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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Proyecto Titi

Proyecto Titi | Conserving Colombia's Wildlife



Every once in a while, I like to use a blog post to highlight an organization that is out working for animals in the wild.  Some - such as Turtle Survival Alliance, Amphibian Ark, and Panthera - are concerned with protecting certain groups of animals.  Others are focused more on geographic areas; Polar Bears International focuses on the Arctic, ZCOG on Latin America.  Still other groups focus on a single species.  Such a group is Proyecto Titi.

Proyecto Titi is devoted to the conservation of one of the world's most endangered primates, the cotton-top tamarin.  Highly popular in zoos around the world, these squirrel-sized monkeys are endemic to the rainforests of Colombia, and as the forests have vanished, so have the tamarins.  Founded in 1985, Proyecto Titi has worked to raise awareness about the tamarins' plight and find solutions to lead to its conservation.

The advantage of being an organization that focuses on one species found in one country is that Proyecto Titi can get to know the communities it works with very well and find ways to better help people and animals coexists.  For example, a contributing cause of habitat loss in Colombia is the clearing of trees for fuelwood, as many poor, rural communities cook over open fire.  Solar ovens were introduced, but for a variety of reasons were not deemed successful.  Project leaders than worked with communities to create new, environmentally-friendly, more fuel-efficient ovens that helped families lower their need for fuel wood and thereby lower their impact on the forest.  Likewise, Proyecto Titi was helped local communities clear up the forest AND turn a profit at the same time by making and selling eco-mochilas - colorful handbags that are made from plastic trash bags that would otherwise be polluting the rainforest.

Besides community involvement, Proyecto Titi is involved in researching cotton-tops (a lot of their research is linked on their website, check it out!) and working to increase awareness about this endangered primate. In both of these goals, the organization has been supported by zoos participating in the Cotton-Top Tamarin Species Survival Plan; many zoos which display cotton-tops show their support through financial contributions to the Project.

Protecting cotton-top tamarins doesn't just help the primates.  It also helps to protect the entire forest ecosystem in which they exist.  Proyecto Titi is an excellent example of using a flagship species to rally support from all interested parties - scientists, zoo professionals, and, above all, local peoples - to protect an endangered species in an endangered habitat.




Sunday, September 28, 2014

Sporcle Quiz: Name the Sharks


Okay, so Shark Week has come and gone, but sharks are always in style!  After Monterey Bay Aquarium released its final great white shark, there are no great whites in captivity anymore.  Very few aquariums around the world hold whale sharks or great hammerheads.  There are still a lot of awesome sharks out there, from the tiny to the terrifying.  Learn to ID some of them with this quiz!

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Zoo History: The Great White Sharks of Monterey Bay

There's an old joke about two kids going off to school, talking about their classes for that day.  One of them sagely points out that she thinks that history should be the first class taught every day, before any more of it happens.  It's a joke, of course, but one with an important lesson - history is always being made.

Zoos and aquariums are always making history, albeit history that is seldom noticed by the rest of the world. A big part of that is the achieving of historical "fists" - such as being the first institution to breed a particular species in captivity and rear it successfully, or the first to obtain knowledge about an animal's behavior or biology.  Some of the most celebrated "firsts", however, are being the first (and only) institution to display a species... or the first to keep it alive for any length of time.

It was the later achievement that the Monterey Bay Aquarium could boast of with its great white sharks.

The great white shark is perhaps the most iconic of ocean creatures.  It's certainly the most feared.  That being said, it is one that you won't see in any public aquariums.  You'll see sand tiger sharks and nurse sharks, leopard sharks and zebra sharks, even a whale shark in a tiny handful of aquariums around the globe... but not the great white.  Not, unless, you went to Monterey Bay Aquarium in the early years of the 21st century.

Monterey Bay Aquarium literally has great whites in its back yard.  The massive sharks are attracted to the area, as they are to other shorelines of the world which boast healthy breeding populations of fatty, nutritious seals and sea lions.  With such an extraordinary, celebrated, yet little-known predator so close to their facility, it's hardly surprising that aquarium biologists showed interest in the great white, and considerable sums of money were poured into researching it.   Compared to the other apex predators of the world - lions, polar bears, saltwater crocodiles - amazingly little is known about the great white shark.  Monterey's staff took steps to rectify the situation by capturing, tagging, and releasing sharks in the nearby waters.  Over 100 sharks were tagged, allowing scientists to start collecting basic information - where do they go?  How do the grow? How do they breed (this being studied through DNA analysis)?

The aquarium also wanted to try doing what had never been done successfully before - exhibit a great white shark.  It had been tried in the past at SeaWorld, as well as Monterey itself, with a young shark captured in 1984 dying about two weeks later after it refused to feed.  Keeping great whites in captivity is a Catch-22.  They don't do well in aquariums because we know so little about their needs in captivity.  We now so little about their needs because they don't live long enough to study.  Still, with the knowledge gained at Monterey, the decision was made to try, and a young, small shark (the target animals from the study) was captured and - with the greatest of care - transfered to the aquarium.

Between 2004 and 2011, six sharks were displayed at the aquarium, the longest for about six months.  Each shark was eventually released back into the waters where it was captured.  The sharks not only attracted considerable attention to the aquarium - nearly one million visitors came to see it in 2004 - but it also provided a great ambassador for the aquarium's efforts to study and save the species.  Julie Packard, the aquarium's executive director, called the shark "the most powerful emissary for ocean conservation in history", and I'm not saying she's wrong.

Last year, the aquarium announced that it was "taking a break" from exhibiting great white sharks.  The shark is up for additional government protection, which is certainly a good thing, but would make the matter of removing one from the ocean a bureaucratic nightmare.  It's possible that the keeping of the species may never be attempted again.  That's not the end of the world, though.  What's important is that thousands of people were given a rare chance to see the ocean's most infamous predator as they never would before, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium continues to use its voice and its resources to push for the conservation of great whites and other marine species.

Besides, there are lots of other incredible shark species which are on display in aquariums around the world.  


Visitors watch a male great white shark at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in 2006. (VERN FISHER/The Herald)

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

From the News: Buffaloes, gentle giants of the plains, return to the National Zoo after a decade


Curator Steve Sarro feeds a bison leaf-eater biscuits in the barn at the Smithsonian's National Zoo on Aug. 21 in Washington. (Yue Wu/The Washington Post)

This year, the Smithsonian National Zoological Park celebrates its 125th birthday.  It does so, in part, by welcoming back the animal that lead to the zoo's creation - the American bison, popularly (but incorrectly!) often called the American buffalo.  The impetus for a National Zoo came from Smithsonian taxidermist William T. Hornaday, who was deeply concerned about the slaughter of North America's most iconic (and formerly most abundant) large mammal.  Hornaday didn't last too long in DC for a variety of reasons, but his passion and commitment for wildlife conservation eventually gave rise to New York's Bronx Zoo.

Not terribly sure how I feel about this new exhibit.  I'm not saying that in a snarky "I don't approve" way, but in a literal, not sure, rather ambivalent way.  Yes, I certainly appreciate the important role that bison play in the zoo's history... and, indeed, in America's collective conservation history.  It's always good to show people a "win" for wildlife now and then, a sign that the loss of our wildlife can be halted, or even reversed.  That can inspire people to work towards efforts to save other endangered species.  And it's true, I certainly missed the bison when they left the zoo years ago.

That being said...

Bison are safe.  No, we probably will never see herds of millions roaming the plains anyway - some idiots put Omaha, Topeka, and Oklahoma City in the way - but they are in no danger of extinction.  William Hornaday and Theodore Roosevelt would probably be dancing the hornpipe with excitement if they could see how many bison there are today - in zoos, in ranches, and in public and private lands.  There are, however, a lot of animals which are still in danger, and the failure to create sustainable captive breeding populations for them is one of the problems they face.  Ungulates (hoofed mammals) are a diverse, wonderful group of beasts, but one that has been on a bit of a decline in zoos over the last few decades.  That's because instead of bongo, onager, and guar, most zoos display the same tiny handful of species, such as giraffe, plains zebra, and... American bison.

Now, the National Zoo does a heck of a lot of good for conservation, so I can hardly begrudge them some space for the animal that earned them their existence.  And bison do have a place in DC - they are, after all, practically the national animal.  It's just that I always like to look out for the underdogs (or in this case, undercows)... the animals that no one is saving because no one even knows about.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Watch Your $^&*#$ Language

"I'm going to kill you..."

That's never a phrase that you want to hear behind you in a dark room.  It's especially disconcerting when the voice that says it isn't even human.

I have no idea what prompted Sweet-Stuff, our Education Department scarlet macaw, to say that to me that one day.  In part because I'd always thought we were close buds (which never meant that I trusted him).  The other part was that I'd never heard him say that before... or after.

When people think about parrots, they think of two things - bright colors and talking.  Mostly the talking.  Perhaps cartoons and movies and jokes have overstated the power, but there is still a fair bit of uncertainty as to how much parrots can learn and how much they can understand of what they are saying.  The traditional viewpoint was that parrots were just... well... parroting, repeating sounds without any understanding of what they are saying... sort of like very small children.  Also like very small children, they have a talent of picking up on the least-appropriate words possible and repeating them.

Lately, research has suggested that parrots aren't the bird-brains we all think they are, and that some actually do possess considerable understanding of what the human sounds they make mean. The poster-parrot for this school of thought is the late Alex, an African grey parrot who was under the care of scientist Irene Pepperberg.  During her years of studying Alex, Pepperberg reported Alex (Avian Language EXperiment)  learned over 100 words and what they meant in relationship to one another.  He could use words to indicate which of two objects was larger, for example, or different colors and materials.  Like many sign-language-using apes, he also coined phrases for new objects by combining the names of objects he knew.


The ability of parrots to talk depends on the species and the circumstance in which they are raised (birds kept with other birds seem more likely to focus on each other and less likely to mimic people, I've noticed).  It amazes me how many people will talk to the parrots at our zoo and are baffled that the birds aren't simply echoing back every word they say to it.  I try to explain that the parrots see (and hear) hundreds of people a day, and that there is no reason for them to especially care about the sounds that one particular visitor is making.

Should zoos teach their parrots (and other "talking" birds, like ravens and mynahs) to talk?  Touchy question... some people say absolutely not.  Using human speech isn't a natural behavior, they feel, and it sends the message that parrots are great pets.  Others feel that it highlights the natural mimicry abilities of parrots and is useful for demonstrations and education programs.  Besides, no matter what, most zoo macaws I've worked with have picked up a few words - "Hello", "Good Bye", "Pretty Bird" are the standard phrases - and repeat them whenever they want to.

As Sweet-Stuff showed me that one day, you can never tell what a parrot will take into his head to mimic.  The moral of the story, however, seems to be to be careful what you say around the zoo.  You never can tell who is listening...







Saturday, September 20, 2014

Book Review: Night Kill

Zookeeping keeps getting more and more dangerous.  If the animals or the crazed visitors don't get you, you still have to worry about killers among your colleagues.  At least, that's the lesson that I'm getting from my fiction library.  Besides Betty Webb's Gunn Zoo mysteries (starting with the absurdly titled Anteater of Death), we now have a second series of zookeeper murder mysteries, starting with Night Kill, by Ann Littlewood.

Iris, a big cat keeper at a fictitious zoo in the Pacific Northwest, finally thinks that she's got a chance of reconnecting with her distant husband, a reptile keeper at that same zoo.  Her hopes are dashed, however, when her husband's body - or what's left of it - is found in the lion exhibit one morning.  Everyone else chalks it up to a tragic misadventure... especially after it's found out that the hard-drinking hubby had a stomach full of booze at the time of death.  Iris just isn't so sure...

Night Kill is considerably darker than Webb's Gunn Zoo stories... which is odd, because both deal with murder.  It is also a fair bit more realistic, in my opinion.  Whereas Webb's zoo is bright, cheery, and almost obnoxiously perfect, Littlewood's reminds me of most of the places where I've worked - gritty and on the edge of falling apart behind the scenes.  Webb alludes to the rough financial situation of many zookeepers, but her heroine is a heiress (try saying that three times fast) who shuns her family's wealth for love of animals. Littlewood's keepers scrim, save, fret about money, and barely get by.  The level of detail in Night Kill is also impressive, whether the narrator is describing the creak of a shift door, fluster of an animal capture, or the long, lonely nights waiting up with an animal in need.

If you enjoy Night Kill, be sure to check out Littlewood's sequels - Did Not Survive and Endangered.


http://ecx.images-amazon.com/images/I/51b25C0ExdL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_.jpg



Thursday, September 18, 2014

Advocates for Animals

Earlier this week, I wrote a post asking readers to voice support for the red wolf reintroduction program in North Carolina, threatened by political interests.  As soon as I finished the post, I followed my own advice and sent off an email to US Fish and Wildlife Service, asking for them to continue to support red wolf reintroduction.  I didn't send the email from my official work email account, however, nor did I mention that I was a zookeeper.

I would have liked to, but I wasn't sure if I was allowed to.

Zookeepers, aquarists, rehabbers, and other wildlife caretakers tend to be a loud, unruly lot.  We strive to do the best possible job taking care of our own animals, and always try to do it better.  We tend to be critical (sometimes unbelievably so) of those who we disagree with in terms of animal care.  Many of us are young, impassioned (despite whatever jaded attempts at worldliness and cynicism we sometimes try to cultivate) and became zookeepers as much because of idealism as we did love of animals.  Put simply, we want to change the world.

Now, the bosses upstairs? Meh...


Well, I mean, I get it.  I understand that the directors and presidents and board members also care about animals.  It's just that they have to be more careful than we are, because they are responsible not for chopping the feed and shoveling the poop, but for bringing in the money that keeps the facility open.  To do so, they would just as soon be on good terms with everybody.  When the zoo brass does take a hard stand on an issue, it tends to be one safely on the other side of the world, like the bushmeat crisis in Africa (after all, who among our guests is eating gorillas).  The solution?  We ask them to give money.

The problem is that it can be very hard to get people to make a change to save animals on the other side of the world (unless our guests really are eating gorillas).  We need to make a change here.  And that means challenging people to learn more and do better.  It can mean challenging people to rethink what they already think they know.  And yes, that can mean offending people.

Consider rattlesnake round-ups, where rattlesnakes are collected in large numbers (often by pouring gasoline down their dens, harming or killing other species in the process) and then killed in a cheerful, carnival-like atmosphere.  It's a proud tradition in parts of the American South.  It's also barbaric and ecologically destructive.  It would be great to see a southern US zoo take a stand against it, through educational programs and displays... though doubtlessly it would offend some visitors who participate in these events, or have friends that do.


Or consider palm oil.  Many people could probably tell you that deforestation is the leading threat to orangutans, clouded leopards, and other Southeast Asian rainforest dwellers.  Fewer could tell you exactly what is responsible for much of that habitat loss - palm oil plantations.  Recently, some zoos, led by Cheyenne Mountain, have begun speaking up about palm oil and it's impact of wild habitats and are making their voices heard.  It's still nowhere near loud enough, though... remember all that fuss about tuna until it became "Dolphin Safe"?  That's the level of attention we need for this.

The polar bear in the room, of course, is global climate change, a threat to all ecosystems, everywhere.  Not only does it imperil Arctic dwellers like the polar bear, it impacts a host of other species, from sea turtles (in which the sex of the egg is determined by temperature) to addax and other North African antelope (threatened by drought and desertification).  Yet how many US zoos and aquariums actually speak up about climate change?

Very few... because they know that about half of the electorate typically votes for a party that doesn't take global climate change (NOT global warming) seriously... and the other half doesn't like being preached to.  For many zoos, politicians hold the purse strings... or they are dependent on wealthy donors who might not like having their business practices critiqued.  A zoo that is seen as being too "political" could find itself in trouble, possibly have its funding cut in retribution, or even have its tax-exempt status questioned.  Look at the Belize Zoo - director Sharon Matola took a stand against a destructive dam that the Belizean government was planning, then BOOM, suddenly the proposed new national dump is slated to open... right next to the zoo.

Besides, guests don't want to come to the zoo or aquarium to feel bad, they want to have a good time seeing animals. Why, the director/CEO may ask, risk chasing them off with doom and gloom?

Part of it is because it's our job.  The major part is because only by educating people can we inspire change.  People can't work towards fixing a problem until they know there is a problem.  We don't have to beat people over the heads with negative messages and gruesome graphics and depressing figures until they go home and swallow the contents of their medicine cabinet all at once (or, more likely, just don't renew their membership).  Too much negativity can shut people down, make them feel overwhelmed and unwilling to care.  What we can do, however, is find positive messages behind and try to rally visitors behind them.

Outside of the St. Louis Zoo (one of my favorites, I might add) is a very large metal sculpture, depicting several life-sized animals.  Its name also serves as the zoo's motto - "Animals Always."  It's a fitting motto for St. Louis, one of the zoos which does the most for wildlife conservation around the world (including in its own state of Missouri).  It would be an even better motto for the zoo and aquarium community as a whole.

We should strive to make as big and positive a difference as possible to animals around the world, in the zoo and in the wild.  We should not be afraid to speak up about what we feel is wrong and negatively affecting animals and their habitats.  We should pick our battles... but never surrender principles.


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Last Stand of the Red Wolf?

"Now the Longhorns are gone, and the drovers are gone,
The Comanches are gone, and the outlaws are gone,
Geronimo is gone, and Sam Bass is gone,
And the lion is gone, and the red wolf is gone..."

- Don Edwards, Coyotes

When the red wolf was first reintroduced back into the wilds of eastern North Carolina, it represented a triumph of the conservation movement.  For the first time, a large carnivore that had been declared extinct in the wild was reintroduced to part of its former range.  It seemed to give hope to the prospect of other future reintroduction efforts around the world and affirm the possibility that wildlife conservation isn't necessarily a losing game.

More the fool us.

In recent years, there has been increased backlash against the presence of the wolves, from one landowner in particular.  There have been illegal shootings.  There have been threats against reintroduction staff.  And now, there has been political pressure to terminate the entire program, to call it quits on the red wolf as it were.  A review of the reintroduction program has been initiated.  Fairly soon, we will know if there is a future for red wolves in North Carolina... or anywhere outside of a zoo.

Heard anything about it?  No one has.  That's because most people don't deem it newsworthy.  Fish and Wildlife has extended the commenting period until the 26th of this month.  Please send an e-mail to the address below to let them know that you support red wolves and those who protect them.



Monday, September 15, 2014

From the News: Depressed woman commits suicide by crocodile in Samut Praken


This is a pretty awful story, and tragically, it's not the first time that someone has committed suicide-by-zoo-animal.  It happened a few years back at the lion exhibit at the National Zoo.  (This, of course, is discounting all of the unintentional suicides and homicides that happen when people do horribly unsafe things at the zoo). The zoo in question in this case has announced that they have since taken steps to add stronger fencing and other safety measures to keep this from happening, though I'm not positive how much it would have helped.   That being said, it's a good reminder that exhibits should be as hard for the public to get in as for the animals to get out.

There are (of course, in this day and age) pictures of the incident, but out of respect for the deceased they will not be shared here (and I chose a link to a website that has her body blurred out in the images that it shows).  Condolences to this poor woman's family and friends. 

Friday, September 12, 2014

Zoo Review: Mill Mountain Zoo

Of the four AZA-accredited institutions in Virginia, three - the Virginia Zoo, Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center, and Virginia Living Museum - are crowded on the southeast coast of the state, where the Chesapeake Bay spills into the Atlantic Ocean.  The fourth institution is clear across the state, tucked into the Blue Ridges mountains.  This is the small, often overlooked Mill Mountain Zoo.

When I say Mill Mountain is small, I mean it is small... very.  Carved into the side of its namesake mountain (best known for housing the giant metal star that overlooks the city of Roanoke), there is almost no flat space in the zoo, most of which feels crowded.  There are few large animals - the takin is probably the largest single animal in the zoo - and it's hard to imagine that in the 1970's, the zoo once housed an elephant.  In recent years, the most famous animal resident is probably the Japanese macaque "Oops"; as the name might suggest, she was an escapee, whose week on the lam was covered by national news.

The collection is skewed towards East Asia (a frequently neglected geographic area), which has a climate similar to southwestern Virginia.  This means that many animals are out on display year round (ideal, since, apart from the small reptile house, there are no indoor exhibits).  Mill Mountain can't boast of many of the more popular zoo animals, but it does have a collection of interest for a zoo professional, as it has many less-common species.  Takin, tufted deer, hooded cranes, and Pallas cats are among the species on display, along with more recognizable residents, such as red pandas, snow leopards, and red wolves.  The animal that I will always associate with Mill Mountain, however, is the wolverine - the first wolverine (come to think of it, the only wolverine) that I've ever seen.


A few years back, the idea was floated to relocate the zoo from its present location to a larger place in the lowlands, redubbing it "the Blue Ridge Zoo."  This idea was shelved and forgotten... more's the pity.  The zoo could have used more space... as well as a new start.  A lot of the enclosures I found somewhat unimpressive, especially the macaque, otter, and other small mammal displays.  You could tell that the keepers were doing what they could with what they had, but when you're working with a Behlen cage (basically a silo of wire on a concrete pad), your options are, understandably, limited.  Nothing that suggests that animals aren't cared for (bad zoos that I've visited I typically don't mention at all on here so as to avoid giving them any publicity)... just... uninspired.

Not to be too negative - I spent plenty of my career at small zoos with limited means.  Some of the exhibits, such the newer Eurasian black vulture exhibit, looked pretty good, as did the cougar display (the only open-topped puma exhibit I've ever seen).  The reptile house (staff built, I'm told) was pretty decent.  It just seems that it would be best if, instead of patching things up, the zoo got the chance to tear down and start fresh.


This Eurasian black vulture exhibit is better than it looks... just a lousy shot on my part.

Definitely worth a look if you're in the area.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Zoo Economy


"Zoo animals are different than most possessions, because zoos follow a fundamental principle: You can't sell or buy the animals. It's unethical and illegal to put a price tag on an elephant's head."

An interesting podcast that was sent my way!  In some ways, there are two zoo economies.  There is the one, by far the older (going back thousands of years, perhaps peaking in the 1800s with the big commercial animal dealers), where animals are bought and sold as commodities.  It's the basis of the private zoo and aquarium industries, as well as the private pet trade.   Then, there is the "new" zoo economy, which deals far less with money.  Animals are exchanged among zoos as part of breeding loans or other population management goals.  It allows small, financially-strapped zoos to acquire and display animals that would be far outside of their means to purchase otherwise.  There are also some animals - especially among many endangered species - which cannot be bought at any price.

Many zoos and aquariums (especially in the private sector) utilize the first economy.  Others use the second, especially when dealing with the accredited zoos that participate in species survival plans.  Many, however, use both - some species are exchanged as parts of breeding programs, whereas others (especially non-mammals) are purchased from professional specialized breeders.  Sylvan Heights Waterfowl Park, for instance, is a lovely facility open to the public, but its original purpose was to breed and sell waterfowl to other facilities.

That's enough from me... enjoy!


Bozie, a DC elephant, and Swarna, a recent arrival from Calgary, get to know each other.

             Bozie, a DC elephant, and Swarna, a recent arrival from Calgary, get to know each other.
Gabrielle Emanuel/Gabrielle Emanuel                                                        

Monday, September 8, 2014

Open and Free to All

"Love can come to everyone
Best things in life, they're free"
- Sam Cooke

Of the hundreds of zoos and aquariums in the United States, there are only a tiny handful - about a dozen - which do not charge admission.  Some, surprisingly, are some of the biggest zoos in the country, such as the St. Louis Zoo and Lincoln Park Zoo (the National Zoological Park is also free, as is every part of the Smithsonian Institute).  Others, like Illinois' Cosley Zoo and Maryland's Salisbury Zoo, are rather small.

There was a time when many other zoos were free, including many of the large urban zoos (aquariums traditionally have been less likely to offer free admission, considering the higher expenses needed in maintaining aquatic systems).  The Pittsburgh Zoo, for instance, used to be free of charge.  As times began to get tougher, the zoo began to charge admission to individual exhibits - an entry free for one building, a separate fee for another.  Finally, the addition of the zoo's aquarium was deemed to be a significant enough change that the whole system of nickel-and-diming was done away with and a flat admission fee was instituted.


I've worked at free zoos, at non-profit zoos that charged admission, and at for-profit, private zoos.  There are definitely things that I do like about not charging admission.  For one thing, it allows the entire community - including the less affluent members - to enjoy the zoo.  Anyone can come and learn about the animals and be inspired by them, not just those who can afford admission.  It also takes some of the pressure of expectations off of the zoo; there are no angry visitors complaining that they spent money to come in and their favorite animals are off exhibit, or sleeping out of sight, or it started raining thirty minutes after they arrived.  Being free of admission usually also means that the zoo has a funding source from elsewhere, which means that it might be more financially secure than other institutions.

At the same time, there are definite advantages to a gate fee.  For one thing, there is security... if anyone can come in, then everyone can come in... including trouble makers.  Everything from rowdy, unsupervised teenagers to drug dealers and prostitutes to homeless persons with serious mental health issues... all in the day's work at one free zoo where I worked.  With no admission fee there may end up being no front gate staff (there to sell tickets at other zoos), which deprives the facility of its first line of security (stray dogs being another problem).

A slightly more nebulous problem is a question of the zoo's value.  This goes two ways.  Sometimes, I feel that if people don't pay for something, they don't value it.  Being free sometimes also creates the impression among staff that they don't "owe" anything to the visitors.  If something is broken, or untidy, or an animal is off exhibit all the time, then they shrug and say "You get what you pay for."  "Did you want your ticket refunded?", was the particularly smug reply one keeper I knew would use when dealing with complaints at a free zoo where we worked.


Some zoos have tried having the best of both worlds by having "free days."  In my experience, this usually ends up as a disaster, as all of the problems with being free still occur, just condensed into a few days of the year.  This can result in major safety issues as a facility becomes very quickly crowded to a degree that the zoo can have difficult managing (evidence: Kansas City Zoo's free day fiasco).

In my perfect world (which does not, has not, and never will exist) everyone would visit the zoo or aquarium often, and they would do so free of charge.  They would support the institution with their own donations, going towards both the upkeep and advancement of the institution, as well as supporting conservation projects through those institutions.  Until then, the tiny handful of free zoos left in the country remain that much more valuable... and I'll just drop an extra dollar or two in the donation box as I walk through the gate.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Zoo Joke: Mary's Day at the Park

Summer had finally come, and little Mary, an elementary school girl with a very active imagination, was finally out of school.  After a day or two of watching their very rambunctious child bounce around the house, her parents decided that she needed to get out and play... somewhere else.  Her father volunteered to take her to the city park the next morning, where the city zoo was located.  Mary and her father left early the next morning, and didn't come back until nearly dark.

"It was great!" Mary exclaimed as she raced through the door to greet her mother.  "First, I got to ride an elephant, and then a zebra, and then a polar bear!  And when I was riding the zebra, there was a really scary tiger chasing me the whole time!  And there were rhinos and lions and horses running all around me the whole time!"

"Wow... that sounds like... quite a day," Mary's mother said, chuckling to herself and patting her daughter on the head.  "Now, go run and wash up for dinner."

"It sounds like she had quite the day at the zoo," Mary's mother commented to her husband as he helped her set the table for dinner.

"The zoo?" he asked, confused.  "We never made it to the zoo.  She spent the whole day on the merry-go-round."


Friday, September 5, 2014

Species Fact Profile: Southern Ground Hornbill (Bucorvus leadbeateri)

Southern Ground Hornbill
Bucorvus leadbeateri (Vigors, 1825)

Range: Southern and Eastern Africa
Habitat: Woodland, Savannah
Diet: Arthropods, Amphibians, Lizards, Small Mammals, Carrion, Fruits
Social Grouping: Pair or Cooperative Breeding Family
Reproduction: Monogamous, mating takes place September through December, with two eggs laid in a cave or hollow tree (usually only one chick survives), the incubation period is 40 days, followed by a fledging period of 85 days, sexually mature at 3 years of age,  older offspring sometimes remain with parents to assist with future chicks; normally breed successfully every third year
Lifespan: 50 Years, 70 Years (Maximum, Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable



  • The world's largest hornbill species: length is 90-130 centimeters, females weigh 2.2-4.6 kilograms, males weigh 3.5-6.1 kilograms
  • Black plumage (except for white primary feathers, visible when the bird is in flight) contrasts with bright red skin on the face and throat; the bill is long, thick, and down-curving with a small casque on top (females have a more violet patch on the throat)
  • Sometimes observed grooming warthogs for parasites, which it feeds upon
  • Groups defend territories of up to 100 square kilometers with deep, booming calls, produced with the bird's inflatable throat sacs
  • Unlike most hornbills, they spend most of their daylight hours on the ground, walking through the grasses to find food and collecting multiple food items in its beak before swallowing them all at once; at night, it roosts in trees for safety
  • Many southern African cultures viewed the species as a herald of the rains and refrained from hunting it, though this cultural tradition is since fading
  • Species is in decline due to habitat loss (especially loss of trees with suitable breeding cavities - one conservation strategy has been the provision of artificial nest boxes), direct persecution, and collisions with power-lines


Thursday, September 4, 2014

From the News: National Aquarium project attempts to restore Inner Harbor's image


“We’re keeping a tally of everything we’ve observed,” [project manager Charmaine] Dahlenburg says. “So, so far we’re up to about 19 species and hundreds of fish and shrimp and crabs that we’re finding in here.”

Habitat loss and degradation is the leading threat to wildlife around the world.  That being said, it is remarkable how resilient many species can be, if given the chance.  Zoos and aquariums have done a lot to raise awareness and funds for habitats around the world.  It's always great to see an institution doing something to support wildlife in its own backyard (literally, in this case).  Congratulations to the National Aquarium for their innovative work in Baltimore's Inner Harbor!  Getting city residents to understand that their harbor is already home to a variety of aquatic creatures is the first step in getting their support to protect and improve it.

Photo credit: John Domen / All News 99.1
Photo credit: John Domen / All News 99.1

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Killing Keiko

Earlier this year, I shared a post about the now-released book Barle's Story, describing the life of a young polar bear rescued from life in a Mexican circus.  Today, I thought I'd share another story about another upcoming book - Killing Keiko.  The animal in question in this book is far more famous than Barle, but is usually better known by the name that he appeared in on the big screen: Free Willy.  Keiko's story, told by one of the biologists that monitored his release, is an important lesson about who should make decisions based on what is best for animals, not agendas.

What follows below is an excerpt from an article on Live Trading News.

Did Hollywood Kill Free Willy?


Did Hollywood Kill Free Willy?

Posted by Shayne Heffernan

It’s a scene etched in the minds of movie-goers: a captive killer whale vaults over a jetty to the open ocean, free at last to join his family in the wild.

In real life, however, Free Willy‘s fairy-tale ending never came true.  Despite international attention and tens of millions donated to his release, Keiko — the killer whale whose story inspired the Warner Brothers movie and its three sequels — suffered an excruciating, lonely and completely avoidable death.

“The public has been misled about Keiko, and I’m not ok with that,” said veteran animal behaviorist Mark Simmons, author of Killing Keiko, a new book available August 14.  Simmons led the Animal Behavior Team charged with Keiko’s release and spent years working in Iceland to prepare Keiko for his return to the wild. Ultimately, the team’s success would prove to be undone by management’s agenda to disregard behavioral science and elevate an urgent need for a timely and Hollywood ending.

“What’s so shocking about this story is that animal-rights activists put their publicity driven agendas over the life of this whale,” said Simmons, one of only a handful of people who’ve had nearly three decades of up-close interaction with killer whales.

Simmons continues, “Keiko endured a long, slow and physiologically punishing death caused by illness, starvation and dehydration.  He did not successfully integrate with other whales.  He did not learn to forage for food.  He never stopped longing for human interaction — something he’d been accustomed to for 20 years.”

Read the rest of the article here.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Satire: Round Animals

I was starting to do some work today on a post about why guests shouldn't feed zoo animals, when this video came up.  I've seen it a few times already, but thought I'd share it here.  It just shows the logical extension of what would happen if we fed wild animals like we feed ourselves.