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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Book Review: Man In A Cage

"Zoo directors should be computerized.  They seem to be confronted with one crazy problem after another all day and all night long."

Among my favorite books are the memoirs of other zookeepers, curators, and directors.  Gerald Durrell's A Bevy of Beasts, Peter Brazaitis' You Belong In A Zoo!, Jeffrey Bonner's Sailing with Noah... it's impossible to spend a career working with animals and not accumulate some great stories.  One such treasury of stories I discovered - completely unexpected - stuffed on the back shelf of what must be the last used bookstore in my county.  That find was Man In A Cage, by Robert Elgin.

Unlike many of the zoo memoirs that I've encountered, Mr. Elgin's takes place at a very small zoo, one which I hadn't heard of - the Des Moines Children's Zoo (I later realized that the reason I'd never heard of it was that it has since changed its name to the Blank Park Zoo.  Taking over the tiny zoo, teetering on the edge of success or failure, Robert Elgin had no background in zoo animal care; he was simply willing to do the job.  What ensued over the next several years was a series of adventures - some happy, some tragic - that propelled the little zoo forward, featuring a large, colorful cast of animal characters.

Whenever I read the older memoirs from the profession (and, while hardly ancient, Robert Elgin does belong to a past generation of zookeeping), I'm always torn between relief and regret.  The relief comes from the fact that our understanding of animal care has grown so much - when I read some of Elgin's stories of animals proving difficult to feed, or dangerous to work around, or suffering from some veterinary issue, I take pleasure in knowing that we've since overcome many of these challenges.  The regret mixes in when I read about some of the wild adventures that zookeepers got to have in those days and knowing that at most zoos, those will never happen.  I mean, I've never taken a lion for a walk around the zoo after hours, just to discourage intruders, or spoon-fed an ailing jaguar to nurse it back to health.

Other stories are still totally relatable.  Monkeys really are pure-evil escape artists who mock any and all efforts by zoo personnel to recapture them.  Deer, rabbits, and other sweet, lovable looking animals usually are the nastiest customers in the zoo.  Reporters and photographers really are callous, horrible people who will ask you to hold an animal in just such a way for a picture or a story, against your best judgement, and then cheerfully record it when you get bitten.  It is nice to see that some things don't change.

Elgin isn't the natural storyteller that Durrell or Bonner are.  What he does have is a set of stories that I haven't heard before.  Most of the other memoirs I've read are from big, famous zoos, and their stories have been told and retold time and again.  It's refreshing to hear about Professor Pedro, the blue-and-gold macaw who was run for President of the United States, or the folly of deciding to start your snake-keeping career with a green mamba instead of, say, a corn snake. 

Situations like the later remind you that Robert Elgin was not an animal man when he started his job.  Still, like anyone else who enters the world of zoo animals, he falls in love with his new extended family.  It's impossible not to.  And even if he made perhaps a not-quite-wise, in hindsight, decision from time to time, the love that he had for his zoo and its animals bore fruit.  Today, the Des Moines Children's Zoo, under its new name, is well and flourishing as a member of the AZA.  It boasts a variety of animals that Elgin likely never dreamed of having - giraffes, snow leopards, sea lions.  Robert Elgin would be proud.



Monday, August 29, 2016

Zoo History: We Who Are About to Die...

If there's been one ongoing theme to the Zoo History section of the blog, it's that our species' relationship with captive wildlife extends far before the birth of the modern zoo.  Humans have kept animals for millennia for endless purposes - curiosity, prestige, adornment, worship.  Perhaps the darkest - certainly one of the bloodiest - chapters of our shared history with captive wildlife comes out of Ancient Rome.

The origins of the Roman gladiatorial games date back to a few centuries before Christ - they started off as religious rites, meant to honor one's ancestors, similar to the practice of human sacrifice.  In time, however, the games took on a life of their own, becoming increasingly popular across the Roman world.  They came to serve as celebrations of Roman military might and colonial power, as captives - human and animal - from across the Republic (and later the Empire) were brought together to die for the amusement of the Roman citizenry.  Being a military culture, Romans were expected to celebrate the slaughter that was played out for their entertainment; it was considered a sign of weakness to be repelled by the carnage.  Gladiatorial expositions served as morbid pep rallies, organized by politicians in order to impress and inspire the crowds.

If fights between gladiators were a substitute for warfare, than fights between gladiators and beasts were meant to represent hunting.  Lions, tigers, leopards, and bears were the stars of these hunts - being dangerous themselves, they posed a more interesting challenge to the Venatores (also called Bestiarii), those gladiators who fought beasts.  That being said, the arenas were also filled with considerably less... showy species, such as deer, gazelle, ostrich, ibex, and even rabbits, turned loose on the sand essentially as cannon fodder for the larger animals.  Bulls and bears were sometimes chained together, with a luckless slave given the task of undoing the chain binding the two enraged combatants. 

Of course, not all of the fights between humans and animals in the Roman arena were really "fights" - there was a fair bit of one-sided slaughter there too.  Animals served as a method of execution for criminals in which no one was even pretending that the accused had a chance.  Christians weren't the only ones thrown to lions. 

As Roman power expanded, with more emperors, more wars, and more triumphs, increasingly fickle crowds demanded more extravagant entertainments.  Thousands of animals would be killed in a single day.  New species would be imported - at tremendous expense and difficulty - simply so they could be killed in the amphitheater.  The Coliseum itself was sometimes flooded, allowing not only small-scale naval battles, but aquatic hunts, as boat-riding gladiators battled hippos and crocodiles.  Sometimes even the Emperor himself would enter the fray - Commodus had crescent-shaped arrows designed specifically for decapitating ostriches. 

The Roman games didn't end suddenly, but petered out slowly over the centuries.  Even if the Coliseum eventually emptied, the blood-sport never completely died.  It was carried on in the Medici palaces and in the Tower of London, and was brought to the New World, were Spanish conquistadors thought it was a hoot to tie a grizzly to a bull and watch the two fight (in Andean South America, condors received a similar ignoble treatment).  Even today, bullfights persist in parts of the Spanish world. 

The consequences of the Roman games extend far beyond the welfare of the animals that were themselves lost in the arena - the effect must have been felt across ecosystems.  Thousands upon thousands of animals were removed from the wild to participate in the games - who can guess how many more died in transit, or were killed to acquire young?  It's entirely possible that species were extirpated from modern-day countries in no small part because of the gladiatorial games.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Sporcle Quiz: Spot the Animal!


One of the hallmarks of the modern zoo has been the transition from sterile barred cages to larger exhibits that are meant to replicate the natural habitat of the animal.  This, in turn, has lead to the new most common complaint at virtually every zoo - visitors not being able to find the animals.  There are some species in our zoo that I'm pretty sure no visitor has ever seen, unless they had it pointed out to them by a visitor. 

Which makes me wonder how close our visitors get to who knows how many species in the wild and never notice.  Being able to notice animals in our environment is something that evolution had once done a pretty good job of beating into us.  Many of us seem to have lost the knack.  After all, if you can't find the tiger, in a relatively small territory (we'll call it a quarter acre), that's only partially vegetated, and has a big sign that says "TIGER" in front of it, I would despair of your chances to go uneaten in an Indian jungle.

Enjoy this quiz!  It's not one of mine, but I've enjoyed it very much!


Wednesday, August 24, 2016

From the News: Hundreds of tiny Montserrat tarantulas hatch



Earlier this month Chester Zoo announced the first ever captive breeding of the endangered Montserrat tarantula.  About 200 of the endangered arachnids have hatched out, with more coming.  The breeding was one fraught with risk - as the picture above shows, tarantula mating is not a cuddly, loving affair.  The life of the male is at considerable risk, before, during, and after the process.  This breeding is significant conservation news, and not just for the sake of the spiders.  It turns out that the tarantulas are a favored food item for another endangered Caribbean resident - the mountain chicken frog.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Sir Nils Olav Inspects His Troops


Penguins have long been the stars of Scotland's Edinburgh Zoo.  The black-and-white Antarctic birds were first exhibited at the zoo in 1914, captured by a whaling expedition and donated to the zoo.  In 1919, the zoo became the first to breed penguins in captivity with its hatching of a king penguin chick.  In 1951, several penguins escaped and wandered about the zoo, a comical incident which has since been replicated on a (planned) daily basis as the zoo's famous Penguin Parade.

Among the illustrious animals that the zoo has provided a home for over the years is Sir Nils Olav, a former mascot of the Norwegian army, later installed at the zoo.  Sir Nils, who has a bigger-than-life-sized statue on zoo grounds, was promoted every time the corps visited Scotland.  Sit Nils, alas, has since passed away, but he has a successor who has been deemed worthy of his honor and titles.  Just the other day, he was promoted again when the Norwegians came to town.  As befitting a penguin of his rank, he immediately set about inspecting the troops.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Zoo Review: Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium

They say that everything is bigger in Texas... and they very well may be right.  But when I think of the word "big" in association with zoos, my mind doesn't go to Texas.  It goes to Nebraska.  More specifically, it focuses on Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo, one of the most extraordinary zoos in the country.  It seems like every exhibit there has some sort of "biggest" label (or "formerly biggest", in at least one case) - the world's biggest geodesic dome, the world's biggest nocturnal exhibit, the world's biggest cat complex.  Omaha is an amazing zoo, and the day that I spent there was barely enough to scratch its surface.


Any discussion of Henry Doorly must begin with what was the zoo's flagship exhibit - the Lied Jungle.  Located just inside the entrance, this award-winning 1.5 acre compound was, for many years, the world's largest indoor rainforest.  Exhibits are divided into three galleries - South America, Asia, and Africa - and are viewed from a canopy walkway or meandering trails on the jungle floor.  Spaced throughout the exhibit are habitats for pygmy hippopotamus, Baird's and Malayan tapirs, Asian small-clawed otters, and Philippine crocodiles, while small side displays feature reptiles, amphibians, and small mammals.  The building also houses an extraordinary primate collection - howler monkeys, squirrel monkeys, capuchins, gibbons, and the only bearded sakis on display in the United States.  Lots of mixed-species interactions, including a monkey riding a tapir - my camera only took a few blurry shots, but it was hilarious watching the two species interact so casually, so familiarly.   There are also lots of free-flying birds... and bats.  For me, the most memorable experience in the building was having bats flying all around me.  Passing behind a towering waterfall, I watched Egyptian fruit bats feed on hanging slices of fruit.  Later, while walking through a tunnel (featuring underwater viewing windows on the tapirs, hippos, and crocs), a bat almost buzzed me as it zipped by.  Lied Jungle has to be seen to be believed, with its abundant, lush plants and supports shaped like massive trees; an adjacent restaurant offers spectacular views of the Jungle for diners.  I'd been hearing about it for two decades.  It did not disappoint.


If Lied Jungle was the crown jewel of the zoo, there is a new contender to the throne.  Also by the main entrance is the Desert Dome, the world's largest geodesic dome that tours the deserts of Africa, Australia, and North America.  There are fewer large animals than in the Lied Jungle, but the views are much more intimate, whether you are watching rock wallabies bound along a cliff face, klipspringer, meerkat, and rock hyrax observe you from amidst the rocks, or being curiously sniffed at by a pack of coatis.  The three deserts are separated by galleries of reptiles (this is one of the most impressive collections of venomous snakes I've ever seen, especially with regards to rattlesnakes), and free-flying birds flitting over the artificial dunes make for a beautiful sight.



But wait... there's more...

Lurking beneath the Desert Dome is another world class exhibit - the Kingdoms of the Night.  In darkened hallways, aardvarks, porcupines, fossa, night monkeys, and even more bats can be encountered, as well as Japanese giant salamanders.  The salamanders herald the entrance to the Wet Cave, a boardwalk leading over a dark swamp patrolled by beavers, bullfrogs, and, of course, alligators.  As a rule I tend to be skeptical of nocturnal exhibits, as I feel that you rarely actually see anything more than a dark shape shuffling against a dark background.  This one shut me up.


Completing the zoo's trifecta of buildings around the entrance complex is the Scott Kingdom of the Seven Seas Aquarium.  It's a typical zoo aquarium, meaning it hits the required notes - a shark exhibit, an Amazon tank, sea turtle, jellyfish, and, of course, penguins and puffins.  Of special interest to the zoo connoisseur are the weedy and leafy sea dragons and the Japanese spider crabs.  Nearby is an Insectarium, including a butterfly walk-through habitat and a jungle exhibit with giant arthropods from around the world.  The zoo is very involved in the conservation of the endangered Salt Creek tiger beetle, though none are on display.


So extraordinary are many of Omaha's exhibits that displays that would be world-renown at other facilities, I'm just getting to describing now.  Consider the great ape exhibits - the Hubbard Gorilla and Orangutan Forests.  The apes are the stars, of course - the gorillas have a grassy rolling lawn while the orangutans share a towering outdoor climbing structure with siamangs - with indoor viewing also available for both species.  Surrounding the apes are habitats for other Asian and African species, such as ground hornbills, red river hogs, and Francois langurs.

Even more primates are seen in the indoor/outdoor Expedition Madagascar. Nearly a dozen species of lemurs call Omaha home, from the ubiquitous ring-tailed lemur to the rarely exhibited aye-aye.  The building goes beyond lemurs, however, also housing rarely seen small mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians from the island continent, such as radiated tortoises, jumping rats, and Madagascar teal.  During the warmer months, many of the lemurs can be viewed in an outdoor enclosure.  Also outdoors is a habitat for their arch predator, the fossa.  Madagascar is rarely highlighted as a geographic area by zoos, but for Omaha, it is more than appropriate - the zoo is extremely involved in Malagasy field conservation, and has even been responsible for the discovery of new lemur species.


And if all that weren't enough, there's a special events hall which doubles as a small animal house, a sea lion pool, and, oh yeah, a FOUR ACRE aviary, the third largest in the world, with flamingos, cranes, swans, and storks.  There is also an IMAX theater, a train, an Alaska-themed splash park, and a skytram, just in case you actually manage to get tired of looking at all of the amazing animals the zoo has to offer.

The zoo's excellence on-exhibit is matched by it's excellence off-exhibit.  The conservation efforts mentioned already, from beetles to lemurs, are the tip of the iceberg.  The zoo maintains an off-exhibit breeding complex for critically endangered amphibians. A  research department works to reduce human-wildlife conflict around the globe.  The zoo's involvement with assisted reproduction for exotic felines is legendary.  The list goes on.

So that's the good.  The bad?  A much shorter list.

The zoo is famed for its work with big cats, especially tiger artificial insemination.  Which really makes me wish I could say that the Cat Complex wasn't awful.  But it is... awful, I mean.  Tiger, puma, leopard, jaguar, and snow leopard (and Komodo dragon, for some reason)... too many cats in too little space.  Is it really necessary to have as many subspecies of tiger as possible on display for viewing?  The bear grottos down the hill - sun, Andean, American black, and polar bears, the later with underwater viewing - aren't that much better.  To be fair, the zoo certainly acknowledges the limitations of its current exhibits, and signage in the Cat Complex calls attention to the new, improved habitats which are planned.


The first of these habitats is on the way with the new African Grasslands.  The lions will leave the crowded confines of the Cat Complex to join cheetahs, African wild dogs, white rhino, giraffe, and more in a brand new habitat.  Headlining the project are six of the famous (or infamous) African elephants shipped over from Swaziland earlier this year.  If Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo does half as good of a job with Africa as it did with all of its other exhibits, it's going to be incredible.





Saturday, August 20, 2016

Satire: Tiger Always Checked Out Of Local Zoo

Earlier today, I had a visitor come up to me and ask me where our jaguar was.  So, I gave them directions to the exhibit, but he shook his head.  "No, I didn't see him there.  I thought that maybe he was at the fair today."  (Today being our county fair, our zoo did send some staff and some animals... no big cats, though).

I've also gotten a chuckle over the years from people who seriously misunderstand the whole "Adopt an Animal" concept, with some people even showing up with dog crates to pick up the animal that they wanted to "adopt"... now we call them sponsorships.  Put those two together, and you get this story from The Onion.



SAN FRANCISCO—Complaining that another patron always seems to have borrowed the animal before he gets a chance to take it home, frustrated local man Scott Gardner told reporters Monday that the sole Siberian tiger at his local zoo is checked out every time he visits. “No matter when I head over there, the woman at the tiger habitat tells me the Siberian is checked out but that I can get it once it’s returned in a few weeks,” Gardner said, noting that the same person seemed to repeatedly renewing the 350-pound cat and that he was always relegated to taking home “some leopard that’s not nearly as good.” “I looked it up online, and they’ve got a Siberian available at another location,but I’m not about to drive all the way out to Oakland.” When pressed, Gardner admitted that the availability of the tiger was a moot point, as his borrowing privileges had been suspended until he paid for the tiger he lost a few years ago.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

From the News: Potawatomi Zoo curator jumps into flooded exhibit to rescue animal


Zookeeping - you're doing it right.  Potawatomi Zoo isn't the only member of our community which has been hit by the deluge lately - Baton Rouge has also been hit pretty hard by floodwaters this last week.  Whether it's flood, fire, hurricane, or any other disaster, zookeepers are on the job, doing whatever is necessary to keep their charges safe.

Hats off to Mr. Sisk for a heroic save.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Who Are You Feeding Now?

It was uncharitable of me, I'll admit, to include Item #4 on my "Ten Things I Never Want to Here From Zoo Visitors Again" list.  For those of you who haven't memorized my blog entries from the last three years, that would be "Look, they're feeding it!" as I carry a can of paint... or am dragging the power washer... or do any number of other, non-food related tasks.  It especially baffles me that I find myself often being asked the question "Hey, are you about to feed the (insert animal here)" as I am walking away from that exhibit.

I'm hard pressed to say why that one irks me so much.  In part it's because the whole "Feeding Time!" thing is usually announced very loudly and garners a lot of attention, so I feel like I'm being a meanie by not feeding anything, even though I'm not the one that got everyone's hopes up in the first place. 

Secondly, and this is a little more obscure, I sometimes resent the implication that our animals are solely motivated by food, and that's what makes them tick.  When I walk past the otters, or the monkeys, or any of the other intelligent, curious animals and they come up to the front of the exhibit to say "Hello," visitors always make comments like "They think you're gonna feed them" or "Oh, they know who you are."  To which I always want to reply, "Wow, you have such an amazing insight into animal behavior.  Should I get you a job application while you're here?"  But I don't... and instead remind myself that there is a reason I choose to work with animals instead of people.

The animals know when they are going to get fed.  They know their routines, and more importantly, they can tell the difference between the sight (and smell) of me coming with a food pail versus me coming with a bottle of bleach, a hammer and nails, a roll of garbage bags, or nothing at all.  They will react accordingly... just as they would react a hell of a lot differently if they saw me coming with a net, a crate, and a pair of super-heavy duty gloves.

But, as I said at the beginning, I was being unfair.  Of course people want to see the animals feed.  In some cases, it's not too exciting - a bowl of chow gets put down and the animal picks at it as their hunger so moves them.  Others will only eat at night, or in off-exhibit holding areas, used to shift animals safely to and from exhibits.  That being said, other feedings are just plain awesome to watch.  Otters and penguins leaping and diving into the water after thrown fish, or pelicans catching fish with their beaks.  A herd of ungulates galloping over for grain.  Monkeys and apes swinging across the exhibit to get some fruit.  What zoo doesn't celebrate Halloween by throwing pumpkins to hippos, bears, big cats, and elephants? Maybe even a seemingly fake python suddenly rocketing to life as it uncoils to seize a proffered rabbit.  

A feeding demo can make even the most reclusive of zoo animals active and extraordinary.  The most memorable feeding of my childhood took place at the now-closed Invertebrate House at the National Zoo.  We'd gone in there as an afterthought, but watching the giant Pacific octopus emerge from her cubby hole and drift to the front of the tank was hauntingly beautiful.  And that was before I saw a keeper toss a handful of shrimp into a jar... and then screw the lid on it before sending it to the bottom of the tank.  The octopus took the jar in its arms and opened it, extracting the meal inside.  When I turned around, I found myself surrounded by a huge crush of visitors, all spellbound, most of them seeing the octopus for the first time ever... or at least for the first time as something more than a pink mass in the corner of the tank.

Other feedings are for more select audiences... maybe not suitable for kids.  Some zoos have taken to feeding whole carcasses - goats, road-killed deer, whatever - to their predators.  The aforementioned python will swallow its rabbit in one go.  A pack of African wild dogs, on the other hand, will tear their goat into pieces.  That stays with you for a while.

If you are going to the zoo and interested in what feedings can be observed, it's always good to check the website.  If you are a regular to a certain zoo, check with staff there to see if there's a usual time.  I'm a creature of habit myself, and if you were to name a random time during my work day tomorrow, I'd probably be able to tell you exactly what I'd be doing.  I've had visitors show up - waiting for me, in fact - because they were expecting me to be there to feed certain animals which they had seen before.

There's a lot more that goes into caring for zoo animals than feeding them.  In fact, that - the act of physically giving food to the animals - probably takes maybe an hour total of my workday... probably less.  Still, they are the part of the day that gives a zookeeper the best chance to bring the visitor and the animal together, share some stories, and start a conversation that could change the visitor's experience altogether.

Just stop asking me who I'm feeding the paint to..

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Naked Mole Rat (Heterocephalus glaber)

Naked Mole Rat
Heterocephalus glaber (Ruppell, 1842)

Range: East Africa
Habitat: Savannah
Diet: Roots, Tubers
Social Grouping: Colonial (20-300 members)
Reproduction: Breeding limited to usually one (sometimes more) queens, who produce all of the offspring in the colony. She only breeds with a few select males, so all members of the colony are very closely related.  Breed year round, average of five litters a year.  Gestation 70 days, average of 7 pups per litter.  Females mature in 7 months, males in 12 months.
Lifespan: 30 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern


  • Body length 14-17 centimeters long, weigh 30-80 grams.  Males and females are similar in size; the queen and breeding males are the largest members of the colony
  • Skin is brown or pink; young often possess dark spots, which fade with age.  Very little hair on the body; what is present is very short and very sensitive
  • The teeth, used for tunneling, protrude through their lips, allowing the naked mole rats to dig without getting a mouth full of soil
  • Although the eyes are well developed, naked mole rats are functionally blind - their brains have lost the ability to process what they see
  • Longest known lifespan of any rodent species
  • Store food in underground chambers; useful because their ability to forage is hampered during the rains, as they have difficulty moving through wet soil.
  • Primary predators are snakes, which can move easily through the tunnels
  • Cannot control their body temperatures internally, thermoregulate like reptiles - when they are cold, they bask, when they are hot, they retreat to the cooler parts of their burrows
  • Of considerable scientific interest, not only because of their unique social structure, but because of their resistance to cancer and their perceived immunity to pain

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Sadists at the Zoo

There's no two ways about it - bunny huggers can be annoying, whether they're working on your team and doing a terrible job of it, or outside the gate protesting because they think you're a soulless monster who decided to become a zookeeper just so you could torture animals.  Sometimes, they can be downright dangerous, both to themselves and to animals, when their lack of knowledge results in well-meaning but still poor welfare for animals ("Oh, Polly wants to share my guacamole, how sweet!"... The next day: "Well I didn't know avocado was toxic for parrots!")

Still, even at their worst, there is one thing you can say about bunny huggers (usually while shaking your head and sighing): "They mean well..."

I'd take that any day over the sadists.

Sadists are a special breed of evil, one that I've thankfully only encountered on very rare occasions.  These aren't the visitors who bang on the glass to make the animal look - they often don't know how annoying what they are doing is.  They aren't the little kids who chase the peacocks (maybe in search of a feather) - they're too young to know what they do.  They aren't the teens who spit at llamas - which is disgusting and stupid, but at least does no actual physical harm, and (if they are actually close enough) does raise the entertaining specter that they might be spat back upon in turn.  I've never seen a visitor hit a llama with their spit wad.  I have seen llamas with better aim.

The sadists are the ones who want to hurt animals.  Just because.

What brought this up?  The unhappy fate of Pinky, a Chilean flamingo at Busch Gardens in Tampa.


Pinky was euthanized after sustaining serious injuries, inflicted by a guest who was, to put it mildly, a major asshole.  The bird was seized and violently slammed to the ground; the offender, one Joseph Anthony Corrao, tried to flee the scene, but was stopped and apprehended.  Pinky was famous at the park for "dancing" for visitors (a behavior flamingos go through in the mud while trying to stir up hidden invertebrates).  I can't imagine how devastated the Busch Gardens flamingo keepers must be.

"It's beyond senseless," declared the presiding judge, going so far as to say that the crime "actually borders of depraved... I don't know if you have other issues, but I don't know who does that."

Assholes, your honor.  Assholes, sadists, and sadistic assholes is who.

The dangerous thing about sadists is that there are so few of them that it becomes easy to forget that they are out there.  As part of our mission of education and conservation, we try to bring people and animals in proximity to one another.  It's a phenomenal chance to let people experience the beauty of an animal up close and personal, and maybe become inspired enough to change the way they live to conserve it.  It also unfortunately puts animals in proximity to that small but dangerous minority who would hurt them.

There are times that I wonder if it's worth it.  Rest in peace, Pinky.




Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Who's Calling Who a Bunny Hugger?

Yesterday we unpacked the meaning behind that most dreaded of zookeeper-slurs, "the bunny hugger."  It's a term that gets banded about, often aimed at people who think they are loving or helping animals, but are often doing the opposite.  A classic literary example?  Lennie, from Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men.  It's fun to pet the soft rabbits... until you pet them too hard.

Among keepers, it also has a second meaning.  It refers to someone who excessively humanizes their animals, attributing lots of emotions to them and treating them like children.  These are the keepers who throw birthday parties for their animals, who have elaborate naming contests for them, and who always go on about "their babies."

Some keepers (and I'm looking at you, Europe) find this off-putting, some going as far as sickening.  They think that it perverts the animal, taking away its dignity and treating it like it's a house pet or a toy.  These are the keepers who go on about "the message" that is being sent by treating animals as anything other than wild animals.  To this end, they often refer to their American counterparts as bunny huggers.  Not surprisingly, this mentality is also more common among aquarists and herp keepers.

The keepers in question resist this labeling, saying that there is nothing inappropriate about their actions.  By "humanizing" the animals, as it were, with naming contests, birthday parties, and the like, they make them more relatable to the public as a whole and drive more interest in the life and wellbeing of the individual animal.  That, in turn, can be used to educate and inspire people about the species as a whole.  It's a lot easier to get people enthusiastic about a tiger they know as an individual, the argument goes, rather than tigers as a concept in Asia. 

Besides, they say, we're zookeepers because we like animals.  Why pretend otherwise?

It can be dangerous to over-humanize zoo animals to the public.  That's the mentality which may lead to guests hopping fences or trying to pet animals, sometimes with disastrous results.  Focusing on what we think the animal would like based on what we would like can also lead to poor husbandry.  A person, for example, might think that having lots of friends to live with would be an ideal social set-up.  For a solitary animal like a clouded leopard, that might be the definition of hell.

Still, as long as an animal's needs are being met and it is being presented in a manner that preserves its dignity and has an educational message, I don't see anything wrong with a little bunny-hugging now and then.  I've eaten my share of birthday cake for zoo animals too over the years.



Monday, August 8, 2016

The Bunny Hugger

I'm pretty non-confrontational, both in work life, private life, and on the internet.  That being said, as long as it doesn't involve me I can get a perverse amount of pleasure of watching it go down.  A good source of such free entertainment can be found on any of the zookeeping facebook groups that I belong to, where keepers will loudly and bitterly fight about just about anything.  Whenever I see a post about working free contact with big cats, or American vs. European views on euthanasia, or whatever, I just kick back with the popcorn and read the comments.

Today there was a particularly nasty exchange, and it got real.  Someone called another keeper a bunny hugger.

That probably requires a little explanation.  It may seem sweet, but "bunny hugger" is one of the not-nicest slurs that one zookeeper can make towards another.

I first came across the phrase when I was a teenager.  The volunteer coordinator of our city zoo, where I had been volunteering for a few years, was recommending me for a new program at our facility, one which allowed me to get my first hands-on experience with big cats, primates, and other animals considerably more exciting than the turtles and non-releasable native raptors that I'd been working with the education department.  "You'll like him," I overheard her tell a still skeptical curator, reluctant to have a sixteen -year old traipsing around with snow leopards and siamangs.  "He's a good worker, and he has lots of common sense.  He's not a bunny hugger."

I thought she'd just coined the phrase on the spot.  After all, our education department did have bunnies, and some of the other volunteers were known for being a lot for keen on petting the soft rabbits than they were in actually feeding or watering or, heaven help them, cleaning up after them.

It turned out that bunny hugging was an actual thing.  It needn't involve actual bunnies, however.

A bunny hugger is someone who professes very much to love animals, but doesn't actually know much about them except that they like them.  Now, that in itself there is nothing wrong with - liking something is an excellent springing-off point for caring about something.  Your stereotypical bunny hugger, however, is very vocal about their love for animals and has super strong opinions which aren't backed up by reality, and their "care" is often detrimental to the animal.  Their affection for animals is shallow and self-serving, mostly about making them look important or noble.  A bunny hugger, I was once told, is the sort of person who will yank a fish from a stream and then boast of how they saved it from drowning.

I was once asked by a classmate in college to take a look at her rabbit for her, which was suffering from severe diarrhea.  It turned out that she had been feeding him carrots... and only carrots.  Sure, she knew that there was such thing as rabbit food, but thought that he'd be happier eating carrots.  Maybe he was happier, during the actual act of eating them... but not during the agonizing cramping that came later. 

It also turns out that bunnies really don't like being hugged.  Lots of animals don't, really.  An amazing number of small animals are petted to death by people who think that they are being sweet and loving them, not killing them.

With this in mind, it's easy to see why people in this profession can take the term so negatively.  To be called a bunny hugger is to have your commitment to the animals questioned.  It says that your care for them is skin deep, or that you only care when it's convenient to.  It says that you are more interested in what your animals can do for you (impress your friends, give you affection, entertain you, make you look important) than what you can do for them.  It says that you're unwilling to be the bad cop when you need to - to give an injection, for example, or to cut back on a favorite but unhealthy treat.  Essentially, it says you're a lousy keeper.

Bunny hugging is most commonly seen in new keepers, who haven't quite figured out how committed they are to the job yet.  You learn to recognize them pretty quickly.  They're the ones who take forever to clean an enclosure (and do a poor job of it anyway) because they're too busy taking selfies with the animals.  They are best dropped as soon as possible - they'll either get themselves hurt or quit as soon as the going gets tough, anyway... that or the rest of your team will strangle them for never getting any work done and spending all day talking in infuriating kissy-baby voices to the animals.

Zookeeping is a profession for people who love animals; it really is the only reason to do it (it's certainly not for the money or the glamour).  There is a real difference, however, between loving animals and acting like you love animals.  Actually caring for them means sacrifice, commitment, and a constant drive to learn to do better.  That's what separates keepers from bunny huggers.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Zoo Joke: The Ornithology Exam

Erica's life dream has always been to be a zookeeper, and with that in mind, she enrolled in every animal-related course she could find at her college.  Finally, in senior year, she only had one test left for her final class - Ornithology.

When Erica entered the exam hall, she saw that her usual professor wasn't there.  Instead, there was a stranger at the head of the room.  Behind him was a table with five lumpy shapes, each under a white drop cloth.

"Good morning, class" said the man at the front of the room.  "Professor Douglas couldn't be here today, so she asked me to proctor her exam for you.  Today's test is, as you know, worth thirty percent of your final grade.  You must identify each of these taxidermy mounts of birds.  You have thirty minutes.  Begin."

An awkward silence echoed in the hall for a moment or two, before one student called out, "Ummm... aren't you going to uncover the birds?"

The substitute looked down at his clipboard for a moment, then shook his head.  "There's nothing in the instructions she left me about uncovering them.  You'll just have to do the best you can with what you can see.  Good luck."

Well, Erica tried her best, but no matter how hard she tried, she couldn't make out a single bird.  They were all completely hidden under the sheets, with only the feet visible under the cloth.  One had webbed feet.  Was that a duck?  A loon?  A grebe?  Her grade was on the line, but she was stuck.  So was everyone else.

Well, twenty five minute had passed and no one in the room had gotten a single bird.  Finally, in desperation, Erica pushed out of her desk, grabbed her paper, and marched to the front of the room.  She yanked the cloth off of each of the five birds.  As soon as she did, she recognized them easily.  She wrote them down quickly, as did all of her classmates.  Soon, every student had their test done and in a pile at the front of the room and was hurrying out the door.

Erica was about halfway out of the building when the substitute called after you.  "Hey, you!  You can't do that!  You're in big trouble young lady!  What's your name?"

Erica turned briefly, then lifted one leg up and pulled her pant leg up a few inches.  Pointing at her foot, she called back, "You tell me buddy! You tell me!"  Then she disappeared out the door.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)

Tasmanian Devil
Sarcophilus harrisii (Boitard, 1841)

Range: Tasmania
Habitat: Open Woodland, Eucalyptus Forests
Diet: Carrion, Small Vertebrates, Invertebrates
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Mate January through February, highly promiscuous.  Up to 20 joeys born, but usually a maximum of four will survive due to limited number of teats.  Young emerge from pouch at five months old.  They are weaned and independent at 10 months, sexually mature at two years/.
Lifespan: 5-6 Years (Wild)
Conservation Status: IUCN Endangered


  • Body length 52-80 centimeters, tail length 23-30 centimeters, weight up to 18 kilograms - largest of the living carnivorous marsupials.  Males slightly larger than females
  • Black fur, often with white markings on shoulders, chest, or rump.  Broad head with powerful jaws, sloping hindquarters resembling those of a hyena
  • Nocturnal, spending days denning up in hollow logs or burrows
  • Primarily solitary, but will congregate in large numbers around a carcass, resulting in noisy displays in order to establish dominance, feeding rights
  • Common name bestowed by European settlers due to the chilling screams that the animals give at night while fighting over carcasses
  • Tails are used to store fat; healthy devils will have fat tails.  Beneath the tail are the anal scent glands, used to mark territories
  • While currently found only on Tasmania, it historically occurred on the Australian mainland; it was presumably driven to extinction there by competition with the introduced dingo
  • Historically persecuted as a threat to livestock.  Now legally protected, but threatened by a new, fatal cancer, as well as competition with introduced foxes, road kills
  • Best known in many countries from "Taz" the character from Looney Tunes cartoons

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

From the News: Orangutan upends thinking on speech evolution


In the modern zoo, the emphasis of the mission is on conservation and education.  It's easy to forget that many zoos were devised with an additional purpose in mind - as living research laboratories.  Before field biology - as practiced by Jane Goodall, George Schaller, and other pioneering scientists - developed into what we know today, zoos and aquariums offered researchers their only chance to observe living wild animals.  Today, many zoos and aquariums still carry out research, either through supporting scientists in the field, or in studying their own animals to gain new insights on how to improve captive care.

The research being done at the Indianapolis Zoo with orangutans and speech is an exciting breakthrough.  There's always been lots of discussion on how "human-like" chimpanzees, bonobos, and gorillas can be; orangutans have often been the forgotten, excluded ape.  Perhaps it's because they live alone in the wild, displaying fewer of the social interactions of the other apes that reveal so much of their intelligence.  Hopefully this research (which I can't imagine being done with wild apes in Indonesia) will continue to highlight the intelligence of orangutans and shed light on the origins of human speech. 

It certainly would be nice if it drove up some interest in conserving one of the world's most remarkable (and most threatened) primates before it's too late.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Birds of a Feather

"Excuse me?" came the voice from the opposite side of the railing.  It was high-pitched and barely audible, exactly what you would expect for a five year old girl.  Which, of course, is what I found myself face to face with when I turned around.

"Can I have a feather?" she asked, pointing to the mound of dirt, leaf litter, pine needles, feces, and, yes, a few scraggly pink feathers at my feet.  It was a pretty typical haul of cleaning up after our American flamingo flock.

"Oh, honey, I don't think you want any of these.  They're all icky," I replied, gesturing towards the pile, flies buzzing all around it.  Five seconds later of looking at that face, I was rummaging around in the bushes until I found a clean feather.


I didn't hand it to the little girl, though.  I gave it to her mother - with strict instructions to keep it in her purse or pocket until she got home.  It wouldn't do to advertise that we had a 100% sale on flamingo feathers, and the last thing I needed was to be besieged by kids (and adults - there is one regular visitor we have who uses them to make fishing flies) demanding feathers or, worse, climbing the fence to get them.  It was also for that reason that I only gave a feather to a single, lone child.  If she'd been part of a field trip, or a birthday party - well, pretty soon we'd have either some crying kids or some clean-plucked flamingos.

I'm not really sure why visitors want feathers so often.  The requests tend to swirl around flamingos, parrots, and, most long-suffering of all, our free-ranging peafowl, who sometimes find themselves being chased down by mobs seeking a tail feather (I, in turn, end up chasing the mobs).  I wonder, do the recipients take them home and treasure them, a souvenir of a special day that they recall for years to come?  Or do they stuff it in a pocket, which then goes into the washing machine and disintegrates?

For zoo staff, the answer is clear.  Many keepers I know collect feathers, some of them coming up with especially creative ways to arrange them and display them.  From what I've observed, it's most common among newbies in the field, this drive to collect (feathers, porcupine quills, snake sheds, you name it).  The more time you spend on the job, the more you realize - there will always be more feathers.  Most of them needing to be cleaned up, often.

There are some keepers who do not like giving away feathers, maybe because it's a hassle, or they know they don't have enough for everyone, or they don't like the message it sends.  Some worry about disease transmission - another excellent reason to give the feathers to adults, who tend to be better (not always) about not putting things in their mouths.

When dispensing feathers, it's always important to remind oneself about legality issues.  Many native birds - especially raptors - are protected by federal law, and that includes their feathers.  Bald and golden eagles have especially strict requirements governing their feathers - when zoo eagles die, their entire carcasses are often sent to special depositories, where their feathers, talons, and other body parts can be used for Native American ceremonial purposes.  And it's never okay to remove feathers from a bird's body for anything other than medical or husbandry purposes (such as pulling a blood feather to obtain a DNA sample) - never just to snag a keepsake.

As long as the laws are obeyed and no animals are being harmed, however, I have no objection to sending a little kid (or sometimes a big one) home with a macaw feather, or a peacock tail feather, sometimes taller than they are.  It doesn't hurt the zoo any to dispose of some - we do have a constantly replenishing supply, after all.  Most kids will loose theirs, or toss it away, or forget about.  For others, however, it could be a reminder of a wonderful experience, a day spent in the presence of extraordinary birds (to the extent that there are ordinary birds).  It might just be one of those small moments which changes a child's life for the better.