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Thursday, March 31, 2016

From the News: Unsung heroes caring for Lou. Zoo's newest baby gorilla

A really cool story from the news that highlights one of the biggest emotional challenges of being a zookeeper.  You've just lost an animal that you care very deeply about (and lets be honest, a great ape is closer to a person than it is any other animal) and you want to mourn.  At the same time, the animals that you have remaining require all of your commitment and devotion... especially the newborn in question.  Hats off to the staff of Louisville Zoo as they do their best in this challenging time.  It's nice to see some recognition for their efforts.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Zoo History: The Politics of Pandas

In 1972, during the high of the Cold War, US President Richard Nixon took a step towards thawing East-West relations by visiting the world's most populous Communist country - China.  Nixon's top priority was to try and divide China further from its neighbor and former political ally, the Soviet Union. Politicians, diplomats, and the American people followed his visit with rapt attention, wondering what new relationship with China would develop as a result of the trip.   The visit had many consequences - political, social, economic, and cultural - which led to the long-isolated China beginning to rejoin the rest of the world.

One result that few people expected was a pair of black-and-white bears.

Today, giant pandas are almost synonymous with China, the only nation of earth where they can be found.  For the vast majority of recorded history, however, they remained completely unknown outside of their native land - the first giant panda wasn't seen in an American zoo until the 1930's, with the arrival of Su-Lin at the Brookfield Zoo (to this day, Su-Lin's stuffed body can be viewed at the Field Museum of Natural History).

It was in a spirit of goodwill that Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong offered Nixon a pair of giant pandas - male Hsing-Hsing ("Twinkling Star") and female Ling-Ling ("Darling Girl").  Both were wild born, and both were about two-years old.

The pandas were installed in a new building at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park, where they instantly became the toast of the town.  At the time, they were the only giant pandas on display in the United States and became the zoo's top attraction.  In one way, however, they were a bit of a disappointment to their caretakers - they failed to produce a surviving cub.  It had been theorized that, taken at such a young age, neither panda had ever seen copulation, and so they didn't know how to respond to one another.  As a result, keepers resorted to "Panda Porn" to stimulate the bears.  It may have been what did the trick as the pair did eventually produce offspring, but none survived any length of time.

The pair, especially Ling-Ling, also went on to help partially dispel the notion that pandas are soft, lovable teddy bears by being aggressive jerks, both to each other and to any human foolish enough to enter their domain.

Ling-Ling died in 1992, at the time setting a longevity record for captive pandas, one which she retained until Hsing-Hsing died in 1999.  The Panda House remained empty for a year, a memorial to the zoo's most beloved residents, until a new pair replaced them in 2000.  This pair, the current pair, has been able to take advantage of a wellspring of knowledge about panda husbandry that zoos have obtained since the 1970's; among other results, they've bred successfully.

Nixon's pair of pandas weren't the only members of their species to leave China on diplomatic missions.  Others were sent to zoos around the world, on both sides of the Iron Curtain, as part of China's "Panda Diplomacy", the earliest examples of which can be traced to the gift of pandas to the Japanese Emperor in the 600s.  China has frequently offered pandas to Taiwanese zoos as a subtle effort to suggest that Taiwan is a part of China (as China sees it), and not an independent nation (as Taiwan would have it).

Nor were they the only animal diplomats to travel the globe.  The practice dates back for centuries (remember the Pope's rhinoceros?).  Nixon himself sent the Chinese, in return for the pandas... musk-ox (Really?  American bison wouldn't have been more appropriate?  And they weren't even DC's musk-ox, they were San Francisco Zoo's... and what did they get out of the deal?).  In 2009, the Seychelles government gave the People's Republic of China a 60th Birthday gift in the form of a pair of Aldabra giant tortoises, which went to the Shanghai Zoo.

After the success of the DC pandas, as well as a pair sent to London, China began offering pandas on pricey, 10-year loans, which many zoos still jumped at.  It got to the point where the US Fish and Wildlife Service had to crackdown on the international panda loans, uncomfortably close to trafficking in endangered species.  Rules were changed so that loans were only allowed when half of the fee would go directly to panda research and conservation in the wild.  Jack Hanna of the Columbus Zoo was temporarily booted out of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for flouting their strict rules on panda importations.

It would be inaccurate to state the the highlight of Richard Nixon's voyage to China was getting some big, furry souvenirs.  For one thing, he made Chinese food wildly popular throughout the US... or at least what we think of as Chinese food.  On a slightly more consequential note, the visit helped steer China into greater global involvement, making it the economic juggernaut it is today.  At the same time, it certainly must be admitted that the gifting of Hsing-Hsing and Ling-Ling to the United States introduced millions of Americans to an incredible animal, and changed the face (literally, in the case of the World Wildlife Fund logo) of conservation and endangered species.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Zoe Piel's "At the Zoo"

I recently stumbled across this on Tumblr, and it's honestly making me consider just closing up this blog.  Pretty much everything I've wanted to convey about being a zookeeper - the passion behind it, the constant ridiculous foibles and challenges, the highs and lows and humor and downs - this comic strip is summing up way better.  May I present Zoe Piel's At the Zoo, on Tumblr!

Friday, January 29, 2016, February 17, 2016, February 22, 2016

Friday, March 25, 2016

A Letter from SeaWorld

I saw this letter circulating among some zookeeper online communities I follow earlier today.  It's the response of Joel Manby of SeaWorld to a concerned correspondent who was expressing her discomfort with the announced partnership between SeaWorld and Humane Society of the United States, most recently evidenced in SeaWorld's announcement that it would no longer be breeding orcas.  I'll just leave this here...

Thank you for reaching out to express your concern for our recent announcements. While we're confident of the steps we are taking for the future at SeaWorld, we want you to know these were difficult decisions. We also want you to understand why we made them. Ultimately, the issue is: do we want a SeaWorld without whales over time, or a world without SeaWorld?

We love our whales and we know you do, too. That's why our whales have always received the highest standard of care from the most dedicated professionals in the world. And that’s something that is not going to change. In the months and years to come you will still be able to experience the orcas. But instead of seeing these majestic animals as you once did, we're creating new, exciting and more natural looking habitats and experiences that will inspire the next generation of guests to help protect orcas in the wild. These experiences will continue to build love and appreciation for whales – as our current shows have done for you.

Once we made the decision on the future of our orca program, we felt it was important to work with a former adversary, like the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS), who would support our decision and agree that our killer whales are not suitable for sea pens. In addition to supporting our decision, HSUS also recognizes that SeaWorld's rescue facilities and expertise are incredibly important to save and house the thousands of marine mammals stranded a year. Based on our experience, having a third-party voice confirm our point of view is critical to driving the narrative about the dangers of these so-called sanctuaries and the important work SeaWorld does on rescue and conservation.

SeaWorld and HSUS also agree the oceans are in crisis and so are the marine mammals that live there. Commercial whaling and seal hunting, and the deplorable practice of shark finning must be stopped. These are things HSUS and SeaWorld can agree on. And, while we may disagree on other topics, if we can put those other differences aside, we can do a lot of good together – on these subjects and others.

We want every guest to our park to continue to be inspired to take action to help protect animals and wild places. We understand that our loyal fans like you might be surprised at our news, but our core mission and purpose will remain the same – to bring people and animals together for meaningful experiences that educate and inspire.

Though some things are changing, so many things at SeaWorld are not. One of those is our need for your continued support – like you’ve shown so loyally in the past by signing petitions and sending letters. We have an exciting future ahead of us and you are an important part of helping us succeed. Thank you for continuing to stand with SeaWorld as we work to inspire guests and protect animals and the wild wonders of our world.

-Joel Manby

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Zoo Review: Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

The city of Cleveland, Ohio is encircled with a necklace of natural areas, spanning over 21,000 acres; this is the Cleveland Metroparks system.  While the parks feature a variety of nature trails, fishing holes, golf courses, horseback trails, and cycling paths, its most popular attraction is the zoo.  Founded in 1882 and moved to its current location in 1907, the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo is one of several fine Ohioan zoos, though it is often overshadowed by Toledo and Cincinnati.  That's a shame, because its 180 acre campus, while holding some old exhibits in need of replacement, is still a true gem.

Perhaps the strangest exhibit in the zoo is its Primate, Cat, and Aquatics Building, located on a hill overlooking the rest of the park.  Darkened hallways lead past galleries of aquarium tanks, including moon jellyfish, piranhas, and a porthole view into a large shark tank.  Other sections of the building are devoted to primates (mandrill, black spider monkey, Allen's swamp monkey, and Mueller's gibbons, among them), while another houses snow leopards.  Other animals featured include ayes-ayes and slow loris in a nocturnal wing, a Madagascar area with lemurs and fossa, and armadillos and sloths distributed among the exhibits.  I did mention some older exhibits and, dating back to the 1970's, this building is definitely showing its age.  Far nicer are the outdoor adjacent habitats for cheetah, red panda, and lowland gorilla.

Visitors can take a tram down the steep hill from the P-C-A Building to the rest of the zoo, or, if they are feeling adventurous, they can take a meandering boardwalk down through the woods.  It snakes from the top of the hill through the heavily forested hillside, providing a calm break from crowds of visitors.  The path will empty out at the Australian Adventure, where guests can meander through a grassy yard as red-necked wallabies, red and grey kangaroos, and black swans meander by.  A nearby Outback homestead keeps farm animals safely segregated from dingos.  The main Aussie attractions, however, are the koalas, which share a building with tree kangaroos and short-beaked echidnas.  The usually-sleeping koalas can be seen in an open-air habitat, which allows visitors to enjoy their unique, cough-medicine smell.

The newest major exhibit (but not for long) is African Elephant Crossing, an innovative habitat which features two elephant yards separated by a visitor path.  During certain times of the day, the visitors are shooed away and gates are swung out, linking the yards and allowing the elephants to stroll from one section of the exhibit into the other.  The elephants can also be seen in their barn, where visitors are treated to a behind-the-scenes peak at how keepers care for elephants.  This building also provides habitats for rock python and naked mole rats, while meerkats and an African aviary are outside.  The Crossing is just one part of an African Savannah, which also features lions, black rhinos, antelope, giraffes (which can be fed from a special feeding platform), and an island of Colobus monkeys.

At the northern end of the zoo is (appropriately) Northern Trek.  Polar bears (along with several other bear species - American black, brown, Andean, sun, and sloth) can be seen here in grottos, along with seals and sea lions.  There is also an impressive collection of rarely-displayed North Asian ungulates - onager, white-lipped deer, tufted deer, and reindeer, all in large, grassy, shaded yards.  The coolest exhibit by far, however, and one of the coolest exhibits I've ever seen, is Wolf Woods.  Mexican gray wolves share a mixed-species exhibit with beavers, which patrol a pond full of large river fish.  The animals can be viewed from a reconfigured hunting lodge (which serves now as a research station), from a long underwater-viewing window (which offers split-level, panoramic views of the two animals), or, in the case of the beavers, anyway, from a window into their lodge.   Andean condor and Steller's sea eagles inhabit towering flight cages nearby.

Last but not least is one of the zoo's most famous displays, The Rainforest, which serves as the nucleus of the reptile and amphibian collection.  After entering the imposing lobby, resembling the ruined facade of some lost temple, visitors may choose which level to explore first.  Most of the reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates (a leaf-cutter ant colony included) are on the ground floor, along with Egyptian fruit bats and an island of Indian crested porcupines.  The porcupines are subjected to occasionally thunder storms and rain showers via a sprinkler system overhead.  Also on the ground floor is an impressive stream-side habitat for gharial and various Asian river turtles, seen with excellent underwater viewing.  Upstairs, guests pass through a Bornean research station before entering a forest trail that houses various tropical mammals.  Giant anteater, capybara, fishing cat, ocelot, and small-clawed otters are all found here.  The experience ends with the habitats of two Asian primates - Francois langurs and Bornean orangutans in towering enclosures.

Cleveland Metroparks Zoo has some older exhibits, but I think their biggest problem is trying to do too much in too little space.  Yes, the campus is very roomy, but some of the exhibit areas are too clumped; perhaps, for example, many of the rather unimpressive indoor exhibits in the P-C-A Building could be merged to create larger habitats for primates, carnivores, and small mammals.  Perhaps instead of displaying five or six bear species in okay-yards, it would be better to have exhibits for two or three that are truly great.

Still, the zoo has an impressive commitment to conservation, both around the world (grants being distributed to dozens in projects in over thirty countries) and nearby (captive breeding and release of the endangered plains garter snake).  It must be admitted, the zoo's newer exhibits are fantastic - I raved over Wolf Woods for days after I saw it, and thought African Elephant Crossing was fairly impressive.  At the time of my visit, construction was underway for a new Amur tiger exhibit in Northern Trek, which I hope will equal or surpass the quality of these other new exhibits, and will hopefully pave the way for further renovation and development.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Far Side: Reptile House

Like The Onion, The Far Side has always been one of my favorite sources of off-beat, quirky, sometimes morbid humor.  Also like The Onion, it's not uncommon for it to use zoos or aquariums for comedic effect.  This strip has long been one of my favorites.  Most of us would deny it, but deep down, part of the pleasure of working with reptiles (or invertebrates) is possessing a relationship with a creature that many other people find terrifying).

It is, of course, up to you to decide what to do with that relationship...

Sunday, March 20, 2016

From the News: Art, Science Departments to Continue Zoo Enrichment Course

After a gloomy week of bad zoo news (not counting the hail storm at Fort Worth, or the random - but thankfully damage-free, explosion at National), it's nice to see some good news (and just in time for the first day of Spring!).  In this case, a university and its students coming out to support their local zoo and work with keepers to improve animal welfare.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Queensland Lungfish (Neoceratodus forsteri)

Queensland (Australian) Lungfish
Neoceratodus forsteri (J.L.G. Krefft, 1870)

Range: Southeastern Queensland (Australia)
Habitat: Permanent Freshwater Pools
Diet: Fish, Amphibians, Aquatic Invertebrates, Aquatic Vegetation
Social Grouping: Juveniles Territorial, Adults Not
Reproduction: Sexually mature at 15-20 years old, spawn during August-December, eggs deposited individual in water (up to 100 per mating), no parental care provided
Lifespan: 100 Years
Conservation Status: CITES Appendix II

  • Body length 80-200 centimeters, weigh up to 48 kilograms.  Thick, heavyset body with wide, flat head and paddle-like fins
  • Green, gray, or brown on the back, paler on the bellies with some white on the sides; sexes look alike, though the stomach of the male may change colors during breeding season
  • Have a single lung (most lungfish have two), used to gulp oxygen from surface when body is stressed and additional oxygen is needed, such as when pools dry up; it can live out of water for a few days as long as its skin stays moist
  • Sometimes observed eating aquatic vegetation, which seems to pass through the body without being digested; this might be just to ingest small organism found within the plant matter
  • Believed to use electroreception to locate hidden prey
  • Extremely long-lived; a Queensland lungfish at the Shedd Aquarium, known as Granddad, is believed to be the world's oldest captive fish
  • Move between deep and shallow water as part of a daily cycle (deep in the day, shallow at night) and seasonally (deep in winter, shallow during spawning season)
  • Cannot survive in saltwater, which limits their range, but they are known to have been transplanted by humans into some river locations where they were not believed to have previously existed
  • Lungfish have been observed in the fossil record unchanged for over 100 million years, leading to their being called "Living Fossils"

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Saint Patrick's Day Blues

Today is St. Patrick's Day, and like 99% of the US population, I can claim to be at least a little Irish... but I'm not feeling super lucky today.  Today, I could certainly argue, was a bad day for the animal care profession, with the announcement from SeaWorld that they would no longer breed orcas in captivity... meaning that the whales they house now will be their last.  SeaWorld had stood up against many legal challenges to their keeping of orcas, including a lawsuit brought to the US Supreme Court that equated killer whale shows to slavery, but in the end, it was simple economics that did them in.  Their stock was falling, and the company (which is, of course, for profit) made the call.

Many keepers and aquarists are devastated.  Now, it's true that keepers are hardly a monolithic body, and there are plenty that were opposed to the keeping of orcas, but others fear that most infamous of bogeymen, the slippery slope.  Today the orcas, tomorrow the elephants, then the polar bears, etc.  The fact that SeaWorld announced a partnership with the Humane Society of the United States, one of the leading advocates for an end to orcas in captivity, is troubling to many of these keepers, who feel that their institutions are under attack.

I always advocate vigilance in the face of animal rights groups... but I'm not quite as concerned as many keepers are.  For one thing, SeaWorld was a different sort of target than many zoos.  Orcas are only housed at a very tiny handful of facilities in the US which meant, among other things, that a tremendous majority of US citizens have never seen one, which makes it easier to support banning them.  Also, killer whales have only been in captivity for a relatively short period of time, whereas we've all had centuries or even millenia to get used to the idea or lions, bears, or elephants in captivity.  Lastly, the marine set-up required for orcas makes it very difficult to easily and quickly expand an enclosure, while in contrast, many zoos have been able to greatly increase the amount of (land) space they've given to their large (land)  mammals.

Unlike many zoos and aquariums, SeaWorld has largely been built around one species.  They have orcas, almost no one else does, and they were the star attraction.  Zoos, in contrast, can phase out a species or two (all do) and not suffer.  I'm sure the activists are hoping that this will be the death blow for SeaWorld... but if it is, what will happen to all of the marine animal rescue work that SeaWorld once did?  How many wild animals will have to be euthanized because there were no resources for their rehabilitation?

None of this is to say that I'm happy about what happened at SeaWorld, but I am glad that it happened on (sort of) their terms, rather than a legal ban or a court order.  I'm sending positive thoughts to all keepers working at those parks, especially the orca teams.  They've taken a beating of being vilified in the press these last few years.  I hope that they know how many keepers there are out there, here and around the world, who support them.  I hope they know how many lives of visitors they have touched.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Rescue Me

We have a duck at my zoo that looks a little rough.  Well, okay, really rough.  When he swims - which he does most of the time - he looks fine.  Same when he's flying.  It's those awkward moments on land, walking from one pond to the other, that he looks like a mess, with one twisted leg dragging behind him as he shuffles along.  It's broken - has been for years - and it's not going to get any better.

On a busy day I might have five or six people tell me about it.  Sometimes they are scared, other times angry, mostly they're concerned.  I always tell them the same thing.  He was found as a wild bird with a horribly mangled leg, and taken to a wildlife rehabilitator.  The rehabber was able to save the life, but not the limb - it was unable to heal properly, resulting in a bird that can swim and fly, but not really walk.  The bird was deemed non-releasable into the wild, meaning that his options were 1) Euthanasia or 2) the zoo.  He wound up at the zoo.

As soon as they hear that story, the upset visitors always brighten up.  The duck's story went from being a sad one (especially in the case where they think his injury just happened) to a happier one - he was rescued.

The Omaha elephants notwithstanding, rescue cases are the least controversial animals in the zoo.  Even zoo-haters are typically glad to know that a wild animal that is unable to survive in the wild anymore now has a permanent home with food, water, shelter, and medical care for the rest of its days.  Sometimes, I'm actually forced to spoil a visitor's experience by explaining that not all the animals in the zoo are rescues... but that does lead to some interesting conversations about SSPs and captive breeding.)

They may make the visitors feel warm and fuzzy that they're visit is supporting these cases, but to me, rescue cases are pains in the butt.  Often there are medical issues, as in the case of my limping duck friend.  Then there is the psychological angle.  Zoo animals - those who are born in the zoo and have spent their whole lives there - tend to be fairly comfortable around people.  Some may be inquisitive, others aggressive, others timid, but most have seen enough people to know that we aren't always trying to eat them.  Wild born animals, however, have much less exposure to people... prior to suddenly winding up in captivity.  Many of them never seem to calm down in the presence of their keepers.

For some species commonly seen in US zoos, rescue is almost exclusively the source of animals.  Virtually all bald eagles are in zoos because they suffered some debilitating injury in the wild.  Most black and brown bears are in zoos because they were found as orphans, or their mothers were shot as "problem" animals.

Modern zoos pride themselves on how the animals they care for are mostly born in their own institutions, instead of taken from the wild.  A cynic could ask how much a mission of mercy it really is for a zoo to help itself to a wild animal under the banner of "rescue" (especially in cases of high profile animals, like the elephants).  PETA has gone so far as to accuse zoos of using the concept of the rescue to cover up the capture and sale of wild animals (though consider the source).

The fact remains, however, that the wild is a brutal enough place, even without factoring the role that humans play.  Animals get orphaned and animals get injured, and, left to their own devices, those animals often die.  Sometimes, zoos can provide a second lease on life.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Elephant Has Landed

When I first went to East Africa, I went to sleep at night to the pop, pop, popping sound of guns in the distance.  Those, I learned from my guide, were the sounds of gunfire.  Not of poachers, but of farmers trying to protect their crops from elephants wandering out from the national parks, which were too small to sustain their numbers.

There aren't nearly as many African elephants as there used to be in Africa, but there's also a lot less land to support them.

This week, a small herd of African elephants left their native Swaziland, beginning a globe-spanning journey that ended at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo.  The six elephants - five females and a male - are part of a group of seventeen animals that was slated for culling before the decision was made to ship them to American zoos.  Besides Omaha, Dallas Zoo and Sedgwick County Zoo will also be receiving elephants.

The decision has, to put it lightly, been controversial.  Some animal rights groups have expressed outrage at the move, casting doubt over the conservation and science behind the importation and suggesting that Swaziland flat-out sold its elephants for profit.  Other conservations have said that the move was essential - drought in southern Africa has resulted in severe food shortages in protected areas; elephants are nature's bulldozers and can quickly turn forest into grassland into desert.  Among the species being negatively impacted by this loss of habitat are rhinos.  Faced with the prospect of whether the reserves should have elephants or rhinos, Swaziland chose rhinos.

Swazi elephants coming to Omaha
Two of the Swazi elephants coming to Omaha (

Now, you could argue (as even some keepers do) that elephants don't belong in zoos and that they do best in their natural habitat.  But you could also argue that they don't belong in protected areas too small to sustain populations of elephants and other native herbivores, and that nothing about this situation is natural.  The wild (such as it is these days) is not some happy paradise where animals frolic about carefree.  It's characterized by drought, famine, predators, and, increasingly humans who don't want to share it with animals.

I personally find the argument that Omaha and the other zoos only want the elephants "for profit" to be pretty illogical.  There are already enough African elephants in US zoos to satisfy exhibit needs.  What is the benefit of getting more of them?  If a zoo currently displays three elephants, do they think visitors are going to line up at the gate and pay more to see six or seven elephants?  The goal instead is to create a sustainable captive population in this country... because Africa seems to be one of the less-safe places to be an elephant these days.

As to the animals themselves, they seem to be settling in well.  Experience based on other recent relocations of wild elephants to American zoos (detailed in Zoo Story: Life in the Garden of Captives) suggests that they will adjust comfortably, ideally breeding.  Meanwhile, Omaha is preparing to unveil a new African grasslands exhibit to house the elephants, one that's larger than some zoos I've visited.

It's not Africa.  But that being said, Africa isn't really Africa these days either.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Book Review: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

"'Here's another way to express the same thing,' Anthony Barnosky,  a paleontologist at the University of California-Berkley, wrote of the study results.  'Look around you.  Kill half of what you see.  Or, if you're feeling generous, just kill about a quarter of what you see.  That's what we could be talking about.'"

When talking about the animals in zoos and aquariums, I'm often struck by how many of them are endangered.  Even the ones that aren't listed as IUCN Endangered, or on one of the CITES Appendices, are generally in decline, some quicker than others.  If you so choose, you can look at the predicament of each species as a separate incident, or a regional phenomena.  Step back a little further and you can see it for what it is - a collective global tragedy.

In The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, author Elizabeth Kolbert of The New Yorker takes readers on a global tour of our increasingly endangered world.  There have been five mass extinction events in the history of our planet.  The scientists and conservationists that Kolbert encounters believe that we are in the midst of a sixth.  The difference between this one and previous ones, they contend, is that the perpetrator can be traced to a single species - us.

The book starts of with a fascinating history of the phenomena of extinction, the shadow of evolution itself.  It describes not only how and why the process works (naturally), but tells the fascinating story of how scientists came to first know of it, through the study of fossils.  The various chapters than hop the globe, highlighting different species and how they are being impacted in a human-driven world.  One chapter details climate change and ocean acidification, for example, while another focuses on invasive species, looking at the later through the case study of North American bats being decimated by white-nose syndrome... but also detailing the brown tree snake and the destruction of Guam's avifauna, among other examples.   

The first chapter deals with one of my favorite species, the Panamanian golden frog, and describes how the Amphibian Ark is working to save the remaining amphibians of Panama from the deadly chytrid fungus.  It's some good storytelling, but I did get a little irritated at what I perceived to be Ms. Kolbert's almost dismissive attitude towards the frogs - kind of a "Well, they'll never be able to survive in the wild again, so why bother?" vibe.

During her time with field biologists in Panama, Ms. Kolbert encounters several zoo professionals, including many keepers who have volunteered to travel to Panama to provide captive care expertise , build and maintain enclosures, and search for amphibians.  She also visits the Frozen Zoo of the San Diego Zoo, as well as the Cincinnati Zoo, where she watches the ultrasound of a Sumatran rhinoceros.  In fact, zoos come up relatively often, sometimes with a "necessary evil" ambivalence, sometimes with more of a "well, at least someone is doing something."  Nothing like being damned with faint praise...

The Sixth Extinction is not a happy read, but that being said, it's not a happy topic.  Ms. Kolbert doesn't try to sugarcoat the truth, or turn it into a happy-sappy "It's all okay because look!  Some people are doing stuff!" (while discussing the Panama scenario, she scoffs at child-oriented educational materials that promote "The Frog Hotel" while ignoring the terrible reasons why the frogs need to be in "The Hotel" in the first place).  It's not so much a call-to-arms as it is a "This is really bad and it's going on.  Thought you should know."

Sometimes society needs a warm, fuzzy pep-talk.  Other times it needs the cold, hard truth.  Ms. Kolbert seems to have decided that, as far as the loss of biodiversity goes, Option #1 will only get us so far.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Native Nuisance

It was about two years ago that I visited the Brevard Zoo for the first time.  It was cold and gray and damp back home, but sunny and bright in Florida, and I was feeling thoroughly, wretchedly jealous as I walked down the lushly planted trails, admiring the animals.  After a while, I came to the zoo's central exhibit, where flamingos ambled around the edge of their pool.  Weaving between the legs of the big pink birds were smaller, white ones - American ibis.

I was just as engrossed by the ibises as I was the flamingos, wondering how the keepers managed them all, when suddenly a zookeeper strolled into the enclosure.  With one half-hearted swipe of a rake, she sent a flurry of wings into motion... and when the dust cleared, the only birds left were the flamingos.  I watched the departing ibis fly off, the keeper watched the endless streaks of poop they'd left behind before she started to scrub.

"Aw, man," I thought glumly.  "Even their pests are cooler than ours..."

A zoo is a place for animals.  Specifically, it is a place for the animals that we want to be there.  We put out food and bedding, provide shelters from the heat and cold, and provide endless water in the form of bowls, pools, and streams.  The problem is that all of this makes wonderful habitat for other animals, who certainly don't mind helping themselves to an abundance of resources.

That can be good.  It can also be very, very bad.

It's good because zoos are places for people who care about animals, and that means native species as well.  As more and more forest and wetland and meadow becomes converted into suburban sprawl, animals are being forced into seeking new places to live.  Zoos (and urban parks) fit the bill for many species; even without the added benefits of food and water sources, they are usually green places to live that are protected from dogs, cats, and (at least during closing hours) people.

Sometimes those native animals become a tremendous draw for visitors, as much as any of the captive animals.  Every spring, the grounds of the National Zoo (ironically, those immediately outside the Bird House) become one massive rookery for black-crowned night herons.  Across the Chesapeake, at the Salisbury Zoo, the much smaller zoo plays a similar role for much bigger birds - great blue herons.  The Jacksonville Zoo has long boasted a breeding colony of wood storks. Virtually no US zoo can match the bird-watching opportunities of the St. Augustine Alligator Farm, where over a dozen species of heron, egret, spoonbill, and stork nest every year just above dozens of lurking alligators.  And just how imagine how cool it was for visitors to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to watch a wild sea otter give birth...  just outside the aquarium.

Different regions boast different zoo-crashers.  On a recent trip to Belize, about half of the new animals I saw, I saw for the first time at the Belize Zoo... and not in the exhibits.  Chachalacas, agoutis, and two species of iguana sauntered in and out of exhibits, grabbing a bite of tapir food here, sunning themselves on top of the vulture aviary there.  For someone who had spent his whole life thinking of those animals as "zoo animals" it was a little surreal.

So what's the problem?  Well, not all of our animal visitors are so benign.

Some are thieves.  Sure, some of those animals at the Belize Zoo were snatching food meant for the animals that lived there (animals which did not have the luxury of leaving the zoo to find their own elsewhere, as the agoutis could).  Others are... less-nice thieves, and some are just bullies.  Gulls, gray squirrels, and Canada geese come to mind readily.  They will enter any exhibit they can and take whatever food they want, and aren't above running the intended recipients off (in the case of Canada geese, they also aren't above beating up zoo visitors, especially children, though to be fair, sometimes the kids deserve it).

Some are destructive or messy.  If there's one thing I hate about Canada geese is their amazing ability to kill every last scrape of grass in an exhibit.  I look back at the old photos of my zoo and am always dazzled by how green it was.  Now, it's the North American annex of the Sahara.  Squirrels will happily chew their way into anything to get to food.  And then there's all of the pooping.  Which reminds me...

Some are disease-spreaders.  All that pooping leads to disease transmission, especially if the bird that is doing the pooping is doing it while standing in the middle of your animal's food bowl.  This last year, the big worry among bird departments was the spread of HPAI - Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza - which had decimated some poultry farms; no one knew what the risk to zoos would be, but it was known that Canada geese and mallards were some of the leading carriers.  Thankfully, nothing really happened... this year.

Some are killers.  Foxes, raccoons, skunks, snakes, and an aerial armada of birds-of-prey can be attracted to the easy pickings of zoo animals.  Just today, a Los Angeles area mountain lion has become the prime suspect in the killing of a koala at that city's zoo.  An enclosure can't just keep your animals in, it has to keep these guys out, which isn't always an easy task.  They dig, they climb, and they have fantastic motivation.  Even if the predator can't get in, they can still do damage - I've seen owls and hawks reach through the wire of an aviary to grab and kill a bird, apparently unconcerned that they couldn't actually get their kill out and eat it.  At the very least, their presence can cause panic and stress among the animals.

Which isn't to say that our animals don't turn the tables now and then.  Many zoo carnivores are quick to take advantage of the chance to snag some free-range enrichment items.  I've seen snow leopards snag squirrels, alligators grab egrets, and wolves take ducks.  During AM cleaning, I've found half-eaten possums, the foot of a great-horned owl (nothing else), and a fair number of half-snakes.

So what do we do about our native neighbors?

There are occasions when we have to take steps to protect zoo animals.   That means making sure enclosures are predator-proof, checking them constantly for signs of digging or tearing, maybe installing hot-wires.  It can mean putting up finer (and more expensive) mesh or wire to keep birds and chipmunks and snakes out of exhibits.  It can mean pulling food bowls at night so as not to attract raccoons, skunks, and other nocturnal foragers (who may then decide to stay for a slightly meatier second course).  And sometimes it means trapping and removing of problem animals.

Still, for the most part, I err on their side, as long as it doesn't compromise the welfare of the zoo animals, which remains my top concern.  In fact, I like to encourage them where safe and practical, with bat-boxes, birdhouses, and native plants.  It gives a helping hand to local biodiversity, pleases visitors, and reminds us all that not all wildlife is in Africa or Asia.

As I learned in Belize, one keeper's food-stealing nuisance is another's wild treasure.  Now maybe they'd like to trade some Canada geese for a chachalaca or two...

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

From the News: Wild Sea Otter Gives Birth at Monterey Bay Aquarium

Onlookers get rare glimpse of pregnant sea otter giving birth in Monterey Bay

Sea otter gives birth to pup

With so much talk these last few days about animals escaping from zoos, I thought it might be fun to take a look at the opposite - wild animals dropping by.  It must have been an extraordinary occasion for visitors to the Monterey Bay Aquarium is see such an amazing sight, and it's a fantastic example of a zoo or aquarium providing habitat for wild wildlife.

Monday, March 7, 2016

It's Not a Mistake If You Learn From It...

Escapes are terrifying events for zoo staff, and while they hold a sort of ghost story appeal for keepers, at the same time, it's never enjoyable to talk about them if YOU were the one who was responsible for the animal getting out.  That leads to many keepers not being especially willing to talk about their escapes or near misses.  That's unfortunate, because often that is the only way to learn from them and prevent the same mistake from being made again.

Perhaps the nearest I ever came to being killed (by a zoo animal, anyway), occurred one day when I was cleaning a bear enclosure.  One minute I was raking away, the next I turned around and saw Louis, a full grown American black bear, lumbering towards me good-naturedly.  I swear, I was outside the exhibit with the door locked (but minus my rake and shovel, which I had to retrieve later) before I even processed what had happened.  I immediately began to worry, had I been so absent-minded that I had walked in with a bear without even thinking?

Turns out, no.  I've done some dumb things, but this one at least wasn't on me.  It turns out Louis had perfected the art of lifting the door to his shift area.  I only found this out after talking to a keeper who had had this same near-miss experience; like me, he’d thought that he’d just forgotten to shift the bear out.  The next day, I did an experiment: Louis was shut into his holding area and some fresh apples were placed outside, in his exhibit.  I’d barely made it to the exit before be tossed the chain-link gate up and sauntered out for a snack.

It was an easy enough fix – a small piece of chain was enough to secure the gate closed safely for the future.  Still, we never would have figured it out if we hadn’t talked about it.  The next keeper Louis walked in on might not have been lucky.

Despite all of the schooling and training and internships and collective lore from generations of keepers past, an amazing amount of zookeeping still comes down to trial and error… with an emphasis on the “error” part.

A former employer of mine – one of the most “old school, always done it this way” guys I’ve ever met – had an adage he used a lot.  Sure, he was intolerant of many things, but one thing he was always surprisingly accommodating of was mistakes.  Even serious ones, for all of his bluff and bluster, he’d usually forgive.  Each time, he’d pull the offender aside, read them the riot act for what they did wrong, and then end with – “It’s not a mistake if you learn from it.”

It’s true for animal escapes – every escape should end with a meeting, maybe a day or two later so everyone has time to reflect – to discuss how it happened and what could be done better next time.  How to prevent the animal from escaping in the first place, how to communicate better, how to more effectively recapture it, how to deal with the public.  The same could be said about animal deaths, keeper injuries, or other workplace misfortunes.

Despite everyone’s best efforts, stuff will occasionally go wrong at work.  There’s no avoiding it.  If it’s not a big disaster, it’ll at least be a little one.  It happens.  What can’t be allowed to happen, however, is to let those experiences go to waste.  Even the worst crisis can become, in retrospect, a teaching moment.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Mandarin Newt (Tylotriton shanjing)

Mandarin Newt (Emperor Newt)
Tylotriton shanjing

Range: China (Yunnan Province)
Habitat: Mountain Forests and Wetlands
Diet: Invertebrates
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Breed May-August, deposit 80-240 eggs on rocks and plants in standing water.  Eggs are laid either singly or in strings.  They hatch after 15-40 days, undergo metamorphosis at 60 days, and are sexually mature at 3-4 years old.
Conservation Status: IUCN Near Threatened

  • Body length 14-20 centimeters, males are smaller than females
  • Sexes look alike.  Dark brown or black background color with vivid red, yellow, or orange striped, crests, and lateral warts (bumps on the side of the body)
  • Outside of breeding season it is completely terrestrial.  Enter the water to reproduce
  • Courtship displays involve moving in dance-like circular motions
  • Warts on the back are poison glands; when seized, the poison will be squeezed out onto predators 
  • Species name comes from the Mandarin words shan for mountain and jing, for spirit or demon
  • Popular in the pet trade due to bright coloration; sometimes caught and dried for use in Traditional Chinese Medicine

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Great Escape - Part II

So, we've established escapes happen.  We've explored the main reasons as to why they happen.  The next, most important question is, "What do you do?"

Well, that all comes down to a lot of details, including one minor one - what animal escaped?  It's not just a question of what species, but what sex, what age, and, in many cases, what individual.

Obviously, if a salamander escapes you look for it, find it, pick it up, and put it back where it belongs.  If it's an elephant, you go immediately to HR, drop off your radio and keys, and then drive away as fast as you can, face burning with embarrassment the entire time.  In other words, the appropriate response varies.

Just to be dramatic, we'll consider the escape of a large carnivore, like a big cat or bear.  So here's what you do when the worst happens...

1.) Communicate... but not too much

In the case of an animal escape, communication is essential.  The person who first becomes aware of the situation needs to convey information to the rest of the staff quickly and clearly.  What animal is out, where it is, how it's acting, where it's going, how many are out, etc.  Can you see how the animal got out (good to know, no sense herding an animal back in only for it to immediately pop back out the same way).  Are there other animals in that enclosure?  Make sure they are secure.  That last thing you need is more escapees (actually, there are lots of other "last things" you need).

Most zoo staff communicate through radios, which have an inherent flaw.  One person can hog an entire conversation, preventing anyone else from speaking.  If you don't have anything relevant to say, be quiet.  Keep your eyes and ears open and your finger off the "Talk" button.

Communication means communicating with more than just keepers.  It means letting other staff know what the situation is.  It means (depending on the seriousness of the problem and the risk of danger) notifying police and/or EMTs.  And it means communicating with the only animals less predictable than those on the loose... the visitors.

2.) Protect the Public

There is no animal escape situation that cannot be made worse by panicking visitors.  If the animal escape occurs before the zoo opens, the job is easy enough... just do not open until the situation is resolved.  If there are visitors present when the escape occurs... well crud.

Try to minimize the visitor presence by removing them safely from the area.  If they cannot be safely removed (because, let's say, a polar bear is roaming the zoo nearby) get them somewhere safe, inside buildings that can be closed down.  Also secure non-animal staff, such as gift shop and concessions, as well as docents and volunteers.

As a matter of fact, this is where your non-animal staff are given their most important role.  Have them help guests to safety and keep open lines of communication, all while removing themselves from a dangerous situation.  Having them help take care of visitors let's you focus on your main issue.

3.) Eyes on the Prize

Find the animal.  Quickly.  Ideally, you should be able to maintain a visual on it the entire time it is out.  Keep staff appraised as to where it is going and how it is behaving.  If you loose sight of it, your job of recapture becomes much more difficult.

All of this assumes that you have seen the escaping animal and that you didn't come in one morning and *poof* the bear was gone when you got there.  That's why you always do a morning check, so that a potential crisis can be identified before adding the variable of the public.

4.) Mobilize and Contain

Trained keeper and veterinary staff should be dispatched with equipment - dart guns, shotguns or rifles, snare pools, etc - needed to recapture the animal.  What approach you take will depend on the animal and its state.  Can it be lured back in with a favorite treat?  Is there a keeper that it's especially close to that it will respond to and follow?  Can a few keepers with shields, hoses, or fire extinguishers drive it back to where it belongs?  The keepers are supposed to be the experts on these matters, and they should have the insight into their animals to at least have a theory of how the animal would respond and what will work best.  Which usually is 5.)

The zoo gates should be closed and locked down to prevent the animal from leaving the grounds through that route, while at the same time preventing more humans from entering the scene.  The exception may be if it is deemed safe to allow visitors to exit the zoo through that route.  In this case, staff should man the gates, both to keep other people from entering the zoo as well as to close the gates if the situation changes and leaving them open is no longer deemed safe.

Meanwhile, the entire time, the gun team should be following a dangerous animal ready to intervene.  The first choice is always, ideally, to dart the animal.  If it poses a threat to human safety, however, or is about to escape a controlled environment (such as about to exit the zoo), the gun team may make the decision to euthanize the animal.

5.) A Way Home

Some humans assume that zoo animals are unhappy in their enclosures.  To that way of thinking, an escape would be a liberation.  The truth often is, however, that the animal views its enclosure as its home and the outside surroundings as threatening and chaotic.  Virtually every animal escape I've encountered has ended the same way - for every dramatic chase and recapture, there have been nine times where the keepers simply left the animal with a clear path to get back to its enclosure and in it went.

The ideal end game is to get the animal safely contained, either having let it wandered back in or darting it and carrying it back.  Only when the animal is secure should a stand-down be issued and things return to normal.  By this point, everyone will probably have shot nerves, which can only be cured by closing the zoo and consuming copious amounts of alcohol, followed by sleep.  Equally important to the response to the escape, however, is what happens next.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Great Escape - Part I

Escapes happen.  There isn't any way around in, and any keeper who works at a collection of any size where nothing has ever escaped is probably not entirely informed.  Or not considering certain escapes "escapes."  Incidents like my near-miss with the cheetahs, or the lion escape up in Canada, are infrequent.  Most escapes don't make the news, usually because a) the situation is quickly and easily corrected, b) the animal involved is not very big or scary, and c) we get really, really embarrassed when this stuff happens.

In the age of mass social media, when an escape does happen and word leaks outside the zoo, everyone has a field day.  Think of Rusty, the red panda from the National Zoo who spent a day cheerfully exploring DC, or the Egyptian cobra from the Bronx Zoo who was given her own Twitter account to detail her fictitious escapades.  Upon recapture, she was also given a new name - in M.I.A.

So escapes happen.  But how do they happen?  That's the first thing I usually ask after an escape, mostly so I can verify to all interested parties (i.e., my bosses) that it wasn't my fault.  As near as I can tell, there are three main methods of animal escape, and I've gotten to see them all.  Illustrated with anecdotes!

1.) Poor Enclosure Design

When we put to two cobras together, no one thought anything of it.  The male had lived in his enclosure peaceably for years, and it held him just fine.  It held the female, on the other hand, for about two days.  That's when we found her wandering around in a room completely on the other side of the building.  You see, the cobra exhibit may have had a hole or two in it.  The male was much larger than the female and couldn't fit out of them.  She, on the other hand... whoops.

Exhibits, needless to say, shouldn't have holes.  Climbing animals shouldn't be able to climb out.  Burrowing animals shouldn't be able to dig out.  Exhibits should be thoroughly checked before animals are introduced to them to make sure they are secure.  Some zoos go to extremes - when the Woodland Park Zoo in Seattle prepared to welcome the gorillas to their new exhibit, it invited (human) rock climbers to try and climb out and find any potential escape routes.

It's also always a good idea to recheck an exhibit before introducing a new individual to an exhibit.  That newcomer is likely to explore and test things that the current occupants won't... like our cobra did.

2.) Structural Damage

The big cat exhibits at my zoo aren't much to look at... they're old.  They were built with one thing in mind - security.  If one of the giant trees that surround them fall and land directly on top of them, they will still stand. That doesn't mean that after every storm the first I do isn't to race around the zoo checking fences and roofs and viewing windows for damage.

Sometimes, damage inflicted upon exhibits is human-induced.  At one zoo where I worked, I spent an hour carefully coaxing back in an escaped marmoset.  After securing it, I set to work trying to find out how it had escaped.  It took all of three seconds.  Right along the bottom of the mesh at the front of the exhibit was a gash running the entire length of the exhibit, the mesh flapping ideally in the breeze.  Stuck to it, at various parts, was freshly cut grass.

Our director was an old school zoo man, especially on the horticultural front.  No tangled growth or jungle scenes, he liked his flowers and trees planted in neat rows and he liked his lawns mowed nice and short.  Unfortunately, our new (and soon to be ex) groundskeeper got a little too close while trimming around the exhibits with a weed-whacker.

3.) The "Whoops" Factor

What every keeper dreads most is the moment when an animal gets out for the simple reason that you were an idiot and let it out through the front door.  That's what happened with the cheetahs I described yesterday. Sometimes you forget to close the door.  Sometimes the animal is lying in wait for you and makes a dash for the door as soon as you open it.  There are some exhibits which I have lived in fear of because the animals inside were dashers... especially the very small, very fast ones.

Sometimes, even the not so fast ones can throw you for a loop.  At the same zoo as the marmoset incident, I watched an increasingly flustered keeper chase a binturong in circles around (the outside of) her exhibit.  Binturongs don't go especially fast, but this one was doing just enough of a trot to keep out of our keeper's clutches (not sure what she was going to do if she caught it - they're generally pretty good-natured animals, but man, do they have some teeth on them still).  Eventually, a few other staff arrived and we were able to herd the little beasty back in.  It turns out that the keeper had opened the door, turned around for a second to set a water bucket down, and then looked back just in time to see a shaggy, black prehensile tail slithering around the corner.

To guard against this, many exhibits have what are called keeper areas, or shifts (I've heard others call them "air locks"), which act as a series of double-doors between the animal's exhibit and the outside.  The theory is that if the animal makes it through the first door, it'll still be confined in a small area from which it can easily be pushed back into the enclosure.  Note: this only works if you actually remember to close the first door before opening the second one.

There are other ways an escape can happen - an extreme amount of motivation giving an animal the ability to push through a normally insurmountable barrier, heavy rainfall allowing animals to swim across filled-in moats, I've even come across one incident of (I suspect) a keeper deliberately letting an animal escape (presumably so she could recapture it and be a hero).  The point is, at some point, an animal will escape.

The question is, what are you going to do about it?

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Cheetahs' Morning Walk

It wasn't my first time working cats.  I knew that, and my trainer knew that.  Still, it was a new zoo with new animals and new coworkers, and every set up is different.  And so I was determined to keep my mouth shut and let my new teacher teach.  As is often the case on a first day of training, the new hire (me, in this case) stood and watched while the trainer performed and explained the routine.

Things went fine during the tigers.  They seemed to go fine with the cheetahs too.  At least, that's what we thought... until we stepped back outside.  In all of my new coworker's enthusiasm for explanation, it seemed that she forgot one minor detail.  She'd let the two male cheetahs out into their outdoor enclosure... without closing the gate.  We turned around just in time to see the two spotted boys strolling cautiously through the gate, taking in their new surroundings warily.

Another minute or it, it could have been worse.  As it was, we were both able to calmly and quietly herd the cheetahs, pushing them back into their enclosure and shut the gate behind them.  As soon as the lock was checked and double-checked, my new coworker dropped onto the ground in a heap of shaking panic.

We'd been lucky.  Lucky there were two of us there to herd the cats in.  Lucky that we'd seen what was going on when we did, before the cats had gone too far.  Lucky that we both knew how to react in this situation.  And, I couldn't help but think, lucky that it had been the cheetahs and not the tigers, or any other big cat.

Doubtlessly my colleague was grateful that we were able to clean this mess up quickly and quietly (which was probably a major breach of protocol).  Her hands had been on the levers and pulleys of the exhibit, but her attention had been elsewhere.  That's all that most animal escapes - and most keeper deaths - come down to.  A momentary lapse of attention.  I had been paying attention, but to my trainer.  Being unfamiliar with the set-up and protocol of the exhibit, I had no idea what she was supposed to be doing in what order, otherwise I would have noticed that issue of the gate.

Over the last several years, I've been present for many animal escapes - birds and mammals and reptiles and one very obnoxiously elusive poison dart frog who required several hours of crawling beneath the shelving units of the reptile house to finally recapture. The cheetah fiasco was brief in comparison to others - it took seconds, whereas some animals have taken days to recapture.  It was, however, the most nerve-racking for me.

Tomorrow, I'm going to explore the world of animal escapes and how to avoid them (if possible... and it's almost always possible).  Tomorrow, we explore a zookeeper's worst nightmare.