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Friday, August 29, 2014

Protect and Serve

I've spent about half of my life working with wild animals of every sort, but I'll always have a soft spot for dogs.  I'm not referring to "dogs" as in members of the Candiae - wolves, foxes, etc - but rather... dogs.  The pet ones.  I had dogs for much of my childhood, and my parents still have one, who I like to pamper and fuss over on those infrequent occasions when I actually visit home.  When I finally achieve some stability in life, I hope to have dogs of my own.  I had a lot of fun with dogs growing up, whether playing in the yard, going for walks, or just plopping down on the couch together, watching a movie.

One thing I never did with my dogs, however, was take them to the zoo.  They weren't allowed in, and with good reason.

I can usually tell when a dog has snuck into zoo grounds.  The animals are quick to let us know.  It may start off with the indignant screaming of llamas, the whooping of primates, or the cries of cranes - every animal starts to make noise.  Usually, lots of it.  This is especially true when a stray dog or one that's slipped its leash comes tearing through the zoo, running wild and panicking every animal it encounters.  Some, like the birds, are terrified.  Others, like the large carnivores, seem to be saying, "Bring it on!"

There is only one situation in which dogs are generally welcome on zoo grounds, and that is if they are service animals.  Now... what does that even mean?

A service animal is a dog (infrequently a miniature horse, but that need not distract us) trained to assist a person with an ADA recognized disability.  It could be a seeing-eye dog for the visually impaired, for instance, or a dog trained to recognize the onset of a seizure.  These dogs are all business - usually wearing a vest or some other identifier, calm and collected, more professional that most people I know.  These dogs seldom cause a fuss among the animals; when they do, they tend not to add fuel to the fire by barking or running or pulling at the leash, like a usual dog would do when confronted with, say, a full-grown grizzly.

Service dogs can't go anywhere in a zoo that people can go - they can't enter enclosures with animals, such as a kangaroo walk-through or an aviary.  On a recent visit to Jacksonville Zoo, I was in one of the aviaries when a service dog walked in (against zoo rules).  The panic it caused was extraordinary - within seconds, the air was filled with ducks, ibises, and man-sized storks, all dropping feces in a smelly, terror-fueled rain.  Not a good experience for anyone... especially those who got hit.


Such occasional incidents aside, service dogs in a zoo usually work fine.  Their handlers just need to accept some basic rules of courtesy.  For example, if your dog is causing some animals to panic, please just keep moving.  What really irritates me, though, are the recent headaches of fake service animals.  These are dogs that do NOT assist people with ADA disabilities, but are just... pets.  Oh, some are called therapy dogs and are used to comfort people with emotional problems, which is great, but they are not service dogs and are not trained as such.  The line for what makes a dog a therapy dog is a blurry one, and it would be easy to end up with the zoo being opened up to every dog that came in.

This would be bad for the animals, as we've seen (and God help us if a dog jumps into an enclosure, a problem I've had to deal with before).  It's bad for the zoo - imagine the liability if a person gets bitten by another visitor's dog.  It's also not great for the dogs themselves - I'm sure some of the smells (especially the more scatological ones) would be fascinating for the dogs, but imagine the stress and terror that a small dog is going to feel when it sees a tiger staring at it, licking its lips!  If people have a dog in the zoo and say it's a service animal, I'll take them at their word... but watch them.  If they can't control their animal, or it causes problems, it's time for them to leave.

The only thing worse, I fear, that people smuggling dogs into the zoo in their purses, as I've seen, is leaving them locked in their cars while they visit the zoo, especially on a hot summer day.  It would be great if zoos could have kennels to accommodate pets while they visited the facility, but I'd worry about liability, let alone the possibility of abandonment.

If in doubt as to whether or not your dog is appropriate for a visit to the zoo, call ahead and ask.  If the zoo says "yes", try to follow their rules and show courtesy to their animals.  If they say "no", it means "no."  Zoos and aquariums are full of wonderful animals.  You don't need to bring your own.

PS: As for the ever-popular service monkeys... just a bad idea.  Between the prospect of disease transmission, escape and interaction with zoo animals, or the likelihood of other visitors trying to touch it and getting bitten, it's a nightmare.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Movie Review: Zebra in the Kitchen

When a young country boy named Chris finds out that his family is moving to the big city, he's faced with the conundrum of what to do with his beloved pet - a mountain lion named "Sunshine."  He's told to release the cat back into the wild... only to secretly sneak it into the moving van to his family's new home.  Now stuck in the city with a full-grown mountain lion on their hands, Chris and his family do the only thing they can - turn the cat over the ramshackle, decrepit city zoo.

Zebra in the Kitchen was one of my favorite movies growing up.  I almost dread watching it these days because it's so terrifically cheesy - with partying chimpanzees and bike-riding bears - that I'm afraid it'll spoil childhood memories.  Still, when I was eight or so I thought it was the best movie ever, and why wouldn't I? By that age I was already determined to be a zookeeper when I grew up (I've since become a zookeeper of course, still working on the growing up part), and this was the first movie I'd ever seen about zookeepers.

Generally, the zookeepers in the movie come off in a positive light.  Sure, their zoo is an absolute dump, but that's not their fault - the villains in the movie (and often in real life) are the penny-pinching politicians.  Apart from Chris (and Sunshine), the protagonists are the zoo staff who want desperately to help give their animals better lives.  With Sunshine miserable and unhappy in his new caged home, they invite Chris to come and help volunteer at the zoo.  What Chris does with this position of trust is spring his wild cat buddy out of jail... and let every other animal in the zoo loose as well.

As one would expect in a movie (and a kid's movie, too boot), comic relief ensues.  Animals roam around causing all sorts of trouble, but no one gets hurt.  Eventually everyone winds up back in the zoo (including Sunshine), while the townspeople, moved by the animals, work together to transform the zoo into a great new home for all the animals.  Everyone lives happily ever after, especially Chris, who grows up to become a zookeeper, taking care of Sunshine everyday.

It's such a sweet ending that I can almost forget my one major qualm with the movie.  The filmmakers missed out on the chance to teach one major lesson in this movie - wild animals like mountain lions don't make good pets.  The relationship between Chris and Sunshine is glamorized so much that I bet that, if walking out of the theater, a young boy came across an orphaned wild animal, he'd jump at the chance to take it home.  I know, I know, it's a kids movie, not meant for heavy lessons... but some lessons are best learned early.


Monday, August 25, 2014

Satire: SeaWorld announces shift from orcas to sharks

I want to open this one up with a simple reminder... this one is SATIRE.  The reason I feel the need to emphasis this is that an amazing number of people who read this when it first came out insisted that it was real, which only led to further SeaWorld bashing.

I've had this sitting on my computer desktop for a while, but was waiting for the right time to share it (as in: when I didn't have anything else to post).  That being said, with "Shark Week" this month and the recent announcement from SeaWorld about their planned renovation and expansion of their orca habitats, I thought now was as good a time as any other.  Enjoy!



On March 7, California State Assemblyman Richard Bloom introduced the Orca Safety and Welfare Act. If passed, the bill would outlaw the use of orcas for "entertainment" or "performance purposes." Bloom told the press that the measure was inspired by the documentary Blackfish, which criticized SeaWorld for keeping orcas in captivity, and even suggested that the practice could turn so-called "regular killer whales" into "people-killer whales."

In the months following the release of Blackfish, SeaWorld fought hard in the press to counter the charges brought by the film. But once Bloom introduced his bill, the aquatic theme park decided to take a different tack. Today, in a stunning turn of events, SeaWorld announced that it would be replacing its orcas with great white sharks in all its shows. Even famed company mascot Shamu was replaced — by a shark named Chum.

Read the rest of the article here

Sunday, August 24, 2014

From the News: Seneca Park Zoo recycle roadkill


Big cats and other large carnivores are some of the most difficult animals to enrich in a zoo setting, mainly because one of the most important parts of their life - killing other large animals - is not permissible in zoos in (many) countries.  That being said, predation doesn't end with the kill, and there is a world of difference between eating a bowl of ground meat and tearing through a hundred pound carcass, ripping skin and breaking bones, possibly dragging the whole thing hundreds of yards to a private spot to feed.  

I've seen an adult tiger tackle a deer carcass before, and it's horrifying and amazing.  He picked up the carcass - a big adult buck - by the throat and slung it around like a rag doll.  When the other keepers and I would approach too close to the fence, he would throw a protective paw over it and roar at us from a blood-stained mouth, warning us to keep back from his prize (never mind that we were the ones who gave it to him in the first place).  It kept him busy for a week, until even the biggest of bones was gone.  

Congratulations to Seneca Park Zoo (and they're not the only ones!) for taking steps to boost the quality of care for their apex predators.  And "boo" to the whiny nay-sayers quoted in this article... even PETA agrees that this is a good idea, for Pete's sake.

Lioness Amali feeds earlier this month at Seneca Park Zoo. The idea of feeding roadkill to zoo carnivores evolved into an organized food program. The zoo won’t accept deer that have been dead for more than 10 hours. (Photo: NEETI UPADHYE/@neetiu_dandc/ , STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER )

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Talk is Cheap

"An ounce of action is worth a ton of theory."
- Ralph Waldo Emerson

This one isn't strictly zoo-related, but it describes a pet-peeve I've been dealing with a lot at work lately, and one which is seen pretty commonly in every work environment, not to mention personal lives.

Among my many major personality problems, the one that frequently causes me the most trouble is this:

My mouth is three or four times faster than my brain.  And once it gets going, there's no stopping it.

As a result, at the end of every staff meeting at work, I have to sit down in a quiet, isolated place and remind myself: what did I just tell everyone at work that I was going to do?  Usually, the end result is a long list.

There are lots of idea people out there.  People who can go to work and see what needs to be done, or what should be done, or what could be done, to make their facility better.  I generally think of myself as one of these - when I walk around the zoo, I'm forming a constantly-growing project list at the back of my mind.  The problem is it tends to stay there.  Idea people are a dime a dozen.  What really matters is actually doing what you tell yourself needs to get done.

The challenge that I've come up with lately has been making the transition from a thinker to thinker AND doer (there are plenty of "doers" out there in the sense that they come in to work, do what they are supposed to and nothing more, and lack all capacity for creative thought).  Making paper lists helps; it helps me keep track of what I'm promising, and keeps me from adding additional things to the list until I've started knocking some of the older items off the list.

Getting stuff done is good for the animals - everyone knows that training, enrichment, improvements to exhibits, etc, are all important to the well-being of animals.  Knowing that doesn't do any good.  It actually needs to be done for it to make a difference.  It also is good for your career.  It differentiates the people who just talk a good game from the people who will follow through and make good on it.

I recently met a curator from another zoo who told me that whenever one of his keepers came to him wanting something - a new piece of equipment, a fancy enrichment item, permission to engage in a new training program, tuition to a class, whatever - he would always say "yes"... the first time.  If, six months later, that fancy new equipment or enrichment item was still in the box it was shipped in, or the manual from that professional development class is collecting dust on a shelf somewhere, with no new ideas to show for it, that was it.  No new toys for Christmas this year until you showed that you played with the ones from last year.

So far, I'm making some progress on my challenge.  Some projects are getting knocked out.  Some exhibit improvements have been made, some new enrichment items added to the routine.  I've even started another training project.  But it's easy to rest on laurels and slide back into just daydreaming, so the next time I hear myself spout off about the latest new idea, I'm going to have to keep reminding myself...

Talk is cheap... SHOW me something...


Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Zoo History: Menageries and Mummies

Although the word "zoo" (short for "zoological park" or "zoological garden") is a relatively recent invention, the institution itself has existed for millennia all over the world, from Ancient Assyria to Aztec Mexico.  Each culture has placed its own unique twist on the custom of exotic animal keeping, from the Chinese with their "gardens of intelligence" to the bloodbaths of the Roman arenas.  Some of the oldest and strangest collections of exotic animals, however, come out of Ancient Egypt.

The Egyptian fascination with keeping exotic animals was two-fold.  Firstly, there was a desire to utilize wild animals for practical purposes, perhaps even resulting in domestication.  This approach was predominately aimed at addax, gazelles, and other antelopes, but also included hyenas (for use as hunting animals) and lions, for use in war.  That none of these efforts ended up succeeding doesn't mean that the idea behind them was one resigned to antiquity - throughout the 19th century, additional efforts were resumed by Europeans and North Americans.

The second aspect of Egyptian zookeeping was a religious one.  The Egyptians were famed for their fondness for cats, but animal worship extending far beyond that.  Look at the pantheon of Egyptian gods and you'll see a zoo-load of animals... or at least the heads of a zoo.  From the jackal-headed Anubis to crocodile-headed Sobek, many of their gods had the heads of animals.  The result was a worship of living animals as representations of the gods, with animals being cared for my priests in temples, often being mummified after death.  

A mummified Nile crocodile, on display at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park

The climate and landscape of Ancient Egypt is far different from that of modern Egypt, and animals such as hippopotamuses, crocodiles, and lions could be found where they are now absent.  That being said, stocking a menagerie worthy of a pharaoh and his court required beasts more sensation that those found in their backyards.  As early as the fifteen century BC, Queen Hatshepsut sent out what may have been the first zoo collecting expedition down the coast to Somalia, returning with monkeys, leopards, and a giraffe.  Other animals were brought in as tribute or sent out as gifts to other rulers.  In 1100 BC, the pharaoh sent a crocodile and a hippopotamus as a gift to Tiglath-Pileser I, King of Assyria.

As Egyptians encountered other cultures through conquest and trade, the zookeeping tradition developed as well.  When Alexander the Great added Egypt to his empire, he left one of his generals, Ptolemy, to rule, giving rise to the Ptolemaic Dynasty, which ended with the suicide of Cleopatra.  In a parade in Alexandria to celebrate the feast of Dionysus, elephants, ostriches, and antelope paraded down the streets, while carts contained cages of peafowl, parrots, and other birds.  As described by James Fisher in his Zoos of the World:

"The people of Alexandria with a taste for 'more exciting' animals were not disappointed.  The procession included 24 lions, 14 leopards, 16 [cheetahs], six pairs of one-humped camels, a 'white bear', a giraffe, a gigantic snake said to be 45 feet long, and, wonder of wonders, a rhinoceros."

Like many wonders of the ancient world, the menageries of Alexandria is gone.  Even more unfortunately, most the wildlife in the former Egyptian Empire is also gone.  Every year the Sahara pushes further south, and  the wildlife of Africa becomes increasingly isolated within smaller protected areas.  With the current political situations in North Africa, it is unlikely that anyone is going to be making wildlife conservation top priority anytime in the immediate future.  Only by remembering what was lost, however, can there be hope of recreating a better future for animals - and people - in Egypt.

A mummified baboon, on display at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland.  Because of their religious significance to the Ancient Egyptians, the hamadryas baboon was also known as the "sacred baboon"

Monday, August 18, 2014

Decisions, Decisions

"I am the absolute monarch of my domain, which stretches from that staircase to this desk."
- Mary Doria Russell, Children of God

I am the emperor of unimportant decisions.  I can choose to rearrange perching in my bird exhibits.  I can decide what enrichment to implement on a given day.  I can trim the plants in my exhibits.  And I don't want to brag, but when it came time to target train animals in my section, I was given the supreme honor of picking what color the targets were to be.

Anything bigger than that, I usually need to get permission from someone.

A lot of the time, when I go to ask my curator or director for permission or an opinion on something I want to do, they look at me in a baffled way that implies that they don't care and leave me to my own devices.  That being said, I've learned from watching other keepers that it definitely does not pay to assume that they will be okay with whatever you want to do and figure that it's better to ask forgiveness than permission. 

Of course, my curator has to answer to the director and directors have to answer to... who exactly?  

Unless a zoo or aquarium is privately owned by a single individual, someone down the line has to make the ultimate decisions (and even then, you have to answer to USDA or some other agency).  Traditionally, most zoos and aquariums were run by cities or other government entities, so it was the mayor who had the final say-so.  Today, the lines of governance for many institutions are less clear.  Some institutions are quasi-governmental, also being run by non-profit boards of directors or commissions.  The people who sit on these may be governmental types, or they may be professionals or academic experts, or they may be wealthy donors or interested community leaders.  Together with the institution's director (though now many institutions have a president or CEO instead), they set the course for the management of the institution.

The question is who should make the decisions about the management of the zoo or aquarium?  I feel that the more stakeholders who are involved in the process, the better the outcome, but for each issue there is someone who should be listened to more, an opinion that should carry more weight than others. 

 For all things pertaining to the animal collection, I strongly feel that the curator (representing the animal staff) and the vets should have the loudest voice.  Yes, the mayor or CEO might really like gorillas and think that they are the perfect addition to your zoo, but if the people who actually will have to manage said apes think that it's a poor decision - the zoo doesn't have the space or resources, or there are other priorities at this time, or one of a thousand other reasons - their warnings should be heeded.  If an animal needs to be shipped out as part of a breeding program that is important for the long-term survival of the species, that recommendation should be followed... even if the members of the community will miss that animal.  If an animal's quality of life is in serious decline and the curator and vet advocate euthanasia, their opinion should not be dismissed just because other decision makers don't want to admit that it may be the best choice.

(Of course, all of this implies that the curator, vet, and animal staff will all agree on what the best decision is, which seldom happens.  They do, however, all tend to band together against bad decisions imposed from the outside).

Everyone has an area of expertise, whether it is finance or animal care or community relations, and everyone should be willing to voice opinions on their areas of expertise.  They can voice opinions of other areas, of course, but sometimes it's important to know what you don't know.  That doesn't mean rubber-stamp the decisions made by those who do claim expertise, but certainly offer their ideas consideration.

This article popped into my head while I read an editorial up from Canada, advocating independence for the Toronto Zoo.  After the incident with the elephants last year, I have little doubt that many of the keepers there have little love for their governing body.  Not everyone involved in governing a zoo will have the same idea of what is best for the institution.  At the very least, however, there should be no doubt that everyone is on the same side - making their institution better.


Friday, August 15, 2014

Blue World Project


Today SeaWorld announced its plan for a new habitat for its orcas, one which will develop at all three of its facilities, starting off with its San Diego one.  The new orca pool will spread over 1.5 acres and have a maximum depth of 50 feet.  

I'm honestly not sure how impressive this is or not (though the drawings do look amazing).  I'd love to have more details about this - how they settled on these numbers, how it compares to their current enclosure, how many animals this is meant to accommodate, etc (yes, the information is all out there on the internet, but I like it better when it's put together neatly, without having to hunt for it from different sources).

The reactions have been predictable so far.  Many fans have become very excited about the project (ground breaks next year, with projected completion in 2018).  Others are still on the Blackfish bandwagon and maintain that it's too little, too late.  

Orcas are doubtlessly the most controversial species in captivity (other cetaceans, as well as polar bears and elephants crowd them at the top of the list).  It will be very interesting to see how this project influences the debate about keeping this species in marine parks.  Time will tell...


Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Jumping the Shark (Week)

"I couldn't write Jaws today.  The extensive knowledge of sharks would make it impossible to create, in good conscience, a villain of the magnitude and malignity of the original.  Current theory holds that, with rare exceptions, sharks do not intentionally attack human beings."

- Peter Benchley

Compared to zoos, aquariums have relatively few "rock star" species.  There are the marine mammals, of course, as well as penguins - aquariums that house these species usually find that they are the star attractions.   People like octopuses (octopi?), they like sea turtles, but for the most part, fish, to the average aquarium visitor, are... fish.  With one glaring exception, of course.

People love sharks.

Well, okay, maybe not exactly.  A lot of people hate and fear sharks.  But love or hate or fear them, many people are fascinated by sharks.  Sharks are the stars of virtually every public aquarium in the world.  They are featured prominently in the media - books, TV, movies.  One of the most famous examples of such exposure is the weekly Discovery Channel special, "Shark Week."

What a load of bulls--- (and no, I'm not trying to say "bull shark").

At the risk of sounding like the crotchety old man that I am deep down inside (and probably always have been, back since grade school), "When I was younger, there were actually animal documentaries on TV."  Now, instead of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom and Jacque Costeau (or even Steve Irwin and Jeff Corwin), we have the ridiculous fiction that Discovery and Animal Planet put out.  Just looking at Shark Week, it's ridiculous.  Here's a hint... if you have to use actors to portray scientists... or lie to the scientists you do get in order to convince them appear in your program... you might be doing something wrong.  SO what can we look forward to?  "Documentaries" about magic sharks, or savage sharks which stalk humans, or, heaven help us, the Megalodon, an enormous prehistoric relative of the great white shark, now long extinct... or is it?  

(The answer is yes... yes it is... and has been for a very long time).

Commonly exhibited in public aquariums (this one at the now-closed National Aquarium in Washington, DC)  - the leopard shark is one of many species of shark that poses little threat to humans

Sharks are awesome enough without making stuff up about them.  There are already lots of great stories to be told about them.  When you share stories that are patently untrue, you discredit not only yourself, but every other attempt to make an educational nature program... anywhere... by anyone.  You're saying that the animal isn't good enough without someone coming up with a Hollywood backstory for it.

The folks at Discovery would doubtlessly say that they're just trying to drum up interest in sharks, and that can lead to more interest in conserving them.  They say the bloody man-eater stories are just the bait (or chum?) to get viewers hooked.  Not buying it.  Look at Blue Planet... or Planet Earth... they manage to feature sharks prominently, including their predatory powers, without turning the animal into a caricature of itself.  Lions, tigers, polar bears, wolves, and orcas are all powerful predators (orcas prey ON sharks for Pete's sake!), yet we can tell their stories without turning them into monsters.

What Shark Week is really doing is portraying sharks as monsters that the world is better without.  How are we supposed to feel the need to conserve sharks when they're portrayed as indestructible killing machines?  You want a blood/guts/gore story to get visitors?  Try telling about shark-finning... that'll keep people up at night.

A sand tiger shark cruises its enclosure at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium

If the good people at Discovery Channel can't come up with new, original, and, above all, accurate programs to share about sharks, maybe it's time they give Shark Week a rest.

Just don't replace it with Snake Week or Spider Week... they've already got enough problems as well...

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

From the News: Vale ‘Gump’, the last known Christmas Island Forest Skink


If the title of this article is unclear, I'll explain - it's an obituary.  Not just of an individual animal, a lizard known to her keepers as "Gump", but of the species that she represented.  Efforts to find a male and initiate a captive breeding program proved unsuccessful. With her passing, the Christmas Island Forest Skink is believed to be extinct... just months after the species was given formal protection.

The Christmas Island forest skink joins the quagga, the passenger pigeon, the Carolina parakeet, and the thylacine ("Tasmanian tiger") in the ranks of species which have gone extinct first in the wild, then in the zoo.  I've always liked to think of zoos using the ark analogy, that animals that are fading rapidly in the wild can be brought into captivity, bred back from the edge of extinction, and saved.  It worked for the red wolf.  It  worked for the California condor.  It didn't work for this skink.

Things might have been different if more of an effort was made to safeguard the skink before its numbers got so drastically low.  The sad fact, however, is that it was an animal that most people never even thought of existing, letting alone needing conservation, and it became remarkable to them only in extinction.


Gump, who died in May, was the last known member of her species. Director of National Parks/Supplied

Monday, August 11, 2014

Species Fact Profile: Red-Necked Wallaby (Macropus rufogriseus)

Red-Necked Wallaby
Macropus rufogriseus (Desmarest, 1817)

Range: Eastern Australia, Tasmania
Habitat: Eucalypt Forest, Shrubland, Heath
Diet: Grasses, Herbs, Roots
Social Grouping: Solitary, Small Groups
Reproduction: Mainland population breeds year round, in later summer on Tasmania; single joey born after 30 day gestation period, spends an additional 280 days in the pouch.  Males are mature at 19 months, females at 14 months
Lifespan: 15 Years (Wild)
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern

  • Head-body length 90-105 centimeters, tail length 70-75 centimeters, weight 13.5-18.5 kilograms; males are larger than females
  • Fur is fawn grey with reddish tint on the neck and shoulders; the muzzle is a darker brown, while the tail is white below
  • Crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) - spend most of the day under cover; they cool themselves by spreading saliva over their bodies and licking their forearms
  • During drought, may obtain moisture from the roots in the diet
  • Outside of the native range, the species has been introduced to New Zealand's South Island, along with many Bass Strait Islands (though it is possibly a native here).  Small feral populations, believed to have been established from escaped pets and zoo animals, are present in the United Kingdom and in France
  • Two subspecies are described: the Tasmanian form (sometimes called "Bennett's wallaby"), which is smaller with longer, denser fur) and the mainland form M. r. banksianus.  Sometimes a third subspecies, M. r. fruticus, is recognized
  • Hunted for its fur and meat, the wallaby is also persecuted by ranchers who feel it competes with their cattle and sheep; it is still abundant in much of its range, and can be legally culled as a pest or hunted during an open season in Tasmania

Friday, August 8, 2014

Zoo Joke: The Vet's Bill

Strictly speaking, this one isn't a zoo joke - I could have re-written it as such, but thought it worked better just the way it was as a general veterinarian joke.

A man rushes into a veterinarian's office with a dog clutched in his arms.  Placing the dog on the vet's exam table, he begs, "Doctor, you've got to help my dog, somethings wrong!"

Well, the vet looks at the dog and instantly realizes... it's dead.  Just to be thorough, he checks its breathing (none), takes its temperature (cold), and feels for a heartbeat (none).  Sadly, he shakes his head and says, "I'm sorry sir... your dog is dead."

"No, he can't be!" the man exclaims, "There has to be another test or something!"

Sighing, the vet leaves the room, only to return a few seconds later with a kitten in his hand.  He places the kitten next to the dog.  The kitten sniffs the dog's body for a moment, then turns back to the vet, mewling pitifully and shaking its head.

"That doesn't prove anything!" exclaims the dog's owner.

The vet picks up the kitten and leaves the room again, returning moments later with a golden lab on a leash.  The (live) dog sniffs the dead one for a second, then whimpers sadly to the vet.

By now, the dog's owner has come to accept that his pet is, in fact, dead.  With a heavy heart, he scoops up his dog and starts to walk towards the exit.  It's then that the vet coughs slightly before mentioning the bill.

"What!" balks the man.  "You didn't even do anything!"

"Ah, if only that were true," replies the vet.  "If you'd just taken my word from the start, it would have been free, but with the cat scan and the lab test, it comes out to $500."

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Proud as a Peacock

"Why, he stalks up and down like a peacock - a stride and a stand"
- William Shakespeare, Henry VI Part I, Act III, Scene 5

It happens about once a week - a visitor runs up to me in a panic to let me know about an escaped animal.  About half of the time, it's a wild animal - a turkey, a snake, a skunk, or some other native critter that's hanging around the zoo.

Without fail, the other half of the time, it's a peacock.


(Actually, much of the time it's a peahen, which is the female version of a peacock, but probably because they are drabber and less noticeable, their comings and goings aren't reported as often).

"Peacock" is almost synonymous with "pride," and why shouldn't our peafowl be a little smug?  Virtually every other animal in the zoo is, in some manner, confined - behind glass, behind netting or fencing, or behind a moat.  The enclosure may be the size of a coffee table or it may be several acres, depending on the animal.  The only truly free creatures at most zoos are the peafowl, which many zoos allow to roam zoo grounds.  

Ours is one of those facilities with a free-range flock.  The birds are fully-flighted - they often spend the night on tree branches fifty feet or more up in the air.  They enter the enclosures of other animals with serene indifference in their search for food.  In theory, there is nothing stopping them from going out into the parking lot, perching on top of a truck, and hitching a ride cross-country.

The Indian peafowl is one of the most common zoo birds in the world, and it's so common that I sometimes forget what a magnificent, beautiful animal it is.  Fortunately, I have a steady stream of guests to remind me.  Even the "dull" females are attractive in their own way, but the males are absolutely stunning.  This is especially true when the spread out their most famous feature - the covert feathers of the tail.

The tail of a peacock is an incredible sight (though many visitors seem convinced that what they are seeing are actually the wings - they aren't).  Greek myth says that it is speckled with the eyes of the giant Argus, whom Hera entrusted to keep his one-hundred eyes on her adulterous husband, Zeus.  In practical, biological terms, the display of a spread tail enables the male to show the female that he is fit, healthy, and parasite free.  Not only is he strong enough to grow such an elaborate spread of feathers, he is also agile enough and wily enough to have survived dragging such a heavy load behind him in a world of predators.

The one environment where the tail of the peacock is not particularly advantageous is the zoo.  There, the handsome bird will find himself besieged by people who want one of his feathers as a souvenir.  Fortunately, the birds are able to escape their pursuers by jumping fences or flying away - it's always amazing to watch a crowd of visitors gasp in astonishment as the heavy-bodied birds explode into flight, their tails streaming behind them like comets.

And then there is the voice.  To quote Jeff Bonner in Sailing with Noah:

"A peacock's call sounds amazingly like a woman screaming frantically "Help! Help! Help!"  Granted - it sounds like a very large woman, with a fairly deep voice - but it sounds pretty convincing all the same.  I don't know how many times the park park police have been called to investigate this kind of false alarm, but I do know that they tell all the rookie park policeman that if they ever hear a woman screaming for help near the zoo, the odds are astronomically high that it's not a woman at all."

That the police in St. Louis are conditioned to ignore woman screaming for help near the zoo would not comfort me to know if I were a woman who lived there and frequented the park at night...

The omnipresence of Indian peafowl in zoos sometimes irritates me - there are more endangered pheasant species which could make use of some of the spaces that go to the common place Indian (not least of all the closely related, equally beautiful green peafowl, pictured below).  Still, I have to admit that there is probably no animal experience that so many guests treasure as much as watching an adult male peacock, tail trailing behind him, strolling down the path in front of them.  That simple connection between human and bird can create memories which will last a lifetime.


Few other zoo birds are given the chance to range freely, completely unrestricted, like peafowl - sometimes guineafowl, sometimes wild turkeys (seldom the males though, which have the tendency to beat up small children).  Part of this is probably the fact that peafowl aren't endangered, nor are they part of any special breeding program - it sounds harsh, but they're almost expendable, and curators will take risks with them - like allowing them freedom to roam anywhere - that they would never allow more endangered, more valuable birds.  

That's OK.  For a zookeeper, the Indian peafowl is a very common bird, one that many of us don't even notice as we walk zoo grounds.  For a visitor, however, it's an extraordinary, otherworldly creature that is the stuff of legends.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Sporcle Quiz: IUCN Categories


Every month, I try to publish one species fact profile (I used to do several per month before I realized that I was just being lazy and not trying to come up with more original material).  Each features, at the top, basic information for the species described, including its conservation status.  This is generally expressed through the classification of the species under two entities - CITES and the IUCN.

CITES - the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species - is an international treaty which regulates the trade of wildlife around the world.  The IUCN is the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, devoted, in its own words, to finding "pragmatic solutions to our most pressing environment and development challenges."  It might be best known for its production of "The Red List", the authoritative, scientific attempt to classify the conservation status of every species on earth on a scale for "Extinct" to "Least Concern."

There, I just gave you two of the answers.  Can you name the other categories of classification?

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Zoo Review: Brookfield Zoo

Located in the suburbs of Chicago, the Brookfield Zoo is one of the newest of the major American zoos - by the time it opened its gates in 1934, the zoo world had already begun its transition towards barless, more natural enclosures, and the zoo was able to take advantage of that trend.  It has a second advantage over its neighbor, the Lincoln Park Zoo - space.  With over 200 acres of grounds to work with, the collection can be spread out in a manner that is impossible in its smaller, urban counterpart.

When I went to Brookfield, I wasn't sure how much time I was going to have, so I made a beeline for the exhibit that I wanted to see most of all - the Australia House.  Featuring one of the most impressive collections of Australian wildlife in North America, the building displays an assortment of reptiles, amphibians, and birds in handsome enclosures, while kangaroos, cassowaries, and emus roam outdoor paddocks.  For most guests, the highlight will be the final exhibit, where fruit bats fly in a darkened hallway.  For me, the best part was a chance to see a species seldom seen in American zoos - the southern hairy-nosed wombat, a species for which Brookfield is famous, not only for its work with wombats in captivity, but for its efforts to conserve them in the wild.

A southern hairy-nosed wombat reclining inside a hollow log in the Australia House

In recent years the zoo has undergone renovation of many of its older exhibits, with some fantastic new displays now gracing the campus.  Most of the African animals are seen in the two part Habitat Africa!  In the Savannah, giraffes, gazelles, and wild dogs inhabit outdoor yards, visible from a central building that also houses reptiles, birds, and small mammals, such as rock hyraxes.  A breeding group of aardvarks is seen in a nearby building of their own.  The Forest exhibit features crocodiles, duikers, and chameleons, but it is the okapi which are the stars - Brookfield was the first zoo in America to breed this rare forest-giraffe.  The (newish) Living Coast building takes guests through a tour of coastal South America (an awesome geographic area which is seldom displayed in zoos), where sharks, sea turtles, and other marine creatures glide past underwater windows.  The tour ends with a habitat of Humboldt penguins and other seabirds; a flight cage outside holds Andean condors.  The zoo's newest major exhibit take guests on a walk across North America, home to bison, bald eagles, brown and polar bears, and endangered Mexican wolves.

Visitors watch Humboldt penguins, Inca terns, and other seabirds in The Living Coast

Apart from the Australia House, the exhibit that excited me the most was the carnivore area - Fragile Kingdom.  The first portion, an outdoor area, passes enclosures of a variety of big cats - lions and tigers, leopards and snow leopards - as well as sloth bears.  Two indoor areas take guests first through a southeast Asian rainforest, inhabited by binturong, clouded leopard, small-clawed otters, and pythons, and then an African desert, where fennec foxes, black-footed cats, meerkats, and other small carnivores are seen.  

The only exhibit which truly disappointed me was, ironically, the zoo's most famous display - Tropics World.  Once the largest indoor zoo exhibit in the world, this "rainforest" is supposed to show visitors the jungles of South America, Asia, and Africa.  Primates are the stars here, with orangutans, gibbons, spider monkeys, and marmosets being some of the species encountered.  The lower levels of the exhibit are home to tapirs, giant anteaters, and pygmy hippos.  Like many of the earliest attempts to recreate rainforests, this exhibit is, unfortunately, a lot of concrete with some fake-looking trees sticking out of it.  I'm sure the zoo can - and will - do better at the next go around.  Even though the exhibit didn't live up to its hype, it was neat seeing the scene of one of the most interesting incidents from recent zoo history - it was in this exhibit that a young boy fell into the gorilla display and was protected by Binti Jua, a female gorilla (and niece of the famous sign-langauge-using Koko), who kept other gorillas back before carrying the boy to rescue personnel.


An overview of Tropic World's African area, showing mandrill and pygmy hippo.  One of the zoo's gorillas (maybe even the famous Binti Jua?) playing with some hay.

Many of the other exhibits here I only had time to do a quick run-through - the reptile and bird houses, the hoofstock yards - and others I had to miss due to time, such as the dolphins and the swamp building.  I missed the children zoo entirely (which, to be fair, was on the bottom of my to-do list), but Brookfield's children zoo is supposed to be the best in the nation, an innovator in conservation play.  It's always hard to see and take in everything in a major zoo, especially when it is your first time visiting.  That just means there is always something to come back for.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

But I Really DO Like Guests!

The other day, I was walking through the zoo with a fellow keeper when we detected the aura of cigarette smoke - a big "no-no" at our facility.  I spotted the offender, puffing away as he walked ahead of us, and jogged up ahead to talk with him.  After a few seconds of chatting, he laughed, ground out his cigarette, and strolled off, waving goodbye as he walked away. My coworker was flabbergasted.

"How did you do that?," she asked.  "They always yell at me or give me dirty looks when I tell them they can't smoke in here."

I told her the truth.  I'd informed the man (nicely) that smoking wasn't allowed in the zoo - I was afraid that the animals would see it and pick up the habit.  He thought it was, if not super funny, at least worth a chuckle, and the inherent silliness of the comment took the focus off of the fact that he was breaking the rules.

When I showed up for my first day of work at a zoo over 10 years ago, I was ready to shovel poop, make diets, and wrangle animals.  Instead, I watched a movie - a low quality VHS entitled "The Spirit of Hospitality."  Most days I can't remember what I had for breakfast by lunchtime (which is odd, considering I eat the same thing for breakfast everyday), but ten years plus later, I can still remember that video.  It was full of all sorts of little scenarios on how to act in order to make the best impression on your visitors.  See a guest looking at a map?  Walk up and ask if he needs help finding something.  See a mom getting ready to take a picture of her children?  Ask if she'd like you to take the picture so she can be in it with the kids.  Pick up trash whenever you see it - let visitors see that people are taking care of the facility and trying to keep it neat and safe, for them and for the animals.

I know, I know, a face like this is just begging to be fed... but please don't.

I tried explaining this concept to an unfortunately obstinate intern once.  In return for my philosophy, I got a look that suggested that I had three heads, none of which was in possession of a brain.  "If someone has a question I'll answer it, but I became a zookeeper because I don't like dealing with people," was her reply.  My initial instinct was to reply, "Well you aren't a zookeeper yet, are you... INTERN!", but I choked that down, deciding it was too mean.  Instead, I tried to reason some more.

We may not like to admit it, but in the eyes of the world (including some of our fiercest critics), zoos and aquariums are about entertainment.  Once we get them through the gates we can try to educate them and inspire them to care about the natural world, and we may use their money to fund conservation projects and breeding programs, but first we need to get them here and coming back, and that means making sure they have a good time.  That means learning to enforce rules without bullying people.  It means educating without belittling people.  It means helping people without acting like you are put upon.

None of this means that you have to be a doormat or let people do anything that poses a threat or a stressor to the animals.  I only ever yell at visitors (I mean, actually yell) under two circumstances:
  • If they are doing something extremely unsafe... like climbing over the barrier that separate them from a potential dangerous animal
  • If they are doing something inherently malicious... like rock-throwing or spitting
Outside of these scenarios, tact and patience solve most problems.  It's important to remember that a lot of our visitors don't have experience being around animals - what is common sense and second nature to us might not be to them.  Little kids might not be old enough to understand that chasing the free-roaming peacocks is scary for them, it needs to be taught to them.  If you have folks banging on the glass in your reptile house, don't just yell at them - explain to them why it's stressful for the animals to have their tanks banged upon (and then if you catch them doing it again, THEN you yell at them!).

"Go ahead, asshole... knock that glass one more time... I dare you..."

One of the most important skills that I've learned about interacting with the public is walking with my head up and eyes alert, making eye contact as I go through public areas.  If someone makes eye contact back, I smile and nod, maybe say a quick "Hello" or "Welcome."  Just doing this makes me more approachable to visitors, and might give a shy guest the opening they need to come up with a question or a concern.  We have a lot of geriatric animals at our zoo, some of which probably look a little funky to members of the public.  I'd rather have twenty people ask me about a limping animal everyday than have one person who went home convinced that the animal was hurt and we just didn't notice or didn't care.  Some of these casual, chance encounters with visitors that I've had on zoo grounds have netted us new docents or volunteers.

Ultimately, most of us in the profession started off as curious kids visiting the zoo or aquarium.  For many of us, our earliest exposure to animals came at the hands of a patient keeper who was willing to answer our questions... even the ones that to them may have seemed silly or obvious.  You never know how your conduct may impact that visitor.  It could convince them that the zoo is run by sullen, indifferent people who don't care about animals... or it could inspire them to help make a change towards protecting animals, in the zoo and in the wild.  

Friday, August 1, 2014

I'm Only Here for the Comments...

"A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes."

- Mark Twain

"Everybody is a bully on the internet."

- Scott Adams


There are few things which get me more excited first thing in the morning than to log on to the blog and see that someone has left a comment.  On the rare occasions when this happens, it's usually followed by a sigh of disappointment when I see that it was (in all likelihood) for one of the two Blackfish guest editorials (seriously, is no one interested in anything other than orcas?).  Sometimes I read an interesting, well-thought-out logical response (this can come from either side of the debate).  Other times I find something driven by passion and emotion (this also can come from either side).

And sometimes I find crazy drivel...

The wonderful thing about the internet is that it allows people to share information and opinions around the world.  The terrible thing about the internet is that it allows people to share misinformation and opinions around the world.  Whenever I read an article about zoos online, I scroll to the comments when I'm done to see what people have to say.  Some people are pro-zoo, some against.  I really don't have a problem with anti-zoo people - my job is to understand their opinions and try to win them over.  My problem is with people who just make stuff up and spout nonsense.  My favorite example from recent weeks was some conspiracy theorist who insisted that all zoo animals still came from the wild, and that we only pretended that any were born in zoos (presumably, we let the "mommy" animals get really fat, snatch a baby from the wild and put it on display, and then give "mommy" liposuction the next day).  People who claim all sorts of insider information which is bogus and wrong just drive me up the wall.

Of course, this online phenomena of craziness isn't limited to the zoo world.  It's in all things, from politics (especially politics) to entertainment.  There's a lot of it focused around animals, though.  Read an article about wolves, for instance, and you'll find people claiming to be farmers from the western states who face rabid packs of wolves ripping their herds to shreds and attacking their children nightly.  In reality, these are probably folks who have never been closer to a wolf than the local zoo.  Read an article of rattlesnakes and you'll hear how someone's granddaddy killed a rattler 20 feet long... notably longer than the snakes actually get.  In the anonymity of the internet, anyone can say anyone.

For that matter, as far as anyone here knows, I'm not even a zookeeper.  All of these anecdotes I tell could be made up.  You'll just have to take my word on it...

Not everything on the internet stays hidden forever though.  Consider Big Cat Rescue, an anti-zoo big cat "sanctuary" from Florida.  It turns out they were just caught paying strangers to write positive reviews, comments, and other nice things about them online.  Not only does it seem shameful that that is how they use their donations (instead of providing the best possible care for their animals), it just really makes them seem sketchy.  Likewise, SeaWorld didn't do themselves any favors when it was found out that they tried tilting online polls in their favor by having lots of employees vote from work.

Even when lies are called out on the internet, they still remain... forever.  Anyone doing a Google search can find that lie somewhere and then quote it as their source.  It can be hard to take things at face value on the internet, especially in situations where "sources of information" are anonymous.  The best thing to do, I find, is to do your research and make your own decisions.  And if you can't ignore the crazies in the comments section, at least learn to laugh at them.

This tiger has absolutely nothing to do with the article.  I just like showing pictures of animals...