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Monday, February 29, 2016

From the News: Lion Shot Dead After Escaping Zoo Enclosure

It's every zookeeper's worst nightmare... and a sobering reminder about why firearms training and escape drills are essential (and, for those of us accredited by the AZA, required).  No one ever wants to wind up in a situation like this (well, almost no one... I'll admit I have known a few adrenaline junkies who, as new keepers, seemed to think situations like this would be the norm).  Heartfelt condolences to the Papanack Zoo staff.  It's a hard call to make as it is without having to second guess yourself constantly.

African white lion male
An adult male African white lion (not the animal seen above) was killed on Sunday after it escaped its enclosure. (The Associated Press)

Sunday, February 28, 2016

How a Saint Louis Zoo Researcher Is Saving Zebras, Foxes, and Wolves, by Jeannette Cooperman

An absolutely fantastic look at the life and career of one of the most remarkable professionals in the zoo and aquarium field.  The research that Dr. Asa and her colleagues do, at the St. Louis Zoo and around the world, is providing vital tools that may allow us to save some of planet's most endangered species.  It's good to see that more of an effort is being made to get the word out about their work.

How a Saint Louis Zoo Researcher Is Saving Zebras, Foxes, and Wolves

Cheryl Asa has slipped birth control pills to teenage orangutans, performed vasectomies on wild horses, and ensured the survival of the Mexican gray wolf.  

Friday, February 26, 2016

Welcome to the Gun Show

I was working on getting the new hire set up.  All of the basics - keys, radio, uniforms - while at the same time trying to go over five or six other details in the back of my head.  As a result, I didn't hear until the third time when she asked me what was in the giant safe in the corner of the office.

"That's where we keep the guns," I replied.

"Oh, you mean the tranquilizers?"

"No, the real guns.  Shotguns.  Rifles.  Those guns."

"Oh."  All of the sudden, our super enthusiastic new keeper looked like she wanted to be anywhere but in this room with this safe.

If I was looking to comfort her (and I'm a cantankerous jerk at work, so I wasn't), I could have told her that the safe had been opened and the guns removed maybe a dozen times total over the course of my years at the zoo.  Two or three times a gun was taken out as part of a procedure with a dangerous animal - a veterinary procedure, an enclosure move - as a safety precaution.  The other times were all escape drills.

Not once since I've worked in a zoo setting have I seen a staff member draw a firearm with any intent of having to shoot an animal.  Even in the rare occurrences of dangerous animal escapes that I have observed, the animal in question was always recaptured before guns could be even retrieved.

None of which isn't to say that such incidents don't happen.  One of the first From the News posts I made on this blog detailed the fatal shooting of an escaped baboon at a British zoo.

Whenever such actions unfold, the public outcry is usually deafening.  Why didn't the zoo use tranquilizers, is the most common question.  The fact is, while tranquilizers are the ideal solution, they can also be an unreliable one.  Their use is equal parts art and science, and it can be very difficult to determine what dosage will have what effect on an animal, depending on its species, sex, age, weight, and, perhaps most importantly, current state of mind.  Nor are they instantaneous in their effectiveness - an animal will not go down the second it feels the prick of the dart.  A darted tiger or bear, especially one confused, angered, and full of adrenaline, is perfectly capable of shredding a keeper (or bystander) open before (or if) the tranquilizer takes effect.

If a person's life is in imminent danger, or an animal is about to leave the relative confined security of the zoo and leave the grounds, a bullet might be the only option.  Some zoos categorize their animals as to which to bring out the guns for.  Others leave full responsibility for decisions up to an elect gun team, which often trains with local SWAT teams.

Due to my lousy vision and even worse depth perception, I've never been invited to join, though I do train with them from time to time.  Presumably, me with a gun is more dangerous than a rampaging lion.

No keeper wants to see an animal that they care for and nurture killed.  Certainly none wants to be the one who pulled the trigger.  Still, our affection for our animals is often coupled with a more than passing familiarity with their power and the danger that they can pose, especially when they are out of their element and in full fight-or-flight mode.

I'll seldom question the judgement of one of the keepers who has had to make that call as to whether to shoot or not.  Mostly, I'm just glad the decision has never come down to me.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Zoo Review: Toledo Zoo & Aquarium

If there's a pattern to where the truly great zoos in the United State are, I haven't found it yet.  Sure, it makes sense that the biggest cities would often have great zoos - look at the Bronx or the Chicago zoos.  You'd also figure that southern zoos, with their warm climates enabling animals to be outdoors year round, would also have an advantage, and again, you'd be right.  Still, you can find some fantastic zoos - some of America's best - in cities where you would never expect to find them.  Cincinnati Zoo, at the bottom of Ohio, is one such facility.  At the northern end of the state, Toledo Zoo is another.

At the time of my visit to Toledo Zoo, the big news was the reopening of the zoo's historic Aquarium (the zoo has since added "& Aquarium" to its name).  It was built in what seems to be the new style of aquariums - much lighter, brighter, and airier, as compared to the dark museum galleries of the past.  Not tremendously big by aquarium standards, I got the impression that it was designed and stocked by someone like me - that is, someone who'd visited a lot of aquariums and had walked away with a checklist of what the iconic, must-have species were that would most appeal to visitors. Among those were red-bellied piranhas, giant Pacific octopus, green sea turtle, and bonnethead sharks (think mini-hammerheads).  As befitting Toledo's location on the Great Lakes, native freshwater fish were also displayed.  Outside, African penguins could be viewed above and below the surface of the water.

The Aquarium is one of several Depression-Era buildings that dot the zoo grounds.  Their numbers also include the Reptile House and the Aviary.  The Reptile House, studded with life-sized sculptures of pterosaurs (flying prehistoric reptiles), featured several galleries of species from around the world, including endangered local species, such as the massasauga rattlesnake.  Also represented were Virgin Island boas, an endangered Caribbean species that Toledo Zoo has been involved with conserving for several years.  For the zoo professional, the most interesting exhibit will likely be the room-sized tuatara display, but most visitors will have a hard time not marching straight past the lizard-like relics to the back of the building, home to a massive saltwater crocodile.

The Aviary isn't to be outdone, either in beauty of exhibits (here it probably surpasses the Reptile House) nor in the quality of its collection.  While saddle-billed storks, double-wattled cassowaries, cinereous vultures, and a host of pheasants can be found across the zoo, the main bird collection is found in yet another WPA building.  Some of the exhibits are viewed through nearly-invisible mesh, others are walk-through galleries.  Many contained species I'd only rarely seen before, including cock-of-the-rock, buttonquail, and my very first kagu (a big, crested bird from New Caledonia, very rare in zoos).  Birds are in many ways a specialty of the zoo, which boasts its own Avian Propagation Center.  Outside the Aviary, American flamingos share a pool with a wide variety of ducks from around the world.

Two often neglected taxa of animals - amphibians and invertebrates - can be observed in the Museum of Science building.  One gallery displays insects and their relatives, another focuses on endangered amphibians (Toledo was once known as Frogtown USA).  Like the Reptile House, it's a single giant - in this case, a Japanese giant salamander - which wows the crowds, but the most important displays here are the two glassed-in rooms.  Here, zoo staff work to breed and rear for reintroduction two of the world's most endangered amphibians - the Kihansi spray toad and the Wyoming toad.

Toads and tuataras and kagus aside, if there is one animal for which Toledo is best known, it's the hippopotamus (the zoo's street address is 2 Hippo Way).  Toledo's Hippoquarium was the first exhibit to offer underwater viewing of the big beasties, and it still has the best exhibit I've ever seen of them.  Visitors have even observed hippos giving birth (underwater) before their very eyes in this display, something researchers in Africa could only dream of observing.  When you see a hippo float past you, so silent despite being so big, and suddenly open its tusk-filled maw and hurl water in the air, you'll never think of them as boring again.  The hippos are found on what the zoo calls it's Tembo Trail; "Tembo" is Swahili for "elephant", and the African elephants are indeed found along this trail (complete with a behind-the-scenes look at their barn), along with lions, meerkats, white rhinos, and spot-necked otters.  More African animals, including giraffes, zebras, and ostriches, are found in a separate area.

What the zoo began with hippos it has continued with polar bears in an equally breathtaking exhibit.  Polar bears and their natural prey - grey and harbor seals - can be seen in exhibits that are not only side-by-side, but overlap.  The polar bear land area is directly over the seal pools (seen through underwater windows), creating the illusion that the bears are waiting for seals to pop out of a hole for a breath.  The bears and seals can be seen from a viewing building that serves as an Arctic education resource; and I was pleased to see the zoo not shying away from climate change controversies (it also walks the walk - the first thing I saw when I entered the zoo was the parking lot, which was full of solar panels).  Outside, a pack of white Arctic wolves roam a grassy yard and can be viewed from a log cabin.

Other large mammals seen around the zoo include tigers, sloth bears, and snow leopards (seen in some average-quality exhibits near the flamingos), cheetahs in a separate area, and a collection of primates by the Aquarium.  Gorillas and orangutans inhabit one building, while gibbons and New and Old World monkeys (along with red pandas) occupy another. Not bad exhibits, but nowhere near as breathtaking as many of the others.  In the near future, the zoo plans to unveil an exhibit area devoted to rivers (new habitat for the hippos, as well as grizzly bears and giant otters, among others) and another themed around animals in the age of exploration.  The stars of this will be the Galapagos tortoises, currently housed by (or, during the winter, inside) the zoo's Conservatory.  Unfortunately, my visit to Toledo was slightly too early, and I missed the unveiling of its new Tasmanian devil exhibit.

One last note about Toledo, and a plug that I don't often make - eat lunch here.  Yeah, zoo food is often expensive, but here, it's not the meal, it's the atmosphere.  The old Carnivora House, former home to lions, tigers, and other big predators, has been refurbished as a cafe, and visitor can dine in the indoor or outdoor cages.  Quite a place to grab a bite while reflecting how far zoos have come.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Tokay Gecko (Gekko gecko)

Tokay Gecko
Gekko gecko (Linnaeus, 1758)

Range: Southeast Asia, Indonesia
Habitat: Tropical Rainforest, Cliffs
Diet: Insects
Social Grouping: Territorial, Solitary
Reproduction: Breeding season lasts 4-5 months, with the female laying eggs every month; two eggs are stuck to a surface by the female (they are soft and sticky when laid, harden shortly after) and are guarded by both parents until they hatch after 100-180 days.  The young are sexually mature at 3 years.
Lifespan: 10-20 Years
Conservation Status: Not Evaluated

  • Body length 35 centimeters - cylindrical body is slightly flattened, large head with large prominent eyes, soft granular skin.  Males are larger and more brightly colored than females
  • Gray background color with brown or red spots and flecks, ability to lighten or darken skin color
  • Ability to climb on walls and overhead surfaces due to fine, hair-like setae on toes
  • Common name comes from the load "to-kay" sound, repeated multiple times during courtship
  • If seized by a predator, the tail can be dropped; it will continue to wriggle violently, distracting the predator while the gecko escapes.  A new tail will be grown in the next few weeks
  • Often found in urban environments, living in buildings and feeding on insects
  • In some parts of their range, they are regarded as symbols of luck and fortune, descended from dragons.  It is sometimes poached for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine
  • Despite its becoming less common; it has, been introduced and established in some areas outside of its native range, including the United States and Caribbean
  • Two recognized subspecies - the nominate, found over most of the range, and G. g. azhari, found in Bangladesh

Zookeeper's Journal: Tokay geckos are fairly common both in zoos and the pet trade... and wherever they go, they have a rotten reputation.  They're infamous for being bitey little rage monsters, and I've had more than one latched to the end of a finger.  The thing is, though, the geckos themselves aren't that bad.  It's just that many of the ones I've worked with (abandoned pets turned over to zoos) have been wild born, and as such, view people as something equivalent to the devil.  A lot of wild caught reptiles have reactions like this and develop reputations as foul-tempered, or poor feeders, or parasite-laden, or what have you.  As the captive reptile population becomes more and more captive bred, we're finding that a lot of our early stereotypes about some of these reptiles - Tokays included - are just the result of the terrible conditions that some of the first generation animals had to go through.

Monday, February 22, 2016

From the News: Judge Extends Gun Ban at St. Louis Zoo

With the exception of abortion, there is probably no political issue in the United States more fraught with emotion other than those pertaining to guns.  Recently, some zoos have found themselves, pun unintended, under fire for their insistence that visitors be barred from bringing guns through their gates.  And St. Louis isn't alone in this - I know that the issue  has been brought up in Houston, and I'm sure it's come up at other zoos as well.

Personally, I understand why visitors who go habitually armed might not want to make an exception for the zoo.  That being said, I've been present for a few zoo emergencies, some of them during open hours, and can't think of a single one which would have been improved by having armed visitors around.  Imagine dealing with an animal escape while visitors pretending that they are Rambo come out guns blazing, trying to save the day?

I've never dealt with an active shooter situation, but imagine if one did unfold.  Visitor A has a gun.  Visitor B (who has a gun as well) sees that gun and, thinking Visitor A is about to start shooting, pulls out his gun to shoot Visitor A.  Unfortunately, at this point Visitor C (also armed) sees this and panics, and the next thing we know, there's a firefight at the zoo.

And that's just visitors during emergencies.

I once saw a guest (shirtless and smoking, both against the rules but we'll leave that be for now) take out a knife and jump into a planted area in our zoo to chase after and attempt to kill what we believed as a venomous snake.  Imagine if he had a gun.  I've seen grown adults throw rocks to try to get the animals to move.  Imagine firing a warning shot instead?  I've had to break up fist-fights between visitors... again, a situation that could have been worse if everyone was armed.

I'm sure there are some valid reasons for wanting to bring a handgun to the zoo.  However, as someone who is tasked with protecting the visitors and the animals at the facility, I would respectfully say "Thanks... we really don't need the help."

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Baby Rhino at Toronto Zoo

Okay, so I've been super-swamped with work this last week, and the blog seemed to be the easiest thing to put on the back burner for a few days, sorry about that.  Now everything is all caught up, and tomorrow we'll be back to normal.  Until then, enjoy this footage of a cute, newborn Indian rhino from the Toronto Zoo.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Sex and the Zoo

There's no doubt that the Cincinnati Zoo knew that they'd be stirring the pot a little bit with their Facebook post.  There, sprawled out on their page, was a male bonobo in all of his glory.  How do we know he's a male?  Elementary, my dear Watson - because his giant package is on display for all the world to see.  The caption of said photo gave a brief description of the promiscuous lifestyle for which bonobos are famous... or at least famous among people who know what a bonobo is.

About 5% of the resultant comments were shrill parents squealing "Won't somebody please think of the children?" and denouncing the zoo for posting it, calling it downright pornographic.  The other 95% of the comments were devoted to making fun of those 5%.

I was with the 95%.

There is no aspect of zoo animal life, I've noticed - not euthanasia, not predation, not pooping, not nursing - that makes visitors so uncomfortable as sex.  Sex trumps all.  I've had guests cover their children's eyes and hurry them away from mating animals.  I've had guests (and keepers) shout bawdy encouragement to breeding animals.  Some have been outraged and demanded that I stop the animals from doing it, at least during public hours (How? Shock collars?).  I've also had lots of visitors try to make me uncomfortable by asking questions, in front of audiences, about the sex lives of our animals.  Never try to make a zookeeper uncomfortable, especially on their home turf.  We'll always win.

There have also been plenty of people who are just so naive about what they are seeing and how it works that I swear, they've had a paper bag over their head for their entire life, up until the exact moment they walk through the front gate.  And I'm not talking about children, either... to the kids, I usually just explain, "That monkey is just playing a game with the other one."  Close enough.

The fact is, for those who are willing to blush a little bit, there's a lot of fun animal facts relating to sex and mating.  Female spotted hyenas have almost identical reproductive organs to the male.  Snakes have forked penises; ducks have corkscrew shaped ones.  Slugs and snails are hermaphrodites.  The antechinus (a mouse-like marsupial from Australia) will literally have sex until he dies of exhaustion.  Being hung like a Malayan tapir is a compliment.  Being hung like a gorilla is not.

Lots of fun facts - if you're willing to hear them.

I once gave a tour to some teenage boys, and saw their interest was flagging a little bit, no doubt wondering where the girls were.  So when we got to the lions, I told them how the male has keratinized spines on his penis, which jolt the female as he withdraws, thereby stimulating ovulation.  Only drawback for him is it hurts the lioness just enough to make her bitch-slap him in irritation.  That got their attention.  After the tour, one of the attending mothers came up to me to let me know that one of the other mothers was offended by that story.  Or at least I think that's what she was trying to tell me.  She couldn't stop laughing, much to the chagrin of the other mother, who was pacing awkwardly in the background.

I don't how what that lady thought her son and his friends were talking about when she wasn't in the room... but probably not baseball.

Sex at the zoo (for animals - not visitors or staff... though I have come across a few examples of both before) is perfectly natural.  It's how we replenish our collections.  It's how we build populations of animals, some of which may (someday) be used to restock the wild.  But the animals don't think of it in those terms.  To them, it's just part of life, as natural as eating or sleeping.

Spend enough time with them, and you may start to view it the same way too.  Just be careful sharing the details with everyone else.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ghosts of Zoos Past

At my workplace, I am definitely the paparazzo.  I bring my camera in frequently, and if I'm not doing something (which, to be fair, is 98% of the time), I'm snapping pictures.  Pictures of animals.  Pictures of exhibits.  Of keepers.  When I visit other zoos and aquariums, my camera is always out.

It's not that I want to load up my Facebook wall with cool work photos.  It's that I have absolutely no visual memory, so for me, photography is essential for me to remember what I saw and what I thought of it.  It's because I appreciate the educational value of pictures, and how they can be used to teach an audience.  They really are worth a thousand words... unless you have your finger over the lens, as I sometimes do.  Those ones are worthless.

Wildlife Conservation Society-Vintage Photographs-Bronx Zoo-New York Aquarium-NYC-004
Pictured here is the first of four thylacines who lived at the Bronx Zoo between 1902 and 1919. The Bronx Zoo and Smithsonian National Zoo are the only two zoos in the U.S. to ever exhibit this now extinct species. The last known thylacine died at the Hobart Zoo in Tasmania in 1936. Photo © WCS.

Which is why I'm so excited to see that the Bronx Zoo, Central Park Zoo, and New York Aquarium are making an archive of over 12,000 photos from their century-long history available.  These photographs convey the story of these institutions - what animals were housed there (including some that are now extinct, or have never been displayed since), how they were cared for, and how visitors and staff interacted with them.

The world of zoos and aquariums is constantly changing - even in the time that I've been in the profession, tremendous changes have occurred in exhibition, breeding, enrichment, and training.  Which is just as well for future generations.  Who knows what idle snapshot one of our keepers will take will be treasured by future generations?

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Zoo Valentine's Day Quiz

February is a short month, and it seems like the entire four weeks (plus a day!) is taken up with Valentine's Day festivities.  That's okay though - with all of the pairing and breeding and mating, zoos and aquariums are a great place for Valentine's Day.  Whether you're in search of a life-long partner or more of the love-'em-and-leave-'em type, there's an animal that matches your lifestyle (yes, even the really kinky ones).

In that spirit, enjoy this Valentine's Day themed quiz from Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo!  And if you happen to be from that area, be sure to check out their special romance-themed zoo program, Make it a Date at the Zoo, this Saturday!

Monday, February 8, 2016

Year of the Monkey

Happy Chinese New Year!  Today begins the Year of the Monkey!

For thousands of years, monkeys and apes have had a special spot in the hearts of people.  They've been incorporated in menageries since time immemorable, kept as pets, worshiped (even mummified in Ancient Egypt), and sometimes even trained to work alongside humans.  At the same time, they've also been held up as a derogatory slur, an implication that someone isn't quite human, or is just pretending; in recent years, it's especially taken on racial connotations.  "Monkey" might be the only animal that I've heard some visitors use as a term of endearment (usually referring to their kids as monkeys), while at the same time hearing others use as an insult.

I've never really enjoyed working with monkeys - at least not compared to other animals - but it would be hard not to understand the fascination that they hold over us.  When you look in their eyes, it's not like looking into those of another zoo animal - a bear, a bison, a big cat - but not quite like those of a person, either.  It's an intelligence, like ours but different in ways that are hard to explain.  And when you watch a troop of monkeys interact, either at the zoo or in the wild, it's easy to get the vibe that you're peeking, a voyeur into someone else's family life.

Monkeys and other NHP (non-human primates in the acronym-happy world of zoos) are among the most demanding animals in terms of their care requirements.  Varied diets.  Complex habitats.  Plentiful enrichment.  Lots of social interaction.  Security - they're geniuses at escape.  Oh, and they can be absolutely filthy, which makes cleaning up after them a delight.  The monkey exhibits that I care for are each easily as much work as two or three other exhibits combined, especially if you count all of the time I have to spend researching, designing, and building new toys for them to break.

Still, they have their fans, and in the eyes of those keepers, monkeys are worth every bit of aggravation... and then some.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Pig-Nosed Turtle (Carettochelys insculpta)

Pig-Nosed Turtle (Fly River Turtle)
Carettochelys insculpta (Ramsay, 1886)

Range: Southern New Guinea, Northwestern Australia
Habitat: Rivers, Lagoons
Diet: Mollusks, Fish, Crustaceans, Fruit, Aquatic Plants
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Females nest between July and October at night, sometimes in groups; nest pit dug with hind limbs, up to 50 centimeters deep.  Eggs are 4 centimeters in diameter and weight 35 grams – incubation period is 64-102 days, with rising water stimulating eggs to hatch.  Hatchlings are 5-6 centimeters long.  Temperature for sexual differentiation is 31.5 degrees Celsius (higher temperatures females, lower males).  Females usually nest twice per year.
Lifespan: 35 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable, CITES Appendix II

  • Largest Australian turtle – maximum length of 70 centimeters, maximum weight of 30 kilograms; males are generally slightly smaller with a  longer, thicker tail
  •  Resembles a sea turtle in having flippers instead of webbed feet for limbs (males have two claws on edges of anterior flippers); also only turtle species in world to have thick, pig-like snout (responsible for one of common names), which can be used as a snorkel while swimming
  • Color ranges from silver-gray to brown-black, with light spots on carapace; ventral surface is creamy yellow or pink
  • Can tolerate brackish or saltwater, and sometimes seen out at sea or nesting on beaches alongside sea turtles
  •  Rarely leaves water (never seen basking on sandbanks or rocks), has difficulty moving on land; normally leaves the water only to nest
  • Primarily nocturnal, using snout (which is equipped with sensory receptors) to probe for food in mud at the bottom of the water
  •  Home ranges may be up to 10 kilometers of river (larger than other freshwater turtles)
  • Crocodiles are major predators, but nests and hatchling are also threatened by feral buffalo, which may trample the nests
  •  Desired as food source due to large size and tasty meat, especially in New Guinea, where eggs are also collected extensively

Friday, February 5, 2016

From the News: Chester Zoo celebrate breeding 'living fossil'

I count myself as extremely lucky that, at the tender age of having just left college, I was able to land my first zoo job working with one of the world's most extraordinary reptiles - the tuatara of New Zealand.  During my stint with the prehistoric, lizard-like creatures, my curator (who was constantly bombarding me with questions about how their temperature was, how were they eating, etc) bought a bottle of fine New Zealand wine, which he then put under lock and key.  It was his intention, he said, to drink it when he finally achieved his goal of being the first zoo outside of New Zealand to breed the species.

That was almost ten years ago. If you're reading this, boss, I guess you might as well open the damned bottle.  Congratulations Chester Zoo!

Photo credit: Chester Zoo

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Secret Lives of Prairie Dogs

"There is an old Navajo warning that if you kill off the prairie dogs there will be no one to cry for the rain..."

-Stephen Harrod Buhner, Sacred Plant Medicine

I didn't see a groundhog on Tuesday, but I did see one of our zoo's black-tailed prairie dogs (no word on whether she saw her shadow).  That surprised me.  This time of year, I would have put the odds on it being more likely that I would have seen a wild groundhog than a captive prairie dog.  Prior to that brief glimpse, I can't think of the last time that I saw one.  Weeks, maybe.

If it seems strange that a zookeeper would go for weeks without actually seeing on of his or her animals, it is... unless the animal in question is a prairie dog (which is not a dog, of course, but a ground-dwelling squirrel).  Everything about prairie dogs is weird, from a captive management standpoint.  Unlike any other species in our collection (down to the hissing cockroaches), I can't tell you how many prairie dogs we have at any given time.  That's because the entire theater of their life, except for brief foraging expeditions, takes place beneath the surface.  They breed underground.  They are born underground.  They die underground... and when they die, they do so in chambers which are then sealed off by the others.

They even poop underground - the poop being deposited in special chambers (and there aren't just bathrooms - there are bedrooms, pantries, you name it).  That, of course, means that I don't have to clean in there.  Basically, I add food and water.  Easiest exhibit in the zoo.

If you exclude the aquariums and aviaries, I think prairie dogs might be the one species which has been exhibited at every single zoo I've ever visited.  Maybe one or two didn't have them, but that's it.  They are among the most ubiquitous of zoo critters.  Visitors love them.  What's always surprised me, then, is how no one ever seems to have developed a truly great prairie dog exhibit.

Prairie dogs have a great story to tell.  Forget about rattlesnakes or wolves, they are one of the most feared and loathed and misunderstood animals in the Americas.  Ranchers and farmers have waged wars of them for centuries, accusing them of ruining grazing land and leaving holes all over the place for their horses to step into a break legs.  They've been popular live-targets for every kid with a gun in the western states.  While prairie dogs have remained fairly common across their range, their once immeasurable numbers have diminished greatly, often to the severe detriment of animals that rely on them (sometimes exclusively so).
Image obtained from Arizona Game and Fish Department

And other animals certainly do rely on them.  The burrows of prairie dogs shelter a host of other animals, from burrowing owls to toads to the black-footed ferrets which feed almost solely on prairie dogs (talk about ingratitude).  Besides ferrets, the dogs feed hawks, badgers, coyotes, and snakes.  The constant tunneling of the rodents churns the soil, improving the grazing for other herbivores, such as bison and pronghorn.  All of this makes a fascinating story zoo visitors would lap up.

It doesn't hurt that prairie dogs are cute as buttons (I mean, to the extent that buttons really are cute, which is a concept I've never understood) and tend to be active and full of bustle and energy - at least, during periods of nice weather.  Guests love them... blissfully unaware of how savage they can be to each other (imagine Watership Down meets Lord of the Flies).

Changes in zoo exhibition techniques have revolutionized how visitors see some animals.  Reversed lighting has turned bats, small cats, and other nocturnal animals from sleeping blobs to fur to active and energetic creatures.  Underwater viewing has transformed hippos and crocodilians from floating lumps to star attractions and allowed visitors to see how penguins "fly" underwater.

It's interesting, then, to wonder about the possibilities of underground viewing.  I've been to a few facilities that show a tiny section of cut-away burrows (National Zoo has side-by-side displays for prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets in their Small Mammal House), but they've been on a very small scale.  I'm talking about  something grand and sweeping, the difference between a 10-gallon glass tank and the shark tank at a major aquarium - a sprawling exhibit where prairie dogs - displayed with their non-predatory cohorts in a mixed-species exhibit - can be viewed above the ground and below.  You could see them tunnel, observe how they utilize different chambers of their network, and watch how animals interact below the surface.  It would also allow keepers to have the opportunity to track their charges throughout their lives, rather than just rely on a few snapshots of cameo appearances on the surface.

How will it work?  Haven't gotten there yet.  I've seen it done with taxidermy mounts, but getting live animals to work in such a set-up, tunneling alongside viewing windows, would be tricky.  Maybe the answer right now isn't to actually show visitors with their own eyes, but to use technology, like laparoscopic cameras, to sneak-peeks down the tunnels.  Whatever the case, it would be fascinating to let visitors gain an entirely new perspective of an animal that many of them thought they knew.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

On Thin Ice

A reader from Pittsburgh sent me a link today, showcasing this scene from the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium.  A male ostrich was enjoying some of the nice weather the area has had in the aftermath of last month's blizzard - unfortunately, there was still some ice in the yard and he fell into the moat.  Thankfully, zoo staff was on hand to rescue the bird from its predicament.

Thanks again to the contributor who pointed this video out to me, and remember: contributions of material, requests for articles, and guest editorials are always welcome at!

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Groundhog Day

And now, the blog that tried to pass off the movie A Christmas Story as something vaguely zoo-related presents Groundhog Day!

There really are only two icons of Groundhog Day -  Punxsutawney Phil and Bill Murray.  One is an icon known and recognized and adored the world over... the other is... Bill Murray.  Murray, of course, starred in the movie Groundhog Day, playing a TV weatherman who is forced to relive the same day (February 2nd) over and over again, no matter how many suicidal shortcuts he takes to get out of it.

The last time I watched it, it occurred to me that, comedy aside, reliving the same day sounds like an awful way to spend eternity.  It also made me appreciate something about my job that few other people can say.

No two days are ever the same.

Life as a zookeeper is a cycle of constant change. Animals are born.  Animals are shipped in.  Animals die.  Animals are shipped out.  Exhibits are built and torn down and then rebuilt, keepers and other staffers come and go.  Everyday presents a new challenge.  Some of these challenges are, admittedly, not very fun, such as the challenge of where to put the three feet of snow that plopped down on your facility in the course of one night (Thanks Jonas...).  Others, while equally serious, are a little more unique to the profession, such as how do you catch a single, specific bird out of a free-flight aviary the size of a football field?  How do you coax a pair of pythons into a little romance?  How do you negotiate the dynamics of your chimpanzee group, a political pit of scheming that makes House of Cards look like a three-year-old's tea party?

Most days, I come home from work happy.  Plenty of times I come back sad over something that unfolded, like saying goodbye to a favorite animal.  I've been known to come home angry, either at coworkers, or the public, or myself.  I've never come back bored.

Likewise, I never walk in the front door of work the next morning and think "Yep... same old, same old today."