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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A Redesigned Zoo Where Humans Stay Hidden, by Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan

I came across this article today and thought it was interesting - though perhaps not as well-explained as I would have liked it to have been (though in fairness to the author, she does emphasize that this is a very rough draft of an idea).  The concept of minimizing the visitor impact on the animal is of obvious value, especially for sensitive species, as well as species which are part of ongoing reintroduction efforts.

That being said, there are plenty of intelligent zoo animals, such as primates and bears, which seem to enjoy interacting with the public, provided they are given opportunities for privacy and escape from the public eye. What works for some species may not be as advantageous for others.

A Redesigned Zoo Where Humans Stay Hidden Could Be Better For Animals, 
by Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan

A Redesigned Zoo Where Humans Stay Hidden Could Be Better For Animals

Even the most zoo-friendly amongst us probably harbor mixed feelings about the undeniable psychological and physical toll that captivity takes on animals. The Danish architects at Bjarke Ingels Group think they've designed a better way. A Zootopia, if you will, where humans are usually hidden from animals by grass shelters and mirrored pods.

According to ArchDaily, Ingels and co presented a design for a new master plan of Givskud Zoo, an almost 50-year-old zoo in Denmark, at a press conference today. The design—which it bears mentioning is still very premature—imagines almost 300 acres of zoo divided into continents, which visitors access by a number of ramps, bridges, and tunnels burrowed into the landscape. In some areas, visitors would hide inside hollowed out log piles. In others, shelters would be embedded in grassy hillocks near the animals. At the crux of the park, a wide stone bowl lets them climb up to observe the parkland and access trails through the open territory. 

Read the rest of the article here

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Does Not Compute

I had trouble deciding what to write about today.  I decided to jog my thought process by doing a little web browsing, maybe look at a few zoo sites, or check some of the animal care groups on facebook.  While I was at it, I thought I'd catch up on some data entry.  That's something I'm technically supposed to be doing at work, but never seem to have time to, and besides, we only have one (occasionally) working laptop there anyway.

Not that my personal laptop is doing much better - it froze every other minute (sometimes for ten minutes at a stretch), dropped pages, and spent forever opening pages which turned out not to exist.  All sorts of exciting new programs seem to download themselves all the time without my knowledge or permission, none of which are stopped by my useless virus protection.  My internet connection is lousy, my laptop is getting old, and my major accomplishment for the evening is me not putting my boot through the screen.

I really hate computers.  And then, suddenly, I knew what to blog about - me hating computers.

You know, it's downright amazing how many picture options come up when you do a Google Images search for the words "punch" and "computer"...

Virtually every profession these days involves computers in some capacity.  In some cases it is more obvious than others, but pretty much everyone relies on email, the internet, book-keeping software, or at the very least a word processor. Zoo and aquarium keeping have, like many other fields, been brought into the computer age, sometimes enthusiastically, sometimes kicking and screaming.  Often kicking and screaming, actually.  That the director, the marketing coordinator, education curator, and other office-types need computers is fairly obvious, but what about the keepers?  Whenever we raise the question of getting better computers (or at least a second equally-crappy one), I imagine the folks at city hall scratching their heads...

"Why do a bunch of pooper-scoopers need computers at work, anyway?"

There are actually a lot of things zoo staff need computers for.  A major component of the job is record-keeping.  Many zoos now use specialized record-keeping programs - ZIMS, TRACKS, ARKS, and all sorts of other fancy acronyms - to keep track of animal data on subjects ranging from diet and behavior to enrichment and training.  Not only does this data prove useful to current keepers, allowing them to organize information about their animals, it is also essential for historical data.  I often find myself looking back at data from keepers years ago (such as changes in diet over time, or how behavior changes prior to a pregnant animal giving birth), and I expect keepers in the future will find uses for the data we collect now.  The alternative to putting it in convenient, readable, searchable computer programs are stacks and stacks of paper records that get waterlogged, lost, burnt, or are just plain unreadable.

A second way in which computers are essential to zoo and aquarium keepers is research.  The field of animal care is constantly changing with new developments, and new information and discoveries are being made all the time.  Some of this is shared in online articles and encyclopedias.  A whole lot of it, however, is from emails, listserves, and, surprisingly often, facebook.  A day doesn't go by without me getting a half dozen emails on a listserve on topics ranging from animal placement (i.e., trying to find homes for confiscated or non-releasable animals) to behavioral problems to exhibit design.  The same is true with facebook - special groups devoted to zookeepers allow animal keepers from around the world to quickly, easily, and informally exchange information and bounce ideas off of one another.

None of these explanations goes over tremendously well at work.  I think some folks just develop images of zookeepers hiding in the office all day playing Farmville instead of working.  So, until someone in our department wins the lottery and buys us a new computer (or, more likely, takes the money and retires to Cancun the next day), I'll keep bringing work home with me... and cursing this laptop the whole time.

Friday, July 25, 2014

From the News: Patricia Wright, lemur expert, at Seneca Park Zoo

"The Seneca Park Zoo has been an amazing partner in this. You need someone who is going to stick with you and keep funding the things you need."
- Patricia Wright

Even a relatively small zoo can have an outsized impact, both on conservation and on the lives of its visitors.  The article doesn't explain what led to Patricia Wright's transformation from housewife to lemur expert, but it's hard to imagine that the zoo had no impact in the transition.  Whatever the role of the Seneca Park Zoo in her story, it's inspirational to see how one person - no matter at what stage of life - can make a difference for endangered wildlife, even if its at the other end of the globe. 

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

National Zookeeper Week

"“Those of us who have chosen a life with animals know we have chosen well. Having a conversation with a lion is a fine way to start one’s day. For that matter, so is tossing tidbits to a toucan, or medicating a cobra. There’s something there, in the lion’s luminous eyes, in the gaudy splendor of the toucan, in the cobra’s sibilant protests: it’s magic. It’s the stuff of fairy tales to interact with animals like these, even in a scientific setting, and in spite of repetitious, routine chores. You should envy us, for we are the most fortunate of humans—we take care of the animals at the zoo.” 

- Dana Payne, Woodland Park Zoo

Happy National Zookeeper Week!

This week, we celebrate the zookeepers (and aquarists) who make our institutions work.  They are the ones who come in every day - even Christmas, even Thanksgiving - to care for the animals as their facilities.  They brave scorching heat and freezing winter, working through heat waves and hurricanes alike.  They prepare diets of every description imaginable.  They provide enrichment to keep animals physically and mentally healthy.  And, of course, they scoop mountains of poop.

Being a zookeeper has its challenges and its rewards.  They welcome new animals into the world, and watch as old, beloved ones leave it.  They share their passion for wildlife with visitors of all ages... and deal with some of the less savory elements of the public.  They work all hours, do the impossible in the service of their animals, and then limp home with a baffling variety of injuries.  They aren't motivated by money (although some more would be nice...) or by glory (though of course we are all awesome), but by the simple desire to do their job as well as possible and provide their animals with the best of care.

Next time you visit a zoo or aquarium, try to take a moment to greet a keeper, maybe ask a question or two, and thank them for their hard work in keeping the place going and the animals cared for.  We appreciate it!  That being said, the job is also its own reward... I never wanted another one.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Naming Cliches

Yesterday's post about animal names got me thinking... there are a lot of cliche animal names out there.  For every person who comes up with a brilliant, witty, original name for their dog, there are a lot of Dukes, Jakes, and Bears (though come to think of it, I've never seen a "Fido" or "Rover").  Here are some other over-used named for zoo animals.  They're certainly better than some of the options discussed yesterday, but we could still probably try to use a little less often...

Bear: Bruno
Camel: Omar
Chimpanzee: Darwin
Gorilla: Kong, Congo
Jaguar: Maya
Lemur: King Julian
Leopard: Bagheera
Lion: Simba*, Aslan, Leo
Kangaroo: Boomer
Macaw: Rio
Python: Monty
Rabbit: Peter, Thumper
Skunk: Stinky, Flower, Pepe Le Pew
Tiger: Shere, Khan, Lily
Turtle: Michelangelo, Leonardo, Raphael, Donatello
Warthog: Pumbaa

*Want to be really unoriginal?  Consider naming your animal after what the species is called in its native region (i.e.: "Simba" is Swahili for "Lion")

I always liked the name "Humphry" for a llama... because it's like a camel, only "hump free"... hee hee hee...

Monday, July 21, 2014

Hi! My Name Is....

"Like the pine trees lining the winding road - I got a name, I've got a name,
Like the singing bird and the croaking toad - I got a name, I've got a name"
- Jim Croce, I Got a Name

When I was a young'un, just getting started in the keeper world, the zoo where I was volunteering had a litter of five cheetah cubs born.  This was big news - the first in the zoo's history - and it made national papers, which in turn led to lots of correspondence for the zoo.  Many of these letters that flooded in, besides congratulations, offered up naming suggestions for the cubs.  When visiting the cheetah section one day, I saw one such letter taped to the refrigerator, suggesting the names Anita, Bonita, Clarita, Conchita, and Dorita (I don't know if anyone every told his person that cheetahs weren't from Latin America).

Anita and Bonita (or is it Clarita and Conchita?) frolicking in the leaves

Scrolled across the bottom of the letter in angry Sharpie writing was a note from one of the cheetah keepers: "This is why we don't let the public name our animals!"

It's a sad fact, but not all zoo animals get names.  This is in part dependent upon what kind of animal we're talking about.  If you have a flock of thirty flamingos, you probably won't name them all.  You'll have a number for each of them, but a name, no - how would you tell who was who anyway (besides looking at their ID number, usually on a band around the leg)?  For some animals managed as a group, there might not even be an individual number - just a group ID.  Reptiles, amphibians, fish, and invertebrates tend not to be named either, unless they are individuals who stand out for some reason.  Well, in many cases; when I was a reptile keeper, I think I named just about every snake, lizard, and turtle I cared for, even if the name existed only in my mind and nowhere on paper.

Which raises a second point... names also come about depending on the keepers in question.  I know plenty of old-time keepers who don't name animals... even primates, bears, and big cats, which in my opinion have way too much personality to just be a number, or "the female leopard."  They say that it anthropomorphizes the animals, or sends "the wrong message" to the public that the animals are pets.  They may have their own private house names for the animals, but would never tell a member of the public.

For a zoo's most famous, most charismatic animals, however, house names are common knowledge among the general public.  How these animals get the names depends on circumstances.  Most animal names come from the keepers.  There may be a specific rhyme or reason to the names - at one zoo where I worked, babies were always given a name starting with the same letter as their mother to help keep track of family lines - or it may be something that the staff just likes the sound of.  There's been an increasing trend of naming animals in the language of their origin country - another excellent reason to learn Swahili, Spanish, Hindi, or Portuguese.

Excerpt from the book My Life With Alice

Sometimes, the right to name an animal is given to a donor.  And then there are the naming contests...

I fear public naming contests.  Seriously.  I've heard the names that people come up with.  "Barry"... the bear.  "Ellie"... the elephant.  Oh, and the black and spotted leopards?  You guessed it - "Blackie" and "Spot".  It would fine if this was from the kids, but really, the adults?  Folks like this make our would-be cheetah namer sound like a fountain of originality.  In an effort to reduce such tragic naming accidents (I can only imagine the possibility of an animal dying from shame after being saddled with a colossally stupid name), zoos have tended to rig naming contests... well, not "rig", but more like "limit the options to  acceptable outcomes."  Three or four suggested names will be made available for voting, all pre-screened by staff.

One bit of zoo etiquette - if you learn the house name of a zoo animal, treat it as a cool tidbit of knowledge.  Don't feel the need to scream it at the animal over and over again at your next visit.  He or she knows you aren't the keeper and they will... not... care.  All you will do is annoy the animal, its exhibit mates, its keepers, and every person in a fifty yard radius.

The most complicated and ornate naming rituals are associated with the giant pandas (actually, the most complicated and ornate everything are usually associated with giant pandas).  Panda cubs are, in the traditional Chinese fashion, given their name at a naming day celebration when they are 100 days old.  Names are invariably Chinese in origin, carefully selected for each cub.

That's good... I'd hate to think of an animal as rare as a giant panda going through life with some of those names I've heard people suggest...

"I don't care HOW much money the donor has, we are NOT naming the panda Kevin!"

Saturday, July 19, 2014

From the News: Quincy Man Arrested after Swimming in Aquarium Shark Tank

After some recent posts, I was worried that I might be giving the impression that people only did ridiculous, stupid stuff when visiting zoos, not aquariums.  So, to even the scale a little bit, here's a gem from New England Aquarium.  To be fair, the title is - slightly - misleading.  The man in question jumped into the aquarium's main tank, which does have sharks, but not especially large or dangerous ones.  Still...

Many aquariums do, in fact, have programs that allow visitors to dive with their animals.  I'm thinking especially of Georgia Aquarium's program of swimming with their whale sharks.  Still, if you desire such an opportunity, probably best to arrange it through the aquarium.  Don't go taking the initiative and do it yourself.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Zoo History: The Fishmonger's Son

The life of Carl Hagenbeck Jr. changed forever the moment the fishermen walked into his father's office.  Carl Sr. was a fishmonger, and he had a contract with these sturgeon fishermen to purchase their catch - all of it.  It just so happened that this time, their catch included six young seals, captured in the Elbe.  Not knowing what else to do with them, Carl's father tossed the seals into a holding tank and put them on display for a small fee.  To his surprise, the seals were a sensation; when the novelty wore off, he sold them at a profit and bought more animals to display.  In 1866, Hagenbeck offered his son, Carl Jr., a choice - inherit his father's vastly more profitable and reliable fish business, or take over their fledgling, modest exotic animal business. Carl chose the later.

Over the years, the Hagenbeck business grew by leaps and bounds until it was the foremost animal dealing company in the world.  With agents in every colonial port in Africa and Asia, Hagenbeck was responsible for importing many species which had never been seen in Europe or the United States before: the first black rhino, elephant seal, Mongolian wild horse, and African manatee, for instance.  The pygmy hippos that he sold to the Bronx Zoo in 1912, the first of their kind in America, sold for $12,000, the greatest price the zoo had paid for an animal up to that point.

When Hagenbeck's success began to encourage other dealers to enter the exotic animal trade, he found a way to beat the competition by providing an even more extraordinary service.  In capturing wild animals for zoos and circuses, agents were assisted by indigenous peoples, as exotic and unfamiliar to Europeans as the animals they sought: “no less wild then the beasts”, Hagenbeck declared.  Soon, he began arranged "ethnological exhibitions" - importing indigenous peoples from around the globe to tour Europe and essentially become a human zoo.  Lakota from the United States, Saami from Scandinavia, Bedouins from North Africa, and Ceylonese "devil dancers" from Sri Lanka were among the groups featured in these shows.

The exotics business - animal and human - provided Hagenbeck with the wealth and prestige that he needed to unveil his most ambitious project to date.  He had made his fortune supplying the zoos of Europe and America.  Based on his observations, he decided that he could do them one better.  Purchasing a potato field outside of Hamburg, Hagenbeck opened a zoo unlike any the world had ever seen before.  Among his many skills, Hagenbeck was a very capable trainer - unique in this era for his belief in training with positive reinforcement instead of brutal punishments - and he used this skill to learn how far and high animals could jump.  Armed with this knowledge and combined with his natural flair for showmanship, Hagenbeck designed the world's first "modern" zoo - open air enclosures, mixed-species habitats by geographic area, and predators and prey seeming to live alongside one another, but actually separated by hidden moats.  In essence, he created the naturalistic zoo exhibit.

The idea took a while to catch on - many of the older guard of zoo directors were horrified by the idea - but catch on it did.  Though Hagenbeck's zoo was destroyed (along with virtually every other German zoo) during World War II, his legacy lived on in the exhibits that sprang up in zoos around the world.  Animals that would have otherwise been banished to cramped indoor cages of iron bars and tile walls were given grass, soil, water, trees, rocks, and, most importantly, the chance to express natural behaviors.  The face of the modern zoo was changed forever.

And how different it might all have been if those fishermen had tossed six young seals back in the Elbe.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Book Review: Visions of Caliban: On Chimpanzees and People

"Whether we finally think of Caliban as an animalized human or a humanized animal, for the other characters of the play he lurches, anatomically and behaviorally, somewhere in between, a disturbing specimen of continuity between human and animal.  The image of Caliban suggests that we are not alone, that we endure on an island-planet troubled, pestered, shadowed by a bestial double."

Outside of Central Africa, humans and chimpanzees have a relatively brief history with one another.  Whereas lions, elephants, and many other animals were well known to the Greeks and Romans, chimps first appeared on the European scene in the early 1600s, when explorers from West Africa brought back the first word of human-like "monsters" in the jungles of Angola.  William Shakespeare - as far as we know - never saw a chimpanzee in the flesh.  He did, however, shortly afterwards write a play depicting a tropical paradise inhabited by a half-human creature.  The play was The Tempest.  The creature he called "Caliban."

In Visions for Caliban, Dale Peterson and Jane Goodall examine man's relationship with our nearest relative (well, apart from the bonobo) through the lens of Shakespeare's character.  Caliban - who has been variously portrayed as an animal, a monster, or an indigenous person oppressed by colonizing Europeans - has always fascinated audiences and been subject to various interpretations.  Caliban represents a sort of mirror to the reader, challenging them to look into it and define what makes them human and him an animal.  The problem with mirrors, we find quickly, is that you don't always like what you see in them...

Much has been written about man's inhumanity towards man.  Visions of Caliban says much about man's inhumanity to chimp.  Peterson and Goodall take the reader across the world, from the African forests where chimpanzees are captured, often pulled from the dead bodies of their mothers, for illegal sale, to the biomedical labs where they wait out their lives in sterile confinement.  We also meet chimpanzees kept as pets - dressed up in silly clothes, performing on stage, or otherwise serving to entertain people.  In one of the most disturbing passages, Peterson encounters a chimpanzee living in an old restroom, attached to a pipe by a two-foot-long leash of chain.  What makes this all the more chilling is that the ape's owner cheerfully introduces the chimp as his son, and then precedes to cuddle with him.

Lest we paint too grim of a portrait of chimpanzee life, it is important to note that the book does convey images of hope (if there is one message you get from many of Goodall's books, it's that she is an optimist at heart).  The reader encounters abuse and misfortune, but there are just as many people out there trying to improve the lot of chimpanzees.  There are folks who are rescuing and rehabbing apes, trying to give them more natural lives.  There are people campaigning for improved living conditions for chimps in laboratories, and for the banning of chimps in the entertainment industry.  Already public opinion and international law have begun to move in favor of chimpanzees... it's just that there is still so much further to go.

One subject that is barely broached in the book is that of chimpanzees in zoos (outside of Africa, that is... we do see some horribly mistreated animals living in ramshackle zoos in West Africa).  Goodall addresses that topic towards the end of the book.  Not surprisingly, based on her past experiences, she states her preference for seeing chimps in the wild.  That being said, she also admits that this idyllic life in the wild is rapidly fading from existence - destroyed by habitat loss and the bushmeat trade - and wonders "if many - even most - of these increasingly persecuted individuals, given the choice, would not opt for life in one of the better zoos."

The subtitle of Peterson and Goodall's book is "On Chimpanzees and People."  If you want to learn more about chimpanzees, then read one of Goodall's many other books.  Visions of Caliban reveals much more about people than it does apes... and it makes you wonder who should be calling who a monster...

Monday, July 14, 2014

Sporcle Quiz: Public Aquariums

A while back, I put out a call for aquarists, seeing if I could find anyone who could help me make this page a little more representative of the other half of the zoo community.  No dice.  So, I figured I'd have to do it all by my lonesome.  My first ever species fact profile of a fish - the green moray eel - is a step towards being more representative.  This Sporcle quiz is a next step.

It's surprising how few aquariums there are compared to zoos... but I guess it shouldn't be.  Aquariums are much more expensive to maintain, what with all of their life-support systems and such (and feeding, too... no on in an aquarium is living off of hay or other cheap foodstuffs).  Seawater either has to be pumped in (hence the prevalence of aquariums in harbor towns), or artificially made at great expense.  

Still, I was kind of shocked that there were so few aquariums... 72 cities total (and that includes Washington DC, which is now, alas, lacking in the aquarium department) - some of which have aquariums that double as zoos, or are really just a few fish tanks.  And how do some big cities like Los Angeles and Minneapolis/St. Paul not have aquariums?

I didn't do too super of a job on this quiz, but maybe you'll do better...

The National Aquarium in Baltimore, overlooking the Inner Harbor

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Zoo Joke: Second Ammendment

A police detective grows suspicious over a large number of gun shipments in his city, all of which seem to be funneling towards - of all places - the local zoo.  Obtaining a search warrant, he leads a raid on the zoo.  When he does, he finds hundreds of firearms of all kinds - handguns, rifles, machine guns, even a bazooka or two.  Most surprisingly, none of these weapons are being handled by the human staff of the zoo - they're all being carried around by the zoo's bears.

Well, the police report their findings to the district attorney and charges are filed.  Appeals are filed in return, opposing the confiscation of the weapons from the zoo.  The case earns national attention; it is debated in the media and in Congress and eventually makes it all the way to the United States Supreme Court .  After days of hearing testimony, the nine justices of the court being their deliberations.  Shortly afterwords, they return with a decision.

"We find, unanimously, in favor of the zoo animals, who's rights were infringed upon when their guns were taken away," announced the Chief Justice to a packed courtroom.

Stunned, one of the opposing attorneys asked how this could possibly be the Court's decision.

"Well, we didn't agree at first, so we went down to the Archives to read the original copy of the Constitution itself for clarification," the Chief Justice explained.  "And wouldn't you know it, everyone's been misreading the Second Amendment for years, getting it backwards.  It actually says that we have the right to arm bears!"

Thursday, July 10, 2014

From the News: Wolves break into polar bear exhibit at Winnipeg Zoo

Last month, I featured a "From the News" describing a mixed-species exhibit at the Dublin Zoo.  Not to be outdone, some of the animals at the Assiniboine Park Zoo decided to introduce themselves to each other to create their own mixed-species exhibit.

I'm glad that the wolves and polar bears opted not to harm one another during their brief interaction, and I'm sure if must have been incredible for anyone who got to witness it (though probably terrifying for their keepers). For the record, I have heard of successful mixed-species exhibit featuring gray wolves with both brown and black bears.  As far as I can tell, no one has tried one with polar bears.  (I did read of an attempt to exhibit polar bears with arctic foxes... it was successful... until it wasn't).

These new exhibits, you know... just takes some time to work some of the kinks out.

polar bear Assiniboine Park Zoo Journey to Churchill
Mike Koncan / Global News

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Chimps Should Be Chimps

While I was browsing the Lincoln Park Zoo's website the other day, refreshing my memory for the review I was writing, I stumbled across this online storybook which the zoo was involved in producing.  I'd seen it before a few years ago and thought it was pretty cool, so decided to share it.

In "Chimps Should Be Chimps", zoo chimpanzee Poe regales his granddaughter, Lulu, with the story of his younger life, before he came to the zoo, when he worked in the entertainment industry.  He contrasts it with his life now, when he has a more natural habitat, a dedicated staff, and, above all, other chimpanzees to socialize with.

For some people, the idea of a zoo producing a featurette called "Chimps Should Be Chimps" would sound ironic.  After all, they reason, a chimp being a chimp would have to be in Africa... not Chicago.

Still, I think that there is a worthwhile lesson here.  A lot of people lump zoos, circuses, and any other organization housing exotic animals all in one group (except sanctuaries, which for some reason float on their own cloud of specialness).  What isn't addressed there is that they are not the same.  There are differences in philosophy, in mission, and, perhaps most importantly, in what the role of the animals in the collection is. No less an authority on chimpanzees than Jane Goodall has spoken of the role of zoos in safeguarding a future for chimpanzees.  Poe's story isn't that different from that of the polar bear Barle and the rest of the Suarez Seven.

So what's the moral?  Just like in the wild, a captive animal has a niche - a role to fulfill.  That role can be to entertain people with silly tricks (and it wasn't too long ago that zoos had tea parties with trained apes).  Or it can be to educate and inspire a new generation to care about wildlife, while the zoo in return offers the best possible life to its animals.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Zoo Review: Lincoln Park Zoo

Most cities have one zoo, and aquarium too if they're lucky.  The Chicago area is especially lucky, then, because it has four zoos, as well as an aquarium.  Of those four zoos, the only one located within Chicago itself is the Lincoln Park Zoo.  Located in the northern part of the city, not far from the shores of Lake Michigan, Lincoln Park is one of the claimants to the title of America's oldest zoo, opening in 1868 (admittedly just with some swans).  It is also one of the few free zoos left in the country.

Unlike many other zoos, Lincoln Park has continued the tradition of displaying most of its animals in taxonomically-themed buildings (housing related animals together) instead of geographic areas.  The first exhibit many visitors encounter, for example, is the Kolver Lion House, a century-old beautiful stone building that houses lions, leopards, tigers, jaguar, and puma.  Red pandas are also found here, but for a zoo-buff the most exciting find is the exhibit of Pallas cats - rarely displayed wild cats from Central Asia.  A very different predator is seen outside at the Kolver Seal Pool, where harbor seals entertain visitors with their antics through underwater windows.  This pool has become a popular place for Chicagoans to take a break from their worries during the middle of the workday.

Other animal houses are scattered throughout the zoo grounds (given the brutality of Chicago winters, it makes sense that indoor exhibits would be a priority here).  The Helen Branch Primate House features tamarins, lemurs, and Old- and New-World monkeys, though it is the white-cheeked gibbons that are the stars.  The McCormick Bird House has a very impressive collection of endangered birds in a series of themed aviaries, including the seashore, the tropical rainforest, and the savannah.  Notable residents include Guam rails, Bali mynahs, and Inca terns; outside, cinereous vultures and bald eagles inhabit towering flight cages.  Red kangaroos join a series of ungulates - including takin and Grevy's zebra - in a series of hoofstock yards.  In probably the most popular animal house, gorillas and chimpanzees clamber over massive climbing structures under the watchful gaze of zoo researchers; the zoo has contributed much to the knowledge and understanding of African apes.  One of the biggest treats is watching the chimps "fish" for termites in their artificial termite mound.

Across a placid pond inhabited by trumpeter swans was my favorite animal building - the Regenstein Small Mammal-Reptile House.  The building is divided into three galleries - one is for reptiles and one for small mammals, both being rather typical animal houses - glassed in terrariums of varying sizes, holding animals as diverse as sand cats, rattlesnakes, and fruit bats.  The final part is a series of larger, open-aired indoor habitats, where wallabies, cavies, small-clawed otters, and caiman are housed.

Two of the newer exhibits at the zoo break from the taxonomic theme.  The Children's Zoo has kid-friendly habitats of North American wildlife, including otters, black bears, beavers, and red wolves.  A Farm-in-the-Zoo allows urban children to have their first experience with domestic animals.

The new Regenstein African Journey, taking the site of the former elephant house, takes guests on an indoor-outdoor journey across four African habitats.  Outdoors, guests may observe giraffes, antelope, black rhinos (including a new baby), and a pack of African wild dogs.  Indoors, they meet meerkats, aardvarks (including a chance to crawl through a tunnel to observe aardvarks underground), crocodiles, colobus monkeys, and pygmy hippos.  To my surprise, the display that impressed me the most wasn't of birds, mammals, or reptiles, but of fish - a beautiful, massive aquarium full of colorful fish, used to tell the story of the endangered cichlids of the Rift Valley lakes.

When I visited Lincoln Park for the first time years ago, I wasn't super impressed.  A lot of it, I think, had to do with my bias back then against grouping animals taxonomically instead of by geographic area - it struck me as old fashioned and not as educational.  I always felt that the zoo was handicapped by its historical buildings - they were beautiful, to be sure, but their age (the bird house was built in 1904) seemed to prevent the zoo from making modifications or renovations that might benefit the animals.

The more I've visited, however (especially having gone behind the scenes), the more impressed I have become.  I've seen many zoo exhibits become cliche copies of one another, which, ironically, makes the Lincoln Park layout somewhat original.

It's also impossible to not admire Lincoln Park's contributions to conservation and research.  It supports wildlife research programs around the world AND in the Chicago area; it also administers the Population Management Center, which helps govern breeding programs for zoo animals in North America in order to obtain their genetic long-term viability.

Any concerns that I had the Lincoln Park was limited by its older facilities have since been laid to rest.  In  the next two years, two of its older exhibits will be completely replaced in favor of newer, larger habitats.  The old penguin building is gone, soon to be replaced with a forested habitat for Japanese macaques, also known as snow monkeys.  The old "bear-line", home to bears and hyenas, will give way to a greatly expanded polar bear exhibit, as well as a new habitat for African penguins. I'd love to see the Lion House be next on the list of exhibits to be upgraded, hopefully while preserving its architectural beauty.

Lincoln Park is an old zoo with a fascinating past, but the future seems like it will be just as exciting.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Satire: 12 Zoo Animals That Know Children Are Delicious

So some of these (like the photo below) really do just look like their affectionate nuzzling or just slobbery grabs.  Others really do look like legitimate attempts to eat a baby.  All of them I found pretty funny.

Best from the Comments: "I was disappointed there were no hungry hungry hippos..."

Friday, July 4, 2014

Our American Mammal

Happy Independence Day!

On July the Fourth, it seems that everywhere you look people are displaying the symbols of America.  There's the stars and stripes, of course, but also Uncle Sam, Lady Liberty, and, of course, our national bird - the bald eagle.  Pretty much every country has a national bird.  Far fewer have national mammals.

A small group of US politicians wants to change that, however - there is currently a proposal underway to make the American bison the official national mammal of the United States.  It's hard to imagine a better candidate.  Historically, the bison could be found in 49 out of 50 US states (no one has reported seeing any swimming out to Hawaii, alas).  Unlike many North American mammals - such as the brown bear and grey wolf - it is found only in North America (though a closely related species is found in Europe).   It has a prominent role in the culture and history of this continent, from the first nations to the expanding United States of the 1800s.  Today, it plays an increasingly important role in the economy, both through tourism and ranching.

Perhaps most importantly, the bison symbolizes our changing relationship with our environment.  We didn't accidentally almost lose the bison to extinction - our nation actively tried to destroy it.  Not only were they hunted for meats, hides, and to reduce competition for grazing lands, they were also slaughtered as an act of war.  Military leaders like General Phil Sheridan advocated for the extermination of the bison in order to starve the Plains Indians into submission.  By the late nineteenth century, the tens of millions that roamed the continent had been reduced to less than a thousand.  Some were hiding out in the loneliest patches of prairie left.  Some were in the hands of a few concerned ranchers.  And some had come under the care of an upstart new zoological park in the Bronx and its crusading director.

It wasn't an accident that the bison was almost driven to extinction.  Neither was it an accident that it was saved (which it also has in common with the bald eagle, America's national bird).  Today, the world's wildlife is facing challenges far greater than a few hide hunters.  There is worldwide loss of habitat, pollution, poaching, invasive species, and the looming specter of climate change.  At times, it can seem impossible that the outcome will be anything other than a disaster.  That's probably what folks told William Hornaday and Theodore Roosevelt when they set out to save the bison.

Making the American bison our national mammal does more than give us a cool national symbol (to keep company with India's tiger, China's giant panda, and, of course, Canada's beaver).  It would recognize one of the world's first great conservation success stories (one in which zoos were directly involved, mind you), and remind everyone that there is hope for endangered species everywhere.

Besides, it's not like Congress is doing anything else useful these days anyway...

Happy Fourth of July, and Vote Bison!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Zoo Animals and Their Discontents, by Alex Halberstadt

I read the title of this article with some trepidation, figuring it was going to be another puff-piece about animals in zoos being sad, zoos are evil, etc, etc.  I was very surprised, however, to find an in-depth, informative piece on the emotional lives of animals, especially those in zoos.  It's not enough to keep animals on display that are physically healthy and breeding - we need zoo and aquariums animals to be psychologically happy as well.  And that is where the work of Dr. Virga becomes so important...

Zoo Animals and Their Discontents, by Alex Halberstadt

Dr. Vint Virga likes to arrive at a zoo several hours before it opens, when the sun is still in the trees and the lanes are quiet and the trash cans empty. Many of the animals haven’t yet slipped into their afternoon ma­laise, when they retreat, appearing to wait out the heat and the visitors and not do much of anything. Virga likes to creep to the edge of their enclosures and watch. He chooses a spot and tries not to vary it, he says, “to give the animals a sense of control.” Sometimes he watches an animal for hours, hardly moving. That’s because what to an average zoo visitor looks like frolicking or restlessness or even boredom looks to Virga like a lot more — looks, in fact, like a veritable Russian novel of truculence, joy, sociability, horniness, ire, protectiveness, deference, melancholy and even humor.

The ability to interpret animal behavior, Virga says, is a function of temperament, curiosity and, mostly, decades of practice. It is not, it turns out, especially easy. Do you know what it means when an elephant lowers her head and folds her trunk underneath it? Or when a zebra wuffles, softly blowing air between her lips; or when a colobus monkey snuffles, sounding a little like a hog rooting in the mud; or when a red fox screams, sounding disconcertingly like an infant; or when red fox kits chatter at one another; or when an African wild dog licks and nibbles at the lips of another; or when a California sea lion resting on the water’s surface stretches a fore flipper and one or both rear flippers in the air, like a synchronized swimmer; or when a hippopotamus “dung showers” by defecating while rapidly flapping its tail?
Virga knows, because it is his job to know. He is a behaviorist, and what he does, expressed plainly, is see into the inner lives of animals. The profession is an odd one: It is largely unregulated, and declaring that you are an expert is sometimes enough to be taken for one. Most behaviorists are former animal trainers; some come from other fields entirely. Virga happens to be a veterinarian, very likely the only one in the country whose full-time job is tending to the psychological welfare of animals in captivity. He works with zoos across the United States and in Europe, and like most mental-health professionals, he believes that his patients possess unique personalities and vibrant emotional lives. His recent book is titled “The Soul of All Living Creatures.” What all of this means is that Virga, a man trained in the scientific method, has embraced notions that until recently were viewed in the scientific community as at best controversial, and at worst nonsense.

Read the rest of the article here

DOCTOR (LEFT): Vint Virga. PATIENT (RIGHT): Molly, Barbary sheep.  Credit Robin Schwartz for The New York Times

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Species Fact Profile: Green Moray Eel (Gymnothorax funebris)

Green Moray Eel
Gymnothorax funebris (Ranzani, 1840)

Range: Western Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea
Habitat: Coral Reefs, Mangroves, Seagrass Beds, Intertidal Areas
Diet: Zooplankton (Larvae); Fish, Crustaceans, and Cephalopods (Adults)
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Little known about reproduction: believed to mate at spawning sites further out to sea than usual range of eel.  Fertilization is external, with millions of eggs released, no parental care given
Lifespan: 85 Years (Maximum, Captivity)
Conservation Status: No Listings

  • Largest specimen on record 2.5 meters long and with a mass of 29 kilograms; more typical length is 1.8 meters with a mass of 13.3 kilograms
  • Long, laterally compressed body devoid of scales; dark brown or grey skin is covered with yellow mucous, serving as protection from parasites
  • Sex is possibly determined by environmental conditions - more stressful environments result in the formation of more females than males
  • Adults are largely sedentary and rarely move outside of feeding; they are active hunters (primarily at night), searching for prey in crevices and caves
  • If prey is too large to be swallowed whole, the eel will wrap around its prey in order to obtain leverage and then wrench off pieces of the fish
  • Mutualistic relationship with marine "cleaner species" such as gobies, wrasses, and shrimp, which will eat microbes and parasites off of the eel's skin
  • Occasionally eaten by humans, large adult moray eels are potentially toxic - toxins in their prey species become concentrated in their bodies, making their own flesh dangerous to eat
  • Has a fearsome reputation among many divers (often as a result of startling encounters while exploring coral crevices, displaying its characteristic gape threat display), but rarely poses a threat to humans and only bites if provoked
  • Vagrants have been found as far north as Nova Scotia, presumably carried by Gulf Stream