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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

From the News: Vision for aquarium to anchor downtown Jacksonville's riverfront within sight

The construction of a new zoo - especially a major one - is something of a rarity these days.  It requires a lot of land, a lot of money, and a whole lot of navigating red tape.  New aquariums, on the other hand, are popping up left and right.  Some are relatively small, taking up space in shopping malls, some are massive undertakings; we've even gotten to the point where there is a "chain" aquarium - SeaLife, with locations around the world.

Unlike a zoo, an aquarium is essentially a building, which makes it easier to fit into an existing urban landscape... especially if that landscape isn't being used for anything else at the moment.  Their indoor nature makes them a year-round, weather-independent attraction, which can't be said for all zoos.  This has led to a lot of interest in aquariums from various civic authorities for reasons other than conservation.  The National Aquarium in Baltimore, the Newport Aquarium, and the Tennessee Aquarium have all been used as anchor attractions to revitalize waterfront areas.  Now, Jacksonville, Florida intends to do the same.

The new aquarium looks incredibly ambitious.  It will not only exhibit manatees, a Florida favorite, but it will also attempt to display bill-fish (swordfish, sailfish, marlin), something which has not been tried in the past.  Being the only aquarium to display some of these species would be a tremendous accomplishment, certainly putting this aquarium on the map (though I'm not sure why these species haven't been exhibited before - has anyone tried?)  Jacksonville already has a fine zoo, which has already indicated a willingness to work with the new aquarium (both facilities, for example, intend to get involved with manatee rehabilitation).  Now, it looks like it's slated to have an incredible aquarium as well.

Oh, and St. Augustine (about an hour away) apparently is getting an aquarium too... I wonder if they're going to bother with an alligator exhibit, or if they figure someone else has that covered...

Rendering of the aquarium that a group is pushing to be built in downtown Jacksonville.
Rendering of the aquarium that a group is pushing to be built in downtown Jacksonville.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Satire: Zookeeper Problems

Being a zookeeper or aquarist isn't just an incredibly unique job - in many ways, it's a lifestyle.  No two days at work will be exactly the same, and you are frequently exposed to situations that a normal person will never find himself or herself in.  In some situations, that means that you are given the chance to demonstrate some creative problem-solving.

In other cases, things just get weird.

How weird can they get?  Funny you should ask...

This tweet slightly censored... for the kiddies.  See the original by following the link above!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Book Review: Storks, Ibises, and Spoonbills of the World

While I've never worked exclusively as a birdkeeper, as I have with reptiles and mammals, I've always had a special appreciation for birds.  Especially, I've had a soft-spot for the tall birds - a grab-bag term for a group of non-related large, often terrestrial or aquatic species, including the flightless ratites, the cranes, the flamingos, and, above all others the storks.

I've never worked with a single species of stork in captivity, but have observed many in the wild, from fleeting glimpses of saddle-billed storks in the wetlands of East Africa to a remarkable hour of watching wood storks build their nests in the trees above the Jacksonville Zoo. So when I first saw the magnificent Storks, Ibises, and Spoonbills of the World, by James A. Hancock, James A. Kushlan, and M. Philip Kahl, featured on my recommendations list on Amazon, I knew I had to have it.

The authors have complied possibly the world's finest reference guide on these birds, with a separate entry for each species containing range maps and detailed biological information.  Each entry is also introduced with a beautiful illustration of each species in its natural habitat, an example of which is the painting of a lesser adjutant on the book's cover.  At the beginning of the book is a series of chapters introducing these birds in general - overviews of their behavior, their reproduction, and, most importanly, their conservation.  Appendices at the end provide endless amounts of raw data on body and egg measurements.  With hundreds and hundreds of sources from over the decades compiled in the bibliography, this is easily one of the most comprehensive animal reference books I've ever encountered.

One area in which the book is, I feel, slightly deficient is in its discussion of the cultural history of birds and people.  The entry on the white stork, for instance, does make mention of the mythological role of this species in European culture - but only in a very short paragraph, buried towards the end of the entry, that notes that there was once a cultural taboo on the killing of this species, which no longer exists (it never even mentions storks bringing babies!).  There are so many fascinating stories about people and storks (and, I am willing to bet, ibises and spoonbills) that it seems a shame to leave them out.

I consider this book a must-own for bird keepers working with the species described within it.  While I've never worked with storks, spoonbills, or ibises, it's a rare zoo bird collection that doesn't contain a representative from at least one of these groups - some species, such as scarlet ibises and roseate spoonbills, are among the most common of zoo birds, and several species of stork and ibis are maintained under Species Survival Plans.  That being said, many stork species have failed to become as sustainable as they should be in captivity (a fact that the authors note, pointing out that many of the more spectacular stork species are still threatened by capture for sale to collectors).  While the book does not go much into captive husbandry, it does provide a great deal of information on natural history, and I have always felt that a firm knowledge of the later is what should inform and guide the former.

Good reference materials on birds that delve into every species in a particular group are hard to find... especially because information on some species is so scarce (and, for that reason, some of the entries in this book are very short - a bare two pages each, including maps, for the wattled and sharp-tailed ibises).  When such volumes are available, they should be treasured by all relevant zoo staff - as well as anyone who just happens to have an interest in some very remarkable birds.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

"'Twas the morning of Christmas," by Shelby Essex

'Twas the morning of Christmas,
When all through the zoo
All the creatures were stirring
For they need to eat too.
The zookeepers are coming
To clean and to feed
For Christmas is about giving
And not about greed
So we rake and we scrub
And give the critters their meds
And get them all tucked away
Safe and sound in their beds.
But for the joys that they bring us
It's a small price to pay,
So Merry Christmas to all,
And to all a good day!!!

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas...

When I was a fair bit younger and (only slightly) more irrational and impulsive than I am now, I told my parents that all I wanted for Christmas was a pet hippopotamus.  The hippos at the local zoo were my favorite animals in the world at the time, and I wanted nothing more than to have one of my own.  

My father, trying to deflect my six-year old ambitions as gently as he could, pointed out that having a pet hippo would be a lot of work, a task best left to the professionals at the zoo.  It would be a big animal, he reminded me, and need a lot of room, and I had even thought of where the pool for it would go?  No, he concluded sadly, we just didn't have room for a hippo in the house.

According to him (again, I was five or six years old at this time, so I can't verify this), I cocked my head to the side and said, "Dad, I'm talking about a pygmy hippo," and proceeded to argue that we at least had room for that.  It was a concession, alas, that he never was to make.

With the hindsight of years, I've been forced to conclude that animals don't make the best Christmas presents, something I've had extra occasion to mull over lately as I've visited the pet store for supplies and food this last month.  This is especially true in the cases where the pet is a surprise and the recipient never even asked for one.  Unlike many gifts, a pet requires a tremendous amount of care and can't be simply shoved in the back of a drawer and forgotten until wanted (not gracefully, at least).  There are expenses of feeding, housing, veterinary bills, toys, and other supplies.  Depending on the pet, there are time commitments also, which can be demanding.  

And that's not even considering the return policy... lots of gifted pets end up unwanted and neglected or abandoned.  

Pet-giving isn't just an issue at Christmas - the aftermath of Easter every year often involves hordes of bunnies, chicks, and ducklings that were cute for a week or two, then pooped in an inconvenient place and wore out their welcome.

If you're going to give a pet - especially an exotic one or one with highly involved care (so, anything other than a pet rock), please make sure that the person you are giving it to knows that they want one and is expecting on in the immediate future.  They should have already done all the research on it - how big will it get, how long will it live, what sort of habitat will in need, etc.  Ideally, you should have them come with you and pick the animal out themselves so they can be sure about the companion they are getting.  Sure, you lose that element of surprise under the Christmas tree, but not all surprises are good ones... trust me.

Whatever pet you get, whenever you get it, plan on making a commitment.  If your exit strategy involves donating it to a zoo, guess what?  They probably won't accept it.  Releasing it into the wild?  Also a bad idea - ask the quaker parakeets of San Francisco, or the Burmese pythons of the Everglades.  If you get it as a baby, plan to keep it as an adult.

If you want to make a contribution to the care of a wilder animal than one you'll find in the pet store, go to your zoo or aquarium and "Adopt" one.  "Adopt" is in quotation marks because, despite what some confused guests think, you don't take it home - you simply sponsor its care at the zoo.  Or, you can make a contribution to an organization that protects that species in the wild (Proyecto Titi for cotton-topped tamarins, for example).

Sure, it's not as exciting as Santa bringing you a hippo.  But both you and your animal will be much better off.  That and you won't have to dig a giant pool in the backyard...

Merry Christmas Eve!

Though I do still want that hippopotamus... 

Monday, December 22, 2014

From the News: Court declares captive orangutan is "non-human person"

What a load of rubbish.

Don't get me wrong, there is a kernel of logic to all of this.  Great apes - especially chimpanzees and bonobos - are very closely related to humans, and our certainly some of the most intelligent, sentient animals out there.  You could very well argue that they are different species of people.  That being said, making them legally people?  How will that work?

Presumably if the zoo loses its appeal, the ape in question will go to a sanctuary... where it will be kept in a cage, as well.  There again, its "freedom" will be curtailed.  If you're going to keep it in captivity, then at least keep it with the people and environment it knows.  Or do they propose to let it wander the city streets?  Ship it off to Sumatra?  Plan, anyone?

Orangutans are among the most endangered of primates, with their habitats in Indonesia shrinking yearly.  They are thriving, however, in zoos, which may soon become their lost home... why endanger that just for feel-good points?

On the plus side, maybe if orangutans and other apes are going to be awarded human rights, then maybe they can be recognized as people in their native countries as well... maybe they could even buy land and hold deed to their rainforests, or the poaching of orangutans could be prosecuted as kidnapping or murder...

Somehow, I don't see that flying.

Photo credit: Rueters

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Some Like It Cold

Tonight, winter begins.  You'd think I'd be used to it by now (I mean, it does come this time every year), but somehow it always seems to catch me off-guard.  One day it seems like we're enjoying the perfect autumn - not too hot, not too cold - the next, we're in the single digits.  Heat lamps have to be strung.  Hoses need to be disconnected and rolled up every night so they don't freeze.  Wind blocks are erected.  Animals are brought inside for the winter.

Well, some of them are...

We don't get that many visitors in the coldest months.  Many of those that do come fall into two camps.  We have the people who complain that there are no animals out for them to see, and then we have the people who are amazed at how many animals there are outside.  There are some animals that no one seems surprised to see out in the middle of the winter - polar bears, wolves, and bison all come to mind.  There are other animals, however, which will surprise you.

Tigers and Leopards are normally thought of as cats of the jungle, living in hot, humid rainforests or sun-baked grasslands... and they do.  What a lot of people don't realize, however, is that they are also cats of the far north.  The Amur River region of northeast Asia is home to both tigers and leopards, distinguished from their southern kin by shaggier coats of fur.  In fact, the Amur tiger (formerly known as the Siberian tiger) is the largest living cat on earth.  Both the Amur tiger and the Amur leopard are critically endangered, and are the focus of AZA conservation breeding programs.

Monkeys might not strike many of us as cold-hardy creatures, and to be fair, most of them aren't.  An extraordinary exception, however, is the Japanese macaque, also known as the snow monkey.  Apart from humans, these monkeys - found on Japan's Honshu Island - are the most northern-living monkeys in the world.  How do they escape the cold conditions they encounter in the wild?  By taking hot baths - they will actually soak in hot springs to escape the chill of winter.

Flamingos are another animal that you wouldn't think of as handling the cold, but they can also surprise you.  Of the six species, three are found in the tropics while the other three - including the Chilean flamingo, one of the more common species in zoo collections - are inhabitants of some of the coldest, windiest, most desolate places on earth.  They have been observed standing in frozen ponds, ice forming around their legs.

Yet another group of birds that we associate with the tropics are the parrots - the quintessential jungle birds - but even here there are some cold tolerant species.  The kea of New Zealand is the world's only alpine parrot - they've been known to plague ski resorts in New Zealand, harassing tourists and demolishing unattended cars.  North America is home to its own cold hardy parrot - the thick-billed parrot of northern Mexico (yes, it's desert down there, but it still gets cold at night).

Truth be told, a lot of zoo animals are more cold hardy than we think they would be.  Part of that has to do with the fact that most of them were born in America or Europe, not in Africa, Asia, or South America.  Another part of it, I suspect, has to do with their history as species.  Many of the animals that we now find in Africa and Asia once had ranges that extended farther north and west, into Europe.  Lions, for instance, were found throughout Europe... remember all of those fables and Greek myths about lions?  These species, it seems, were intended to live in areas that were colder than they are now limited.

Of course, some animals are also less cold-hardy than we might expect.  Penguins are the perfect example; yes, there are penguins from the south pole, but most common in zoos are the temperate-zone species, like the African penguin and the Humboldt penguin.  Which reminds me...

Earlier this year, I was visited a colleague at Jacksonville Zoo, which boasts a handsome flock of Magellanic penguins, native to South America.  She told me that, during the winter, the temperature got so low a few nights that the penguins needed to be brought in.  That's right - it was too cold in Florida for penguins.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Sporcle Quiz: Extinct Animals - Last Known Address

The Cincinnati Zoo has the unfortunate distinction of being the site of two extinctions -it is where the last known passenger pigeon died, as well as the last known Carolina parakeet.  Can you identify the extinct animals in this quiz based on where and when the last individual of the species died or was reported?

Passenger pigeon memorial at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Species Fact Profile: Sumatran Rhinoceros (Dicerorhinus sumatrensis)

Sumatran Rhinoceros
Dicerorhinus sumatrensis (Fischer, 1814)

Range: Once throughout Southeast Asia, now only in small pockets of Sumatra and Borneo
Habitat: Wetlands, Rainforests
Diet: Fruit, Bamboo, Leaves, Bark
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Induced ovulators (unlike other rhino species), a single calf born after 15-16 month gestation period (usually born during the rainy season of October through May), calf becomes independent at 16-17 months of age and becomes sexually mature at 7-8 years old; births occur at 3-4 year intervals
Lifespan: 35-40 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Critically Endangered, CITES Appendix I

  • Smallest of the living rhinoceros species: head and body length 2.3-3.2 meters, shoulder height 1.1-1.45 meters, weight up to 1,000 kilograms
  • Thick skin is covered with red-brown hairs; the coat is long and dense in younger animals, but becomes sparser in older individuals; it is believed to be related to the now-extinct woolly rhinoceros of Europe and Asia
  • The only Asian rhinoceros which has two horns (though the second horn is often so short that it may not even appear to be present)
  • Females maintain stable home ranges, males are slightly more nomadic, though both sexes may make seasonal movements to avoid flooding; both sexes mark home rnages with feces, urine, and soil scrapes
  • Believed to be nocturnal, with the days spent lying in mud wallows or shallow pools.  Besides wallows and feeding grounds, a key component of every range is a salt-lick
  • Very agile compared to other rhinos, with moderate climbing and swimming abilities
  • Once there were three subspecies; D. s. lasiotis (mainland southeast Asia) is now probably extinct, D. s. harrissoni found on Borneo, D. s. sumatrensis found in Sumatra and Peninsular Malaysia
  • Driven almost to extinction by habitat loss (mostly from palm oil plantations) and hunting for its horn, valued in traditional medicine.  Population numbers in the low 100s overall, but is highly fragmented
  • Species has traditionally not thrived in captivity due to lack of knowledge of its biology and reproductive life; only successful captive births have occurred at the Calcutta Zoo and, over 100 years later, at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens, where three calves were produced.  The species is now also managed in protected sanctuaries in Sumatra.

Zookeeper's Journal: I have seen one - and only one - Sumatran rhinoceros in my life, and I fully expect that it is the only one I will ever see.  I traveled to Cincinnati in large part just to meet Harapan, the last Sumatran rhino outside of Indonesia... only to be told that he would soon be returning to Indonesia for breeding, following his older siblings.  The tale of the Sumatran rhino is an exasperating case of "If we'd known then what we know now."  It was the opinion of the staff that I'd talked with that (while I was in the holding building, scratching Harapan's hairy red butt), if we had enough rhinos in American zoos, with out new knowledge of their husbandry requirements and reproductive cycles, we could create a sustainable captive population, hopefully even reintroducing them back into the wild.  As it stands now, the species seems to be nosediving towards extinction, and I suspect that the rhino will be extinct within my lifetime.  

Monday, December 15, 2014

Zoo Review: Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden

Opening its gates in 1875, the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanic Garden is the second-oldest zoo in the United States.  It's impossible to stroll around the zoo without being reminded of its history, whether you are looking at the architechture (the Reptile House, constructed in 1875, is the oldest zoo animal building in the US) or the wildlife (reminders of Cincinnati's long history of "firsts", both in terms of exhibitions and captive breedings, including the first zoo births of American bison, California sea lion, and trumpeter swan).  Its history has sadder chapters as well - the facility marks the place where the last individuals of two species - the passenger pigeon (1914) and the Carolina parakeet (1918) died.

The zoo grounds themselves are a juxtaposition of new and old.  Ornate, Victorian-era animal houses are filled with naturalistic exhibits, while many of the newer zoo displays are truly astonishing. The Wings of the World bird house displays birds in a series of geographically themed habitats, ranging from the African savannas to the sub-Antarctic coastlines.  Two walk-in aviaries transport visitors to two very different rainforests - Latin America (with golden conures, sunbitterns, and cock-of-the-rocks) and Australasia (home to crowned pigeons, rhinoceros hornbills, and flying foxes).  The building is especially noteworthy for its displays of Arctic and Antarctic birds - puffins, sea ducks, Inca terns, and three species of penguin roost of the rocks or dive in their pools in front of visitors.  Outside, an interactive aviary features mischievous kea, alpine parrots from New Zealand.

King penguins in the World of Wings sub-Antarctic exhibit

Equally impressive was the reptile house, where Chinese alligators are the centerpiece of the single round room.  Unlike many zoo reptile houses, which tend to be dark and hushed, this was light and airy, complements of the great skylights overheard (probably explained by the fact that this was built as a monkey house, not a reptile house).  The collection of venomous snakes, including king cobra, rhinoceros viper, and Aruba island rattlesnakes, is especially noteworthy.  Outdoors, Galapagos tortoises plod through their yard (in warmer months), while Japanese macaques scramble over a rocky island.  More reptiles can be found in two other buildings - a separate building for monitor lizards (with Komodo dragons as the star occupants) and Manatee Coast, home to American alligators, American crocodiles, alligator snapping turtles, and many smaller herps of the Everglades.  Of course, in this building it is the manatees that are the star - Cincinnati is one of the only inland zoos in the country to display the lovable aquatic mammals, removed to captive settings due to injuries obtained in the wild.

A child watches a manatee scratching its backside against the glass in the underwater gallery of Manatee Coast

Perhaps the most innovating animal house in Cincinnati is World of the Insect, not the first insect house in the zoo world but certainly one of the best.  Visitors can wander through a butterfly garden, watch leaf-cutter ants carry their food through acrylic tunnels, and find out how much they way in insects.  The most popular animals in here are (typically) not insects (or even arachnids... though there are lots of those in here too), but the naked mole-rats, used as an example of an insect-like mammal.

Leaf-cutter ants at work in World of the Insect

Cincinnati is perhaps most famous for its cats above any other residents, and the zoo doesn't disappoint cat-lovers: over a dozen species are represented here.  There are two exhibits of lions, as well as outdoor homes for tigers (including white Bengal tigers... hence Cincinnati's football team), snow leopards, and pumas.  Most of the others are kept inside one of the zoo's newest displays - Night Hunters.  Down darkened hallways, an impressive collection of nocturnal creatures are found, including many cats - sand cat, black-footed cat, fishing cat, Pallas cat, clouded leopard... There are, of course, some non-cats, including fennec and bat-eared foxes, hyena-like aardwolves, vampire bats, binturongs (think University of Cincinnati's mascot, the "bear-cats"), and Eurasian eagle owls.  The largest display features bushbabies and flying foxes scrambling through the treetops, while aardvarks meander below.

A bat-eared fox in Night Hunters

Even more nocturnal creatures are found in Jungle Trails, a recreated-rainforest of Southeast Asian and African wildlife.  Along the meandering jungle trail (complete with interactive play features for kids), bonobos, Sumatran orangutans, gibbons, and lion-tailed macaques can be found.  Two buildings - one for Africa, one for Asia - feature indoor housing for these animals, as well as separate displays for small animals - lemurs, genets, snakes.  Cincinnati was the first US zoo to display aye-ayes, possibly the most extraordinary of Madagascar's lemurs... and some of the hardest to display.  I must of had super-luck the day that I visited, because I was able to actually see the alien-like animals (keepers that I talked to from other departments said that some of them have never seen them in years of walking by the display).  Additional primates are found in the Gorilla World, where a troop of gorillas roams a spacious yard with lots of climbing structures, with colobus monkeys and guenons in side displays.

If there is one animal that brought me to Cincinnati above any other, it would have been Harapan - currently the one, the only Sumatran rhino in the world outside of Indonesia.  He and his siblings (since headed back to Indonesia) were the only members of their species ever conceived and born outside of their native range... and he will probably be the last.  Earlier plans to import more Sumatran rhinos to the US have fallen through, and ol' Harry is going to Indonesia.  His exhibit (admittedly unimpressive and plain for such a remarkable animal) is in Wildlife Canyon, also home to Bactrian camels, Przewalski's horses, takin, and Visayan warty pigs, as well as towering flight cages of Andean condor and Steller's sea eagles.  Other large mammals occupy dusty yards in the middle of the zoo - bongo, okapi, Grevy's zebra, and black and Indian rhino.

Other animal attractions at Cincinnati included the red pandas, gibbon islands, Asian elephants, and Children's Zoo, home to barnyard animals.  Nearby Wolf Woods features Mexican wolves and river otters, with sea lions nearby.

Overall, I was bedazzled by Cincinnati.  In a lifetime of visiting zoos, I was still amazed at how many animals I saw here that I've never seen elsewhere.  The grounds were beautiful (hence the addition of "Botanical Garden" to the name.  The place was swarming with volunteers and docents, eager to answer questions.  Cincinnati's commitment to conservation is also beyond reproach - there were lots of educational graphics about conservation, lots of chances to donate to specific causes, and lots of information about field work supported by Cincinnati.  The zoo is also home to C.R.E.W. - Center for the Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife - which is responsible for tremendous advances in our knowledge of endangered animals, especially cats and rhinoceroses.  That being said...

Many of the zoo's exhibits are great... some are pretty bad.  Mostly, I'm thinking of the bear grottos, where American black bears, an Andean bear, and polar bears (in the overly grandiose-sounding "Lords of the Arctic") are rather bare and uninspired, to say nothing of pretty small.  The gorilla exhibit was great... the side-exhibits for monkeys... less so.  I loved the reptile house, but I couldn't help but thinking that the alligator exhibit in the center could have stood some expansion (the problem with these old buildings... once they've stood for long enough, they become sacred and no one can touch them).

Ironically, it was one of the newest buildings - Night Hunters - which frustrated me the most.  When given the choice to keep carnivores indoors versus outdoors, I usually would opt for outdoors - more space, more stimulation - but I can understand why Cincinnati did what they did - wanting to use nocturnal lighting to increase animal activity.  It's just that it felt like they tried putting too much in one building, and some of the displays - I'm thinking of the caracal and bobcat, mostly - seemed like they would have been better... left out completely, the space divided up among other animals.

I'm normally kinda disapproving of white tigers in zoos... but considering everything that Cincinnati does for cat conservation, I feel like I just need to let this one go

I hate ending things on a bad-note, especially for such an overall wonderful zoo, so that's why I saved the zoo's newest exhibit area for last.  Africa features grassy pastures for giraffes, impala, greater flamingos, and several African birds, as well as spacious displays for lions, African wild dogs, and bat-eared foxes (the bat-eared fox exhibit here compares so favorably with the one in Night Hunters.  Cheetahs are one of the stars here, and Cincinnati is famous for its cheetah run demonstrations, allowing visitors to see the cats at top speed.  The final phase is currently under construction; when it is completed, the zoo will be bringing back hippos, which will be seen from underwater viewing windows.

Once Africa is done, I hope the zoo will revisit some of its more neglected areas, securing its title as one of America's best zoos.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Curator of Crickets

Fresh out of college, I started my first paid zookeeping job in the Reptile Department of a large southern zoo.   I was excited beyond belief my first week on the job – I pictured myself feeding massive crocodiles, raking placidly among plodding giant tortoises, and caring for a kingdom of rare and extraordinary animals.  And I did a little of all of that… it’s just that most of my duties in those early days were confined to a small white room set off from the building’s kitchen.

It was in those days that I contemplated making business cards with a new title of my own creation – “Curator of Crickets.”

There were thousands of crickets, with thousands coming in every week.  They were sorted by size in various bins, divided for our feeding convenience.  There were the tiniest of “pinheads”, meant for feeding mantellas and dart frogs.  There were the one-inch giants, suitable prey for the frilled lizards, galliwasps, and other medium-sized lizards.  Tucked away among the later were the plastic shoeboxes of soil, where we hoped to induce the crickets to breed, providing us with more young crickets to feed out (we were rarely successful – flies seemed to always infest and ruin these nest boxes). 

Caring for crickets wasn’t glamorous, but it was essential to the well being of the collection, and I learned a lot of practical knowledge in those days.  How to unpack a cardboard box containing hundreds of crickets without them all escaping as soon as you lift the flap.  How to keep the colony clean – scraping all of the crickets into a huge pile, then placing food on the opposite end of the tank.  The live crickets would rush to claim it, leaving their droppings, their leftover food, and their dead behind in an easily cleaned pile.  Of greatest importance was learning to feed the crickets properly so that they themselves would become more nutritious food for our own animals, a process called “gut-loading”.

Nor were the crickets the only animals in the room that I was responsible for.  There were mealworms and their giant cousins, the superworms.  There were hissing cockroaches (spares from the insect keepers), a tank of minnows, and jars of fruit flies, crawling above the blue agar.  Recently, a tank of apple snails had been added, but these were reserved for the caiman lizards that were our curator’s pride and joy. 

And then there were the rodents.

Rats and mice were sorted in bins, much like the crickets.  The biggest were the giant rats, the size of a kitten.  The smallest were the pinkies, little naked balls of meat for our smallest snakes.  (Rabbits, guinea pigs, and once even a suckling pig graced our kitchen also, but they arrived deceased, and so required no care on my part).  While mammal prey was very rarely fed live (and then usually only to tempt a very picky eater, and then under the strictest supervision from the keeping staff), it was deemed preferable to acquire the rodents alive and fresh, dispatching them immediately prior to feeding them out.

Reptiles are a pretty low maintenance lot, provided heat and lightning and water quality are where you want them to be.  They eat far less than mammals of the same size; as a result, they poop less and require less clean-up.  The rats and mice, crickets and fruit flies, on the other hand, seemed to require endless cleanings, feedings, and fine-tunings.  It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that, even after I graduated to care of the actual collection animals, I still spent more time on that little white room than I did the rest of the animals in our sprawling building.

When you tell people that you are a zookeeper, they tend to get excited (or at least curious) and ask questions about it.  They tend to lose interest when you tell them that most of the animals you “keep” are insects and rodents (and snails!) meant to be fed to other animals.  While caring for feeder animals may not be the most glamorous or exciting of zoo jobs, it is still essential to providing for the care and well being of the animals in the collection.

It’s an important job, even if no one gives you a business card or fancy job title for doing it.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Seafood Watch

"Now I drive my Downeaster Alexa more and more miles from shore every year,
Since they tell me I can't sell no strippers, and there's no luck in swordfishing here.
I was a bayman like my father was before - can't make a living as a bayman anymore.
There ain't much future for a man who works the sea, there ain't no island left for islands like me."

- Billy Joel, Downeaster Alexa

It's a rare day when there isn't at least one story about endangered species somewhere in the news.  Maybe it's about the pandemic of rhino poaching in Africa, or about a more obscure creature, such as the Asian pangolins - both of these are about animals on the far side of world as far as most Americans are concerned, and there isn't much that they could do about it.  Or, maybe the story is about global climate change or wide-scale habitat loss... more local, perhaps, but again, not much that the average person can do, it seems.

Now, what if you were told that you could help save endangered species - ecosystems, even - based on what you have for dinner...

As human populations have continued to grow, the struggle to find new sources of food has increased.  The oceans, once considered to be one of nature's most endless resources, are now starting to come up short is feeding our planet.  First we fished out the big fish at the top of the food chain - the tuna, the swordfish, the sharks - and then the medium-sized ones... and then the little ones.  Many of the fish that we catch now would have been scoffed at as bait generations ago.  The phenomena is referred to as "fishing down the food chain"... and there is only so much further down we can go.

The problem of declining fisheries doesn't only impact fish.  Many species being driven to commercial extinction (when there become so few of them that it's no longer worth harvesting them), and whole fishing communities are being forced out of work by the decline of their fisheries.

In the late 1990's, the Monterey Bay Aquarium began its Fishing for Solutions exhibit, calling attention to the plight of the world's fisheries.  It sought to encourage visitors to make environmentally safe choices about what fish and other seafood they purchased.  This program eventually evolved into the Seafood Watch card, a handy little guide that helps users determine where they fall on the range of "Green" ("Best") to "Red" ("Avoid").  The card takes into account factors such as weather the fish or shellfish is wild or farmed, as well as what country (or region of the country) it comes from (some fisheries being more sustainable than others) and the manner in which it is captured.


I got a Seafood Watch card years ago (updated a few times since then) and keep meaning to take it to the grocery store with me while I shop for fish.  Of course, I keep on forgetting to do so and, afraid of buying an "Avoid" species, end up not getting anything...  For the more tech savvy folks out there with their fancy iPhones and droids and whatever, there is, of course, an app for it.  I mean, there's an app for everything these days.

Many of the most expensive, most sought-after fishes are the most endangered.  Think swordfish and Chilean sea bass, for instance.  By steering our appetites toward more sustainable options (especially invasive species, such as red lionfish and northern snakehead), we can help reduce the pressure on some of our most endangered wild fisheries, giving them a chance to rebound.

The impact of the average person may be small, but the combined impact can be tremendous.

Striped bass, also known as "rock fish", seen here at the National Aquarium in Baltimore.  Seafood Watch classifies this species as "Green" for "Best Choice" is caught by hand-line, or "Yellow" for "Good Alternative" if caught by gill-net or pound-net.

Monday, December 8, 2014

From the News: Conservative Blogger Rants Against "Propaganda" at Popular Zoo

When I first saw this, I almost posted it this under "Satire", because that's what I was convinced it was at first... I mean, no one is this dumb... right?  Right?


Well, condolences to any of the staff at Brookfield Zoo who may have encountered this thundering idiot as she roamed their facility (though I hope you at least got some free publicity out of the deal).  I mean, shame on you guys, actually using your institution as a platform to advocate for conservation of the animals that you care for.  It's not like that's in your mission statement or anything.  Oh, wait...

Ms. Fox is visiting Brookfield fresh off of her anti-evolution tear (if you can't pronounce it, then don't pretend you know what it means!) at the Field Museum of Natural History.  Based on how much attention she has gotten from this little rant, she may very well visit Shedd Aquarium or Lincoln Park Zoo in the near future.

Brace yourselves...


Sunday, December 7, 2014

Zoo Joke: Service Animal

Paul is taking his pet goat for a walk through the city park one day, when he passes the gates of the city zoo. Deciding that he hasn't been for a while and would like to come visit, he (and his goat) start to walk through the front gate, when they are stopped by the ticket taker.

"I'm sorry, sir," the ticket taker says.  "But you're goat can't come in.  No outside animals are allowed in."

Well, Paul is about to walk away, when he looks past the front gate and sees a family with a dog watching the monkeys.  "Well, how come they can have their pet in there?", he asks, pointing.

The ticket taker looks at where he is pointing, then turns back.  "That's different.  That's a seeing-eye dog - service animals are allowed in."

Suddenly getting an idea, Paul takes his goat back home.  The next day, he comes back... this time wearing a pair of dark sunglasses.  After first making sure that there is a different ticket taker today, he walks up to the gate, his goat at his heels.  Once again, he is stopped.

"Sorry, sir," says the ticket taker.  "No pets are allowed."

"Ah, but this is my seeing-eye dog," says Paul.  "I need him to come with me."

"Umm... sir?  That's not a dog, that's a goat."

"Well how should I know?" says Paul

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Species Fact Profile: Maned Wolf (Chrysocyon brachyrus)

Maned Wolf
Chrysocyon brachyurus (Illiger, 1815)

Range: Central South America
Habitat: Open Grassland, Scrub, Wooded Savannah
Diet: Fruits, Small Mammals, Birds
Social Grouping: Solitary, Paired
Reproduction: Monogamous, breeding season April-June, 1-5 pups (usually 3) born June-September, weaned at 15 weeks, both parents assist with care of the young, sexually mature and independent at 1 year, usually don't breed until they are 2 years old
Lifespan: 16 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Near Threatened, CITES Appendix II

  • The largest South American member of the dog family, maned wolves stand 74-78 centimeters and the shoulder, measure 1.2-1.3 meters long, and weight 20-23 kilograms
  • Fur is golden-red with long, black legs (sometimes known as "the red fox on stilts"), the muzzle is also black, while the throat and tip of the tail are white; a strip of black fur runs from the back of the head down the shoulders, standing erect when the wolf is frightened.
  • Primarily nocturnal or crepuscular (active at dusk and dawn), the day is spent inside a den, often in thick brush
  • When digging, maned wolves don't use their claws - they use their teeth
  • Communicate with vocalizations (including whines, growls, and an extremely loud roar-bark) and scent marking, spraying the boundaries of their territory with skunk-smelling urine
  • The fruit that is the wolf's primary source of food is a tomato-like fruit called the lobeira ("wolf's fruit)"), which is believed to provide medical aid against kidney worms
  • Male-female pairs share territory, but remain largely independent of one another
  • Latin name translates to "golden dog with a short tail"... even though the tail is quite long
  • Threatened by habitat loss, road-kills, and disease transmission from domestic dogs; sometimes hunted for body parts believed to have magical properties
  • Early efforts to maintain this species in captivity failed due to poor diet (originally assumed to be primarily a carnivore, like other wild canids); the species is now kept with greater success, but still poses a reproductive and veterinary challenge for zoos

Zookeeper's Journal: The maned wolf is one of the world's largest wild dog species; it's also certainly one of the oddest.  From its outlandish appearance to its peculiar, primarily produce-based diet, its a very different animal than the gray wolf that most visitors are familiar with.  The later item is of special note - the relatively non-predatory nature of the maned wolf means that it can be included in mixed-species exhibits to a degree that few other large carnivores can - I've seen them with giant anteaters, capybaras, and Brazilian tapirs - which can make for a very impressive display.  Another striking difference between the maned wolf and other dog species - one less appreciated by zoo visitors - is the smell.  With a musky, skunk-like odor, you can be sure that even if you don't see the maned wolves at their exhibit (which is likely - they love to hide), you'll certainly smell them.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Bird Nerd

"Hope is the thing with feathers, that perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words, and never stops - at all"
- Emily Dickinson

I never meant to become a bird nerd.  I really didn't.

While it's true that I'd always wanted to be a zookeeper, in the dreams I was always a mammal keeper, or maybe a reptile keeper.  When I went on trips to the zoo as a kid, those were the animals that I fixated on and spent all of my time watching.  The birds, by and large, I treated as filler.  I wasn't alone in this.

While a few "rock star" bird species, like the flamingos and the penguins, were given top-billing (pun intended), most of the birds were tucked into corners and crevices of the zoo, filling in the small spots between the bigger exhibits.  Heck, a lot of their exhibits didn't even have signs... and if they did, it was just the name, the Latin name, and maybe a drawing.

It's really no wonder that I never acted more interested in birds growing up when even the zoo acted like they were boring.

Later in life, an appreciation for birds began to creep up on me.  Part of it was a high school biology teacher I had who was an obsessive bird-watcher.  An even bigger part of it was the bird-of-prey rehab center where I volunteered while I was in college (there being no zoo in town, it was the closest thing I could find).  A huge part of it, I suspect, came in my last year of college, when I studied abroad in East Africa.  Sure, there were lions and elephants and rhinos and zebras when we went on safari, but somehow I never was able to see them as totally wild - it was like we were in the jeep and they were outside, and it was all some sort of really cool zoo exhibit.  It was when a superb starling - iridescent blue with a chestnut breast - suddenly perched on the edge of my camp chair, or when towering marabou storks flew directly overhead, that it really sunk in that we were in Africa.

Once you develop an appreciation of birds, one of the first things that you notice is how few people share it. I'm not just talking about the visitors, who will walk through an aviary and say, "It's just birds..." (seriously, can you imagine them walking past a gorilla exhibit and saying, "It's just a mammal").  I'm also talking about the keepers.  Much like the staff at my hometown zoo, a lot of them seemed to have the idea that birds are eye-candy, just there to fill in the gaps between the cooler animals.  It still makes me cringe to realize that there are keepers I know who can't even identify all of the birds in an exhibit that they care for (when I brought this up to a fellow staff member once, she simply shrugged and said, "Well, as long as you take care of them the same way, does it really matter if you know what it's called?).

Most of the bird keepers I know  - and by that I mean full-time, birds-only keepers, not generalists, like me - are driven crazy by this.  I've always sensed that a lot of them are frustrated by the inability of many people - zoo administrators, fellow staff members, and the general public alike - to appreciate just how awesome birds are.  There are, after all, about ten thousand kinds... surely among that variety, there are some that people can appreciate.

There are hummingbirds with wings so fast that they can hover, or even fly backwards.

There's the rhinoceros hornbill, where the female is sealed inside a nest for weeks at a time with her eggs, surviving because her mate passes her food through a tiny slit in the door.  

There are the weaver birds of Africa, which build elaborate hanging basket nests (and, more importantly from a zoo perspective, will happily do this right in front of visitors).

There is the cassowary, a man-sized man-killer which can eviscerate a person with one lethal kick.

There are birds-of-paradise, with some of the most extravagant, outlandish mating displays on any animal.

Sure, a lot of birds are small, drab-looking perching birds, nicknamed LBJs ("Little Brown Jobs") by birders.  But birds also have a lot going for them, compared to mammals and reptiles.  For one thing, they can fly (or at least most of them can).  Flight is one of mankind's lasting dreams, and even in the age of airplanes, many people still wish they could fly... on their own.  If that wasn't awesome enough, the ability to fly has allowed many birds to become brightly, beautifully colored and behave very actively and conspicuously, since they don't need to hide from danger.  Most birds are active during the day, just like we are.  Many birds are very vocal and make lots of noise, parrots being the most obvious example.  Also, many birds are intensely social, some colonial - flamingos and penguins, again, being two of the most popular examples - and having so many animals housed together and interacting constantly can be fascinating for visitors to watch... more fascinating, say, than a tiger which sleeps 20 hours a day?

And if that weren't enough, here is another plug - many birds are endangered.  Some are the victims of habitat loss, others of hunting or over-collection.  Pollution effects other species, while climate change is poised to have a major impact on several others.  Some species, such as the nene, California condor, and whooping crane, have already benefited greatly from the conservation support of zoos.  Still, many others are in need to our help, both in the zoo and around the world.

Zoos, however, sometimes show a troubling habit of focusing more on species that people like than on species which are in the most need of conservation.  If many endangered birds are going to stand a chance of surviving, they are going to need more voices of support, more champions among the zoo world.

In other words, we need more bird nerds.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Guest Editorial: Conversations with a Zoo-Hater, by Austin Owens

A few days ago I was in the middle of my PM feeding routine, when I overheard a conversation in front of the cougars that I take care of. A middle aged woman was having a discussion with her daughter outlining how bad zoos are, and how we probably don't feed our animals enough, and how the cougars seemed bored, and would be better off if we released them back into the wild.

I had heard of these mythical zoo-hating vistors, but never actually met one, so I decided to go talk to them.

She asked me why they were pacing at the end of the day, assuming it was because all zoos mistreat their animals. I explained that they knew it was almost feeding time, and they are a bit impatient once 3:00 rolls around; she asked me how much they ate, I told her. I told her how often they ate. I told her about their natural history, their daily enrichment, their individual personalities, the hierarchy of their group, along with how long we have had them under our care, answered a slew of other negatively angled questions with actual care routines and reasons for them, and then she asked me why we don't just release them into the wild.

I told her that the numbers of the species are in sharp decline, and we received these particular individuals from fish and wildlife when they were just a few months old (several years ago). If we were to release these animals, they would almost certainly die within a year, because they have never had to fend for themselves/hunt/fight off competitors/live through a winter alone. Blah blah blah, pretty regular answer.

She just kind of looked at the cats for a while after that.

I finished by reminding her of what the actual purpose of a zoo is; facilitating the maintenance and preservation of species that have quickly decreasing numbers. Zoos provide a safe haven for animals that if left in the wild would be hunted for sport, skin, horn, or gland. I reminded her that many of the species that our zoo has are critically endangered/extinct in the wild, and by keeping them under our care, we ensure that their entire species isn't wiped off the face of the planet.

She said she'd never thought of that.

She came back the next day, I saw her at the same time, at the same place, and she seemed really excited about the zoo, and she was telling another set of visitors the same things I told her the day before.

I love my job, and I love knowing that I made a difference in the way that at least one person thinks about what we do.


Woman hated zoos. Woman no longer hates zoos.