Search This Blog

Monday, March 30, 2015

Book Review: Hope for Animals and Their World

"In October 2008 in Barcelona, Spain, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)... concluded that 'at least a quarter of mammal species are headed toward extinction in the near future.' And tragically, for many, there may be little that can be done.  Yet I have been so inspired by the stories in this book and by the people who refuse to give up."

In my last semester of college, I took a course called "Conservation Biology."  On the first day of class, the professor strolled to the white board at the front of the room and wrote the words "We're F---ed" in large letters.  That kind of set the tone for the rest of the class.  From global climate change to invasive species to loss of genetic diversity, the class was, in many ways, a litany of the ways in which we are killing off the planet.  The professor wasn't a complete pessimist, though - at the start of each class, he'd encourage us to share good news - any good news - that we'd come across since the last lecture.

If I'd had a copy of Jane Goodall's Hope for Animals and Their World: How Endangered Species Are Being Rescued form the Brink, I would have brought him a copy.  One of the world's most famous wildlife biologists, Goodall has spent years advocating for animals, especially for the chimpanzees for which she is best known.  In the face of all of the challenges threatening the natural world, you'd think that would be a great way to loose faith.  Instead, Goodall - along with Cincinnati Zoo director Thane Maynard - has compiled a collection of stories, describing animals which were once threatened with imminent extinction at the hands of man before being pulled back.

The stories of the species in question are grouped by theme.  The first set of chapters deals with those animals which were driven to extinction in the wild, but were saved because of captive populations in zoos, including some of the stories already shared on this blog, such as the reintroduction of the California condor and the reintroduction of the red wolf.  Several of the other chapters describe the roles that zoos have played in saving animals from extinction, and an endorsement from a figure as well-respected at Dr. Goodall is always nice.

Some of the species highlighted are well known, such as the giant panda and the whooping crane.  Others are obscure even among animal keepers, such as the pygmy hog and the Formosan landlocked salmon.  It is the more obscure species that I'm especially glad Goodall included.  Lots of people are willing to put up the money and the effort to save (or at least to nominally protect on paper) tigers, elephants, and other charismatic mammals. It's the smaller, less attractive, and less noticeable animals that are often in the greater danger, though - they can slip through the cracks, unnoticed and unmourned.  Dr. Goodall devotes her final chapter to explaining why (even in the face of ridicule and sometimes hostility), species such as the Salt Creek tiger beetle are worth saving.  In the appendix that follows, the authors give a list of ways that the average citizen can help save endangered species - supporting reputable zoos and aquariums is on the list.

Working with endangered species, whether in the field or in captivity, can lead to caretaker fatigue.  It's easy to see how you could loose hope, with so many species fading away and so few people caring.  A book like Dr. Goodall's, however, can serve to remind us that not all is lost.  For some animals, there is hope.  All it takes is for us to have the will to turn that hope into action.


http://img2.imagesbn.com/p/9780446581783_p0_v1_s260x420.JPG

Thursday, March 26, 2015

From the News: Fish May Not Like Being Stadium Backdrop


Earlier this month, I've posted two separate articles about exotic animals in captivity, but not in zoos - elephants in circuses and pet pythons and boas.  Tonight's news blurb, describing a new aquarium display opening up at the stadium of the Miami Marlins, fits into the vein.  Obviously, since I've spent the last two years running this blog, I'm a supporter of zoos and aquariums (or at least the good ones).  But these articles about circuses, exotic pets, and other owners raise an interesting point - who should and shouldn't have animals?

Should private ownership of all species be open to everyone?  Do we draw lines, and how do we draw them?  While the animal rights activists in the article raise some valid points about a baseball stadium maybe not being the ideal place for a fish tank, I doubt that many visitors to the stadium will give it a second thought, other than to say, "Hey, isn't that neat?" before turning their attention to the game.  Besides, many restaurants and stores have fish tanks - isn't this just a greatly expanded version of that theme (albeit with the risk of baseballs smashing into the tank)?

If fish are okay, what about birds?  Would it be okay for Baltimore to build a raven aviary, or Philadelphia to have an eagle exhibit at the stadium?  Right now, Maryland Zoo and Elmwood Park Zoo both house avian mascots for those NFL teams - what if the league decided to just cut out the middle man?  And heaven help us if the Detroit Tigers, the Jacksonville Jaguars, or the Chicago Bears decided to follow this idea to its conclusion.  I guess we should just be glad that there is no team called "The Orcas" - the last thing we need is another Blackfish.

There are some folks in the animal care profession who maintain that ownership and display should be for everyone - an attack on a private owner with a tiger in his yard amounts to an attack on the Bronx Zoo in their eyes.  Most of us, I think, agree that there are some lines, some rules that need to be set, though no one can agree where they should be.  I would feel a lot better about this Miami tank if I got the impression that it was being built with the fish, rather than the fans, in mind.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Zoo History: A Tomb at Ngorongoro

"So much of Africa is dead already, must the rest follow? Must everything be turned into deserts, farmland, big cities, native settlement, and dry bush? One part of the continent at least should retain its original splendour. ... Serengeti, at least, shall not die."

Located at the southern edge of the Serengeti Plains, Tanzania's Ngorongoro Crater is one of the great wildlife wonders of the world.  Contained within the walls of the extinct volcano are some of East Africa's most magnificent animals - lions and elephants, hippos and giraffes, even some of the last black rhinos in the Serengeti ecosystem.  So plentiful, so visible, and so easily approached are the residents of the Crater that some visitors have dubbed it "God's Zoo."  The nickname is perhaps apt, as the crater rim is the final resting place of one of the most extraordinary zoo-men who ever lived.

View from the floor of Ngorongoro Crater, Tanzania

Bernhard Grzimek became director of the Frankfort Zoo shortly after the Allied liberation of Nazi Germany.  His appointment came not at the hands of Germans, but of the American authorities; whereas other German zoo directors eagerly supported the Nazis (sometimes in rather bizarre ways), Grzimek, a veterinarian by training, had been involved in the resistance, supplying food to hidden Jews.  Now, after the war, Grzimek had a job.  He didn't have much of a zoo, though - Allied bombing had reduced the Frankfort Zoo - virtually all German zoos, really - into rubble.  Among the tiny handful of animals (about 20) which survived was a hippo which had avoided the destruction by huddling at the bottom of its tank.

Rebuilding Frankfort Zoo was a full-time job, and Grzimek worked at it tirelessly; within his lifetime, he saw it become of the best zoos in the world, especially renown for its innovative exhibits.  Beyond the zoo, however, he took on several additional roles, including the compilation of perhaps the most comprehensive textbook of zoology ever produced.  Today, Grzimek's Encyclopedia of Animal Life is still a must-read for anyone working with animals; our zoo has a full set in our library, and I consult it often (I'd buy a copy for myself, but it would probably take up a whole bookshelf).  Yet even this scholarly opus, along with the resurrection of his zoo, pales in comparison to Grzimek's most important contribution to the animal world.

Assisted by his son Michael, Bernhard Grzimek became a pioneer in zoo field conservation.  Zoo involvement in wildlife conservation went back at least to William Hornaday at the turn of the century, but the focus had largely been preserving animals in the zoo.  Grzimek was convinced that the real work that needed to be done was saving animals in the wild, while there still was a wild.  He aimed his sights on the plains of East Africa, the greatest concentration of wildlife left on earth.

At the time, it might have seemed a ridiculous move.  The herds of East Africa seemed endless; why worry about their future?  The Grzimeks, however, saw that the world was changing; former colonies in Africa and Asia were winning independence.  Once plentiful species teetered to the edge of extinction (as with the American bison), sometimes going over the edge (as with the passenger pigeon).  Most importantly, no one knew what was even out there, so who could say what was being lost?

Wildebeest migration on the Serengeti Plains

Outfitting themselves with a small plane (painted black and white, dubbed "The Flying Zebra"), the Grzimeks and the Frankfort Zoological Society initiated a survey of the wildlife of East Africa.  The work that they did - counting the herds, mapping the migrations, studying the interactions of species - resulted in the documentary Serengeti Shall Not Die!, which won the 1959 Academy Award for Best Documentary, as well as a book of the same title.  More importantly, the awareness that it raised about East Africa's surprisingly fragile ecosystems led to the creation of Serengeti National Park.  Unlike many other African national parks, Serengeti was mapped along ecological lines to contain the whole of the great wildebeest-zebra-gazelle migrations which define the ecosystem.  Whereas many parks are too small to contain viable populations of large mammals (resulting in zoo-like management), Serengeti seems relatively secure.  The knowledge that went in to mapping out this park was obtained by the Grzimeks.  That relationship continues today; when I visited the Serengeti in 2007, it seemed that hardly a day went by without seeing a jeep with the Frankfort Zoological Society logo driving by, collecting data on the ecosystem and its animals.

This knowledge, however, had to be paid for.  In 1959, Grzimek's son Michael was flying in their plane when he collided with a griffon vulture and was killed.  Bernhard was devestated by the loss; he had his son buried on the rim of Ngorongoro Crater, where he could watch the animals below.  When Bernhard himself died in 1987 (after nodding off while watching circus animals which some children), his ashes were buried next to Michael.  It's tempting to think that together, father and son, they still watch over the animals that roam the grasslands they helped to protect.




Friday, March 20, 2015

Learning at the Zoo

Years ago, zoos were one of the only educational opportunities that the public had to learn about wild animals.  Today, we have the internet, documentaries, live-streaming videos of animals in the wild, and all sorts of other technologically-advanced learning tools.  Some people suggest that this means that zoos have had their time, that they are now educationally obsolete.

The authors of a new study in Conservation Biology, however, beg to differ.  The findings of a recent study suggest that visits to zoos and aquariums increase awareness about biodiversity and encourage visitors to help conserve wildlife.  The study can be found here (it's a paid-access site, but the abstract is free).

man photographs a polar bearZoos and aquariums around the world attract more than 700 million visits every year. (Credit: Chris Smith/Flickr

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Where's the Green?


"O Paddy dear, and did you hear the news that's goin' round?

The Shamrock is by law forbid to grow on Irish ground!
No more St. Patrick's Day we'll keep, his color can't be seen,
For there's a cruel new law against the Wearin' of the Green"

The day before yesterday was, of course, St. Patrick's Day, when everyone pretends to be Irish.   Like many people, I spent part of the evening at a bar, where I engaged in one of my favorite past-times, people watching.  One of the first things I noticed was that a lot of people were wearing green.  It was then that something kind of odd dawned on me.

There really aren't many green animals.

This isn't going to be a profound question with a profound answer.  I just realized that there aren't many green animals.  Which is odd, if you think about it - plants tend to be green, and animals tend to spend a lot of time among plants, so you think there would be a lot of green camouflage out there.

As near as I can tell, there are no green mammals... I mean, bright green (or, to be fair, blue or purple).  You've got a few that have kind of an olive hue, but no green.  The closest I can think of would be sloths, and that's not even a birth-color; sloth hairs, in the wild, anyway, tend to turn green with algae, providing camouflage in the tree-tops.  A great adaptation, but how have none of the other rainforest mammals - monkeys, anteaters, squirrels - evolved green fur?


There are some green birds, but in a way that makes less sense than no green mammals.  Birds, with their ability to fly away from danger, tend to be a lot more garish than mammals, since they don't need to hide as well.

Reptiles and amphibians are the ones that surprise me the most.  Ask someone - not looking at a picture - what color a crocodile is, and they'll say green.  No - they're really grey or brown, and alligators tend to be a bluish-black.  Same about snakes - green.  Of the dozen odd species of snake found in my area, I can only think of one which is actually green.  The others are black, brown, orange, or some combination thereof.

"It's not easy being green... so I decided not to even bother."

Maybe there is some disadvantage to being green that I don't recognize.  Maybe a green animal would be well camouflaged in the trees, but would stand out too much if it were on the ground.  Certainly in the northern hemisphere it makes sense, since leaves fall off trees for much of the year.  Maybe it's just that some species don't have the genes present for green coloration, and that if such a mutation ever did occur, they'd all have it.

I don't know.  I really have no idea.  What I do know is that it's very hard to work around animals and not feel your head fill with a lot of questions "Why?", "How come?", "What If?"  You can spend a lifetime around animals and still not know more than the basic facts about them.  There are certain things we will probably never know for sure.  Trying to find out is where the fun lies.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Zoo Joke: Hitchhikers

A doctor, a reporter, and a congressman are driving down the interstate together.  Suddenly, their car breaks down.  None of them knows how to fix it, and none of them has any cell phone reception, so they're forced to sit by the road with their thumbs out, waiting for a ride.

A few minutes later, a massive truck pulling a huge trailer pulls off the road right next to them.  Emblazoned on the side of the truck is the word "Zoo", and the man in the cab is wearing a zoo uniform.  Quickly, they explain their predicament to the zookeeper, who then scratches his chin thoughtfully.

"Well," he says, "I've got room for two of you in the cab with me.  I can take the third person also, but they'll have to ride in the trailer.  The only problem is, I've transporting a rhinoceros to another zoo, so whoever it is, they'll have to ride in the back with him."

Well, the three stranded passengers are pretty desperate, so they agree.  The doctor volunteers to ride in the back, and she jumps in while the reporter and the congressmen get in the cab.  After driving for about half an hour, they hear some banging from back in the trailer and pull over and check it out.  Out stumbles the doctor - she's white as a sheet and shaking like a leaf.

"I'm sorry, but I can't do it," she gasps.  "That thing has me terrified!"

The reporter then volunteers to take her place, and off they drive again.  They don't make it too far when they hear the banging again.  Pulling over, they open the trailer door and out comes the reporter - holding his nose.

"It stinks back in there!" he exclaims.  "I can't handle the stench.  Someone else ride back there, please!"

Reluctantly, the congressman is persuaded to get in the back of the trailer, and they continue their drive.  Again, they're only driving for a few minutes when they hear banging again, this time louder, more desperate than before.

"What now?" mutters the zookeeper as he opens the back of the trailer.  Out stumbles the rhino - white as a sheet, shaking like a leaf, and holding its nose.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Red-Bellied Piranha (Pygocentrus nattereri)

Red-Bellied Piranha
Pygrocentrus nattereri (Kner, 1858)

Range: Northern and Central South America
Habitat: Rivers, Streams, Lakes, Flooded Forests
Diet: Fish, Aquatic Invertebrates, Fruits, Aquatic Plants, Carrion
Social Grouping: Large Schools
Reproduction: Breed during rainy season, female lays 5,000 eggs on aquatic vegetation, often in a nest built by the male; they are externally fertilized by the males.  Eggs hatch 2-3 days later.  The young are sexually mature at 1 year old
Lifespan: 10 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: Not Classified


  • Body length 28-33 centimeters, weigh up to 3.5 kilograms; the body is grey with silver flecks and some blackish spots.  The belly is red, but a deeper, more intense red in the males than females
  • Sharp, triangular teeth interlock when the mouth is closed which, combined with its blunt face, gives the piranha a powerful bite (the name "Piranha" is from the Tupi for "razor" or "cut the skin")
  • For its body size, a piranha has a bite three times as powerful as a great white shark
  • Piranhas communicate through a series of sounds, such as squeals, low, drumming sounds, and jaw clicks (most of these sounds are heard by researchers when the fish are removed from water)
  • Occasionally piranhas due engage in feeding frenzies, where large numbers will attack a large prey animal and strip it to the skeleton, but these are less common than depicted in popular fiction
  • School of piranhas occasionally prey on humans, but more often, humans prey on piranhas; they are a common food-fish across much of South America.  Other predators of piranhas include caiman, crocodiles, giant otters, river dolphins, and larger fish
  • Common over most of its range; collected extensively for aquarium tried, with its popularity largely due to its fearsome reputation.  Piranhas are illegal to own as pets in several United States; released pets have been found in some souther US rivers

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Zoo Review: Elmwood Park Zoo

I almost missed the Elmwood Park Zoo.  I was on a trip to the Philadelphia Zoo when, at the last minute, I decided to take a brief detour to the north and squeeze in a visit.  The moment that I walked in the front gate and saw the eagle exhibit - an enormous, open-air display with the largest group of bald and golden eagles I'd ever seen - I knew this was going to be a worthwhile side-trip.  While it is much smaller than its famous neighboring facility, Elmwood Park Zoo boasts of an exciting collection of animals.


Like Beardsley Zoo and Salisbury Zoo, Elmwood Park Zoo has taken up a focus on animals of the Americas.  The major exception is the seasonal giraffe exhibit, open during the warmer months of the year (the giraffes being on loan from another facility).  When the giraffes aren't in town, the biggest animals in the zoo are the American bison.  Bison are a fairly common zoo animal, but Elmwood's exhibit allows an experience far different from your typical zoo.  Visitors are actually given the chance to feed America's largest land animal leaves of romaine, under the supervision of zoo staff.  An old railroad car alongside the paddock has been converted into a small bison museum, detailing the fall and rise of the iconic animals.  A paddock of American elk is located nearby; a trail behind the bison exhibit leads to other prairie dwellers - prairie dogs, burrowing owls, and black-footed ferret.

The Prairie area is the most cohesive unit of exhibits in the zoo - the rest of the animals are grouped in little clumps here and there.  Capybara and Chacoan peccary are found in side-by-side displays; gray wolves, red foxes, and bighorn sheep are found by the giraffe yard.  Other notable zoo residents include puma, coati, and squirrel monkeys, as well as a small walk-through aviary.  Apart from the bison and eagles, my favorite exhibit area was the small pond inhabited by sandhill cranes and Chilean flamingos.  Surrounding this display were exhibits of river otters, North American porcupines, bobcat, and American alligator.  During the winter, the alligators are moved into The Bayou, a former swamp-themed building that now houses small tropical animals, from fruit bats and saki monkeys to poison dart frogs and Puerto Rican crested toads.


Apart from the initial eagle exhibit (which still leaves me floored), there was nothing in terms of exhibitry at Elmwood that was too astonishing.  This isn't Philly, though - it's a small zoo that doesn't try to produce multi-million dollar exhibits.  Many of the displays look like they were made in-house, and while they aren't too fancy, they are reasonably naturalistic and of appropriate size; the animals seem comfortable in them and visitors get great views.  (There is one exception - the jaguar exhibit is awful in pretty much every sense.  That being said, the zoo knows it's an awful exhibit (show me a zoo without one), and plans are already in motion for it to be replaced).  Many of the exhibits for tropical animals have adjacent indoor holding displays, allowing animals to be on display year round and moved easily back and forth.

Compared to Philadelphia, Elmwood Park is a small zoo.  That being said, it's a zoo that has a plan for what it wants to be.  It will definitely be interesting to see how that plan develops over the next few years, and what projects will come out after the jaguar habitat.  I know I'll be coming to check again...

Friday, March 13, 2015

Friday the 13th

Not even three full months into the new year and our second Friday the 13th... sigh.

I'm not terribly superstitious... well, maybe just a little.  Actually, growing up, I really tended to look forward to Friday the 13th, reasoning that bad luck for everyone else might actually mean good luck for me for a change (it never quite worked out that way, but I could dream...).  Some people actually have a crippling phobia about the day, becoming too scared to leave the safety of their home.  For those of us who do go out to work, we just have to hope nothing too unusually bad happens.

Remember, the bigger the black cat that crosses your path, the worse your luck.

And so, in honor of Friday the 13th (a day which is now almost over), here is a brief list of some of the things that have never happened to me, but I still worry will on some unlucky day.

1.) Getting a visitor bitten by an animal

I've done a fair bit of animal outreach, handling animals for educational programs and occasionally allowing visitors to touch those animals.  One of the most frequent questions I get is "Does it bite?"  My answer is always "Yes.  If it has a mouth, it can bite... because that's what mouths are for."  I'm pleased to say that I've never had a visitor bitten by an animal that I've been holding, be it a snake, a young alligator, or a particularly untrustworthy cockatoo.  I have been bitten by animals while holding them for education programs, most notably a tarantula which bit me in front of half the schoolchildren in my state.  That I'm okay with.  As long as the visitors themselves are unscathed, I can say that it could have been worse...

2.) Getting bitten by a potentially rabid animal

I've been bitten plenty of times... by zoo animals.  A bite from a wild mammal, a potentially rabid one, would definetly rank high on my nightmares list.  I've had to run down and catch plenty of suspected rabid animals that have entered our zoo - a raccoon or skunk staggering around in daylight sets up red flags for any animal care professional.  I've had one raccoon bite me through a welding glove I was wearing when I grabbed it.  It hurt like heck, but didn't break the skin, for which I am very grateful.  A series of shots is no one's idea of fun.

3.) Getting locked in a walk-through freezer

At one job, the zoo where I worked fed out enormous quantities of fish daily, which were stored in a garage-sized freezer that was chilled to below zero Fahrenheit (as in, thirty two degrees below freezing).  Every time I'd walk in to get a box of fish (inevitably in the far back), I'd wonder how long I'd survive if the door suddenly slammed behind me and refused to open.  There are all sorts of safety mechanisms built into these things to prevent that from happening.  Still, the thought terrified me.

4.) Falling into frozen water

This one has also come close a few times.  Working outdoors in the winter is bad enough, especially when you're working with pools, moats, or natural bodies of water.  Tumbling into an icy creek or stream on a subzero day is a quick way to have a fatal mishap.

5.) Letting an animal escape (permanently)

Any zookeeper who tells you they've never let an animal loose... even for a moment... is probably lying.  Just saying.  I've accidentally let all sorts of things out in my career from the rhinoceros iguana that rocketed between my legs the first day of work to the screech owl that flew off when the carrying case I had it in suddenly fell apart.  That being said, I've always gotten them back.  Sometimes it's taken a day or two, during which I've been stressed to pieces, but it's always ended with a recapture.  The thought of an animal I cared for escaping to starve to death, freeze, or get eaten by a predator would drive me crazy with guilt.

There are plenty of other things which I would love to add to this list, but I can't because I have done them.  I've almost started a fire from heat lamps left on wood surfaces.  I've allowed another keeper to get injured (thankfully nothing major) because I didn't have an appropriate grip on an animal.  I've accidentally injured animals (again, thankfully nothing major) during botched capture attempts.

Basically, I've screwed up in the past.  We all do.  It's okay.  Each mistake provides a learning opportunity.  Just like each Friday the 13th provides an opportunity to recall all of those ways in which things could have been worse.  And it can always be worse.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

From the News: Big Snakes Targeted in New Federal Ban on Imports


Like the Ringling elephant news from earlier this month, this is an issue which doesn't directly impact the zoo community, but does have a tremendous impact on the private sector.  This ban doesn't occur in a vacuum - it arose in response to concerns about Burmese pythons, a popular pet species which has now become an established - some would say invasive - presence in the Florida Everglades.  

I personally don't think these bans are a good idea, mostly because I question the science that has gone into them.  The discussion about invasive constrictors has been more about emotion and hysteria than it has science and logic.  Some of the studies and reports that I've read indicate that the pythons will eventually spread throughout the southern third of the United States - which is preposterous.  Sure, they could maybe survive a few months out of the year, but I know what winter is like in my area (one of the regions shaded in on the map in these doomsday projections).  No pythons are going to be surviving a February like the one we had last month...

Large constrictors, like any exotic pet, need to be regulated.  I'm all for that (there are, I know, plenty of private owners who shun all forms of regulation, but I think they're a bit too extreme). Blanket bans, however, do not provide sufficient flexibility for people that demonstrate that they can safely and responsibly care for their animals.  They remove the private sector as a conservation breeding partner of zoos and aquariums.  They also, more abstractly, send the message that all wild animals are to be feared and avoided.

Invasive species are a problem.  After habitat loss, they might be the single biggest threat that wildlife faces around the world.  There is a right way and wrong way to fight any problem, however.  I'm concerned that, in this case, USFWS picked the wrong way...

Green anacondas, one of the four giant snake species now banned for import into the US

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Sporcle Quiz: Very Big Birds


Looking back at the bird Species Fact Profiles I've put up so far, there has definitely been a bias towards the big birds - the kori bustard, the saddle-billed stork, the whooping crane, and others.  While the vast majority of birds are pretty small, it's the giant birds - the modern day dinosaurs - which impress many zoo visitors the most.  Play this month's quiz and see how well you know you're very big birds!


Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Great Octopus Escape

The video clip below was taken at the Seattle Aquarium.

Compared to zoos, aquariums have little to worry about in terms of escapes, seeing as most of their animals will die very quickly if removed from the water.  The glaring exception, however, is the giant Pacific octopus, one of the most dexterous (I mean, it does have eight arms) and clever animals around.  An octopus can maneuver itself through the tiniest of cracks and crevices, and they are driven by a predatory curiosity which leads them to explore.  I've heard of octopi leaving their tanks at night to prey on animals in neighboring exhibits, then returning to their own enclosure as soon as they've had a feed.

Probably a good thing that they only live a few years... if they had time to gain more experiences and learn more, they'd probably take over the planet.


Saturday, March 7, 2015

Under the Big Top

The unexpected (to me, at least) news from Ringling Brothers the other day got me thinking about a topic which I had largely been silent on up until this point - circuses.  As I mentioned when sharing the news, the decision to phase out elephant acts has led to a lot of discussion and debate among the zoo community.  Zoo folks have widely divergent views on circuses.  Some see them as colleagues, who we can learn a lot from.  Others see them as animal abusers and exploiters.

A lot of people lump circuses and zoos together - both, after all, often feature exotic animals - and it is true that they have a long and interconnected past.  The Jardin des Plantes, considered by many to be one of the world's first modern zoos, was partially founded with confiscated circus animals.  Circuses and traveling menageries predated the American zoo by over a century.  The Smithsonian National Zoo got many of its first animals - including its first elephants - from a circus.  They also got their first head keeper - William Blackburne - from a circus.  In its struggling early years, the zoo housed circus animals over the winter off-season in exchange for a share of the babies born.   In this, National Zoo was fairly typical - there was a lot of movement of animals and personnel between the two.  The German animal dealer Carl Hagenbeck Jr. was famed in equal parts for his zoo - one of the first to display animals in natural, open enclosures - and for his circus - focusing on training methods and kindness rather than fear and punishment.

Over the past few decades, zoos have sought to reinvent themselves as conservation centers and educational facilities... and that's meant distancing themselves from their former bedfellows.  So where do the differences lie?

Mission - Theoretically, zoos and aquariums are about conservation and education, circuses about entertainment.  Granted, there is some blurring of lines.  Zoos and aquariums started off with entertainment as a prominent goal, and even now they acknowledge that if visitors aren't enjoying themselves, they won't get the support they need to operate.  Likewise, Ringling Brothers had begun to take a serious interest in Asian elephant conservation in recent years, both in terms of education and financial support for field conservation programs.

Performances - Zoos and aquariums do lots of training, some of it for the public.  Most of that, however, is husbandry-based training, routines which are supposed to help keepers take better care of their charges.  The days of dancing elephants wearing tutus and chimps having tea parties have largely passed... in zoos, anyway.  Circuses are all about performances and training for those performances.  Advocates say that it's far more stimulating for the animals to be engaged and challenged all the time than it is to sit in an enclosure.  Critics say it's demeaning and that animals are forced, sometimes brutally (more on that, later).

Mobility - Zoos and aquariums are stationary.  Circuses are on the move.  I suppose you could think of SeaWorld as some sort of stationary-circus, but let's leave them out of this one.  As with performances, advocates of circuses say that a life on a move is enriching for the animals.  Critics say it is stressful, and that animals spend too much time cramped up during transport, be it a train boxcar of the back of a truck.

Where do I stand on circuses?  Maddeningly in the middle, I suppose.

There are circuses which do care a lot for their animals and provide the best possible care.  These I support.  Then there are those that abuse and terrify and bully their animals into performing.  These I completely condemn (a classic example is the former home of the Suarez Seven, polar bears rescued from a Mexican circus).  The problem is, how do you tell the difference?  I would suggest some ground rules...

1.) Frequent inspections of all circuses featuring animals, with a special focus on those featuring exotics.  Inspections would encompass animal welfare and public health and safety concerns.  These already exist, but could be more stringent.  Evidence of abuse or neglect on any animal would be enough to have the circus suspended, pending a more thorough investigation.

2.) Banning of some species from circuses.  Some animals are too high-strung, too easily stressed, or too delicate for life on the road.  Others have husbandry needs which are too difficult to properly meet when the animal is being transported frequently.  Leave these ones to zoos...

3.) Pay to Play.  For every exotic species that a circus displays, require the circus to pay a sum towards an approved conservation program that supports the protection of those animals in the wild.

4.) Rotation - limits to how long an animal can be on tour (varying by species, perhaps even by individual temperment).  Ringling has an excellent facility for their elephants when not in travel.  Every circus should have zoo-quality off-show housing for animals not on the road.  Animals should be given environmental enrichment and housed in appropriate social groups.

5.) De-Acquisition Plan - an ethical, welfare focused plan for what happens to each animal when it is no longer deemed suitable for performance, such as if it is injured or is too old and retires.  Ideally, the circus would provide a forever-home in its off-show housing area, but it will acceptable if it can offer a plan for another approved home, such as at an accredited zoo or sanctuary.

These won't please everybody, I'm sure.  Circuses will have their critics for as long as they have their animals.  Hopefully, however, the implementation of some common-sense, animal-focused rules can help support and highlight those circuses that provide the best care for their animals while holding accountable those that do not.


Thursday, March 5, 2015

From the News: Ringling Bros. to give up elephant acts in 3 years


As soon as I saw this in the news today, I knew there was going to be an epic zookeeper throw-down on-line.  About half of the keepers who posted applauded the decision - many zookeepers are opposed to animal acts in circuses, feeling that there is too much potential for animal mistreatment, and that even the best of circuses cause unacceptable stress to their animals by constantly moving them around the country.  In the other corner are the keepers who view circuses, zoos, and any other organization that keeps non-domestic animals in a constant struggle against animal rights activists and their allies.  To them, a move against one of us is a move against us all.

The news from Ringling surprised me, but maybe it shouldn't have.  Many cities are implementing bans on the use of ankuses, or guides (what activists call "bullhooks") in their jurisdictions.  It doesn't impact zoos too much - most zoos use protected contact with their elephants these days, removing the need for guides altogether.  To Ringling, it must have seemed that the hassle of dealing with constantly changing local rules and rising opposition to elephants in circuses was making it too hard to plan their seasons.

To be clear, Ringling Bros. will not be relinquishing control of their elephants; they will be kept at their breeding facility.  Circus managers are entertaining the possibility of eventually opening this facility up to the public.  

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Texas Blind Salamander (Eurycea rathbuni)

Texas Blind Salamander
Eurycea rathbuni (Stejneger, 1896)

Range: Edwards Plateau (Texas)
Habitat: Underwater Cave
Diet: Aquatic Invertebrates
Social Grouping: Asocial
Reproduction: Breed year round (no seasonal cues in caves), females court males by rubbing up against them, males deposit spermatophore (packet of sperm) on a rock for the female to pick up
Lifespan: 10 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable

  • Body length 8-14 centimeters; broad, flat head and snout; limbs are very long and slender.  Entirely white, except for the red external gills used to extract oxygen from the water
  • Like many cave-dwellers, the Texas blind salamander is blind - the only eyes it has are two small black dots, under the skin
  • Texas blind salamanders are neotenic, which means that they do not undergo metamorphosis.  The adults resemble the juvenile forms of other salamanders.
  • Extreme cave dwellers, they only ever come above the surface when their water-source pushes them there; the first specimens were discovered when they were drawn up by a newly constructed well in 1898
  • Prey is detected by moving the head back and fort in the water, sensing changes in water pressure caused by the movements of prey
  • Threatened by their very small geographic range and the pollution/overuse of the aquifers where they live

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Satire: Jurassic World

Whenever I talk about dinosaurs, can't help but wonder what it would be like if they were still with us.  Not as in some Jurassic Park fantasy where they were recreated, but if they simply never had gone extinct, and we'd spent all our recorded history alongside them.  As cool as it might be to speculate, I suspect that in the end it wouldn't be much different from how we interact with all the animals we do have with us now.

A big part of our draw to dinosaurs is that we never got to actually know them.  Familiarity, on the other hand, breeds contempt.


See more cartoons imaging our dinosaur-filled world here!

Monday, March 2, 2015

Jurassic Zoo

The Spinosaurus wasn’t just big… it was breathtakingly huge.  For several minutes, I walked back and forth, pacing off from the tip of its crocodilian snout to the end of its tapering tail, casting an impressed eye at its six-foot sail all the while.  Fifty feet long, according to my guesses – later confirmed by the educational plaques – which would have made it the longest- not the biggest, but the longest – of the predatory dinosaurs.  After a moment longer, I walked on towards the next museum exhibit, before stopping to cast one look back at it.


Photo from National Geographic Museum, Washington, DC

It would make a heck of a zoo exhibit, I thought… and then idly began to wonder what the housing would have to be like - the temperature parameters, the holding building, the waste removal.  It would certainly need a pool, one bigger every other one in our zoo put together.  As for feeding it... Spinosaurus was a piscivore (fish-eater), and I've seen what the food bill for a small flock of penguins can run up to.  This bad boy would be a star attraction for sure, but the grocery tab alone would probably bankrupt our zoo. 

This summer, one of the most talked-about movies is doubtlessly going to be Jurassic World, the long-awaited next episode in the Jurassic Park series.  The synopsis, in a nutshell, is that after some earlier… unpleasantness (recounted in Jurassic Parks 1-3), John Hammond’s dream has come true, and his prehistoric zoo is open to the world.  Most moviegoers are excited to see screen favorites such as Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor doing what they do best – tearing up humans and scaring the hell out of audiences.  I’m down for that, too, but I’m mostly planning on having my own little nerd-fest as well.

“What would it be like to be a dinosaur keeper?”


Whenever a book is adapted into a movie (and especially when the movie becomes hugely popular), there are always “those people” who feel the need to go on about how the book was better than a movie.  Those people are, of course, pretty annoying, but I will admit, I liked the novel Jurassic Park more than the movie in one respect – it was full on information about how the keepers at the park managed their charges, from veterinary care to arranging social groupings.  In fact, if someone had just created, as an elaborate piece of fan-fiction, a husbandry manual for Jurassic Park, I’d be first to buy it.

Dinosaurs, alas, are no longer with us, of course – at least in the form that we recognize (birds and crocodilians are their modern decedents).  This, perhaps more than anything else about them – their size, their strangeness – makes them fascinating to us – we know so little about them, only what guesses we can make based on the scant clues gleaned from bone and rock.  Several zoos have tried to capitalize on their popularity by adding seasonal dinosaur exhibits, complete with life-sized models or animatronics.  I’ve worked at one of those facilities; they’ve overall been very popular, but it’s downright depressing how many visitors I encountered who were outraged that the dinosaurs on display weren’t real, live ones.  

I guess some folks thought Jurassic Park was a documentary…

There’s a tremendous role for dinosaurs to play in zoo collections, if used well.  For one thing, they provide a great lesson on how ecosystems change.  A great example of this is the “Restless Planet” exhibit at the Virginia Aquarium and Marine Science Center.  Most of the aquarium is devoted to native species, except for this one gallery, which explores how Virginia – the landscape, the climate, the plants, and the animals – have changed over millions of years.  For those institutions that are willing to speak about evolution (as I feel all should be), they provide a wonderful lesson; imagine the surprise of visitors learning that Velociraptors are more closely related to sparrows than lizards!  And, of course, dinosaurs have lessons to teach us about extinction.  We’re quick to mock them as outdated animals that were incapable of surviving, but humans are going to have to stick around for a heck of a lot longer before we can match how long dinosaurs ruled the earth.

Zoo, short for zoological park, is meant to be a park devoted to the study and conservation of animals.  Too often, however, we only focus on a tiny subset of animals to highlight (*cough* large mammals *cough*).  Invertebrates, for instance, make up the vast majority of animal life – we should talk more about them.  Another truth, though, is that the vast majority of animal species which have ever existed are now extinct.  Obviously, by virtue of being extinct, those animals aren’t going to be represented by live specimens in our collections, but ignoring them completely does present visitors with a pretty skewed picture of animal life.

Decades ago, German zookeepers attempted to resurrect the aurochs, an extinct wild-ox native to the forests of Europe with dubious results.  Today, we have the power of genetics, and occasionally hear about scientists someday having the power to clone extinct species, such as the wooly mammoth.  Some people ask whether we really can do this.  Others ask if we really should.

Unless some real-life John Hammond is biding his time, sitting on a scientific coup of all time before he announces his creations, I doubt we’ll all be seeing dinosaurs in the flesh any time soon.  That just means we need to pay a little more attention to their descendants.

My girlfriend and I recently visited another zoo when we stopped in front of the kori bustards.  The male strode boldly to the front of the exhibit.  My girlfriend (not a bird person) eyed him warily – his reptilian eyes, his scaly legs, his clawed toes.

“He’s like a dinosaur,” was her first impression of him.

Yes, I thought.  In a way, that’s exactly what he is.