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Monday, August 31, 2015

Zoo History: Prairie Phoenix

There are times when the fight to save endangered species seems like a losing game.  The list of defeats is a long one, and each win seems temporary at best, a pyric victory that comes at another species' expense at worst.  Here and there, however, are little glimmers of hope.  There are three species in particular - three US natives - that I tout the stories of frequently, citing them as examples of both why the struggle is worth while and why zoos in particular matter.  One is the California condor; the second is the red wolf (though there seems to be a regrettable amount of backsliding on this one as of late).  The third is an obscure, handsome little weasel that at times seemed more like a ghost than a real, flesh-and-blood animal.

John James Audubon (for whom the Audubon Zoo and Audubon Aquarium of the Americas are named) is best known for his bird paintings.  He also painted other animals, however, and it was in one of these paintings that he introduced western science to a striking, weasel-like mammal, a tawny, bandit-masked little beast portrayed in the act of robbing a bird nest.  That was the scientific world's first introduction to Mustela nigripes, the black-footed ferret, at the time a resident of the seemingly endless prairie dog towns that covered the American West.  It was a new find for Audubon but a familiar face to the Blackfoot, Crow, and other first nations of the plains, many who considered the ferret sacred and used its pelt for ceremonial regalia.

http://b2b498fa173fe1c8c461-97707f5c7d17291ba358946428536a09.r5.cf2.rackcdn.com/B0C90334-27CE-4698-8124-3C658725F516.jpg

Audubon's painting captured the ferret's likeness well, but it was wrong in one sense - bird eggs don't feature too prominently on the menu of the ferret.  Instead, it feeds almost exclusively on prairie dogs, slipping stealthily down burrows to hunt and kill the ground squirrels.  Unfortunately for the ferret, as much as it loved prairie dogs, settlers hated them, considering them pests fit for eradication.  The prairie dogs themselves were too numerous to drive to extinction, but there numbers were diminished sufficiently that, if you were an animal that ate only them, you were in trouble.  Coupled with introduced diseases, the ferret vanished from the face of the plains.  Soon, Audubon's print was all that left... and some people thought that he must have made the critter up entirely.  Even those who did believe in the ferret thought it must be extinct by the middle of the twentieth century.

Miraculously, a small colony was discovered in South Dakota in 1964.  The ferrets, believed to be the last of their kind, were brought into captivity to start an emergency captive breeding program... and they all died.  By the dawn of the 1980's, the black-footed ferret was believed to be extinct... again.

Second chances in conservation are rare.  Third chances are almost unheard of.  And yet, that is what scientists were offered when a taxidermist in Meeteese, Wyoming, told authorities that he had just been presented with a freshly killed ferret in 1981.  The taxidermist in turn had been given the body by a local rancher, who had himself been given it by his dog, who had killed it one night.  A new population of ferrets was discovered, though it was vanishing quickly beneath the onslaught of distemper and plague.  The decision was made to try captive breeding again, and a final effort was made to save the species.  This time, there was a little more success.

Captive breeding began at a facility in Wyoming.  The partnership expanded to include other government agencies, as well as AZA-member zoos.  Participants included Louisville Zoo, Toronto Zoo, Phoenix Zoo, Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute.  The tiny population had be managed carefully to reduce inbreeding, as there were no new founders that could be drawn upon.  Ferrets that were past their reproductive prime were sent to other zoos to serve as display animals, educating members of the public about this endangered but little-known species.  Slowly, the population was built up.

It wasn't simply a matter of keeping ferrets alive in zoos in genetically-healthy numbers.  The challenge was also how to help reestablish the species in the wild.  Disease was a major cause of the ferrets' decline, so immunization was of key importance.  Wild ferrets eat only prairie dogs, so zoo ferrets had to learn to hunt prairie dogs.  Facilities responded by placing prairie dogs in enclosures full of soil and allowing them to burrow, then allowing the ferrets to roam the actual prairie dog burrows, filled with the scent of actual prairie dogs.  Besides finding food, ferrets had to learn to avoid becoming food for larger animals.  At some facilities, a taxidermied-badger was affixed to a remote-controlled car and this "RoboBadger" was used to teach ferrets that badgers were dangerous.

In 1991, the moment of truth came and the first releases occurred in Wymong.  Today, there are 24 reintroduction sites across eight US states and the three countries that formed the historic range of the ferret -  the United States, Canada, and Mexico.  What has been most inspiring about the efforts has been the vast array of partners which have come together to help ferrets return to the wild.  They roam across federal and state land, of course, but private landowners have welcomed ferrets to their property.  Several Indian nations have likewise allowed ferret releases on tribal land.

Today there is a secure captive-breeding population, which is providing surplus ferrets for reintroduction across the west.  Ferrets are also being translocated from site to the site in the wild to protect genetic diversity.  More reintroduction sites are being identified and explored.  In short, the black-footed ferret isn't safe by any stretch of the imagination, but it's a whole lot safer than it was when the only known specimen of the species was a corpse dangling from the jaws of a farmer's dog.

Which is just as well... because I doubt that we'll be getting a fourth chance.



Learn more about the Black-Footed Ferret Recovery Program at http://blackfootedferret.org/

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Sumatran Sunset

Like many zookeepers, I've got a soft-spot for the obscurities - those little known, often endangered beasties that the rest of the world has never heard of.  Becoming acquainted with an animal that no one else even knows about - looking it in the eye, smelling its breath, hearing it move, maybe even touching it - is an incredible experience, and I spend a lot of my non-work time trying to collect such experiences.  Last year, it brought me halfway across the country to the Cincinnati Zoo so I could meet a very special animal up close and personal.

Of the world's five remaining rhinoceros species, three - Africa's white and black rhinos, Asia's Indian rhino - are fairly well represented in zoo collections.  I've seen all three many times, have seen two in the wild, have touched and hand fed two in captivity, and have worked with one as a keeper.  A fourth species, the critically endangered Javan rhino, is not found in captivity at all.  The fifth, and most unusual, was the main object of my trip.  His name is Harapan and he is, at the moment, the only Sumatran rhinoceros outside of Indonesia.  That's about to change... but not in the  way that I'd hoped.

It's rare that a little-known creature like the Sumatran rhino makes the international news.  It's rarer still when it happens twice in a week.  The first was bittersweet, to announce the imminent transfer of Harapan to Indonesia, where he will participate in a captive-breeding program to save the species.  The second was just plan bitter - the Sumatran rhino has been declared extinct in Malaysia.  A species that once ranged across Southeast Asia is now limited to a few tiny pockets on one island... and shrinking fast.

The early efforts to establish captive-breeding populations of Sumatran rhino failed pretty badly and probably did more harm than good - too little was known about the species needs and reproduction biology, which are so different than those of other rhinos.  By the time Harapan and his older siblings came along - a testament to the work that Cincinnati Zoo put into saving the species - the writing was on the wall.  You can only have so much of a breeding program with a single pair of animals.  Eventually, individuals would have to be imported to the US, or the US animals would have to go back to Asia.  

Given the precarious state of conservation in Indonesia, and the fact that Cincinnati has developed a track-record of work with this species, I have to say the first option seems most likely to succeed to me.  Anyway, the decision is made, and Harapan is Sumatra bound... or at least will be at some time this year.

There's a lot of blame to go around for the fate of the Sumatran rhino, which seems somewhat certain.  We can blame the European colonists who shot up the rhinos in the colonial area.  We can blame the palm oil plantations that replaced their forests, and the indifferent consumers who fueled the trade.  We can blame practitioners of Traditional Chinese Medicine who decided that a rhino horn was worth more than a rhino, and we can blame government officials who never made saving this species a priority.  Mostly, we can blame everyone - there have been several hard-working people dedicated to saving this animal, but no huge public muster of support.  There is no Cecil-style outcry surrounding Harapan's species - people were outraged at the death of an individual, but ignore the loss of a species.  


The day I met Harapan, he never bothered to saunter out into his outdoor exhibit; luckily, I'd arranged with one of his keepers to meet him in his private quarters.  Ushered into the behind-the-scenes holding barn, I found him behind sturdy barriers, eyeing me curiously, sniffing, occasionally offering his orange, shaggy hide up for a scratch.  Nearby, other keepers carefully sorted, washed, and hung the Ficus leaves and branches that were to be his afternoon meal (figuring out what to feed Sumatran rhinos was one of the major challenges in getting them to thrive in captivity).  

I talked with the keeper for a while, mostly about the fate of the Sumatran, a subject upon which she was extremely knowledgeable.  She'd been there for Harapan's birth, as well as that of his siblings and the death of his parents.  She'd told me about the planned import of more rhinos, and how that fell through.  Her gut feeling was, given more rhinos, with what the staff know now, they could breed more - that Harapan and his siblings weren't a fluke.  Then she shrugged.  Politics, she said, simply, and went back to gazing at the rhino.  I left that barn with some cool souvenir photos... and a wicked case of depression.

I've gotten to work with a lot of incredible zoo and aquarium animals, and have seen countless more at other institutions.  Some I've been lucky enough to see in the wild, whether a fleeting glimpse or an intimate encounter.  Still, I have a feeling that, decades from now when I'm old and grey and ready to go extinct myself, there are a few that will hold more meaning to me than others.  I know that one of those will be the memory of a gray, drizzly day in Cincinnati when I reached through the bars of his pen and scratched the backside of America's last Sumatran rhino.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Zoo Review: Metro Richmond Zoo

On the outskirts of Virginia's capital city is one of the region's largest zoos, the Metro Richmond Zoo.  What makes this facility so unusual among large zoos is that it is not AZA-accredited, and is privately owned and operated (not that those two things are mutually exclusive).  Originating as the private animal collection of owner and founder Jim Andelin, the Metro Richmond Zoo features an impressive collection of hoofstock and  (especially) primates.  It is also something of a trendsetter in human-animal interactions; there are many features I've seen repeated over and over at facilities (especially privately-owned ones), and they all seem to have been inspired by what the owners of those facilities first saw in Richmond.

The zoo boasts an enormous collection of hoofstock, and most of the facility is given over to large paddocks for various hoofed animals.  The African plains sections features addax, impala, zebra, and kudu, along with storks, cranes, and ostriches.  White rhinos and cheetahs are also found here, along with giraffes, which can be fed from a special platform.  A nearby looping path takes visitors through the woods, where North American ungulates - bison and bighorns, elk and pronghorn, roam together.  The path then ends in an Asian forest, where takin, blackbuck, tahr, and mouflon roam a wooded hillside.  A closer look at the Asian species can be obtained on the Safari Train Ride, which also travels to a second African grasslands area, this one only visible from the train.  Visitors who wish to get a unique perspective of the rhinos, cheetahs, and antelope in the other African area can do so from the Safari Sky Ride, taking guests over the heads of the animals.


The owner of the facility seems to have a special fondness for primates to a degree that seems almost obsessive.  Rows of lemurs, marmosets, tamarins, and New and Old World monkeys can be found towards the center of the zoo.  Unusual among a non-AZA facility, Richmond also has a strong collection of apes - siamangs, orangutans, and chimpanzees can all be seen in moated island exhibits.  Near the apes are the large carnivores - in addition to the cheetahs, the zoo houses snow leopards, lions, tigers, and Asian black bears.  Rounding out the collection are assorted small mammals and birds, including fruit bats, sloths, binturongs, kangaroos, and African small-clawed otters (a rarely-exhibited relative of the Asian small-clawed otters often seen in zoos).  


The bird collection is also impressive in its scope - besides the tall birds sharing habitats with the African ungulates, there are Chilean flamingos, African penguins, and a walk-through aviary of ducks, pheasants, ibises, and spoonbills.  The birds most likely to be remembered by visitors, however, are, ironically, the budgerigars, small, brightly-colored parakeets often seen in pet stores.  That's because the zoo allows guests to enter their budgie exhibit and feed the birds from seed-sticks, a trend which has spread to many other zoos.  The tiny reptile collection is anchored by alligators and Galapagos tortoises, though a reptile building has opened since I visited last, starring a Komodo dragon.


Years of working in public and private zoos alike have left me with a certain amount of leeriness towards the later - a zoo that is run and operated by a single person can be subject to some pretty strong whims, some harmless, some not.  (An example - right out of college I looked pretty closely at working at Metro Richmond Zoo... but was a bit discomfited by the fact that all staff, I was told, were required to participate in the Christmas pageant, complete with camels and other live animals).  I also tend to be a little more suspicious of zoos that haven't been vetted by AZA behind the scenes as well as in front.  

That being said, I enjoyed Richmond and left with a good vibe.  The exhibits were a mixed-bag; some were fantastic (I really liked the North American ungulate exhibits), and some looked like what they were - home-made with poles and wire.  There were a few things I saw that I wasn't quite sure I liked the look of - the state of some of the tortoise shells, for instance, with one looking really bad - but I don't know if they came to the zoo like that (a problem I've dealt with before), so I'll reserve judgement on that point.  I did see evidence of conservation fundraising, and the staff that I talked to were friendly, courteous, and seemed knowledgeable.  

Lots of zoos have visited Richmond and gotten ideas and inspiration which they've implemented at their own facility.  So yes, I would definitely give Metro Richmond Zoo another look while I'm in the area.



Wednesday, August 26, 2015

From the News: World's Biggest Pet Store

I know, I know, on some professional level, I really should disapprove of this place for selling exotic animals like sloths, mongooses, and tamarins to the general public.  On the other, who am I kidding?  If this place was in my town, I would totally spend all of my time wandering down the aisles.  Maybe if I visited enough, they would let me use a little moped like the owner gets to use.


Zajac feeds the sloths carrots and cucumbers.

Zajac feeds the sloths carrots and cucumbers. Photographer: Eriver Hijano



Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Book Review: At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa's Wildlife

"I villagers living around a park make money from wildlife... the park becomes the villagers' bank and the wild animals in the park their assets... people are not likely to rob their own bank, and will report those who do."

The plight of Africa's wildlife seldom makes the headlines in the west.  When it does, it's rarely for a good reason.  Most recently, the attention of the world was called to Zimbabwe following the killing of the famous lion known as "Cecil."  There was a lot of noise, a lot of passion, and a lot of heat generated by the killing all of which was, predictably, forgotten as the next scandal du jour came along (and I don't even remember what that was, probably something to do with Donald Trump...)

Everyone had an opinion about Cecil's killing.  Not many people (on either side of the debate) had one that was based in fact or experience.  And very few of the opinions offered on the subject took into account one of the most important factors - the people of Africa.

As it happens, most discussions about African wildlife omit African people entirely.  That is an issue that journalist Raymond Bonner addresses in At the Hand of Man: Peril and Hope for Africa's Wildlife, his analysis of decades-worth of wildlife conservation efforts across South and East Africa.  Using the international ban on elephant ivory as his major case study, Bonner explores the interplay between Africa's wildlife, her people, their governments, and the western NGOs that often dictate conservation policy to them.

The main conclusion that Bonner comes to is that, if Africans are expected to conserve their wildlife, it has to be made worth their while.  The decision of best to do that, he feels, should be left to them.  In America and Europe, we often assume that the answer is easy - tourism.  Americans and Europeans will come to Africa to see and admire wildlife, Africans will prosper, and the wildlife will be saved.

Not so fast, Bonner says.  Firstly, he argues that tourism alone won't solve Africa's financial woes - other sources of income are needed as well... ivory, for instance (many African nations used proceeds of ivory sales to fund their conservation programs.  When ivory sales were banned, they lost that income).  Similarly, surprisingly little tourist money finds its way into the pockets of the local people who are actually living alongside the animals, including child-snatching leopards and crop-raiding elephants.  Secondly, what right do we (the west) have to tell African nations how to manage their resources?  There are plenty of endangered species in the United States - do Kenyans dictate how to manage (or fail to manage) red wolves?

It's easy to read Bonner's book of failed policies and rampant poaching and feel gloomy about the future of the continent's wildlife.  It's also easy, if you are so inclined, to take exception with his focus on conservation of wildlife for Africa's peoples and feel that he doesn't care too much about wildlife.  You would be wrong on both counts.  Bonner's fixation on finding profitable solutions to managing Africa's wildlife is because he sees it as the only viable, sustainable way to safeguard elephants and rhinos for the future.  He also is able to point out several examples of local people taking ownership of their wildlife and finding ways to profit from their local wildlife, protecting it from poachers and learning to happily live alongside it.

In the end, we cannot fence or guard our way into a future for wildlife.  Wild animals, whether in the western United States or eastern Africa, will survive only as long as there is the will (or at least the passive acceptance) of the people to allow them to.  Africa holds, in trust for the rest of the world, some of the most spectacular animals on the face of the planet.  If we expect them to do for us, it is only fare that we help them shoulder that load.  Sometimes, that means sustainable utilization (euphemism for hunting) to cover costs and manage populations.

An elephant deprived of its ivory isn't a pretty sight.  An Africa deprived of its elephants, however, would look even worse.



Thursday, August 20, 2015

We Have Contact

"There are two things you can make an elephant do, run away or kill you.  But you can get an elephant to do a number of amazing things."

- Jay Haight, Oregon Zoo

Earlier this week, I shared some news out of Toronto Zoo.  It was interesting stuff… but it was by no means the biggest zoo news to break that day.  That story would have been the news that Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium has decided to drop its membership in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.  The primary reason given for this rather dramatic break was the ongoing conflict between Pittsburgh and the accrediting body over its elephant program.

 Now, I grant you, Pittsburgh’s elephant program has always struck me as a little… odd.  At their off-site conservation facility, keepers used specially trained dogs to herd their elephants, a practice that AZA has long frowned upon.  Pittsburgh, in turn, didn’t appreciate being told what to do or how to manage their animals, a frustration that many facilities have felt at AZA for varying reasons.  The dog issue, however, was simply masking one of the biggest controversies in the zoo community – Free Contact? Or Protected?

At many zoos, the standards of what animals you work with directly – going into the enclosure with – and which you do not are pretty uniform for many species.  You go in with tortoises.  You do not go in with tigers.  There are some animals, however, which are kind of a grey area.  And one very big, very grey area has been elephants.

Elephants have a much longer history in captivity than almost any other zoo animal, and elephant training was going on for thousands of years before the phrases “positive reinforcement” or “bridging” was ever coined.  They were used for logging, they were used for transportation, they were used for pageantry, and they were used for war.  And for all of those thousands of years, elephants were trained in the style that we call Free Contact – keepers walked among the elephants, working with them with no barriers.

The problem is that elephants – so big, so powerful, so intelligent – can also be so deadly.  Elephants have always been the leading cause of death for zookeepers, simply because unlike a lot of other potentially dangerous animals (bears, big cats), we work with them directly.  An elephant, even a very well trained one, can have a bad day, or a sudden panic attack, or some other stressor that makes it unpredictable and dangerous (and that doesn’t even include the dangers of musth).  Even an accidental hit from an animal that size can have bad consequences.  I’ve been in an enclosure with adult African elephants with nothing but a rake and shovel.  The entire time, all I could think of was, “Here is an animal that could, if it so decided, use me for a loofah.”

Keeper fatalities are obviously a tragedy to be avoided, so recently many zoos have begun switching over to the system called Protected Contact, where the keepers train and manage the elephants from outside the enclosure, same as they would a tiger, gorilla, or polar bear.  The safety benefit is obvious – you can’t be harmed by an animal if it can’t touch you.  AZA requested that facilities with elephants make the transition towards going to Protected Contact.

Not everyone liked it.  Some keepers felt that separating themselves from their elephants, even if only across a simple barrier, cut off their connections with the animals and thereby lowered the elephant’s relationships with their human caretakers.  Others felt that elephants trained FC would be unable or stressed out by the transition to Protected Contact.  Sometimes, the elephants  were okay, but it was the keepers who had trouble learning.  And some keepers denounced the whole thing as only being done for PR, and not for the elephants.

Elephant keepers and trainers have, for centuries, used a device called an ankus, or goad (many keepers prefer to call them “guides”), to assist with training.  Essentially, it serves as an extension of the keeper’s arm and is used to direct the animal.  Typically, there is a curved hook at one end, giving the ankus yet another name – “bull hook.”  Used improperly (as unfortunately some trainers have done), the ankus can be used to inflict pain on an elephant to force it to comply with a command.  Accusations of elephants being harmed with bull hooks have followed circuses for years, contributing in part to Ringling Brothers’ recent decision to phase out traveling elephant acts.

I’ve seen keepers work elephants while carrying a simple guide (seldom even having a hook) and never have seen one used in a manner to inflict pain.  Accusations of elephants being beaten or torn persist, however, so many zoos have not wanted to put keepers in a position where they share space with elephants to counter any claim from any activists suggesting such abuse occurs.  To many elephant keepers, however, this comes across as management pandering to uniformed, inexperienced activists rather than doing what the keepers feel is best for the animals.

For myself, I support Protected Contact with elephants.  I believe Free Contact had a much more important role in the past when zoos would house single elephants, sometimes a pair, and that social contact with the trainers was much more important to the animals.  Today, the emphasis is on placing elephants and other zoo animals in more socially appropriate groups, and they should get their socializing primarily from other elephants.  Furthermore, the safety aspect can’t be ignored.

I hope that Pittsburgh Zoo comes to rethink their position and rejoin AZA at some point.  I’m sure that they feel that their current elephant management strategy is in the best interest of their elephants, and that it is for that reason that they’ve resisted calls to change.  I believe that well-meaning, well-experienced, and well-informed people can come to differing viewpoints on this and on other issues.  I also feel, however, that it is important for different facilities to work together to come up with a vision for animal care that provides the best possible lives for the animals that call their zoos home.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Vampire Bat (Desmodus rotundus)

(Common) Vampire Bat
Desmodus rotundus (Geoffroy, 1810)

Range: Central and South America (Mexico through Argentina)
Habitat: Rainforests, Grasslands, Deserts
Diet: Blood
Social Grouping: Colonies in the tens or hundreds
Reproduction: Males defend roost territories from other males and may mate with multiple females, year round (though most young are born in April-May and October-November).  Females generally breed once per year, sometimes twice.  Single young (occasionally twins) born after 7 month gestation period.  Full grown and independent at 5 months of age.
Lifespan: 12 Years (Wild), 20 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern



  • Body length 7-9 centimeters, wingspan 35-40 centimeters, weight 15-50 grams.  Females are usually larger than males
  • Gray-brown fur, lighter on the underside than the back.  The muzzle is compact, the ears pointed
  • Primarily nocturnal, spending the day roosting in caves, mines, tree hollows, and abandoned buildings
  • Possess good eyesight, but have only modest echolocation abilities compared to other bats
  • Unlike other bats, vampire bats are skilled at moving on the ground, stalking and creeping up on sleeping prey; they can walk and run using their folded up wings as crutches
  • Vampire bats have heat sensors on the nose to help them identify good locations to draw blood from
  • Blood is drawn from (usually sleeping) prey with a quick bite, creating an incision that blood flows from.  The bat keeps the wound open with an anticoagulant in the saliva (zoo specimens can be fed blood in petri dishes)
  • Highly social, they have been seen grooming each other and exchanging blood by regurgitating for one another; also regurgitate-feed their offspring
  • Populations of vampire bat have expanded in their home range since Europeans introduced domestic livestock, creating an abundant new source of food.  While their bites are painless, vampire bats can spread infections and diseases (including rabies) as they feed
  • Properties of the saliva (especially anticoagulants) are being studied for medical applications to humans

Monday, August 17, 2015

From the News: Bison calf conceived at Toronto Zoo with frozen sperm from 1980


Both the first and third "From the News" features I posted on this blog detailed events from one of the newest fields of zoo biology - artificial reproduction (I guess "assisted" reproduction works better, seeing as there is nothing artificial about the end product).  The news from Toronto Zoo today marks another remarkable occurrence - the birth of a healthy bison calf using sperm from a bull bison collected 35 years ago.

Wood bison calves

Two wood bison calves are seen in this photo from the Toronto Zoo (CTV News)


Now, American bison are not an endangered species (not anymore, at least), so the birth of a single additional bison, one which would not have been too hard to produce the old-fashioned way, may not seem like that important of a contribution at first, more like an interesting science project.  The conservation potential of it, however, is remarkable.  The bison in this case are serving as surrogates for other, much more endangered ungulates, and techniques practiced and perfected on common species can be applied to much rarer species in the future.  Sperm from males that never bred, for one reason or another, can be saved and used in the future when their genes are needed the most.

Hopefully progress will continue to develop along this frontier.  It would always be best to have animals produced "naturally," I feel, but that might not always be an option.  Who knows what species this technique may be used to save in the future?

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Zoo Joke: Greenpeace

I don't do zoo jokes nearly as often as I like.  That's not because I can't find them... and it's not because I can't find funny ones... it's because I can't find ones that are funny AND clean.  Most are pretty dirty, generally having to do with various mating behaviors and/or anatomical features.  I'm going to keep searching.  In the meantime, this one will have to do...

Mr. Wilson is leaving his office one day and walking down the street to catch the bus.  He soon reaches the bus stop, and as he waits, he is approached by a young man with a t-shirt emblazoned "Greenpeace."

"Excuse me, sir," the young man asks, "I'm Jake from Greenpeace, and we're on a fundraising drive.  Can I talk with you for a few minutes?"

Well, Mr. Wilson figures that the bus will get there when it gets there, so why not?  He nods his assent, and Jake begins his sales pitch.

"Global climate change is a major problem, and we really need action to stop it.  Have you noticed that the summers have been getting warmer around here?"

"Not really," replies Mr. Wilson.  "I spend all day in the office and it's air-conditioned."

"Well, haven't you also noticed that the winters are getting colder?"

"Not really," replies Mr. Wilson.  "My office and my home have heating, and I never go outside much in the winter anyway."

"What about all of the stronger storms we've had, and the bad hurricane season we had last year," Jake pleads.  "Surely you must remember that?"  But the fact is, Mr. Wilson simply doesn't.

"I don't know if you realize what a serious problem this is," Jake insists.  "At the rate we're going now, the arctic is melting year by year.  In a few years, the only place we'll be able to see polar bears is in a zoo."

"Again, can't say I've noticed," Mr. Wilson says as the bus pulls up.  "Never seen a polar bear outside of a zoo."

Friday, August 14, 2015

I'm Going In...

I was pretty amused by the conversation I heard as I cleaned the alligator pool the other day.  I was standing in the draining pool, the water level almost up the top of my rubber boots, when a family - mom, dad, kid - walked past the front of the exhibit.

Kid: Where are they?
Dad: They aren't in there.
Mom: Are you sure?
Kid: I don't see them?
Mom: Well, let's look.
Dad: Honey, do you really think he (being me) would be in there if the alligators were in there?

It was at this point that I coughed, slightly.  They ignored me.  I coughed a little louder.  It was after I had their attention (probably thinking that I was about to choke to death) that I pointed out the two big alligators, basking at the edge of the pool.

 Dad: Are you insane?

The truth is, I go in with our alligators every day.  Same with eagles, same with bison, same with pythons.  I've gone in with cheetahs and maned wolves, which hasn't concerned me at all.  I've gone in with cassowaries, which has left me weak-kneed and addax, which have forced me to run for my life for the gate.  One of the nastiest zoo animals I've ever worked with is a turkey, who proceeded to hand me my ass on a silver platter the one day I was foolish enough to venture into his domain without at least a rake for protection.

The animals that I feel comfortable with are often the ones that the visitors fear the most.  Likewise, the animals that give me the willies are often ones that visitors find sweet and engaging.  I know that a crocodile or an alligator can be a dangerous animal... if you don't know where it is, or are too close.  When I see a gator basking in the sun twenty feet away from me, however, I feel no concern.  On the other hand, visitors love otters - they think they are so playful, so entertaining, so amusing.  And they are all that.  But I know how excited and aggressive otters can get about feeding.  I've seen ours bite a crab in half where I would need a knife and a mallet.  And I've dreaded the thought of having those teeth connect on the inside of my thigh in a feeding frenzy.

Most zoos have special guidelines for which animals their keepers can work with directly and which they don't share space with.  Sometimes they vary from zoo to zoo.  At one facility I worked, my new coworkers were horrified to learn that, at my last job, I would clean the spider monkey exhibit with the monkeys still in there.  That being said, those new colleagues had no objection to servicing an exhibit with a breeding pair of cranes, which I always considered a great way to get your eyeballs stabbed out.  Sometimes, permission to work directly with an animal is based on the experience of the keeper. At one facility, I worked directly with our gray wolves, which the younger, less-experienced staff was barred from doing until they proved themselves.

There are some animals that no zookeeper should be working in an enclosure with.  Big cats (cheetahs being the exception) head up this list.  Bears and apes are also on it, and I would probably add baboons, macaques, and spotted hyenas as well.  Pachyderms and large hoofstock also make the list also; there is still considerable controversy among elephant keepers about the merits of working free contact (sharing a space) or protected contact (directing from outside the enclosure) for their charges.


In all cases, there are probably exceptions which occur, based on circumstances, individuals, seasonality, and sex.  I'll walk among female ostriches without batting an eye.  I once spent half-an-hour lying on my back under a pick-up truck hiding from a savagely bad-tempered male ostrich.  That male deer may be a big ol' sweetie-pie for most of the year... but during rut, he's lethal.  The exhibit matters, too.  I've worked in a safari park where zebra roamed freely about me.  No chance of that happening in a smaller paddock; I seem to recall hearing too many horror stories from older keepers about colleagues kicked, bitten, or maimed.

Some visitors assume that, because they live in a zoo and are around people all day, our animals are pets and we can handle them as freely as they handle their cats or dogs.  We can't. So how do we take care of the animals that we don't go in with?  Big cats, bears, and other potentially dangerous animals are trained to shift.  That is, they are taught to vacate their enclosure and enter a holding pen while the keepers service their enclosure.  This might be where they are fed, or where they receive special treats; sometimes the enclosure itself is so large that it can be divided in half, and we take care of wherever the animal is not.  Some of my biggest frustrations at work happen when I need, I mean, really need to enter an enclosure but am unable to because a dangerous animal is smugly refusing to shift.

Working with wild animals in a zoo setting can be dangerous, but it can be made much safer by being careful as to which animals you work with directly.  I'm sure there are a lot of visitors who probably think I'm a lot less cool than they suspected at first when they learn that I don't actually get to pet the tigers or wrestle around with the polar bears.

They'd probably think I was a lot less cool if I did try it and my mangled corpse turned up in the exhibit the next morning.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Satire: Wildlife Experts Say Not Climbing Into Gorilla Enclosure Likely Saved Man's Life

It seems fairly often we see something in the news about visitors ending up in enclosures with dangerous animals.  Sometimes it happens by accident, such as the incident in Pittsburgh, where a small child was accidentally dropped into the African wild dog enclosure with fatal results.  Other times, infuriatingly, it happens deliberately.

As is often the case, The Onion stands out as a voice of reason... (though I'm sure many gorilla keepers might contest the accusations of "extreme aggression", especially considering what has happened in the past when visitors have fallen into gorilla enclosures.



Experts say Fulton's chances of survival increased the longer he stayed outside the gorilla habitat (The Onion)

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Pics Or It Didn't Happen

selfie [sel-fee] - noun, informal: a photograph that one takes of oneself with a digital camera or a front-facing smartphone, tablet, or webcam, especially for posting on a social-networking or photo-sharing website.

- Dictionary.com

When I first read the letter that was the focus of yesterday's "From the News" item, I had to chuckle a little bit.  A visitor complaining that animals kept jumping into their pictures?  If it was a real complaint, it was certainly a new one.  Most of the time, I have visitors who complain that they can't get good pictures (which usually results in some fence jumping and reaching).

I stop them, I correct them, and (when I feel that safety is at risk), I yell at them.  I also sympathize.  If there is one zoo rule that I would love to break when visiting other facilities (besides being able to smack misbehaving guests upside the head), it would be to cross barriers to get better pictures.

The recent prevalence of the selfie has only made things worse, as visitors try even harder to get that iconic "I was there!" photo.  Sometimes the results are... extreme (a Taliban soldier at the Kabul Zoo was killed when he tried to mug up with Marjan, the zoo's lion, for a photo-op.  The man's brother returned to the zoo the next day and threw a grenade in the lion's face, blinding and crippling him).


I would be lying if I said that I didn't have a huge collection of photos of me with zoo animals.  In fact, years ago when I was creating an online dating profile, I had the embarrassing problem of having almost no photos of me that didn't have zoo animals.  Though looking back, I can't remember why I thought that was a problem... a mean, a fennec fox is a total babe magnet.

Most of the time, I prefer to have someone take the picture of me and the animal.  It ensures a better photo and lets me concentrate more on the animal itself, useful if said animal is potentially dangerous or flighty.  Sometimes, however, I get too embarrassed to ask, or no one else is around, and then I try for the awkward art of the selfie.  It's easier if you have one of those fancy new camera phones where you can reverse the camera and take a picture without any bizarre contortions.  I don't.  Most of my camera shots end up being remarkable close-ups of my nostrils, or the top of my head, or the corner of the animal's ear.  If I'm super lucky, there will be a mirror nearby and I can look at the camera screen in the mirror and line up my shot better.  Usually, I just get a bad selfie and call it a day.

If I see visitors at our zoo trying to take a selfie, I usually go for the customer service angle and offer to take the picture for them.  I'd rather that they have a nice photo and souvenir of their visit, and it also might discourage them from doing something foolish like, let's say, getting too close to that bear moat.  The one thing that does make me nervous (I lie... lots of things make me nervous) are selfie sticks.  They allow guests to reach their camera over railings and barriers, sometimes intruding into the exhibits themselves.  I dread the inevitable day when I get the call that our otters are frolicking around their enclosure, diving in and out of their pool, with someone's brand new iPhone clutched between their teeth.

Why do we feel the need to have pictures of ourselves with zoo animals?  Or wild animals, for that matter... or celebrities, or famous buildings, or natural wonders?  I suppose it's our attempt to prove to ourselves and to the world that we were there.  That this isn't a National Geographic photo, that I really did feed a giraffe, or meet Bruce Springsteen, or stand atop the Great Wall of China.

I mean, you know what would have been really exciting is if Ellen had managed to get her selfie with, like, a dozen different endangered species at the same time... this is just okay...

With animals, I often feel the need to remind myself that I was right there with a very rare or extraordinary creature, maybe one that I never will meet again.  When a coworker once accidentally (I think) locked me in our tuatara exhibit for half-an-hour, I made the most of my time.  I plucked one of the lizard-like critters up and practiced shooting selfies.

It took a dozen or so attempts, but I finally got one.


I think this is the first cell phone picture I ever took.  I'd spent weeks trying to coax a painfully shy clouded leopard out of her shell, coming in early every morning to work with her.  When she finally became comfortable enough around me to take food from my hand (fingers kept carefully outside), I had to snap a quick photo, otherwise I knew my colleagues would never believe me.  And isn't that what selfies are all about? Pics or it didn't happen?

Monday, August 10, 2015

From the News: "Photobomb" Letter


Alright folks, here it is - the absolute dumbest thing I'm going to read on the Internet today.  I thought this was satire of some sort, or a publicity stunt, but the zoo in question has assured the media that it's real.  Maybe it still is, though - I mean perhaps the zoo received it as a legit complaint, but the writer was actually just trolling them.  I hope that's the case.  I really do.

Sigh.


Sunday, August 9, 2015

Sporcle Quiz: Apes, Monkeys, and Lemurs


The words "Ape", "Monkey", and "Lemur" are all used interchangably by many zoo guests, usually referring to all primates simply as "Monkeys."  There are differences between these groups, however, and they are worth knowing!  Given photographs of 20 different primates, can you identify them as apes, monkeys, or lemurs?  Good luck!

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Siamang (Symphalangus syndactylus)

Siamang
Symphalangus syndactylus (Raffles, 1821)

Range: Southeast Asia, Sumatra
Habitat: Tropical Rainforest
Diet: Fruits, Leaves, Insects, Flowers
Social Grouping: Territorial Pairs or Family Groups
Reproduction: Monogamous, single offspring born every 2-3 years.  Gestation period of 230 days; infant initially clings to mother, at about one year of age spends more time on the father.  Infant may nurse for as long as 24 months. Young siamangs become independent at 6 years of ago, sexually mature at 8-9 years
Lifespan: 35 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Endangered, CITES Appendix I


  • Largest of the gibbon species, standing up to 1 meter tall and weighing up to 14 kilograms; individuals from Sumatra are slightly larger than those from Malaysia
  • Both sexes look alike, with shaggy black fur and a gray area around the mouth and chin (infants are entirely black)
  • Differ from other gibbons in the partially "webbed" fingers (Latin name Symphalangus translates to "together fingers") and the throat sac on males and females
  • Calls (amplified by their throat pouches) can be heard from 2 kilometers away and are used to maintain pair bonds and to establish territories.  Calls may go on for 15 minutes at a time
  • Walk on hind legs when on the ground, but spend most of their time in trees, where they move through brachiating (swinging with their arms from one branch to another), sometimes clearing 10 meters with one swing.  Siamangs are slower and more sedentary than other gibbons.
  • Populations on Sumatra and mainland Southeast Asia are sometimes considered separate subspecies
  • Main threats are loss of habitat and forest fragmentation, as well as capture for the pet trade

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Cecil's Legacy

"The wild beast hunts, two a day for five days, are magnificent. There is no denying it. But what pleasure is there in seeing a puny human mangled by a powerful beast or a splendid animal killed with a hunting spear?"

- Cicero

Besides books on zoos and aquariums, I really enjoy books about animals in the wild, particularly ones about the scientists studying them in the field.  Jaguar, by Alan Rabinowitz, falls into this category, and there are many others along this line on my book shelf.  One of my all-time favorites is Cry of the Kalahari, by husband-and-wife naturalists Mark and Delia Owens.  The Owenses studied and lived among the lions, hyenas, and jackals of Botswana's Kalahari Desert, sometimes having the animals roam through their very campsite.  Among the special animals that they got to know was a lion that they christened "Bones."

Bones was near dead when the Owenses found him, with a broken leg and skinful of porcupine quills.  Throwing scientific detachment out the window, they darted the ailing lion, dressed his wounds, set his bones, and nursed him back to health, even going so far as to shoot some game for him so that he wouldn't hunt and stress his leg while it was trying to heal.  Bones eventually recovered fully and became the dominant male of a nearby pride, as well as one of the most special animals in the lives of Mark and Delia Owens.  When they recounted his tale to a pair of visiting American tourists and hunters, their guests were moved to tears by the beauty of the story.

A few days later, those same Americans (a husband and wife, just like the Owenses), shot a lion.  Care to guess who it was?


Few (if any) approaches to wildlife conservation are as controversial as the role of trophy hunting.  The idea of killing wild animals - especially those belonging to species which are in decline, maybe even threatened or endangered - is unsettling to many people.  I sympathize.  I feel the same way.  I became a zookeeper because I like animals.  Whenever I hear a visitor make a joke about turning one of our alligators into boots, or comparing our buck to the deer they've shot on hunting trips, I get irritable.  Why can't you just appreciate the animal?, I want to scream, Why does it have to be a trophy?

With that being said, I find myself surprisingly, for lack of better word, irritated at the outcry over Cecil, the Zimbabwe lion who was recently killed by an American trophy hunter in circumstances of dubious legality.  Not because I think that said hunter is anything other than an asshole - I have a hard time believing that he didn't know what he was doing was illegal, especially in light of the fact that he plead guilty to charges of poaching in the US previously.  I'm annoyed because so much of the fuss is from people who don't actually bother to understand the case, but just want to be outraged over something.

Lion hunting is legal in Zimbabwe - the problem here is that the animal (an individual who was popular with tourists) was lured out of a protected area, gut-wounded, and died after two days of agony.  If the lion (or a different one with less of a popular following) had been outside the protected area on his own and killed cleanly, there would have been no legal issue at all.  People would still have been angry about it... but only if they heard about it, which, since it would have been legal, they likely wouldn't have.

A big part of my irritation is that these things just snowball into rage storms on the internet, not actually doing anything productive other than letting us feel good about ourselves and make the issue about us.  "Oh, you're sad about Cecil?  Well I'm sadder.  Look at this petition I'm signing.  Look at this meme I'm posting.  Look at this nasty Yelp! review I'm giving the dentist who shot him.  Look at me, look at me, look at ME!"

It was like that black rhino hunt.  Remember that?  It was all over the news a few months ago?  Of course we don't, we all got distracted by something new.  And then, something else will happen and our collective rage will be switched over to that new cause, and Cecil will be forgotten as quickly as he he first appeared.

All of this ignores serious questions that need to be addressed.  Are we seriously going to discuss the role of trophy hunting in conservation?  Because if we are, we need to accept it's not as black or white as an online petition says it is.  On one hand, yes, you are killing otherwise healthy animals, animals that would be mating and making more animals, to say nothing of sending a questionable message to local people ("I, a rich American, can kill this lion.  You, a poor Zimbabwean, cannot").  On the other, sometimes attaching a monetary value to an animal is what is needed to save it.  When Pere David first saw his namesake deer, it survived in only once place on earth - the imperial hunting reserve in China.  Ecotourism can be used to raise money to protect wildlife and their habitats in a non-lethal manner, it is true - but that has drawbacks as well. Ecotourists generate less revenue per person than hunters do, and they tend to require more infrastructure - more hotels, more roads, more power and water usage - than a single hunter who is actually stalking quarry in the bush itself.

Also, how about we get our house in order, too?  Where the hell was all of this outrage as North Carolina plotted to pull the plug on the only wild population of red wolves left in the world?  Not that people even approach this level of concern for the plight of the grey wolves out west.  And oh, yeah, let's not forget that here in the US we have our own species of big cat, the jaguar, which is clinging to the borderlands by the tips of its claws.  And now we have presidential candidates who want to build a wall along the entire US-Mexican border, cutting jaguars, ocelots, and Mexican wolves off completely from a part of their range.

I dislike trophy hunting.  Whenever I see a gleeful idiot mugging a dead animal for the camera, I sigh and shake my head.  At least show some respect, I think, some appreciation for the magnificent life you just ended for fun.  But money for conservation has to come from somewhere, and there is a limited amount of ecotourism or grant money out there.  Eventually, countries and governments end up in competition for it.  I fear that as more countries ban trophy hunting of wildlife, that will just make it more valuable to the countries that do... and possibly encourage unethical practices like those we saw in this case.

If we, as a society, feel that trophy hunting is simply too repugnant to be allowed, then so be it.  We'll need to make sure that we're still finding ways to fund wildlife conservation.  I suppose I should be happy that Cecil's death at least is getting people to talk about lions and their conservation... but they aren't talking, their screeching.  As part of a profession that has to deal with the odd-bit of media screeching itself, I get exasperated.  If you want to truly honor Cecil and give him a legacy, you can do better than write a Yelp! review for a dentist who has never even seen your molars.

You can help start a conversation about making sure that large carnivores still have a place in our world for generations to come.  That would be a worthwhile legacy.


Monday, August 3, 2015

Mad Dogs and Englishmen

"Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun."
-Noel Coward

The dog days of August are upon us... though why they call them "Dog Days" I don't understand.  The dogs don't want them.  No one does.  It's hot, muggy, and miserable, and I feel like the second I step outside, someone is draping a damp roll of carpeting over me.  It's miserable, but I have to be out in it.

Most people don't.

If I ever ran my own zoo, I seriously think I might propose a new strategy.  We'd be open from 6 AM or so until 10 in the morning.  Then, we'd shut down and everyone would have siesta time.  We'd reopen at 3 in the afternoon until 7 or so in the evening.

It makes no sense to me that zoos are at their busiest at midday in the summer.  After all, we aren't the only ones that hate the heat - the animals do too.  They aren't going to be active or playful or engaging when its 95 degrees - they'll be in the shade, in a burrow, or in their (possibly air-conditioned) holding buildings.  For some animals, like polar bears and snow leopards, this seems obvious.  For others, especially the tropical animals, it's less so.  On two occasions I've been to Africa on wildlife-watching trips.  In each case, we went for an early morning game drive, and a second one late in the afternoon, early in the evening.  In the midday, we stayed in camp - there was nothing to see out there at the time of day.


During the summer heat, we keepers have our hands full keeping our animals comfy.  Monitoring visitors is another challenge.  Sunburn, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke are common problems in the summer, especially with infants (I've seen idiotic parents prancing around on 100 degree days with babies that must have been straight from the hospital) and the elderly.  I've had to call ambulances more than once on barely-conscious guests I've had to drag into the shade on blistering days.

It's amazing to me how much easier it is to adapt animals to cold than heat.  I've seen zebras and kangaroos and cheetahs in the snow, seemingly perfectly  comfortable as long as they have somewhere to go to get warm.  On the other hand, many northern animals, such as wolverine and moose, do very poorly in hot, humid weather, and as a result relatively few facilities outside of the native range house those species.  For visitors, heat is obviously much more dangerous than cold.  When it's cold, visitors stay home and bundle up.  When it's hot, they troop outside and expose themselves to as much heat as possible.

Aquariums are great to visit year-round, any time of day.  No matter what it's like outside, you'll generally be comfortably indoors.  A zoo visit, however, is at its best in the fall or spring, or maybe on a mild winter's day.  Or, if you go in the summer (after all, that's when our vacations are), go early in the day and beat the noontime heat.

And then enjoy that siesta.