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Thursday, January 29, 2015

From the News: Tasmanian Devils returning to zoo after 11-year absence

If you travel the zoos of the United States, you will eventually see just about every species of African, Asian, North American, and South American animal that you can imagine... and plenty that you can't.  Far less common are the animals of Australia; those zoos which do display Australian species usually just have kangaroos and emus, maybe a few birds or reptiles to round out the collection.  Koalas, wombats, and other iconic Aussies are very rare in our collections.  The reason is simple - with all of their regulations, it's easier to get blood from a stone than an animal (legally) out of Australia.

That's what makes the news from Fort Wayne Children's Zoo so exciting and depressing at the same time.  Exciting because the US is about to get its third facility with Tasmanian devils.  Depressing because it shows just how desperate the conservation of the species in Australia has become.  The devils (the largest living carnivorous marsupials) are dying off from a strange disease which appears to be very contagious.  The Australians seem to have decided that it's safer not to put all of their deviled eggs in one basket... and maybe to put a few baskets on the other side of the world.

Hopefully, the three American zoos chosen to initiate the US branch of this captive breeding program will be able to establish a sustainable devil population over here, further ensuring the survival of the species.  Even more hopefully, the disease which is threatening the animals in the wild will be controlled and contained, allowing the species to recover in the wild.

Coolah was the last Tasmanian devil in the world living outside of Australia when he died at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo in 2004. Photo provided by the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo.
Coolah was the last Tasmanian devil in the world living outside of Australia when he died at the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo in 2004. Photo provided by the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo.    

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Review: The Invisible Ark - In Defense of Captivity

"Working independently, these people have accomplished one of the greatest conservation goals in history.  They have found reasons to maintain viable self-sustaining captive populations of species in captivity.  And they have done it independently and without taking a penny from the government."

Where, in the United States of America, would you expect to find a tiger?  If you ask 100 people on the street that question, I'm sure that 95% of them would say "a zoo", the rest maybe saying a circus.  The fact is, however, that the vast majority of tigers in this country aren't in public zoos, but are in private hands.  The later category includes private zoos, circuses and showmen, and folks who just... own a tiger.  And it's not just tigers, nor is it just America - across the world, an amazing variety of animals are kept in sustainable breeding populations spread across thousands of owners, many of whom never give the others a moment of thought.

It is this vast empire of animal keepers that David and Tracy Baker haver dubbed "The Invisible Ark" in their manifesto of the same name, subtitled In Defense of Captivity.  Zoos and aquariums receive some mention in their book, but the Bakers focus on the world of private ownership - breeders, hobbyists, and pet-keepers.  Their compact volumes ranges of subjects from the philosophy of how we relate to animals and death to the complexities of federal wildlife regulations, but it all comes back to a central message: keeping animals in captivity is, no matter what, a good thing.

Now, I've talked to many of folks over the years who are ambivalent about captive wild animals - a few fire-breathing anti-zoo folks, but the vast majority seem to accept the role of animals in captivity, especially if it contributes to the conservation of the species.  The Bakers, however, swing in an extreme direction I'd never seen before - anything that results in a breeding population in captivity is desirable.  Take cows - if you like cows, it argues, you should eat lots of steak and wear lots of leather.  Why?  Because if we didn't utilize cows, then we wouldn't breed them, and cows would vanish from the face of the earth.  The Bakers repeatedly invoke what they call the unwritten rule of nature: what is good for the species might not be good for the individual.  No individual prey animal wants to be killed by a predator, but the well-being of the species depends on it for population control.

Much of the book deals with a subject that many private keepers struggle with - regulation.  The authors are snake keepers by practice, so for their case study they focus on the Burmese python, a species which has recently been declared an invasive species in the Florida Everglades.  This has resulted in increased restrictions not only the Burmese python itself, but on many large constrictors.   The authors call into question much of the science and logic behind this ban, and challenge the assumption that the good supposedly done by these regulations outweighs the conservation contributions of private owners.

The Bakers also describe their zoo of the future, and it differs considerably from what we have now.  There wouldn't be a giraffe exhibit, or instance - there would be a row of giraffe pens, each smaller and simpler than the exhibits we have now.  That's because the purpose won't be to display animals, it will be to mass-produce them, breeding a surplus which will then go into private hands.  If some of those giraffes end up in unfortunate situations, then "see the unwritten role."

Some of the positions advocated by the Bakers seem a little extreme to me.  They do, however, raise a very valid point.  The zoos and aquariums of the world simply cannot save more than the most miniscule fraction of species through captive breeding.  They need help, a support network, if you will.  The "Invisible Ark" already exists, and it is supporting the genetic diversity of a tremendous array of species.  By insulating themselves, zoos will eventually lose many of the animals that they work with to attrition and loss of genetic diversity.  By working together (with reputable, responsible, and ethical partners), zoos can achieve so much more in saving species.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Conventional Wisdom

When I publish a Species Fact Profile, I try to make sure to include some data about the conservation status of the species in question.  Often, I do this using two criteria.  One is the listing of that species by the IUCN.  The other is its listing under CITES.  In a previous post, I've explained what the IUCN is and what it does.  Today, we'll take a look at CITES.

Prior to about the Second World War, the international animal trade was pretty foot-loose and fancy-free.  Commercial animal dealers such as the Hagenbeck family and Frank Buck filled orders for zoos, circuses, and private collectors; their main concerns were finding the animals and keeping them alive and healthy until they reached their destinations in Europe or America.  Even after the war, the collecting and trading business was reasonably unrestrained, easy enough to enter that a young Gerald Durrell was able to take his new inheritance and set off on a series of collecting expeditions to Africa and South America.

Today, the international movement of plants and animals is very tightly regulated, and rightly so.  Not only does the unrestricted movement of wildlife around the planet pose risks both medical (spreading diseases) and ecological (invasive species), it also can lead to over-exploitation of endangered species.  Nations nowadays have stringent quarantine and regulatory processes to protect themselves from some of these threats (that is, to protect themselves from imported plants and animals).  To protect the plants and animals themselves, we have CITES.

CITES is the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna.  Ratified in 1973 and implemented two years later, it is one of the most important international treaties regulating the trade of wildlife and the products of wildlife (skins, ivory, horns, etc).  Participation is voluntary, but all but a dozen or so members of the United Nations have signed it in a pledge to regulate the international wildlife trade.

Over 30,000 species of plant and animal are listed in the treaty, being placed on one of three appendices.  The appendix an animal or plant is listed as determines its trade status under the treaty.

  • Appendix I - Species that are the most threatened by international trade.  Commercial trade is illegal, except in unique permitted situations.  Example: Clouded Leopard
  • Appendix II - Species which may become endangered if not monitored carefully, or species which closely resemble Appendix I species and may be confused.  Captive bred specimens of Appendix I species are listed as Appendix II.  Example: Aldabra Tortoise
  • Appendix III - Species which one or more member country feels that it has a special need to protect, and asks other signatory nations to assist with.  This is especially used for species which are threatened locally, but not globally.  Example: Saddle-Billed Stork
Every three years, representatives of the signatory nations meet to discuss the treaty and any updates or revisions that they feel must be made to it.

CITES has done much to halt the trade of wildlife and its products, but it is not without its critics.  Some feel that by making it impossible (or at least far more difficult) for member nations to profit from their wildlife, the treaty makes it harder to protect it.  For example, an African country with a healthy population of elephants may want to sell ivory from its herds, or sell trophy-hunting licenses, but be thwarted by CITES regulations which ban the sale, or would prevent a foreign hunter from taking his or her trophy home.  That country, then, is not only denied the profits from its elephants (which would, it argues, be channeled back into conservation), but it looses its incentive to protect its elephants.  This has led some wildlife managers to declare, "The worse thing that can happen to an animal is that is goes on Appendix I of CITES.*"

Many species of crocodilian, such as this Siamese crocodile photographed at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, are endangered in the wild but thrive - commercially farmed, in some cases - in captivity.  CITES can complicate the trade in legally, sustainably harvested wildlife products, to the dismay of some authorities.

Defenders of CITES contend that allowing such exemptions would open a floodgate of illegal wildlife trafficking along with the legal.  If rhino horn, for example, can be legally sold from South Africa but not the surrounding countries, poachers across the continent will simply smuggle their horns into South Africa, where they can then sell it on the open market.

CITES raises headaches for zoos and aquariums as well.  It can make some species difficult to obtain, nearly impossible in some cases.  True, most zoo animals - especially the mammals - are now born in captivity, sometimes going back several generations.  That being said, new bloodlines are sometimes desired, and confiscated or rescued wildlife in other countries (non-releasable, taken from poachers or illegal owners) could be rehoused in American or European zoos.  The (non-CITES) intense restrictions and regulations on importing and exporting animals from Australia - even the most common species, sometimes even animals that are common enough to be considered pests over there - has driven many an American zoo director to the edge of insanity.  After all, they reason, CITES is about conservation, we're about conservation... aren't we supposed to all be on the same side?

As someone who has helped sift through the pounds and pounds of paperwork that animal shipments can entail, I will concur... CITES can be a huge pain in the butt.  It does, however, do a lot to limit the trade of endangered species to perhaps those few who can prove themselves worthy in the eyes of the conservation gods (or at least bureaucrats).  If a zoo or aquarium's rationale is just, hopefully they can make the cut and win an exemption or approval.  If not, perhaps a few thwarted acquisitions are a small price to pay for supporting a global conservation initiative. 

*Grahame Web, Crocodile Biologist, quoted in David Quammen's Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Bao Bao's First Snow

This little video clip made its rounds on the web a few weeks ago, but I'm just getting around to sharing it here now.  It shows Bao Bao, the National Zoo's panda cub, frolicking in the snow for the first time. Being a zookeeper in winter can be pretty brutal, especially if the animals you care for are the cold-hardy, outdoors-all-year type... which means you have to be outdoors all year too.  Moments like this, however - or watching a tiger pounce on a snowman you made for her, or otters sliding down a snowbank - make the numb fingers and runny noses more than worthwhile.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

From the News: Historic Toledo Zoo aquarium reopening after major overhaul

Last month, I shared a bit of news about the new aquarium opening up in Jacksonville, Florida.  New aquariums seem to be the rage these days, with new ones popping up left and right.  This, on the other hand, concerns the reopening of a rather old aquarium (older than many well known public aquariums), this one on the grounds of the city zoo.

There's a lot to be said about building brand new aquariums elsewhere in cities - for one thing, zoos tend to be located on the edges of town, where there is more space, whereas aquariums are often found downtown, especially along waterfronts.  That being said, I feel that there is a major benefit to having aquariums located within zoos.

Zoos are, by definition, parks for animals.  They tend to focus on large mammals, however, with some birds and reptiles thrown in for good measure.  This results in the overlooking of the enormous variety of fish and invertebrates in the world, the later making up the vast majority of animals on the planet.  Many fish and invertebrates are highly endangered and could benefit from more conservation attention; some are now found only in captivity.  By focusing more on these groups of animals, zoos could help educate the public about the overlooked majority of the animal kingdom.

Congratulations to the Toledo Zoo, and best of luck!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

How I Became a Zookeeper

Apart from my initial "Welcome to the Blog" post back in May of 2013, my first post  - and the only one that I'd written prior to even thinking of starting the blog - was titled "Why I Became a Zookeeper."  At the time, I felt like that was all of the explanation that I needed on the subject, as it answered one of the most frequent questions that I got in life, at the time.

The longer I've been in the field, however, the more I find myself being asked another question.  This is a question posed by people who are where I was fifteen years ago, just getting ready to break into the field.  They've already figured out the "why", and have explained it themselves to their own friends, families, and teachers.  What they're having trouble with is the "how".  Some people ask casually, thinking that it might be a fun summer job.  For others, this is their passion, the life that they've dreamed of.  This is the job that they want.

Find a zoo.  Fill out an application.  Sit for an interview.  Accept the job.  Done, right?  Well, not quite so easy.  I am convinced that there is no job which is so competitive for as little as it pays as the keeping field.  A position at a large zoo like the National Zoo or the Bronx Zoo may attract several hundred applicants; even my tiny little zoo can have 100 people vying for a single animal keeper opening.  It can be an enormous challenge getting yourself noticed and rising to the top of the pile.

Todays post, then, is devoted to answering the new most frequent question I get asked at work (besides "Where are the bathrooms?" and "Which way are the monkeys?") - How do I become a zookeeper?

Sunday, July 26, 2015
1.) Hit the Books

Doctors go to medical school, lawyers go to law school.  Police and firefighters and soldiers have their academies.  But what about zookeepers?  Do they need schooling, beyond high school?  And if so, where, and in what field?

A generation or two ago, schooling at a level beyond high school wasn't deemed necessary for a career in keeping - it may have even been a liability, as managers and curators might have felt threatened by a book-smart newbie who thought they knew everything.  In theory, most zoos and aquariums require their entry-level keepers to have at least a high school diploma, but competition for the relatively scarce openings means that a bachelor's degree is almost a requirement.  Degrees should be in something animal related, obviously - zoology, biology, animal sciences, or a related field.

Why the degree?  Why the student loans for a job that pays zilch?  Much of the job is routine work, it's true - preparing diets, scrubbing water bowls, and, of course, cleaning up poop.  You can do just that and do 90% of a keeper's bare-minimum job requirements... but that other 10% makes a huge difference.  Keepers need to know about the natural history and behavior of their charges in order to take the best care of them.  They need to understand nutrition, reproductive biology, anatomy, and basic veterinary medicine.  These days, a knowledge of behavior, especially as it can be applied towards training and enrichment, is often essential.  At the very least, a keeper often needs the academic skills to investigate and research problems they may face - and this job throws a lot of weird problems at you.

Based on my personal observations, I'd say aquarists, invertebrate keepers, and reptile/amphibian keepers tend to be the most academically inclined, the result of needing to know so much detailed information about such a wide variety of species (a large mammal keeper might care for half a dozen species in a month... a reptile keeper might hundreds).  Bird keepers tend to be next, followed by small mammal, than large mammal.

A lot of visitors are surprised that I went to school at all... let alone that I have more higher education than they do.

2.) Get Dirt (and worse) on Your Hands

In my second year of college, I was enrolled in a Domestic Animal Biology class, filled mostly with pre-vets. Part of the class was lecture, part was lab, and part was actual animal care.  A small barn, stocked with pigs and calves, chickens and sheep, and one ornery old horse, was set aside for us to care for, with mandatory, regularly scheduled chores being part of the class.  An astonishing percentage of my classmates washed out. They could rattle of anatomy and reproductive data no problem, but give them a shovel and point them towards a pasture of horse dung?  Give them a slop bucket and tell them to go into a pen with some frisky, hungry, occasionally bitey pigs?  No thank you.

A lot of people think they want to be zookeepers, until the realities set in.  It's dirty and smelly.  It's cold in the winter, hot in the summer, and often rainy in between.  You work holidays and weekends.  You get bitten and scratched and pooped on and peed on.  Animals that you care for get old, and pass away... or young and seemingly healthy ones surprise you and die.  Animals that you get attached to get sent to other facilities.  You get paid a pittance.

The best way to show potential employers that you want the job is to do the job.  Volunteer.  Intern.  Work part time.  If there isn't a zoo or aquarium near you, try a nature center, or a rehabber, or a pet shelter, or a vet's office, or basically anything that shows that you can handle the work.  Employers want employees who have a realistic idea of what the job will be like.  Not someone who thinks that they will play with animals all day, but someone who understands the challenges of the job and accepts them.  Not only will you build up a resume and give yourself experiences to draw upon later in life, you may shock yourself and find out that you don't like doing it at all!  Then you can change your direction before it's too late.

An extra tip for would-be aquarists or marine mammal keepers - get SCUBA certified.

3). Show Your Passion

The hardest to quantify, but the most important.  I've known great keepers with a PhD and great keepers with a GED.  I've met keepers who had tons of experience, yet still managed to stink at their jobs, and ones who had no prior experience and manage to rock the job anyway.  I've never met a great... or even good... or even tolerable, really, keeper who didn't have passion.  If you want to be a zookeeper or an aquarist, be prepared to show it.  Part of that is by preparing yourself through education and experience.  That's what will get you an interview.  Passion is what can help you carry that interview and turn it into a job offer.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Northern Raven (Corvus corax)

Northern Raven
Corvus corvax (Swainson, 1827)

Range: Europe (includes British Isles and Iceland), Asia, North Africa, Asia (excluding South and South East Asia), North America, Australia
Habitat: Tundra, Grassland, Desert, Woodlands, Cliffs
Diet: Carrion, Small Vertebrates, Eggs, Insects, Grains, Nuts, Fruits
Social Grouping: Solitary, Paired, Small Flocks
Reproduction: Monogamous, breed in February of March, 4-6 eggs laid in a solid nest, incubated for 20 days by female, chicks fledge at 6 weeks, are sexually mature at 3 years
Lifespan: 20 Years (Wild), 80 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern

  • Largest perching bird in the world, body length 54-67 centimeters, wingspan 115-130 centimeters, weight 690-1625 grams, females are slightly smaller than males
  • Glossy black plumage often has green or lilac sheen, the throat feathers are shaggy, bill is very thick and heavy-looking; juveniles are darker, browner than adults
  • Fairly sedentary, does not travel widely or migrate, chicks tend not to disperse further than 30 kilometers from hatching locations; populations at the edges of the range may make small, seasonal movements to avoid extreme weather.
  • Very vocal, with over 30 calls having been identified; they can mimic other animals (including human speech); non-vocal communication involves wing whistles and bill snaps
  • Very acrobatic fliers, have been seen flying upside for extended distances, doing somersaults
  • Among the most intelligent of birds, seem capable of learning innovative solutions, skill problem solvers; the appear to like playing games (sometimes with other species, such as otters), and will sometimes use objects as tools
  • Will form partnerships with other species, and have been observed following humans or cowbirds for nests to raid
  • Adults have few predators, but tend to be very wary, often will not approach suspicious looking carrion until other scavenging birds have tasted it first; parents will vigorously defend nest from predators.
  • Very prominent role in the mythology and folklore of Europe, the Middle East, and Native Americans (often depicted as a trickster figure) - prominent roles include Noah's Ark, King Arthur, messengers of the Norse God Odin, and guardians of the Tower of London, but are best known from Edgar Allen Poe's poem, The Raven
  • National bird of Bhutan, where the king wears the Raven Crown
  • Persecuted for years by farmers and gamekeepers (as they will occasionally prey on small livestock); they have been extirpated in some areas, but have been re-established in others, and are becoming more common in rural areas
  • Predation by ravens (especially of nests) has complicated conservation efforts of some endangered species, such as desert tortoises, Steller's eiders, and California condors, leading to culling in some conservation areas
  • A variable number of subspecies (8-11) are recognized acorss the species range, with the nominate form being in Europe

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Satire: Ecosystem Lecture

Normally, The Onion is one of my favorite go-to sources for zoo satire.  This one just didn't strike me as funny as some of the others one though.  The best satire is supposed to hold a mirror up to the real world and show an exaggerated version of it to teach a point.  In this case, however, the satire was a far tamer, more believable version of what we really deal with.

Area Dad Didn’t Shell Out $100 At Aquarium For Lecture About Ecosystem

MYSTIC, CT—Expressing frustration while viewing the Mystic Aquarium’s stingray exhibit with his family, local dad Jeff Palmer told reporters Wednesday that he didn’t shell out $100 of his hard-earned cash just to listen to a lecture about the ecosystem. “I paid good money to see some fish and big sharks with my kids, not hear a guy spout off about this coral species that’s going extinct,” said Palmer, adding that he had expected the marine expert talking about rising ocean temperatures to instead hold up a stingray that visitors could touch or, at the very least, feed it some type of fish that they could all watch it eat. “Come on, I didn’t drive all the way out here just to have some boring scientist list off a whole bunch of endangered species. Can’t I just watch the seals swimming around in the tank without another stupid speech about shrinking habitats?” At press time, Palmer was growing “pretty goddamn sick” of getting raked over the coals every time he tapped on the aquarium’s glass to get the attention of the sharks.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Zoo History: Guardian Gorillas

The scene could have been one out of a horror movie.  A child visiting the zoo tumbles over a railing and into the moat of an exhibit.  As dozens of terrified visitors look on, a giant gorilla approaches the prone child, looming over him as he lays on the exhibit floor.  Some of the onlookers gasp, others scream, awaiting the horrible, inevitable conclusion.

The only thing is, this did happen in real life.  Twice.  And in both cases, the result was a far cry from what Hollywood would have suggested.

On August 31, 1986, Levan Merritt tumbled into the gorilla exhibit at the Jersey Zoo, Gerald Durrell's private zoo in the Channel Islands.  Knocked unconscious by the fall, the boy was approached by Jambo, the zoo's 25 year old silverback gorilla.  Jambo took a defensive position over Merritt, watching and protecting him, even stroking the boy gently as he lay at the gorilla's feet.  When the boy did regain consciousness and began to scream (as, admittedly, I would probably do if opening my eyes and unexpectedly seeing a gorilla), Jambo did not panic, nor did he react aggressively.  Instead, he herded his females into their holding area, allowing zoo staff to retrieve the child and get him to safety.  Not that he wasn't safe with the gorillas, it would seem.

Captured on tape by bystanders, Jambo's care for five year old Levan Merritt helped dramatically change the popular perception of gorillas from hulking King Kong monsters to gentle, social creatures.  It seemed like a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence.

Then it happened again... on the other side of the world, ten years later (almost to the day).

On August 16, 1996, a three year old boy, visiting the Brookfield Zoo, fell into the gorilla exhibit in the Tropics World building.  A young female gorilla named Binti Jua rushed to the boy's side and looked over him, much as Jambo had done.  When other gorillas approached curiously, she growled at them and forced them back.  Throughout the entire experience, Binti's baby daughter, Koola, was clinging to her mother.  The child was retrieved by zoo personnel (who had, ironically enough, had a "child in gorilla exhibit" drill just days earlier) and, after a brief hospitalization for a broken hand, recovered.

Generally speaking, nothing good can come of a visitor winding up in a zoo exhibit with a powerful, potentially dangerous animal like a gorilla.  When it does occur, tragedy is often the result.  I'm sure that none of the keepers at Brookfield or Jersey would like a repeat performance of what happened at their zoos - the end result might not be pleasant the second time around.  That being said, what did occur at each of those institutions was a special experience that taught a valuable lesson about one of our closest relatives.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Zoo Review: Philadelphia Zoo

There is mild controversy over which facility can claim the title of oldest zoo in the United States.  Some people say New York's Central Park Zoo, others Chicago's Lincoln Park Zoo.  The honor, however, is usually bestowed upon another candidate.  Regardless of when other claimants actually began displaying animals, the Philadelphia Zoo differs in one major respect - it did not start off as a pair of swans, or a few cast-off pets.  When its gates opened in 1874 (it was chartered in 1859, but the opening was delayed by an inconvenient Civil War), it opened as a large, fully-stocked, well-planned zoological park, something akin to what we would think of as a zoo today.

Located in Fairmount Park, the Philadelphia Zoo retains much of its Victorian character, even in the face of modernization.  No exhibit displays this better than the zoo's signature exhibit, Big Cat Falls.  The zoo's old Carnivora House - once filled with tiled cages and heavy iron bars - now lies at the center of a sprawling compound that houses six species of big cat - lion, tiger, leopard, jaguar, snow leopard, and puma.  The old cat house now serves as the night house for the animals.  A unique characteristic which is becoming Philadelphia Zoo's signature is the series of overhead tunnels and ramps, which allow the cats to move from enclosure to enclosure, sometimes directly over the heads of zoo visitors.  Other cats found at the zoo include cheetahs, Canada lynx, and diminutive black-footed cats.  The lynx and black-foots are part of a series of exhibits called Carnivore Kingdom, which also includes red pandas, coatis, and giant otters.  Philadelphia has a special history with giant otters - it was the first zoo to breed this species, a success which has gradually resulted in this species becoming more common in American zoos.

Like many older zoos (particularly those in the northeast, where winters are especially cold), much of the animal collection in Philadelphia is located in taxonomically-themed animal houses.  The Reptile House boasts of an exceptionally large collection of crocodilians, from Chinese alligators to Nile crocodiles, as well as king cobras, Chinese crocodile lizards, and endangered bog turtles.  During the warmer months, Galapagos and Aldabra tortoises plod about in a yard directly outside.  The nearby Small Mammal House features various rodents; pygmy lorises and vampire bats are found in a nocturnal hallway, while a pair of large, open-air displays at the rear of the building feature African (aardvark, meerkat) and South American (agouti, sloth) mammals.  Visitors to the newly renovated McNeil Avian Center are greeted by a towering display of rhinoceros hornbills before passing through a series of walk-through aviaries.  Penguins, flamingos, and waterfowl are found outdoors.

On Christmas Eve, 1995, a fire in the zoo's World of Primates building killed every monkey, ape, and lemur in the building, one of the zoo community's worst tragedies (an excellent account of this can be found in Jeffrey Bonner's Sailing with Noah).  Three-and-a-half years later, the zoo opened its new Peco Primate Reserve, home to gorillas, orangutans, langurs, and aye-ayes, among other residents.  Unlike many primate houses, this exhibit does not attempt to replicate a rainforest or other natural habitat; the  building is very utilitarian - ropes, cargo nets, straw piles - but while it may not be especially aesthetically pleasing (it honestly looks like an abandoned warehouse), it appears to satisfy the animal occupants.  More primates (including the nation's only douc langurs), as well as bats and naked mole rats, are seen in the Rare Animal Conservation Center.

Other displays around the zoo include a series of bear habitats (including polar bears with underwater viewing), red kangaroos, okapi, and an African savannah featuring addax, giraffe, white rhino, zebra, and the first hippos that I'd seen in a long time.  A brand new children zoo features domestic animals, as well as a budgie aviary where visitors can feed parakeets.  One of the most popular features of the zoo is a non-animal one - a hot-air balloon that gives visitors a panoramic view of the zoo and surrounding city.

At 140 years old, Philadelphia Zoo's age is showing in some areas, and it has a few older, or at least "uninspired" exhibits (much of the Small Mammal House comes to mind).  That being said, considering its advanced age, it actually struck me as being in remarkable shape.  The zoo has shown considerable ingenuity in updating its facilities - Big Cats, Birds, Children Zoo - in recent years.  The current plan is rework almost the entire zoo along the "Zoo 360" guidelines currently being used with the big cats and primates, allowing all sorts of animals to traverse the zoo and move from habitat to habitat.  The idea has been used at other zoos, but never before has an entire facility been planned around this concept.  It's this sort of unique vision which makes Philadelphia a zoo to watch closely in the years to come.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

From the News: Chill-A** Rhinos Take Relaxed Stroll Through Zoo's Wide-Open Front Gate

Doubtlessly winning the award for most embarrasing animal escape in recent zoo history (well, maybe... I do have a funny sloth story).  I just can't imagine the reaming that the front-gate guard, asleep on the job, must have gotten.  "Dammit, you had one job!"

Fortunately, some of the cartoonists from The Simpsons were on hand to document the escape and recapture

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Sporcle Quiz: Animals Named After People

Animals Named After People

Not long ago, we had a quiz about animals named after animals.  Now, we're going to offer one about animals named after people.  There are a few reasons that a person could have an animal named in their honor.  They could have discovered it (though naming a creature after yourself is frowned upon these days).  Or, they could name it after someone else as a tribute - a fellow scientist, a conservationist, a patron, a loved one...  Either way, there a lot of animals that are named after a lot of people.  Can you make some matches?'

And whose zebra are you?

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

It's All In the Mix

Mixed-species exhibits are becoming increasingly popular in zoos around the world.  A major challenge for zoo directors seeking to attract crowds is to create new and exciting ways of displaying their animals.  Creating panoramas of mixed-species exhibits is a popular method of doing this.  Many successful combinations have been created - giant anteater and maned wolf, white rhino and plains zebra, binturong and small-clawed otter.

Other attempts have failed - polar bears were attempted with Arctic foxes at one zoo.  It worked out great for a while, with the foxes easily staying out of reach of the bigger, slower bears... until a fox slept in late one day in a spot that the bears could reach.

So what does it take to make a mixed-species exhibit successful?  Here are some tips:

1.) Don't mix predator and prey - seems obvious enough.  Shark and crocodilian exhibits tend to be the exception, with lots of fish sharing space with the predators, but these fish are often too small and too quick for the predators to seriously pursue.  Other than that, don't place an animal in an exhibit with animals it may want to eat.  Even if it never tries to go after an exhibit-mate, the stress it will put its roommates through will be severe.

2.) Build with both species in mind - don't create an exhibit for one animal and then attempt to squeeze in a second as an afterthought.  Each species has its own specific needs in captivity, and the exhibit should be made to accommodate the needs of every animal it houses.  Above all, the exhibit should be large enough to accommodate both species - even the most placid animals can get edgy in close-quarters.  The exhibit should allow all species present to be housed in socially-appropriate (ideally breeding) groups.  Tall African storks, like the marabou and the saddle-billed stork, don't usually breed when displayed in open exhibits with antelope and other ungulates - they probably, then, shouldn't be kept in these conditions.

3.) Reduce competition with multiple niches - Combine an arboreal species with a terrestrial one, or a terrestrial one with an aquatic one.  Try pairing a diurnal animal with a nocturnal one.  By placing animals with dissimilar habitats together, you reduce competition and make for more efficient use of the exhibit space (i.e., animals using different levels).  If you do have animals of the same niche - such as two diurnal grazing mammals - consider animals of differing sizes.

4.) Avoid closely related species, especially ones that look like one another - they will either view each other as rivals and fight, or will interbreed.  With some species this can work out fine - many zoos and aquariums display mixed-species flocks of flamingos, or penguins, or example, which are intensely social and unlikely to fight with members of a closely related species.  If these cases, it can work fine if you make sure that all species present are in appropriate social groups, including breeding opportunities.  Given the option, most species will take a mate true to their type.

5.) Beware of aggressive species - some animal are just aggressive.  Zebras, for instance, can be vicious towards small antelope.  I've seen a breeding male guanaco (wild llama) pick up a deer fawn in its mouth and throw it, for no apparent reason.  Primates tend to be a problem, as their curiosity leads them to harass other animals (not that there haven't been successful mixed-exhibits with primates).  Sometimes, a small aggressive animal can be successfully displayed with a larger, more placid species.  Some European zoos, for instance, display even-tempered Andean bears with small, pushy coati.  Always make sure that smaller species have a place to go where larger species can't follow (an example would be a separate section of the exhibit with a small doorway that only smaller animals could pass through).

6.) Remember that circumstances change - the success of your exhibit isn't just about species, it's about individuals, and the circumstances of individuals.  Each change, whether in the composition of the group or in the exhibit itself has the potential to alter the equilibrium of the display.  Whenever changes - new animals, births, removal of animals, etc - occur, make sure to monitor the display vigilantly.  

7.) Let there be a reason - other than just saving space.  Are animals being displayed together for educational purposes?  Then let there be a message, whether geographic (and please let the animals actually be ones that would live near each other in the wild... not just "African") or ecological (nocturnal display, desert display, etc).  The National Zoo's Small Mammal House features Malagasy lemurs, Asian deer, and South American birds in an exhibit together... no real reason, it seems, other than they could be housed together safely.  I suppose I could design an exhibit that would be suitable for African elephants and wolverines... but that wouldn't make sense as an exhibit.  So I don't...

Mixed-species displays can be a wonderful addition to a zoo.  They can also be a disaster.  As in most things, the difference comes down to planning.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Mixed Species, Mixed Blessings (Part II - The Cons)

My last post - weighing the pros and cons of mixed-species exhibits - began to run a little long, so I decided to chop it in half.  Yesterday we looked at the advantages of mixed exhibits.  Today, we'll take a look at some of the downsides.

The most obvious potential downside, and the one that concerns visitors the most, is the prospect of one animal eating another.  Apart from shark and crocodilian exhibits, where an occasional fish disappears down the maw of the predator, this is pretty rare.  I have seen displays where predators and potential prey are housed together, but always in circumstances where the prey is safe (for example, the alligator exhibit at the Salisbury Zoo also features herons and egrets, but the smaller, faster birds fly circles around the largely-indifferent alligators... I just wouldn't try this combination with ducks).  

Aggression doesn't have to come from a predator - some animals, to put it nicely, are just jerks.  Zebras are a prime example, and will kill smaller ungulates, just because.  Many zoos display their zebras alongside giraffes or rhinos, or among larger antelope which can hold their own, but not with smaller ones.  Primates also can be problematic in mixed species displays; much like people, they are sometimes possessed with a sadistic curiosity which can have unfortunate consequences for smaller animals.  Among birds or hoofstock, if two species are close enough to each other in appearance and behavior, they may see each other as rivals and fight... or as mates, and produce hybrid offspring.  For this reason, it usually works best to display unrelated species - a parrot, a pigeon, and a duck, for instance, rather than three species of parrot.

A lack of aggression in the wild where two species coexist doesn't translate into those same species doing fine together in a zoo.  In the wild, two animals may share a landscape, may even walk within a few feet of each other once in a rare while, but may never interact.  In a zoo, where the quarters are close and mutual avoidance is much harder, conflicts may brew.  In the wild, a lion may ignore a very small mammal, like a mongoose - too small, too hard to catch, not worth in the effort.  In a zoo setting, where the mongoose cannot escape, things may work out differently.

Cases of flat-out aggression are easy to identify, but there are far more subtle problems that can arise in mixed-exhibits.  Chief among them is stress.  Just because two animals aren't physically fighting, or even looking at each other, the weaker of the two can still be stressed, sometimes to the point of illness, anorexia, or death, by the presence of what it perceives to be a threat.  Keep in mind, no one is observing these animals 24/7 - just because you don't see aggression or bullying while you are there doesn't mean it might not be happening after hours, or when no one is around.

Speaking of anorexia, then there is the problem of feeding.  Do all of the animals in the exhibit eat the same food?  If so, how do you make sure everyone gets enough?  If they don't, how do you make sure everyone eats their diet and not that of an exhibit mate?  I was caring for an exhibit that featured flamingos, pheasants, parrots, and sloths.  The flamingos ate the pheasant food, the pheasants at the flamingo food, the sloths ate the parrot food, and the parrots ate everything.  Which, in this case, wasn't a disaster... but what if the food of one species is toxic to another?

Disease transmission is also a risk... some animals are just germier than others.  Turtles and tortoises come to mind, readily.  They carry diseases which can be lethal to snakes and lizards; when I first started working with reptiles, the turtles were all kept in one section of the building, and we were instructed to do them last everyday.  We didn't have a single exhibit of turtles displayed with lizards or snakes.  Crocodilians, on the other hand, seem immune to the diseases of turtles and do just fine being housed with them.

Every exhibit combination is a matter not just of species, but of individuals.  When you add or subtract individuals, you change the dynamic of the exhibit, and anything can happen.  Two factors which cause the most change are breeding males (which can be super-aggressive to their exhibit mates) and offspring (which exhibit mates may view as prey or toys, with disastrous results).  To this end, many mixed-species exhibits become non-breeding situations with single-sex groups.  Cool for display purposes, but not super-helpful for the survival of the species or the captive population.

Mixed-species displays have become the norm in the modern zoo, and some combinations have become tried-and-true features at many zoos.  Other zoos seemed determined to create new, exciting combinations, including some that might surprise visitors: bears and wolves... rhinoceroses and cheetahs... crocodilians and deer.  There have been many surprising triumphs... as well as some failures.  

What is important to remember is that every combination comes down to the interplay of the species involved, the individual animals, and the exhibit itself.  A combination that works beautifully at one zoo may fail dismally at another.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Mixed Species, Mixed Blessings (Part I - The Pros)

One hot summer day, I spent an enjoyable half-hour watching capybaras wallowing in the mud, whistling contentedly.  In the background was the shuffling form of a giant anteater, lurching through the tall grasses as it made its way into the shade, brushing past a ball of red fur drowsing under a tree.  As the anteater passed, the ball uncurled and raised its head, revealing itself to be a maned wolf.  My attention was soon called back in front of me when a Brazilian tapir heaved itself into its pool, splashing water everywhere.

The scene could have been Brazil or Paraguay, but instead it was the Houston Zoo... and it was all in one, single exhibit.

One of the hallmarks of the modern zoo has been a transformation in how animals are displayed.  The emphasis has been on replacing cages with displays that recreate natural habitats and encourage natural behaviors - trees and rocks to climb on, water to swim in, dirt to dig in, etc.  Exhibits tend to be larger - in some cases, several times larger - than they used to be, in part to accommodate larger social groups.  One of the most important changes has been the transition towards mixed-species exhibits.

The concept of displaying different kinds of animals in the same enclosure isn't a new one.  It's been practiced for thousands of years, especially with birds; the concept of the mixed-species aviary was known to the ancient Romans.  Among mammals, the practice has been especially common with deer, antelope, and other hoofed mammals.  In reptile houses, it was historically common to keep all sorts of crocodilians in pits together.  In recent years, however, the trend of displaying animals together has increased tremendously, with more and more zoos placing more and more species in mixed displays (in aquariums, this concept is so common that it's a small handful of species that aren't kept in mixed tanks), and zoos have vied to create newer, more exciting and unusual combinations each year. 

These displays tend to be some of the most popular in zoos, and there is a lot of good that could be said about them.  For one thing, they save space and keeper time, both resources in short supply at any given zoo.  With individual zoo exhibits getting larger, and the zoos themselves not expanding, zoos find that they can feature fewer displays.  By allowing two or more species to share a space, more use can be gotten out of one plot of land, which also takes less time for keepers to serve than two smaller exhibits.  This is especially beneficial when displaying a terrestrial animal with an arboreal one, allowing different animals to utilize different parts of the same space.  

Mixed-species exhibits are supposed to also bestow some benefits on the animals.  Part of creating a more natural environment for zoo animals may mean adding other species. Animals in the wild do not exist in a single-species vacuum, and share their environment with countless other species.  In East Africa, I was able to sometimes observe five or six species of large mammal at once without turning my head.  Perhaps the presence of multiple species in the same area would feel more natural, more enriching to zoo animals?  I've seen otters and monkeys playing together in one zoo exhibit, and have heard of many other cases.  The space factor also can benefit zoo animals, especially smaller ones.  At the Bronx Zoo, for instance, rock hyraxes share an immense yard with geladas and ibexes; the rabbit-sized hyraxes, as a result, have a much larger, more complex habitat than they would probably have if they were displayed alone in a small mammal house.

Most of the benefit of mixed-exhibits, however, seems directed towards the visitors.  Zoo visitors seem drawn to mixed exhibit, especially ones that are surprising or seem risky.  Putting multiple species together increases the likelihood of their being some activity, some movement in the display for people to observe. This is especially true in displays were there are animals on the ground, in the water, in the trees, and flying - someone will likely be doing something.  Zoo educators like to point out that displaying multiple species from the same habitat together provides a more educational experience for guests (though plenty of zoos do display animals together that would not overlap in the wild).

Well, there's some of the good points about mixed-species exhibits.  This post is rapidly getting longer than I meant for it to, so we'll visit some of the downsides tomorrow.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Thick-Billed Parrot (Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha)

Thick-Billed Parrot

Rhynchopsitta pachyrhyncha (Swainson, 1827)

Range: Sierra Madre Occidental (Mexico), Historically Southwest United States
Habitat: Montane Conifer Forest
Diet: Pine Nuts, Seeds
Social Grouping: Small Flocks
Reproduction: Breeding season is July-September, nest in hollow coniferous trees, 3 eggs are incubated for one month, chicks fledge at 59-65 days, but are dependent on parents for some time after hatching
Lifespan: 30 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Endangered, CITES Appendix I

  • Bright green plumage with scarlet on the forehead, thighs, and the bend on the wings; the underside of the wing is yellow
  • Body length is 38 centimeters, average weight 300 grams; the bill is very robust and thick
  • Feed by clipping pine cones from branches and shredding the outer coats to reach the seeds within; their ability to breed is tied closely to the availability of food
  • While foraging, they may travel as far as 40 kilometers per day, returning at night to communally roost on inaccessible cliff faces or in tall trees
  • Following the extinction of the Carolina parakeet, they were the only parrot species in the United States; they have since been extirpated from much of their range (including Arizona and New Mexico) due to habitat loss and capture for the illegal pet trade
  • A captive breeding and reintroduction program for the species in Arizona was unsuccessful, as the parrots had difficulty avoiding natural predators, especially goshawks

Thursday, January 1, 2015


Happy New Year!

2014 was the first full year online for The Zoo Reviewer, and we're celebrating with a rebranding.  When the blog was first launched, it was intended to be, as the name suggested, mostly a review of zoos and aquariums.  After some pretty careless early days, it was realized that, if the reviews weren't rationed out a little more carefully (about one per month), they'd all be used up pretty soon, and then there would be nothing to share.

Instead, this has become more of a blog about zoo-ology.

Ask a bunch of folks to tell you what the study of animals is called, and most will probably say zoo-ology (actually most probably won't know, but zoo-ology will be the most common actual answer).  The thing is, the study of animals is actually zoology, (pronounced zo-ology, not zu-ology, as in "zoo").  Everyone sees the "zoo" part of the word and pronounces it like that("zoo" is an abbreviated form of "zoological garden" or "zoological park."

Of course, so many people say zoo-ology that I decided, after careful thought, that there had to be such a thing, and so now there is.

Zooology [zu-ol-o-gee] noun - the scientific study of zoological parks and aquariums.

This blog is meant to be more than a description of zoos and aquariums, or the animals within them.  It's meant to be an exploration of them on a deeper level, and the world in which they operate, and the issues surrounding them.  By and large, people love zoos and aquariums, but they are losing touch with them.  Only by better communicating with the public, by sharing their stories, can zoos and aquariums keep that support.

Thanks to all of the tens of thousands of readers who shared the blog in 2014.  Hopefully, 2015 will be another great year for spreading the word about Zoo-ology.