sure that all of our visitors understand that point as well.

I wouldn't really say that I dislike monkeys... I just have a much more realistic view of them than many people do (easily understood when you consider the popular image of monkeys portrayed in the media as lovable pets).  There are plenty of keepers out there who are completely devoted to their primates and would never dream of working with a different group of animals.  And even I, despite an inherent bias, have come across a monkey or two over my years who might earn a spot on the short-list of my favorites...

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Bärle's Story

The world of zoos and aquariums is a world of stories.  Some of those are the stories of places or species.  Others are the stories of individuals - human and animal.  When, in my storytelling post, I mentioned a few of the zoo stories that I would love to see shared with the world, one of those was the story of the Suarez Seven - seven polar bears being kept in inhumane conditions as circus performers in Latin America.  I only knew the story because I was lucky enough to help care for one of the bears after she started a new life in an American zoo.  For the most part, it's not a well known tale.

Else Poulsen knows the story of the Suarez Seven better than most people, and more importantly, she was ready to share it.  Over her thirty-year career as a wildlife biologist and zookeeper, Poulsen has worked with a wide variety of species, but bears have always had a special place in her heart.  She has published books and scholarly articles on bear biology and, as the founding consultant for Behavioral & Environmental Solutions, has worked to improve conditions for captive bears around the world.

Drawing on her experiences with the "runt" of the seven, Poulson introduces the world to a very special polar bear in her new book, Bärle's Story: One Polar Bear's Amazing Recovery from Life as a Circus Act, which will be released very shortly.  Poulsen was kind enough to offer some background on Barle and the rest of the seven in a brief interview:

Why did the plight and the rescue of Bärle and the other six polar bears touring the tropical Caribbean in the Suarez Brothers Circus capture the hearts of millions of people around the globe?

When it was first discovered that there were polar bears suffering in the tropical heat of Mexico and the Caribbean in 1996 there was an international outcry of indignation. People seemed to instinctively understand that polar bears did not belong in tropics.  In the circus they were constantly on the move, lived in a crate sized cages, and were physically and mentally abused during training sessions and performances.  In the six years that it took to rescue the bears, one bear named Yiopa suffered and died of a curable worm infestation left untreated by circus officials until effective veterinary intervention was too late. Organizations such PETA and the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, dropped their normally adversarial political agendas and worked closely together to free the bears.  Other advocates included US senators, Congress, the Government of Manitoba, and the global media.

First, there was a break, one bear named Alaska was found to have false documents, was rescued and given a new home at the Baltimore Zoo. Then, the remaining Suarez Six, as they had been dubbed by the media, were rescued in a complicated operation involving hundreds of professionals from zoos, Fed Ex, governments, and PETA.  One bear named Royal overheated and died on route. The other five arrived safely at their new homes to begin their lengthy recovery. Two of the males named Willie and Masha were given new homes at the North Carolina Zoo, two other males named Kenny and Boris were rehomed at the Point Defiance Zoo in Washington, and the littlest bear, a female named Bärle arrived safely at the Detroit Zoo in November 2002. Bärle became a celebrity, beloved by thousands who followed her recovery as she learned to become a polar bear.

Bärle "hunting" seals at the Detroit Zoo, Photo Credit: Tom Roy

Why wouldn’t the zoo professionals who rescued Bärle and the other six polar bears consider releasing them all back into the wild?

Growing up to be a successful polar bear takes more than just the nature of what they are born with; like growing humans, it also takes nurturing.   Although a bear has an urge to hunt for seals, she must learn from her mother where to find seals and how to hunt them. She also learns how to socialize with other bears, how to find and court mates, how to raise young, how to weather an Arctic storm, and many other life sustaining skills. Bears continue to learn about their environment after they leave their mothers, honing their hunting, social, and survival skills. Polar bears that have lived in the circus world for many years have not learned wild bear survival skills. Due to poor living conditions and diets, they are most often not healthy animals. It can take years for such a bear to recover mentally and physically.  If these bears were to be released into the wild they would either die of starvation or be killed in encounters with other bears, other animals, or humans.

In your close relationship with Bärle in her recovery, what did you learn about polar bears and their abilities?

I had twenty years of experience working with polar bears before I met Bärle, and had learned that polar bears are intelligent, social animals, that share food, have language, use tools, and problem solve. Even though Bärle was a middle aged bear of 18 years when she arrived at the Detroit Zoo, she was as innocent as a cub to the ways of adult polar bear behavior.  We began to work on her mental and physical health immediately tending to her medical needs while slowly increasing the complexity of her environment so we did not overwhelm her. “What Bärle wants, Bärle gets” became our recovery slogan as we created for her a safe living environment where she could try new things, make mistakes, and try again. It was a lot to negotiate and Bärle would need a friend to help her through the process. I became that friend. Over time she became skilful at communicating with the seven other polar bears that lived at the zoo, chose a mate, and successfully raised her own cub. Although Bärle’s origin was a mystery, her skillful ability to raise her cub suggested that she had been raised by her mother in the wild. Bärle was the most abused bear I had worked with both in longevity and circumstance. Her relentless effort to uncover her polar bear sensibilities and learn to fit in with grace and raw determination was an inspiration to us all. She taught us that animals can recover; even animals who have been severely abused for years can recover.

Did Bärle really teach her cub Talini how to hunt live seals at the Detroit Zoo?

Yes, Bärle is the only captive polar bear in the world who has taught her cub how to hunt seals. The Detroit Zoo had completed their new polar bear complex called the Arctic Ring of Life in 2001.  It features a 170,000 gallon, thirteen foot deep salt water pool which is divided in the center by an acrylic wall giving access to seals on the one side and polar bears on the other. When it was first built there was some concern over how the seals would deal with the fact that one of their top predators lived next door. Planners counted on the fact that seals are intelligent creatures. Within a few hours of visual access the seals understood that the bears could not get at them and a never ending game of tag ensued between some of the animals. Triton, the young male polar bear who ultimately befriended Bärle, also befriended Kiinaq the young male gray seal and the two played together day after day. Bärle’s attitude toward seals never changed. Seals were meant for hunting, and she spent hours keenly watching them, and developing and perfecting hunting techniques. This suggested that Bärle had been raised by a wild mother before being orphaned. When Bärle raised her own cub named Talini, she taught her these perfected techniques in serious teaching sessions where Talini was not allowed to play with toys or the visitors she could see through the windows. Outside of hunting instruction, Bärle not only allowed Talini to play with humans through the windows but encouraged it and seemed to use humans as cub-sitters while she rested. 

Bärle and Tailini, Photo Credit: Tom Roy

What was your objective in telling Bärle’s story? What can people do to help protect captive bears like Bärle and wild polar bears?

Bärle’s rescue and recovery is the remarkable story of what is possible when we drop the human agenda and focus on the animal’s agenda. Interviewing the other team members, so many years later for the book, was a remarkable experience.

The good will that acted as the catalyst for the rescue, rehabilitation, and recovery of these circus bears is still alive today in each person whose life was touched by the Bärle, Alaska, Royal, Willie, Masha, Boris, and Kenny. I wrote the book to inspire readers to make a difference by asking questions of local, regional, national, and international organizations and authorities. Where did this bear in this commercial, movie, circus, zoo, or road-side menagerie come from? Is he well cared for? Will the polar bear population survive global warming? What are we doing or what can we do to help? Is the added pressure of hunting polar bears helping to conserve them? Asking questions makes organizations and authorities accountable and life invariably improves for bears.

It's a testament to the care and commitment of so many people from so many organizations that the polar bears of the Suarez Seven were given a chance to escape their inhumane confinement and live out the rest of their lives as bears, not as circus performers.  A huge "thank you" to Else Poulsen for sharing Barle's Story!  Be sure to check out her new book, Barle's Story!