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Thursday, July 28, 2016

Zoo History: Strangers in a Strange Land

"If it lives, we want it"
- Edward Wilson, Victorian Acclimatisation Society

Many of the modern European zoos had their origins in the royal menageries of Europe - the London Zoo from the Tower of London Menagerie, the Jardin des Plantes from the French kings' menagerie at Versailles.  Many of the modern American zoos began as collections of pets and other animals donated by the public.  The zoos of Africa and Asia developed around colonial port cities.

Then there are the zoos of Australia.  In some ways their origin stories mirror those of the rest of the world... with an unusual, added twist.

Today, Australia is famed for its unique wildlife, found nowhere else in the world - kangaroos, koalas, wombats.  From the time of its discovery to the present, this wildlife has confounded the rest of the world.  It also had the effect of severely unnerving the new colonists of the land... as well as disappointing them.  Kangaroos and koalas had no special value in the eyes of the newly-minted Australians.  They had no practical economic value.  Worse yet, for the transplanted Britons and Scots and Irish... they were just really weird.

To correct both of these perceived shortfalls, the founding fathers of nineteenth century Australia formed what became known as Assimilation Societies.  These societies were established with the purpose of introducing new species of plant and animal to Australia.  Some of these species would be introduced for economic purposes, like agriculture, others for game or sport (trout were one of the longest-lasting acclimatization schemes), and others still for ornamentation... just to remind folks born in Europe of home sweet home.

And lest we look too critically upon the Australians, let's remember that we Americans came very close to something similar at about the same time with our flirtation with hippo ranching.

Some of these species, such as water buffalo and camel, still roam the Australian Outback.  Others, like ostrich, never really took off.  Others plague Australia today, decimating its native fauna (although these societies were not responsible for the introduction of European rabbits, a species which they took some blame for).  One of the most bizarre schemes involved the importation and release of the secretarybird - a long-legged African raptor famed for its skill in dispatching snakes - to control the venomous snakes which so terrified nineteenth-century Australians,

Nor were such efforts limited to animals.  Various plants were also introduced to Australia with mixed results.  Blackberries were considered an economic asset when they were initially introduced.  Soon they were considered an invasive pest. 

Cashmere goats at the zoo in Royal Park, Australian News for Home Readers, 1863
Source: State Library of Victoria

Before the acclimatization societies could do too much damage, they fell out of favor.  Even by the dawn of the twentieth century, these organizations began to face criticisms for the risks that they posed to native species (which began to slowly but surely become a point of pride for Australians).  Anyway, most of the released species - from agoutis to boa constrictors (yet another introduction intended to control smaller snakes) - failed.  While some species thrive in new habitats, free from the constraints of natural predators and diseases, just as many (perhaps more) take a few steps outside of their shipping crate and die... or fail to find food, or succumb to an alien climate, or meet native predators, or come to one of several other bad ends,

So... acclimatization efforts are drawing to a close, but you still have ark-loads of animals that you will no longer be releasing into the Outback?  Instead, these acclimatization societies became zoos.

Today, Australia is one of the most protective nations in the world when it comes to its wildlife treasures.  It's easier to get blood from a stone, it's been said, than getting animals out of Australia (legally).  Likewise, Australia also makes it extremely difficult to introduce animals into their country.  A long series of invasives - from the rabbit to the cane toad - have taught them that.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

The Lady and the Tiger

One of the big news stories this week that does NOT involve the presidential race has been the tragic and fatal mauling of a woman at a safari park in China.  The tragedy involved two women who left their car in a drive thru safari... only for a moment, but that's all it took.  One of the women was seized from behind by a tiger, the other was killed while she tried to rescue her.

Because it's 2016, the incident was caught on film.  I've opted not to show it here out of respect for the woman's family, but if you're feeling morbid (and I'll understand if you are), I promise, you won't have any trouble finding it online.

Safari parks as a whole make me nervous.  Obviously incidents like this can occur, especially when large carnivores are involved.  Mostly, it makes me nervous having people given the opportunity to interact with wild, often potentially dangerous animals with no supervision.  Animals can be hit by cars by careless drivers, they can be harmed by malicious guests, they can be fed inappropriate diets, the list goes on.  Sure, you could say the same about visitors interacting with animals in the wild.

That's fair.  The wild, as a whole, makes me nervous too.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Zoo Review: Potawatomi Zoo

Like many American zoos, the Potawatomi Zoo (it's actually pretty easy to pronounce if you just break it up and go slowly) had very humble beginnings - originally, it was simply a duck pond.  A duck pond grew with the addition of a herd of deer, then a herd of bison.  Today it is one of the finest medium-sized zoos in the Midwest, boasting an impressive collection of cats, primates, and ungulates.  A recently unveiled master plan promises to make even more positive changes.

At only 23 acres, the zoo houses a wide variety of species, all without managing to feel cramped.  There didn't strike me as being an especially clear layout to the zoo, except for a rough grouping by continent.  No area was especially enormous or in depth, but each covered a basic selection of the continent's most iconic species... where appropriate for a medium-sized zoo.  Africa, for instance, consisted of grassy yards for zebra and Watusi cattle (mixed with crowned cranes).  A small troop of chimpanzees is found nearby, visible in either an outdoor yard or through the windows of their indoor holding building.  More primates, including the colobus monkeys which form the zoo's logo.  Lions, one of the zoo's many big cats on display, occupy what is, to be charitable, a pretty mediocre exhibit nearby.  African wild dogs have a much more naturalistic enclosure over by the hoofstock.

Asia is a much smaller section, largely dominated by the cats - tigers, snow leopard, and a breeding group of critically endangered Amur leopards (a mother and her half-grown cubs were on display when I visited).  Red pandas occupy a very attractive exhibit, and white-naped cranes, muntjac, and Bactrian camels are also found here.  The animal that I was most interested in seeing, however, was the takin.  Potawatomi has had lots of success in maintaining, training, and breeding these rare Himalayan ungulates.  It's hard to say why I enjoyed their exhibit so much - it was just a simple, open yard on a slight hill - maybe its simplicity just made it seem more natural than an exhibit filled with gunite rockwork and mountains.

Australia largely consisted of a walkthrough habitat, home to emu, black swan, red-necked wallabies, and kangaroos.  Kookaburras and honeyeaters occupy side aviaries.  More birds - as well as the vast majority of the zoo's reptile and small mammal collection (Jamaican fruit bats, banded mongoose, golden lion tamarins, etc) are located in an education building - complete with classrooms.  Outside, spider monkeys spend the warmer months on islands in a small lake.

The final area is a catch-all of the Americas; it may have been my favorite.  I loved the giant anteater exhibit (viewing the anteaters from underneath the exposed roots of a giant fake tree).  Also impressive were what I took to be two of the newer exhibits, one for bobcat, one for North American river otter.  Grassy yards housed bison, peccary, and alpaca,  flamingos strolled around a lagoon, and prairie dogs gamboled about in front of a winter holding building for American and Chinese alligators.  A small petting barn rounds out the zoo.

After going through a bit of a decline in recent years (many of the keepers I spoke to on my visit indicated that many of the exhibits had been empty until recently), the Potawatomi Zoo is surging and expanded.  Last year it unveiled its master plan, which is visible on the zoo's website.  It calls for several new exhibits to be built - some new ones for existing species in the collection, some for new faces - giraffes, bears, and wolves, to name a few. 

I find this really reassuring.  While many of the newer exhibits were excellent, I definitely got the sense that some parts of the zoo seemed overcrowded and might have benefited from fewer species.  The adjacent leopard and snow leopard exhibits, for example, I felt could have been merged to form one larger exhibit for one species (though I must admit, I was impressed by the way the keepers used layers upon layers of shelving to increase the three-dimensional space available for the cats.  Likewise, I wasn't tremendously impressed with the chimp exhibit... until a keeper told me that it was much smaller, originally, and the zoo filled in the moat to give the apes much more land space.

At any rate, the zoo seemed to buzz - at every level - with energy and enthusiasm, and it's hard not to see that great things are in the works there.  I look forward to the realization of the zoo's master plan - one which continues its trend of great new exhibits while moving the occupants of its older exhibits into new, high quality homes.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

A Coat of Any Color

"Witness the white bear of the poles, and the white shark of the tropics; what but their smooth, flaky whiteness makes them the transcendent horrors they are? That ghastly whiteness it is which imparts such an abhorrent mildness, even more loathsome than terrific, to the dumb gloating of their aspect. So that not the fierce-fanged tiger in his heraldic coat can so stagger courage as the white-shrouded bear or shark."
- Herman Melville, Moby Dick
The fish connoisseurs that Emily Voigt met while researching The Dragon Behind the Glass want Asian arowanas – but not just any Asian arowana.   They wax eloquently about the shape of the fins and the length of the barbels, but mostly they talk about color.   Some speak of the illustrious “Super Red” (red being a lucky color in many East Asian cultures), others of luxuriant gold.  The highest selling fish of all was a coveted albino, lurking in a wall-sized tank in a darkened room.

Fish aren’t the only group of animals in which there is a high demand for unusually-colored animals.  Voigt mentions a collector who had an entire private zoo of only white animals.  Many popular pet reptiles and amphibians and birds are bred for unique color morphs.  The wild budgerigar – the little Australian psittacine that is often referred to as a parakeet or budgie – is yellow/green.  Visit a pet store and you’ll encounter cloud white and sky blue, among other colors.  Likewise, I went herping a few years ago with a friend in Florida.  When he spotted and caught a snake off the trail, I had a hard time recognizing it as a corn snake – perhaps the most commonly kept snake in the United States.  I had a hard time reconciling the pallet of color morphs that I saw in pet stores and zoo education departments with the burnt orange serpent, far less gaudy but much for appealing (in my eyes),  that my friend held in this hands.

White tigers, of course, are celebrities among zoo animals, and though they seem to be fading out of AZA collections, they still have a tremendous amount of popular support in the private sector (with some apologists even insisting that they are a separate subspecies).  White alligators have become very popular in recent years, popping up in aquariums and zoos around the country; the first one I ever saw was a rental, on display at one major zoo as a summer attraction.  White rheas and white deer are fairly common.  There are white lions in a handful of zoos (though these look nowhere near as striking as white tigers); as far as I know, none of the famous white “spirit bears” of Canada’s coastal rainforests are on display anywhere.

Excluded from the list are black jaguars and black leopards, which do occur in the wild, in some parts of the species’ range being fairly common.   Even so, these black cats have a much stronger pull on the imagination of our visitors than the spotted ones; guests will stare at a black panther for minutes on end, maybe only passing a glance at a spotted exhibit-mate.  In contrast, many unusual color morphs – white tigers and white alligators, for example – are the descendants of perhaps a single mutant animal born in the wild.  These normally would not survive, but by being brought into captivity, were propagated (sometimes incestuously) to produce similar-looking offspring.  Other color morphs, like the endless array of patterned python, were the result of generations of selective breeding, with new varieties coming out every year. 

Color morphs are often the result of selective breeding, which, in the case of zoo and aquarium animals, I tend to disapprove of.  Partially because I worry about the prospect of inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity.  Mostly because I like the idea of keeping the captive stock as close as possible to the wild ancestor.  Voigt, upon seeing selectively-bred Asian arowanas, felt dubious about their prospects for survival if they were ever to be used for reintroduction efforts.  Selective breeding hadn’t just changed their color – it had changed their nature.

Of course, you could say that selectively breeding captive animals so that they can’t survive in the wild could also be an advantage, thereby reducing the likelihood of a species escaping and becoming an invasive pest.  In the pet trade, also (especially in the reptile trade, which has a history of smuggling issues), color morphs can serve as proof that an animal was captive-produced and not taken illegally from the wild.

Reputable zoos try to present animals to the public as they are, not as a vision of what the public might find to be more visually impressive.  This is doubly true if such selective breeding results in inbreeding or other genetic problems.  We should strive to present the animal as an animal, a natural phenomenon, not the result of our own genetic tinkering.  An Asian arowana selectively bred to be a different shape or size or color not found in nature is, in its own way, no longer an arowana.  It ceases to be a natural creature and becomes yet another display of human domination.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Book Review: The Dragon Behind the Glass

“No one could decide how to think of the Asian arowana anymore – as a precious mythical object or a mass-produced commodity or a dangerous invasive.  Only one thing was clear: it was no longer just a fish.”

In public aquariums across the world, a recurring exhibit gallery is the Amazon River.  This isn’t surprising, as the Amazon is home to many of the world’s most remarkable freshwater fish, a rogue’s gallery of which can be found at many institutions.  They include the arapaima, the red-bellied piranha, the pacu, the redtail catfish… and the silver arowana.  To me, the arowana was always an American fish – I had no idea that there were actually several species of arowana scattered across four continents.  And I certainly had no idea that one species was, as the subtitle of a book I just read put it, “the world’s most coveted fish.”

Yet that is exactly how journalist Emily Voigt describes the Asian arowana (Scleropages formosus) in her book, The Dragon Behind the Glass.  The title eludes to the dragon-like appearance of the Asian arowana, an aquarium fish capable of commanding prices of $150,000 on the pet trade for a superb specimen… and a fish that fuels sufficient jealousy and greed to inspire kidnappings, sabotage, and even murder. 

Voigt goes on a globe-hopping quest to get under the scales of the arowana, and into the minds of the people who have made it the ichthyologic super-star that it is.  The book encompasses a colorful cast of characters, from a Singapore-based breeder known as “Kenny the Fish” to a wealthy businessman who rebuilds his house specifically to accommodate a specially-made tank to show off his priceless fish to the smugglers who do prison time for illegally trafficking in the species.   She travels to Borneo to try and find the fish in its native habitat, and even to the reclusive, junta-ruled world of Myanmar in search of a potential new species of arowana, a mission driven by feuding biologists and necessitating a legal changing of her name (“That, if I had to pick a moment,” she admits, “was when I began to suspect that my relationship with the arowana was not 100 percent healthy”).

The Dragon Behind the Glass is more than a fish story, however.  It raises the interesting question of how to protect a rare species in our interconnected, commoditized world.  Is the secret strict government protection?  Many of the scientists that Voigt interviews feel that this only adds to the mystique of the fish and makes it more coveted by collectors.  Should the species be prolifically mass-produced in captivity and sold to whoever wants on?  That could remove the incentive to protect the wild species, as well as the habitat that supports it.  How to face the challenge that the arowana is threatened in its range countries, yet is an invasive pest elsewhere?

Like it or not, the arowana is a valuable commodity to collectors, as well as a priceless treasure for scientists (I won’t give any secrets away, but the scientific scheming and double-crossing that surround Voigt’s quest for arowana in Myanmar  would read just as easily as a novel as it does scientific journalism).
Some of the breeders that Voigt encounters maintain that their mass-production of captive arowana for the pet trade is saving the species from extinction and that their fish could be used to replenish wild stocks if the species were ever to go extinct in the wild.  Voigt seems to counter with the argument that a captive fish is, ecologically speaking, a dead fish and that reintroduction programs don't work.  In this particular case she's right - with their specialized breeding for color and body shape, Asian arowanas are slithering down the path to domestication.  I wish, however, that she'd explained more fully that this isn't the case for many reintroduction programs, including those that involve fish - sturgeon, for example, which are being raised in captivity and released in their native range in the United States.  That being said, the author barely touches public aquariums in the book, so it makes sense that she's focused on the practice of private, home aquariums.
One aspect of the book that I greatly enjoyed was its concept of how we perceive rarity.  Many collectors, the author maintains, desire the Asian arowana because of its rarity, because of the value and prestige that they see it as possessing.   In this, it's very similar to a far rarer avian treasure from another book I just read, Spix's macaw.  I can relate and understand.  When I visit a zoo or aquarium, I usually gloss over the lions and giraffes and black-tip reef sharks.  I make a beeline for the species that I've never seen before, especially if I know I won't be able to see it anywhere else.
Which raises on interesting point.  After reading this book, I did a little research.  There are about a dozen zoos and public aquariums in this country that are listed as having Asian arowana.  Some of them I have visited without ever having remembered seeing one.  I don't have any in my photo collection, but then again, I usually don't focus too much on fish.  Maybe I did see one and just never thought enough to photographic, to sit and watch it for a while.  Maybe, all things considered, I just didn't think it was that special.
Now I know better.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

From the News: 'Dory' Bred in Captivity for First Time

Some people have interpreted the movie Finding Nemo and its recent sequel, Finding Dory, as having an anti-captivity message.  If they do, then it's pretty ironic - after each movie was released, the home aquarium trade saw a tremendous spike the desire to own the movies' signature species, the clownfish and the blue tang.  While clownfish are available as captive-bred specimens, every blue tang in an aquarium was born in the wild.

Until now, that is...

It's yet to be seen what impact this historic first birth, achieved by the University of Florida Tropical Aquaculture Lab and Rising Tide Conservation, will have on the blue tang trade.  Is this a one-time fluke? Is this the start of a process by which blue tangs will become abundant, sustainably-produced aquarium fish?  Or will this only fuel the craze for tangs and allow more people to purchase wild-caught ones not knowing the difference?  Only time will tell...

One thing that this will not change, however.  Blue tangs - with their large adult size, large tank requirements, and long lifespan - are not suitable pets for amateurs or beginners.

All blue tangs in tanks today, like this one, have had to be caught from the wild.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Arapaima (Arapaima gigas)

Arapaima gigas (Schinz, 1822)

Range: Northern South America (Amazon Basin)
Habitat: Rivers, Lakes, Flooded Forest
Diet: Fish, Insects
Social Grouping: Will congregate in dry seasons
Reproduction: Form pairs in December through March, larvae hatch 3-5 days after spawning, at which point female leaves the young to the male.  Male cares for young for 3 months. Sexual maturity reached at 4-5 years old
Lifespan: 15-20 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Data Deficient, CITES Appendix II

  • Body length up to 3 meters, weight up to 200 kilograms - one of the world's largest species of freshwater fish
  • Sleek, streamlined body with dorsal and anal fins set far back.  Body is gray or green  with red flecks on the scales
  • Tongue is covered with bony teeth than grind against teeth on roof of mouth
  • Common name derived from indigenous words for "red" and "fish"
  • Enlarged swim bladder allows arapaima to breathe from the air, typically surfacing every 5-15 minutes in low-oxygen waters of the Amazon
  • Have been known to leap from the water to grab prey on overhanging branches
  • Adult males have a pheromone they release to keep their offspring nearby for protection
  • Outside of native range, have been introduced to waterways in east Asia, both deliberately for fishing and accidentally as escaped pets
  • Once believed to be the only arapaima species, now sometimes divided into four or five
  • Habit of emerging to the surface to breathe makes arapaima an easy target for fishermen (highly desired because of their large size)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Happy National Zookeeper Week!

Another artistic masterpiece by Peppermint Narwhal... (I've only gotten to work with about a quarter of the species in this one, which makes me slightly sad...).

It's been a rocky first six months of 2016 for the zoo and aquarium profession, from the struggles of SeaWorld to the tragedy of Harambe at Cincinnati.   It's easy to get frustrated sometimes.  Still, it's an amazing profession with amazing people (and even more amazing animals), and I know that we have great things ahead of us in the future.  So this week is a celebration of the people who make it all happen.

Happy National Zookeeper Week!

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Pokemon Go, Revisited

On days when I work - which are almost all days, lately - I come home, have dinner, shower, and flop into bed.  Much of what goes on in the greater, non-zoo world tends to escape my notice.  On my increasingly scarce days off, however, I like to catch up on the news... and sleep... but mostly the news. 

Generally, that means reading about whatever Donald Trump just said, or whatever someone else said about Donald Trump, or whatever the latest catastrophe from the Middle East is (and what Donald Trump said about it).  Lately, however, there's been a whole lot about Pokémon Go.

No word as to what Donald Trump has said about that yet.

It turns out our little zoo isn't the only one being swarmed by gamers.  They're everywhere... including a fair number of staff members at different zoos and aquariums.  Most of these visitors just want to play, and that's fine.  Some are playing in a manner that makes me a bit worried, however... like the young man and young woman recently arrested at the Toledo Zoo for jumping fences.

I swear, if the zoo wants to cut down on its carnivore feed bill, it should just see about getting a few Pokémon station in strategic locations and watch the gamers practically walk into the waiting jaws.

When this craze started last week, I was waiting to see if zoos and aquariums would find a way to join the phenomena and maybe steer it towards an educational message, and sure enough, they didn't disappoint.  (PETA, likewise, didn't disappoint me by coming up with some ridiculous denunciation of the game as promoting the capture and forced-fighting of animals... yep, because all of these folks playing Pokémon are one step away from pit bull fighting...).

Many zoos are embracing their role as game arenas and encouraging more visitors, hoping that they'll come for the Pikachu, stay for the penguins... or pythons... or other P animals. 

Others are trying to make ties between the Pokémon and the real animals that were their inspiration.  The creature Drowzee, for instance, is a spot-on replica of a tapir, an animal that most gamers have probably never heard of (which is fair enough as I, for one, had never heard of a Drowzee).

Other zoos are trying to recreate the game using their actual animals and encourage exploration of the zoo.  Yeah, you found all of the Pokémon in the zoo, congrats - but can you find ALL TWENTY species of birds in the African Aviary?  Catch 'em all... with a camera, please.

Last week, I was strolling the zoo grounds with a new intern, when she rounded a corner and let out a squeal of delight.  Her mom was at the zoo!  She'd come to see her girl at work!  Well... no.  It turns out, mom was playing Pokémon Go, and just happened to be at the zoo when her daughter was there.  No time to talk, Pokémon to catch.  I thought the poor kid was going to sink into the asphalt, she looked so embarrassed.

With a few days to reflect upon it, I've gotten over conflicted feelings about the fad of the week.  At least this one gets people moving, with friends, and visiting places they might not otherwise go.

And who am I to judge?  When I was a teenager, I mucked kudu stalls on my weekends for fun...

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Zoo Officials Use CPR on Alligator

Sadly, the brave efforts of these staff members from the Columbus Zoo were unsuccessful in their struggle to save this alligator.  Still, it was a remarkable display of the commitment that many zookeepers and aquarists feel towards their animals... even those that many people would think of as dangerous, or not being worth saving.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Gotta Catch 'Em All (For Some Reason)

The herd was lined up at the gates of our zoo when I opened up this morning.  They were still swarming about when we closed.  And, as I worked late and passed by the locked gates of the zoo, I saw them come up in small groups, see the closed entrance, and walk away dejected.

Normally, crowds at the zoo make me smile, but try as I may, this one only irritated me.  If they'd come to see a new exhibit or reacquaint themselves with some favorite animal, I'd have been delighted.  If they'd come for a special event or education program, that would be great too.  Hell, if they just came to enjoy the weather and get some exercise, I'd be happy enough.

Instead, every single one of them was looking at their phone.  And, I'm willing to bet, every single one was playing Pokémon Go. 

Pokémon Go, for those who have not been acquainted (as I was not until this week) is a mobile app scavenger hunt game, where players try to track down and "capture" Pokémon, fictitious magical animals from a popular Japanese anime.  For reasons that I still don't quite understand, every zoo in the country seems to be full of these hidden Pokémon, hence the tremendous crowds every day.  Every other zoo I've talked to has been experiencing the same.  Presumably, it's because we cover lots of ground, are open to the public, and have lots of hiding spots.

It's hard not to be irritated by people coming to the zoo just to look at their phones and not enjoy the animals.  But, at the same time, at least they're getting exercise and not sitting on the couch playing video games all day.  Most seem to be playing in groups, and they're all having a good time, so at least there's that.  And hey, some of them might be distracted long enough from the fake animals they are stalking to pay attention to the real ones that surround them.

Or, as a friend of mine recently posted on Facebook, "You really want a cool version of Pokémon Go?  Buy some binoculars and a guide book and try a new game.  It's called 'Birding'... it's the same thing, really, except it's real, and you might learn something."

I'm sure it's only a matter of time before some enterprising zoo educators come up with a way to make a lesson plan around this.  Heck, it might be one of the best things to happen to our little zoo for a while (at the very least they're hitting the snack bar while they're here).  Until I can think of something else to tie Pokémon to the zoo, however, I'll just watch the crowds zip around the zoo... and make sure to get those gates open on time every day.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Sporcle Quiz: Guess the Animal Sounds

Almost every animal in the zoo has a voice.  Some are so silent that, when they finally do vocalize, you almost drop your food dishes because you are so surprised.  Some never shut up.  Some are exactly what you'd expect, like lions roaring and elephants trumpeting.  Some are like nothing you'd imagine.  And, of course, some animal sounds are a bit more memorable than others...

Saturday, July 9, 2016

Is There An Echo In Here?

A few years ago, my (non-zoo) significant other and I were touring the Brookfield Zoo, located in the outskirts of Chicago.  It was my first time there, and I was enjoying the Wolf Woods exhibit, home to a pack of endangered Mexican wolves.  I was so engrossed with watching and photographing them that I almost jumped when I heard my girlfriend say, in a very exasperated tone, "Please stop doing that."

It wasn't me that her comment was aimed at (or the wolves).  Instead, it was to a middle-school aged boy standing next to her, who had, for the past several minutes, been howling his head off. 

I could understand why it annoyed her.  I didn't even notice it at the time, having effectively tuned it out.  When I see wolves, I generally assume that someone around me is going to start howling.

People visit the zoo for a variety of reasons, one of them being to connect with animals.  That may mean watching a training session, feeding a lorikeet or giraffe, or running your hands through an aquarium touch-tank.  For some visitors, it also means communicating with the animals.  Having a conversation (even a one-sided one, as they usually are) with a zoo animal makes a powerful impact on many visitors.

The sounds of a zoo are one of its top sensory experiences, ranking just behind the sights... and a little above the smells.  When a big cat starts roaring, or siamangs start whooping, you can see whole crowds of people rushing to the scene, desperate to see it before it stops.  I was at the National Zoo once when the lions started roaring, and a woman literally sprinted from across the zoo to reach the railing.  She later told me that she'd been trying to catch the lions in the act of roaring for years, but they'd always stopped just before she got there... until today, her new-favorite zoo visit.

It's not surprising that zoo visitors often try to jump-start these conversations with zoo animals by starting the vocalizations of their own.  Usually, they fail.  People aren't very good, by and large, at mimicking animal sounds.  Partially it's not knowing what sounds to make (who decided that monkeys actually say "Ooh ooh aah aah"?).  Part of it is not having the voice for it.  I've never seen a wolf in a zoo respond to a howling human.

There are a few exceptions.  Kookaburras come to mind.  The call of a kookaburra is a riotous peel of laughter, seemingly from the high security wing of an insane asylum.  I once worked with an education ambassador kookaburra who could be coaxed into calling for visitors.  The visitors would then, in turn, laugh in delight... which would set the kookaburra off into deeper bouts of laughter, and so on for ever.

Parrots are fellow avian chatterboxes.  I've seen guests spend several minutes at a time trying to coax a bird into saying "Polly Want a Cracker?" a phrase which, I'm just now realizing, I've never actually heard a parrot say in real life.  More often, what happens is the parrot screams, and small children (usually boys in the 6-8 year old range) scream "Be Quiet!" back at the bird.  Now, when you yell at a parrot, it doesn't think you're mad at him.  He's thinking, "Oh, cool, now we're both yelling!  Let's see who can yell the loudest!"  The little boys never win.

Some zoos take a more professional view towards animal vocalizations and use them as a form of auditory enrichment.  At the St. Louis Zoo, for example, I was once amazed by what seemed to be ventriloquist spotted hyenas.  I always heard whooping and cackling, but never actually saw their mouths move.  That's when I learned that what I heard wasn't them... it was for them.  A recording of (wild) spotted hyenas was played for the zoo's pack periodically, which triggered alert, territorial behavior in the zoo hyenas, who then set about to search for the interlopers and make sure their exhibit was secure.

So do visitors making animal noises annoy the animals?  I'm pretty sure the animals don't especially care, unless it's just really getting out of control (too long, too loud).  To the zoo animals, unless the visitor is really talented, it's probably just another meaningless sound coming from people, no different than our words.  It tends to annoy the keepers a lot, but that's either because they resent the efforts of visitors to talk to the animals, or they're driven crazy by how wrong the sounds are.

When you visit the zoo, remember to enjoy the sounds of the animals, just as much as the sights... maybe more than the smells.  Don't feel it's too necessary to add your own, though.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Satire: Flamingo Exhibit

"I don’t care if you’re a man, woman or child: you fall into my zoo enclosure, you ----- dead. End of story." - A Flamingo

I've got to admit, the Harambe story caught me off guard.  For weeks after the tragic incident at the Cincinnati Zoo, it seemed that the gorilla story was front-page news everywhere you looked.  Heck, if this wasn't a presidential election year, it might still be there.  With it came a lot of satire, most of it pretty bad. 

I came across this a month or so ago and thought it was hilarious as only someone who works with the meekest, fussiest American flamingos to ever grace a zoo could.  My first reaction was "Too soon..."  Well, it's been long enough, so here we go, apologies to anyone offended.

Language not suitable for kids.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Vietnamese Mossy Frog (Theloderma corticale)

Vietnamese Mossy Frog
Theloderma corticale (Boulenger, 1903)

Range: Northern Vietnam
Habitat: Evergreen Rainforest, Caves
Diet: Insects
Social Grouping: Unknown in wild, captives will tolerate groups
Reproduction: Breeds from April through June in rock cavities (sometimes in tree holes).  Small masses of eggs laid above the water, hatch after 7-14 days.  Tadpoles drop into water directly below.  Metamorphosis takes 3 months.
Lifespan: 12-15 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Data Deficient

  • Body length 8-9 centimeters, females grow larger than the males.  When resting, they are very flat and appear to be as wide as they are long
  • Skin is mottled green and brown with numerous tubercles and small spines, resembling moss growing on rocks.  Soft underbelly, sticky pads on the toes to enable climbing
  • Camouflage is main defense; if frightened, will curl into a ball and pretend to be dead
  • Active at night, spend the day clinging to mossy rocks just above the waterline or hiding beneath floating plants
  • Threatened by habitat loss and collection for the international pet trade

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Pleistocene Rewilding

It was certainly one of the more ridiculous antecdotes of early American science.  Thomas Jefferson - author of the Declaration of Independence, third President of the United States, founder of the University of Virginia, inventor, statesman, etc - desperately needed a dead moose.  The cause at stake was nothing short of America's honor.

You see, the great French naturalist George Louis Leclerc, the Count de Buffon had developed what he called his Theory of American Degenercy.  The theory basically stated that in America, something about the landscape resulted in the physical (and, in the case of people) mental retardation of growth.

"In America, therefore, animated Nature is weaker, less active, and more circumscribed in the variety of her productions; for we perceive, from the enumeration of the American animals, that the numbers of species is not only fewer, but that, in general, all the animals are much smaller than those of the Old Continent. No American animal can be compared with the elephant, the rhinoceros, the hippopotamus, the dromedary, the camelopard [giraffe], the buffalo, the lion, the tiger, etc"

Jefferson, then, was in search of a moose, the biggest he could find, to shut the Count up.

It would have far easier if he could have built a time machine.  Then, all he would have had to do is take Buffon back to the Pleistocene, when America was a rolling wilderness of mammoths, mastodons, rhinoceroses, horses, camels, ground sloths, and an army of predators, including lions, cheetahs, and short-faced bears.

Of course, Buffon never saw such a spectacle.  Neither did Jefferson.  Neither have we.  Yet.

There is no time machine, but a radical group of conservationists have decided on the next best thing.  They call it Pleistocene Rewilding.  It could also be called "Bring Back the Mammoths."

The reasoning behind Pleistocene Rewilding is simple.  It says that most of the world arbitrarily ascribed 1492, when Columbus arrived in America as what America "should" look like.  The Rewilders disagree.  To them, what Columbus and Co. stumbled across was an already-impoverished America, one in which the first human settlers - the Native Americans - had already wiped out lots of big mammals, leaving us with a land of dwarfs... if one can call an American bison or a grizzly bear a "dwarf."  Buffon was right in seeing that there were no giant animals in the Americas... he just didn't understand why.

Now, the problem is that no mammoths, mastodons, etc remain.  No problem, say the Rewilders.  They advocate using surrogate species - living animals which ecologically resemble their extinct relatives.  It's been done on a small scale in other parts of the world.  The only difference is that, instead of using Aldabra tortoises to replace the comparable-but-extinct giant tortoises of other Indian Ocean islands, we're talking about Asian elephants replacing mammoths.

It may not surprise you, but the idea has garnered something of a backlash.  One of the authors of the original paper was kind enough to let me scroll through some of his hate mail one day, which makes me feel a lot less bad about a few snarky facebook comments from PETA now and then.

Some people just feel the idea is too ridiculous to contemplate (which is never a good argument, in my opinion - anything should at least be contemplated if the goal is saving species).  Others deride the impracticality of blocking off huge sections of the west to let elephants and lions roam around.  Others still worry about what kind of impact these species might have on native wildlife and the ecosystem.  Are proxy species really good enough substitutes?  Has the habitat changed too much, and is there enough of it left anyway?  Some worry about the distraction, when we should be focusing on animals that we have here now which need saving.  And others worry that pulling wildlife from Africa and Asia to restock Arizona or Texas will result in a loss of support for conservation of those same species back in Africa or Asia.  Most just think it's too weird.

To an extent, we are already rewilding.  We are introducing animals back into the wild, sometimes to areas where they have not been seen for quite a long time, as the case of the California condors in the Grand Canyon goes to show.  There are whole herds of African and Asian ungulates roaming the southwest and Texas, courtesy of game ranching.  And let's not forget that one of the first species Europeans turned loose in America was the horse... a species which evolved here in the first place, making it something of a homecoming.

Rewilding isn't unique to America, either.  It's been attempted in Europe (evidence the recreated aurochs and tarpan of the last century, the reintroduced wisent, the resurgent wolves and bears and lynx), as well as Siberia, where musk-ox once again roam.

Presumably, many of the specimens for rewilding efforts would come from zoos and other breeding facilities.  Some proponents of rewilding have argued that these "Pleistocene Parks" could replace zoos for some species.  Elephants, big cats, and other large mammals could be bred and maintained in these wildlife reserves, acting as a bulwark against the extinction of their wild relatives.

As far as rewildling goes, I'd just as soon work our way backwards.  Let's save the species that we have that are currently struggling against extinction.  Then, let's work on repatriating animals which have gone locally extinct within historic times, such as reestablishing jaguars in the southwest.  Keep pushing it back.  Maybe one day we'll have time for those mammoths.

PS:  As far as I know, one zoo alone has taken Pleistocene Rewilding to the extraordinary level of exhibition.  San Diego Zoo's Elephant Odyssey is a trail that features that animals (and their proxies) that used to call California home.  Besides rattlesnakes and condors, the trail features guanaco, lion, jaguar, secretarybird, tapir, and sloths, as well as the namesake elephants, stand-ins for mammoths and mastodons.  Dotting the trail are life-sized sculptures of the species that used to roam California.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Saving Wild America

"... moose, caribou, Dall's sheep, grizzly bears, gray wolves.  Alaska had indeed been the Great Land.  Then he had realized that wildlife wasn't that rife in Alaska, that Alaska was slim pickings for most critters, that it seemed to be teeming with wildlife only because animal numbers had dropped so sharply in the rest of the United States.  Tell a tourist from Kansas - or Ohio - that it hadn't been long ago that her state had more big game than Alaska, and she would laugh at you.  But it was true."

- Dave Foreman, The Lobo Outback Funeral Home

For American keepers, the Fourth of July marks Independence Day (and, incidentally, one of the biggest weekends of the year, attendance wise.  It means lots of crowds, maybe a little drunken unruly behavior, and the prospect of wondering how your animals will react to fireworks that night.

It's also (for those of us not working) a celebration of country, its heritage, and all of those things which make it great.  Which, a lot of people forget, includes our natural heritage.

Our track record with wild America has been, to say, patchy over the last 400 years since Europeans first arrived in the now United States.  Some species have been driven to extinction, such as the passenger pigeon and Carolina parakeet.  Some have been driven almost completely from our borders, like the jaguar and thick-billed parrot.  And some have been reduced to tiny relict populations.

At the same time, other species have almost shared these fates... but then been brought back from the edge.  The American bison won't be roaming in the millions any time soon, but at least it's no longer virtually extinct.  Gray wolves howl along the Yellowstone again, and their range is slowly expanding to reclaim additional states.  American alligators and bald eagles have made a tremendous rebound, pumas are inching their way back eastward, and the silhouettes of California condors again darken parts of the west.

One of my favorite species, the red wolf, has experienced a cataclysmic fall, a laborious rise... and now seems poised to fall again

Zoos and aquariums connect visitors with animals from all over the world.  It's perhaps even more important to connect them with the ones that share this country.  Every zoo or aquarium, I've always felt, should have a display of native wildlife, coupled with the educational messages of how to coexist peacefully with native species and how to (if desirable) attract them to their home.  For that matter, zoos should try to create local habitat on their own grounds, using native plants and setting up living spaces for native birds and other wildlife (while at the same time trying to protect their collection animals from native pests and predators).

Every zoo or aquarium should also adopt a local species of conservation concern and work towards the protection of that species.  Some facilities, like Oregon Zoo and Phoenix Zoo, work with several, including many with reintroduction efforts underway.  True, not ever zoo has a charismatic endangered species in their backyard.  But everyone has something.  Visiting Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo this year, I was very impressed by the knowledge and passion of the keepers showing me their salt creek tiger beetle breeding program.

Hopefully, such actions will encourage visitors - especially local residents - to get more involved in their conservation initiatives. An American citizen may have somewhat limited ability to impact deforestation in Madagascar, or ivory poaching in Kenya.  Their vote, their voice, their tax dollars, and (above all else) their actions, however, can make a big difference in protecting and defending the wildlife heritage of their country.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Zoo Joke: Talking Penguin

A bartender is at work one day when, to his surprise, a penguin waddles into the bar.  He shuffles up to a stool, hops up onto it, and says, "I'm having a rough day - give me whatever's on tap."

The astonished bartender draws up a beer and passes it to the penguin, who gulps it down.

"I've never met a talking penguin," he admits.  The penguin shrugs, then orders another beer.  They make small talk for a few more minutes, then pays his tab and leaves.

The next day, the director of the city zoo, a regular of the bar, comes in.  He's also having a rough day - attendance is down, and he needs a new attraction to drive the gate.  When the bartender mentions that, just the day before, a talking penguin came in, the zoo director is estatic.  A talking penguin, he declares, is just the sort of exciting, novel exhibit which will draw in huge crowds.  He gives the bartender his card and asks him to give it to the penguin, should he happen to come in again.

Sure enough, the next day the penguin comes back.  "It's been another rough day at work," he sighs, ordering himself a beer.

"Funny you should mention that," says the bartender.  "I may have a job opportunity for you."  He hands the zoo director's card to the penguin, who turns it over in his flippers.

"Huh," he says eventually.  "And he says he has a job?  I didn't know the zoo hired stockbrokers."

Friday, July 1, 2016

Capybara and Clyde

For more than a month, the city of Toronto has been entertained by the story of one of the world's least likely fugitives.  Since May 24th, a 6-month-old capybara has been roaming the city's parks after escaping the zoo with a companion.  While the second capybara was recaptured, the other remained elusive, embarrassing zoo officials and city employees who tried to snag the sneaky rodent.

I can understand.  Capybara seem like they'd be hard to overlook - I mean, it's a guinea pig the size of sheep, for heaven's sake - but they can be extraordinarily stealthy.  They are low to the ground and are masters of sitting still.  They make very little noise.  They are inquisitive and have a nose for gates and doors.  And they can disappear in water, leaving only their eyes and ears protruding, like the world's furriest, most adorable little crocodiles.

Our zoo's capys have snuck out before, on more than one occasion.  In one case, we only found them when two visitors reported that they were strolling down the main path, stopping occasionally to nibble at the shrubbery.

I'd been following the news ever since it first broke... mostly to assure confused zoo visitors who thought that it was our capybara on the loose.  I was worried that efforts to collar the furry fugitive would fail, and that winter would claim him.  So glad to see him safe and back home!

Toronto Capybara