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Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Zoo History: Zarafa's Long Walk

"It's like God's.  God is really only another artist.  He invented the giraffe, the elephant, and the cat... He just goes on trying other things."

- Pablo Picasso

Most zoos have some individual animal with celebrity, rock-star status.  Maybe it's an animal that's lived at that particular zoo for an extremely long time, or a prolific mother, or maybe it's the one and only representative of that species in captivity, either in the country or the world.  In the early days of the modern zoo era (the early-and mid-1800's), many of the creatures that we think of as iconic zoo animals were just beginning to make regular appearances in the cities of Europe.  To the people seeing them for the first time, they must have seemed more like magical monsters than actual animals, and it's not surprising that some of these creatures became famous as individuals.  Jumbo, the London Zoo elephant who eventually traveled to America, was one such creature.  Zarafa was another.

The giraffe that would eventually become known as Zarafa (the name was not really used until years after her death) was probably born in the Sudan, not far from the Blue Nile.  It was near there, at any rate, that she was captured by a band of Arab hunters, put on the back of a camel, and transported first to Khartoum, then to Alexandria.  It wouldn't have been strange for her journey to have ended there in an Egyptian menagerie.  Fate however - and more specifically the Ottoman Viceroy of Egypt, Mehmet Ali Pasha, had other plans.

Egypt was at the time part of the Ottoman Empire, which covered much of the Mediterranean world.  Included in that empire was Greece, which was currently struggling for its independence; supporting Greece or threatening to support her were various European powers, all eager to weaken the already fading Ottomans.  In an attempt to persuade the French to end their support of the Greek rebels, the Viceroy decided to send them a gift.  Centuries ago, the Portuguese tried to win the favor of the Pope by sending him a rhinoceros.  The Egyptians decided to send the French a giraffe.  They also sent one each to Britain and Austria.

After reaching Alexandria, Zarafa, accompanied by her Arab and Sudanese guardians and some milk cows, took a ship to Marseilles, in France.  The ship wasn't exactly outfitted for its unique cargo; in a fit of inspiration, a hole was cut in the deck to allow her to poke her neck out.  After a month at sea, the giraffe arrived in France on Halloween of 1826, and spent the winter in Marseilles.  The question, then, was how to get her to Paris, 900 kilometers away.

In the end, the decision was made to walk it.  Sea travel was deemed too dangerous, so on the 20th of May, 1827, the still young, still growing giraffe set out on foot.  Joining her mixed-Arab-and-bovine entourage was the French naturalist Etienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.  Concerned about the effects of the rain and cold on his charge, he ordered a yellow, two-part rain slicker, along with matching boots, for the giraffe.  As she began her march to the capital, she passed through Avignon, Orange, Montelimar, and Vienne.  For viritually every Frenchman and Frenchwoman she encountered, she was the first giraffe they'd seen, and the crowds turned out; 30,000 came to cheer her as she passed through Lyons.

Six weeks after beginning her March, Zarafa arrived in Paris, where she was presented to the King and deposited in the menagerie at the Jardin Des Plantes.  Over 100,000 people came to see her, and she set off a style for all things giraffe, from giraffe-colored clothing to towering giraffe hairstyles for ladies.  When she died about 18 years after her arrival in Paris (the British and Austrian giraffes survived for far shorter periods of time), her body was mounted; it can now be seen in the La Rochelle museum.

Even today, after millions of Americans and Europeans and Asians have seen giraffes, after several generations of giraffe captive-births, and after endless TV shows and nature documentaries, giraffes still retain their magic and their powers to dazzle us with their unique beauty.  How much more extraordinary would it be to see one for the first time ever, without even have ever suspected beforehand that such an incredible creature was found in this world.

Zarafa mounted at the museum of natural history in La Rochelle, France

Monday, June 29, 2015

Keys to the Kingdom

"I turn my head and you may go where you want,
I turn it again, you will stay 'til you rot.
I have no face, but I live or die by crooked teeth."

-Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere

I don't go to the doctor for a physical nearly as often as I should.  If I did, it would probably only be a matter of time before he asked me about the giant welt that always appears to be on the front of my right thigh.  Knowing what I do for a living, he'd probably assume that it's something work related... and he'd be right.  I wasn't kicked by a zebra, rammed by a goat, or otherwise hit by an animal (not there, at least).

Instead, that red spot is the exact location where, all day everyday, half-a-hundred keys slam up and down into my leg as a I walk.

Even by zookeeper standards, I have a ridiculous number of keys on my work key ring, and they seem to be breeding and multiplying, because it seems that there are more every week.  There are animal keys, and staff area keys, and gate keys, and public area keys, even a key to the paper towel and toilet paper dispensers in the bathrooms.  Through years of painstaking practice, I've managed to memorize the order and location and the subtle differences between the keys on the ring, until I can usually find the one I'm looking for on the first or second try.  I seriously have had nightmares where a tiger or bear is loose and coming right at me, and I'm standing at a door trying to fumble my way in to safety, but I can't find the right key.

The only thing more exasperating that figuring out which key to use is losing them.   You imagine that some insidious prankster is going to pick them up, somehow know what they go to (which would be impressive, since I rarely can remember) and then let the monkeys out for a gag.  When I stand up, the first thing I usually do is pat around my waistline looking for my keys and radio - even if it's my day off and I was at the movie theater or something.

Obviously this wouldn't happen if I was smart and returned the keys to my belt clip after every use, but I'm stupid and lazy, so I don't always do so.  Often, I leave them in the lock while I pop into an exhibit.  Unfortunately, my main animal key, that one that opens most of the exhibits, is so old, used by generations of keepers before me, that it's slightly worn down.  That means a) it doesn't open locks as well as it used to and b) if left in a lock, it tends to fall out.  Lots of time spent kicking around leaf litter or mud or snow looking for keys that have dropped out.

Once, I had to catch a big male kangaroo for an injection, leading to one of the more exasperating key lose adventures of my career.  The simplest way to do this was for me to grab the big guy's tail, slowing him down so that another keeper could grab his body, then the shot could be administered.  I did my part and grabbed the tail.  The second keeper didn't do hers.  Seconds later, I was inventing a new sport, kind of like water-skiing on dry land while holding on to a 'roo tail, only later it transitioned from skiing to being dragged across a yard that seemed to mostly consist of prickly plants and kangaroo droppings.  By the time I pulled my face out of the mud (I hoped it was mud, anyway), I noticed that my keys, which had up until a few minutes ago had been stabbing me in the leg over and over again as I was dragged around, were now gone - the belt loop had torn off.  It took a half hour of pacing the yard (under the smug, watchful gaze of the male kangaroo) before I found them.

Another annoying thing about keys is the noise that they make.  When walking around the zoo, I often find myself holding them tightly in one hand so they don't jangle.  It's especially useful of a trick when you're trying to creep up on animals, or visitors who are misbehaving.

Maybe the zoos of the future will be super high-tech, and all of the exhibits will be opened by retinal scans, or thumbprints (I hope not - I think I wore my fingerprints off years ago), or something like that.  Then maybe keys won't be needed.  Until then, I'll be slouching around the zoo, my right side pulled a little lower to the ground by the weight of a few pounds worth of keys.

I'll try not to jangle too much.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Star-Crossed Lovers

Willa: You couldn't understand, could you?
Vince: Yes, yes, yes! I think I do!  I don't turn you on anymore because you've got the hots for a gorilla!
Willa: It's not sexual...
Vince: He's clearly more attractive than I am, isn't he?

After several years of working with zoo animals, I've gotten used to the idea that every once in a while, I'm going to meet an animal that fixates on me, personally.  Sometimes it's one that hates my guts, sometimes it's one that wants to be best friends... and sometimes, there's an animal that wants to be more than friends ("I'm flattered, but sheesh, tone it down, this is a professional atmosphere...")

I've had a fair number of animal crushes - a cockatoo that wanted to snuggle constantly, and would viciously attack anyone - especially any female human - who was standing to close to her favorite boy-toy.  There's been a spider monkey, a crane, and an African crested porcupine, each who had a claim on me (I sometimes wonder what would happen if they all met suddenly - an epic fight?  Angry accusations of cheating?).  At any rate, it's hard to do your job when you've got a porcupine trying to make love to your left shoe.

Not that workplace "romances" can't be helpful - sometimes the pair bond between a keeper and an individual animal is so strong that the animal really does consider the keeper to be its mate, which can not only be useful in some breeding scenarios, but also is great for providing other keepers with comedic materials for years to come.

Evidence this fellow (Meet Walnut, the crane who fell in love with her zookeeper) at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.  TL;DR version: Walnut, an endangered white-naped crane, hates other cranes, but loves Chris, her keeper.  By going through courtship rituals and artificial insemination, Walnut's valuable genes have been passed on to the next captive generation.

walnut solicits chris
Walnut solicits Chris. (Warren Lynch/SCBI)

What I'd never heard of before was members of the public falling in (non-platonic) love with a zoo animal.  But, then this story from Japan made the rounds.

I'll be completely honest - I've seen lots of gorillas at lots of zoos and have no idea what makes this guy - rather than any of the others - so special.  If you're going to pick a gorilla to fantasize about, why not Durrell's Jambo, or Binti Jua at Brookfield Zoo - they at least have celebrity hero status as well as good looks.  Sorry girls, but from the way the zoo describes it, he's already spoken for... and I doubt any of you really want to take up the argument with any of the female gorillas.  Maybe watch King Kong a few times until the fantasy passes.

50 Shades of Silverback: Shabani, weighing around 180kg at the Higashiyama Zoo in Nagoya in Aichi prefecture, central Japan. The 18-year-old silverback with brooding good looks and rippling muscles is causing a stir at the Japanese zoo, with women flocking to check out the hunky pin-up.
Shabani, the 18-year old gorilla at the Higashiyama Zoo, gives the camera his "come-hither" stare.  Getty Images

Thursday, June 25, 2015

What Makes Work Meaningful? Ask a Zookeeper, by Livia Gershon

"The job of a zookeeper provides a sense of meaning in ways that many careers don't.  It's a chance to do something that matters on the enormous scale of species preservation and at the tiny level of a little monkey with a fading heartbeat, while learning new skills at all times."

Awesome article I found reinforcing something that I think most of us in the trade have long known - we have the best jobs of anyone, anywhere.  Apparently, there's some scientific backing to that opinion.  At the bottom of the article excerpt below, I've provided two links.  One leads to the rest of this article.  The second leads to the full text of an article that suggests that, more than any other modern career, zookeepers consider their careers to be a true calling/cause/mission.

zookeeper operating on a monkey

Dressed in a stained sweatshirt and serious workboots, brown hair swept up in a messy ponytail, Meghan Nemes carefully removes a cafeteria tray covered with vegetable scraps from the cage of an enormous tortoise named Rob. Then she scrubs the concrete floor, hoses it down, sweeps, and puts the food back.

“I already cleaned him once, but he decided to pee,” she says.

Nemes has a degree in zoology and nearly a decade of work experience. She estimates that she spends 90 percent of her day scrubbing, sweeping, mopping, and disposing of the feces of dozens of species of animals. Yet, when she talks about her work, she practically vibrates with excitement.

“I have always wanted to work with animals,” she says. “You have to be able to go with the flow. You have to expect the unexpected.”

Read the rest of the article here.

Also, check out The Call of the Wild: Zookeepers, Callings, and the Double-Edged Sword of Deeply Meaningful Work, by J. Stuart Bunderson and Jeffery A. Thompson.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Sporcle Quiz: AZA Zoos and Aquariums by State

There is an AZA-accredited zoo or aquarium in almost every state (Maine, Vermont, and Wyoming, get your acts together!).  Of the other 47 (plus DC), can you match the state with its AZA member facilities?

Monday, June 22, 2015

Three Little Letters

"I sent the club a wire stating, "Please accept my resignation.  I don't want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member."
- Groucho Marx

It’s hard to say for sure how many zoos and aquariums there are in the United States, partially because of the difficulty in defining exactly what a zoo or aquarium is and is not.  They come in all varieties – big and small, public and private, for-profit and non-profit.  Some exhibit only natives, others display animals from around the world.  Some feature all sorts of animals, but some only display birds, or fish, or insects.   

It’s a relatively small number of these institutions – somewhere between 10 and 20 percent of them, depending on how you want to count them – that are members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums – the AZA.   The AZA is a non-governmental organization that is devoted to representing, recognizing, and supporting what it perceives to be the best of the best of America’s zoos and aquariums*.

AZA members are selected following an intense accreditation process, conducted every five years (more often if the standards of a facility are called into question).  The institution is visited by a team of inspectors from other zoos and aquariums, who look the place over top and bottom, inside and out.  They see everything that the public would see – how the animals look, the state of the enclosures, the public areas of the campus.  They also go behind the scenes and delve deep into recordkeeping, protocols, governance, educational programming, veterinary reports, and finances.  Staff members are interviewed, either individually or in group settings.  Every aspect of the zoo – from how many animal escape drills it’s conducted recently to how much enrichment is done to how much the staff is paid – is evaluated carefully.   A new requirement (still more of a suggestion at this point) pushes zoos and aquariums to give a certain amount of money to field conservation programs annually.

Later that year, at the annual AZA meeting, a representative from the zoo or aquarium appears before the AZA accreditation committee to hear their report.  A facility may either pass accreditation, fail it, or be tabled, meaning that it has a lot of issues and is given a year to get it together before being re-inspected.

AZA standards can be a hassle, and they are always increasing, or new requirements are added.  What makes it worth the headache?  By belonging to AZA, a zoo or aquarium becomes part of a network that can achieve more than it could by working alone.  Some of the best examples of this are the breeding programs, or Species Survival Plans, conducted by AZA.  Multiple facilities working together can have better luck managing animal populations by pooling their animals and their spaces.  AZA zoos seldom buy or sell animals with each other – instead, they move them about as needed, either for genetics, exhibits, or social groupings.  AZA also provides a lobbying voice for zoos and aquariums, as well as training and professional development.  Recently, AZA facilities have also been more aggressive and more proactive in conservation messaging, working together on themed campaigns to raise awareness about key issues threatening wildlife around the world.
Always a good sign to look for on your next zoo or aquarium visit

There are reasons why a zoo or aquarium might opt not to join AZA.  Most obvious of these is that they wouldn’t meet the standards, and reaching those standards would be too expensive or too difficult, especially for a small, privately owned facility.  Others might choose not to because they dislike the added level of restriction and oversight.  If a facility plans of breeding and selling animals, for instance, or wants to have visitor-animal interactions that AZA feels is unsafe, they may decide they are better off on their own.  Some private zoo owners look with scorn on all the regulations that AZA has; I'm remembering one individual in particular, interviewed as part of Morgan Spurlock's Inside Man episode on zoos, sneeringly describing AZA as a "country club for zoos."  Again, the vast majority of zoos in the US are not accredited by AZA.  Some are members of a different accrediting organization (the confusingly named ZAA).  Most are on their own.

It would be unfair of me to flat out say that I only visit AZA-accredited facilities, though it is near the truth.  Certainly almost all of the zoos and aquariums I have done reviews of so far are AZA members.  It would be fair to say that I will go unhesitatingly to any AZA member; non-AZA members I ponder and vet to make sure they are worth supporting.  Some most definitely are; Sylvan Heights Bird Park, for instance, is not accredited (by choice of the management), but it has the best waterfowl enclosures and breeding programs that I’ve seen anywhere, in or out of AZA.  Others are the sorts of institutions that the slur “roadside zoo” was made for.

I would love to eventually see more and more non-AZA member institutions join the AZA, and slowly but surely it seems to be happening.  In many cases, I believe that the animals in those collections benefit more from the heightened standards and professional peer review.  Also, I believe AZA would benefit from having them – the more members, the more animal professionals working together, the greater a force for good zoos and aquariums can be.

*AZA is primarily an accrediting organization for the USA, though it does have a handful of members in other countries.  Other geographic regions have their own accrediting bodies - BIAZA (United Kingdom and Ireland), ARAZPA (Australasia), CAZA (Canada), etc.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Zoo Review: Virginia Safari Park

For this month's zoo review, I'm focusing on a facility which is in the news for less-than-good reasons.  Recently, USDA announced complaints against the Gulf Breeze Zoo in Florida and the Reston Zoo in Virginia, two facilities (unaccredited by the AZA) owned by the same parent facility, Virginia Safari Park.  While I haven't visited Gulf Breeze (which used to be an AZA facility) or Reston, I did stop off at Virginia Safari Park during a long, dreary road-trip down I-81.

Tucked away in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia Safari Park bills itself as "Two Zoos for the Price of One," in reference to the two very different halves of the facility.  The much larger portion of the park is a drive-through safari, where visitors can purchase buckets of grain and drive amongst the animals.  There are hundreds of animals in the 180 acre safari, about 80% of which belong to three species - llama, fallow deer, and greater rhea.  Also present are other deer and antelope (sika deer, axis deer, Arabian oryx, nilgai, and common wildebeest among others), along with zebras, American bison, pot-bellied pigs, exotic breeds of domestic cattle, and ostriches and emus.  (Side note: I really did love the little guidebook they handed out with info on the animals).  Side pens feature giraffes and bongo antelope; while I was visiting, an enclosure for white rhinos was under construction.  Camels - both bactrians and dromedaries - are the most memorable animals for many guests.  Confined to side pens, they are still capable of reaching their heads in passing cars and stealing whole buckets of food (yes, including the bucket itself), which they then swallow.

Visitors who are uncomfortable risking their vehicles against bison and zebras can take a ride on open wagons pulled by tractors, receiving guided tours from the drivers.  The drivers stop periodically to allow guests to feed the onslaught of animals that follow the wagon.

The second portion of the park is called The Village, and is more of a traditional zoo.  Here the visitor gets more feeding opportunities in a petting barn, a budgie aviary, or at a feeding deck jutting into the giraffe exhibit.  There is a walk-through yard populated by two dozen red kangaroos, a walk-through aviary featuring Chilean flamingos,  and a walk-by reptile house, filled with the sort of herps you would expect to see in a pet shop.  Tigers and cheetahs are the stars of The Village, but along the paths you may also encounter warthogs, spider monkeys, binturong, servals, and both Galapagos and Aldabra tortoises.  

The Safari is the pride and joy of the park, but I wasn't overly thrilled with it.  Yes, it's nice to see animals with so much room to roam... but many of them don't seem to roam, they seem to stand in the middle of the road begging for food (they are, I should mention, fed by staff regardless of whether they choose to eat from people or not).  The park is patrolled by keepers in pick-up trucks, but the potential for animal-visitor mishaps is still great.  I saw visitors leave their cars to approach animals on foot, visitors feeding animals they weren't supposed to (according to the park rules), and visitors almost hit animals because they were driving without looking - thankfully, the animals were.  

In the Village, I likewise saw visitors cheerfully throwing or handing grain to animals that weren't supposed to be receiving it, such as tortoises and primates.  A lot of the enclosures there were uninspired - boxes made of wooden poles and wire with a few branches inside.  No enrichment was evident, but maybe it was happening and I just wasn't seeing any.  I also couldn't really say that I saw enough winter housing, unless a lot of the animals are removed elsewhere for colder weather.

That last point is very relevant - among the complaints lodged against the Safari Park's sister facilities is improper winter housing (especially at Reston, located in northern Virginia).  Other concerns were unsanitary conditions, lack of supervision of guest-animal interactions, and lack of appropriate veterinary care, including inappropriate euthanasia methods.  As suspect as animal care within this company seems to be, the management still strives to distance itself from its nearest neighbor, the Natural Bridge Zoo, located two miles down the road.  Amusingly, the Natural Bridge Zoo and the Virginia Safari Park/Reston Zoo/Gulf Breeze Zoo company are owned by a father and son, respectively - who, while both zookeepers and located almost within eyesight of one another, are completely estranged and have no interaction.

There's a great unwritten novel in this, somewhere.

As cool as it was seeing some of the sights at Virginia Safari Park, I'm uncomfortable supporting a facility that is parent to so many problems with animal welfare, if the allegations prove to be true.  Until I hear differently, the next time I'm on 81, I think I'll keep driving until I find another zoo.

Friday, June 19, 2015

From the News: Ivory Crush

In 1989, the East African nation of Kenya shocked the world by publically burning its stockpile of ivory.  President Daniel arap Moi personally put the torch to the 20-foot pile of elephant tusks, specially treated so it would burn, thus destroying a tremendously valuable quantity of ivory.    The demand for tusks had decimated Kenya's elephant population, derailed its tourism industry, and cost the lives of several park guards and rangers.  Kenya's message to the world was clear - no more ivory for sale.

The wisdom of President Moi's actions have been debated ever since.  Some people say that strict protection doesn't work, as governments need to manage their elephant populations to prevent over-population in parks, and that the sale of ivory helps fund conservation.  Others say that allowing the legal sale of any ivory at all only creates more demand and makes it harder to keep track of illegal vs. legal ivory.

In a similar symbolic move, today US President Barack Obama has ordered one ton of ivory to be publically crushed in New York's Times Square.  The ivory, confiscated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, will be destroyed with an industrial rock crusher.

Like Moi's burn 26 years earlier, the crush is controversial, and it's not clear whether it will have anything other than symbolism behind it.  That being said, what is clear is that African elephants continued to be slaughtered in droves for their tusks.  They were slaughtered when it was legal.  They are being slaughtered when it is illegal.  And if it is made legal again, they will be slaughtered still, no matter what regulations are put into place.

We need more than a symbolic response to the ivory crises.  But at least acknowledging that there is a crisis is a first step, which is better than nothing.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Jurassic World - Strike Your Pose

I loved Jurassic World.  Most people I know who saw it did as well.  A dinosaur movie is hard to go wrong with in my mind, and a dinosaur ZOO movie?  Completely awesome.  Besides the fun of the movie itself, it was kind of fun getting a glimpse of something that doctors, lawyers, cops, and soldiers must get all the time - seeing a very dramatic, vaguely-realistic depiction of your job on a movie screen (admittedly, you have to substitute big cats for raptors and rhinos for Triceratops).

Zookeepers who've seen the movie have made a lot of inside keeper jokes about it.  How Chris Pratt isn't using the clicker correctly in his training demos.  On free-contact vs. protected contact for the various exhibits.  On permissible levels of guest-interaction with animals.  Even on how the Blackfish crowd would respond to the Mosasaur scenes (answer: probably the same way they do to orcas).  

And then there's the pose.  The dramatic pose Chris Pratt strikes while trying to stand up against the trained raptor pack as he rescues a hapless park employee.  
In a lot of the photos, the animals have facial reactions similar to that of the walrus on the far right - "Dude, what are you even doing?  Just give me the food already..."

I'm not sure if one keeper thought of it and the idea spread, or if the idea had several independent origins, but keepers all over the world are posting their own "Stand Down" pics with animals as varied as walruses and whistling ducks.

And people love it!  What started off as a joke on a few zookeeper Facebook groups has spread.  The pictures were shared on the tumblr Feminerds, and have since spread around the web to lots of general amusement.

Eventually, the craze (by now known as "Prattkeeping" spread enough that someone took notice...

A major reason that I started this blog was to get people talking about zoos and aquariums.  Zoos are very important institutions for the survival of many species, but a lot of people don't particularly understand them, not even many of the people who enjoy them.  Some view them as theme parks, others as museums, others as prisons - and I suppose they are a little bit of everything.  To understand them, though, means we have to actually talk about them, and the easiest way to do that is through pop culture.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Grand Cayman Iguana (Cyclura lewisi)

Grand Cayman (Blue) Iguana
Cyclura lewsi (Grant, 1940)

Range: Grand Cayman
Habitat: Scrubland, Evergreen Forest
Diet: Leaves, Stems, Fruits, Flowers
Social Grouping: Solitary, Territorial
Lifespan: 60 Years + (Captivity)
Reproduction: Breed annually in the spring, up to 22 eggs (depending on age and size of female) in nest chamber dug into the soil.  Eggs hatch after 65-100 days (varies by temperature), hatchlings disperse after hatching.  Sexually mature at 2-9 years (depends on rate of growth)
Conservation Status: IUCN Endangered, CITES Appendix I

  • Largest native land animal on Grand Cayman and one of the largest lizards in the Western Hemisphere, weighing over 11 kilograms and measuring 1.5 meters from head to tail.  Males are larger than females
  • Color changes throughout  the year from the slate-gray outside of the breeding season to a bright, turquoise blue during the breeding season.  Juveniles are gray with dark chevrons
  • Gravid (egg-carrying) females do not feed throughout breeding season, their digestive system squeezed by the eggs inside of them; they do not feed until the eggs are laid
  • Juveniles preyed upon by snakes, adults have no natural predators
  • Both sexes are very territorial, defending their rock heaps with head-bobbing, attack if intruders come too close; fights between males of similar-size can be very violent and bloody
  • Previously listed as a subspecies of Cuban iguana (C. nubilia), now recognized as a full species
  • Threats include loss of habitat, casualties from car collisions, direct persecution from farmers, and predation from introduced cats and dogs.  The population reached a low of approximately 10-25 iguanas in the wild by 2002
  • Conservation efforts include captive breeding and release (once juveniles are large enough to defend themselves against predators), habitat protection, and community outreachv

Sunday, June 14, 2015

In the Line of Duty

Being a zookeeper is the only job I've ever wanted, and, for the most part, it's lived up to my imagination (and then some).  There are plenty of moments which are magical, and plenty which are hilarious (albeit sometimes only in retrospect), and many which are unforgettable.  There are also the bad times, however, times when the job can make you depressed, or lonely, or unbelievably uncomfortable.

There are also moments of danger.

The most obvious source of danger is the animals themselves, and when a keeper fatality does happen, it makes the news, usually internationally.  That's because they are fairly rare and very sensational - I mean, plenty of people get killed by guns, cars, and knives everyday but a lion?  As... dramatic as these cases are, however, they aren't the only source of danger.  When a disaster strikes, be it natural, such as a hurricane or fire of flood, or manmade, such as war or an act of terrorism, keepers can't leave their animals behind to suffer.  Sometimes that means putting themselves in danger to protect the animals they love.

Three keepers from the Tbilisi Zoo in Georgia (western Asia Georgia, not southern US Georgia) are reported drowned as they worked to save their zoo from severe flooding.  Animals have escaped from the rising water levels, some of which (especially the big predators) were destroyed to prevent them from endangering the public.  Last I read, ten people were reported killed by the floods so far, which makes about third of the human casualties thus far zookeepers.

I am so sorry to hear about the tragedy from Georgia.  Thoughts to the friends, families, and coworkers of those were lost.

A man shoots a tranquilizer dart to put a hippopotamus to sleep at a flooded street in Tbilisi, Georgia, 14 June 2015
Photo Credit: Reuters

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Zoo Joke: The Keeper Talk

For the past several years, John has been working at the city zoo.  He enjoys his job a lot... except for one part.  Every day, he has to give a keeper talk at the polar bear exhibit, and he hates public speaking.  To make it worse, it's a very popular talk, so there are always lots of people there, and it usually takes half an hour to get through all of it.

On one particularly busy day, John is grousing about it to his friend Bill, who mans the zoo's ice cream stand, right across from the polar bears, when Bill hits on a genius idea.  "Why don't I do it for you?  I've heard you give that same speech hundreds of times, I'm sure I know it as well as you do.  It'll give you a break and give me something else to do."

John loves the idea, so he pulls of his keeper work shirt and hands it to Bill, who gives him his staff shirt in return and asks him to man his ice cream stand while he does the talk.

As John watches from the ice cream stand, Bill ends up giving a wonderful keeper talk.  He remembers every fact, every joke, and the audience is loving it.  Everything is going perfectly until the very end, when he solicits questions.  All of them he fields easily, having heard them so many times before - what are their names, what do they eat, how old are they - and then a young woman raises her hand.

"Yes, excuse me?  I'm actually a grad student over at the university, and I'm doing my thesis on polar bear thermoregulation.  Could you please tell me how the insulative properties of polar bear fat evolved, and what the projected timeline would be for its de-evolution in the face of global climate change?"

Bill stares blankly for a moment, and then smiles.  "Young lady," he says, "that's an incredibly easy question.  In fact, it's so easy," beckoning John over, "that I bet even our ice cream man can tell you the answer."

Friday, June 12, 2015

Bringing Your Work Home

During the worst of this winter's weather, with ice storms and snowfall, a decent number of my friends and family were given an option which I was not - to work from home.  The day before a blizzard was predicted, they would scurry in, grab a laptop or a stack of paperwork, and then carry on their jobs from the comfort of their homes, all the while blizzards raged outside.

It was an option I was not given, nor were any of my fellow keepers.

Not to say that work doesn't come home with my sometimes.  Ninety-nine percent of the time, it's paperwork, or research, or record-keeping, or something else boring.  Every once in a while, however, it's something a little... livelier.

The first zoo animal that I ever brought home with me wasn't a terribly exotic one.  It ("she", rather) was an African pygmy goat, whose mother decided that she wasn't that interested in rearing her, so the job fell to the staff.   She needed to be warm, she needed to be fed throughout the night, and above all, she needed affection and attention, so the options were either to spend the night at the zoo, to come in every few hours all night long, or to bring her home.  I went with the latter.

My girlfriend looked at me with considerable suspicion, wary eyes narrowed to slits, when I came home that night, an unannounced pet carrier in one hand.  Her eyes popped open with joy, however, as soon as I set the crate down and opened the door, letting the little kid out to scamper onto the floor.  For the rest of the night I was completely ignored as the goat romped about the apartment, one minute scampering about the kitchen, the next perched on my girlfriend's belly as she lay on the carpet.  All I was expected to do was mix up the milk replacer a few times throughout the night and clean up the occasional accident.

After the goat, things got a little more exciting over the years.  I've had a duck in the bathroom, an alligator in the bathroom (not at the same time as the duck), a tarantula in a shoebox, a coati in the closet, and a rather unattractive baby macaw, just a few days old, in a plastic tub on my desk (at this age, it most closely resembled a raw grocery store chicken, feebly shaking its little wings every now and then).  My apartment has played host to two species of skunk - one an education animal in training, one recovering from surgery and in need of observation - as well as baby kangaroos and binturongs.  What my landlord doesn't know, I've always reasoned, can't hurt me.

None of my guests have ever stayed for more than a few nights in a row, which is fine by me.  It's an awesome responsibility, and an exhausting one.  Unlike the zoo, my apartment is not set up for housing animals, and it's a full-time job keeping them out of trouble, from chewing on power cords, rooting about in the kitchen, or playing with chemicals under the counter (the cabinet doors to which they all seem capable of opening, somehow).  Even getting them home can be fraught with difficulties, as I discovered one night when a young coati slipped out of its crate and pounced on my lap while I was driving it one night.

Having exotic roommates, especially neonates needing lots of care, can limit your social options that night.  A suspicious number of friends will suddenly want to come over and see you, but going out is difficult, and taking your animal with you is out of the question (or at least is should be - one former coworker of mine was known to take the red kangaroo joey she was raising to bars, something our curator thankfully never found out).

Getting up every two or three or four hours to feed a baby, or to administer medicine, is exhausting.  It makes me glad that these days zoos almost always prefer to leave young animals with their mothers to be raised rather than pulling them for handrearing (when animals are pulled, it's usually for a special reason, such as the mother not caring for the baby).  Not only does it result in more behaviorally-balanced animals, it also makes life a lot easier for us.  After all, when it comes to babies, the mothers are the real professionals.

Having had wild animals roaming your apartment is cool... in retrospect.  It makes a cool story at the very least.  At the time it's happening, however, all I ever remember was wanting to get the animals through their rough patches so they could safely go back to the zoo... where they belong.  And then I could go back to spending my nights in bed... where I belong.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Satire: Zoo Promoting Hell Out of New Fruit Bat

The Onion, my go-to source for zoo satire.  In this case, there is an element of truth.  Not in the quality of the Wichita Zoo (actually called the Sedgwick County Zoo, and considered one of America's finest).  But zoos and aquariums, despite their lofty goals of conservation and education, are largely dependent on driving the gate to carry out these goals.  That means constantly coming up with new attractions (and hey, isn't that the premise behind the new Jurassic World movie?) - sometimes with success, sometimes falling flat.

PS:  Apparently there is so little news in Wichita that the paper actually ran an article in response to The Onion, telling readers about the real fruit bats at the Sedgwick County Zoo.  Whatever gets people talking about you, I guess...

Monday, June 8, 2015

From the News: Zoos talk, but do people listen?

One of the defining traits of a truly great zoo is one that allows people to make a connection to nature and leave inspired to do more to protect the natural world.  To a degree we all are successful in that respect... but nowhere near enough.  If the millions and millions of visitors who pass through our zoo and aquarium gates every year really did feel a huge rush to save the environment, then the environment wouldn't be in as sorry of a shape as it is now.

That's not to say we give up.  Instead, it's important to do what this article suggests - find ways that we can improve our environmental messaging through what we do, what we say, and how we say it.

       “Zoos should definitely have keeper talks, but the presenter doesn’t have to be the keeper—it’s more important to have a dynamic, informed presenter,” Dr Roe says. Credit: pelican

Read more at:

Zoos talk, but do people listen?
"Zoos should definetely have keeper talks, but the presenter doesn't have to be the keeper - it's more important to have a dynamic, informed presenter.  Credit: pelican.

       “Zoos should definitely have keeper talks, but the presenter doesn’t have to be the keeper—it’s more important to have a dynamic, informed presenter,” Dr Roe says. Credit: pelican

Read more at:

       “Zoos should definitely have keeper talks, but the presenter doesn’t have to be the keeper—it’s more important to have a dynamic, informed presenter,” Dr Roe says. Credit: pelican

Read more at:

       “Zoos should definitely have keeper talks, but the presenter doesn’t have to be the keeper—it’s more important to have a dynamic, informed presenter,” Dr Roe says. Credit: pelican

Read more at:

Friday, June 5, 2015

The Makings of a Good Zoo

It's getting into the busiest time of the year right now at our zoo.  The last of the school groups are mingling with the first of the summer tourists.  Every day around noon, I look out at our parking lot and remind myself just how happy I am that I have a reserved parking spot.  Lots of people are pouring through our gates every day, and we're not alone.  Zoo-going is one of the most popular past times in America, and has been for decades.

One of my favorite posts so far has been "Six Tips For Enjoying Your Zoo Visit"; featured among that was the cautionary note that "not all zoos are created equal."  Some are better than others, while good zoos can be great in different ways.  Yesterday, I featured an article from a travel writer ranking the best zoo (in her opinion) in every state, not many of which I agreed with.  For me, the most enjoyable part of the article was the comments, seeing how the readers debated and critiqued the article by agreeing with some rankings, contesting others.  What was at the center of the entire discussion was, "What makes a good zoo?"

Ask ten different people that question, you'll get ten answers.  Some folks may be interested in a single animal, and might say it's no real zoo without elephants, or lions, or whatever.  A parent of small children may favor a zoo that is child-friendly or interactive, maybe small enough to easily do in a few hours.  Some people like shows and demonstrations.  Others prefer bigger zoos with lots of variety and different animals.  A PETA member might say whichever one is about to close its gates.

Different people have different values for a zoo.  Having worked in zoos (in some capacity - volunteer, intern, keeper, manager) for most of my life, what I like in a zoo is a lot different from a layperson.  There are some points, however, which I feel are essential for defining a good zoo.  And here they are...

1.) Animals First

"Zoo" is short for "Zoological Park" (or Gardens), and "Zoological" means "pertaining to animals."  The animals are right there in the name then - they are what defines the zoo, what makes people come, and what gives it its purpose.  Without them, it is not a zoo.  Therefore, their needs and care should come first.  There are compromises and considerations that have to be made sometimes, but animal care is paramount.  That means a healthy diet, a suitable enclosure and social group, proper medical care, and a staff trained in the appropriate care.  If you can't offer these to your animals, you have to ask yourself why you have them.

This isn't to say that every animal you see will be perfect.  Animals will get sick or injured, even in the zoo, just as children will get sick or injured, no matter how dotting the parent.  The point isn't that you'll see no animals with problems of any sort.  It's that if you do see animals with problems, someone is aware of them and doing whatever can be done to alleviate them - if there is something to be done.  I've had visitors at my facility complain about some of our geriatric animals and ask why we aren't taking better care of them.  My reply (which has always satisfied the complainer) is that if we weren't taking good care of them, they wouldn't have lived so long to become geriatric.

2.) Learn a Little Something

The zoo should provide opportunities for visitor/community engagement and education.  That can mean proper signage, school programs, guided tours, keeper talks, etc.  Education isn't just about presenting facts, however - it's about shaping attitudes and how visitors feel about animals.

A great example came to me when I visited St. Augustine Alligator Farm recently.  Some visitors were disappointed to learn that there weren't gator wrestling demonstrations (that and way too many references to Swamp People are my main guest takeaways from that facility.  I'm sure they could make a lot of money by charging folks to watch gator wrestling demos.  The SAAF staff don't not do gator wrestling because they're scared of alligators - I've seen them do animal captures, and they have croc wrangling down to an art - but because it's stressful for the animals, unnecessarily risky for the staff, and sends the wrong message to the public - that alligators are dangerous playthings for us to man-handle as we see fit.

3.) Safety First

Well, I did already say "Animals First", but they can both go first.  A facility should be safe for both people (visitors and staff) and animals.  The zoo should not allow situations with unreasonable potential for injury, disease transmission, or other negative interactions between the two.  Animals should be separated from people by appropriate barriers.  If visitors are allowed to interact with people, it should be under the supervision of trained staff.

When visiting one (non-accredited) zoo in the south, I was able to pet a cassowary.  I may have mentioned elsewhere, but the cassowary is a velociraptor-ninja-of-death kind of bird, not one that you should be able to touch easily.  I was able to do this, however, because a) there was no one there to stop me and b) there was no guardrail and the exhibit fencing was so widely space that I could easily reach through and tap him on the casque.  I probably could have repeated this experiment with the Asian black bears down the path, but I wasn't willing to be that big of an idiot in my quest to prove a point about visitor safety.

4.) Do Some Good

Over a century ago, the primary goal of a zoo or aquarium was recreation - a place to come to have some fun.  They still do that, but then education became touted as an increasingly important goal of a facility.  These days, conservation is considered the primary function.  Ideally, the three would go together.

In any case, a zoo should be a force for conservation.  That can take many forms, from actively sponsoring research and conservation in the field, like the Bronx Zoo and St. Louis Zoos do, to working with endangered local species, to recreating habitat, to participating in managed breeding programs for endangered species.  Fundraising for field conservation is always nice.  One thing I don't consider enough is just saying that visiting the facility "raises awareness", and then calling it a day.  Talk is cheap.  Do something.

At the very least, practice what you preach and go green in the running of your own facility

5.) Last But Not Least...

It should be a pleasant place to visit.  Friendly staff.  Clean campus.  Easy to find your way around.  It doesn't matter how much conservation work you do, how healthy and happy your animals are, or how much your education programs rock.  If people don't like your facility and don't want to visit it, you're in a lot of trouble (unless you are like Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (lucky bums) and are closed to the public... then go ahead).

Too often, zoo and aquarium staff view the public as "the enemy" - the glass-banging, stupid-comment-making, trash-dropping, animal-feeding hordes that besiege us every day.  That attitude needs to go away.  They aren't the enemy.  They are potential allies in working towards a future for wildlife, and they need to be treated as such... and with a smile and some courtesy.  You can't share your message if no one is there to hear it.

No zoos are going to be identical, and I like plenty of facilities (while acknowledging that none is perfect) that are dramatically different from each other.  Every zoo or aquarium that I really enjoy, however, follows these five rules, and I feel that makes them worthy of my support.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The Best(?) Zoo in Every State

I really like zoos.  I really don't like rankings.  If it's for something that's easily quantifiable, like what is the biggest zoo (either in terms of physical size or collection size), that can be done.  If you're asking about a particular attribute - which has the best elephant exhibit, or polar bear exhibit, or reptile house - than I can at least offer an opinion, though it might not be the right one.  Ask me what the best zoo exhibit is, overall, any species, and I'll pretend to get back to you later.

But to ask what zoo is "the best" - I don't even know where I'd begin.

Apparently, this author is a lot more ambitious that I am, and she's attempted to name the best zoo in every US State, plus the District of Columbia (which is kind of easy, seeing as there is one).  Some of her decisions I agree with; others, I have to question (seriously, Riverbanks didn't win for South Carolina?  And it lost to a tourist trap? What is wrong with you...).  Some were defaults because there was only one zoo in the state, or the state doesn't even have a zoo, so they went for the closest thing.  Aquariums don't seem to have been included.

What was most fun for me wasn't the author's insight - it was the comments.  LOTS of the comments questioned her rankings, not by putting some zoos down (though some do), but by playing others up.  Illinoisans critiqued the author for choosing Lincoln Park over Brookfield, and outlined their reasons why.  Same in Minnesota, where the author's choice of Como Zoo in St. Paul was panned in favor of the nearby (and much larger) Minnesota Zoo.

(Actually, most of the comments were deriding the author for not realizing that the Kansas City Zoo is, in fact, in Missouri, not Kansas, a mistake which the author has since corrected while - possibly not coincidentally - disabling comments).

Anyway, my zoo didn't win, so obviously this is rigged.  Otherwise, enjoy!

There’s lots to see at the Franklin Park Zoo, but the adorable red pandas will always be a crowd-pleaser! (Photo: Franklin Park Zoo/Facebook)

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Mata Mata (Chelus fimbriatus)

Mata Mata
Chelus fimbriatus (Schneider, 1783)

Range: Northern South America
Habitat: Wetlands, Slow Rivers
Diet: Small Fish, Frogs
Social Grouping: Asocial
Lifespan: 15 Years (Captivity)
Reproduction: May nest several times during a season (usually November through December), the 12-18 eggs are laid in riverbanks where the incubate for approximately 80 days (may be as long as 200 days), depending on temperature
Conservation Status: Not Listed

  • Shell length is 50 centimeters, weight as much as 15 kilograms
  • One of the most unique-looking reptiles on the planet; the flattened shell has three lumpy ridges, the head is flattened and triangular with a small breathing snorkel, and the skin on the head, neck, and legs is covered with tubercles and flaps of skin, resembling algae.  The large head cannot be drawn into the shell; instead, the neck wraps to the side
  • The shell of juveniles is mahogany on top, salmon-colored on the bottom, though the color tends to fade with age
  • Mata matas are ambush predators, lying in wait at the bottom of the water (they rarely swim); when suitable prey approaches, the turtle opens its mouth and expands its throat to create a vacuum, sucking in the water with the prey
  • Very rarely seen on land, and does not bask as many other turtles do.  When they do breathe, they do so by stretching their neck upwards and using their snorkel-like noses; in fact, this species can remain underwater for hours at a time, absorbing oxygen through the cloaca
  • The Latin name translates to "Fringed Turtle"; the name "Mata Mata" is supposedly from a South American dialect translating to "I Kill"
  • Faces little direct hunting pressure (possibly due to bizarre appearance and reported bad taste), but sometimes taken accidentally in bottom-raking seine nets.  Also heavily prized in private collections
  • Very difficult to breed in captivity - one theory is that the water needs to have a certain level of acidity to help hatchlings escape the shell
  • Unconfirmed rumors persist of an established population of mata matas introduced to southern Florida; mata matas are also seen on Trinidad, but it is unclear whether they are found their naturally, were introduced, or are vagrants from the mainland

Zookeeper's Journal: Unless you're a specialist or a hobbyist, most freshwater turtles begin to look the same after a while.  No one who has ever seen a mata mata, however, is likely to confuse it with anything else.  A master of camouflage, the mata mata blends so perfectly into the leaf litter of South American wetlands that it rarely needs to move; instead, its prey comes to it.  What's always impressed me the most about this turtle isn't the sight, however, it's the sound!  Feeding a mata mata is like feeding an underwater shop-vac... including the gulping noise it makes.  Except for the noises they make when they... you know... it's the only sound I ever remember hearing from a turtle.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Book Review: Misadventures of a Zoo Keeper

There are times (like, the entire last month) when I worry that this blog gets a little too heavy, a little too depressing, a little too much talk about extinction and doom and gloom.  To be sure, while there are lots of weighty issues surrounding the zoo world, there is also a lot of magic, a lot of beauty, and an awful lot of humor (not all of which involve poop).  No zookeeper spends any amount of time in the profession without accumulating a lot of pretty unique stories.

Bill Naylor has a lot of stories, and he's collected some of his more madcap ones in a memoir entitled Misadventures of a Zoo Keeper.  Detailing several decades of work as a zookeeper in the UK and in Australia, Naylor shares his stories with dry humor, engaging descriptions, and a willingness to recount embarrassing episodes that I hope to reach one day.  While a wide variety of animals appear in his stories, from juice-guzzling chimpanzees to a keeper-stomping kangaroo known and feared throughout the zoo, birds and bird keepers dominate the book.  This made the book especially appealing to me, as books about bird keepers are few and far between.

The most ridiculous animals in the book, however, are the ones that don't have feathers and fur.  Zoo animals tend to behave in sensible, predictable ways; humans (whether zoo staff or zoo visitors) can't always be counted on to do the same.  Naylor introduces some pretty strange characters in his story, from a con-man zoo director who fakes animal escapes to drive the gate to a belligerently anti-snake society lady that Naylor manages to win over (well... sort of).  I've had some pretty crumby bosses over my career, but at least I can say that none of them attempted to burn down the zoo to cover up the fact that they were stealing animals.

Of course in any zoo-themed book it's the animals that will be the stars, and Naylor doesn't let his human eccentrics crowd the critters out of the limelight.  Throughout the book we follow him as he captures escaped kookaburras, gets nearly eaten alive by sea lions, and clears the name of a parrot accused on grand larceny.  Misadventures of a Zoo Keeper belongs on a shelf with Gerald Durrell's A Bevy of Beasts and Peter Brazaitis' You Belong In A Zoo! as an enjoyable, plain-spoken series of adventures of entering the world of zoos, a unique world where anything can happen - and therefore, does happen.