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Monday, November 30, 2015

From the News: Tennessee Aquarium unveils plans for $4.5 million freshwater institute on Baylor campus

Tennessee Aquarium unveils plans for $4.5 million freshwater institute on Baylor campus

Because a zoo or aquarium's commitment to education means a lot more than hosting a few fifth-grade field trips every year.  Tennessee Aquarium's partnership with Baylor is a great example of the kind of collaborative conservation that modern zoos and aquariums should strive for.  

Sunday, November 29, 2015

I'm Not a Vet, But I Play One on TV...

So the other day I was at work, doing something blissfully mindless, when my phone rang.  It glanced down at the screen and saw it was my apartment complex, so answered in a hurry, bracing myself for the news that one of my heat lamps fell over, started a fire, and burned down the whole building... or something like that.  Instead, it was one of the maintenance folks at my building, calling because he found a hurt pigeon and wanted me to do something with it.

I get a lot of those calls.

As opposed to a hundred, or even fifty years ago, when our society was more agricultural and more people spent time in the woods and farms, very few people interact much with animals these days.  Those that do may have a dog or cat, but they tend to be treated as members of the family, which I suppose they are, as opposed to animals, which they definitely are.  As a result, those of us who do work with animals professionally are sometimes looked upon as experts on all things animal.  I mean, all things.  I mean, I'll have people ask me questions about some sort of insect they saw in their bathroom and home and wanting to know what it is or what it's doing.  My answer?  How the hell should I know?

I guess that, having spent a fair amount of time with a variety of animals, I probably due know more about how to handle some animal situations or answer questions than the layperson does.  In some areas, I probably have something that could be called expertise.  I can identify more birds than a typical passerby on the street can, and can generally accurately interpret the behavior of a dog, cat, horse, or other domestic animal.  I can offer pretty correct opinions on pest control, or attracting wildlife to a backyard, or how to correct eccentric pet behavior.  I've even been called upon to do a few animal extractions, whether removing a snake from the rafters of a house to catching injured raccoons and getting them to a vet who will actually treat them.

That's where it ends.  I am not a veterinarian.  I am not a pet therapist.  I am not a wildlife rehabilitator.  I've taken on aspects of those roles when need be and may be able to help, but if you need an expert opinion, especially in an emergency, I strongly encourage you to consult them... the experts.

I had a friend of a friend years ago who was given a baby turtle, about the size of a silver dollar, as a gift.  She had no idea how to take care of it.  During the brief period of time she had known me, she'd come across the fact that I was a zookeeper, and decided I was her go-to resource for all things chelonian.  My facebook wall become one long list of turtle question and answer sessions.  The funny thing is, I don't think I gave her a single answer she couldn't have found out herself with five minutes on Google.  When I questioned our mutual friend about why I was getting all the questions, she just shrugged.

"Sometimes, people just want to hear it from an expert," she said.

I guess that's fair enough.  Just make sure you know who is and who isn't an expert, and about what.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Zoo History: Bring 'Em Back Alive

"The truth was, I thought now, Frank Buck was a generally grumpy fellow, always cursing out his 'boys' or jealously guarding his 'specimens' or boasting how many he had sold where and for how much.  He acted superior to the people who worked for him.  He didn't get along with the authorities in the game preserves, nor with the ships' captains who took him on their freighters with his crated live cargo, nor with the animals themselves.  I saw all that now, but I still wanted to be like him, and walk around with a pith helmet and a khaki shirt and a whip for keeping the poor devils in line."

- E. L. Doctorow, World's Fair

For much of their history, zoos were sinks, not sources of animals, and their collections would dry up without constant replenishment from the wild.  That posed no major qualm to most people at the time; the sources of wildlife in Africa and Asia seemed inexhaustible, and all that was required was for someone to go and collect specimens for sale in America and Europe.  Carl Hagenbeck Jr was one such "someone."  Another was Frank Buck.

A rural boy at heart, Frank Buck was never especially happy with his like in Chicago at the turn of the last century.  So when he won some money in a poker game, he decided to indulge his wanderlust and set sail for South America.  While there, he collected a few small animals; upon his return to America, he sold his wild souvenirs to the Bronx Zoo.  Impressed by his early success, he returned to South America for more animals, selling to London Zoo this time.

At the dawn of the twentieth century, the Hagenbeck family was the world's dominant animal dealing firm.  With the outbreak of World War I, however, the German animal dealers found themselves shut out of their trade.  Feeling ambitious, Buck decided to move in on a more-profitable corner of Hagenbeck territory.  He chose Singapore.

Over the next several years, Buck became one of the leading sources of Southeast Asia wildlife for American zoos.  During the course of his colorful career, he captured a confirmed man-eating tiger, was almost ripped to shreds by an irate Malayan tapir he was attempting to medicate, and wrestled the world's longest recorded king cobra (at that time) into submission bare-handed.  We know about Buck's exploits so well because, to his dying day, he was a vigorous self promoters.  While living in Chicago, he had associated with lots of actors and vaudevillians, and learned some of the trade from them.  Between collecting trips, he arranged for several film crews to follow him through the jungle and make motion pictures of him at work, some genuine, many recreated (foreseeing John Wayne's Hatari).  He also wrote a famous memoir, titled Bring 'Em Back Alive.

As Vicki Croke noted in her The Modern Ark, he probably could have titled it Kill Most of Them Along the Way.  For every animal that Buck produced for American zoos, others died.  Sometimes it was deliberate on his part; it was commonplace at the time to shoot adults of potentially dangerous animals in order to obtain their more tractable offspring, who would ship more easily and would adapt better to captivity.  Other times, death was brought along by inadequate care; for all of his savvy in capturing beasts (or buying them from people to did), Buck was no zookeeper, and his short-lived career with a zoo ended after his "home remedies" seriously sickened some elephants.  Other times, it was the stress and danger of capture itself.  Catching an animal in the controlled, safe confines of a zoo exhibit can be risky enough; my colleagues and I have called off more than one capture attempt because we were worried that the animal was getting too stressed.  Doing it in the jungle with the technology available to the 1920's?  Pitfalls, lassos, and, in some cases, actually shooting out the branches that an animal was perched on?  No thanks.

Buck was aware of the value of his animals and took amazing risks to his own safety to obtain them sometimes.  Besides the alluded to cobra incident, he once tracked an escaped leopard that had gotten loose... at sea... on a freighter ship, refraining from shooting it so that he could capture and sell it (he did).  He faced down an enraged cassowary with nothing but a bamboo pole so that he could crate it without damaging it.  He was doubtlessly personally attached to some of the animals he met in his trade, and reading his books, you come across some glimpses of affection for this gibbon or that sun bear.  At the same time, he really seems to view the animal business as simply that... a business, with no moral qualms.  When he told William Hornaday that the quest for Indian rhinos ("practically extinct," Buck acknowledged) that he'd acquired for the Bronx and Philadelphia Zoo had resulted in the deaths of several other rhinos, Hornaday - arguably America's leading conservationist - was horrified.  Buck found this amusing.

Towards the end of his career, Frank Buck transitioned more from animal dealing to showmanship and writing.  He appeared in Ringling Brothers as a presenter.  He displayed animals at the World's Fair.  He made more movies and did radio shows.  A small zoo in his hometown of Gainesville, Texas is named in his honor.  After a life of danger and excitement, it seemed almost anti-climatic when he died - in a hospital bed - of lung cancer at the age of 66.

For a modern zookeeper - any animal lover, really - it can be hard to read Frank Buck's books (or read between the lines of them, anyway) without a shudder of horror.  The roughness with which animals were treated, the sometimes inept care, and the loss of life are staggering.  If zoos still acquired their animals in such a manner today, I can't say I'd be in this field (though lots of people do think this is how we get our animals).  Fortunately, we don't.  Enough of those animals that were live-captured in the bad-old days  -including some caught and sold by Frank Buck - survived and bred, forming the nucleus of the zoo animal population that we have today.

How we treat their descendants is up to us.  Hopefully, we choose a gentler, more caring life than Frank Buck would have provided.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

I'm Thankful For...

Happy Thanksgiving!  I've been following a really cool artist facebook page called Peppermint Narwhal, and they've been ringing in November with lots of these "I'm Thankful For..." Animal montages.  So, I made a montage of a montage.  Check out their site to see more!  Ok, off to work...

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Taxonomy Matters

"The royal, or giant, sable of Angola might someday even be stripped of its subspecies status, dismissed as a relic Hippotragus variant living out a twilight existence in the land between two rivers. But a certain mantle of meaning will always linger with the beast... if only because the Angolans see [it] with different eyes."

- John Frederick Walker, A Certain Curve of Horn

In my last semester of college, I actually got around to taking what was probably one of my most important classes - Conservation Biology.  The professor had a knack for being able to sum up complicated ideas in bumper-sticker catch phrases, as he demonstrated on the first day of class, when he scrawled "We're F---ED" on the chalk board as a summation of modern conservation theory.  A slightly more detailed, if less memorable, phrase came on a lecture on subspecies - "Taxonomy Matters."

It seems that before coming to campus, the prof had spent many a year in the field, a large amount of it devoted to studying an endangered subspecies of white-tailed deer.  After years of observing and monitoring and tracking and writing grants and proposals, he had a bomb-shell drop into his lap - his precious subspecies might not have been a subspecies at all.  They may have just been... white-tailed deer.

John Frederick Walker could probably share the feeling.  After years of idealizing the giant sable antelope of Angola, he was told by some South African geneticists that testings suggests that the giant sable is really no different from the other sable antelope of southern Africa.  Sure, it has special characteristics - really big horns, distinct facial markings - but those can be found in other sable populations, too.  Walker wasn't the only one to be horrified - if the giant sable lost its unique subspecies status, "Angola doesn't have a national animal anymore!" worries one conservationist.

Giant sable antelope bull (mounted) at the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago

To be clear, there are still sable antelope running around the miombo groves of Angola, just as the white-tailed deer my professor studied wouldn't just up and vanish if their subspecies status was lost.  It would just mean that they are no longer considered a unique biological unique, distinct from all others.  And that can have major impacts of conservation.

This week, the world mourned the loss of one of the last four northern white rhinoceros in the world, euthanized due to age-related medical issues in San Diego.  With her passing, there are now three members left in the world.  But members of what?  Are they a subspecies, as most biologists maintain?  A separate species, completely distinct from the relatively-abundant southern white rhinos of southern Africa?  Or are they really no different at all?  If that's the case, then there's no major worry - they'd be interchangable with other white rhinos, and we could always move some up from South Africa, assuming things every stabilize in Central Africa, where the northern white is from.

Taxonomy (the science of the classification of living things) is a constant struggle between two camps - the splitters, who are breaking species into subspecies, or separate species, seemingly all the time, and the lumpers, who insist that differences in many cases are too minor to worry about.  Based on casual observations of zoology over the last two-decades of me paying attention, I'd say the splitters are winning. We had one species of clouded leopard when I was growing up, now we have two.  There were three species of crocodile in Africa, now we have seven or so (no one seems to know).  To be fair, the lumpers win occasionally, waving their wands and turning two species of tuatara into one.

A few years ago, this animal would have been considered a Nile crocodile (Crocodylus niloticus).  Now, it's listed as a separate species, the West African crocodile (Crocodylus suchus)

The animals themselves don't change, just how we look at them.  Unfortunately, that influences how we (or if we) decide to protect them.  Some people look at the rust-colored, leggy canids of the southeastern United States and see red wolves, a distinct species and one in dire need of protection.  Others see the hybrid of a gray wolf and a coyote, an animal of no biological importance, and one which we should ignore, focusing our efforts of other species.  Many scientists worked to save the giant sable because they saw it as something special and unique. If, biologically speaking, it wasn't, should those resources and energies have gone towards saving a "more deserving" animal?

Oh, me?  I tend to be a lumper, but only out of complete cowardice.  We have so many endangered species already in desperate need of conservation.  The last thing we need is more...

PS:  As of right now, both the giant sable antelope and the Columbian white-tailed deer retain their subspecies status, according to the IUCN

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Book Review: A Certain Curve of Horn: The Hundred-Year Quest for the Giant Sable Antelope of Angola

"Five years later, the IUCN still had not undertaken a giant sable survey.  It had been postponed every year for 'security reasons' until it had been permanently shelved in disgust at the turn of events.  But I was going to Angola anyway."

When many people are asked to name the most majestic wild animal on the African continent, they probably think of lions or elephants.  My vote, however, goes to a considerably less-famous animal - the giant sable antelope, a heraldic black-and-white beast found only in the miombo forests of central Angola.  The sable may be relatively unknown to many Americans, but I know I'm not alone in my vote.  Since its discovery (to the western world, anyway) in 1916, the sable - especially the males, crowned with sweeping horns that may surpass five-feet in length - have been one of the most desired, sought-after animals in the world.  That has become their downfall... and it might be their salvation.

In A Certain Curve of Horn: The Hundred-Year Quest for the Giant Sable Antelope of Angola, John Frederick Walker explores our shared history with the most spectacular subspecies of what many consider to be the world's most spectacular antelope.  The sable was first described by British engineer Frank Varian, who was building a railroad through the then-Portuguese colony of Angola.  As soon as word of the antelope spread, it quickly became the most coveted trophy animal in Africa, with hunters from around the world coming to Angola to get a record-setting pair of horns.  

The giant sable occurs only in Angola, and so the story of this antelope is also a story of that country.  Walker weaves the history of Angola effectively through his narrative, from the Kongo Kingdom which predated European settlers to, most importantly, the long, bloody, and chaotic civil war which ravaged that country for decades and drew in such disparate players as Cuba, South Africa, the Soviet Union, and the United States.  Caught in the middle of the war was the giant sable, the home range of which lay smack-dab in the middle of the lands ruled by rebel warlord Jonas Savimbi (natural history aside, the biographical elements of the brutal, mercurial Savimbi alone make this a worthwhile read).  

Throughout the war (which resulted in an explosion of poaching as armies sought to fund their operations and feed their troops), the question that circled around the conservation community, in Africa and abroad, is "Could the giant sable have survived?  And if so, how much longer can it hold out?"

I won't give away any endings, but Walker's book captures the struggle of different groups, all of whom want to save the sable (if it's still out there), but can't agree how.  Strict preservationists, who want to try and salvage the habitat?  Zoos, who advocate captive breeding programs safely removed from war-torn Angola?  Trophy hunters, who claim that only the revenue they bring can fund conservation?  Angolan politicians and generals, who want to relocate sable to lands firmly under their control?  And atop all of it, a geneticist who drops a major bombshell - there might not even be such a thing as a giant sable!

A Certain Curve of Horn offers up one of the most common conundrums concerning high-profile endangered species.  Everyone wants to possess it... but who can actually save it?

A Certain Curve of Horn at


Saturday, November 21, 2015

Horn and Bone, Egg and Tusk

There's a room at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore that visitors typically don't get to see.  It's not that impressive in itself, more like a big walk-through closet lined with shelves.  Tucked away on those shelves, in tupperware tubs and plastic crates, swaddled with bubble wrap or sheets, neatly catalogued for easy reference, is an astonishing collection of skulls, horns, tusks, egg shells, and other remnants of the zoo's past occupants.  Some were relics of the zoo's care of animals - the cap that an elephant wore on her tusk, or a cast that was worn by a polar bear with a broken arm.  These treasures reside here until they are called into use, when a volunteer or docent may check one out and take it out to use in education programs.

There are similar collections at zoos and aquariums around the world; I mentioned Baltimore's simply because it was one of the more impressive ones I've seen.  These items are called "biofacts", as in "biological artifacts."  They are prized among zoos for their educational value, as well as for the impact they can have on visitors.  An obvious benefit is that they are touchable.  It's one thing to see a grizzly bear's claws on a computer screen, another still to see them tapping on the glass that separates the two of you at a zoo.  To really appreciate their size and power, however, nothing matches being able to hold one in your hand... without the bear being attached, of course.

One biofact that I remember well was the first rhino horn that I held.  It was the smaller of the two horns from a white rhinoceros, an animal I've since seen several times in zoos and in the wild.  Holding that horn in my hands, however, I saw and felt something new which made a major impact on me.  I'd known that rhino horn is made of keratin, the same protein as our hair and fingernails, which makes the whole supposed medicinal value of it seem even sketchier.  With that horn a few inches from my eyes, however, I was able to notice something very interesting - frayed ends.  There were areas where the highly-condensed hair of the horn was coming loose, and I was able to run my fingertips over a rhino's split ends.  It was then that it dawned on me that people were slaughtering rhinos for that... a mass of hair.

A colleague at another facility told me about a less enlightened biofact moment.  He was working at an aquarium that featured sea otters, a species which had almost been driven to extinction by hunting for its pelt.  You see, sea otters have incredibly luxorious pelts of dense fur - they need it to keep warm in the waters of the North Pacific - and their fur is unbelievably soft.  This colleague was standing outside the sea otter exhibit with a pelt that he was allowing people to touch.  Most people did so, then stayed to listen to him talk about the otters.  Some, however, became fixated on it, stroking it over and over again with a look on their faces that he described as "borderline-aroused."  They began to ask him where they could get coats of this from.  He tried explaining that it took several otters to make a coat, that they were an endangered species, etc.  Didn't care - they wanted coats.

Biofacts are an amazing draw for visitors, and can help zoo educators open up conversations about the animals.  I feel like there is such potential for sensory-overload in a zoo that visitors flit from animal to animal, distracted by the next glimpse, the next sound, that it can be difficult to engage them if there isn't a way to slow them down.  Seeing a hippo skull perched on a cart, or a docent cradling a blown-out ostrich egg in her hands, can hold a person's attention long enough for education to have an opening.

A problem with biofacts is that many of them come from deceased animals, so their supply is limited.  A few companies exist which produce replica skulls and horns of museum quality, though I always prefer the real thing if possible.  People always ask if something is real; if it's not, I feel like they lose their connection with it.  That being said, if it's an object that you're going to allow huge numbers of people to touch, especially in an unsupervised atmosphere, a cast or replica can be for the best.  They tend to made a little sturdier than the real thing.  I think I'd have a heart attack if I saw a priceless skull tipping over and shattering on the floor because someone bumped into it carelessly.

Tucked away in a shoebox in my room is my own little biofact collection, assembled over the years with odds and ends picked up from around my life in zoos.  A claw from a two-toed sloth, a souvenir of a female who seemed to always be growing and breaking claws.  The fang of a black mamba, found when I was cleaning its cage after my boss had removed it.  A tuft of pungent-smelling lion's mane that was snagged on some brush.  An infertile emu egg of an astounding blue.  Clipped beaver teeth.  My own treasure chest.

There's nothing too incredible - the good stuff I leave with the zoos for use in their education programs.  Certainly I make sure I'm not bringing home anything illegal, like eagle feathers.  But these bits and pieces, along with photographs, video clips, and the odd animal painting or two, are enough to remind me of some of the great animals I've gotten to share my life with.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Penguins on the Run

Call them mint jelly, because they're on the lam!  A flock of gentoo penguins at the Odense Zoo in Denmark decided to go for a little bit of a stroll... well, maybe "run" would be a better description.  I think someone's been watching Madagascar a few times too many (I know, I hate myself, everyone's made that joke after seeing this... but it works so well!)

It's not uncommon for zoos with penguins to take them for strolls through public areas - Edinburgh Zoo is famous for its "Penguin Parades", and I saw a much smaller-scale, but still very cool, version at the Newport Aquarium last year.  Of course, those were more planned excursions.

I mean, seriously, imagine being the keeper who walked in on this little fiasco.  "Smile and wave, boys, smile and wave..."

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Atlantic Sturgeon (Acipenser oxyrinchus)

Atlantic Sturgeon
Acipenser oxyrinchus (Mitchill, 1815)

Range: Atlantic Coast of Canada and United States
Habitat: Coastal Waters, Estuaries, Rivers
Diet: Crustaceans, Worms, Mollusks
Social Grouping: May congregate during migrations, at food sources
Reproduction: Reproductive maturity dependent on body size (fish breed based on when they reach a certain size, not a certain age), spawning begins in spring, traveling into rivers to lay up to 8 million eggs.  Males breed every 1-5 years, females every 2-5 years
Lifespan: 60 Years
Conservation: IUCN Near Threatened, CITES Appendix II

  • Body length up to 4.3 meters, weigh up to 370 kilograms
  • Dorsal (back) surface is blue-black or olive-brown, while ventral (belly) side is white.  The back is covered with five major rows of hard scales.  Heavy cylindrical body with an elongated, pointy snout
  • Anadromous - meaning that adults spawn in freshwater, but spend most of their lives in saltwater (likely that cold, clean freshwater is needed for larval development)
  • Sturgeon are occasionally seen breaching (jumping out of the water) - the reason why is unknown, but it may be an attempt to ride themselves of parasites
  • Two subspecies: A. o. oxyrinchus (Atlantic) and A. o. desotoi (Gulf of Mexico)
  • Historically have been threatened by overfishing, largely for meat, roe (caviar), and oil, as well as habitat degradation through pollution, dredging, or dam construction.  
  • US Atlantic sturgeon fisheries have been closed since 1997; fishing is regulated but allowed in Canada.  Sometimes accidentally captured by fishermen targeting other species

Monday, November 16, 2015

From the News: Don't Bother the Animals... Or Else.

Thousands of visitors come through the gates of our little zoo every year, and the vast majority of them, I'm happy to have.  There are always a handful that cause trouble, though.  I don't mean the ones who say annoying or ignorant things - those we can live with.  I mean the ones who are actually just... bad.  Rock throwers.  Fence jumpers.  Spitters (especially directed towards llamas and camels).

We run them off when we see them, sometimes throwing them out when it seems appropriate.  Occasionally one or two will talk back, and a quick threat to call the police has always gotten them to change their tune.  I'm honestly not 100% sure what, if anything, would happen if I did call the police on someone bothering animals; the only time I've ever actually called them was on a brawl that broke out in the parking lot one day.

The Sequoia Park Zoo in Eureka, California, has decided that they're not going to hold back when visitors torment zoo animals anymore.  A new law put to the city council makes harassing a zoo animal a criminal offense.  I think it's a great idea - the welfare of their animals should be the top priority of any zoo, and sometimes you need teeth to help enforce their protection.

I would, however, hope that there's a little structure and leeway into what constitutes harassment.  It's important to remember that, when visitors annoy zoo animals, plenty of them do it without realizing that they are doing so - few people understand how annoying glass-banging can be, for example.  Hopefully the zoo will continue to educate and (gently) correct visitors who are acting out of ignorance, while now having the authority to punish those who act out of malice or who put the safety of the animals in jeopardy.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Zoo Review: Brandywine Zoo

It's not a far drive from the Philadelphia Zoo to the Brandywine Zoo, Delaware's only zoological park.  While Philadelphia is a vast, sprawling zoo, as one would expect in such a large city, Brandywine is a rather tiny zoo, easily one of the smallest in the AZA.  After passing through the front gate, it took me all of five minutes of strolling to reach the end of the single path that the exhibits are arranged off of.

The best exhibit at Brandywine is probably the first one of the most visitors will see - a towering, sprawling flight cage for Andean condors.  The craggy enclosure is fronted with a covered seating area, and on the slow, rainy day when I visited, I could easily imagine large groups of school children being funneled through the gates and directed to this seating area, watching the giant vultures perch above them as their teachers and chaperones made last minute counts and plans.

The worst exhibit at Brandywine is almost certainly the tiger exhibit.  It really doesn't have much in the way of redeeming qualities.  It's small.  It's ugly.  It's unnatural.  And it doesn't even offer that great of a view of the tigers.  It occupies some of the key real estate in the zoo, and I imagine that, with sufficient funds, the zoo could do a lot with it - maybe try another cat species, like snow leopard or puma, which would allow for the exhibit to use vertical space more effectively.  As it stands, I would recommend the zoo either phase out the tigers or go all-in and commit to a better exhibit... and if they're going to do that, then they should communicate to the public that they're working on it.

The rest of the exhibits, scattered along the path that begins at condor and meanders past tiger, are a mixed bag of decent to mediocre.  Animals exhibited include bobcat, capybara, rhea, and toucans.  Some of the nicer habitats are the (new) red panda, bald eagle, and North American river otters exhibits, the later with underwater viewing.  The shabbiest are a few small bird cages which housed kestrels and parrots, wire closed in with Plexiglas.

I know this review probably comes across as pretty down on Brandywine, but I like to think that their star is on the rise.  The zoo suffered a major blow in 2013 when their Monkey House, the zoo's biggest exhibit area, was destroyed by a falling tree (thankfully no staff or animals have been hurt).  Since then, the zoo has been working on reinventing itself as a smaller, better zoo... which isn't to say that there hasn't been growth and change.  The new eagle and red panda exhibits are nice enough, as is a bee exhibit.  The zoo has been playing catch-up as far as the old Monkey House goes, hurrying to get small primates and reptiles back on display.  The longer term plan calls for a new rainforest building to be erected as a replacement.

I've worked in big zoos and small zoos over the course of my career, with a definite tilt towards more time in the smaller ones.  Small zoos have obvious disadvantages over big zoos - less space, less staff, fewer resources, and often smaller communities to draw support from.  That being said, they also have opportunities to show creativity, flexibility, and ambition that larger, more cumbersome facilities sometimes lack.  Brandywine definitely faces some challenges, but it also has great opportunity to became a great little zoo.  Steps taken over the last few years have been promising.  It'll be interesting to see where the future takes it.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Prusten Project

"[Richard Parker] made a sound, a snort from his nostrils.  I pricked my ears.  He did it a second time.  I was astonished.  Prusten?  Tigers make a variety of sounds... I had heard all these sounds growing up.  Except for prusten... Prusten is the quietest of tiger calls, a puff through the nose to express friendliness and harmless intentions."

- Yann Martel, The Life of Pi

Saving endangered species can't be done just in the zoo or aquarium - it requires collaboration with partners in the field, especially those working to protect the habitats where animals naturally live.  Over the past several years, I've been able to work alongside several such partner organizations (albeit often in the less-glamorous but highly important role of fundraising).  Some have been enormous organizations with budgets and staffs straddling continents, others have been very localized and grassroots-based.  

Recently, I began hearing a lot about one such grassroots-project, one which has its origins in zoos and sanctuaries - The Prusten Project.

Caring for rescued tigers at the National Tiger Sanctuary, Courtney Dunn noticed that she could identify individual tigers by their calls.  If it was possible to identify captive tigers individually, she reasoned, it could be possible to identify wild ones, thereby aiding in their study and conservation.  For all of their dominant presence in a zoo, tigers in the wild can be notoriously difficult to find, let alone track, and scientists studying them often have to use other, indirect observations to learn about them.  Camera traps.  Tree markings.  Poop.  So why not vocalizations?

Keepers at different zoos and sanctuaries record the vocalizations of their tigers, which are then submitted for acoustic analysis.  Not only are different vocalizations pinned to different individual tigers, but, using data collected on known, captive animals, scientists can then establish whether tiger vocalizations vary by age, sex, or other traits.  The idea is that scientists may not see tigers, but by identifying their individual roars and other calls, they may be better able to map out a wild population, determining how many tigers inhabit a patch of forest and collecting data on them... even if they remain unseen.  

Meredith Pennino, a volunteer for the project and keeper at Big Cat Rescue, records Bengali as part of our ex-situ study. (Photo Credit: Michael Kennedy)

Earlier this year, the wild-phase of the project was put into practice in Indonesia, home to the endangered Sumatran subspecies.

The most remarkable thing about The Prusten Project isn't the work that it's doing (though that is pretty awesome).  It's that it was begun and is being carried out by caretakers who work with tigers in captivity and want to save them in the wild.  It goes to show what kind of an impact a group of dedicated people, spread out across the country and across very different institutions, can have when they work together to save a species.

Learn more about The Prusten Project at their website

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Satire: Orca Tank Cleaning

Earlier this week, SeaWorld California announced a major change to how they are going to be doing their orca presentations, with more of a focus on education and conservation that showmanship.  With that change already in the works, they apparently figured they might as well give the tanks a good cleaning.  The ace reporters from The Onion got a glimpse at how it's done.

For more humor, check out the comments on the original post.  I knew it wouldn't take too long for someone to make a Finding Nemo joke.

Monday, November 9, 2015

From the News: Why zoos are purging themselves of peacocks

The free-roaming peafowl at our zoo are the animals that I get asked about maybe the most.  Partially it's because they're so popular with zoo visitors.  It's also got to do with the fact that no one ever knows quite where they'll turn up... including me.   Many zoos display free-roaming peafowl, but it looks like that may be changing.

Many of the factors that the author alludes to - pooping, predators, and pesky children - have always been around.  What likely is driving the zoo community away from peafowl is the newest specter on the horizon - Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza, which has already done considerable damage to the poultry industry in parts of the United States.  No one knows for sure how it will impact the zoo community.

No one is terribly eager to found out.

Some zoos have relocated or culled their flocks of peacocks because of such reasons as injuries to visitors and the risks of bird flu. (Jim Collins/ASSOCIATED PRESS) 

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Only the Lonely

“I am not a friend and I am not a servant. I am the Cat who walks by himself and all places are alike to me.” 

-Rudyard Kipling, "The Cat That Walked By Himself"

"Is that the only one?  Isn't he lonely? I think he's lonely."

These are some of the most common questions I get whenever a visitor at our zoo encounters an animal that is housed by itself (or appears to be by itself - plenty of times there's another animal in the exhibit that they're missing).  Currently at the facility where I work, we have a grand total of five individual mammals or birds (no one ever seems to ask about reptiles) which are housed completely by themselves.  Two of those are animals which are awaiting companions that will join them soon; a third is going to be shipped out to join a social group at a different zoo.  Still, that leaves two animals which are housed alone.  Both are cats.  All other animals in our zoo share their enclosure with someone.  They might be the only member of their species, but there are other animals with them in a mixed-species exhibit.   

Humans are an intensely social species.  Solitary confinement is one of the most profound horrors that people can imagine.  So it can be hard for us to understand that some animals prefer to be alone.  Not as in, they are okay with it, as in, they are not okay with companionship.  Many chameleons, for example, can't be housed together for much of the time.  In fact, males shouldn't even be housed where they can see each other.  At one zoo where I worked, several chameleons were displayed in side-by-side enclosures, but with solid visual partitions between their exhibits.  If those partitions were removed, allowing the chameleons to see one another, they instantly became stressed, even though there was still glass between them.  Some would rush into the foliage and try to hide; others would gape menacingly and threaten their neighbors.

Just as there are reasons that an animal would be social in the wild, there are also reasons why it pays be solitary.  Finding food, for instance - if there isn't much food available, and it's widely scattered, there's no sense in having competition all around you.  Protection from predators is another potential benefit.  On one hand, if you're in the middle of a big herd, the odds are a predator will take one of your herd-mates instead of you.  On the other hand, it's a lot easier for a predator to find a huge herd of animals rather than one lone one.

No wild animal is truly solitary 100 percent of the time.  At the very least, males and females come together to court and mate (excluding parthenogenesis).  Among mammals, mothers stay with their young for some period of time to raise their offspring.  Sometimes animals which are solitary in the wild can live comfortably in social groups in a zoo.  Unlike the African great apes - gorillas, chimpanzees, bonobos - orangutans in the wild are highly solitary.  The fruiting trees that they feed on are not conducive to group foraging, so it's every ape for themselves.  In a zoo, however, with plentiful food, there's no downside to companionship, and social groups can be maintained.  The same goes for bears, tigers, and many other solitary animals.  Social groups can provide enrichment and stimulation to compensate for other behaviors which a zoo may not be able to allow the expression.  A tiger may not be able to hunt blackbuck or chital, but it can tussle and play with another tiger.

Some animals are extremely social and require more socialization than others.  Primates and elephants, for example, are very sociable; AZA accreditation standards mandate that elephants be maintained in groups of at least three.  A caveat should be offered, however, that all animals - especially highly intelligent ones like elephants and apes - are individuals.  There are individual chimpanzees, or elephants, or wolves, or what have you, that simply do not get along with other members of the their species.  Maybe there are medical or behavioral reasons also; an older individual, for example, who has outlived companions, by prefer to be housed alone for the remainder of their days rather than integrated into rough and rowdy younger group.  In those cases, it's best just to manage that individual animal in a manner that treats it as an individual and takes its happiness and welfare as the primary goal.

As I've mentioned, right now I care for two animals that are more or less permanently solitary at this time.  Both have been with other members of their species in the past; both probably will be again at some point.  In the meantime, neither seems to be suffering from their solitude.  Both belong to species where, in the wild, they might go months without seeing another animal for their kind.  Both are cats.  They're used to walking by themselves.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Sporcle Quiz: AKA Animals

When the incident of the Norway hunter and his zoo-bagged moose (mentioned yesterday) made the news stateside, it caused a little bit of confusion.  In Norway, the animals he shot are called "elk", in the US, they are "moose", and an entirely different animal is called "elk."  This of course led to lots of experts in the comments section denouncing the reporters as idiots, when they were, in fact, correct... in their country.

It can be confusing - lots of animals have several different common names.  Puma concolor has several. In this month's quiz, can you match the two names by which an animal is sometimes referred to?

Thursday, November 5, 2015

A Special Kind of Stupid

The downside of last month's venom theme was that it made me temporarily overlook some interesting stories in the world of zoos.  There are the usual births and deaths and such.  There were also a few more... colorful occurrences.  Here are three particularly head-banging incidents that you may have missed in increasing order to stupidity.

This one isn't as much a stupid event as a bizarre one, one that was allowed to become humorous only because it narrowly dodged tragedy.  The current migrant crisis in Europe has enough tragedy going on right now, and it seems like everyone crossing the continent in search of a better life has a story.  Well, no one has a story like these three men, whose efforts to hitch a ride got them uncomfortably close to one of the world's largest predators.  Again, though, not the dumbest thing to happen... let's move to the next.

Moose roam a large enclosure at  Polar Park Arctic Wildlife Center in northern Norway.

Well, I guess no one can complain that this exhibit isn't natural looking.  I must say, the zoo in question is being much more understanding than I would be in these circumstances - all they're asking is that the hunter reimburse the zoo for the animals and the veterinary costs.  I'd have been a little less forgiving, I think.  Side note, this story causes a little confusion when it reached the US press because the animals shot were referred to as "elk."  In Europe, the animal that we call the moose goes by that name, not to be confused by the animal that we in the US call the elk (or sometimes wapiti).  This is why Latin names are useful.

Alright, tragic and unfortunate, but at least this guy had the excuse that he was mistaken.  What kinds of stupidity can someone get into deliberately?

Yep, we have a winner.  Here's the dumbest thing on the Internet.  And it happened on Halloween, of all nights, easily making this the worst nightmare than many zookeepers could have.  The zoo is pressing charges, as they should.  And just to lay everyone's worries to rest about the real victim here, the tiger is fine, and nothing bad is going to happen to her.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Species Fact Sheet: Terrible Poison Dart Frog (Phyllobates terribilis)

Golden Poison Dart Frog
Phyllobates terribilis (Myers, Daly, and Malkin, 1978)

Range: Northern Colombia
Habitat: Lowland Rainforest
Diet: Ants, Termites, Beetles
Social Grouping: Solitary, Small Groups
Reproduction: Polygynandrous (males and females both have multiple mates).  Mate year round.  Eggs are laid in clutches of 20, carried on the backs of the male to a small pool of water, where they undergo metamorphosis.  Eggs hatch after 12 days.  Sexually mature at 12-18 months.
Lifespan: 5 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Endangered

  • Largest of the poison dart frogs, body length 4.5-5.5 centimeter, with females growing larger than males
  • Unlike many other dart frogs, coloration is uniform, ranging from mint green (sometimes almost white) to deep orange, though yellow is the most common color; adults are more brightly colored than juveniles (juveniles also retain some striping, which fades with age)
  • A bony plate on the lower jaw gives this species the appearance of having teeth
  • The most toxic of poison dart frogs, their skin contains an alkaloid poison that blocks nerve transmissions and can cause paralysis; source of toxicity may be beetles of the genus Choresine
  • Hunt prey with stalk/attack motions, seizing insects with an adhesive tongue
  • Diurnal, terrestrial, not climbers; very bold, often seen out in the open with no fear of predators
  • Only known predators is a small snake (Liophis epinephelus) which feeds on young frogs but is too small to take adults, it appears to have immunity to the toxins of the frog
  • Captives display learning abilities and are quick to form associations, especially with anything pertaining to feeding
  • One of the only poison dart frog species known to be used for poisoning darts; darts can stay lethal for up to 2 years of being moistened with frog venom
  • Poisons of this species are being studied for medicinal properties, especially as pain killers or heart stimulants

Monday, November 2, 2015

Pretty in Poison

"... their bold patterns and vivid coloring are as effective as a neon sign in warning their natural predators of their lethal potential.  For outsides such as the men of the expedition, however, such signals meant little or nothing, and merely ensured that the only creatures they could see as they pushed through the forest were likely to be especially dangerous or even lethal"

- Candice Millard, The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey

The venomous snakes include some of the most visually striking (pun intended) of serpents with some of the most vibrant of colors (as well, to be fair, as a lot of very dull looking ones).  This isn't a coincidence.  Many toxic animals, whether venomous or poisonous, have bold, beautiful coloration, which is the biological equivalent of, as Millard so aptly put it, wearing a neon sign that flashes "DON'T... TOUCH... ME" for all the world to see.  Bright and bold color and patterns are a clear warning that an animal has some nasty defenses.

Conversely, it may also be indicative of an animal which is not actually venomous, but is trying to resemble a venomous species so that it will be left alone.  One of the classic examples is that of the (venomous) coral snake and the (non-venomous) milk snakes and king snakes.  Both are covered with bands of black, yellow, and red but (in North America, at least), the order of the bands varies between the two species, hence the endless variations of the following rhyme:

"Red to yellow, kills a fellow
Red to black, venom lack"

Bold warning colors aren't limited to snakes - a lot of animals have them.  Even, as a non-toxic example, the skunk, with it's glaringly obvious white stripe standing out against black fur, making it on of the most conspicuous animals of the North American forests.  But of all of the animals in zoos and aquariums that display warning coloration, few if any are brighter, bolder, or more beautiful than the poison dart frogs.

The dart frogs aren't the only poisonous frogs with bright colors - the mantellas of Madagascar come to mind - but they are certainly the most famous.  The common name of "poison dart frog" or "poison arrow frog" (zookeepers usually say "PDF"... which can confuse the IT people to no end) conveys images of South American Indians (all species of poison dart from are from the tropical forests of the New World) rubbing a dart or arrowhead against the back of a brightly-colored amphibian, then sending the projectile - via blowgun or bow - to an unwary victim, who will then succumb to the poison.  It's kinda true.  I say "kinda" because, of the 170 or so species, only a tiny handful are ever confirmed as having been used for this purpose.  Many of the other species aren't even that toxic, or at least to humans.  Still, the fact that any of them are used for this purpose is enough to make the entire group seem pretty awesome... which they are.  It's hard not to respect a thumb-sized frog that carries enough poison in its skin to kill 15 adult humans.

A scene from the movie Apocalypto, where the protagonist uses a frog (not a poison dart frog) to make blowgun darts.  Not sure how accurate this really is, but hey, it's a cool visual

Even without an awesome backstory, poison dart frogs are favorites among zookeepers and hobbyists alike.     They've been bred in captivity since the 1970's in Europe and America, first in zoos, gradually appearing in the private sector.  Their numbers include some of the most beautiful of all frogs, as described by their evocative names, like "strawberry", "bumblebee", and the far less original "green and black."  Also, because they are toxic, and therefore largely protected from predators, they tend to be very bold little frogs.  No hiding under a damp leaf all day for these guys (who tend to be among the more diurnal of frogs) - they are often seen sitting in a prominent location.  Or doing something - they can be surprisingly active, with males often wrestling for females.  Different species tend to be compatible, leading to some beautiful mixed-species exhibits, with brilliant frogs of different colors shining from dense green vegetation.

The famous poisons of the dart frogs do more than sicken or kill predators, also.  Some chemicals extracted from dart frogs are shown to have medicinal qualities as painkillers, muscle relaxants, or appetite suppressants.  Or consider the cool case of Dendrobates tinctorius, the dyeing poison dart frog.  "Dyeing" as in "coloring", not "dying" as in... well, ceasing to live.  The common name comes from the stories than South American Indians would treat their pet parrots with the poisons of these frogs, causing the birds' feathers to turn all sorts of funky colors (usually turning green feathers red or yellow).

Another neat thing about dart frog poison is where it comes from.  Whereas snakes are born with venom glands (and a baby rattlesnake or cobra can pack a wallop the moment it is born or hatched), dart frogs are believed to get their poison (whole or in part) from the ants that they eat in the wild.  Now, most zookeepers aren't feeding their dart frogs toxic Amazonian ants, but fruit flies or crickets, so captive-bred frogs tend not to be poisonous.  Kind of like making venomoid snakes, only minus the surgery and unpleasantness and welfare issues.  While keepers tend to handle PDFs gently and with gloves, they pose little health or safety risk to their caretakers when on a captive diet.

None of which is an invitation to stick one in your mouth, of course.