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Thursday, December 31, 2015

Zoo Nation: Commitment

Well, I wanted to end 2015 on a high note, and think I found it.  I came across this blog a month or so ago and have been looking for the right post to introduce it on.  I think this one'll do nicely.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Zoo Review Updates

This month’s Zoo Review is going to be a little different.  Instead of reviewing a new zoo or aquarium, I’m going to be giving a few quick updates on some of those that I’ve already highlighted.  Two years back, when I reviewed the book America’s Best Zoos, I commented on how quickly the reviews went out of date.  The zoo and aquarium world is a dynamic one, and facilities are constantly changing their collections and updating their facilities to provide the best animal care.

This list is biased towards the East Coast facilities, since those are the ones that I visit the most often.

At the Beardsley Zoo, construction of the Pampas Plains exhibit continues, and giant anteaters have been added.

The Wildlife Conservation Society’s flagship Bronx Zoo has opened up a new Komodo dragon exhibit.  The zoo has also taken the first steps towards becoming the fifth American zoo to display giant pandas.

Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium made waves this year with its announcement that it was leaving the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a move it made in protest of AZA’s opposition to their elephant program.  The news overshadowed what otherwise would have been the major news for the year, the opening of the first major new exhibit area in years. The Islands is a series of waterfalls, pools, and yards for animals of Indonesia and the Philippines.  Along the trail are clouded leopards, siamangs, Philippine crocodiles, and Visayan warty pigs.

On the other side of town, the National Aviary has also been busy.  The new Canary’s Call exhibit alludes to the historic use of canaries to warn coal miners of danger in the mines.  In this case, the fate of endangered birds serves as a warning to us about the state of our environment.  Ironically, the stars of the exhibit hall aren’t birds; they are the Malayan flying foxes, the second species of mammal on display at the otherwise birds-only facility.  At the time of my last visit, the Andean condor exhibit was getting a renovation, and a new exhibit was being constructed for Ragianna birds-of-paradise in the Wetlands exhibit hall.

Philadelphia Zoo continues to expand its Zoo 360 series of elevated tunnels.

Elmwood Park Zoo broke ground on a new habitat complex for Neotropical cats.  The jaguars will receive a new exhibit, while new enclosures will be added for ocelot and jaguarondi.

The big news at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore has been the construction of a new exhibit for the zoo’s flagship species, the African penguin, at the entrance of the zoo’s African Journey trail.  Resembling a South African fish plant, Penguin Coast is designed to house up to 100 of the black and white birds, doubling the size of Baltimore’s colony.  Special features of the new habitat include underwater viewing and a special classroom for education programs.  Nearby, a long-vacant exhibit has been refurbished for American flamingos.

Across town, the National Aquarium in Baltimore opened a new touch-tank exhibit.  Besides the usual suspects (horseshoe crabs, shells, etc), it caught my eye for being the first place I’ve ever seen visitors interacting with jellyfish in a touch tank setting.

Baltimore added, but Washington subtracted.  To my intense disappointed, the Smithsonian National Zoo closed its unique, one-of-a-kind Invertebrate House.  In celebration of the zoo’s 125th birthday, a new habitat for American bison was added off the main pathway.  Plans have recently been announced that call for the Bird House to undergo a massive renovation; when it opens, it will be built around the theme of avian migration.  I’m not sure what that means for the many bird species – such as kori bustard and Micronesian kingfisher – that the zoo has a long record of success with, but which don’t go along with that theme.

Virginia Zoo renovated its Australian area, offering visitors a chance to walk among kangaroos, red-necked wallabies, and emus.  The zoo recently announced that it will be transferring its African elephants to Zoo Miami.

The Newport Aquarium welcomed back mammals with the return of Asian small-clawed otters.  The otters are on display in the gallery that, at the time of my last visit, was being used for an exhibition of turtles and tortoises.

Cincinnati Zoo lost its distinction of being the only zoo in the country to exhibit a Sumatran rhinoceros with the transfer of their last male, Harapan, to Indonesia in a last-ditch effort to save the species.

The Lincoln Park Zoo was shuttering its penguin building at the time of my last visit.  The site was converted into the new Regenstein Macaque Forest, home to a family group of Japanese macaques, also known as snow monkeys.  The exhibit has been built along similar lines to the zoo’s African ape exhibits, with a strong focus on behavioral research.  The zoo’s construction continues as the old bear dens are being replaced with a large new polar bear exhibit, as well as a new habitat for African penguins.

The Riverbanks Zoo & Garden unveiled new habitats for grizzly bears and North American river otters.  A new exhibit for seals and sea lions (complete with underwater viewing) is next.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Polar Bear Astronaut

As we start to wind down 2015, I thought we'd end on a high note.  Reading Betty Webb's The Puffin of Death was a good reminder of how cute baby polar bears are.  Now, here's further evidence in video form.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Book Review: The Puffin of Death

There's a scene in the second Die Hard movie when an incredulous Bruce Willis wonders aloud how many times he can find himself in the same ludicrous position of having to single-handedly thwart terrorists. Theodore Bentley, protagonist of the Gunn Zoo mysteries, probably feels the same way.

Having solved no fewer than three zoo-related murders right in her own backyard, she now finds herself dealing with yet another.  Only this time, she's not at the fictitious Californian zoo, she's half-a-world-away in Iceland, the setting of Betty Webb's newest book in the series, The Puffin of Death.

Being removed from her zoo setting (there is a zoo - an Icelandic one - in this novel, but it plays only a tangential role in the story), animals don't feature as heavily as they do in the three previous novels - The Anteater of Death, The Koala of Death, and The Llama of Death.  We meet a few animals - a pair of Arctic foxes, a pair of puffins, and a lovable orphaned polar bear cub - but compared to the other books, there's much less "teachable zoo" moments and more mystery and whodunit.

The Gunn Zoo mysteries are one of two zookeeper-murder-mystery series that I am aware of, the other being Ann Littlewood's series, beginning with Night Kill.  The concept of a zookeeper solving crime struck me as odd at first, until a passing comment by protagonist Bentley caught my eye.  Teddy comments on a zookeeper's powers of observation, having to spend much of their time interpreting the behavior and motivations, and predicting the future actions, of the creatures they care for.  In that way, I guess zoo animals and murder suspects do have one thing in common - neither are prone to be too chatty.

The Puffin of Death won't drop too many bombshells on you - as with most murder mysteries, I feel like the easiest way to solve this one is write a list of all potential suspects, and then check them off one by one as the narrator suspects them - it's always the one the they never suspect (or at least acknowledge suspecting to the reader).  It also doesn't offer as much in the way of insights into zoos and their residents (human and animal) as much as some of the earlier works in this series.  It does have it's own virtues, though, such as an oddball cast of characters (entirely different from the previous books) and a lot of evocative descriptions about Iceland, which make it perfectly enjoyable for some light reading.

If nothing else, it sure makes you want to visit Iceland.

The Puffin of Death at

Saturday, December 26, 2015

A Christmas (Enrichment) Story

Christmas and Thanksgiving are stressful days for me at the zoo.  On the one hand, I want to get in, get the job done, and then leave so I can go home and see family.  On a good day, I can have my assigned animals knocked out in an hour and a half.  At the same time, I really want to do a complete job, partially for the well-being of the animals, partially so there's less unfair mess left for my coworkers on the 26th.

One thing that I always struggle with is enrichment - to give it on Christmas, or not?

Enrichment hasn't come easy to me as a keeper.  I started off as a reptile keeper, where "enrichment" usually means moving the furniture around every once in a while.  Then, I spent most of my career working for various private zoo owners, all of whom were pretty dismissive of the whole concept.  Now, working in an AZA-accredited zoo, I know the importance of enrichment in promoting the the physical, mental, and emotional health of zoo animals.  I like to think that I implement a lot of it.  But sometimes old habits die hard.

Some enrichment has the potential to be dangerous - toxic, a choking hazard, a shatter hazard, or whatever.  Some will backfire and stress or upset or frighten the animal.  And some will be completely ignored.  Actually, in my experience, a lot of it is ignored.  And so, coming from a line of mentors who thought of enrichment as ratty paper bags and cardboard boxes strewn around an enclosure, I've always struggled with the question, "Is this really worth it?"

Usually, I decide yes, yes it is.  Even in my hurry on Christmas Day yesterday, I still made a point of enriching the carnivores, the primates, and the parrots.  Then, I went home with a clean conscience.  If I'd loitered at the zoo for a little longer, I could have gotten home in time to have missed my least favorite part of the Christmas season, the endless repetitions of the movie A Christmas Story

A Christmas Story, for those six of you who haven't seen it, is a story of a young man's quest to obtain the ultimate Christmas present - a Red Rider BB Gun - in the face of constant admonishments that he'll shoot his eye out.  When I walked in, it was the tail end of the movie - Christmas morning - when presents were being distributed to Ralphie and his brother.  I'd seen this scene over and over again.  Today, however, enrichment was fresh on my mind, and it took on a new meaning.

The first present Ralphie gets is a horrible set of pink rabbit pajamas of a sort that the eight-year-old me would have rather died than be seen in public.  Ralphie appears to agree, and his face has a complete "This is killing me" look as he is forced to wear them.  There's a fair bit of enrichment that is like this, I suspect - it makes the giver feel good about themselves, but does nothing beneficial for the animal, and they would just as soon do without it.  An example of this for me would be giving a bowling ball to our kangaroos.  I watched for half and hour.  They didn't touch it.  Granted, that was enrichment in itself - they had a choice, they simply chose not to do anything - but it really didn't do anything for them.

Ralphie's most precious gift, his beloved BB gun, is his final present.  He takes it outside and... shoots his eye out (well, not really, but it comes close).  There's some enrichment like this.  It's really fun and the animals will love it and play with it extensively, sometimes to the point where they risk hurting themselves or another animal.  We have a jaguar with a very short "approved enrichment" list because she gets so excited about anything... I mean anything... that she'll eventually try to eat it.  Only gifts that are edible or 100% NOT-edible (again, the bowling ball) go to her.

So what's the ideal?  Nothing for Ralphie, but his brother does get a toy fire truck, which he absolutely loves.  Unlike the pajamas or the gun, it's a gift that was carefully chosen exactly for a young child, both in terms of how much fun it is and how safe it is.  Despite my initial misgivings, since I've started doing enrichment, I've found plenty of items like that.  Puzzle feeders for monkeys.  Floating pull toys for otters.  Mirrors for birds.  It's a list that I'm constantly adding to as I learn from other keepers.

Christmas is about giving, not just receiving.  The same could be said about zookeeping.  The goal should be to give the best care possible to your animals.  Often, that includes enrichment; today, I do enrichment for animals that I never would have considered it for years ago, like snakes and tarantulas.  The important thing, however, is to make sure what you are giving them is both fun and safe.

After all, no one wants to have to tell their curator that a spider monkey just shot his eye out.

Merry Christmas!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Merry Christmas 2015!

Merry Christmas, from The Zoo Review, especially to all those keepers and aquarists working this Holiday Season!

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Cold Hands, Warm Heart... (Well, Cold Hands, Anyway)

I went and saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens last night.  I won't give away any spoilers, but there were definitely a few things that I was waiting for.  Someone to say "I've got a bad feeling about this", for instance. Or for someone to lose a hand.

Seriously, the Star Wars folks seem to have a thing about lopping off hands.  Luke has his cut off in The Empire Strikes Back.  Count Dooku has both of his taken off in Revenge of the Sith, as does Mace Windu.  And Anakin Skywalker (AKA Darth Vader) looses four hands throughout the series.  That's a lot of hand-lopping.

Why am I bringing this up?  Because if we lived in Star Wars world, and those fancy cybernetic hands that half the characters seem to have were real and readily available, I would totally get a pair.  My hands are my least favorite part of winter at the zoo.

I'm not sure if my hands are always cold because of poor circulation, or if I have poor circulation because I am always letting them get too cold.  The fact is, they are absolutely useless in any weather below 30 Fahrenheit.  If I could replace them with something just as functional but immune to the cold, I'd be grabbing a lightsaber as we speak.

And don't bother asking me about gloves.  In several years of trying, I have yet to find a single set of gloves which do me any good at work.  I've tried gloves of every material, every consistency, and every brand.  None can do my hands a little bit of good.  Plus, they rob me of my dexterity, so I always end up pulling them off and putting them back on so I can manipulate keys, locks, doors, spigots, and a hundred other things.  Keeping in mind that zookeeping involves lots of working with water and metal in all weather, you can understand why it's easy to freeze your hands (water and metal are, incidentally, also my two favorite things to be working with in our not-infrequent lightning storms).

The natural remedy to being out in the cold is, of course, to rush inside as quickly as possible and stick your hands in scalding water, which feels awesome, but does no good to your soon-to-be-cracked-and-bleeding hands.

It's not so bad if you're taking care of tropical zoo animals, which will be happy and snug inside their holding buildings during the coldest parts of the year (reptile keepers have it so good).  It's awful if you're taking care of polar bears, wolves, bison, takin, and other cold-hardy beasts who love to be out when the weather is terrible and don't understand why you don't too.

In conclusion, winter is evil.  The zoos of the future should, as soon as technology catches up, all be placed under gigantic domes that are completely climate controlled to a perfect 70 degrees every day.

That or someone better get moving on these robotic hands.

Monday, December 21, 2015

From the News: Release of captive bred Tasmanian devils

The fondest goal of every zookeeper is to be able to see animals that they've nurtured and cared for reintroduced into the wild.  No, I lie, the fondest dream is to have drains that are located in the lowest part of their building floors, but the reintroduction thing, that ranks somewhere in the top five, right?

This year, the Tasmanian devil joined the ranks of species in which captive bred animals have been reintroduced into the wild.  Those ranks include the Arabian oryx, Kihansi spray toad, black-footed ferret, and California condor, among others.  This news was paired with the announcement of increased success in the vaccination battle against the horrible disease which is decimating wild devil populations (the captive-bred, released devils have all been immunized).  The future for the world's largest carnivorous marsupial is looking brighter.

And Tasmania isn't the only place where devils are on the rise.  After several years of absence, the species is reappearing in American zoo collections.  It's been over 15 years since I saw a Tasmanian devil in the flesh, and I look forward to seeing one again.  More important than satisfying my curiosity, however, is the fact that this partnership between Australian conservationists and American zookeepers is already reaping benefits for devil conservation in the wild, as evidenced by the recent generous support of the Toledo Zoo.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Zoo Light, Zoo Bright

As winter descends upon us, we've entered the time of year where I can easily go a week or two at a time without seeing my home in the daylight.  Dawn hasn't quite broken yet by the time I leave in the morning.  It's dark by the time I get back at night, even if I do go straight home.  There's a lot of things I miss about the change of the seasons - not being able to walk to and from work anymore, not having as much time for after-work outdoor activities, not even having the simple pleasure of bird-watching out my window as I get ready for work in the morning (I've tried taking up bat-watching, thus far unsuccessfully).

At least I have one consolation to get me through the long, dark nights.  I don't have to do ZooLights.

ZooLights refers to the stringing of lights up at the zoo so visitors can come after hours and admire them.  It's become increasingly popular as a winter pastime at many zoos, many of which extend their hours late into the evening.  Often, indoor exhibits are kept open which, at some northern zoos, pretty much equals the whole collection.  Hot chocolate, cider, and donuts are sold, musicians and other performers arrive, Santa often makes an appearance, and the whole thing is just so very festive.

Dodged that bullet.

Oglebay's Good Zoo has a the right idea... the resort that includes the zoo does a huge, elaborate Festival of Lights every winter, allowing the zoo to effectively outsource ZooLights to their parent organization.

It's not that I don't like ZooLights - I've visited them at other facilities - National Zoo, Lincoln Park Zoo - and enjoyed it... albeit mostly as a chance to view animals, not so much the lights.  I appreciate the role that the activity can have in drumming up support and custom from the zoo, especially from folks who might not be regular patrons.  And it certainly can help get you into the holiday spirit.

Nah.  What I resented was just what a pain in the butt it was to put together and man.  At least, that was my experience.

Maybe my former coworkers and I just stunk at it.  As soon as our mediocre Halloween event was done every year, we'd gear up for our also mediocre Christmas one.  Except for ZooLights, we were closed at that time of year, so the place wasn't really set up for visitors at that point anyway, and we were all tripping over hoses and extension cords it seemed.  Lights and decorations were strung without especially a lot of care or skill (one coworker was fond of using big, ugly strips of duct tape to hang lights, working under the theory that if you do a job badly enough, no one will ask you to do it again).   Extra shifts were tacked on, when we were voluntold to stay late and man the event.  I felt like I was always running around frantically checking to make sure that the sudden added load on our breakers didn't shut down our heat lamps in the animal enclosures (I mean, it was winter), many of which did, in fact, wink out (and were harder to notice than usual due to all of the other lights everywhere).  And then we had the extra bonus of policing our zoo... in the dark. Lots of crazy stuff going down in the shadows.

What little cash we brought in from that event wouldn't have covered my therapy bills.

So yeah, while I do feel some sympathy for keepers who have to work ZooLights at their zoos, they all seem to have their acts together much better than we did (I mean, how could they not and still be legally open)?  All the same, I'm glad that my current workplace doesn't do this particular activity.  It means that, when the sun goes down, I can be at home with a mug of hot chocolate and a book, trying to massage feeling back into my hands.

Besides, if I want to go and see ZooLights, I know where to find them... at pretty much every other zoo in America.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Zoo History: The Lions in the Tower

This post is sort of a hybrid Zoo History/Book Review, as most of the information I used for it comes from Daniel Hahn's The Tower Menagerie: The Amazing 600-Year History of the Royal Collection of Wild and Ferocious Beasts Kept at the Tower of London

Long before the first formal zoos were established, royal menageries were found across the courts of Europe.  Some were modest collections, a few bears in a moat, others were extravagant displays featuring a wide variety of species from around the world.  Of all the menageries across the continent, few had a longer life, a more colorful history, or a more dramatic setting than the one housed in the Tower of London.

When the Plantagenet King Henry III wed his sister to the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, he did so with the expectation that the union would further his power and status.  What he probably did not expect was that it would come with a gift of leopards - three of them (or lions... references to animals, even relatively well-known ones, in the Middle Ages can be maddeningly unclear).  It isn't as oddball of a present as one might thing; throughout history, rulers have often exchanged animals between one another, such as the Zarafa, the giraffe, or Pope Leo's rhinoceros.  Frederick II had a large and well-stocked menagerie, with specimens ranging from a giraffe to a polar bear, and it accompanied him almost everywhere he went.  Nor where the three wild cats the first exotic animals to reach England - other kings had kept beasts for years.  What was unique about these three was where they were lodged.

The Tower of London is one of the most famous fortresses of Europe, and it has served many roles over its lifetime.  It has been a residence for the royal household, a mint, a garden, and the repository of the Crown Jewels.  Most famously, it has served as a prison, with inmates as famous as Guy Fawkes and Sir Walter Raleigh, as well as more-than-a-few royals (Elizabeth I was herself kept prisoner here).  One of its least-known roles, however, has been royal zoo.

Over the next six centuries, animals flitted in and out of the Menagerie, which grew and decayed based on the whim of whoever was warming the throne at that time.  Among its residents were a polar bear who was taken to the Thames to fish for his supper every day, the first elephant seen in Britain since Roman times, what was reported to be the last British wolf, and  a room full of monkeys which visitors were allowed to walk among.  The most famous residents had always been the lions (actual lions, not "maybe leopards"), which held association with the British royalty.  Lions and lionesses were named after kings and queens, and the death of the animal was said to forebode the death of their namesake.

Unlike many other menageries, such as the French menagerie at Versailles, the Tower wasn't limited to royalty and their visitors.  It instead became one of the continent's first and most successful tourist attractions, with generations of Londoners coming to see the lions.  Don't have money to see them?  It's okay! Payment was also accepted in the form of a dog, cat, or other small animal to feed the caged carnivores.  Soon there also arose the zoo world's oldest and most lasting April Fool's joke, "The Washing of the Lions."

The history of the Tower Menagerie was a long one, but the same couldn't be said about the animals.  Conditions were poor, cramped, and dark, and animals failed to thrive in its confines.  Knowledge about husbandry and care was nil, as evidenced by an elephant that was given only wine to drink and, surprisingly, didn't last too long.  Even such questionable care practices paled in comparison to some of the darker whims of the Menagerie's masters.  At the time of James I, bear and bull baiting were popular sports throughout England, so it made sense that royalty would have a more exalted version.  During his reign, the Menagerie was reconfigured to allow fighting between lions, mastiffs, and other beasts for the king's viewing.  One such dog, the sole survivor of a pack that went up against a lion, was adopted by the prince and retired from fighting on the grounds that he's faced the fiercest beast on earth and should never have to fight another.

Eventually, the ebb of time brought the Menagerie to decay and decline.  By the nineteenth century, the modern zoo was already being formed across the Channel in Paris and, of course, anything France could do England had to do better.  When the Zoological Society of London was established in Regent's Park (which later became the first facility to be known familiarly as a "zoo"), the remaining animals in the Tower Menagerie were relocated there.  Today, the only captive wildlife left in the Tower are the ravens, the presence of which is said to safeguard the throne.

Again, for a more detailed history of the bestiary, I recommend Daniel Hahn's The Tower Menagerie: The Amazing 600-Year History of the Royal Collection of Wild and Ferocious Beasts Kept at the Tower of London, which was my main source for this article.  You can find that book at here.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Species Fact Profile: Takin (Budorcas taxicolor)

Budorcas taxicolor (Hodgson, 1850)

Range: Western China, India, Myanmar, Bhutan
Habitat: Alpine Forests and Meadows
Diet: Leaves, Grasses
Social Grouping: Small Family Herds, Older Males Solitary
Reproduction: Mating takes place July-August, single calf born after 7-8 month gestation period.  Young are sexually mature at 30 months of age.
Lifespan: 15 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable, CITES Appendix II

  • Body length 1.7-2.2 meters, 1-1.3 meters tall at the shoulder, weight up to 350 kilograms.  Males are larger than females
  • Stocky body with short, thick legs, large head has long, arched nose (somewhat resembling that of a moose) and stout curved horns (in both sexes) about 60 centimeters long.  The coat is long and shaggy, tan in color with a dark stripe along the back.
  • Migrate seasonally from mountain slope meadows in the summer (where they can congregate into large herds) to forested lowlands in the winter
  • Not very quick runners, but able climbers.  When threatened, give a cough-like alarm cry, which causes the herd to run into dense vegetation and lay down in the bamboo.  Predators include bears and wolves.
  • Little studied due to the remoteness of their habitat; possible threats are habitat loss and competition and diseases from introduced livestock.  In China, takin have benefited from protection they receive by sharing their habitat with giant pandas.
  • Have a great need for salt, and will travel great distances to obtain it
  • Four subspecies are recognized, varying in coat color - the golden (B. t. bedfordi), Sichuan (B. t. tibetana), Mishimi (B. t. taxicolor), and the Bhutan (B. t. whitei)
  • It has been suggested that "The Golden Fleece" of Greek mythology, sought after by Jason and the Argonauts, may have been the coat of a golden takin
  • "Takin" is the Tibetan name for the animal.  The Latin name translates as "Badger-Colored Ox-Gazelle"

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Zookeeper Personality Guide - Part III

And rounding things off after yesterday's look into the psyche of all the other keepers, today we take a look into the mind of a Mammal Keepers.  A pretty diverse bunch, it's just as well that we break them up.

Domestic Keepers, or Barnyard Keepers, tend to be some of the newer keepers at the zoo, though some choose to stay there, or to transfer from other departments.  They are forced to cope with not being taken especially seriously, as well as countless annoying jokes about what their animals taste like.  This is further complicated by the fact that they are the keepers who are most likely to have to supervise visitor interactions with their animals, during which anything can happen.  The most hands-on of keepers, they often develop some of the closest bonds with their animals, which is just as well, since from my experience domestics are the neediest of zoo animals - hoof trims, shearing, overeating, and to say nothing of the prevalence of hand-rearing.

Hoofstock Keepers, like Bird Keepers, often face the exasperation of working with animals that they love, but who visitors and other zoo professionals (including, alas, many administrators) can be dismissive of.  When I started off in zoos, hoofstock keepers were often regarded as, there's no nice way to put this, the intellectually limited ones - good for shoveling poop and stacking hay, but not much more than farmhands (the same was often said about the Domestic Keepers... they also share a distaste for jokes about eating their animals).  This really isn't true - hoofstock keepers are just as skilled as primate or carnivore keepers, and I've seen very impressive training and enrichment work from them.  Because hoofstock collections in many zoos are in decline, the fate of many captive ungulates seems to be more and more in the hands of the private sector, which hoofstock keepers tend to work closely with.  Certain other non-ungulates, such as kangaroos, capybara, ratites (ostriches and their kin), and even giant tortoises are sometimes deemed honorary hoofstock.

Carnivore Keepers can be somewhat prima donna-ish, having all of the glamour of working with the sexiest animals in the zoo.  They also have to be perpetually on their toes, as more than one keeper has learned that complacency kills.  Along with the primate keepers, they are among the most skilled in enrichment and training; their knowledge about animals in general, however, tends to be limited but very in-depth, as they usually work with a very small number of species, and a few individuals at that.  Frequently exhausted by having to answer questions about whether or not they go in with the lions, polar bears, etc...

Primate Keepers take care of the most intelligent (don't tell the Elephant Keepers I said this) and personable (ditto) animals in the zoo.  Their charges are, after all, primates just like them, so they relate more easily to them than other keepers would; in the case of great apes, you can easily start to think of them as people rather than animals.  Just like people, however, many other primates are jerks, or conniving, or what have you, so primate keepers have to spend lots of their time getting into the heads of their animals.  That also means that they have to spend lots of time analyzing and interpreting the complex social structures of their charges.  The primate keepers would like to let you know that monkeys really, really, do not make good pets, so please stop asking where you can get one.

Elephant and Marine Mammal Keepers, while taking care of very different species, are going to get lumped together here.  Both typically take care of one species (sometimes a small handful) and get to know their individual animals extremely well.  Both care for the rock-star species of their facility, and in some senses the facility revolves around them (sometimes to the hostility of other keepers, who watch lots of time and money and resources pour into these animals rather than their own *cough, hippos, cough*).  The bonds between keeper and kept are extremely strong, especially in cases where staff work free contact and their is nothing but trust preventing your elephants from picking you up and sending you flying three exhibits away.  They tend to be the most outgoing members of the zoo staff, a handy requirement when your job requires frequent public demonstrations and keeper talks. Elephant and marine mammal keepers are the most frequently targeted by anti-zoo activists, which can make them highly defensive, especially in light of false accusations of how they care for their animals.  At one facility where I worked, the one time I suggested that elephants might not be a good fit for our zoo anymore, I barely escaped with my life.

I didn't cover all possible animals, of course.  Besides, the way zoos are arranged these days, it's common for keepers to care for geographic areas rather than specific taxa: one keeper might take care of jaguars, toucans, and anacondas as part of a rainforest section, maybe tossing some chow to the freshwater fish on their way down the hall.  Still, even if you don't take care of a certain group of animals exclusively, you can still be on that "team."  Though I work with a little of everything, and once wanted to be a Carnivore Keeper, I think of myself as a mixed reptile/bird keeper.  Sometimes, when I talk with non-zoo friends (to the extent that I have any these days), I catch myself wondering... "What kind of a keeper are you?"

"And what about the aardvark keepers?  Won't someone please think of the aardvark keepers?"

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Zookeeper Personality Guide - Part II

In my last post, I shared a link to another blog, which described the different personality types of the different zoo keepers.  Some of them I agreed with, some I don't exactly, but I think everyone working in a zoo can agree - there definitely is an archetypal "Bird Keeper" or "Reptile Keeper" or "Chimp Keeper."  Today I thought I'd take a stab and try to define what those types are.  Again, these are stereotypes and there are exceptions to the rules.  Anyway, here we go...

Invertebrate Keepers and Aquarists (excluding Marine Mammal Keepers) are the keepers I've worked with the least.  They are often in the odd position of working with animals of which nothing is known, sometimes not even what species it is!  As a result, their professional field is one where the most changes are being made, with many new horizons to explore opening up all the time.  Both are also often in the position of taking care of a group of animals - a colony, a tank - rather than managing animals as individuals.

"And that one is Skipper, and that one is George, and that one over there is Russell - oh, he is such a rascal - and that one is..."

Reptile Keepers care for animals that scare the heck out of many people, and they delight in it.  Unlike many other keeper clades, they tend to be mostly male, often with a stereotypic manly stripe of adrenaline junkies (especially venomous keepers, or those working with large crocodilians).  Beneath their boyish, prankish exteriors (I've been hazed more by herpers than any other keepers), they have a deeper side.  Working with such an enormous variety of species, reptile keepers tend to be among the most academic of zookeepers, often possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of their animals.  They also tend to take care of far more individual animals than bird or mammal keepers, so there is often less emotionally connection to their animals, something some keepers perversely pride themselves on (exceptions are usually the biggest, most charismatic animals under their care, like crocodilians, or Komodo dragons and other monitors).  Emphasis is usually placed on rarity, with the most pride being placed in "one and only" specimens.  Reptile keepers tend to work more closely with the private sector than many other keeper cliques, and often have collections at home as well as work.  They tend to be some of the most involved in conservation.

Amphibian Keepers are often lumped with reptile keepers, which can be stressful for them.  They tend to be more serious, less extroverted, and all in all calmer and more disciplined.  Caring for animals which are much more sensitive to the minutiae of temperature, humidity, and water quality, they are more cautious by nature, compared to the rough-and-tumble world of reptile keepers... they are certainly more hands-off with their animals.  Like reptile keepers, amphibian keepers are generally very academic and more involved with conservation than other keepers.

Bird Keepers are what I sometimes think of as the cross-road keepers.  Like reptile and amphibian keepers, they take care of a wide variety of species and large number of individuals.  That requires them to know a lot about  a wide array of species and be able to keep track of their needs.  Like mammal keepers, however, they are often expected to incorporate more training and enrichment with their charges, especially the larger, more charismatic ones, such as ratites, parrots, and raptors.  Bird keepers have a weird deal, where lots of people (including other keepers) don't take them too seriously and dismiss their animals as "just birds", but at the same time are terrified of birds (big cat keepers talk tough, but they turn to jelly in the presence of an angry male crane... after all, they don't go in with their cats).  Bird keepers often have involvement in conservation and a close collaboration with the private sector.  If they have one major pet peeve, it's that they cannot understand why no one thinks their animals are cool.

Except for penguins.  Everyone loves penguins.

Mammal Keepers are their own diverse bag of issues... more on them later.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Zookeeper Personality Guide - Part I

I believe that is morally wrong to stereotype people by their race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender.  That being said, it is perfectly acceptable to stereotype zookeepers by the animals that they care for.

I saw this, one of several such "Personality Guides" that I've seen floating around on the web.  On some things I agree, on others, not so much... and some things I'm shocked that they don't see.  In my next post, I'll offer my version of this.  In the mean time, enjoy!

Zookeeper Personality Guide

A zoo is like a high school cafeteria: people tend to be grouped and classified with others like them.  Oh, and someone’s always throwing food.

Certain types of people prefer to work with certain types of animals, and on the flip side of that, certain types of animals attract certain types of people.  Don’t even act like that’s not true, y'all.  Many keepers (including me) work with a variety of species every day, but even then, almost every keeper has a niche where they fit best.

Curious to see where you land?  Under the cut, if you dare…

[DISCLAIMER: Jokes, people.  These are them.  Don’t get offended.]

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

From the News: With animal deaths, illnesses, this year hasn't been easy at Oklahoma City Zoo

Zookeeping is a wonderful job.  It's also a hard one.  It can be challenging physically, especially in brutal weather or hostile conditions.  It can be challenging mentally, whether it's absorbing information on your animals or solving bizarre problems that no one else has to deal with.  It can also be draining emotionally.

When a high-profile animal dies, zookeepers often find themselves and their institutions the subject of abuse from animal rights activists; I don't presume to know how zoo animals feel, but I would take a pretty dim view, personally, of anyone who tried to make political hay out of my death.  They also find themselves having to comfort the public, especially in the case of beloved animal celebrities.  What few people realize, however, is how deeply keepers and other caretakers themselves may mourn.

Caring for any sentient being involves emotional attachment, and zookeeping is no different.  I've seen plenty of keepers cry at the loss of a favorite animal, sometimes beating themselves up, wondering if there was more they could have done.  What makes it harder isn't just that you're in the public eye, it's that you can't just mourn in peace.  Your other animals are still depending on you.  You need to get back to work.

Oklahoma City Zoo veterinarian Jennifer D'Agostino watches a North American river otter in Oklahoma City, Wednesday November, 18 2015.  Photo by Steve Gooch, The Oklahoman

Monday, December 7, 2015

An Inadequate Response

Well, the truth can get ugly when you corner it... and this editorial has the ring of truth to it.  That's because the criticism doesn't come from some armchair philosopher, but from respected scientists, some of them involved in the zoo and aquarium community.  For all of our talk about elephants and rhinos and tigers and gorillas, the fact is that amphibians remain the most endangered class of vertebrates on earth, and the group that could most clearly benefit from the intervention of zoos and aquariums.  And there has been a response... it's just not nearly what everyone was hoping for.

The Dendrobatid breeding room at the Durrell Wildlife Park on Jersey Island (UK). Photo by Matt Goetz.

The Dendrobatid breeding room at the Durrell Wildlife Park on Jersey Island (UK). Photo by Matt Goetz.

Our much vaunted Amphibian Ark, to be true, has only a few passengers.  Go to almost any zoo and visit the amphibian collection and you'll see the same handful of species - a few species of dart frogs, hellbenders, and that poster child of amphibian conservation, the Panamanian golden frog.  There are many, many more species which need our support, however.  What's frustrating is how easy it would be for more zoos to step up and get involved.  Frogs and salamanders don't need a lot of space, and in ideal conditions produce tons of offspring.  It's easy to imagine a single trailer holding most of the population of a species (if not the species itself).  What it does require is a break from the notion that most of our efforts have to go to big mammals.

"Inadequate" is a tough adjective, but it's a fair one... but its implications bare consideration also.  I don't see it as a dismissal, I see it as a call to attention, an attempt to rally focus, a plea, and above all, a challenge -

"Is this the best that you can do?"

Amphibians have experienced massive declines worldwide, and scientists estimate that as many as 200 frog species have been lost in just the last two decades. A recent study, published in the journal Biological Conservation, analyzes how captive amphibian collections, held by a global network of zoos, have changed over the past 20 years in response to declines in the wild. With only 6.2% of globally threatened amphibians currently represented in worldwide collections, researchers are calling on zoos to step up conservation efforts to stem the tide of amphibian extinctions.

The 6.2% of globally threatened amphibians held by zoos compares poorly with global totals for birds (15.9%), mammals (23%), and reptiles (38%). The global total for amphibians is much lower, despite them being the most threatened group.

“Amphibians are in crisis and have been for a long time. They’re at the vanguard of what is now being called the sixth mass extinction. Despite this they still receive much less attention from the conservation community than other groups,” explained Jeff Dawson, lead author of the study and Amphibian Program Manager at the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust.

Read the rest of the article here

Friday, December 4, 2015

Chudders' Giraffe

Below is an email conservation that was directed at the Blackpool Zoo in the United Kingdom on the subject of whether or not giraffes are appropriate household pets.  Emails from the curious correspondent, who gives his name as "Chudders" will be in bold, the replies of the zoo in italics.  You have to love the transition over the course of the email from this being treated like a somewhat serious inquiry to the sheer silliness it deserves.  Enjoy!

Hi, Is it possible to buy & own a giraffe in Scotland? I've been after a giraffe for years & now I want to make it a reality now! I've got a decent sized back garden & I've got an upstairs/downstairs house so it could be fed from the bedroom window without any hassle!! They girls want a hamster but there howling!! Yours faithfully, Chudders. 

Giraffes aren’t ideal as pets. They involve a great deal of feeding, so neighbours tend to become a little irate when their carefully-tended trees begin to disappear from the top downwards.  You must also factor in your Health and Safety Ladder Training and Working at Heights training so as to be able to either access the higher branches for feeding or to take refuge on the roof from the previously mentioned irate neighbour. Giraffes also need licencing for keeping in the UK.  This is considerably more expensive than your TV licence as extremely high and robust fencing is required to keep them from straying.  Another condition of a licence would be that a suitable building is needed.  Planning permission is very expensive nowadays and it also costs quite a lot to heat said house to suit a giraffe which, of course, is used to African temperatures.  You could, of course, put your Ladder Training and Working at Heights training to good use by installing solar panels on the roof (probably whilst still avoiding the irate neighbour). Other pets in the family may show signs of jealousy towards your giraffe.  With a dog, this may involve weeing on the carpets or, if it’s a cat, shredding the arms on the sofa, but, don’t worry, with your training, you can avoid the wife at the same time as the irate neighbour. All in all, a hamster may well be the better option. You can keep your marriage, pets and neighbours intact without fear of big holes in the lawn, or a huge head blocking the light through your bedroom windows.  There are some amazing documentaries on TV about giraffes, or you could, quite simply, visit ours. I hope this has helped. Jude, Guest services coordinator

Thanks for the reply.  I'm not worried about permits as I was going stink a big jcb sticker on it’s a**e & tell family & friends it was a new 13 ton excavator I'd accuired cause I'm sound that way! Would you take a bribe? Leave the in closure door open 1 night & I'll sneak in with my mates tipper. I'll only take 1, you have my word on that. Yours faithfully, Chudders.

Good afternoon, Chudders. If you’re looking for an efficient earth-mover, try an aardvark.  They’re smaller, don’t eat trees or upset the neighbour, can be a great friend to the dog and can dig at the same rate as 8 adult men.  You won’t need Ladder Training or Working at Heights Training and your biggest problem will be keeping your aardvark awake or finding the 50,000 ants it needs to eat each day.  On the plus side, you could go into Pest Control as your aardvark will be very much in demand in ant season.  Just an idea!  PS : We don’t leave the giraffes’ door open as they tend to upset the neighbours ….

Hi pal. Please explain why anybody in there right mind would want an aadvark?It's only 1 giraffe I'm after, I'm sure you've got 1 spare surely? If needs be I'll take the ugly 1 out the bunch!! Please?! Ps where the hell do I find 50.000 ants at the end of November? Yours gratefully, Chudders.

Good morning, Chudders. Why an aardvark?  Where do I start? Do you know anyone else with an ardvark as a pet?  No, that would certainly set you apart from your friends. They’re cute, friendly and can’t bite as they have no teeth, so great for the family. They get on well with meerkats, so shouldn’t be a problem with any other pets.You won’t need expensive Health and Safety training as they live at ground level, but you may need rather a lot of sand as they do like to build their own beds by digging. They won’t annoy the neighbour as they’re quiet, stay at home and sleep all day!  (Might be a problem with subsidence if you don’t keep them entertained – remember they are efficient diggers.) There’s no such thing as an ugly giraffe, unless, perhaps, you’re another giraffe on the lookout for a mate, but there aren’t that many about, so beggars can’t be choosers.  We just have the four as well, so to take one out would upset the keeper’s OCD for even numbers. 50,000 ants – yes, that might be a bit of a challenge, but friends, neighbours and colleagues will be happy to donate them, I’m sure.  However, it would be the perfect answer to the kids’ request for a pet!  Hamsters sleep all day, can smell a bit and are known to bite, so not ideal.  Imagine going to school and telling the class you don’t have one or two pets, but 50,000!  Awesome!  Ant farming is definitely the way forward.  Might be difficult finding names, though……

Good morning sweetness. Here's what we'll do?! You'll leave the inclosure door open & I'll take the ugly 1. In return I'll - Square you up with a few ££££. Send you a Crimbo hamper. I'll get my cousins Mrs to do your hair for free for life. I'll do your driveway for half price. Nobody can knock that back!! Yours truly, Chudders. 

Hi, Chudders. I’ll have a look and see if we have an ugly giraffe, but I don’t think we do. Your offers are really appealing.  £££££ are classed as bribery, so that won’t work but thank you for the offer, anyway. There's a Christmas hamper is on my wish-list.  At £20,000, it’s a bargain for Harrods! My hair’s fine, thank you, and I’m really happy with my hairdresser, but we have a member of our team, Sid, who could do with a bit of help! Is she any good with wigs? The driveway repair may swing it!  We’ve had so much trouble with that recently and the insurance have threatened not to pay for the next car. Are you QUITE sure you don’t want an aardvark?  It could work out much cheaper in the long run. Jude

 Hapnin Jude? If you have camels that look that ill I'm kind of worried about the state your giraffes are in?! I'll buy you a new car if need be lady? It's not a bribe Mrs, it's a gift! Money is no issue.

Hapnin Chudders! Sid’s not ill – just a bit frazzled from all the attention he gives his ladies!  He obviously has a certain charisma with other (female) camels!!  Can’t see it myself, but then I’m not a camel! I’ve just got a new car, but thanks for the offer. I’m afraid our giraffe keepers just aren’t going to let this happen, but, bearing in mind a giraffe can kill you with one kick, look upon this as me keeping you safe, my friend. It’s been nice chatting.  If you change your mind about an aardvark, well, you never know!  Have a great Christmas – I hear Pets at Home have some very cute hamsters! Cheers, Jude x

Disclaimer: All our giraffes and aardvarks are present and accounted for, we checked, double checked and triple checked this morning. Sid's hair still needs attention.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Sporcle Quiz: Animal Geography

As much as I love animals, you'd have thought that science would have been my favorite subject in school.  It wasn't.  Science, I learned pretty quickly, is a pretty broad subject, and very little of it was spent on the subject matter that I actually cared about - ecology, evolution, taxonomy.  Most of it was rather dull physics and chemistry, and even the biology portion was largely tailored to the kids in class who wanted to be doctors when they grow up... not zookeepers.

The subject that I really enjoyed was social studies, especially geography.  You can't go wrong in studying the world... because everywhere you go, there are animals.  Most of my knowledge about the shape and character of the world comes from studying animals - learning the names of different regions, the location of countries as they fall on range maps, the mountains and rivers and lakes that define the distribution of a species.  Some species are cosmopolitan and straddle the globe.  Others are very localized, and many countries have at least one species found there and nowhere else. (As a result, my geography is a little patchier than most folks, being more focused on Asia, Africa, and South America than, say... Europe).

Enjoy this month's quiz, guessing the names of different geographic features by the animals named after them.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Species Fact Profile: North American Porcupine (Erethizon dorsatum)

North American Porcupine
Erethizon dorsatum (F. Cuvier, 1823)

Range: Canada, United States, Northern Mexico
Habitat: Deciduous and Coniferous Forest, Grassland, Desert
Diet: Bark, Twigs, Leaves, Roots and Tubers, Fruits, Nuts
Social Grouping: Solitary and Territorial
Reproduction: Breed once per year; males compete for females, and the victor will guard a female for a few days prior to estrous.  1 (sometimes 2) offspring born after a gestation period of 210 days, and are independent at 5 months.  Females are sexually mature at 25 months, males at 29 months.  Offspring are cared for by the female alone.
Lifespan: 18 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern

  • The second-largest rodent in North America (after the American beaver), measuring 60-90 centimeters in length and weighing 5-14 kilograms.  Males are larger than females
  • Fur is dark brown or black, with dorsal guard hairs and quills banded in yellow; the tail has a black stripe with quills fringed with white
  • Quills are relatively short (7 centimeters or so) with microscopic barbs on the tip, which cause them to lodged in predators.    Each porcupine has up to 30,000 quills
  • If threatened, a porcupine will try to escape by climbing a tree, or giving warning signs, such as tooth clicking.  It may use its quills defensively, or may charge backwards at a predator
  • Predators include bobcat, puma, wolf, coyote, and wolverine; one of the most important predators is the fisher, which will flip a porcupine over and attack the unprotected belly
  • The amount of time porcupines spend on the ground depends on how much ground cover is available; if there is not much cover (due to deer overpopulation, for example), they will spend more time in the trees
  • Although they are predominately solitary, with both sexes defending territories, porcupines at the northern part of their range will share winter dens, sometimes with 8 animals sharing
  • Their diet leads to strong salt longings, and they are easily attracted to human-provided salt sources, such as road salt
  • Seven subspecies are recognized across North America
  • Traditionally revered by Native North Americans as a source of quills, which were used in artworks and decoration, now teated by many as a pest due to their destruction of trees

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

End of the Season

It may have been this past Monday, the first day after the Thanksgiving weekend.  Or maybe today, being the first day of December.  For some facilities, it might not be for another week or two.  Across the nation, however, more and more zoos are flipping the sign at the front gate and changing the marquees - "Closed for the Season."

Not all zoos close during the winter months; of the half-dozen facilities that I've worked at since graduating college and starting in the field, only two of them have shut down in the winter.  Others have carried on reduced hours, more in response to the shorter daylight hours, and others have gone on, business as usual, all year.  Aquariums, being indoors and climate controlled, tend not to shut down, which is just as well.  There can be little enough to do in the winter in some cities without taking away that option as well.

My current workplace stays open all year round - Christmas and Thanksgiving are the only days we close to the public.  Sometimes, I'll admit, I do get all misty-eyed and nostalgic about being closed for the winter.  Without having to worry about the human side of the operation - cleaning up trash, giving keeper talks, keeping an eye on unruly school kids - you can really give more of your attention to the animals.  More training, more observation, more enrichment - and not having to worry about whether it looks natural or not. If you hit a patch of bad weather and need to pull an animal off-exhibit for a week... or a month... go ahead! Not like there will be anyone there to complain!

And the projects... oh those wonderful winter projects.  Okay, the winter itself isn't that great for getting stuff done, but those last days of February and those early ones in March are something special.  It may still be just in the 30's, but it feels tropical compared to the frozen nightmare you've just gone through, the sun is shining, and you can actually hear the snow melting, dripping non-stop throughout the day.  This is when you bring in the machinery (without having to worry about running over small children), tear down the old, build the new, slap on paint, clear up beds for plantings, and all in all, renew the zoo.  Animals that have been pulled in for the winter can start going back out towards the end of this time frame, and when they do, they'll find their exhibits refurbished and new.

Of course there are things I regret about closing in the winter.  Some of our animals are at their finest that time of year, rolling the snow or enjoying the brisk air.  There can be some beautiful days midwinter, and it's a shame that people aren't there to enjoy them with us.  For zoo members (who don't have to pay admission), the zoo and its grounds can be a lovely place to take a walk, even if the only animals who are out and about are the Arctic foxes, the snowy owls, and the red pandas.

Oh, and there's the cabin fever.  For a while, we're all like "Yeah, no visitors!  No guest services staff!  No school groups and chaperones and teachers!"  Then, after three months of dealing with just each other, we start to go stir crazy.  When we're all in the kitchen making diets, I make a point of standing close to the door, just in case one of the old-timers finally snaps while they're brandishing a butcher knife.  Come late March, all of us have decided that we're ready to love visitors again.

Given the preference, I'm for leaving the zoo open any day when it's safe enough to do us (i.e., paths not covered with black ice).  On that note, there are plenty of horrible days in the winter when I look up through the tiny slit between my scarf and my hood and see visitors strolling aimlessly through the sleet and wonder "What on earth are you DOING here?"

If your zoo is open for the winter, it might be worth checking it out.  Many northern zoos have lots of indoor exhibits, and at the very least those will be open.  A surprising number of animals may be on display outdoors as well.  You won't see all the same animals, but you'll see them in a different light.