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Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Guest Editorial: Harambe

One last word on Harambe, the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo who tragically lost his life earlier this week.  This especially eloquent and well-written article has been circulated and shared around the zoo community online, so I thought I would share it here as well.  It's by Amanda O'Donoughue, a long-time primate keeper.  Everything that follows is in her words:

I am going to try to clear up a few things that have been weighing on me about Harambe and the Cinci Zoo since I read the news this afternoon.

I have worked with Gorillas as a zookeeper while in my twenties (before children) and they are my favorite animal (out of dozens) that I have ever worked closely with.  I am gonna go ahead and list a few facts, thoughts and opinions for those of you that aren't familiar with the species itself, or how a zoo operates in emergency situations.

Now Gorillas are considered 'gentle giants' at least when compared with their more aggressive cousins the chimpanzee, but a 400+ pound male in his prime is as strong as roughly 10 adult humans. What can you bench press? OK, now multiply that number by ten. An adult male silverback gorilla has one job, to protect his group. He does this by bluffing or intimidating anything that he feels threatened by.
Gorillas are considered a Class 1 mammal, the most dangerous class of mammals in the animal kingdom, again, merely due to their size and strength. They are grouped in with other apes, tigers, lions, bears, etc.

While working in an AZA accredited zoo with Apes, keepers DO NOT work in contact with them. Meaning they do NOT go in with these animals. There is always a welded mesh barrier between the animal and the humans.

In more recent decades, zoos have begun to redesign enclosures, removing all obvious caging and attempting to create a seamless view of the animals for the visitor to enjoy watching animals in a more natural looking habitat. *this is great until little children begin falling into exhibits* which of course can happen to anyone, especially in a crowded zoo-like setting.
I have watched this video over again, and with the silverback's postering, and tight lips, it's pretty much the stuff of any keeper's nightmares, and I have had MANY while working with them. This job is not for the complacent. Gorillas are kind, curious, and sometimes silly, but they are also very large, very strong animals. I always brought my OCD to work with me. checking and rechecking locks to make sure my animals and I remained separated before entering to clean.
I keep hearing that the Gorilla was trying to protect the boy. I do not find this to be true. Harambe reaches for the boys hands and arms, but only to position the child better for his own displaying purposes.
Males do very elaborate displays when highly agitated, slamming and dragging things about. Typically they would drag large branches, barrels and heavy weighted balls around to make as much noise as possible. Not in an effort to hurt anyone or anything (usually) but just to intimidate. It was clear to me that he was reacting to the screams coming from the gathering crowd.
Harambe was most likely not going to separate himself from that child without seriously hurting him first (again due to mere size and strength, not malicious intent) Why didn't they use treats? well, they attempted to call them off exhibit (which animals hate), the females in the group came in, but Harambe did not. What better treat for a captive animal than a real live kid! 
They didn't use Tranquilizers for a few reasons, A. Harambe would've taken too long to become immobilized, and could have really injured the child in the process as the drugs used may not work quickly enough depending on the stress of the situation and the dose B. Harambe would've have drowned in the moat if immobilized in the water, and possibly fallen on the boy trapping him and drowning him as well. 

Many zoos have the protocol to call on their expertly trained dart team in the event of an animal escape or in the event that a human is trapped with a dangerous animal. They will evaluate the scene as quickly and as safely as possible, and will make the most informed decision as how they will handle the animal. 

I can't point fingers at anyone in this situation, but we need to really evaluate the safety of the animal enclosures from the visitor side. Not impeding that view is a tough one, but there should be no way that someone can find themselves inside of an animal's exhibit. 

I know one thing for sure, those keepers lost a beautiful, and I mean gorgeous silverback and friend. I feel their loss with them this week. As educators and conservators of endangered species, all we can do is shine a light on the beauty and majesty of these animals in hopes to spark a love and a need to keep them from vanishing from our planet. Child killers, they are not. It's unfortunate for the conservation of the species, and the loss of revenue a beautiful zoo such as Cinci will lose. tragedy all around.
*me working (very carefully) with a 400+ pound silverback circa 2009

Monday, May 30, 2016

A Cause for Hope

By now, the world's media outlets are pretty well saturated with the tragic news of the gorilla incident at the Cincinnati Zoo.  Thanks to the wonderful world of keeper-social-media, I heard the news before it broke CNN or any of the other major media outlets, which gave me just enough time to brace myself from the flood of criticism that rained down on the zoo and the child's mother, both of which have since stepped up to defend themselves.  It's ugly out there...

At the same time, there was one aspect of the whole tragedy which did make me smile - how quickly zoo and aquarium professionals around the world rallied to the aid of their friends in Cincinnati.  Not in the "United-Front-Against-Anti-Zoo-Activists" way (though there is that).  Mostly, it was out of a common bond, recognizing that fellow keepers were pained in a way that few other people could understand, and that their pain was being played out over and over again across television and internet.  It was a desire to comfort those who needed it, with the understanding that, should such a tragedy ever be revisited upon one of us, Cincinnati keepers would likewise be there for us.

I've seen lots of keepers post cute or funny animal pictures to cheer up Cincinnati keepers.  I've seen lots of "We Support the Cincinnati Zoo" memes.  I've seen Jack Hanna and other celebrities of the zoo world defend the zoo's difficult decision.  No internal fighting, no finger-pointing, no accusations, or insinuations that someone else would have made a better decision.  Just comfort, sympathy, and support.

Sometimes I worry about the future of the zoo and aquarium field.  Moments like this change that, though.  Any profession with members who almost unanimously support one another in such times of tragedy, not out of self-interest but out of shared compassion, may very well have a long, bright future ahead.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

A Disastrous Repeat

Yet another child falling into an animal enclosure at a zoo, yet another animal that paid the price.  This time it was a gorilla from the Cincinnati Zoo; the child is thankfully okay, the gorilla, tragically, is not.  Thinking of the keepers at Cincinnati in what I know is a very difficult time for them.

Disasters like this are completely preventable.  Parents, grandparents, chaperones, please keep track of your children at the zoo.  Don't let them wander off, and pay attention to what they are telling you.  Also - DO NOT put children over railings.  Fences meant to separate you from animals are not there as a suggestion, they are meant to be respected.  Spare the keepers the heartache of having to sacrifice an animal they love to save your child.  Spare yourself the potential heartache of losing a child.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Hyacinth Macaw (Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus)

Hyacinth Macaw
Anodorhynchus hyacinthinus (Latham, 1790)

Range: Central South America
Habitat: Palm Savannah
Diet: Palm Nuts, Fruit
Social Grouping: Flocks of up to 30
Reproduction: Nest from July through December in tree cavities or on cliff faces. 2 eggs per clutch, but usually 1 survives to maturity.  Eggs incubated by female for 25-28 days while male tends to her.  Chicks fledge at 3 months, but dependent on parents until 6 months old.  Mature at about 7 years old
Lifespan: 40-50 Years (Estimate)
Conservation Status: IUCN Endangered, CITES Appendix II

  • The world's largest parrot, up to 100 centimeters in length (half of this length is made up of tail feathers).  Wingspan 117-127 centimeters, weight 1.2-1.7 kilograms
  • Sexes look alike with cobalt blue feathers, bare yellow skin around the eye, and a yellow patch of skin next to the lower bill; the bill is black
  • Travel long distances daily in search of food, keep in touch with loud squawks and screams, return of roosts at sunset
  • Feed on clay off of cliff faces, possibly to neutralize toxins found in their diet
  • Known to feed on nuts that have passed through digestive tracts of cattle
  • Adults have few predators; eggs may be taken by crows, jays, toucans, and coati
  • Use of tools has been observed in wild and captive birds, such as using leaves to help maintain a grip on slippery nuts
  • Major threat has been illegal collection of birds for the pet trade; also threatened by habitat loss for cattle ranching or damming 

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Life in the Slow Lane

There's a story that I've heard - heard it from a few different people, each saying it happened to them, which makes it more like a phenomenon, I guess.  Several folks over the years - co-workers, casual acquaintances, zoo visitors - have told me stories about the pet turtle they had as a kid.  They all took their turtle outside to play on a nice day (good for them, getting some Vitamin D for the shells) and set it in the grass.  Then they turned their back ("But just for a second!").

When they turned around, ol' Shelly (either that or one of the ninja turtle names) was gone. It just never occurred to them that their pet turtle might, you know, move.

One of the funniest sights of zookeeping is watching a hungry, hormonal, or otherwise motivated turtle or tortoise haul shell.  Sure, they won't win any races at the zoo, and they can't maintain it for very long, but they can really surprise you when they get moving.  Couple that with the fact that you probably weren't expecting to have to chase a tortoise, and you can easily see how someone's pet turtle might run away if left unattended.  Especially if it's a warm summer day and there are lots of yummy things to eat.

Still, as many times as I've heard this story, or some variation of it, I still hear endless jokes about how slow turtles are, with many people seeming to believe it.  Sloths are like that too.  I was cleaning our sloth exhibit once and heard a mother tell her children that it would take about one year for our sloths to go from one end of their (comfortably sized) exhibit to the other. I've seen them do it in under a minute.  When they are motivated, of course.  Which they seldom are...

Visitors love to embellish about our animals.  Sometimes, that can lead to disappointments, with animals unable to match the stories.  No, chameleons can't instantly change color to match anything - if you put them on a chess board, they won't immediately turn into black and red squares.  No, cheetahs can't run 150 miles an hour, they top out at 70.  No, black mamba venom won't kill you in two seconds.  I met a guy in college - my roommate, actually - who was disappointed to learn that giraffes were "only" 16 feet tall... he thought they were 50 or so.

There's no reason to exaggerate the strengths (or deficits, I've heard some remarkable beliefs concerning ostrich stupidity) of animals.  The truth is amazing enough.  Especially when it defies our beliefs.

Monday, May 23, 2016

World Turtle Day

World Turtle Day®

Ah yes, another "[Animal Name] Day."  "World Turtle Day", however, has a little more lasting power than many others - 2016 marks its 16th year.  Established by the American Tortoise Rescue in 1990, World Turtle Day celebrates shelled reptiles - animals that, for many of us, were first pets, or backyard acquantances.  For many zookeepers and aquarists, turtles and tortoises are part of our workplace families, and they are endearingly fascinating creatures.

Even visitors who fear other reptiles - snakes and lizards and crocodilians (to the best of my knowledge, no one is afraid of tuataras) find turtles and tortoises to be charming, even lovable.  We celebrate them in culture, from Franklin the Turtle to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Perhaps their slow, steady movements make them seem less threatening than many other animals.  With the notable (and dubious) exception of the Greek playwright Aeschylus, I know of no one who has ever been killed by a chelonian

If tortoises and turtles do no harm to people, we certainly do a lot to them.  They have been persecuted for centuries for food, oil, or ornamentation.  Many islands across the equatorial seas once boasted of giant tortoises - today, very few remain in greatly reduced numbers.  Traditional Chinese Medicine has made the individuals of some species more valuable than gold.  Sea turtles have their nesting beaches disturbed or paved over to make tourist resorts.  Even the more common species suffer as thousands of them are sold to inexperienced pet owners, only to languish in dirty fishbowls before dying stoically.

As a zookeeper, turtles and tortoises have been part of my life for years.  I've worked with hulking Aldabra tortoises, who could move with surprising speed as they saw you come with their favorite treats, and mata-matas which would lie motionless for hours before exploding with motion and sound as they sucked up an offered fish.  I've helped head-start baby sea turtles, hatch out endangered tortoises, and rehabilitate rescued pets, including on poor turtle with a shell so soft from light deficiency that you could actually bend it.  Before the zoos, there were the turtles found in my backyard or in the nearby woods.  Among their numbers were a select few that spent some time living in my terrariums before being released outside.

So for at least one day of the year, let's slow down and remember the turtles and tortoises.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

From the News: Zoo lions killed after suicidal naked man jumps in enclosure

Ridiculous.  Stupid.  Tragic.  Unfortunately, zoo exhibits tend to be built to keep animals in, but it's extremely difficult to build them in such a way as to keep humans out.  Not that this is the first time something like this has happened, nor will it likely be the last.  It's upsetting that anyone ever feels like their life has gotten to the point where this seems like a good option.  It's also upsetting that the lions had to pay for it.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Calf Who Came In From the Cold

Every month it seems there is some animal story - somewhere - that goes viral and the entire net focuses on.  Usually, it's not a happy story.  Cecil the Lion was one such case.  Marius the Giraffe from Copenhagen was another.  Now, it seems, we have the Yellowstone Bison calf.

TL;DR version - some tourists in Yellowstone saw a bison calf and thought it looked cold.  So, they caught it and put it in their car and drove off with it.  Rangers tried to reintroduce the calf back to a herd unsuccessfully, with the end result that the little fella was euthanized.

Now. never mind that the animal in question was an American bison, a species that ranges up into Alaska and is one cold-hardy beast.  Never mind the safety risks of trying to collect a calf from its mother.  And never mind what kind of mess a frightened bison calf is going to make in your car.  I'm still trying to wrap my head around the fact that anyone thought this was a good idea.

The thing is, though, stuff like this happens all the time.  Our zoo has an entire pen filled with white-tailed deer that some well-meaning person found as fawns, assumed were abandoned, and then decided to take home and keep as pets.  Just last week, I had someone bring a Canada goose to our zoo asking us to take care of him.  I carried him twenty feet out the gate and tossed him in the creek with all of the others.  So far, he seems to be doing fine (as in, the other geese have already taught him how to be an asshole).

Wild animals will largely be okay, with or without our intervention.  And if they aren't okay, that's fine too.  That bison calf, had he actually died of cold, would have provided food for some of Yellowstone's scavengers, such as wolves, coyotes, ravens, or grizzly bears.  There are times when intervention is necessary; I'm especially in favor of it if the animal is in a human-caused predicament, or if the species in question is a particularly rare or threatened one.  Some people I know have a very hands-off approach, others are very quick to jump in.

In any case, the jumping in (or not) should be done by trained professionals, who can determine what, if any, assistance an animal needs, and can make the proper decision about how it should be handled.  Rehab it?  Let it go as is?  Euthanize?  Send it to a zoo or aquarium?  Whenever possible, however, our position should be live and let live... or, in some cases, live and let die.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

ZooBorns (Or, "Awww... Look at the BAY-BEE...")

Two or three times a month, I try to post a "From the News" update from the world of zoos and aquariums. It's a world that is constantly changing and developing, and there's always something of interest to share.  Sometimes I pluck a news item off of my Facebook feed.  Usually I just go to Google New.  I can always find something, but 95% of the search results are always birth and death announcements of various zoo animals.

I typically don't share too many birth stories, unless there's a compelling reason why that birth is special; it might be the first time that species has ever bred in captivity, for instance, or the birth might have been the result of some fancy reproductive technology.  If I reported every relatively "common" birth (not that there is ever a "common" birth among zoo animals, no matter how many baby giraffes I've seen), that would pretty much be all that this blog consists of.

Fortunately, someone has already made such a site.  It's called ZooBorns.

Photo Credit: Akron Zoo

ZooBorns celebrates the births of zoo animals around the world in accredited zoos (such as AZA as it's international counterparts - ARAZPA, EAZA, etc).  It's a huge hit with the public, easily followed on Facebook, and various hard-copy books of its photographs have been published.  Plus, the wonderful thing about documenting cute baby zoo animals is that there are always more in the works.

There was a time when I actually felt a little leery about ZooBorns.  I worried that focusing too much on cute babies detracted from serious conservation messages.  I worried that it made zoos look too much like they were only interested in entertaining the public.  Then, I started worrying that I was too much of a stick-in-the-mud whiner and decided to enjoy it.

All of the good work that a zoo does depends on the support of the public.  The support of the public has always been helped along with cute baby animals.  And besides, it's not like keepers themselves don't love a cute baby picture or two... or three... or hundred.

Friday, May 13, 2016

From the News: Cincinnati-born Sumatran rhino sires calf

Sometimes it has got to seem like this blog requires two or three Sumatran rhino posts per month.  It is a ridiculous amount of attention that I give to one species, of which I have only ever seen one individual.  That being said, my encounter with Harapan, a few years back in Cincinnati Zoo, was one of the most significat moments in my career as a zookeeper.  It was there, in that behind-the-scenes tour of the rhino barn, that it really dawned on me that extinction was really happening all around us.  I knew it as an academic fact, but to actually touch an animal, and, while my hand was still on it, be told that it will almost certainly be gone in my lifetime?  That made an impression.

So after the bad rhino news from last month, I thought I'd counterbalance with some good rhino news.  Great rhino news, actually.  It's nice to see that, even without rhinos at their zoo anymore, Cincinnati is leaving a legacy of conservation for one of the planet's rarest animals.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

WildCare Institute

Saint Louis Zoo has long been one of the innovators of the zoo world.  It was a pioneer in public education; it's former director emeritus, Marlin Perkins, was the host of the TV shows Zoo Parade and Wild Kingdom, some of the earliest educational animal programming of television.  It's had many credits to its name, including the first to exhibit some rare species (at the time of my first visit, I was able to photograph the only horned guans in captivity in the US... appropriately, perched on their sign), the first captive breeding of some others.  It's made many advances in the fields of nutrition and reproduction (including the work of Dr. Cheryl Asa), and currently houses the AZA's Contraception Scientific Advisory Group.

Perhaps it's most remarkable accomplishment, however, is one that gets less press and attention than many others - the WildCare Institute.

Visitors to the zoo grounds may see a graphic or two scattered around the grounds, usually at the exhibit of a related species - the Grevy's zebras, the Armenian vipers - but few realize how far (or near) the zoo's commitment to conservation in the wild goes.  The WildCare Institute is a series of twelve projects dedicated to the study and conservation of endangered species in the wild.  Some of the projects have faded out and others have taken their place - some are across the globe on four continents, while some are located in the zoo's home state of Missouri.  And while some are concerned with high-profile species, such as cheetahs and Humboldt penguins, others are focused on obscure but critically endangered animals... including some which the zoo does not have (and probably never will have) in its collection.  Many of these projects are described in great detail (with great wit) in Sailing with Noah, by the zoo's president, Jeffrey Bonner.

Two of the most exciting projects of the Institute have been captive-breeding and reintroduction programs for native Missourians.  The zoo was the first in the world to successfully breed hellbenders in captivity, devising a massive artificial stream in the basement of the zoo's Herpetarium for that purpose.  Secrets learned from North America's largest salamander have been spread to other zoos and other states, aiding reintroduction programs across the range of the species.  An even less-renown species is the American burying beetle, which is exactly what it sounds like - a beetle (from America) that buries food items, such as dead mice or songbirds, to raise its young upon.  Plenty of people are throwing money at gorillas and pandas, but how many people are working to save an endangered beetle in their own backyard?

Many zoos contribute to conservation in whatever form they may, mostly through fundraising.  Very few zoos are able to command the resources, the staffing, and the funding to lead an initiative like the WildCare Institute - off the top of my head, Wildlife Conservation Society and San Diego Zoo Global are the only other two that match this level of involvement.  It's important to remember, however, that every zoo and aquarium can - and must - make whatever contribution to conservation, in whatever way, that it can.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Zoo Review: Saint Louis Zoo

As one would expect from a person who writes a blog called "The Zoo Review", I have visited a lot of zoos.  No where near all of them - maybe a fifth or a quarter of the AZA accredited ones alone - but almost certainly more than most people not in the profession would have been to.  It's always hard to pick a favorite, so I don't try.  I can, however, remember the first time I visited a zoo and was completely blown away.  That was the first time I visited the St. Louis Zoo.

Even today, having two dozen more zoos and aquariums under my belt, it still remains one of my absolute favorites, both in terms of its beautiful exhibits, spectacular collection, and phenomenal commitment to wildlife conservation.  The St. Louis Zoo is located in beautiful Forrest Park, home to many of the city's other cultural attractions - the art museum, the history museum, the science museum, and the outdoor theater.  All are free to the public, including the zoo.

Among the most spectacular exhibits of the zoo is the River's Edge area, a ten-acre trail that replaced the zoo's old pachyderm exhibits.  United by the theme of water, the trail takes visitors on a meandering walk across four continents.  Visitor walk through densely planted pathways; by keeping your eyes open, you can spot not only the exhibit animals, but special wildlife "clues" hidden along the path, such as the nest of a king cobra, or a (fake) impala carcass, stashed up a tree by a leopard.  In the South American portion, giant anteaters and capybara share an enclosure.  A nearby display holds one of their natural predators - the bush dog.  This was the first time I'd ever seen bush dogs, and watching them leap over one another nimbly, tumbling into their pool and clambering out, was one of my favorite memories of my visit.  In the African area, black rhinos, cheetahs, and spotted hyenas can be found, along with side enclosures of carmine bee-eaters and dwarf mongooses.  The stars of the region, however, are the hippos, which can be observed through underwater viewing windows, surrounded by swarms of fish.  If the hippos have any rivals as the stars of the trail, its the breeding herd of Asian elephants located just past them.  The elephants can be seen from the trail or from the zoo's railroad, which passes by a second, larger habitat for them.  River's Edge terminates closer to home, ending with a large aquarium display of native Missouri fishes.  The exhibit area has recently been added to with the addition of habitats for three endangered carnivores - Andean bears, sun bears, and African wild dogs.

More large carnivores can be seen across the zoo in the region known as Red Rocks.  In Big Cat Country, open air enclosures house lions, tigers, and jaguars (this is the only jaguar exhibit I have ever seen that wasn't enclosed with mesh - not coincidentally, it was the largest I've ever seen), while netted-in habitats house snow leopard and leopard.  Sprawling past the big cats is one of the most impressive ungulate (hoofed mammal) collections I have ever seen, accompanied by tall birds.  Zoo favorites such as giraffe, Grevy's zebra, and Bactrian camels can be found here, along with much rarer, less-well known species, such as okapi, takin, addax, Somali wild ass, and bongo, as well as the lesser kudu, which serves as the zoo's logo.  Many of these animals can be seen in the Antelope House during the winter months.  It's nowhere near as cool as seeing the herds spread out in their paddocks, but you'll never be so completely surrounding by awesome ungulates no matter where you go.

Like many older zoos, St. Louis is still in possession of a full set of animal houses - Bird House, Reptile House, Primate House - of the sort that have since gone out of style at many facilities.  Like the Antelope House, however, they are packed with a unique ensemble of creatures, many of which you will find at few other US zoos.  The Bird House, for instance, has a dazzling collection that includes great Indian hornbills, horned guans, Micronesian kingfishers, and king vultures, both inside as well as in its outdoor Bird Gardens.  Also outside is the spectacular 1904 Flight Cage, built for the 1904 World's Fair (which, among its other attractions, introduced an African pygmy named Ota Benga to the United States) and predating the zoo itself.  The Herpetarium, not to be outdone, features Komodo dragons, tuatara, Galapagos and Aldabra tortoises, and several species of crocodilians, both in terrariums, outdoor yards, and split-level exhibits with underwater and above-water viewing.  The Primate House next door might be the least impressive of the animal houses in terms of its exhibit, but still has a fascinating collection of monkeys and lemurs.  Tucked between these buildings is a series of small pools, housing waterfowl, North American river otters, and alligator snapping turtles.  A final, and criminally underappreciated animal house, is the Monsato Insectarium, which includes a walk-through butterfly habitat, lots of cool interactive devices, and an amazing insect collection.

The removal of the zoo's Andean bears and sun bears to new exhibits of River's Edge freed up lots of space for one of the zoo's most cherished projects - it's massive new polar bear habitat, more than twice the size of the original.  The exhibit features above and underwater viewing, with land areas themed as tundra and coastline.  More cold-hardy animals can be seen in Penguin and Puffin Coast, where visitors walk through darkened hallways and watch (and smell) several species penguins and puffins splash around them, sometimes sloshing cold water over their glass barriers and onto the visitors.  The great apes - chimps, gorillas, and orangutans - have indoor and outdoor exhibits in the nearby Fragile Forest/Jungle of the Apes complex.  A state-of-the-art new sea lion arena is nearby, as is a picturesque flamingo lake.

At such a busy zoo with so much going on, you could be forgiven for skipping over the children's zoo, thinking that there's too much to see to stop for bunnies and goats.  You would be mistaken.  The Emerson Children Zoo does have that, of course.  It also has interactive learning devices and animal habitats, play areas, and presentation stages.  And if that doesn't excite you, then you should still come anyway, because some of the coolest animals in the zoo are also found in here, including Matschie's tree kangaroos and, as of very recently, Tasmanian devils!  (I just overshot the devils, same as with Toledo... just a little too early).

So that's the zoo in a nut shell, and that's just describing the animal collection!  Describing St. Louis Zoo's extraordinary involvement in conservation efforts, both in Missouri and around the globe, will require a whole new post... so that solves the problem of what to write about tomorrow.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Picture Perfect Problems

If we still lived in a world where people had physical photo albums, I would have pages and pages of animal photos.  Photos of me with alligators, and elephants, and giraffes, and cheetahs.  One of me surrounding my penguins, another of me hand-feeding a rhino, and another with a squirrel monkey perched on my shoulder.  There would have to be a separate section of me with my bottle-babies - binturongs, wallabies, cavies, gazelles, camels.

So maybe one or two of these photos, carefully selected, has found it's way onto Facebook.  In my younger, single days, one served as my profile picture for my online dating profile.  Other than that, I keep them tucked away, fully aware that context and explanation are everything.

Some keepers are more careful than I am, their zoos and aquariums having stricter behind-the-scenes photo policies than mine do.  Many are less so, and post everything.  The question is, is that a problem?

The editorial I stumbled upon below seems to think it is, and, since I found it to be an interested read, here it is.  I'm not sure how much I agree, but it does offer some food for thought, and will probably make me more careful in deciding what to share on social media.  Enjoy!

The Zoo Keepers Part in the Illegal Animal Trade Updated on May 9, 2016

My Family

Stored away in a chest in another country is another life. Photographs of family. Great grandparents, grandparents, parents, holidays, children, friends and pets. Happy memories of people and animals I have loved.

As someone who has spent almost my entire working life in zoos these photographs inevitably include large carnivores, primates and other species I have through necessity hand reared. These were not just animals...these were family! They were sleepless nights of baby bottles, bottom washes and nappy changes. These were labours of love for creatures which will forever be in my memories and my heart. These truly were family. Happy times.

Read the rest of the article here.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Spectacled Owl (Pulsatrix perspicillata)

Spectacled Owl
Pulsatrix perspicillata (Latham, 1790)

Range: Southern Mexico through northern and central South America
Habitat: Tropical Rainforest, Wooded Savannah
Diet: Small Mammals, Birds, Frogs, Insects
Social Grouping: Solitary, Paired
Reproduction: Monogamous. Breed in dry season or early wet season.  Nest in tree hollows. 1-2 eggs incubated by female for 5 weeks, both parents assist with rearing.  Chicks leave nest at 5-6 weeks old, depend on parents until one year old.  Usually only one chick survives.  Mature at 3-5 years old.
Lifespan: 25 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern, CITES Appendix II

  • Body length 43-52 centimeters, wingspan 68-90 centimeters, weight 450-900 grams.  Females larger than males
  • Dark brown plumage on back, breast and belly are pale yellow or buff.  The bright yellow-orange eyes are encircled with white (giving the owl the appearance that it is wearing spectacles) and the chin is white.  Juveniles are white with brown facial markings
  • Most common call is a series of guttural tapping sounds (like a pop), gradually descending in volume and pitch (known as the "knocking owl" in some areas).  Females make a whistling scream
  • Typically nocturnal, but will sometimes hunt during the day
  • Largest owl in much of its range (except for occasionally-visiting great horned owl), can take prey larger than itself, such as opossums, skunks, agoutis, and sloths.  Will also take small insect prey, gleaning them off of leaves
  • Six subspecies recognized, varying in coloration and patterning of plumage.  Subspecies from Trinidad and Tobago (P. p. trinitatis) was considered a possible separate species, now likely extinct.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Sporcle Quiz: Latin Names of The Jungle Book

The Jungle Book Latin Names

I love literature.  I love wild animals.  When the two intertwine, I enjoy it immensely.  Sure, some zookeepers can get snooty and irritable with factual misrepresentations of animals on the pages of a book, or on the big screen.  To me, it's awesome seeing a species that I know in such a different context.  Like when watching The Jungle Book, or Life of Pi, reminding myself that all of the animals on the screen (CGI though they may be), represent real animals.  

Many zoos, especially those that exhibit South Asian animals, are taking advantage of the popularity surrounding this film to educate visitors about the real live animals of the Indian forests. 

This month's quiz seeks to bridge the gap between the fictitious and the actual by matching the animal characters of Kipling's The Jungle Book with their real, live counterparts. 

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Shut Up and Watch the Movie...

Towards the end of my college years, my campus was offered a free screening of the Mel Gibson movie Apocalypto.  Now, it's hard for me not to enjoy any movie that features a tapir in its opening scene (a distinction, I believe, that this movie shares only with 2001: A Space Odyssey); in addition to the plot (which was, to be fair, rather formulaic), I did enjoy all of the casual background shots of wildlife.  There was one animal cameo, however, which slightly irked me.

Warning: Graphic Hunting Scene

A cattle egret.  It really was a blink-and-you-miss-it, but it was there, nonetheless.  And cattle egrets, as any true bird-nerd will tell you, did not appear in the New World until well after the Mayan period depicted in the movie.  When I commented on this to my fellow viewers, they all had one reply.  Shut up and watch the damn movie... so I did.

I've had friend who wanted to be/are now doctors, or cops, or lawyers, and they've ruined most TV for me. Whenever we'd watch House, or Grey's Anatomy, or Law & Order, or whatever, they were quick to point out the illogical moments, falsehoods, or ridiculous caricatures of their workplace depicted on the screen.  So it seems a little unfair that I can't point out a few animal inaccurices now and then.

Those giant anteaters in The Lion King - exactly how did they get to Africa?  Still not as ridiculous as the premise of Anaconda 2 featuring the titular monster snakes in Borneo... on the exact opposite side of the globe from the Neotropics, where anacondas actually live.  Would it have killed you to set the movie in Venezuela or something?  How many times have Hollywood producers used corn snakes (or, in the case of Raiders of the Lost Ark, legless lizards) as stand-ins for deadly snakes?  And that stupid Zookeeper movie with Kevin James?  They lost me five minutes in, when they had a porcupine shoot quills at people.

Take the live-action version of George of the Jungle, for instance.  Set in "The Heart of Africa"... but featuring South American toucans and Asian elephants and oh, wait, is that an Australian kookaburra I hear in the background?  What you might have heard, had you been watching that movie with me.

Me: That's not an African elephant, it's an Asian
Friend: What's the difference?
Me: Asian elephants have smaller ears, and the shape of the head is different, and the shape of the back is different, and...
Friend: It was a rhetorical question, idiot.

All of this petty griping fades away when there is an obscure animal cameo.  When I saw the latest Disney cartoon Tarzan movie, the fact that someone took the time to research and incorporate a fleeting glimpse of a saddle-billed stork in the background just made my day.

To my surprise and delight, the new live action/CGI version of Disney's The Jungle Book was spectacularly accurate... I mean, if you excuse the fact that the animals are all eight times as big as they would be in real life... and speak English.  Okay, so Baloo looks more like a grizzly than a sloth bear, and orangutans (which, to be fair, they never say King Louie is...) don't occur in India, perhaps making Christopher Walken the first actor in human history to say the word "Gigantopithecus" in a blockbuster movie.  But the detail of the other animals!  Great Indian hornbills and hoopoes and bee-eaters!  Pygmy hog!  Nilgai and blackbuck!  And oh my goodness, the pangolin cameo almost made me teary-eyed it was so adorable ("You have never been a more endangered species than you are right now...").

So maybe Hollywood can make an accurate animal movie now and then.  I'll just hold my breath and see how the Tarzan movie later this year comes out... might be that those saddle-bills get a live action appearance as well.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Book Review: Spix's Macaw: The Race to Save the World's Rarest Bird

"This bird was like a Rembrandt or a Picasso.  Yet unlike a painting by a great master, this bird was a temporary treasure.  One day he would day, his value would be gone, and another would be demanded to replace him.”

As a member of the international Council for Bird Preservation, Tony Juniper was charged with leading efforts to save the most endangered group of birds – the parrots.  Among his top priorities were the three living species f blue macaws.  Highest among them was the parrot that many people considered the rarest species of bird on the planet – Spix’s macaw.

Spix’s macaw, named after the nineteenth century Bavarian scientist who collected the first specimen, is (or was) found only in the caatinga forests of eastern Brazil.  Not much of the story takes place there, however, because that’s not where the birds are anymore.  Almost all of the wild birds had been captured and sold, scattered across several countries on several continents, most in the possession of private breeders or collectors.   I saw “almost all” because one lone male remained, a wily, cagey remnant of a species that once flew proudly over the caatinga.

Spix’s Macaw: The Race to Save the World’s Rarest Bird is actually two stories.  One is the story of the lone macaw.  The other is the story of those birds scattered across the globe, the people who own them, and the efforts of a few conservationists to bring them all together to save the species. 

Owning a Spix’s macaw is, in the case of almost all of the owners, something that began with an illegal act.  Birds were illegally captured and smuggled out of Brazil, with huge sums of money trading hands.  The author makes his position plain that he doesn’t like it.  There is also a realization that that is where the macaws are now and, with full legal confiscation being unlikely (as well as potentially unwise, seeing as no one knew how many Spix’s macaws were also being held in unknown hands), that these were people who would need to work conservation organizations and governments to save the parrot.  In the end, a full amnesty was declared, and efforts were made to bring all of the parrot-owning parties together to form a last-ditch captive breeding program to save the species.

It’s easier said than done.  Most of the private owners who held Spix’s macaws had paid vast sums for their birds and were hesitant, to say the least, to let their birds in the hands of other people, especially rival collectors.  There was a fair deal of mistrust over who was in control over the program.  The Brazilian government, which claimed ownership – but not possession – of the birds?  Loro Parque, the Spanish zoo which was bankrolling the recovery program, including the field conservation project?  Or the owners of the individual birds, who were doing the actual breeding?  Some of the later apparently never found themselves bond by the agreements they made either to the government or the zoos and sold their birds or traded them as they would.

Spix’s Macaw raises interesting questions about private ownership and how it can contribute to, or detract from, conservation efforts.  It doesn’t take the lazy approach and paint those who seek to possess Spix’s macaws simply as villains, but as the complicated characters that they are.  At the end of the book, he has an exchange with one former owner, one who actually served some prison time for bird smuggling.  This man was in tears – tears – of frustration because he felt that he was on the course of action which would have saved these macaws from extinction, and felt thwarted by government rules and regulations.

Besides the story of Spix’s macaw and the people trying to save it, Juniper’s book offers a brief but interesting history of humanity’s relationship with parrots.  It also provides a great overview of studbooks and species survival plans in zoos, describing how they have been used to save species from extinction.
Mostly, however, it’s the story of a blue parrot, probably unknown to the vast majority of world, but ravenously coveted by the small number who do know of it.  How the fate of Spix’s macaw rests at the end of the book is a secret I won’t spoil.   What happens next is yet to be seen…,204,203,200_.jpg

Monday, May 2, 2016

Coal Mines and Canaries

Yesterday marked a milestone of sorts for the animal care community.   Last year, Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey Circus had announced that they would be phasing their traveling elephant acts out of their shows.  Yesterday, the elephants took their final bow; all will be retired to Ringling’s elephant center down in Florida.  The reaction among the zoo community has been mixed, as it always is when circuses are called into question.  Some are delighted, seeing exotic animal performances in circuses as outdated and detrimental to the cause of conservation. 

Others are a mixture of furious and terrified that animal rights activists should have brought this to pass.  They fear that PETA, HSUS, and other anti-zoo organizations, emboldened over this and the recent news from SeaWorld, will come after zoos next.  PETA et al have basically confirmed their intent.

Needless to say, there has been a lot of doom and gloom, with some members of our profession (especially those not accredited by AZA, who suspect that they will be next) prophesying the end of the zoo and aquarium field.  They speak of vast sums of money being sunk into the political process, and rich anti-zoo lobbyists conspiring against us with bought and paid-for politicians.  They speak of indoctrination of school children.  More fake documentaries on the way.  The end is in sight.  I’m a pessimist by nature.  It’s easy for me to get riled by these fears.

That being said, I’m going to take a step back from the edge for a second and say something that I know is going to infuriate a lot of them.  It’s okay.  We are going to be alright.

No zoo or aquarium that I have heard of is shutting down.  In fact, every zoo and aquarium that I have visited and reviewed during the course of my time with this blog is thriving.  Many are expanding, spending millions of dollars for new exhibits for new animals, foreseeing attracting more and more visitors.  New aquariums are cropping up all over the country, from coastal cities like Jacksonville to Arizona.  The Arizona facility, I should mention, will be displaying dolphins, despite the whole “Blackfish is the ends of cetaceans in captivity” argument. 

Yes, some zoos are getting out of elephants; Virginia Zoo, since I have visited last, has sent their girls down to Miami.  Others, however, are building big new habitats to accommodate their elephants, and while some zoo elephants have been retired to sanctuaries, a la the Toronto Three, new elephants have recently been brought over from Africa, despite fierce opposition from PETA and its allies.

Furthermore, our zoos are reporting strong attendance and broad community support, and we’ve been able to leverage that community support into new partnerships that help us strengthen our messages of conservation and education. 

As to the political/lobbyist angle, let’s be realistic.  This has been a very contentious election cycle in the states, with candidates fighting about everything from such poltical classics as abortion, gun control, and terrorism to fantasy football and other obscurities.  Ever hear Hillary Clinton mention SeaWorld?  Or zoos in general?  I haven’t (though I have heard her daughter, Chelsea, speak of how much seeing elephants at the Little Rock Zoo inspired her with love of wildlife as a child).  I haven’t heard a word on the subject from Bernie Sanders.  Or Donald Trump, or Ted Cruz, or John Kasich, or anyone else from either party who has since dropped out.  There IS, however, a bipartisan Zoo and Aquarium in the US Congress, which hosts a very popular Zoo Day on Capitol Hill every year.

None of this is to say that we could become complacent.  There are people who want our facilities to shut down, which will rob us of the tools, the potential, and the audiences that we need to carry out our missions. We mustn’t be blind to this, and we must not back down from challenging them when they spread misinformation or lies about how our facilities operate.  If SeaWorld made one mistake against Blackfish, it’s that it waited too long to speak up, instead hoping that the noise would simply die down.  It didn’t.

We should also remember that hardcore anti-zoo folks are a small group.  Most people remain open minded on the subject, and if we engage, explain, and educate, we can win them over, hearts and minds.  We should never be afraid to talk with the public, especially those who seem to have some concerns with what we do, so that we can counter the message of PETA and their ilk with the facts.  That means admitting sometimes that we aren’t perfect, but acknowledging that we are striving towards perfection. 

At any rate, the day that we stop focusing on our mission and spend every day simply fighting back against adversaries, real and imagined, is the day we’ve already lost.