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Saturday, January 30, 2016

From the News: Zebra cousin went extinct 100 years ago. Now, it's back.


Officially, the last quagga - a zebra-like equid from South Africa that was only partially striped - went extinct last century, the last individual dying at the Amsterdam Zoo, leaving us with only a few black-and-white photos and taxidermy mounts to remember it by.  Unofficially, it's back... at least, something quagga-ish is back.  Scientists have selectively bred plains zebra to create an animal that at least looks like the quagga.  But is it a quagga?


That's harder to say.  For one thing, it's hard to say exactly what a quagga is.  For the brief history that Europeans and quaggas shared, the relationship was mostly conducted down the barrel of a gun.  Little is known about its behavior, it's adaptations, heck, it's not even known if it was a separate species or a subspecies of plains zebra.  If the later, then it is certainly possible that some of those genes were floating around with other zebras... in which case the researchers simply bred it back, sort of like the Heck brothers and their aurochs.

Personally, I don't buy it.  On a superficial level, I don't think the Rau quagga (as they are called) even look too much like quagga.  Secondly, an animal isn't just its DNA and genes - it's also its behavior.  How can we know that Rau quagga actually act like quagga?  Thirdly, I worry that this is a cool experiment, but one that will divert time and money and efforts from saving species that we still have.  Will researchers be shifting their attention from studying other animals to the glamorous new cause that is the quagga?  Will zoo spaces be taken up by quagga that could go to other endangered species?  Will these quagga be self-sufficient in the wild, or always need to be pampered and coddled?  I have doubts.

Lastly, I always worry that stunts like this dampen the public's interest in saving endangered species.  After all, if extinction isn't forever, why fear it?

To learn more about this experiment, check out the Breeding-Back Blog.  

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Zoo History: Hippos on the Bayou

"I hope to live long enough to see herds of these broad-backed beasts wallowing in the Southern marshes and rivers, fattening on the millions of tons of food which awaits their arrival; to see great droves of white rhinoceri … roaming over the semiarid desert wastes, fattening on the sparse herbage which these lands offer; to see herds of the delicate giraffe, the flesh of which is the purest and sweetest of any known animal, browsing on the buds and shoots of young trees in preparation for the butchers block”

- W. N. Irwin, United States Department of Agriculture

At first glance, the satire piece highlighted in the most recent post looks too obvious to be believable.  The thing is, though, that like most satire it has some origin in reality.  Manatees have been considered (and to some degree, utilized) as a biological control for water hyacinth.  Capybara have been commercially farmed in their native South America.  And the third member of this little triumvirate?  Funny you should ask...

At the dawn of the 1900s, America's potential seemed to finally be checked up an unforeseen problem.  The country was running out of meat.  The seemingly endless rangelands of the west were used up and overgrazed, and a rapidly increasingly population (driven in part by increased immigration) needed to be fed.  But what to feed them?  America had always solved the problem of natural resources by moving west.  Now, there was no more west to travel to.  If there was no more land to conquer, some outside-the-box thinkers reasoned, maybe it was time to look at the water.

And so began a much-discussed, never-implemented plan for America to begin ranching hippopotamuses.

Image: Mark Summers

There were other animals involved, to be sure, but the focus was always on the hippos.  The plan called for importing animals which could utilize parts of the American landscape that beef cattle could not.  African antelope, for instance, were considered ideal candidates to ranch in the deserts of the southwest, being accustomed to drier conditions than cattle.  Hippos, it was reasoned, could be farmed in the bayous and swamplands of the southeast.  As an extra bonus, they would mop up that pesky water hyacinth, introduced by a Japanese trade delegation in the 1880s, which was blocking up waterways in the south.

This wasn't just some fly-by-night scheme bounced around by crazy entrepreneurs.  This was an issue seriously discussed in the halls of Congress, championed by politicians, endorsed by celebrities, and lauded in the popular press.  Old "African hands" (none of which, it is fair to note, were actually Africans) were consulted about the virtues - and edibility - of hippos.  Circus and zoo staff were asked to provide their expertise for how to ship and care for the animals (even William T. Hornaday got roped into the action).  Funds were being raised to send an expedition over to Africa to collect the beasts.  It was all a go.

So what happened?  The usual reason for progress to be halted.  People lost interest, usually because they get distracted by other things (in this case, first a revolution in Mexico, then an inconvenient World War).  By the time the dust has settled, the relevant players, the ones who were actually leading the charge, have all since retired or died or moved on to other pursuits.

In the end, America decided to solve her meat shortage problem in another way - and it wasn't to go vegetarian.  If more land couldn't be produced for farming, than the remaining land would have to produce more with new techniques.  Welcome to the age of the factory farm.  I'm not certain what ecological problems would have been associated with introducing hippos to the swamps of Florida and Alabama - we've since seen oryx, addax, and other African antelope introduced to the southwest, albeit for sport hunting rather than food - but I can't help but wonder if it really could be worse than the results of factory farms, both in terms of animal welfare and environmental impact.

Farming hippos in the south seems like a crazy idea now, but looking at it through the eyes of the 1900's, I really can't see why it wouldn't have worked.  After all, someone had to start with the mouflon to get the sheep, the wild boar to get the pig, the now-extinct aurochs to get the cow.  After a century of hippo farming, who knows what the result would have been?  Besides a surprising new addition to the barnyard area of your local zoo.

In telling the story of hippo ranching, I unforgivably skimmed over the stories and personalities of the men involved with it, some of whom have led what could only be described as very full lives.  I feel I can do so because their stories have all been told, in much better detail than I could ever hope to achieve, in the article which I have linked below.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Satire: Exotic Animals Deployed as Delta 'Weed Whackers'


Coast guard crews keep close watch on the pod of hippos grazing in and around the weed-infested Stockton Deep Water Ship Channel. Photo courtesy of U.S. Coast Guard

Hippos and manatees and capybara, oh my!

This article was an April Fool's joke published by UC Davis last year.  The funny thing about April Fool's jokes is that they often aren't seen by folks until well after the date of their publishing, which can lead to an least a  few gullible people thinking they are real (not saying stunts like this haven't been pulled in real life... *cough* cane toad * cough*).  Check out the article, but the real fun is in the comments; one guys seriously wrote a novel lambasting "the epitome of environmentally contemptuous 19th Century stupidity" of this plan.  

Friday, January 22, 2016

The Perfect Storm

Starting today, the northeastern United States (home, not coincidentally, to most of the zoos and aquariums that I have worked at or reviewed thus far) is being hit by what has been dubbed Winter Storm Jonas.  I'm going to admit, I have trouble taking a storm named "Jonas" seriously, as the name just conjures up vaguely annoying boy-bands from a few years back.  But maybe that's just me.

Heavy snowfall, to but it plainly, is a bit of a pain in the ass for a zookeeper.  It makes even the most basic of tasks difficult like, say, getting to work in the first place.  Across the region tonight, there are zookeepers bunking down on break room tables, eating out of the microwave, and huddled around laptops, trying to watch bootleg DVDs while the storm rages outside.  That being said, that's what many of us do on normal nights, minus the break room table part.  If no one is staying at the zoo overnight, than the burden falls on the staff who live closest to their facilities, since they are the ones most likely to be showing up tomorrow.

Snow makes it difficult to reach animals.  It makes it difficult for animals (those outside in the winter, anyway) to reach their food and water.  More alarmingly, it can be very heavy, bringing down tree limbs or even crushing exhibits under its weight.  Sure, the birds in your aviary might be inside for the winter... but they'll be staying inside well into the spring while you repair an exhibit that's been flattened under a foot or two of snow.

As much of a nuisance as snow is, I'll take it any day over heavy cold.  Besides, it has the advantage of at least being pretty to look at, especially if you're looking at it from the vantage point of somewhere safe and warm.  And, best of all, it melts.  Say what you will about the cute squeaks and squeals baby animals make, for me, the dripping of melting snow is my favorite sound from work.

Be safe and warm everyone!

Thursday, January 21, 2016

From the News: Sacred Vietnamese Turtle Dies


A lot of ink (and a few tears) were spilled last year over the death of one of the world's last few northern white rhinos.  That was tragic, but it was also (at least) still a subspecies.  Today, one of the world's rarest animals (a whole species this time... remember, taxonomy matters!) took a giant step towards extinction.  One of the last four Yangtze softshell turtles, believed to be over 100-years old and idolized by a nation, was found dead.

The species is now limited to a pair in a Chinese zoo and a third turtle in a (different) lake in Hanoi, so the outlook isn't bright.  The loss of any species is tragic, but in this case it's very said because this animal is just so... spectacular.  I mean, look at the pictures, it's a turtle the size of a bathtub!

Unfortunately, it looks like there is about to be a new candidate for the title of "World's Rarest Turtle."

A giant soft-shell turtle considered a sacred symbol of Vietnamese independence is guided into a cage for a health check by handlers at Hanoi's Hoan Kiem lake on April 3, 2011
A giant soft-shell turtle considered a sacred symbol of Vietnamese independence is guided into a cage for a health check by handlers at Hanoi's Hoan Kiem lake on April 3, 2011.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Keel-Billed Toucan (Ramphastos sulfuratis)

Keel-Billed Toucan
Ramphastos sulfuratus (Lesson, 1830)

Range: Central America, northern South America
Habitat: Lowland Forest, Forest Edge
Diet: Fruit, Eggs, Insects, Small Vertebrates
Social Grouping: Small Flocks of 6-12
Reproduction: Monogamous, nest in cavities, 2-4 glossy white eggs incubated by both parents for 16-20 days, chicks fledge at 8-9 weeks (how long it takes beak to fully form).  May raise 2-3 broods per year
Lifespan: 20 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern, CITES Appendix II


  • Body length 52 centimeters, (banana-shaped bull grows to be one-third the size of the body), weigh 400 grams.  Males are slightly larger than females
  • Despite large size, bill (green with orange blazes on the sides and a red  tip) is actually very light - hollow, bone-reinforced - and is edged with tooth like ridges.  The hill houses a long, slender tongue
  • Plumage is black with a yellow bib and cheeks, a white rump, and red under the tail
  • Flocks roost in tree cavities, sometimes several birds crowding in together.  They fit by folding their beaks beneath their wings when they roost
  • Feed by swallowing fruit hole, will regurgitate larger seeds, smaller seeds will pass through the digestive tract (seeds are unharmed in both cases, making the toucan a seed-disperser)
  • Vocalization is a creek-creek, resembling a tree frog (females have a higher pitch)
  • Spend most of their lives high in the trees, rarely come to the ground
  • Predators include arboreal carnivores, snakes, and especially birds of prey
  • Two subspecies - northern (nominate) is larger and has a longer bill than the souther (R. s. brevicannatus).  Coloration also differs slightly between the two
  • Historically have been hunted for meat and feathers, sometimes sold for pet trade (captives are sensitive to iron-storage disease if their diet is not properly managed)
  • National bird of Belize

Monday, January 18, 2016

Zoo Joke: Peppers and Bells

On Mike's first day at a Drive-Thru Safari Park, his curator drove him around in his pick-up truck, showing him all of the animals.

"There's one animal we haven't seen yet," the curator says, "and that's Bruno, our big male grizzly bear.  He's a bit of a monster, so you need to be careful when he's around.  When you're working in the section of the park where he lives, you need to always wear these," he says, handing Mike a set of bells.  "Clip these on your belt.  He hates the noise from them and tends to walk away from them."

"Oh, almost forgot," the curator continued, handing Mike a large red aerosol can.  "Here's your pepper spray.  If you ever forget your bells and see Bruno coming towards you, shoot him with this pepper spray.  It'll blind him for long enough so that you can make an escape."

Well, Mike takes the bells and the pepper spray and makes sure to wear them diligently, never letting them leave his belt no matter where he goes.  After weeks of work, however, he still hasn't met the infamous Bruno.  He continues to hear horror stories about the giant bear, but has no fear.  After all, he's following protocol.  He has his bells, and he has his pepper spray.

One day, he's raking up some spilled hay when the park veterinarian approaches him.

"Hey Mike, if it's not too much trouble, could I get a fecal sample from Bruno?"  Mike says sure, and heads off to the woods where Bruno is known to lurk.

As he walks through the woods, a bear suddenly looms up before him.  Mike shakes his bells at him and, just for measure, lets off a squirt of spray.  The bear runs off in a huff... which is when Mike sees the pile of bear poop, directly next to him.   Scooping it up, he takes it back to the vet, feeling very proud of how he conducted the whole adventure.

The vet takes a look at the poop with a doubtful face.  He measures it, sniffs it, and, for reasons that baffle Mike, holds the bag next to his ear and shakes it.  Then he sighs.  "Sorry Mike, this isn't Bruno's poop.  Can you go back and get a sample of his?"

"Okay," says a confused Mike, "but how do we know this isn't from Bruno?"

"Well," says the vet, "Bruno's poop is much bigger than this.  Also, for reasons I've never been able to understand, it always smells like pepper and has little bells in it."


Friday, January 15, 2016

Attempting the Impossible

The agents of the New York Zoological Society are constantly on the watch for an opportunity to procure and send hither a good specimen of this wonderful creature; and whenever one arrives, all persons interested are advised to see it immediately - before it dies of sulleness, lack of exercise, and indigestion."

- William T. Hornaday, Popular Official Guide to the New York Zoological Park

One of the biggest zoo and aquarium stories as of late has been the short-lived career of a great white shark as an exhibit animal at the Okinawa Aquarium.  Accidentally captured in a fishing net off the coast of Japan, the shark was taken to the aquarium and immediately placed on display, where it proceeded to do what almost every great white in captivity has ever done - die.  I say "almost every" because the exception to the rule has been the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which over the course of several years kept a series of young great whites on display, returning each safely to the ocean after a period of time.

The aquarium has since been upbraided by critics on all sides, and not just the usual suspects (animal rights activists).  Many zoo and aquarium professionals expressed their disapproval of the whole scheme, citing that, as history seems to confirm, great whites just don't do well in captivity.

Now, to be sure, the Okinawa shark had a lot of strikes against it, especially when you compare it to the young sharks of Monterey Bay.  It was an adult, for one thing - young animals, like those MBA displayed, tend to adjust much better to the transition from wild to zoo or aquarium.  Secondly, it was caught in a fishing net, so it was already highly stressed.  Thirdly, it was a surprise acquisition, so it's not like the aquarium had been planning on acquiring one, and had researched their protocols.  Fourth, and most important, perhaps, it seemed like it was put on exhibit immediately after capture.  No adjustment, no settling in, one minute you're the top predator in the ocean, the next there's a wall of glass with people behind it.

In other words, lots of mistakes and bad planning that would have been detrimental to any species.  It just keeps coming down to "Great whites don't do well in captivity."  Drop the mike, walk off stage.

The thing is, while many zoo animals have been kept for thousands of years, there are plenty of others which, at some point early in their history in captivity, were considered impossible to keep alive.  The quote at the beginning of this post, the one by Hornaday?  The "wonderful creature" that he refers to?  That would be the gorilla, today a fairly common animal in zoos.  At a quick glance online, I found about 300 gorillas in over 40 institutions in the United States alone.  In Hornaday's time, they were considered impossible to keep alive; attempting to breed them would have been considered lunacy.  I wonder what Hornaday would think today if he were to visit the Bronx Zoo and see TWENTY gorillas, babies included, that inhabit the zoo's Congo Gorilla Forest.

Gorillas aren't unique in this respect.  Some were deemed impossible to keep alive for any length of time; okapis were notorious for their delicacy, especially their vulnerability to parasites.  Before climate-controlled exhibits were possible, Antarctic penguins would succumb to diseases that would never have survived to plague them in Antarctica.  Other species were possible to keep, but impossible to breed; cheetahs are a prime example, with hundreds of years of efforts resulting in a single captive litter prior to the late 1900s.  Others still you could keep, maybe even breed, but were considered hopeless for display or educational purposes.    One species that was generally held to meet all of these criteria was the platypus.

With all of these species, the challenges were eventually overcome.  Gorillas and okapis and king penguins are seen at many facilities.  Cheetah cubs, while not as frequent as lion or tiger cubs, are not uncommon.  New and exciting methods are developed for displaying a wide variety of species - underwater viewing, nocturnal viewing, etc.  In all of these cases, experimentation, observation, and patience were rewarded.

The thing is, though, with the great white in Okinawa, there was no experimentation, no patience, only observation... as in, let's put this shark in a tank and observe what happens.  Contrast that with Monterey Bay, where young sharks were specially collected, gently acclimated, and carefully monitored, with care protocols that were thoroughly researched and constantly adjusted.

Many of the terrestrial vertebrates - mammals and birds, reptiles and amphibians - have been maintained in zoos or aquariums at least a few times; if they haven't, they may not differ too much from another species that has been.  Many of the animals that we have no - or very little - experience with in captivity are marine species.  No coelacanth in captivity.  No giant squid in captivity (outside of James Bond novels).  No baleen whales.  No great white sharks.

I'm not saying that none of these species could be kept successfully, if time, money, research, and, in the case of whales, a tank the size of a mid-sized metropolis were made available.  I think it is important to consider, however, that experimentation sometimes ends in failure, and the results are far worse for the animal in question that for the keeper or aquarist or curator.  An effort to maintain an animal which has never successfully been maintained in captivity should only be made if there is a compelling reason to attempt it (i.e., a specimen has been found that can't be returned to the wild) and the holding institution has reason to believe that it has a protocol that will work for that animal.  "Let's just give it a shot" or "because we can" are never valid reasons.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Book Review: Kingdom Under Glass

"Seeing the sultan's interest, they attempted to explain their true purpose here in his land: that the man with the unruly beard and hartebeest blood on his hands was like a magician of sorts, who, when they returned to their own native country, would make the dead animals reappear just as they had in life, suspended for eternity, in something they called a diorama.  The sultan seemed perplexed.  If their purpose was to make the animal appear alive, why kill it in the first place?"

Walking down the darkened hallways of the Field Museum of Natural History, I passed by an endless array of birds, mammals, and reptiles, preserved through taxidermy for all time.  Some were arranged in rows, standing side by side, shoulder to shoulder, for easy comparison.  Others were displayed in beautiful dioramas, decorated with rock-work and vegetation and stunningly detailed murals, posed in life-like social groups, frozen in time like three-dimensional photographs.  Many of these dioramas were the handiwork of Carl Akeley.  Akeley was to natural history museums what Carl Hagenbeck was to zoos - a visionary artist who changed how visitors perceived those institutions forever.

Rows and rows of stuffed animals aren't the only legacy that Carl Akeley left behind.  Kingdom Under Glass, by Jay Kirk, is the story of a remarkable man who, during the course of his career, embraced the paradox of being a prolific slaughterer of animals, hunting down some of the rarest of the rare to display in museums, while at the same time being one of their staunchest protectors.  It's a paradox that one encounters in many nineteenth and twentieth century naturalists, from the irascible William Hornaday to the illustrious President Theodore Roosevelt.  

From his humble roots in rural New York state, Carl Akeley pursued the profession of taxidermy as no one before him ever had.  Whereas others had viewed taxidermy as a crude form of upholstery - take a skin and stuff it with sawdust until it sort of resembles an animal - Akeley had a vision of it as an art form, one by which he would be able to capture the essence of an animal and let it live forever, a biological time capsule that all of the world would be able to enjoy forever.  His pursuit of this passion led him to museums in Milwaukee, then Chicago, and finally New York.  Most importantly, it led him to Africa.

One of the scenes - Summer - from Four Seasons, one of Carl Akeley's early masterpieces

In a series of expeditions across the continent, from the semi-desert of Somalia to the rainforests of the Congo, Akeley pursued every African mammal imaginable, generally in lethal terms (at one point, he wrestled a leopard to death, nearly costing him his arm).  One of the last animals he encountered in the hunt was one only relatively recently known to western science - the mountain gorilla.  Like many naturalists of the era, Akeley became a penitent butcher in the end and devoted himself to saving the animals he once hunted.  Among his most lasting legacies (which include not only several museum displays and films, but also inventions that he devised to assist in his work) was the establishment of Albert National Park (now Virunga National Park in the present-day Democratic Republic of Congo), Africa's first National Park.

For those readers who have interests beyond hunting stories and history, Kingdom Under Glass also offers a love story.  Akeley never really worked alone; he was often accompanied by his wife.  Delia Akeley (also known as "Mickie") was her husband's strongest supporter and bravest companion, the kind who would race up a mountain, in the darkness, in a storm, to come to the aid of her husband after hearing that he'd been wounded by a bull elephant.  Carl's accomplishments and triumphs were equally hers, and if their contemporaries didn't acknowledge it, or her merits as an explorer in her own right, than Kirk certainly does.

Carl Akeley is the kind of person that many modern nature lover's love to hate - someone who experienced the natural world from the backside of a rifle.  Many of the animals he shot are now highly endangered, and for what? his critics would ask?  For skins?  Today we have so many other ways to learn about animals, so who needs them?  It's important to remember that, eighty years ago, no one had many other options for learning about animals - many of the species that Akeley collected were barely represented in zoos - and the knowledge that he and his contemporaries gathered in the field formed the basis of much of what we know about the wildlife of Africa.  This in turn provided society with the first tools it needed in learning how to protect that wildlife.

Carl Akeley wasn't a perfect person - there were times reading his biography I found him scarcely likable.  Still, he left a legacy that includes some fascinating inventions, breath-taking museum pieces that continue to inspire and awe millions, and a piece of Africa set aside for one of its rarest inhabitants.  He also leaves an incredible story, which I'm glad that someone like Jay Kirk has taken the time to research and share with the world.   






Tuesday, January 12, 2016

The Archives of Extinction

It was a collection that any bird curator would have slit throats for.  Wandering down darkened hallways one Chicago morning, I passed by a world of birds that I'd never imagined I'd ever see.  A kakapo.  A hoatzin.  A pair of California condors at the nest, one bird stationed over the egg, the other swooping down for a landing.  Also, passenger pigeons, imperial woodpeckers, Labrador ducks, and other extinct species... which gives the twist away.  This wasn't the Lincoln Park Zoo or the Brookfield Zoo - it was the Field Museum of Natural History... and every animal I saw that morning had been dead for a very long time.

Emperor penguins are very rare in captivity today, and the thought of keeping them alive in a zoo would have been considered ridiculous a century ago.  These birds, however, preserved and displayed at the Field Museum, have been greeting guests for decades.

The rise of the American zoo was mirrored by that of another cultural and scientific institution - the natural history museum.  As zoos evolved from ancient menageries, so did museums arise from the antique "Cabinets of Curiosities", ad hoc mixtures of fossils, relics, and freaks cobbled together by private collectors.  As cities began to develop zoological parks, so did many also build natural history museums.  There was considerable overlap between the two.  The origins of the Smithsonian National Zoo could be traced to Smithsonian taxidermist William T. Hornaday, who kept live animals behind his studio on the National Mall to use as models for his taxidermy mounts.  When zoo animals died, they were often sent to museums where they could live forever as stuffed specimens.  The Field Museum, for example, is the final resting place off two famous former residents of Chicago zoos - Bushman, the Lincoln Park Zoo gorilla and Su-Lin, formerly of the Brookfield Zoo, the first giant panda seen in the United States.


As a side note, zoo animals no longer seem as well suited for museum display as they once were.  It does still happen, especially with very rare specimens (Cincinnati Zoo donated the body of a Sumatran rhinoceros to a museum for display), but museums may have become a victim of zoos' success.  Many zoo animals live to be quite elderly these days, and might be less suitable for exhibition.  A jaguar that I worked with passed away a year or so ago.  I'm sure she was a beauty in her youth, but by the end her coat was shabby, she had scars (some from surgeries, some from fights), and she was missing part of an ear.  No self-respecting museum would have touched her, as much as I adored her.

Taxidermy, it seems, has fallen by the wayside in public estimation.  Many people associate it closely with its necessary act - the killing of an animal - and therefore with trophy hunting.  Fair enough - many specimens, especially from the last century, were collected and donated by sportsmen.  Theodore Roosevelt filled many a museum hall with his post-presidency safari in East Africa, blazing away at all sorts of now-endangered wildlife with the word "Bully!" on his lips.  Besides, the argument goes, now we have other ways of learning about wildlife, like the Internet, and television, and zoos and aquariums.


That being said, there are still tremendous advantages to taxidermy and stuffed specimens.  For one, a specimen will, if properly taken care of, last forever... or at least a very long time (many of the mammals I saw in the Field Museum were collected by Carl Akeley a century ago).  Stuffed specimens don't require much space - you can fit all of the world's cats in less room that you would need to exhibit a (live) pride of lions, nor do they eat or... do the opposite of eating.  A much smaller staff can curate an enormous collection.  Also, you can get much closer to them for comparison and study.  Furthermore, taxidermy mounts can enable us to study species which don't do well in captivity or otherwise aren't maintained by zoos and aquariums.

Lastly, for some species, such as the extinct birds I mentioned early, taxidermy is all that we have left of them.  Unless cloning picks up, I'll never see a Tasmanian tiger or a Carolina parakeet, but I've seen several in museum collections.  In the future, the same may be said about California condors or Sumatran rhinos.  The last known specimens of some endangered amphibians or invertebrates are even now floating in jars of preservatives.  In this way, natural history museums truly are the archivists of extinction.

Despite all of these advantages, I'll never feel the same way about a stuffed specimen as a real animal.  Even when masterfully posed in a beautiful diorama, they never seem... real to me.  When Carl Akeley first unveiled his masterpieces at the Field Museum (and later the American Museum of Natural History in New York, a quick stroll from the Central Park Zoo), people were awestruck.  It seemed to them like the animals were frozen by a magic spell, and would start moving any second now.  To be fair, the zoos of that age were very different from today, and nowhere near as proficient as displaying their animals... or keeping many of them alive for any period of time.  That's probably why the mounts that impress me the most are those of animals that I've never seen in the flesh.

I think there is definitely a role for stuffed specimens (I have to keep catching myself so I don't type "stuffed animals" and conjure up Teddy bears) in education.  I could certainly see them existing side-by-side with live zoo and aquarium animals.  They could be used to highlight differences between animals, or to represent animals which can't be maintained in the collection (in the case of some marine species, like giant squid, fiberglass models would fill that same role).  I know of at least two zoos that has a natural history museum on its campus, and more than one museum that has a small collection of living animals.

The Mexican subspecies of brown bear is now believed to be extinct.  If we are ever to learn more about it, it will have to be using what little remains - such as these stuffed specimens.

There are countless tools that are available to teach the public about wildlife and conservation.  Live animals. Taxidermy mounts.  Biofacts.  Video and audio clips.  Graphics.  None of those things by itself captures the true essence of an animal in a wild in a way that will leave a visitor spellbound and inspired.  By combining them, however, a zoo or aquarium can create a truly memorable educational experience for everyone.

After my morning at the Field Museum, I continued by stroll by Lake Michigan and visited the Shedd Aquarium.  The museum collections were fascinating, in some cases hauntingly beautiful.  But I was ready to spend some time among the living.

And, just for comic relief (not everyone is Carl Akeley), enjoy 20 taxidermists who seriously need their licenses revoked... like NOW!

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Zoo Review: Shedd Aquarium

Many of the aquariums that I've reviewed so far on the blog have been fairly new ones, most of them opening within the last three decades or so as part of urban renewal projects.  The Adventure Aquarium, the Newport Aquarium, the National Aquarium in Baltimore... all are very nice institutions.  Ironically, however, the public aquarium which has impressed me the most is one of the nation's oldest.

A massive, classical building overlooking Lake Michigan, Chicago's Shedd Aquarium is a magnificent structure, combining charming, early twentieth century architecture with breathtaking, modern animal enclosures.  Nestled amongst the Field Museum of Natural History and the Adler Planetarium in Chicago's Museum Campus, it is the oldest inland aquarium in the United States.  In fact, its existence pre-dates artificial seawater; from its 1930 opening until the dawn of the 1960's, it relied upon a specially-built train carriage, The Nautilus, to provide its exhibits with seawater.


Most of the aquarium's exhibits can be seen in a series of themed hallways that fan out from the central lobby, home of the aquarium's 90,000 gallon Caribbean Reef display.  The newest is Amazon Rising, devoted to the wildlife of the Amazon Basin.  A variety of fish, from freshwater stingrays to massive arapaima, swim through the tanks accompanied by massive turtles, while birds and small monkeys dart above them through the treetops.  Small terrariums spaced around the exhibit hall display small reptiles, amphibians, and a host of giant invertebrates, including tarantulas and giant cockroaches.  From my perspective, the best exhibit was the massive anaconda habitat, easily the biggest such exhibit I've ever seen, provided above and underwater viewing for the world's biggest snake.  The snake was curled up around a log when I saw it, but I can't imagine how cool it would be to see it glide, fully extended, past the underwater viewing windows.

Other themed galleries display animals from the worlds oceans, islands, and freshwater habitats.  Star attractions include giant Pacific octopus, Japanese spider crab (the favorite single animal that I encountered that day, though I think some of my fellow visitors went home with nightmares), Queensland lungfish, and an assortment of sea horses, as well as Rift Valley cichlids and critically endangered Caribbean iguanas.  Given the aquarium's location, it's only right that an entire gallery is devoted to the Great Lakes, where native species are exhibited alongside with the invasive species that threaten them (the sea lamprey exhibit is easily one of the eeriest sights I've seen in an aquarium).  At the center of the hallways is a touch tank for sturgeons where, under the supervision of aquarium staff, visitors can feel the prehistoric fish swim under their hands.  Shedd Aquarium has been very involved in research and conservation of Great Lakes ecosystems, the stories of which are told here in great detail.  Outside, a balcony wraps around the aquarium, offering visitors an incredible view of Lake Michigan's vast expanses, as well as the Chicago skyline.


In 2003, the lower level of the aquarium opened up as Wild Reef, an exploration of coral reefs and the animals that live in them.  Many of the tanks - featuring fish and marine invertebrates - are furnished with live coral.  The star-attractions are the sharks and sawfish, gliding about in a 400,000 gallon tank, seen through 12-foot tall curved windows.  Down the hall, a behind-the-scenes peek is offered into the aquarium's coral propagation lab, where staff study the breeding of these creatures, so essential to ocean life but so threatened in their native seas.


No visit to the Shedd Aquarium would be complete without a stop in the Abbott Oceanarium, home to the facility's marine mammals.  Beluga whales and rarely-exhibited Pacific white-sided dolphins are featured in an educational program that highlights how aquariums utilize training to care for their animals (something which I feel is often misunderstood in the age of Blackfish).  Again utilizing its beautiful surroundings, the aquarium has made the back wall of the Oceanarium a massive window overlooking the lake.  Exhibits for sea otters (after the Exxon Valdez spill, some of the affected sea otters were re-homed here). and California sea lions are also found here, while a basement level offers underwater views of the marine mammals, a children's play area, and a beautiful habitat of Antarctic penguins.

I found the Shedd Aquarium to be a very admirable aquarium.  The collection was incredibly diverse and beautiful displayed.  The commitment to conservation was highlighted in several areas, such as the coral propagation unit, the work with endangered iguanas, and, above all, the Great Lakes initiative.  I'm normally indifferent to marine mammal "shows", but the demonstrations with the belugas and dolphins did a fantastic job of highlighting why training is important for captive animals (for their well-being, physical and mental) and how it is done (with positive reinforcement).  I'm not nearly as well traveled among aquariums as I am zoos, but for now, the Shedd Aquarium has been bumped up to my benchmark of what a great aquarium should look like.



Friday, January 8, 2016

From the News: Great White Shark (Briefly) Exhibited at Japanese Aquarium



The Okinawa Aquarium in Japan briefly held a great white shark, approximately 10 feet long, in captivity.  The shark was brought to the facility by fisherman, but passed away earlier today.  Great whites are notoriously difficult to maintain in aquariums, with only the Monteray Bay Aquarium in California having any luck keeping the species; that success was probably attributable to the fact that they started with juveniles, which were then released back into the ocean after a certain period of time.

Plenty of sharks do quite well in captivity and can be seen in aquariums around the world - sand tigers, nurses, sand bars, leopards, zebras... Maybe we just need to accept for the time being that great whites don't work in this setting.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Sporcle Quiz: Clickable Mammals of the World

I have grown to love Sporcle, my favorite time-waster and trivia-teacher, but I'm still kind of a novice at it.  Fortunately, there's plenty of other people making cool animal quizzes that I enjoy playing and wouldn't know how to make if my life depended on it.  Enjoy this fun series of Mammals of the World!

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Party Animals

There are three topics that you are supposed to avoid in polite conversation: Religion, Sports, and Politics.  I've already crossed the threshold on religion, and I don't know enough about sports to be offensive, so I'm going to have to settle for politics.  Which, considering what happens later this year, is fair enough.

It is, after all, an election year.

If you asked any voter... seriously, any... to make a list of the top twenty, thirty, you know, why not make it an even fifty, issues that they think of when it comes to election year, I very much doubt that zoos and aquariums will make the list for any of them.  It's unlikely that most people would think of any animal issues, with conservation simply being a part of that nebulous something called "Climate Change" or (even vaguer) "The Environment."

I wouldn't expect them to.  I work at a zoo and I don't look at presidential candidates to see what their position on zoos are.  You know why?  Because I doubt any of them have one.  Except for Newt Gingrinch.  That guy loves his zoo visits...

Zoos, as a whole, tend to shy away from politics.  Part of this is out of a desire to be welcoming and inclusive of the entire community, which can be difficult if some members of the community perceive your institution as having a bias against their beliefs (even if said members of the community are, in fact, crazy).  Similarly, many zoos and aquariums rely on tax dollars for at least some of their budget... money which is doled out by politicians.  It doesn't do to cozy up too closely with the Democrats, only to have the vengeful Republicans come into power and slash your funding, or vice versa.

While zoos are seldom an issue on the political radars of many presidential candidates (the lower you go down on the totem pole, the more of an issue they become, until you get to the Toronto City Council), decisions made by politicians and their appointees do have major impacts on zoos and aquariums.  Funding is one such issue; zoos, like everyone else, are tied to the economy.  When the economy booms, zoos and aquariums prosper.  When the economy doesn't, zoos struggle... for the most part.  During the recession of a few years back, many zoos and aquariums reported upticks in attendance as local families, finding themselves unable to afford vacations away from home, spent more time visiting local attractions.  Likewise, the Great Depression ironically saw a huge boom in zoo growth and expansion, beneficiaries of FDR's New Deal.

Laws concerning captive animals also impact zoos and aquariums.  These are rarely decisions made by presidents themselves, but but Cabinet members, under-secretaries, and down the line.  For example, the Department of the Interior recently has made some classifications of certain large snakes as potentially invasive species, banning their importation into the country as well as their movement between states.  That's a complication for zoos seeking to move those animals from one facility to another.  Another example, not at a presidential level - the state of Michigan, I recently learned, outlaws the breeding of large carnivores.  Zoos weren't the target of that law, but no exemption was made for them.  As a result, Detroit, Binder Park, and the other Michigan zoos can't breed those species.

Also, there is the question of support for the most important goal of a zoo or aquarium - conservation.  How much money a government is willing to invest in conservation, what partnerships it is ready to form, nationally and internationally, and what priority it is going to give to wildlife conservation vary depending on who is in the Oval Office (among a few hundred other variables).

I'm going to try and not blunder into the error of saying that one political party is necessarily better for zoos and aquariums than the other.  In the United States, the Democratic Party has (in recent years, anyway) been seen as the party that has a stronger emphasis on environmental issues and conservation.  Many zoos and aquariums are located in cities which, even in the Red States, tend to be administered by Democratic mayors and city councils.  The irony, of course, is that the harshest critics of zoos - PETA and other animal rights organizations - are themselves fairly left of center, so zoos often find themselves in the crossfire between wildlife-conservation-liberals supporting the zoo and and animals-rights-liberals opposing it.

Taken as a whole, the Republican Party has a less vocal commitment to conservation (though there are exceptions!).  Republican politicians, however, often show support to zoos and aquariums (provided they don't cost the taxpayers too much money) on the basis of their commitment to family-oriented community facilities which, incidentally, often have a net-positive impact on the local economy.

Politics in America is divisive, and probably apt to get more so.  Liberals blame conservatives for this.  Conservatives blame liberals.  Increasingly, aspects of our culture - hobbies, books, music, institutions - get divided into one camp or the other, sometimes for actual political reasons, sometimes for reasons that make nothing remotely resembling sense.  Zoos and aquariums, at least for the time being, remain neutral ground.

Generally, that's a positive thing.  They can bring together large groups of people, including those that would never really think of themselves as becoming conservation voters, and give them a chance to experience a slice of the natural world that they otherwise might never encounter.  Conservation, I've always felt, should never be a politic issue, something that if one party is "for", the other must be against just on principle.  It should belong on everyone.

At the same time, I sometimes worry that an effort to straddle the line leaves zoos in the difficult position of not being bold enough as advocates for animals.  Because there are sometimes political issues that are more than a matter of funding for the species that zoos work with - sometimes they really are matter of life and death (ask a red wolf).

So yes, zoos should bring people together in a nonpartisan manner.  But they should do so for a cause - the cause of conservation.  It shouldn't matter if a visitor enters the gates supporting Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, Jeb (exclamation point optional) Bush or Bernie Sanders.  When they leave, they should be at least a little stronger in their support of animals.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica)

Atlantic Puffin
Fratercula arctica (Linnaeus, 1758)

Range: North Atlantic
Habitat: Ocean, Cliffs, Offshore Islands
Diet: Fish, Marine Invertebrates
Social Grouping: Large Flocks
Reproduction: Monogamous.  Breed from February through April.  Single egg laid after 43 day incubation period, chick leaves burrow and becomes independent at six weeks of age.  Reproductively mature at 3-6 years old
Lifespan: 30 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern


  • Body length 28-34 centimeters, wingspan 50-60 centimeters
  • Black on the dorsal surface, neck, and top of the head, while the stomach and cheeks are white.  The large triangular beak is striped red, blue, and yellow during the summer, duller in the winter
  • Spend most of the year out at sea, coming to land in order to breed in the spring.  At this time, they undergo an annual molt, during which they are rendered flightless
  • Only species of puffin found in the Atlantic Ocean
  • Named the official bird of the Canadian Province of Newfoundland and Labrador
  • Nest on islands and cliff faces to evade predators, such as arctic foxes.  Avian predators include gulls and skuas, which will also rob puffins of their catches
  • Often swim on the surface, but can dive underwater, using its wings for propulsion
  • Threats to the species include oil spills and loss of food sources due to overfishing; most major nesting colonies are protected to prevent disturbance
  • Reintroduction program spear-headed by the National Audubon Society (Project Puffin) has led to the reintroduction of the species in Maine
  • Three subspecies recognized, varying in their size; the northern subspecies F. a. naumanni is the larest, F. a. grabae is the smallest, and F. a. arctica is intermediate
  • Latin name translates to "Little Friar of the Arctic"


Sunday, January 3, 2016

Resolutions at the Zoo

There's something about the start of the New Year which makes people want to improve themselves... I guess people could start resolutions on, say, the 14th of July or something, but January 1st just seems so much neater.  I'm a sucker for New Year's Resolutions myself, though most of them peter out by mid-March every year.  Every year, a lot of those resolutions pertain to my job; namely, coming up with ways of being a better keeper.  

That got me thinking.  What if zoos made New Year's Resolutions?  Not just the staff members making their own, but the entire institution, setting annual goals to improve itself?  Sure, most zoos develop grand, sweeping master plans, but what about the basic self-improvements?

Here are a few ideas...

1.) More Enrichment.  Most human New Year's Resolutions pertain to weight loss and exercise, so why shouldn't the same be true of the animals?  Offering enrichment to the animals is a great way to promote natural behaviors, prevent stereotypic ones, and keep animals happy and healthy.  It is also very educational for visitors and can greatly improve their experience (providing the animals use it, of course).

2.) Home Improvement.  There's a time and a place for master planning, tremendous, grandiose plans that cost millions and make order out of disorder (after making it even more disorderly at first).  That's all well beyond the pay-grade of most keepers.  What is not, however, is completely redoing existing habitats at the zoo, especially smaller ones.  New furniture.  New substrate.  New shelters.  New toys and enrichment.  Maybe even do a swap, switching which animals live in which enclosure for variety.  This is much easier for smaller exhibits for birds, reptiles, and small mammals, but almost every exhibit can be freshened up considerably for surprisingly little work.

3.) Go Green(er).  Kansas City Zoo made news this year by going Palm Oil free.  More zoos should do the same.  Likewise, more zoos should work on reducing their carbon footprint, recycling and composting more, and otherwise being more environmentally responsible.

4.) Act Local.  No zoo is completely saturated with animal exhibits.  There's usually plenty of open space between and around the enclosures.  Use it.  Not for more exhibits or visitor areas - use it to develop wildlife habitat. Plant native plants.  Put up bird baths and bat boxes.  Also, become a champion for a local threatened species.  It's a rare zoo that doesn't have some endangered animal in their backyard.  It probably isn't anything super-glamorous like a condor or a wolf.  It's probably a butterfly, a mussel, or a freshwater fish.  Most of your visitors have probably never even heard of it.  Do something about that.  Take up the cause and promote its conservation, getting involved directly if you can.

Zoos and aquariums are in a constantly changing world.  The challenges facing endangered species are growing and becoming more complicated.  Fewer and fewer people are directly experiencing nature, making zoos one of the only direct links they have to live animals.  Our critics are getting louder.  

It's a changing world, and zoos and aquariums can't afford not to change.  The challenges are too great for us not to.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy Zoo Year!

Happy New Year!

2016 marks the beginning of the third full year of The Zoo Review, and I'm looking forward to spending another year sharing stories from the world of zoos and aquariums.  As always, we love to hear from you, either through comments or email - zooreviewer@gmail.com.  Hoping that everyone's new year gets off to a fantastic start and that 2016 continues to be a year of progressive growth, and increasing commitment towards animals from zoos and aquariums across the world.