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Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Book Review: Last Flight of the Scarlet Macaw

"Belize draws the eccentric, the madcap, and the downright mad.  In this colorful human menagerie it takes some doing to stand out, but there is one woman who manages to delight, enrage, captivate, frustrate, and inspire her fellow Belizeans more than anyone else.  She's the proprietor of the Belize Zoo.  Her name is Sharon Matola."

Despite the title, the scarlet macaw doesn’t feature too prominently in Bruce Barcott’s piece of environmental journalism.  Macaws do appear in it – as do jaguars, harpy eagles, and Baird’s tapirs, to name a few animal costars – but only in the role of a catalyst for the story.  Instead, the book is the tale of Belize, an obscure Central American country, largely ignored by the rest of the world.  It is this indifference, this lack of attention, which has allowed some shady deals to unfold over the years, including a proposal for the construction of a dam which would destroy some of the most pristine habitat in Central America.

Unfortunately for government ministers and dam investors, some people were paying attention.  Among them was Sharon Matola, the founder and director of the Belize Zoo.  Matola created the zoo – founded with the leftovers from a wildlife documentary shooting – with the twin purposes of housing non-releasable native wildlife and introducing Belizeans about their wildlife heritage.  When Matola learned about the proposed dam and what its impact would be on the wildlife of Belize, she (respectfully) called attention to the issue.  When the government tried to intimidate and silence her, she gathered allies – both in Belize and around the world – and fought back.

The book is a fun ramble over a series of topics – from tropical ecology to the Matola’s biography, the history of Belize to the history of dams.  For most of the topics involved, if you’re looking for a specialist source of information, you can find a better one – that’s not what this book is.  Instead, it’s a front-row view of a scene that’s unfolding all over the world – striking a balance between environmental protection and economic development.

In some ways, the expose of the Chalillo Dam isn’t the best example, because Barcott goes to show it’s such a corrupt, uneconomical, impractical project that it should’ve been dismissed immediately.   If it had been perhaps a better project, one that would have made a real improvement in the lives of local people, the story would have been different.  In either case, the book does force the reader – especially the North American or European nature lover – to re-examine their feelings about the environment-economy debate in the developing world. 

Just playing devil’s advocate – the more we learn about the dam through the eyes of the author, the sketchier the whole thing seems.  Still, ignoring this particular case, it does raise questions.

Proponents of the dam point their fingers at Matola and her allies and accused them of meddling at best, of neocolonialism or (in the case of Matola and other Belizean citizens) treason at worst.  “This is our country, our people are poor, and we need this,” they say, “What right have you to dictate to us what to do in our own nation?”  They do have a point – it’s easy for us to place more value on scarlet macaws than on sustenance farmers.  Besides, we’re saying these things after having already destroyed most of our own ecosystems (including damming a heck of a lot of our own rivers) – what gives us the right to judge?  But on the other hand, if the governments charged with the task of protecting wild animals and wild habitats won’t do their job, then who will?

Monday, April 27, 2015

Where in the World?

Happy World Tapir Day!  (Giraffes get a day, penguins get a day, everyone gets a day, it seems).  Today, the world - or at least the very tiny percentage of it that cares - celebrates the world's five (or four - still some argument) species of tapir - solitary forest-dwelling ungulates from Central and South America... oh, yeah, and Southeast Asia.

Hmmm... about that one.

One of the most fascinating aspects of animals' natural history is the question of what animals end up where.  Why are all the tapirs in Latin America, except a single species - the Malayan tapir - found clear on the other side of the world?  For that matter, if you have tapirs in South American rainforests and Asian rainforests, why not in African rainforests?  Then again, why do the African and Asian rainforests have apes, but not the South American?  One species of alligator is found in the southeastern United States and is very common; the only other one in the world is found in China, and is critically endangered.  What gives?

The science of the distribution of animals around the world is called zoogeography.  It tries to answer these questions, and sometimes it succeeds.  Sometimes it's a story of ancient geology - seas rising and falling, mountain ranges and canyons appearing, continents drifting - for the later, consider North and South America, which were once entirely separate land masses before they collided together, allowing animals to cross between the two.  In other cases, more active exploration leads to animals appearing in strange places - consider the various island animals, carried out to sea on floating rafts and colonizing new islands.  Sometimes, a species was once widespread around the globe, and then disappeared as conditions changed, leaving only a few remnant populations.  And sometimes we have no idea... yet.

Part of it may have to do with chance, too.  Perhaps tapirs would do very well if they were introduced to the Congo.  Maybe gorillas or orangutans would thrive in the Amazon - plenty of other species do just fine when they are introduced (often by human intervention these days) into a new environment.  And maybe not - maybe they wouldn't be able to find appropriate food items, or maybe there is some other variable that would prevent them from establishing themselves.  There have been plenty of experiments - some disastrous, some harmless, some bizarre - in introducing animals around the globe.

Tapirs probably aren't destined to be added to that list any time soon.

Friday, April 24, 2015

From the News: Kansas City Zoo gives up palm oil to save orangutans

I die a little every time I go to the grocery store.  Living on a zookeeper salary, I try to do my shopping on the cheap side, but I do have a sweet tooth that I am totally owned by.  No fancy, expensive desserts for me, but a box of donuts or a carton of ice cream to get me through the week is essential for my mental (if not physical) well-being. Unfortunately, almost all of the inexpensive options contain palm oil.  My love for wildlife and my love for cheap pastries are thrown into sharp conflict.  Depending on how rough the week has been, wildlife doesn't always win.

So kudos to Kansas City Zoo for doing what I don't have the strength to do - make a break from palm oil.  Hopefully, more zoos, aquariums, museums, and other wildlife facilities will follow in their footsteps.  After all, there are substitutes we can use for palm oil.  There is no substitute for an orangutan.

Orangutans at the Kansas City Zoo.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Happy Earth Day!

On Earth Day, we celebrate our planet and all of the biodiversity found on it, as well as those who are working diligently to save it.  I came across this editorial on The Huffington Post by Dr. Cristian Samper of the Wildlife Conservation Society, reminding everyone of the role that zoos and aquariums play in protecting our natural world.  Enjoy!

Some 124 AZA members have become partners in WCS's 96 Elephants campaign to stop the killing, stop the trafficking, and stop the demand for elephant ivory. (Photo by Julie Larsen Maher, ©WCS)

Instead of my normal monthly Sporcle quiz, today I'm sharing a short "What Animal Are You?" quiz that Google produced to celebrate Earth Day.  I'm not sure how I feel about winding up with giant squid, but maybe you'll make more sense out of whatever animal you get.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Three Audiences of a Zoo Exhibit (Part II)

Part One of this article, posted yesterday, focused on designing zoo exhibits for the needs of the zoo animals.  Today, we’ll look at the remaining two audiences.

2.) The Keeper

Of course, someone has to take care of the animals, and that someone is us.  Historically, emphasis was on exhibits that were easy to clean and service - the quicker and easier it was for a keeper to take care of an exhibit, the more exhibits he (always a "he" back in the days) could do in a day.  Hence the tile floors and concrete walls and minimal furniture, all easily hosed out, or the stone-dust or pack dirt yards, easily raked.

A modern zoo exhibit - larger and more natural - is harder to take care of, but most keepers who say it's worth the extra effort.  What is important to consider for the keepers, however, is safety (and to a lesser, but often ignored degree, comfort).  They need to be able to get in and out of exhibits with their tools (I hate having to crawl through three-foot tall doors that were designed for bears, but not for people).  Likewise, it helps if there are doors or gates big enough for  machinery to have access to the exhibit, or so that logs, rocks, and other large pieces of exhibit furniture can be added or removed.  They need access to wherever an animal can go (I also hate having to scale a vertical rock wall to retrieve something an animal has dragged to the top).  They need a double-doored keeper area to prevent escapes.  In the case of potentially dangerous animals, they need shift areas to confine those animals while they clean.  If an exhibit can't be cared for safely, then all too often it ends up not being cared for very well.

While it is important for the animal to be able to hide, it is also important for keepers to be able to regularly find every animal in the enclosure.  Animals need to be checked daily for signs of illness and injury, to make sure they are eating and are in good condition (there are exceptions of course - prairie dogs, spending most of their lives underground and out of sight, come to mind).  If you keep a small mammal the size of a rabbit in a densely-planted enclosure the size of a football field, you're going to have trouble keeping an eye on it.  There are ways around this, of course - training animals for recall - but it will still be difficult.

3.) The Visitors

Traditionally, this is the audience that most of the attention was paid to when designing exhibits.  The requirements back then were simpler - see the animal easily, see it up close, and see as many exhibits in a day as you desired.  The easiest way to accomplish this was to have rows and rows of caging, small and bare, to keep animals in plain sight.  One of the biggest objections to the Hagenbeck revolution was that the use of moats would put animals too far away from visitors.

We still want visitors to be able to see the animals (and up close is always a plus), but we also want them to learn about the animals and to care about them.   The best way to do so is to display the animal in as close to its natural habitat as possible.  Ideally, a visitor should be able to look at an animal in its exhibit and, without looking at the sign, be able to deduce something about the way the animal lives in the wild.  Looking at the Ethiopian Highlands exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, for example, who would be able to learn that geladas are grassland dwellers, they climb rocks, they eat grasses, they live in troops, and they share their habitat with ibex, all from just watching them for a few minutes.

While most zoo visitors appreciate the efforts being made to give zoo animals more natural surroundings, others get frustrated easily by not being able to see the animals.  All keepers have seen people walk up a railing and immediately turn away complaining "There's nothing in there!", when a few seconds more of searching would have revealed a cheetah in the tall grasses.  When I visit a zoo, I sometimes spend half an hour waiting an exhibit, or visit four or five times during my visit, to look for an elusive animal that I really want to see.

Few things ruin a zoo visit more than guilt.  If an animal looks unhappy or uncomfortable in its enclosure, the visitors will often be affected in a negative way.  People don’t just want to animals, they want to see happy animals.

I’ve known some zoo folks to add a fourth audience – the plants – but these I’ll leave out.  The plants are there to support the animals (and, to an extent, the visitors)… though I suppose you could say the same thing about the keepers.

There have to be compromises between the three audiences to create a truly functional zoo exhibit.  A perfect enclosure for a jaguar might be so large and densely planted that no one would ever see it, thus defeating the purpose of people visiting the zoo in the first place.  Visitors want to see the animal up close and easily, but they also want to see it in an attractive enclosure doing some natural behavior.  Keepers are perhaps the most conflicted audience.  The easiest enclosure for a keeper to care for would probably closely resemble the behind-the-scenes areas of most zoos – simplistic and easy to clean – though their devotion to the animals makes them want to give their charges the best enclosure possible. 

I’ve been to about a dozen-and-a-half zoos in the last year alone, at which I’ve seen countless exhibits.  There have been some which I’ve thought were masterful.  Others, I’ve thought looked beautiful, but wondered if they were really adequate for the animals.  Some looked amazing, but I couldn’t find (or at least really see) the animal.  Some looked like they’d be nightmares for staff to take care of.  And some I just wonder what anyone was thinking when they built it, as they looked awful for the animal, the visitor, and the staff all. 

A truly great zoo or aquarium exhibit can be hard to pull off – it has to be all things to all people.  It has to be a comfortable home for the animals, a safe workplace for the staff, and an exciting, educational experience for the visitor.  It can take a lot of planning and balancing and compromising, but a good zoo exhibit really can do it all.

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Three Audiences of a Zoo Exhibit (Part I)

After a particular brutal winter, spring has finally sprung, and visitors are flocking back to our zoos for the season.  Some will simply visit their own local zoo as a Saturday activity; others will stop off and visit the zoo of wherever they end up going on vacation this summer.  And then there are those - and I count myself among them - who will plan a trip specifically to see a zoo, even if it's on the other side of the country.  Sometimes its to see a particular animal (my recent trip to Cincinnati Zoo was largely so I could see the only Sumatran rhino outside of Indonesia), or it might be to see a particularly impressive exhibit.

I came across the link above - a poll for the best zoo exhibit in the US - a week or so ago.  I thought about voting but ended up not - I've seen too few of the exhibits included (and am especially annoyed that some of these exhibits that I missed opened right after I visited the zoo in question).  There are also some exhibits that I'm really surprised did not make the cut - Oklahoma Trails at Oklahoma City Zoo, Surrounded by Sharks at Newport Aquarium, Rivers Edge at St. Louis Zoo - as well as one or two on the list that I have seen (and won't name) that, while not bad by any stretch of the imagination, I might have left off in favor of other exhibits.

That got me wondering... what does make a good zoo or aquarium exhibit?  You'll be hard pressed to get two people to agree.  I remember years ago, I was interning at the St. Louis Zoo.  I'd made friends with some girls I was sharing a dorm building with that summer - fellow out of town interns, interning someplace else - and I took them to the zoo on one of my days off.  One of the first exhibits we saw was the bush dog exhibit, one of my favorite in the zoo - animals rarely seen in zoos, active and engaging, in a beautiful enclosure.  They gave it a twenty second glance.  Later, we were at my least favorite exhibit - the grizzlies, one of those classic bear exhibits of rock work and... rock work (the renovation of this exhibit was already planned when I was there).  They were entranced and stood there forever, it seemed.  I couldn't get it...

To be truly great, an exhibit has to satisfy three separate audiences with very different needs.  These are...

1) The Animals

Exhibits should be built for animals first.  It seems obvious, but it's only in relatively recent years that zoo designers are starting to come to terms with this.  The visitors just visit.  The keepers go home at night.  The animals have to live in it.  So what does designing a good enclosure for an animal mean?  First of, a zoo exhibit should be designed with a specific animal in mind.  Back when animals were imported from the wild (and often didn't live long), exhibits were utilitarian; one might house a tiger one year, a chimpanzee the next. DIfferent species, though, have different needs, and zoos need to plan their exhibits with the specific needs of those animals in mind.  Polar bears and sloth bears are both bears, but the former would get little benefit from a giant artificial termite mound, and I'm not sure how much the later would appreciate a ten-foot deep pool.

Obviously size is important, but no zoo exhibit is going to be able to recreate the size and complexity of a wild habitat.  My criteria for size is that the animal should have enough space that it is able to feel comfortable and unstressed in the presence of humans - that it isn't forced in too close a proximity to visitors and isn't able to rest at ease.

A big part of this, and one that occasionally causes conflict with the other two audiences, is hiding spaces.  Wild animals typically do not prance around in the open for everyone to admire, especially not for people.  To feel comfortable, zoo animals should have the option of privacy, whether hiding spots on exhibit (even if its just a rock to hide behind) or a holding building that they have access too.    

Tying into that, the enclosure should allow for a proper expression of natural behaviors.  An aquatic animal -a seal or otter - should be able to swim.  An arboreal animal - a macaw or monkey - should be able to climb.  Social groups - whether solitary or in a large group - should be appropriate for the species.  Again, the zoo imposes some limitations - lions can't hunt live prey (excepting whatever hapless wild animal wanders into their enclosure by mistake) and a zebra herd may consist of 5, not 500, individuals.  Still, the closer a zoo animal's life resembles that of a wild counterpart, the better it will be.

The most important aspect of a zoo animal's life, I feel, is choice.  While the animal can't choose to leave its enclosure (in most cases), it should be able to make as many independent choices as possible.  Does it want to be up high or down low?  In the sun or shade?  On land or in water?  Alone or with companions?  The more decisions an exhibit allows an animal to make, the more satisfying its life will be.

Exhibits also need to be designed not just for viewing pleasure, but for the life cycle of the animal.  Are you breeding animals in it?  Then you better have nest boxes or dens.  Going to be introducing animals togehter?  Design it with provisions for that.  Is your animal not especially cold hardy or heat tolerant?  Have housing available for winter or summer.  Is it a mixed-species enclosure?  Make sure you are providing for the needs of every species in it.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Zoo History: An African Unicorn

"Ex Africa semper aliquid novi" ["Out of Africa, there is always something new."]
- Pliny the Elder

Elephants and giraffes, rhinoceroses and hippopotamuses - for centuries, the large African mammals have been the stars of zoo collections.  There was one large African mammal, however, which did not appear in menagerie collections, for the simple reason that it hadn't been discovered yet... at least not to western science.  Not much was known about it, except that it was vaguely believed to be equine, and found only in the densest forests of the interior.  For years before its discovery, its very existence was shrouded in rumor and legend, so much so that in some circles, it was (derisively) called "the African unicorn."

Among the African explorers who heard of (but did not see) the elusive animal was Henry Morton Stanley, best known for his "Dr Livingstone, I presume?"  After leaving the forests of the Congo, he declared "You may find there the donkey that the pygmies told me they caught in pits."  Among those heeding his words was Sir Harry Johnston, the new colonial governor of Uganda.

Not long after his arrival in Uganda, Sir Harry got his first chance to go unicorn hunting.  He had come to the rescue of a group of pygmies who had been abducted by a German showman (foreshadowing the story of Ota Benga a few years later), who was planning on shipping them to Paris for the 1900 Exhibition, and was repatriating them to their native forests.  On the journey, he asked his new friends if they knew anything about this mysterious animal which he had been hearing about.  They replied that not only did they know it, but they had tracked it, seen it, and eaten in.  They called it "o'api."

Eventually, Johnston was presented with some strips of striped hide, which led him to believe that he was in pursuit of some sort of forest-dwelling zebra.  Before he returned to Uganda, he secured promises from Belgian authorities to forward to him any skins or skeletons they acquired.  When these arrived, he was amazed to discover that the animal resembled a giraffe.  The species was formally described in 1901 - that such a large and unique animal should have remained unknown to science until the dawn of the twentieth century shocked the zoological community.  It was awarded a scientific name that reflected the native name for the animal, as well as honored the man who brought it to the attention of the world.
This watercolor of okapis was painted by Sir Harry Johnston himself - amazingly, without having seen more than skulls and skins of the animal

The first okapi to leave its native Ituri Forest was sent to the Antwerp Zoo in 1919, but died shortly afterwards.  This became something of a trend, as captured okapis were infested with parasites and tended to die during transport or shortly after arriving in European zoos.  Eventually, the decision was made to limit the export of animals to a select few, which would be quarantined within their native range and shipped out when they were deemed healthy enough to adjust to their new homes.  This new trend has been successful, and captive-bred okapi can now be found in zoos across the world.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Okapi (Okapia johnstoni)

Okapia johnstoni (P.L. Sclater, 1901)

Range: Democratic Republic of the Congo
Habitat: Rainforest, Dry Tropical Forest
Diet: Leaves, Grasses, Fruit, Fungi
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Gestation period of 440 days, single calf is precocial and capable of standing within thirty minutes of birth, the calf is left hidden in dense vegetation until it is capable of following its mother.  Calves are weaned at 6 months and reach sexual maturity at 2 years
Lifespan: 15-20 Years, 33 Years (Maximum, Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Near Threatened

  • Body length 2.5 meters, 1.65 meters tall at the shoulder, weight 180-315 kilograms; females tend to be slightly taller than males
  • Males possess short, knobby horns, similar to those of a giraffe; the neck is relatively long, and the ears are large and flexible; also as with giraffes, the tongue is long, black, and prehensile
  • The short, glossy fur is brown or dark grey, sometimes looking red or purple in certain lighting; the legs (especially the hind legs) are white with dark cross-stripes, resembling those of a zebra
  • The okapi is the only close living relative of the giraffe; it is sometimes called the "forest giraffe"
  • Some of the plants eaten by wild okapis are known to be toxic; charcoal has been found in their dung, suggesting that they eat the charcoal to detoxify the plants
  • Possibly because of the secretive nature of the animal, okapis were once believed to be nocturnal; it is now thought that they are active mid-morning and late afternoon, resting during the day
  • Males and females are not territorial, and their home ranges may overlap; ranges are marked by urinating on the legs and leaving a scent trail throughout the range
  • Similar to elephants and some other large mammals, okapi communicate with infrasonic sounds, too low to be heard by human ears
  • Apart from humans, leopards are the only significant predator of adults; smaller carnivores (servals, golden cats) may take calves
  • Due to their remote habitat and secretive nature, okapis are poorly studied in the wild; most of what is known about the species comes from zoo specimens
  • Despite being one of the largest mammals in Central Africa, the okapi was not known to western science until 1901, when it was discovered by British colonial administrator Sir Harry Johnston

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

From the News: Mother Charged After Child Dropped in Cheetah Exhibit

I really wasn't planning on posting about this.  I mean, it's already been all over the news.  I've already written about the wild dog incident at Pittsburgh and the jaguar incident at Little Rock.  It does seem like there are only so many ways you can say "GET OFF THE FENCE" and hope for a different result.

The one thing that I did like about this case, however, was the response of the zoo.  Cleveland Metroparks Zoo filed the charges against the boy's mother almost immediately when they learned what happened.  Zoos and aquariums need to stop wussing out and start taking action against people whose actions place themselves, zoo animals, or staff in danger.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Zoo Review: Greensboro Science Center

Much like my recent trip to Elmwood Park Zoo, my visit to Greensboro Science Center was on the whim, made while traveling to a nearby larger zoo (in this case, the North Carolina Zoo).  I like to plan things out, so it was strange that I did something that I don't believe I've ever done before - see a billboard on the side of the road and decide to check a place out.

For those who might think it strange to add a Science Center to a review of zoos and aquariums, I'll explain (as I found out when I arrived and got a map) that the facility features an indoor science museum, as well as an outdoor zoological park, the Animal Discovery area.  The zoo is a rather small one, and the animals in it seem to be selected to highlight animal diversity (well, mammal diversity, really...).  A meandering series of paths takes the visitor past a pool of Nile crocodiles, a walk-through yard of red-necked wallabies, a petting zoo, and mesh-enclosed enclosures for various small mammals, such as fossa, porcupine, coati, and meerkat.  Primates are represented with black howler monkeys, Javan gibbons, and three species of lemur.  There is also a small mammal and reptile house.  Tucked away across a creek, off in the woods, are the two largest enclosures - one for tigers, the other a mixed-species habitat for giant anteaters and maned wolves.

More animals can be found in the museum's main building, from which visitors enter the zoo itself.  The small Herpetarium displays various reptiles and amphibians, including hellbenders, alligator snapping turtles, rhinoceros iguanas, and Gila monsters.  Not all of the displays in the museum feature animals (live ones, at any rate).  There is also a dinosaur hall, a skeleton hall, a health hall, a gem and mineral hall, a weather gallery, and a planetarium.   One of the star attractions of the building is a model Tyrannosaurus Rex, which will roar at visitors. These exhibits are all highly interactive and give children (and adults) lots of chances to learn through doing.  Attached to the Herpetarium, for instance, is are small Herpetology and Aquatic Discovery labs, where kids can touch biofacts and interact with live animals (under the supervision of staff and docents). 

It was just my luck that, not too long after I left, the center opened up a third animal area to the facility.  The Carolina SciQuarium is a new, LEED certified aquatic animal facility (though, like many aquariums these days, mammals still manage to hog the spotlight).  Since it opened up after I visited there isn't much I can say about it, except that all of the pictures look pretty impressive.  Animals of note housed here include African penguins, fishing cats, green anaconda, Asian small-clawed otters, green moray eels, and various sharks and rays.  The aquarium is Phase I of a three part master plan that will also see the renovation of the museum and the series of new exhibits at the zoo focusing on endangered species.

The problem with trying to do multiple things at once (or being multiple things at once) is that it can be very hard to do any of them especially well.  When I visited Greensboro Science Center, however, I was impressed at how well they seemed to combine their roles of zoo, science museum, and - presumably now - aquarium.  It would have been easy for one role to overshadow the other.  It could have just been a building with a few animal exhibits stuffed in, the care of the animals given no more thought than to attract visitors or fill a space.  Likewise, the science museum component could have been a mere afterthought to the zoo, a few cheap interactives and graphics that failed to relate to the animals.  Instead, the museum and zoo did a good job complementing each other and building off of each other to encourage learning and exploration of the natural world.

In the past, there has been too little cooperation between zoos and natural history museums (except the later using the former as sources of skeletons and specimens when the animals die).  This Greensboro approach isn't for everywhere, and it does have drawbacks - both the zoo, the aquarium, and the museum are smaller and less specialized than they would be if they were independent of each other; also, if I was a zoo director, I would probably want all my funds going towards animal programs - but it does provide an interesting view on what happens if a facility takes a more holistic approach to education about the natural world.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

And We're Live...

Pregnancies at the zoo can be a tricky thing to manage, especially if the animal in question is a high-profile one.  On one hand you have the keepers who, while doubtlessly super-excited, tend to be cautious, more conservative in their approach.  Giving birth can be risky business for the mother, and neonatal animals are very vulnerable.  Many zoos keep newborns hushed-up until they are big enough and healthy enough to go out and on display.  The decision is made to not call too much attention to the family until everything is a little more stable.  (This varies by situation, of course - I've seen some zoo mothers give birth on display and then go calmly on with their day as hundreds of guests watch baby roll around on the ground).

Administrative and marketing folks, on the other hand, are often ready to start beating the drum and announce the news to the world.  Dallas Zoo just took that approach to an extreme when they invited the entire Internet to watch one of their female giraffes, Katie, give birth online... live.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Zoo Joke: Beavers and Otters

A small, low-lying town is being plagued by flooding problems.  It seems that every week another creek is overrunning its banks and causing considerable property damage.  In a fit of inspiration, the mayor approaches the city zoo, which happens to be home to a family of industrious beavers.  The beavers lend their services out selflessly, building a series of dams, as needed, to protect homes and businesses.  Grateful homeowners offer various forms of payment, which the beavers graciously decline.

Well, Frank lives next to a stream that's been acting pretty turbulent lately, and after seeing his neighbors getting dams built around their sections of stream, he decides that it would be prudent to get one also.  He goes to the zoo and, after walking around a bit, comes across a brown furry mammal swimming in a pool.

"Hey, you!" he calls to the animal, who obligingly swims over.  "I'm really scared that my house is going to flood.  Can you come over and do something about it?"

"What do you expect me to do?" asks the animal, distractedly playing with a piece of fish.

"I dunno... chew down some trees, pack them together, keep the stream back... you know, beaver stuff."

"That sounds like a lot of work.  What will you give me if I do it?"

"What?  I thought you would do it for free.  My neighbors didn't mention anything about payment."

"Nope.  Not interested.  Goodbye."

"What?  But this is important, and I really need your help!"

The animal sighs and rolls his eyes.  "Sir, I'm an otter.  I think you have me confused with someone who gives a dam."

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

From the News: Melbourne Zoo Crocodiles Return to Philippines

Baby Philippine crocodiles
Baby Philippine crocodiles, raised at Melbourne Zoo, are returning to their home country to be released into the wild (ABC Local: Clare Rawlinson)

For all of the "Modern Ark" PR that zoos and aquariums put out, a sad truth remains - the reintroduction of a species into the wild is still a fairly infrequent event.  It's by no means the result of a lack of caring on the part of zoos - it's just a simple reflection of the fact that there isn't much wild left, and most of tiny patches that remain already have animals living there.

With that it mind, it's always very exciting and very inspiring when a reintroduction does occur.  The Philippine crocodile, one of the most endangered reptiles on the face of the earth, is now moving closer to a reintroduction with the repatriation of seven juveniles, hatched at Melbourne Zoo, back to their native islands.  A small, relatively inoffensive (to humans, anyway) species, the crocodile is found only in the Philippines, where it is threatened by habitat loss and hunting.  They have proven more difficult than many other crocodilians to breed in captivity, largely due to the aggression that the sexes show one another.

Successful reintroductions are few so far, but more are being attempted (increasingly with success) every year.  All too often, they are used as a last resort after the species has been driven to extinction in the wild, with only the captive population remaining.  Thankfully, the Philippine crocodile hasn't gotten to that level of critical yet... and hopefully, with the help of Melbourne and other zoos, it never will.

PS: And what do I find in the news the very next day?  A report that Swedish-born Cuban crocodiles are being repatriated to their home country in a reintroduction effort!  Read more here.

Endangered baby crocs fly to Cuba from Sweden
Baby Cuban crocodiles at Skansen. Photo: TT

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Zookeeper's Journal

The animals that I choose to include in the Species Fact Profiles are a mixed-bag.  By rule, most of them aren't the most popular, well-known zoo animals, such as lions, giraffes, and gorillas; instead, I like to draw from the ranks of the obscure.  In many cases, they are animals that you may see at many zoos, but with names that go unrecognized by many visitors.

For the most part, these profiles have been about the natural history of the animals - where they are from, what they eat, how many young they have, etc.  While writing yesterday's article about zoo animal diets, however, I realized that I was leaving out one of the most important aspects of these animals - what it's like to work with them in a zoo.  And so I'm adding a new feature to the blog, the Zookeeper's Journal.  It will appear at the end of certain Species Fact Profiles to recall some of my personal experiences with the animals.

There won't be one for every animal - some of the species featured are ones that I haven't worked with or interacted with, but am interested in nonetheless.  For those that I can, however, I'll try to share some personal insight into what it's like to work with some of the most amazing animals in the zoo.

Monday, April 6, 2015

It's What's For Dinner...

"... not for some years yet was any gorilla to be kept alive for more than a matter of months in captivity.  No doubt the diet tried out on some of these vegetarians - the daily ration at one zoo consisted of two sausages and a pint of beer in the morning, followed later in the day by cheese sandwiches, boiled potatoes and mutton, and more beer - contributed substantially to the premature decease of several of them."'

-Wilfrid Blunt. The Ark in the Park: The Zoo in the Nineteenth Century

A giant anteater may consumer 30,000 ants or termites in one day.  That, not to belabor the obvious, is a lot.

This begs the question, of course - where do you get that many ants and termites to feed a zoo anteater, especially in winter with a foot of snow on the ground?  The answer is simple.  You don't.

One of the major challenges of caring for zoo animals, especially in the early years, was what to feed them.  For some species, this is due to the fact that nobody really knows what they eat in the wild.  In cases such as these, the common practice was to guess, feeding the animals a diet that was deemed appropriate for a similar, known animal.  Sometimes this worked.  Sometimes it didn't.  Maned wolves, for instance, look like wolves, but whereas the later are primarily carnivores, the former eat a lot of plant matter.  Diseases caused by an excess of protein in the diet were one of the major early hurdles to the diet.  Or, for that matter, consider the case of the gorilla in the quote above.

If you do know what the animal eats in the wild, then it's simple... feed it that!  Well, not always "simple", exactly.  First of all, the wild food might not be available.  The keeping of koalas in US zoos, for instance, is still pretty much limited to those zoos who can get the eucalyptus for them.

Besides, what we think of as "the same thing" might not, in fact, be "the same thing" to the animal that eats it.

A parrot eats figs in the wild, so we feed it figs... but the figs we get at the grocery store are cultivated for human consumption, so they have a different nutritional content (usually higher in sugar) than wild figs.

A pelican eats fish in the wild, so we feed it fish... but unless we're in a position to get fresh fish daily, the ones we feed it are frozen first, which cause it to lose some of its nutritional value.

A python eats a rat in the wild, so we feed it a rabbit... but the rat we feed out was raised on a farm, so it's been eating a commercial lab diet, not a wild rodent diet.

And so on.

There are also going to regional differences.  Fruit and vegetables available to a zoo in California are going to be different (even if they're ostensibly the same kind) from those in Massachusetts.   Meat raised on two different farms may be entirely different.  You can try making a substitute - going back to anteaters, zoos used to feed minced meat, beaten with eggs and milk.  But how do you know then if you're getting it right?

In an effort to create uniformity, many zoos have turned to commercially prepared diets from companies such as Purina, Mazuri, and Zupreem.  Anteaters and aardvarks eat Insectivore Chow, made of ant-sized pellets.  There is Parrot Chow, Monkey Chow, Crane Chow, Rodent Chow, and a whole host of other chows, some of which you would never expect.  I remember standing if front of three hungry Nile crocodiles, the largest of them 14 feet long, looking at the nugget of Mazuri Crocodilian Diet in my hand.  It looked like charcoal, it smelled foul, it felt gritty, and I thought "There is no way that they'll eat this."  They loved it, showing an enthusiasm for it that I'd never seen them show towards fish, rabbits, guinea pigs,or other more "natural" diets.  And according to the vet, it was healthier.  Who'd a thought...

Zupreem Parrot Maintenance... "Taste the Rainbow"

There is a lot to be said for chow.  It's uniformity makes it a lot easier to know exactly what you are putting into your animals' bodies, and that different zoos know they'll be feeding the same diet.  It's easier to transfer and store, and doesn't spoil (I mean, it will eventually go bad, but not in the timeline that any zookeeper really needs to worry about).   It's a lot easier to quantify how much an animal is being given and how much it is eating, since dry chow is a lot easier to weigh and measure than fruit, vegetable, and meat.  Incidentally, it's also cheaper in the long run...

There has recently been something of a push-back against the kibble movement.  What the old-fashioned diets lack in exact nutritional perfection, they do make up for with enrichment value and encouraging natural behaviors.  Some animals, especially herbivores, spend most of their waking hours feeding.  If you give them a super-nutrient-rich diet that lets them get all of their caloric intake in half an hour, what will they do for the rest of the day?  Sure, you can give them enrichment and puzzle feeders and training and all that, but what better enrichment than letting them do what they would be doing naturally, anyway?  Some zoos have gone so far as to put their animals on the Paleo-Diet: if the wild animal wouldn't recognize it as food, they zoo animal shouldn't either.

Most zoos strike a balance between these two viewpoints, and ours is no exception.  We feed dry chows, but also feed a variety of fruits and vegetables, meats and fish, eggs and insects and nuts.  A parrot may get all of the nutritional value it feeds from the Zupreem Parrot Maintenance (which looks a lot like Trix cereal), but it can also still peel a section of banana, or crack a Brazil nut with its beak.

In the end, zoo animal nutrition has at least one thing in common with human nutrition - it's a balancing act.  We'll probably never agree on what is 100% the healthiest possible diet.  We just have to look at health, behavior, and other clues to see how we can do they best that we can.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Giant Anteater (Myrmecophaga tridactyla)

Giant Anteater
Myrmecophaga tridactyla (Linnaeus, 1758)

Range: Southern Mexico through Northwestern Argentina
Habitat: Grasslands, Woodlands, Rainforests
Diet: Ants, Termites
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Single offspring born after 190 day gestation, young are weaned at 2 months but carried by the mother until they are 9 months old, with independence reached at 2 years and sexual maturity reached as 2.5-4 years
Lifespan: 15-25 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable, CITES Appendix II

  • Largest of the living anteaters, adults measure 2 meters from snout to tail (nearly half of body length is the tail) and weigh 50-55 kilograms; males are slightly smaller than females, but otherwise look identical
  • Fur is grey-brown with black and white stripes on the shoulder and a crest of hair down the middle of the back.
  • The most notable feature is the snout, which is a bone tube formed by the fusion of the toothless upper and lower jaws; this houses the long (50 centimeter), sticky tongue, covered with spiny protrusions used to capture insect prey
  • The inner three claws of the front feet are very long and sharp, used to break open termite mounds, as well as for protection.  To protect the claws when not in use, anteaters walk on their wrists, with the claws curled out of the way.  Despite having five claws on each foot, the Latin name translates to "Three-Toed Termite Eater"
  • An anteater may consumer up to 30,000 insects per day; ants and termites are not nutritious, and as a result anteaters move slow, sleep 16 hours a day (often with the tail covering the anteater like a blanket), and have the lowest body temperature of any terrestrial mammal
  • Cannot produce stomach acid of their own, but use the formic acid of their prey to assist in digestion
  • Vision is very poor, as is hearing; and prey is found primarily through scent
  • Unlike other anteaters, they do not climb; they are, however, good swimmers
  • Anteaters will defend themselves from predators (such as jaguar and puma) by standing up and slashing with their claws; there are reports of both hunters and zookeepers being mauled (sometimes fatally) by anteaters
  • Sometimes hunted by humans, but are more threatened by car crashes, as well as loss of habitat
  • Serve as a trickster figure and foil to jaguar in certain Amazonian cultures

Friday, April 3, 2015

From the News: Suspect in Flamingo Deaths Charged

I remember hearing about the tragedy at Hattiesburg Zoo when it happened a few months ago.  A fraternity member at a local university snuck into the zoo at night to steal a flamingo as part of a prank.  In the process, two birds were killed, one believed to be the mate of the Chilean flamingo that was kidnapped from the zoo. One student is now indicted, with charges possible for others.  The fraternity has been banned from campus. I just count myself as lucky that I've never had to encounter this level of pointless cruelty before.

It's an appalling crime, and I'm glad to find that nearly everyone who isn't the perpetrator seems to agree (I was scrolling the comments, looking for the inevitable "What's the big deal?", but fortunately never found one.  My head might have exploded if I did).  Flamingos are wonderful birds, full of character and personality, entirely inoffensive (I was attacked by one, once.  It was hilarious). The kind of person who would stupidly, cruelly hurt one is the kind of person who would do other, more anthropocentric crimes later down the line.  There is a reason that police look at cruelty to animals as a red flag precursor for future criminal activities.

While I'm glad this smug little worm is finally being brought to justice (and hopefully bringing a few of his chums down with him), there are two things that I dislike.  One is the focus on the monetary value of the bird.  Yes, flamingos are expensive birds, but it shouldn't be the issue if the bird he killed is a $1000 flamingo or a $10 guineafowl.  Cruelty for the sake of cruelty is a horrible offense, and needs to be punished (yes, he is also being charged with animal cruelty, but I suspect it is the destruction of property charge which is going to hurt the most).  As for the other thing...

Whenever someone commits a crime against a zoo animal, a lot of people online suggest having the offender pay back his debt by volunteering at the zoo.  This always offends me.  I started volunteering at my local zoo when I was in my early teens, and it, in large part, set me on the road that I followed to my current job.  It is not punishment.  There are lots of good kids who get turned down for volunteer positions.  To take a space that could go to one of them and give it to a monster like this is unacceptable.

Then there's the safety of the kid himself to consider.  I work with flamingos and love their company (loud and messy though it may be) more than that of any other bird I work with.  If some punk murdered one of my flock, and then the courts made me responsible for babysitting him for however-many hours he was sentenced to, I can tell you one thing - the police would soon be having yet another crime at the zoo to solve.

Unlike this filth, I doubt that a grand jury would indict me...

Flamingo kidnapped

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

April Fools

Sometimes, when the weather is at its worst - bone-chilling cold or skin-melting hot - I catch myself feeling just a hint of envy for our zoo's office staff.  Apart from a quick dash from the parking lot to the office, they can choose to remain inside all day when the weather is bad, just checking email, pushing paper, and answering the phones.  Some days, it seems like it would be a nice break.

April first is never one of those days.

Today, we salute the long-suffering zoo receptionists, secretaries, and other office support staff who are spending the day fielding endless calls for "Don Key", "Mr. Fox", "Ms. Ellie Phant", and other made up names.  Usually the person who is calling the zoo doesn't realize that they are a victim of a prank; sometimes they refuse to believe it, asking over and over again for the person answering the phone to check.

There are occasionally other prank calls - I have a tiger in my bathroom (yes, we all saw The Hangover) or inquiries to buy monkeys (though, to be fair, we get these quite seriously plenty of times too).  If it weren't for the fact that I know that we'd get an actual emergency if we did this, I would advocate just unplugging the phones altogether on days like today.

Occasionally, when I'm in a particularly vindictive mood, I'll contemplate an April Fool's prank on visitors, aimed especially at those who are bothering the animals (or me).  I have so far managed to restrain myself because a) I love our animals and don't want to use them in a prank and b) I love my job and don't want to get fired.

Pranks within the zoo staff are permissible, however, provided that they don't in any way compromise the animals or safety (in that order of importance).  As for the animals pulling pranks on the staff... well, that happens most days.

Interestingly enough, the concept of zoo April Fool's jokes goes back hundreds of years.  As early as the 1770's, the "Washing of the Lions" prank has made the rounds in London.  First at the royal menagerie in the Tower of London, later at the London Zoo, tickets were sold to allow spectators to view the lions getting their annual bath in a magnificent pageant... only to arrive and find that no such spectacle was going to take place.