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Saturday, February 28, 2015

Llamas on the Lloose

This video isn't really zoo- related, but I still thought it was kind of funny, and since it's been shared everywhere else on the internet, why not here as well.  When I watched the recaptured efforts, all I could think was "Amateurs."  I wondered if it ever occurred to the cops to call in the local zoo for help.

How did these people mss the chance for a double-L pun for "loose"?  Again, amateurs...

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Playing God, by Bridie Smith

An excellent article from Australia's The Age... zoos and aquariums love to use the analogy of the Ark, but the fact is, the Ark has limited capacity, limited crew, and limited resources.  The challenge becomes how to decide which creatures to invest our efforts in saving, both in captivity and in the wild.  And so a sort of triage is established - some species which will be fine (probably, at least in the short term) without our help, some who are probably doomed, with or without it, and some for which it makes all the difference.

Playing God, by Bridie Smith

With so many creatures under threat of extinction, and so little money to fund conservation efforts, some say it's time to pick who will survive.

The noise is piercing and poignant. It starts as a determined drill reminiscent of the "tut-tut" of Skippy - but delivered with a bit more chirrup - then accelerates to a pitch and pace rivalling that of a lorikeet. Then it goes quiet. That's it. The last call, made by the last Christmas Island pipistrelle bat. It lasts barely 40 seconds.

Before the Christmas Island pipistrelle left the world for good, he was recorded over three nights as he moved through the rainforest. Using ultrasonic pulses of sound to forage for food, this bat was feasting on the fly: expertly catching and consuming insects mid-air. If he was aware scientists were tracking him, he wasn't obliging them. More than 250 kilograms of equipment had been lugged to the tiny island outpost in the Indian Ocean, 1500 kilometres north-west of the Australian mainland, as part of a desperate attempt to rescue his species.

But he was having none of it. He gave the harp nets and mist nets the slip, zipping over the top, night after night. And he ignored a purpose-built 15-metre-long tunnel trap, despite it being set up in one of his favourite foraging spots, a corridor lined with thick rainforest vegetation. His calls, picked up by detectors, indicated he was active. He flitted between feeding sites and reassured researchers with frequent banter. But on the fourth night, the synchronised detectors planted on his island home met silence. Without intending to, scientists had captured the last call of a species, made on its last night in existence: August 26, 2009.

Read the rest of the article here.

Devil in the detail: Zoos Victoria CEO Jenny Gray watches as keeper Monika Zabinskas holds Milana, a one-year-old - and healthy - Tasmanian devil.

Devil in the detail: Zoos Victoria CEO Jenny Gray watches as keeper Monika Zabinskas holds Milana, a one-year-old - and healthy - Tasmanian devil. Photo: Joe Armao

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

From the News: Why Can't Captive Breeding of Saltwater Aquarium Fish Catch On?

Most of the animals that you see when you visit a zoo were born in captivity; international regulations and concerns about animal welfare have seriously clamped down on the number of wild-caught mammals and birds imported into the country.  For aquariums, on the other hand, the trend is still for many fish to come from the oceans.  What also makes the aquarium fish trade different than the historic zoo animal trade is that very few of Carl Hagenbeck's tigers and elephants found themselves in private homes, which is where many imported saltwater fish end up.

There are tremendous benefits to be gained from increasing our knowledge of producing marine fish in captivity.  It's better for the environment not to take these animals from the wild.  It's better for the fish themselves - captive bred animals tend to be healthier and less-stressed than wild caught ones forced to adapt to captivity.  Lastly, it could be a great economic boon for some communities, producing fish to satisfy the demands of public and privite aquariums.

There are challenges, to be sure, but considering how many now-common zoo animals were once considered impossible to breed, I'm sure that, at least for some species, it can be done.

Barcelona's underwater tunnel aquarium with sharks and visitors in aquarium tunnel underwater scene. Photo by Artur Debat / Contributor, Getty Images

Barcelona’s underwater tunnel aquarium with sharks and visitors in aquarium tunnel underwater scene. Photo by Artur Debat / Contributor, Getty Images

Monday, February 23, 2015

Zoo Review: Adventure Aquarium

The City of Philadelphia has a lot of amazing attractions, including an excellent zoo.  One thing it does not have is an aquarium (at least not since 1962, when the aquarium in Fairmont Park closed).  For that, you have to go across the river to Camden, New Jersey.  It's here that you will find what used to be the unoriginally-named New Jersey State Aquarium, now rebranded as Adventure Aquarium.

The biggest stars at Adventure - in just about every sense of the word - are the hippos.  Adventure is one of two facilities in the northeast to still exhibit Nile hippos, and the only aquarium to do so.  The hippos can be seen from above or underwater in a twilight gallery (leading to amazing close-up views), an interesting twist because I'd never seen a nocturnal display of these animals.  Hippos in the wild are generally active at night, and I will admit that the hippos here were more active than any I'd seen at any other zoo.  The land portion of the exhibit is shared with African crested porcupines, and when the hippos swim they do so amidst schools of beautiful African cichlids.  It's an awesome exhibit, but the same time, I'm not positive how I feel about such large mammals in an indoor-only exhibit - it would be nice if they had an adjacent outdoor pen.

There are plenty of more traditional aquarium animals at Adventure as well.  In the submarine-like Jules Verne Gallery, visitors travel down an ornate hallway to encounter denizens of the ocean depths, such as giant isopods, Pacific octopus, nautilus, sea dragons, and jellyfish.  Up next is the shark, where a series of interactive exhibits introduce visitors to the ocean's most famed predators.  The highlight here is the tunnel that leads through the tank patrolled by sandbar, sand tiger, and nurse sharks.

More sharks can be seen in the Shipwreck display, which is home to the only great hammerhead shark on display in America, as well as zebra sharks, silky sharks, and bonnetheads. Green and loggerhead sea turtles join several other fish species in this tank as well.  The sharks and turtles can be viewed from several vantage points (which is great, because it's a huge tank and animals are often out of view from one window or another), including an educational theater that faces the largest viewing window.  A very different aquatic predator is found down the hallway, where Orinoco crocodiles are displayed, along with various Caribbean fish.  Nearby, the aquarium's only outdoor exhibit displays a colony of African penguins.  Special kid-themed galleries nearby focus on frogs and turtles.

There is a strong emphasis on interaction at Adventure Aquarium, and guests get many opportunities to meet the residents up close (and not just through glass).  A series of touch tanks allows visitors to handle (under aquarist supervision) stingrays, horseshoe crabs, starfish, and even small sharks.  Special behind-the-scenes encounters are also available, allowing special visitors to swim with sharks, care for penguins, or tour a sea turtle rehabilitation center.  There are also constantly changing exhibits, including those without live animals - at the time of publishing, the new display is "Dinosaurs of the Deep", featuring models of prehistoric marine reptiles (none of which were actually dinosaurs, truth be told).

Like many American aquariums, Adventure is relatively new, opening its doors in 1993.  Unlike many other presitgious aquariums, however, it opened to terrible reviews.  The new aquarium doubled-down and reinvented itself, and the reviews of the newly redone facility have been fantastic.  Unique animals, innovative exhibits, and lots of interaction have made Adventure Aquarium one of the most popular aquariums in the nation.  Hopefully, its fortunes will continue to improve.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Book Review: Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind

"The foreseeable outcome is that... alpha predators will have ceased to exist - except behind chain-link fencing, high-strength glass, and steel bars... people will find it hard to conceive that those animals were once proud, dangerous, unpredictable, widespread, and kingly, prowling free among the same forests, rivers, estuaries, and oceans used by humanity.  Adults, except for a few recalcitrant souls, will take their absence for granted.  Children will be startled and excited to learn, if anyone tells them, that once there were lions at large in the very world."

There are celebrities at every zoo, the animals that everyone wants to see.  People want to see elephants and monkeys, they want to see giraffes and zebras.  Perhaps more than any other group of animals, however, they want to see the predators... especially the big ones.  Big cats, bears, crocodilians, sharks... these are the creatures that fascinate our visitors, leaning against the railings of the moats or pressed up against the viewing windows.  Sometimes, you hear someone muse what would happen if the glass wasn't there.

Celebrated nature write David Quammen answers that question in Monster of God: The Man-Eating Predator in the Jungles of History and the Mind.  Quammen takes the reader on a travel around the world, entering the domains of four alpha predators - the Indian lion, the saltwater crocodile of Australian, the brown bear of Romania's Carpathian Mountains, and the Amur tiger.  Exploring the biology and history of each species and interviewing the people who share the landscape with them, he sets out to answer the question - what does it mean to be prey?

There are a lot of books that start off in the direction that Quammen goes in, only to devolve into a series of bloody anecdotes of people being killed by big predators.  Yes, this book includes a smattering of those.  More importantly, however, it takes a look at our relations with the natural world from the opposite direction that we normally do - not as humans dominating the world and subjugating the wilderness, but humans as another flavor of meat, another link in the food chain.  For the vast majority of our species history on this planet, we have been regularly preyed upon by big cats, bears, and other large carnivores - in some parts of the world, we still are.  How did this impact us as as a species, what impacts does it have on us today?  Quammen's search for an answer transcends biology - he explores the role of super-predators throughout mythology, religion, and popular culture, relating it to a wide array of creatures, from The Bible's Leviathan to Beowulf's Grendel to the titular monster of the science-fiction series, Alien.

Quammen gives equal - probably more - attention to the people who share their lives with large predators, be they the Maldahari of India's Gir forest, tending their herds in the presence of lions or Romanian foresters, reminiscing about the Communist-era, when Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu slaughtered untold bears (many raised by these same foresters) to bolster his image with his people.  It is the local people, Quammen reasons, that have to live with predators and pay the price of sharing space with them - competition for prey, loss of livestock, sometimes loss of lives.  Typically, it is the poorest, most isolated, least influential members of society who are most likely to be negatively impacted by these animals.  Is it fair, he asks, for the rest of the world to ask for so great a sacrifice, and receive nothing in return?

Major predators aren't just popular zoo animals; in their own ways, they are protectors of the wild, even of those species which they kill and eat.  As iconic animals, equally admired and feared, their conservation serves as a rallying cry for conservationists - "Save the tiger!" has a better ring to it, and is more likely to draw support, than "Save the Siberian musk deer!"  The importance of large carnivores in regulating their environment has long been understood, giving us an ecological incentive to protect them.  For some species - Quammen focuses on the skin trade for saltwater crocodiles - their is an economic incentive as well.  Perhaps most importantly, Quammen offers an equally compelling, though far more nebulous argument for saving wild large carnivores - these animals, and their occasional depredations on us, helped shape humanity as a species.  They made us who we are.  If we lose them, we lose an important part of our past and our identity.

Friday, February 20, 2015

How Low Can You Go?

Today was miserable.  Tomorrow isn't looking that much better, either.  Every year, it seems like winter meanders erratically through December and January, but when it hits late February, it's like it realizes that its time is almost over.  It's then that we get the worst of the cold.

On nights like tonight, listening to the wind scream outside, throwing up armloads of snow, I can't help but worry about the animals at the zoo right now, hoping that they are all cozy and snug inside.  No reason that they shouldn't be fine - I checked the heat lamps, added tons of bedding, and put up wind-blocks - but it's still easy to worry.

This being an unusually brutal winter for us, we've had to respond accordingly.  Some of our animals who faced winter outdoors for the last several years began to quake in the face of this one; animals that hadn't seen the inside of a building for years were caught, crated, and transported inside for the worst of the season.  This has led to a little grumbling and bickering among the staff, especially with some of the older members grousing about how unnecessary all of the effort it.  In their (not uninformed) opinions, the animals will make do outside, as they have for years past.

I agree... to a point.

Few aspects of animal care are as subjective as temperature guidelines.  At one zoo where I worked, the alligators went outside in the beginning of March and they came in after Thanksgiving... that was it.  There were mornings when I came in and found the layer of their pool covered with a film of ice, with only the tips of their noses frozen above the surface (this is what wild American alligators will do in some of the colder parts of their range).  At another zoo, it was considered inconceivable for the gators to go out if there was a chance of temperatures below 50 Fahrenheit.

There aren't only differences between institutions, but between animals, even those of the same species.  I once worked with two birds, both males of about the same age and same species, housed in side-by-side exhibits.  One faced winter with calm indifference every year.  The other had feet ravaged by frostbite.  No one could explain why the one bird was so cold hardy, while the other - after his ill-fated first winter outside - had to be bundled indoors every December.

A big part of the confusion comes to differing opinions as to what temperature guidelines are supposed to achieve.  Some people think that it's simply what the animal can survive without signs of injury or illness.  Most animals can tolerate temperatures considerably colder than what they would experience in the wild, provided that they are given shelter from the cold to use as they desire.  The problem with this is that it simply comes down to endurance and survival; the goal shouldn't be for the animal to survive, it should be for it to thrive.  I could survive a 40 degree night if I were locked outside naked... but I wouldn't be very happy in the morning (nor, I suspect, would my neighbors).

I don't want to make the "leave 'em outside" crowd seem heartless.  They have their reasons for wanting to keep the animals outside.  For one thing, it's less stressful on the animals, especially if the indoor area in question is a building on the other end of the zoo. (A way to mitigate this is to have indoor holding areas attached to outdoor enclosures - it can be more expensive, but does allow animals to be moved back and forth with less stress, and allows you to move animals quickly based on sudden changes in weather, like hurricanes). For another, indoor areas are almost always smaller, and no one likes being locked in a smaller area.  Thirdly, temperature shocks can be hard on an animal.  If you pull a bird inside for the winter, you might need to keep said bird inside for quite a while, until the indoor-outdoor difference isn't so great.

My current zoo tends to be a little more conservative with temperatures than I am on some species, a little laxer on others.  I spent much of my early career working for a director who seemed determined to push every animal in the collection as far as he could on the path towards cold-tolerance.  As a result, I've seen some of his failures in that regard.  Having seen the impact the extreme cold can have on animals, I'm always inclined to error on the side of caution these days.

Not to anthropomorphize, but if I'm cold, I usually figure they're cold.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus)

Sphenodon punctatus (Gray, 1842)

Range: Off-Shore Islands of New Zealand
Habitat: Coastal Forests Scrub
Diet: Insects, Spiders, Snails, Worms, Lizards, Eggs, Small Birds, Carrion
Social Grouping: Solitary, Territorial During Breeding Season
Reproduction: Mate January through March, but female does not lay eggs until October or December.  18-19 eggs laid in a shallow hole; the female guards the nest for a few days before abandoning it.  Incubation is 11-16 months (longest of any reptile), sex is determined by incubation temperature (higher temperatures produce males, lower temperatures produce females).  Sexually mature at 9-13 years old.  Eggs laid every 4 years on average (in some locales, only every 9 years).
Lifespan: Over 100 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern, CITES Appendix I

  • Males grow up to 61 centimeters and weight 1 kilogram; females measure 45 centimeters and weight 500 grams.  Males also have a more triangular head and less pear-shaped body. 
  • Skin is olive-green, gray, brown, or sometimes pinkish, marked with pale speckles that are brighter in juveniles than adults.  A row of spines runs down the length of the body ("tuatara" is Maori for "peaks on the back").  
  • Though they look like lizards,tuatara are the only members of an ancient order to reptiles, the Rhynchocephalia ("Beak Heads").  Tuataras differ from lizards in their dentition, lack of external ear-openings, lack of a penis (males mate by holding their cloaca up to that of the female, in the manner of birds), and a primitive, light-sensitive "third-eye" on top of the head, beneath the skin
  • Voice is a harsh croak, sometimes likened to the call of a frog
  • Nocturnal, live in burrows either dug themselves or shared with seabirds; may emerge during the day to bask
  • If seized by a predator, the tuatara can shed its tail and grow a new one
  • Very low metabolic rate, which allows it to be active at cool temperatures, sometimes as low as 5 degrees Celsius
  • Prominent in native folklore as messengers of god Whiro, Maori women would get tattoos of tuatara as signs of fertility
  • There are three subspecies of tuatara, one of which (Brothers Island tuatara, S. p. guntheri) is sometimes described as a full species
  • Major threat to the survival of tuatara has been the introduction of rats, which raid nests and eat eggs and small hatchlings (tuatara are very slow breeders, making it difficult to rebuild their populations), as well as the tuataras' food sources.  Once found throughout mainland New Zealand, but disappeared after the arrival of humans.
  • Conservation efforts include the eradication of rats, as well as the introduction of wild and captive-bred tuatara onto rat-free islands
  • Very rare in American zoos, captive breeding has so far only occurred in New Zealand

Zookeeper's Journal: I once read about a famous concert violinist who dressed up in street clothes and played a brief concert in a DC Metro station.  Very, very few of the hundreds of people who passed him by noticed, or stopped to realize how rare or unique that experience was.  I felt that way when I watched the tuataras in their display case at a zoo where I worked.  Few people saw them in the room-sized enclosure they occupied in the Reptile House, as they spent a lot of time in their burrows.  When they were seen, they were often dismissed as brownish iguanas, and no further attention was paid to one of the rarest, most remarkable reptiles in zoo collections.  Working with tuataras, what impressed me the most was how cold they were.  Their enclosure was chilled to fifty degrees Fahrenheit, compared to the 80s or 90s of other display cases, and their skin felt cool to the touch.  Handling one, they made me think of a beanie-baby left in a refrigerator. 

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Satire: Sex-Ed at the Zoo

The last post was about zookeeper romance... the other side of the coin from love is, of course, sex... of which there is often a lot of going on at the zoo (usually not with the keepers, though).

Animals don't share human inhibitions about mating in public (that being said, neither do some guests I've encountered), which can lead to some awkward moments.  Usually just a lot of laughing, sometimes an effort to explain it away for the kids ("They're playing").  I've occasionally had irate chaperones or parents demand that I make the animals stop breeding because they're worried about the impact it might have on younger visitors ("Won't someone please think of the children?").  Enjoy!

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Zookeepers in Love

"The course of true love never did run smooth."
- William Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Act I, Scene 1

I’m going to talk for a minute about a boy and girl… it’s only the girl I know, and she’s the one who told the story to me.

Once, at a rather small US zoo, there were two keepers on the staff who started dating, and, as such things will sometimes go, proceeded to fall in love.  The only problem was that their zoo had a “no-dating” policy for employees.  As a result, the girl took a job at a different zoo, the closest she could find but still a few hours away.  She and her beau took turns driving to see each other on their days off.  Then, the boy got a job at yet another zoo, this one in the opposite direction.  The mutual drives, now much longer, continued.

Two lessons I gleaned from this story.  One, I love it how it didn’t occur to either of the keepers to find a non-zoo job so they could stay together in the same city.  Two, it goes to show – dating is hard enough, but dating for zookeepers has its own challenges.

First, as I was reminded by the story above, location can be a pain.  Zookeeping is a very location-based – it certainly isn’t something you can work from home with… at least not usually.  Granted, most towns have a zoo or aquarium, but getting a job at that particular institution can be difficult, especially if an employee is specialized (elephant keeper, marine mammal trainer, amphibian keeper etc) and there aren’t any openings in your field.  Getting a job, or getting promoted, often involves moving, sometimes across the country.  This, of course, puts a strain on any relationship.

Scheduling can be a pain, too.  Many zookeepers work weekends, which can make it hard to go out on Friday or Saturday night (not that many don’t).  The need to work on holidays can put you in the difficult spot of having to bail on Thanksgiving dinner with the in-laws, or spend a romantic Christmas morning together.

Money is a hassle. Unless your significant other is unemployed or works minimum-wage part-time, you probably won’t be the breadwinner in your relationship.  Dinners, movie tickets, vacations… they’re all aspects of dating which become a little more challenging on a zookeeper salary.

The passion factor kicks in also.  Zookeepers and aquarists tend to be super passionate about their animals, sometimes to the exclusion of other things… like other people.  Like many professions that involve caring for living things, some zookeepers give all of their emotion and affection to their charges, leaving them kind of burned out for other relationships.

Oh, and sometimes we come home smelling bad and with poop stuff on the bottom of our boots.  Only sometimes, I mean…

With so much seeming to go against us as dateable material, it’s not surprising that lots of zookeepers date… zookeepers.  After all, we tend to have a lot in common.  At the very least, it’s great to have conversations with people who understand who we are and what we do, and who tend not to view us as complete weirdoes.  That being said, dating at work is… problematic in many cases, even when in those situations where it is not forbidden.  From personal observations, it tends to work best at larger institutions with people who do not work directly together

I’ve dabbled with dating coworkers, and have watched coworkers date each other.  In the end I’ve have found it to be a load of trouble.

I’ve spent the last few years dating someone who is not affiliated with a zoo or aquarium.  She puts up with a fair bit of nonsense from me.  I come home too tired to go out.  Vacations are few and far between, and it’s been years since we went to visit her family together.  When we do on vacation, I inevitably find a way to sneak a zoo or aquarium in.  And, I have been informed gently on more than one occasion, my socks after a day of work are classifiable as biochemical weapons. 

Despite this, I like to think there have been a few perks my job has been able to offer.  She’s gotten to meet a lot of cool animals up close and personal, either while visiting me at work or when we’ve gone together to visit a friend at another zoo.  She’s gotten to help me hand-raise the odd baby animal.  At the very least, I’m a useful conversation piece.

At any rate, for whatever reason she decides to put up with me, stinky socks and all.  And for that I consider myself pretty darn lucky.

Happy Valentine’s Day!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Sporcle Quiz: Mammal Subspecies

During the post from yesterday, we explored (briefly) the concept of the subspecies and its importance in zoo biology.  In this month's quiz, challenge yourself to match the animal (all mammals, I'm afraid) with some of their subspecies.  Enjoy!

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Subspecies Soup

"When it comes to subspecies, things get even murkier.  Ask ten scientists to define subspecies and you'll get ten different answers.  It's a hazy concept that has never been satisfactorily pinned down.  The best way to think of it may be this: A subspecies is evolution in action."

Let's talk about two tigers.

The tiger rose from his bed of pine needles  and stretched, his breath fogging up in the frozen air.  He was a full grown male, heavy and pale and shaggy, weighing in at over 650 pounds.  He strolled silently through the taiga, leaving only paw prints in the snow as evidence of his passing.  Finally, he reached the frozen river, walking along its edge until he found a spot clear enough to drink from.  Dipping down his massive head, he lapped up the icy water eagerly.

The tiger crept through the shadows of the jungle, sleek and dark and silent.  Its coat was a tangle of black stripes, crowded together like creeping vines.  Around his face was a massive white ruff, as if from an abortive attempt to grow a mane like a lion.  He was a full grown male, a little over 300 pounds in weight.  Picking silently through the steamy marshes, he glanced upward and about, noticing monkeys and tropical birds in the trees above him.  

Two tigers - one small and dark and sleek, at home in the tropical rainforests, another huge, pale, and shaggy, living in the boreal forests of northeastern Asia.  Which one is the real tiger?  Well, they both are - both are members of the species Panthera tigris, or "tiger."  The difference is that they belong to two different subspecies.

A subspecies (usually abbreviated as ssp) is a division used in taxonomy, the study of the classification of living things.  A species, the basic unit of biology, (what most of us would think of as simply a type of plant or animal) is a group of living organisms which are capable of - naturally - interbreeding with one another to create more living organisms that are like the parents.  Giraffes beget giraffes, tigers breed tigers, etc.  Species are identified with a two word Latin name, or scientific name; Panthera tigris, again, in the case of tigers.

A subspecies, then, is a step of classification even finer, more specific than that.  It describes a geographic race of a species which tends to breed within its own subspecies, capable perhaps of interbreeding with other subspecies of the same species, but unlikely to do so due to natural barriers - a mountain range, an uncrossable river, or something like that.  In some cases, the differences between them can be obvious (tigers, for instance).  In others, only genetic analysis can reveal the division between the two.

If left isolated for long enough, two subspecies may grow so different from one another that they may eventually become separate species.  This is what is believed to have happened not-so-long-ago (evolutionarily speaking) when a population of coastal brown bears became isolated during the last ice age.  They specialized in their new arctic home and became what we now know as the polar bear.

Whereas the species name has two words, the subspecies name as three names - the Bengal tiger, for instance, is Panthera tigris tigris (the first subspecies, called the nominate, always has the same second and third name), while the Amur tiger is Panthera tigris altaica.

Lovely.  Fascinating.  Breath-taking scientific commentary.  What on earth does this have to do with zoos?

I'm getting there...

Not every species has subspecies - there is only one kind of giant panda, for instance, and only one kind of platypus.  For other species, especially those spread across a large geographic area - again, tigers come readily to mind -  there may be many.  Here is where it becomes tricky for zoos.

Zoos love to use the analogy of Noah's Ark, so we'll use it here, too.  According to the Bible, Noah was said to have taken two of every animal onto the Ark... two lions, two cheetahs, two tigers... what a second.  Did he take two tigers, or two Amur tigers, two Bengal tigers, two Sumatran tigers, and so on?  And what about leopards?  Gray wolves?  Brown bears?  Good heavens, we haven't even made it past the large carnivores, and the Ark is already overloaded and threatening to capsize.

Whatever anyone may believe about the Bible or Noah, the "Ark" that zoos are working with definitely has finite space, and the guest list has to be monitored sometimes.  Do you try to save a sustainable captive breeding population of every subspecies of tiger?  Because if you do, you're pretty quickly going to start eating into spaces that other big cats need (some of which have their own army of subspecies).  Do you forget about subspecies, breed them all together freely as one population?  Do that and loose the specialization and variety that made each of those subspecies special; you'll also be putting the animals at a disadvantage should the unlikely day come when you can ever try to release them into the wild.  Or do you pick one or two to save, and ignore the rest?

With some subspecies, it is the last approach that many zoos have taken.  The AZA has chosen to focus its efforts on three subspecies of tiger (there are nine, three of which are now extinct) - the Amur, the Sumatran, and the Malayan.  For gray wolves, it has focused on the Mexican subspecies.  For giraffes, the reticulated and Masai.  Hybridization of subspecies is strongly discouraged, and doing so (or the suspicion of having done so) can lead to an animal's exclusion from breeding programs.

Sometimes one subspecies remains common while another teeters on the brink, as in the case of the white rhinoceros.  The southern subspecies is reasonably abundant (I mean, for a rhino).  The northern population's days are probably numbered... and the number isn't a very high one.

A species is more than the populations of animals that make it up; it's also the genetic variety that make up those animals and those populations.  By preserving subspecies as integral population units, zoos and aquariums help to preserve the genetic diversity of those species for the future.  An uncertain future, to be sure, but hopefully a future nonetheless.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Zoo History: The Sun King's Menagerie

During the Afghan War, one of the most compelling human interest stories to come out of Afghanistan wasn't even about a human - it was about Marjan, a lion at the Kabul Zoo who had been blinded by a Taliban grenade years before the American invasion.  Similarly, during the second Iraq War, the Gaza War, and the recent troubles in Ukraine, the media has generally carried at least an occasional story about the zoos in the afflicted areas and how the animals are surviving (or not) during the conflict.  Inevitably, the zoo suffers - keepers are drafted or killed, facilities crumble, and many animals die off (either through bombing or starvation).

Which makes it all the more interesting that one of the first - some would argue the first - modern zoos in the world was born from war.

1665, France was perhaps the most powerful nation on earth, and its ruler, Louis XIV - known as the Sun King - was the most powerful man in France.  As an expression of his power and wealth, Louis established perhaps the most decadent palace in Europe at Versailles, a palace which contained, among other features, the royal menagerie.  Collections of animals were hardly unusual among the royals of Europe - every king, prince, and pope had at least a few animals in their menagerie.  As he did with everything else, however, Louis resolved to have his menagerie on a grand scale.  Radiating out from an octagonal viewing pavilion were large paddocks for animals.  Birds, monkeys, and other small animals were kept in aviaries and cages.  More emphasis was placed on architecture and style (the purpose being to impress and intimidate visiting nobles and ambassadors) than on the care of the animals.  The size and variety of the collection waxed and waned over the years, depending on who sat on the throne and how much interest they were inclined to show on the menagerie.

A century of inertia - characterized by alternating periods of rise and decline - was shattered in 1789 with the French Revolution.  Angered by the decadence of the royal family, the mobs stormed Versailles and, enraged at seeing animals pampered (or at least fed... I doubt like in Versailles was too great for the captive creatures) while their families starved, they resolved to let the beasts out so that they could be eaten by the starving masses.  They were only stopped when the menagerie's keeper pointed out that many of the animals - including a lion and a rhinoceros - were more likely to prove lethal than edible.  Rethinking their strategy, the crowd crated up the animals and shipped them to the Jardin du Roi, the Paris botanical garden.  Of course, by this time "royal" things were out of favor, so the facility was soon renamed the Jardin des Plantes.

The Jardin had long been a living laboratory of the study of plants.  The addition of the Versailles animals (their numbers bolstered by the addition of animals confiscated from traveling circuses and performers in the name of public safety) allowed it to expand its role to include the study of animals.  By the end of the century, the collection included, at various points, polar bears, leopards, monkeys, elephants, a lion (accompanied by his pet dog), and the quagga, a now-extinct zebra relative from South Africa.  The collection did not thrive, at first - its academic directors being more interested in other pursuits, but eventually it grew, creating a scientific-zoo model which was soon being copied across Europe.

The menagerie the garden continued to rise and fall; most notably, the entire collection was devoured (yet again) by starving Parisians besieged during the Franco-Prussian War.  The small size of the Jardin des Plantes (or at least the portion devoted for zoo animals) has always limited the size of the collection and facilities.  Today, Paris boasts a newer, larger zoo, one which recently reopened after massive renovations.  There are, however, still animals on display at the Jardin des Plantes to this day.  Today, visitors from around the world can visit the zoo and admire the animals displayed there.  Three-hundred years ago, doing so would have been the sole privilege of an absolute monarch and his guests.

Monday, February 9, 2015

From the News: Boris the polar bear at Point Defiance Zoo has 3 teeth pulled

Boris the polar bear at Point Defiance Zoo has 3 teeth pulled

In this Friday, Feb., 6, 2015 photo, provided by the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, Veterinarians and support staff work to remove three broken or decayed teeth from Boris, a 29-year-old polar bear, at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma on  Friday. The 880-pound bear is one of the oldest polar bears in North American zoos and has lived nearly twice as long as polar bears in the wild. ( Ingrid Barrentine / Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium)
Veterinarians and support staff work to remove three broken or decayed teeth from Boris, a 29-year-old polar bear, at the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma on Friday. (Ingrid Barrentine / Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium)

As has been mentioned, zoo animals tend to live longer than their wild counterparts.  In the wild, a polar bear probably wouldn't live long enough to need dental work, as it would be dead - probably of starvation - long before.  As a result, zookeepers and veterinarians, especially those working with geriatric animals, often find themselves dealing with new, age-related challenges - arthritis in giraffes, diabetes in apes, and dental problems with polar bears, as the folks in Tacoma are demonstrating above.  Performing medical care on any zoo animal can be challenging, especially when the patient in question is a gigantic mega-predator.

An interesting side note, Boris, the male polar bear in question, is one of the "Suarez Seven", polar bears who were rescued from a Mexican circus and rehoused in AZA-accredited zoos.  It's great to see that, over a decade later, he's still doing well in his new home.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Northern Caiman Lizard (Dracaena guianensis)

Northern Caiman Lizard
Dracaena guyanensis (Daudin, 1802)

Range: Northern South America
Habitat: Wetlands, Flooded Forest
Diet: Aquatic Invertebrates (especially snails), Fish
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Females deposit 8-10 eggs in a hole dug in the riverbank.  Incubation is 5-6 months.  No parental care is provided
Lifespan: 10-12 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern, CITES Appendix II

  • Body length is 1.2-1.5 meters (males larger than females), with a weight of 3.5-5.5 kilograms.  The body is olive- or bright-green, while the head is red or orange.  Males also differ from females by having broader heads
  • Highly aquatic, the caiman lizard spends much of its time on branches overhanging the water; if it feels threatened, the lizard will drop into the water and swim to safety.  Aquatic adaptations include a clear third-eyelid (the nictitating membrane) and a laterally flattened tail used in swimming.  At night, they hide in trees or bushes
  • Unlike many lizards, the tongue is bifurcated (forked), allowing the lizard to better detect prey
  • Caiman lizards are considered snail-specialists, crushing the shells of their prey with their back teeth and spitting out the shells (they have been known to predate turtles in a similar manner).  This specialized diet has made them a challenge for some zoos to accommodate, though captive-born hatchlings will take a wider array of foods
  • The common name is a reference to their resemblance to the alligator-like caimans, especially with their dorsal scales and their manner of swimming
  • While not considered aggressive, threatened caiman lizards will defend themselves with powerful bites or blows from their tail
  • The species was once heavily hunted for its skin, but has been legally protected since the 1970's and is now considered to be recovering

Friday, February 6, 2015

Documentary Review: Morgan Spurlock's The Inside Man

I knew the zoo-themed episode of The Inside Man was going to make me mad the moment I heard of it.  Morgan Spurlock, best known as the producer of Supersize Me, has followed up his most famous antics - stuffing himself with Big Macs - with a new series on CNN that takes him behind the scenes of various social issues.  Last night, zoos were the subject of his focus.  Three facilities were chosen for his review - the Detroit Zoo, GW Zoo (a private zoo run by the self-styled wildlife expert "Joe Exotic"), and the Performing Animal Welfare Sanctuary of California.

Preliminary footage and clips were, to say the least, not zoo friendly.

All in all, I was surprised that the documentary wasn't as bad as I was expecting.  Spurlock spent most of his episode at the Detroit Zoo, interviewing keepers, assisting with animal care, talking to guests, and touring behind the scenes.  Yes, he made some snotty comments (only as voice overs, never to the keepers themselves, giving them a chance at rebuttal), but mostly I was surprised at how happy he seemed to be among the animals.  You could tell that interacting with penguins, gorillas, and other creatures was an exciting, unique experience for him (as it should be).  I don't think he appreciated how much his presence was a disturbance for some of the animals, though, which caused him to misinterpret some behaviors.  Perhaps the gorillas weren't body-slamming the fencing because they were angry at being in a zoo - perhaps they were upset because some stranger with a camera-crew was traipsing about their home.

Spurlock contrasts Detroit with two other facilities.  Joe Exotic's roadside zoo is portrayed as a disheveled dump where visitors cuddle big cat cubs, chimps eat potato chips (and the bags they come in), and massively overweight ligers drag themselves around the zoo.  Joe himself is interviewed briefly, declaring his contempt for AZA, which he dubs "the country club of zoos."  Then, he goes to the PAWS in California, home to the former Detroit Zoo elephants (as well as the Toronto Zoo elephants).  PAWS is portrayed as a wonderland for animals, with any potential problems - Tuberculosis? Drought? Isolated animals? - conveniently ignored as Spurlock bathes an elephant with a hose.

What annoys me the most the Spurlock (besides scenes where he harasses a gorilla trainer at Detroit by acting like an angry ape), is what he leaves out.  He mentions zoo breeding programs, but only as a method of filling zoo exhibits.  He doesn't mention the role that zoos have played in saving endangered species through captive breeding (Arabian oryx, California condor, black-footed ferret), including some which almost certainly would be extinct now if not for zoos.  Likewise, his theory that captive breeding is all about the money ignores the fact that many of our most expensive conservation breeding programs - such as those for amphibians, or Marianas Island birds - are for species that have very little visitor appeal.  Heck, why would anyone go into zookeeping for the money?  Most irritatingly, he says nothing of "the wild' - if zoos stop breeding endangered species (as well as species that may become endangered in the future), what sort of future do these animals have left?  The onslaught of poaching, habitat loss, and invasive species doesn't make me optimistic.

Spurlock at least ends his documentary with one note that I can agree with.  In the future, we need zoos to be more about animals, less about us.  That I hope we could all get on board with.

Monday, February 2, 2015

New Documentaries

Happy Groundhog Day!

(A holiday which originally was "Badger Day", brought to America by European immigrants, who, unable to find badgers in their new land - they were too far east - settled for a suitable substitute)

Just wanted to share trailers for two exciting new documentaries I found - hope to have reviews as soon as I see them!  Both deal with an iconic African species which is threatened with extinction.  One, the mountain gorillas featured in Virunga are some of the most well-studied endangered animals on earth, and their plight is understood by the world.  The other, the giraffes of Last of the Longnecks, are perhaps the most threatened because no one realizes that they are in danger.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Questions, Answers, and More Questions

The zoo I work at now is a small one, one in which the animal keepers have to wear many hats.  Not only do they care for the critters, they also do maintenance, construction, landscaping, and security... oh, and we sweep the place out at night.  A major component of the job, one which would be outsourced to a separate department at a larger zoo, is education.  

I like talking to visitors, generally.  The part that stresses me about doing so is the questions - I always worry about not having answers.

Most of the time, I'm in the clear - the questions tend to be about the specific, individual animal ("How old is he?  What is his name?  What does he eat?") which I can generally answer (though the age one always trips me up... a lot of our two-year old animals stay two in my mind for years and years).  Some of the questions about animals as a species I can answer easily enough, too - "Where does it come from?", for instance.

There are some questions that are just hard to answer, though, either because there isn't a neat simple answer, or because we honestly don't know.  Consider one of the most common animal questions ever, one that zookeepers get asked constantly - Why do zebras have stripes?.

The answer?  We don't know for sure... but we have some ideas...

The original idea was that the stripes acted as a sort of camouflage.  I don't think many people bought this - part of the reason zebras are so beloved is that their stripes are so bold and beautiful that we can't help but notice them.  In Africa, I was able to notice zebras from a great distance, whereas I had to practically trip over antelope to find them.

A variation of the idea says that zebras have stripes to camouflage themselves... against other zebras.  If a herd of zebras starts to run, they just become a black-and-white blur, making it hard for a lion or hyena to pick out a single animal to attack.  Not sure I buy this either - would a herd of wildebeest (all the same color) be any harder to single an animal out of?

Another idea says that the stripes - alternating black to absorb heat and white to reflect it - serve in a temperature regulation role.

Like human fingerprints, no two zebra stripe patterns are the same.  This has led to the idea that the stripes help zebras recognize one another, especially for the young to focus on their mothers (black and white being the first colors that many animals can recognize).  Seems plausible...

The new theory being batted around is that the stripes serve as a some sort of op-art insect repellent, discouraging flies from bothering zebras.  A study done in 2012 seems to show flies being less inclined to land on vertically-striped surfaces.  Is this the answer?

Maybe.  Maybe it's part of the answer, and the real answer is a combination of several of the above factors.  Maybe it's something we haven't even thought of yet.

One of the earliest things I learned when talking to guests is that it's okay to admit that you don't have all the answers.  Sometimes, I have a hard enough time having all the questions.