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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Zoo History: Zoos of Death

With the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, Japan and the United States were officially at war. Unlike the isolationist Americans, the Japanese had been at war for the several years prior to this, conquering a swath of territory across Southeast Asia.  With the entry of the United States into the conflict, however, the scope of the war in Asia was to change dramatically.  In fact, virtually every aspect of Japanese life was soon to be profoundly affected.  That included the zoos.

For a nation which had long been isolated from the rest of the world, Japan quickly caught on to the idea of western-style zoological parks prior to being opened to the west.  By the time of Pearl Harbor, Japan had over a dozen zoos on the islands, featuring the usual complement of animals from around the world - big cats and bears, elephants and giraffes.  At the beginning of the war, the Japanese felt assured that victory would be swift.  The zoos remained open, popular with the public.

Soon, however, the war caught up with the civilian population of Japan... and their zoos.  Keepers and other employees went off to war.  Food stuffs for the animals became scarcer and scarcer, with some animals succumbing to starvation.  Coal and oil sources were appropriated by the military, making it difficulty to heat animal houses.  Even the zoo itself began to disappear into the war effort, as cages and guardrails were dismantled for their metal, repurposed as weapons of war.  There were still, however, a fair number of animals in Japanese zoos.  Some were quite dangerous and that, in the eyes of the Japanese authorities, now no longer so confident, made mindful of the risk of air raids, was a problem.  The solution was a grim one.

Towards the end of the war, the order went out to put to death the potentially dangerous animals in every zoo in Japan.  Some were shot.  Some were strangled with nooses.  Some were poisoned.  Some (for reasons I still don't understand) were deliberately starved - one female elephant took a month to die.   When zoo officials resisted calls to destroy their animals, armed "vigilance committees" gave them a choice - you do it... or we will.  Even in death, the animals were called upon to serve the nation as propaganda pieces, further martyrs of the war whose deaths the military hoped would solidify anger against the Allies.

Many zoos in Germany and other European nations were also destroyed during the war (when Bernhard Grzimek took over the Frankfort Zoo after the war, it had one hippo to its name), lost to air raids.  Japanese zoos were relatively untouched in this way.  In contrast, the European zoos didn't experience what the Japanese did - the silent, systematic slaughter of every animal perceived to be a threat.

Like Germany, after the war, Japan rebuilt its zoos (though the grounds of the Kyoto Zoo were temporarily used as a camp site for occupation forces).  Former enemies, now allies, supplied new animals.  The Americans sent the first shipment in 1949 - a handful of turtles... a small start, but the beginning of the stream that later included native American animals (pumas, skunks, coyotes) and exotics (lions, parrots).  India, which during the war had been the site of Japanese invasions, sent an elephant, gifted by Premier Nehru himself.  Eventually, Japan became wealthy and secure enough to go on its own collecting expeditions, restocking the zoos with animals from around the world.  New zoos were constructed steadily throughout the postwar period.

Today, Japan is filled with many excellent zoos; it's sometimes amazed me that such a small country can hold so many (also, that it can hold so many people).   The deaths at the zoos of Japan may pale in comparison to the many, much worse horrors of World War II, but they were still a painful memory for many of the people of that country.  They serve as a reminder that not all victims of war are humans.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Satire: Idiot Zoo Animal With Zero Predators Still Protective of Young

Another piece of satire from The Onion (they get a lot of mileage out of zoos, don't they?).

To be fair, I've often thought about what I would say to the animals under my care if I could speak to them (I mean, I do speak to them, but if they could understand me).  What I would like to say most of all, I've decided, is a message to the deer, the antelope, the kangaroos, and all of the other flighty, perpetually skittish prey species that I work with: It's been ten years and we haven't eaten you yet, I promise, we're not just bidding our time... so calm the hell down.

Saturday, September 26, 2015

Zoo Review: Brevard Zoo

Halfway down the Atlantic coast of Florida, Melbourne is often overshadowed by the bigger cities of the state – Orlando, Tampa, Miami, and Jacksonville – which lure many of the snowbirds and tourists.   For those travelers who are passing through, however, it’s worth making a stop at one of the finest zoos that I’ve seen in a long time.  With a diverse collection of animals set in beautiful, lush exhibits  with a unique adventure-theme, the Brevard Zoo is an extraordinary place.

Upon entering the zoo, visitors will find themselves at a central pool, where Chilean flamingos squabble and strut.  From here they are presented with the option of heading down four trails, each taking them to meet animals from a different region of the world.  To enter Wild Florida, visitors take a low wooden boardwalk over a swampy lagoon, with American alligators on one side and the far rarer American crocodile on the other.  Once across, they travel a meandering trail past the habitats of river otters (with underwater viewing), red wolves, and alligator snapping turtles, among other Floridians.  A spacious mixed-species yard houses white-tailed deer, wild turkey, bald eagles, and sandhill cranes, while non-releasable Florida raptors, such as red-tailed hawks and crested caracara, perch on trees scattered along the trail.

Upon being looped back into the center of the zoo, guests can encounter more exotic wildlife on La Selva trail.  Baird’s tapirs and giant anteaters are among the stars of this Neotropical trail, all found in densely planted enclosures, while capybara and coscoroba swans mill around a small pond.  Several mesh-enclosed aviaries house birds, sloths, and primates of various sizes, including king vultures and black-handed spider monkeys.  For many visitors, the star attractions are the jaguars, seen through viewing windows amid a boulder-strewn habitat.

Australasia opens up with wallabies, kangaroos, and emus in a dusty paddock, eventually feeding into a series of walk-through aviaries.  These house beautiful tropical birds not just from Australia but aronnd the world – lorikeets, hornbills, turacos, and waterfowl – as well as diminutive muntjac deer and fruit bats.  The trail ends up back at the wallabies, with two striking Australasians – cassowaries and Visayan warty pigs – across the trail.  As a finale, a small family of siamangs – the zoo’s only apes – can be seen on their island home.

Expedition Africa is the last of the four geographic trails.  It’s also the shortest, but featutres most of the zoo’s large animals. Starting up with some small-fry in the form of rock pythons and meerkats, the trail leads on to cheetah, white rhino, and Grevy’s zebra.  A sparsely-wooded savannah yard houses antelope and marabou storks, while giraffes can be seen at eye level from a viewing deck.  This deck also encloses an aviary that houses rock hyraxes among the birds.

A final, non-geographic area is Paws on Play, a children zoo/play park where kids can splash in the water, play with interactive devices, touch some domestics in a petting zoo, or meet one of the zoo’s animal ambassadors (unlike many zoos, these animals are typically on display when not on program use).  Also on zoo grounds, but off-view to the public, is the zoo’s sea turtle healing center, a facility devoted to the rehabilitation of sick or injured sea turtles.

The exhibits at Brevard Zoo are fantastic – apart from the Bronx Zoo, this might be the only zoo where I haven’t seen a single old-style enclosure that I thought really needed to be changed (probably attributable in part to its youth – it didn’t open until 1994).  What makes it truly unique, however, is the many opportunities for adventure and interaction.  Many zoos offer animal interactions – feed a giraffe, touch a stingray, let a lorikeet land on you – and Brevard does all of this (you can also pet a rhino!).  It also, however, offers special adventure tours.  Visitors to La Selva can zip-line their way through the jungle, checking out birds and monkeys at eye-level.  They can also kayak through Expedition Africa, not only getting an amazing view of the African animals, but also a chance to maybe observe some Florida wildlife as well. Or, take a paddleboat ride through the restored Florida wetlands.

None of this, of course, is meant to overshadow the tremendous conservation work done at Brevard.  Besides working with breeding programs and sending some money abroad, the zoo is very involved in the conservation of local species in need.  The sea turtle hospital is the most famous example, but the zoo also works with oyster restoration, Key Perdido beach mice, and diamondback terrapins, among other endangered natives.

Few - if any - zoos offer their visitors a chance to incorporate so much action, exploration, and interaction into their zoo visit as Brevard Zoo does.  It's a facility well worth keeping an eye on, as I suspect it will continue to prove a leader in taking the zoo guest experience to the next level.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

From the News: South Carolina Aquarium looks to wade into climate research

You talk to zoo or aquarium visitors about deforestation and habitat loss, they pound the table and agree with you.  You talk to them about over-hunting or poaching and they swell up with righteous indignation.  You talk to them about invasive species, they nod their heads sagely.  You talk to them about climate change... and expect at least one person in the crowd to start lobbing rotten produce at you.

Global climate change is one of, if not the, leading threat to many species today.  And not just polar bears and other Arctic dwellers.  Changes in weather patterns can turn grasslands into deserts.  The ratcheting up in temperature is disastrous for heat-sensitive amphibians.  And rising ocean temperatures (even slight ones) can prove lethal for coral, to say nothing of the species that live in coral reefs. That doesn't change the fact that among the US public (including zoo and aquarium visitors), the very concept of climate change, or global warming, is still controversial.  It isn't surprising that many curators and directors, fearful of incurring the wrath of the public, shy away from it and aim their metaphorical guns at less-politically-connected bad guys, like rhino poachers.

So hats off to the South Carolina Aquarium for being willing to tackle the great environmental issue of our day.  Zoos and aquariums are meant to educate, to inspire, and to conserve, and sometimes that means to advocate as well.  Sometimes that means sharing a message that may turn some people off.  The truth, however, should never be ignored just because it happens to be a tad inconvenient.

The South Carolina Aquarium wants to expand its research about the seas to include climate change.
The South Carolina Aquarium wants to expand its research about the seas to include climate change. File/Staff

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Life Not Taken

Earlier this week, there was tragic news of out New Zealand.  Samantha Kudeweh, a curator at the Hamilton Zoo, was killed by a Sumatran tiger at that facility.  Like keepers everywhere, I was extremely saddened to hear the news, and offer deepest condolences to her family, friends, and colleagues.

Samantha Kudeweh. Photo / Hamilton Zoo

I'd like to take a moment, however, to talk about the other participant in this tragedy - the tiger.

In the aftermath of the attack, there were rumors circulating that the animal was going to be euthanized.  Further interviews with the zoo management confirmed that these rumors are false - there is no intention to destroy the animal.  This is standard policy at virtually every zoo, aquarium, or other captive wildlife facility.

Many people seem surprised by this.  Whenever a zoo animal seriously harms or kills a keeper, I always see the question circulating in social media, will the animal be destroyed?  When visitors do something stupid or crazy and put themselves at risk of being harmed or killed by an animal (i.e., the woman in Memphis who decided to feed cookies to the lions), commentators tend to grouse, "Great, now this idiot is going to get killed, and it's the animal who will be put down as punishment."  That's not how it works with zoo animals.

I understand were people get this idea from.  After all, if a domestic dog bites a person, that's often the fate that awaits it, so why not zoo animals?  Because a lion or tiger isn't a dog.  We aren't expected to interact freely with them, day in and out.  I've worked with plenty of big cats that I've had special relationships with, many of which I think "like" me.  Most of them, I suspect, would still kill me if I went in with them.  Not because they're hungry, or angry, or anything like that... it's that they are a big cat, and would see me as a very big mouse to play with.  A tiger that kills isn't an unusually aggressive animal that poses an exceptional danger compared to other tigers... it's a normal tiger.  Same thing with any other zoo animal, even the ones that keepers do work free contact with.

Zoo staff will, if necessary, shoot to kill an animal if it poses a clear danger to someone, or if it is an immediate escape risk.  They will not "execute" one after the fact.  For example, during the wild dog incident at Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium a few years back, one of the dogs was shot while staff and police tried to rescue the child.  After it was realized that the child had been killed, there was no reason to kill the rest of the pack. If my colleagues see me being savaged by a bear, they will shoot it to try and save my life.  If the bear has already killed me, they know killing the bear won't bring me back, so why compound the tragedy by destroying the animal?

Animals have intelligence, and animals have emotions.  I've never doubted that, nor can anyone, really, who spends a lot of time working with them.  It's not a human intelligence or human emotions, however, and we need to remember that.  Among other things, that means we can't pass moral judgement on a zoo animal.

Working with large carnivores, elephants, and other dangerous animals is a privilege that zookeepers embrace, along with the risks that come with it.  To hear the people who knew her talk about her, Sam Kudeweh felt that way, too.

She wouldn't have wanted anyone to hurt that cat.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Sporcle Quiz: Cryptozoology

"When I was starting junior high in the early 1970s... [m]y mother and I had an agreement - if the good people at Today announced the capture of the Loch Ness monster, I got to stay home from school and watch the unfolding drama."

- Scott Weidensaul, The Ghost with Trembling Wings

Researching and writing about giant snakes earlier this month brought back my childhood fascination with cryptozoology, the science of unknown animals.  It's become something of a minor theme this month, so I figured what better way to commemorate it then by a Sporcle quiz, highlighting some of Cryptozoology's favorite monsters?  Some are familiar, some pretty obscure, but all are fascinating... even if they don't exist.

That we know of, anyway...

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Raggiana Bird-of-Paradise (Paradisaea raggiana)

Raggiana Bird-of-Paradise
Paradisaea raggiana (Sclater, 1873)

Range: Southern and Northeastern New Guinea
Habitat: Tropical Rainforest
Diet: Fruit, Insects, Leaves, Lizards
Social Grouping: Breeding Leks, Solitary
Reproduction: Polygamous.  Males congregate in groups called "leks" to display to females.  The nest is a bowl of leaves and stems in a tree.  Females incubates and eggs and raises chicks alone. 1-2 eggs are incubated for 18-20 days
Lifespan: 15 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern, CITES Appendix II

  • Body length 34 centimeters, weigh 200-340 grams, males slightly larger than females
  • Maroon-brown body with a gray-blue bill.  The male has a yellow crown and emerald throat with a yellow collar, a blackish upper breast, long black tail, and large plumes on his flanks.  Females are drabber and lack the long tail feathers
  • Males display for females from prominent perches by clapping their wings and shaking their heads, displaying their plumage; displaying in groups allows females to compare several males at one time
  • It is an important seed disperser for some fruiting trees, and is the man disperser for mahogany and nutmegs
  • There are two subspecies, differing in the colors of their plumes: those of the nominate are deep red, while those of P. r. augustavictoriae (Empress-of-Germany Bird-of-Paradise) are apricot-orange
  • Known to hybridize with other species of bird-of-paradise (blue, lesser, greater, emperor)
  • The plumes are collected by natives for use in ceremonial headdresses, but not to an extent that threatens the species
  • Named after Marquis Francis Raggi of Genoa, sometimes called Count Raggi's Bird-of-Paradise
  • The National Bird of Papua New Guinea, it appears on the national flag.  Its local name, kumul, is the nickname of the country's national rugby league team.
  • Some local tribes believed that the birds never touched the ground ever

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Book Review: The Ghost with Trembling Wings

"It may be that the best thing that can happen is for the tanager to remain unfound.  What makes the cone-billed tanager special is its mystery; should it ever reappear, it would become just another rare bird in a world already saddled with too any threatened organisms... Or this may be the worst kind of rationalistic bull."

It's a pretty far cry to say that the black-footed ferret and the Loch Ness Monster have much in common.  One is a flesh-and-blood animal, one which it is possible to see in zoos and maybe, if you're super lucky, even in the wild, where it has been reintroduced.  The other is the stuff of legends, a story going back for centuries.  There is a connection, though.  After it was declared extinct for the second or third time, the ferret became little more than a ghost story, not even a rumor of its existence remaining.  If anyone had offered claims of its existence (unsupported by evidence), they would likely have been dismissed as cranks.

It's a tragedy that we are losing species at an ever-increasing rate these days.  Every once in a while, however, that which is lost is returned.  In The Ghost with Trembling Wings, Scott Weidensaul takes the reader on a trip around the world for such Lazaruses of the animal kingdom - animals that were thought to be extinct but end up still being with us.

The "ghosts" in question are species which the author pursues, uncertain if they are or are not extinct.  They often end up being species that the public is less likely to have its collective imagination captured by.  They tend to be birds, small and relatively obscure (obviously - the really big and flashy ones would be harder to overlook) - "dull little warblers", in the words of the author, like the Bachman's warbler and the cone-billed tanager.  Weidensaul does a wonderful job of bringing the birds to life, explaining their histories, and getting the reader excited in their stories, which are often full of drama, mystery, controversy, and sometimes a hint of scandal (that Colonel Meinertzhagen... what a hoot).  To this day, the re-emergence of the ivory-billed woodpecker, for instance, is hotly contested.

Weidensaul does wade away from birds in other chapters, tackling, among other topics, one of the most famous "is-it-or-isn't-it" extinct species, the thylacine, or Tasmanian tiger ("I wish I;d never heard of the wretched animals," groused one expert who has to spend far too much of his time dealing with pranksters and obsessive would-be nature sleuths).  He also takes us across the British countryside in search of leopards and pumas (not making this up).  He explores the historic attempts to "breed back" the extinct ancestors of domestic animals - the aurochs and the tarpan.  And then, perhaps more for shock-value than anything else, he exposes the incredulous reader to the broader world of cryptozoology and its myriad enthusiasts, questing for their Bigfoots and Nessies and what have you.

The book is subtitled "Science, Wishful Thinking, and the Search for Lost Species", and Weidensaul certainly does seem to encounter a lot of wishful thinking.  For some of the species which he pursues, there is reasonable hope that individuals still remain in the wild.  For others, there is only fantasy and rumor.  Some of the species will perhaps be rediscovered some day, others (most, perhaps) are truly extinct.  Present or not, extinct or extant, they each contribute a little bit of mystery and wonder to the natural world, and make its exploration that much more exciting.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Zoo Joke: The Proven Breeder

The city zoo has long had a flock of free-roaming peafowl on its grounds.  One day, the only male in the group drops dead.  Now, he'd been an old bird, well past his prime, and it was a long time since he'd sired any chicks.  The bird curator wrote to a bird dealer and requested a new male, preferably a proven breeder.

A week later a crate arrives at the zoo, and the curator unloads the new peacock.  Before turning him loose, he looks the bird in the eye and says, "Look, I'm going to be blunt.  I paid a lot of money for you and I want a lot of chicks from you.  At the same time, I want you to take it easy, don't overwork yourself.  I want you to last for a while."  With that being said, he opens the crate and lets the peacock out.

The peacock shoots out like a blue streak, rushes for the first peahen and breeds her, immediately.  Then he rushes to the second, then the third, then the fourth and final.  As soon as he is out of peahens, he immediately jumps a fence into the flamingo yard and begins to breed with the female flamingos, one after another, in rapid succession.  Then the ostriches.  Then the penguins.  Then the toucans and macaws and storks and cranes.  Flabbergasted, the bird curator can't even watch, and strolls away, shaking his head.

The next morning, the bird curator comes to work when he spies a flock of vultures, circling above a field in the middle of the zoo.  Rushing to the field, he finds his new peacock, lying flat on his back with his eyes closed and tongue lolling.  Furiously, the bird curator yells, "Didn't I tell you?!?  Didn't I tell you to take it easy?!?  Now look, you're dead you stupid bird!"

"Shhh," whispers the peacock, opening an eye for a quick second, glancing up at the circling vultures.  "They're almost in range."

Monday, September 14, 2015

When the Worst Happens...

"Be prepared."

- Lord Robert Baden-Powell, founder of Boy Scouting

For the time being, at least, PAWS - the Performing Animal Welfare Sanctuary - appears to be spared.  The fires that are ravaging northern California have shifted direction away from the sanctuary, home to elephants, tigers, bears, and other exotic animals.  All of that can change with the wind, however.   They're very lucky.  It's easy to imagine this story having a much darker ending.

An example of how much worse it could have been is in western Asia, where a different facility faced a very different natural disaster.  The Tbilisi Zoo, in Georgia's capital, was flooded earlier this year.  Many animals drowned, while others used the rising waters to escape from their enclosures.  Several employees were drowned while trying to save their zoo and the animals that they cared for.  

If flood and fire, earthquake and hurricane weren't enough to terrify any zookeeper, there are also threats from other sources.  Animals can escape, or visitors could fall into exhibits, but those risks have been there for as long as there have been zoos.  Much more recently, zoos have had to worry about human-caused disasters - active shooters, bomb threats, or acts of terrorism.

It's impossible to predict every potential disaster that could befall a zoo, but proper planning and training is essential to help a zoo or aquarium prepare as best as it can.   In many cases, the natural disasters that a facility might face are at least somewhat predictable.  Zoos on the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf Coast of the US have to worry about hurricanes in the fall; those further north have to deal with inclement weather every winter.  California has earthquakes, the midwest has tornados, and everyone near water has to worry about flooding.  There are ways of planning and preparing.  Have generators handy in case storms knock out power.  Secure housing to move animals into during severe weather.  Make sure equipment - fire extinguishers, flashlights, generators, fence-repair kits - are all in good order.  A phone tree in case of an emergency in order to improve communication and get people reacting quickly.

Audubon Aquarium of the Americas lost almost its entire fish collection in 2005 due to power loss in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.  It was a tragic loss, but learning from it helped other aquariums prepare for future hurricanes.

An emergency response goes beyond the zoo staff, however.  Depending on the emergency, the team may involve police, firefighters, paramedics, or other government or private partners.  It's wise to involve these players in your training and preparation for disasters.  You don't want to be meeting them for the first time when the brown stuff hits the fan.

Facilities wishing to be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) are required to train and drill on a variety of scenarios - animal escapes, fires, severe weather.   I know our facility does, though having been in some actual emergencies (never super-severe ones, thankfully), I'll admit it's a poor substitute.  No one remembers the fancy radio codes or what the emergency-use-only job titles are.  People just run and do what needs to be done.  Practice does help, however, especially in instilling the confidence that you're prepared for a disaster.

In recent years, I've become addicted to the slew of superhero movies that have been coming out every year, most of which seem to result in at least one city (often New York) being reduced to a smoldering parking lot.  After watching Dark Knight Rises or The Avengers, I remember asking my girlfriend, "What happens to the poor zoo amid all this?"  Her reply?  "I hope they don't have a zoo in this version of New York.  I mean, after the second time the city gets demolished, it just seems silly to rebuild it." 

She's right of course.  On thing we never did run a drill on was an alien invasion (or a zombie apocalypse, for that matter)... but it's probably only a matter of time before someone decides we need one.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

From the News: Fire Evacuation

As fires rage across northern California, many members of the zoo and aquarium profession think with concern towards their colleagues there, in the path of the natural disaster.  Not all captive wildlife is in zoos, however - some is in private hands, some in sanctuaries.  Included in the later is PAWS, the Preforming Animal Welfare Sanctuary, home to some former zoo animals, including the Toronto Zoo elephants, among others.  The elephants, of course, are the "too big to move" residents that the article above refers to in its title.

(Photo: ABC10)

And that's bull... and not the elephant kind.  No animal is too big to move, provided you are willing to work with it and train it.  That's where PAWS differs from zoos, circuses, and other facilities, however.  They don't work with their animals.  Some zoos work protected contact with their elephants, some work free contact.  PAWS does not engage in training with their animals, which seems nice at first glance - "Oh, they're allowed to be natural and happy and free and blah, blah, blah" - until there is a giant-ass fire at your front doorstep, and you can't move your animals to safety.

Rumor is that several zoos, circuses, and trainers have offered to come in and help them move the elephants, which PAWS has refused, since it would be bad for their image to be rescued by those evil-ol'-zookeepers. Instead, they are putting their faith in sprinklers (with 300 gallons of water...), a firebreak, and luck.

Well, I believe you make your own luck, or lack of it, at least as much as you can.  And I hope that the fires miss this place, if only because it's not the elephants who deserve to pay for someone's lack of foresight.

UPDATE (9/14/2015) - The fire seems to have changed direction, and the sanctuary seems to be safe.  PAWS was lucky, but is never good to place too much hope and trust in luck.  I hope that they will consider finding more practical fire safety procedures than "sit-and-pray" for the next time... because let's be honest.  It's California.  The next fire is just a matter of time.

Friday, September 11, 2015

There Be Dragons

"If you don't believe in dragons, it is curiously true,
That the dragons you disparage, choose to not believe in you."

- Jack Prelutsky

When a Dutch aviator's plane was forced down on a small island in the Malay Archipelago (modern day Indonesia) in 1912, the pilot came back with stories that chilled the blood and titillated the ears of scientists.  On barren Komodo, the aviator encountered dragons - massive lizards, some in excess of ten feet in length, that preyed upon deer, pigs, and, if the reports of the few residents were to be believed, man.  Now, just over a century later, the Komodo dragon is one of the world's most famed reptiles, recognized as the world's largest lizard and the star of zoo exhibits around the globe.

The Komodo dragon was not alone.  In the last century-and-a-half, numerous large animals, some very bizarre, have been introduced to Western science.  The okapi, the secretive forest giraffe of the Congo, was not known to science until the dawn of the last century.  Not long before that, the African forests had revealed other mysterious "new" animals - the pygmy hippopotamus, the giant forest hog, and, most famous of all, the gorilla.  Today, the giant panda is one of the world's most recognizable animals, but it was unknown outside of its native China until after the middle of the nineteenth century, after the American Civil War.  In the 1990's, the sao la, a beautiful antelope-like creature, was discovered in the forests of Southeast Asia.  Even into this millennium, animal discoveries occur - evidence the description of a fifth species of tapir late last year.

(I'm acknowledging that none of these animals were every actually “discovered” – native peoples in their home countries had long known about them.  Sir Harry Johnson, for example, learned about the existence of the okapi from the Mbuti pygmies of the Ituri Forest, who obviously were already familiar with the animal.   We’re instead referring to their being discovered by the world at large]

Every time one of these unlikely discoveries occurs, the question is begged – what else could be out there?

A Franco-Belgian writer named Bernard Heuvelmans spent a lot of time pondering that question, so much so that he eventually went on to establish an entirely new field of science (if you’re going to call it that) to address the question.  He called it “Cryptozoology” or, “The Study of Unknown or Hidden Animals.”  Essentially, it is the quest for animals that aren’t known to science.  Their quarries range from the seemingly plausible (giant anacondas, pygmy elephants) to the outright bizarre (sea serpents, three-legged bears, and a United Nations’ worth of ape-men, most famously including Bigfoot and the yeti).  The Loch Ness Monster ranks as one of the most famous hidden animals, or “Cryptids”. 

An exhibit in the Louisiana Swamp display at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans pays homage to the Loup Garou, a werewolf-like creature of local folklore

There isn’t much evidence for many of these hidden animals, and many scientists shake their heads at the more outlandish examples.  After all, how much time and money has gone into Sasquatch hunting without a single bit of convincing proof?  Still, the crypto-hunters can manage to carry their argument on two grounds.  Firstly, you can’t prove a negative.  If one were captured, you could prove definitively that the Loch Ness Monster does exist, but no matter how many failed attempts occur, you can never prove that it doesn’t.  Secondly, they have been right before, with animals that scientists have long denied the existence of coming to light.  It’s not for nothing that the symbol of the now-defunct International Society of Cryptozoology was the okapi.

There’s a line between acknowledging that newly discovered species await us in the wild and between expecting to find Bigfoot trolling around in the woods of the Pacific Northwest.  When considering cryptids, consider the following

·        Is there actually an ecological niche for that species to exist in?  Why do I doubt Bigfoot?  Because I can’t really imagine what a giant, gorilla-like animal is doing to survive in northern California.  What is it eating?  How does it survive the winters?  Why are there no other giant apes at similar latitudes around the world?  Conversely, if you tried telling me that there was a species of undiscovered ape in the heart of the Amazon, I’d consider that more plausible.
·        It can’t be just one.  Again, look at Bigfoot.  Is he immortal, or a single female that practices parthenogenesis or something?  Because there can’t just be ONE Bigfoot (Bigfeet?).  There has to be a population, large enough to support a certain amount of genetic diversity.  One Bigfoot could conceivably hide very well.  A population of 500 or so?  You’d think eventually one would get hit by a car, or caught in a trap, or stroll in front of a camera trap.
·        Listen to locals.  Many “lost” animals were never lost… the local people knew they were there all the long, even if they themselves seldom saw them.  At the very least, they won’t get an unknown animal confused with a familiar known one.  Many cryptozoologists look to local folklore and mythology for evidence of hidden beasts.  This isn’t always accurate or enough though – after all, European legends are full or tales of unicorns and dragons and centaurs.
·        Obey the laws of physics – even Bigfoot seems plausible compared to some of the animals some folks talk about, like vultures the size of airplanes that pass between different dimensions on a whim…

There’s a sub-set of cryptozoologists, more closely aligned with traditional scientists, which are interested in a different sort of hidden animal – animals that we know existed, sometimes quiet recently, but are now gone.  One of the best examples is the ivory-billed woodpecker.  The size of a duck, this giant woodpecker was declared extinct decades ago, but rumors and sightings still persist to this day, including among folks who can’t de brushed-off as crack-pots, such as Cornell University ornithologists.

I’d like to believe that there are still some big mysteries awaiting us out there – a major unknown animal, or a rediscovered extinct one.  Still, I’d hate to think that a quixotic quest for something which probably doesn’t exist (again, Bigfoot) could distract attention away from the animals that we know are here and know need our help.  Want to save cryptids?  Easy – we just need to save as much remaining wild space as remains of this earth.  That’ll preserve habitat for all animals – known and unknown, seen and unseen.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

A Zoo Animal's Plea

"[P]lease remember that I am a living, breathing creature.  I can feel pain, anger, joy, and sorrow.  There are things that please me and things that scare me.  I may be looking at you from the other side of the fence, but my job is to help you understand things, and I deserve your respect no matter my size, shape, or place in the world."

Sometimes (okay, often) I complain about the things that visitors say when the visit our zoo, there being many things that I find particularly annoying. At the end of the day, however, I don't really care as much about what they say as what they do... especially when what they do frightens, stresses, or even endangers the animals that I work with.

It's not that (most of these) people are malicious.  Some are, but flat-out sadists are too few and too far-between to cause too much trouble.  Instead, it's just that a lot of people don't know or understand that our animals, from the great apes and bears to the frogs and fishes, are living creatures with feelings.  They deserve to be treated with compassion and respect, just as we would treat another person.  After dealing with a particular trying person (banging on the glass, chasing the free-roaming peafowl, feeding the bears), I just hold my head and wish I could think of a way to make some of these people understand.

I came across this piece recently and absolutely loved it.  It sums up what I wish I could convey to many visitors.  It says what needs to be said without being sharp, or angry, or hostile - though sometimes every keeper feels that way towards misbehaving visitors.  Instead, it speaks plainly and honestly about how (we think) our animals feel, and how they should be treated.

If you enjoy it, check out the rest of the author's blog here - I have, and found it to be very interesting with lots of great photographs.  Enjoy!
Juvenile Masai giraffe, Brevard Zoo, Melbourne, FL.  Copyright Audrey R. Smith 2013.

From the Perspective of Captive Wildlife: A Zoo Animal's Plea 

I wrote this years ago, after a particularly frustrating day of telling visitors to the zoo where I worked not to throw things to the animals, to take their child off the perimeter fence over the alligator exhibit, please stop making monkey sounds or “here kitty kitty” calls to the animals, etc…All the things that come with working at a zoo.  Some days you say that stuff more than others, and this day, I had to ask myself, “How could I put the animals’ situations in a way that people would understand that they are being rude?  That coming to the zoo is not a free-for-all for those who enter, and that they need to exhibit (pun!) at least a small amount of decorum; after all, they are “visitors,” or “guests.”  So here is what every animal in every zoo wishes the visitors would bear (another pun!) in mind when they walk through the zoo gates…

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Steller's Sea Eagle (Haliaeetus pelagicus)

Steller's Sea Eagle
Haliaeetus pelagicus (Pallas, 1811)

Range: Northeastern Asia
Habitat: Coastal Cliffs, Estuaries, Forests
Diet: Fish (especially salmon), Small Mammals, Birds, Aquatic Invertebrates, Carrion
Social Grouping: Solitary, Mating Pairs
Reproduction: Monogamous, build large, bulky nests in February and March, either on rocky outcrops or in large trees.  The 1-3 eggs are laid later in the spring and incubate for 38 days.  Both parents care for the eggs and chicks.  Chicks fledge at 70 days and leave the nest by the end of the summer.  Adult plumage reached at 4 years of age, but not sexually mature until  6-7 years old
Lifespan: 20-25 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable, CITES Appendix II

  • One of the world's largest eagles, achieving a body length of 85-94 centimeters and a wingspan of 18-136 centimeters.  Females weigh up to 9 kilograms, with the smaller males weighing up to 6 kilograms (on average, it is the heaviest eagle in the world)
  • Plumage is black or brown with patches of white on the shoulders, tail, and legs.  The very large bill is yellow, as are the feet
  • Migratory - some birds remain in eastern Russia year round, but most fly south to Japan for the winter
  • Vagrants have been observed in China, the Koreas, and the United States
  • Primarily solitary and territorial, but large numbers will congregate at the site of plentiful food, such as a salmon run
  • Nests and chicks are vulnerable to small mammalian carnivores, such as sables and martens, as well as ravens; adults have no natural predators
  • Named after German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller, who explored eastern Russia and Alaska with Vitus Bering in the 1700's  
  • Threatened by habitat loss (largely due to logging and construction of hydro-electric dams), as well as depletion of salmon stocks

Monday, September 7, 2015

From the News: New Zoo for Sydney

It seems like new aquariums are popping up all of the time, but a brand new zoo?  Especially a massive new facility that's going to feature elephants, lions, and gorillas among the residents of its 50 acre campus?  That doesn't happen often.  It also looks like it's happening in a pretty surprising place - Sydney, Australia.  

I say "surprising" because not only does Sydney already have an excellent zoo, but the thought of importing a lot of animals (especially ungulates, like antelope) into Australia, a country renown for its super-strict animal quarantine laws, seems incredible.

The zoo itself looks like it would be amazing - spacious mixed-species enclosures, underwater viewing galleries for hippos, sharks, and crocodiles, and lots of cool Australian, Asian, and African wildlife.  Hopefully the project will be a success - the world can always use a few more (good) zoos.

An artist's impression of a proposed zoo in western Sydney.
An artist's impression of a proposed zoo in western Sydney. Photo: Supplied

Friday, September 4, 2015

Serpentine Giants

"The stories of anacondas 70 feet long seem to be quite incredible.  Yet I have heard from the witness's own mouth a circumstantial account of how a specimen of this astonishing size was killed.  Having questioned and cross-questioned my informant for several days, I am as convinced of his sincerity as if I had witnessed the incident myself.

- Bernard Heuvelmans, On the Track of Unknown Animals

When my size-obsessed former curator set out on his crusade to find our zoo the biggest snake possible, we didn't know exactly what he was going to be coming back with.  The question of what is the biggest snake in the world - and exactly how big that is - are kind of up in the air as far as reptile keepers are concerned.
  • What exactly does biggest mean?  Longest?  Heaviest?  Some interplay between the two?
  • How do you count a species as "the biggest?"  If snake species "A" is bigger 95% of the time, but one specimen of snake species "B" is bigger than the biggest "A", which is bigger?
  • How would you even really know if you found "the biggest?"  It's pretty unlikely that the biggest individual snake that ever lived is current in a zoo or aquarium or private collection right now
  • And who really cares, anyway?
Item 3 is of special interest to me.  We read a lot of the old explorers' journals detailing snakes sixty feet or longer and think, "Man, guess no one invented measuring tape back then..."  But that got me to thinking...  A lot of snakes (along with lizards and crocodilians) were hunted pretty heavily for their hides for many years.  It would make sense that the biggest ones would be the most heavily hunted.  You have to consider that this might have had some impact on the population, whereby it became "survival of the runtiest", and the smaller snakes thrived while the big ones died, taking their genes for "bigness" with them.  (Similarly, you don't see nearly as many elephants with massive tusks anymore in Africa).

This young anaconda, curled up in a display cup at a reptile show, is dreaming of the day when he will be big enough to eat you and everyone you love...

(It is kind of weird though, the tremendous size variation you see among reptiles.  You ask someone how big a bald eagle is, or how big a warthog is, and they can answer it.  Ask how big a Komodo dragon or a saltwater crocodile is, and it turns into more of a discussion about how big they can get.)

As to Item 4... a lot of people do.  A big snake is a huge draw for a zoo.  Ironically, I've found that the bigger snakes actually are the best for helping people overcome their fear of snakes.  Burmese pythons, though massive, tend to be very tractable snakes - their huge size, striking colors (including an abundance of color morphs), and docile nature have made them favorites among handlers.  I've interacted with thousands of zoo visitors using Burmese pythons, some in excess of 15 feet... and let me tell you, it's a lot easier to get people to touch their first snake when they know that their hands are 10 or 12 feet away from the biting end.

If there was a count down of the five biggest snakes in the world, it would be pretty jumbled, affair.  Heading  up the countdown would be the rock pythons, sometimes listed as two species - the African and the Asian - and sometimes as four (each has a subspecies which is sometimes listed as a full species - the Central and South African rock pythons, the Burmese and Indian pythons).  These are massive snakes of legend and folklore.  The Indian rock python is Kaa from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book (who, despite his shoddy treatment in the movies, is actually one of the heroes of the book).  Kipling must have had a softspot for heroic rock pythons, because it was an African rock python who saves the inquisitive protagonist from another Kipling story, "The Elephant Child."

The Number 2 honor probably goes to the reticulated python of Southeast Asia and Indonesia.  The retic, as it is often known, is the longest snake in the world, with a (reasonably confirmed) maximum length of 33 feet reported.  Like most pythons, the retic is fairly arboreal (tree-dwelling as a youngster); unlike many of the larger snakes, it keeps at least partially to the trees as it grows.  To help it do so, however, it has a relatively light body weight... which is why it ultimately loses out on the Number 1 spot to...

The green anaconda is generally considered the world's largest snake.  It's not the longest... might not even be the second or third longest.  It is massive, though.  Unlike the retic, the anaconda eschews life in the trees.  It hunts in the water, gulping up caiman and capybara.  Life in the water has allowed the snake to grow massively heavy, up to 500 pounds, or about twice as much as the slender reticulated python.  But even the anaconda isn't the biggest snake ever...

Titanoboa cerrejonensis was, scientifically speaking, a pretty damn big snake.  How big?  Imagine five big anacondas, wrapped together into one snake about a time-and-a-half as long as a reticulated python.  That big.  Titanoboa is now extinct, but many zoos have capitalized on its newfound fame by creating models and statues of it, for use in highlighting the living giant snakes.  And who knows?  Titanoboa might not even be the biggest snake that ever lived - just the biggest that's been found.

Which goes to remind us, as far as pythons and boas go, we never know what giants are still out there.  Maybe somewhere in Malaysia, there is a reticulated python that's forty feet long.  Maybe a super monster of an anaconda in the llanos of Venezeula tops the scales at 1000 pounds.  We just don't know... but there always might be a bigger snake out still in the grass

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Make It a Big One

"The manager at Yorongas told me he killed an anaconda fifty-eight feet long in the Lower Amazon.  I was inclined to look on this as an exaggeration at the time, but later, as I shall tell, we shot one even larger than that."

- Major Percy Fawcett

I was sulking around the Reptile House one day when I got a text.  This was years ago when texting was still sort of a new thing, and you only ever really got one if it was a big deal.  It took me a while to figure out how to bring it up on the screen so I could read the fairly simple message.

15 feet max.  Back soon.

Lame, I thought.

You see, the reason I was sulking was that I was the only keeper in the reptile house that day.  Everyone else, from the curator to the intern, had all piled up in the zoo van and gone on a road trip one-state-over.  Their mission?  To meet with a man who claimed that he had a 28-foot-long green anaconda that he was willing to part with... for a price.  My colleagues went off, measuring tape in hand, to confirm the size of the monster and, if it lived up to the hype, bring it back, where it would be our star attraction.  I, on the other hand, got left to tend the building all by my lonesome.

It was all the cumulation of our curator's obsession with having the biggest snake possible on display.  He had us scouring the forums and breeder sites and trade shows in search of his giant.  Cost was no issue. "Make it a big one," was his only order.

A curator of mine used to say that a reptile house only needs four things - a big lizard (if not a Komodo dragon, than some sort of monitor or iguana), a big tortoise (a Galapagos, an Aldabra, or at least a spur-thigh), and a crocodile or alligator of some sort.  And most of all, a really big snake.  Huge-ass was the way he put it, scientifically speaking.  The bigger, the better.

Snakes hold a magical sway over many people.  Some people are horrified of them, others are enchanted by them.  And, apart from the venomous species, the snakes that entrance the most people are the giants, the pythons and boas (the later including the four species of anaconda).  Big snakes have been star attractions in zoos and circuses and menageries for thousands of years.  In Ptolemic Egypt, the beasts on display during a parade through the city streets included not only lions and elephants and a rhino, but a python said to be 45 feet long (doubtful).  Boa constrictors were to be encountered in the Tower of London's Royal Menagerie, predecessor to the London Zoo, as well as Montezuma's menagerie, shown off proudly to Cortez and his men.

Everyone wants to see a giant snake, it seems.  How giant are we talking here?

For many years, the Bronx Zoo had a standing cash offer (increasing over time) for anyone who could present them with a live snake longer than thirty-feet.  The challenge has never been met successfully.  The most recent contender was "Samantha", a reticulated python captured by skin-dealers in Borneo who thought their latest catch might win the bet.  The python, it turns out, was "only" 21 feet when she was unloaded in New York.  Unfortunately for the hunters, but fortunately for Samantha, who got to live out the rest of her days at the zoo (where she put on a few more feet) instead of becoming belts and bags.

If you spend any amount of time among big snakes, you hear people talk about bigger ones - ones that they have heard of which are forty feet long... or fifty... or a hundred (same thing with alligators - I cannot begin to recall how many guests I've had tell me they see twenty-foot alligators all the time when visiting Florida).   And to be sure, early travelers included lots of tales about snakes that long in their reports (along with other crazy things, like people with mouths on their stomachs, or birds that could carry off elephants).  Hence the Bronx Zoo's insistence on accurate measuring.  Oh, and a live snake as well.  Not only do they want the live specimen, but it's a dirty little secret that snake skin (either fresh or the shed cast-off) is very stretchy.

A big snake poses certain safety challenges for the keeper, namely in that it can kill you.  Eat you is a different matter - a snake that could eat an adult human is a very rare animal, certainly one I've never seen - but if you're dead already, it's kind of a moot point.  Even the biggest snakes aren't that big (in terms of weight) compared to humans, but they are incredibly strong.  A good-sized python has an immense amount of muscle on it.  The strength behind a thirty-foot giant would be breath-taking... literally.

Most zoos I've worked at have employed a two-person rule for servicing the enclosures of the bigger snakes, just to be on the safe side.  Accidents, of course, will happen.

It's a misconception that a lot of people who don't work with pythons and boas have that since they aren't venomous, they don't have teeth and won't bite.  Oh, no.  They have teeth.  Lots of teeth.  Sharp ones, too.  And they will bite.  That's how they get a hold of you.  Then they squeeze you.  A neat little trick I've learned is that, if a snake is wrapped around you (or a tree limb, or fence, or something else you need to unwrap it from), it's best to take it by the tail and unwind it that way.  Try going against the head and you'll never get anywhere.

I never did get to see the fabled anaconda which led my colleagues on their wild-snake-chase.  They were all pretty embittered by the time they made it back to work ("Did he think we weren't going to measure?" they all sneered).  We ended up getting, a few months later, an albino reticulated python.  It was a little over nineteen feet long.  Not as big as they come, to be sure... but I guess it was big enough.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Birth of a Pangolin

Forget about the National Zoo's latest panda... the baby that has most of the zoo community talking this summer was born in Florida this weekend.

Among the most endangered mammals on earth are the pangolins, the eight species of so-called "scaly anteaters" that inhabit Africa and South Asia.  Harmless, insectivorous, and nocturnal, their main defense from predators is their scaly hide, which allows them to curl up into an armored ball, much like an armadillo does.  Unfortunately, that offers little protection against those who would illegally collect them for sale in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

A major challenge in the effort to save pangolins has been the great difficulty associated with keeping them in captivity. Zoos have struggled to keep them alive, let alone create a captive insurance colony.  Not only has this limited the role of zoos in breeding the species, but it's made it difficult to know what to do with confiscated pangolins which are rescued (alive) from traders.  Turn them back into the wild?  They'll just be recaptured immediately.  Besides, often they are too weak and sickly by the time rescuers get to them.

Due to the difficulties in maintaining pangolins, most zoos won't even try, refusing to create a demand for wild-caught animals which will further drain the wild populations.  Not even a few months ago, I received an email that had been sent out by the African Pangolin Working Group, an organization devoted to pangolin conservation,  to zoo directors, curators, and managers across the United States.  It advised us that we might have someone offer us pangolins in the near future - and that we should know that they did not approve of this project and encouraged us to decline their offer.

Until the day before yesterday, the only pangolin in captivity in the United States that I'd even known about was at the San Diego Zoo.  I'd never heard of this Pangolin Conservation Center in St. Augustine, Florida - perhaps they deliberately keep a low profile to protect their animals.  I tend to be a little leery of private, unaffiliated non-profits - I believe organizations can do the most good when they marshall their resources and work collaboratively.

Still, when an organization does the seeming impossible, I'm inclined to show some respect.

Congratulations to Justin Miller at the Pangolin Conservation Center for the birth of a white-bellied tree pangolin!  If this success can be replicated, both with this species and with others, it very well may represent a turn in the tide for pangolin conservation.

A newborn female White-bellied Tree Pangolin (Phataginus tricuspis) being weighed, photo by Justin Miller of Pangolin Conservation.