Search This Blog

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Aquarium Update

Just a quick update to follow up on yesterday's post.  Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies is safe!  Aquarists were able to regain access to the facility and the animals are all safe and well.  The facility is closed to the public at this time... not that I think Gatlinburg is about to be swarmed by tourists for a little while.

In unrelated news, Bei Bei, the giant panda cub at the Smithsonian National Zoo, is recovering nicely after life-saving surgery was necessary to remove a near-fatal blockage of bamboo in his intestines.

All in all, a lot for the zoo and aquarium community to be thankful for as November winds up.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Gatlinburg Aquarium in the Path of Wildfire

Natural disasters pose some of the greatest threats to captive animal collections and those who care for them.  In some cases, there are steps that caretakers can take to reduce the risk to the animals.  During the recent hurricane, for example, many of the Florida zoos bustled their animals into secure shelters, while staff bunked down next to them to provide care during the storm.

That's an option that exists with zoo animals.  It's a heck of a lot harder with aquariums.

Currently, Tennessee if being threatened with a series of wildfires.  Thankfully no human life has been lost so far, but the damage has been extensive, and it isn't over yet.  Among the structures in the path of the flames is Ripley's Aquarium of the Smokies in Gatlinburg, Tennessee.

Aquarium animals can't be evacuated with the ease of zoo animals (to the extent that moving zoo animals is easy).  They are reliant upon their life support systems, and it's not like you can plop a fish in a bucket of water and rush it away to safety.  That and the fact that there are lots of fish...

The staff at the aquarium have been force-evacuated to get them out of harm's way.  The aquarium is outfitted with remote monitoring, allowing staff to ascertain that, as of now, anyway, the building is okay and that power is working - which means that pumps and filters are working.  Rain is reported for the area, so hopefully the fires will be contained and extinguished soon.

Until then, best wishes and thoughts to the Aquarium of the Smokies.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Zoo Joke: The Red Sweater

A keeper is on his first week of the job, still diligently shadowing his new curator, when the call goes over the radio.  A nasty tom turkey is chasing children around the petting barn.  The curator sighs and glances over at the new keeper.  "Do me a favor, will you?  Run into my office - there's a red sweater hanging on a hook by the door.  Would you grab it for me?"

The keeper nods and runs to the curator's office.  He sprints back with the sweater and hands it to the curator, who immediately puts it on.  The curator then proceeds to calmly stroll up to the turkey, grabs it, tucks it under one arm, and carries it off to a holding pen.

A few days later, the new keeper is still working alongside the curator, when the radio sends out another call.  "A child has fallen into the alligator exhibit!"  The curator immediately responds, "I'm on my way!" then tells the new keeper to grab his red sweater and meet him over a the alligator exhibit.  The newbie sprints and makes it to the exhibit just as the curator does.  He passes the sweater to the curator, who pulls it on in a hurry, then jumps into the alligator exhibit.  Carefully sidestepping the alligators, he grabs the frightened child and hurries him to safety.

The next day, the new keeper asks his curator, "What's the red sweater for?"  The curator replies, "I put it on whenever there is a dangerous job to do and I think I might bleed.  That way, visitors don't see me injured and panic."

Well, a few weeks of peace and quiet go by.  By chance, the next time an emergency goes out over the radio, the newbie is standing next to the curator.

"A bulldozer just plowed through an entire section of fencing!" screams the voice on the radio.  Three lions, two tigers, a polar bear, and a cassowary are on the loose!"

The curator nods grimly, then turns to some other keepers who are standing nearby.  "Johnson, go get the gun team ready.  Pat, make up some tranquilizer darts .  Murphy, start getting visitors to safety."  He then turns to the newbie.

"I know, I know, get the red sweater..."

"Well, yeah.  Also, right next to it, there should be a pair of brown trousers..."

Friday, November 25, 2016

The Gobbler's Revenge

Dr. Benjamin Franklin: The turkey is a noble bird. Native American, a source of sustenance to our original settlers, and an incredibly brave fellow who wouldn't flinch from attacking a whole regiment of Englishmen single-handedly! Therefore, the national bird of America is going to be...
John Adams: [insistently] The eagle!
Dr. Benjamin Franklin: The eagle.

- 1776, the Musical

I have a theory, if you'll indulge me for a moment.

My theory is that it's only incidental that humans find turkeys to be delicious.  That had nothing to do with why, thousands of years ago, we started hunting them.  Instead, I suspect it was a matter of self-defense.

Turkeys are some mean-as-hell birds. 

I've taken care of wild turkeys, in a native species exhibit (and have observed them in the wild on several occasions), and I've taken care of their domestic kin in barnyard exhibits.  There are some key differences.  Wild turkeys are sleeker, faster, warier.  Domestics, having been bred for meat, are far more massive and cumbersome.  Domestic turkeys plod along like avian cows.  Wild ones slip in and out of the trees like the feathery dinosaurs they are, all before exploding into rapid flight... something that domestic turkeys are also not likely to do.  

Domestic or wild though, few animals are nastier than a male turkey.  Whenever I see a Presidential Pardon ceremony, where the POTUS shakes the claw of a turkey before sending it off to some petting zoo somewhere, I wonder if the Secret Service agents nearby know how likely it is that they might have to fire on that bird if someone even blinks funny.

There's a reason Papa Franklin wanted the turkey as our national bird.  Eagles are pushovers.  If I'd been an English soldier in 1780's America and I'd seen a regiment of turkeys waiting for me at the top of Bunker Hill, my red uniform pants wouldn't be red for too long.

At one zoo were I worked, we had lots of free-roaming birds in our barnyard.  Chickens, guineafowl, and the obligatory free roaming peafowl.  We tried adding turkeys to the mix.  Soon we had a trail of sobbing, terrified children scattered in the birds' wake, and blood was drawn from keepers before we hastily re-corralled them.  At another zoo, we went in with wolves, alligators, and other predators on a daily basis.  We shifted the turkeys.  Fortunately, turkeys are also pretty stupid, which does make them easy to outwit if you can keep the distance between you.

Turkeys are still fairly awesome animals, even if you get past the meanness.  They join llamas, alpacas, guinea pigs, and the Muscovy duck as being animals that were uniquely domesticated in the New World before Columbus and company showed up (the Native Americas also had dogs).  They were a fixture food-source in the Aztec Empire, and not just for humans; Montezuma II's royal menagerie went through three hundred turkeys A DAY to feed his jaguars, pumas, wolves, and other predators.  The name "turkey" is a mystery in itself, and we're not completely sure how a country in western Asia lent its name to a bird from the New World.  It's possibly that it was just because it sounded exotic - guinea pigs aren't from Guinea, Muscovy ducks aren't from Moscow, and macaws aren't from Macao, after all.

The turkey may have lost out to the bald eagle for the title of national bird, but the two do have one thing in common.  Both are remarkable comeback stories.  Like bald eagles, wild turkeys vanished over much of their range, largely due to overhunting.  Today they've had a remarkable resurgence and can be commonly encountered in many forested areas.  They're tough birds, after all.

As November approaches, it's inevitable that I hear visitors make jokes about Thanksgiving dinner when they see our turkeys.  To which I always want to reply, go ahead, cross that fence.  We'll see who has who for dinner.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Inside an Aquarium Fishery

Although it is a stunningly beautiful fish in its own right, the red lionfish is normally highlighted in public aquariums for two reasons.  One is its venom - and when I was young, that's about all I remember reading about when I checked out the signage.  Today, however, the fish is most commonly highlighted as an example of an invasive marine species.  Its spread is believed to be the result of the tropical fish trade.

Unlike birds and mammals (and to a lesser extent reptiles and amphibians), many captive fish are still sourced from the wild.  This raises environmental concerns, as well as a lot of questions.  What species are being collected?  How are they being collected?  How many is too many?  What is the impact of their removal on the environment?  And, as the lionfish case demonstrates, what is the risk of invasive populations being established outside of the native range?

I recently came across this mini-documentary about Hawaii's aquarium fishery.  It's an interesting insight into how fish are collected for export and sale, and what the environmental and ethical implications are.  To be clear, though, it is produced by commercial interests, so it's hardly an unbiased piece of material.

Monday, November 21, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Red Lionfish (Pterois volitans)

Red Lionfish
Pterois volitans (Linnaeus, 1758)

Range: Indo-Pacific Oceans
Habitat: Coral Reefs
Diet: Crustaceans, Small Fish
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Female releases up to 15,000 eggs for the male to fertilize.  Eggs hatch 36 hours after fertilization, are mobile within four days.
Lifespan:  10 Years
Conservation Status: Not Listed

  • Body length 30-45 centimeters, weigh up to 1.2 kilograms
  • Yellow background color with red or golden-brown bands, dark rows of spots on clear dorsal and anal fins.  During breeding, males turn darker, females paler
  • Several poisonous spines protruding from body - 13 on back, 14 on front fins, 3 on anal fins - serve as the main defense.  Envenomation in humans results in severe pain, possibly including vomiting and difficulties breathing.
  • Primarily nocturnal, use soft rays on dorsal and anal fins to feel in darkness.  Retreated intro crevices during the day
  • Violently territorial, especially during courtship.  Males will bite and try to stab on another with their spines
  • Very popular in the aquarium trade.  Introduced to Florida following aquarium escapes during Hurricane Andrew (1992), introduced population supplemented with intentional releases of unwanted pets, as well as ballast transfers.  Species is now found as far north as New York.  The environmental impact of this introduction is as of yet unknown, though some native predators have been reported to consume lionfish.

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Hunters and the Hunted

"'Maybe he's down hunting the apatosaurs," Grant said.

Regis laughed, his voice tinny over the radio. 'He would if he could, believe me.  Sometimes he stands by the lagoon and stares at those animals, and wiggles those little forearms of his in frustration.  But the T-rex territory is completely enclosed with trenches and fences.  They're disguised from view, but believe me, he can't go anywhere.'"

- Michael Crichton, Jurassic Park

I'm not trying to be morbid, but it's been a source of mild disappointment to me that I've never seen a kill.  Over the course of several safaris, I've seen all five of Africa's great mammalian predators - lion, leopard, cheetah, spotted hyena, and African wild dog - but have never seen them in action.  I always take some solace, however, in the fact that I know very, very few people who ever have.  Some have been purely lucky, others have earned the right as a result of spending months or years in the field, watching and waiting.  All of this, of course, is in complete contrast to Planet Earth, where you see a successful hunt every other scene.

Predation is one of the most fascinating, most obsessed aspects of the animal kingdom... but it's also one of the least observed.

In zoos, the large predators are among the most popular species on display, and they are often exhibited in close proximity to their prey, sometimes even appearing to share a habitat.  At Milwaukee County Zoo, I saw cheetahs and impalas, polar bears and seals, and jaguar and tapir, each in their own panorama of predation.  I've seen similar displays at other zoos around the country.  I know the lion can't cross the moat and get the giraffes on the other side, but it still creates a thrill to see the interaction from across the divide.

Sometimes, however, I've heard visitors express concerns.  Isn't it stressful for the zebras to constantly feel the eyes of the lions upon them?  Isn't it cruel to the lion to have the zebras so close, yet just out of reach?  I recently had a visitor at our zoo ask me who "the joker" was who thought it was a good idea to place the wolves next to the deer.  The way he chuckled, I assume he thought that either we were too dumb to realize the irony (as he saw it) of the display, or that we were just jerks.

I wonder what he would have said if he'd seen what I had that morning - a wolf and a doe, standing directly opposite one another on the separate fence lines of their yards, carefully sniffing one another and looking for all the world like a pair of star-crossed lovers, caught in the act.

The truth is that the animals are smarter than many guests and plenty of keepers give them credit for being.  The predators know they can't catch the prey and don't try.  The prey know the predators won't get them, and soon relax.  Yes, it can make for a few jumpy moments when a new animal is introduced to the set-up.  Towards the end of the day, everyone settles down...mostly.

At one zoo where I worked, spider monkeys were displayed adjacent to ocelot.  Everyone ignored one another completely.  Eventually, the ocelot passed away.  Shortly afterwards, we acquired a new ocelot who moved into the enclosure.  The day they saw that cat for the first time, the monkeys freaked.  They were fine with their old neighbor, but they immediately knew that this cat was different... and they weren't okay with that.  At first, anyway.  After a week of giving the new ocelot the stink eye, the spider monkeys settled back into amicable indifference.

If anything, I think exhibiting the species in proximity does both some good.  The predator is stimulated and engaged by the presence of prey.  The presence of the predator keeps the prey cautious and on its toes.  As long as both species have space to get away from their immediate vicinity, and privacy or visual barriers, it can be a fine set up. 

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Zoo Review: Milwaukee County Zoo

Zoos and aquariums are often described largely in terms of what species they display - of equal or greater importance, however, is the manner in which they are displayed.  Different facilities have, over the years, developed their own signature styles of exhibition - Philadelphia Zoo with its overhead passages, for example, or Louisville Zoo, with its trend-setting rotating exhibits.

Milwaukee County Zoo has its own exhibit-style-claim-to-fame.  It is well-known in the zoo community for its backdrop predator/prey exhibits, where carnivores seem to share an enclosure with herbivores.  It was a technique first developed by the German animal dealer Carl Hagenbeck Jr., but which Milwaukee has taken to extremes - almost all of its large mammals can be seen in these displays.  In one panorama, impala and savannah birds graze a meadow while cheetahs prowl in the background, separated by a hidden moat.  In other, zebra, ostrich, and antelope share a similar scene with lions or spotted hyenas, which rotate on-and-off the yard.  Jaguar stalk alpaca and Baird's tapir, while Amur tigers can be seen behind Bactrian camels.  Interspersed among these displays are habitats for the giants of the zoo - giraffe, hippopotamus, black rhinoceros, Malayan tapir, and African elephant.

More predator/prey drama can be seen in the zoo's spacious North American region, where polar bears and harbor seals seem to share a landscape.  Both species can be observed above or below the surface of the water.  Grassy yards for elk and caribou are nearby, along with rocky dens for black and grizzly bears.  Rounding out the area are a small prairie dog exhibit, a mountain for Dall's sheep, and a beautiful, heavily wooded wolf exhibit.  As far as I was concerned, however, the stars of the area (and possibly the zoo) for the rarely-exhibited moose.  Moose are challenging to keep in captivity and are almost never seen outside of their native range, and it had been fifteen years since I'd seen the only moose I'd ever seen before today.  Apart from the magnificence of the animals, the exhibit - a vast pond with marshy pastures wrapped around it - was perfectly well suited.  The only thing that could have made the scene better for me is if one of the animals in question had been a male with a gorgeous spread of antlers.

The smaller animals of the zoo were distributed in a series of buildings spread across the campus.  The Aviary featured an impressive collection of tropical birds in mixed-species aviaries; highlights for visitors include a walk-through wetland aviary and an Antarctic penguin display, complete with underwater viewing.  Flamingos, screamers, and whooping cranes are found outside.  The exhibits of the Small Mammal House weren't particularly stunning, but the variety of species was, split between diurnal and nocturnal galleries.  Larger primates were found in the Primates of the World/Apes of Africa building (which seemed silly to me... why not just call it "Primates of the World" and be done with it?).  Gorilla, bonobo (the largest troop outside of the Democratic Republic of Congo), orangutan, spider monkey, and other species are featured here (the gorillas and bonobos were off-exhibit on the day I visited, so not too much to report). 

A final animal house was the spectacular Aquatic and Reptile Center.  Normally I'm most interested in the reptiles, and true, the selection was nice.  It was the aquarium portion, however - occupying the central island of the building - which impressed me the most.  Most zoo aquariums are basically Amazon River fishes - and those were here.  The main exhibit at Milwaukee, though, was lake fish of Wisconsin, and as an out-of-stater, it was really cool to see the giant, unusual freshwater fish that call this part of the country home (though I'm sure keepers get tired of visitors making fishing jokes).

Other exhibits around the zoo include an island of Japanese macaques, a small Australia House (red kangaroos, kookaburras, tree kangaroos, and a tank of Great Barrier Reef fish), and a pool of Humboldt penguins.  The Children's Zoo was small, but very unique - taking a twist of the normal domestics-petting-barn, this one is a miniature working dairy, with daily milking demonstrations and ice cream made from zoo milk.

If there is one aspect of the zoo that I noticed more than any other, it was the specter of winter.  An enormous portion of the zoo was indoors, and there were some species which I had never seen indoor exhibits for before coming here.  The pachyderm exhibits, for instance, were butted up against indoor holding areas with large windows, which allowed visitors to see the animals year round.  It also allowed a chance for visitors to see some of the behind-the-scenes care that the animals received; I watched hippo and rhino training on the day when I was there.  The big cats and hyenas also have a winter display building, with adjacent outdoor exhibits for snow leopard and red panda. 

I was a little torn as to how I felt about all of the indoor areas.  On one hand, it's good to plan for bad winters and make sure that animals can be comfortably maintained year round.  It's also good to let visitors get a look at how the animals are maintained; I always get lots of questions about what we do with some of our animals in the winter, and it's wise of Milwaukee (which receives winters far colder than those that my zoo faces) to show visitors what they do.  Still, I had a hard time not wondering if maybe the solution was to invest more on exhibit space for boreal animals - those of North America, Patagonia, and northern Eurasia.  I noticed that many of my favorite exhibits at Milwaukee were of cold-weather animals, perhaps because the zoo was able to focus so much more on outdoor exhibit space than split resources between indoor and outdoor.  The Japanese macaque island, for instance, dazzled me so much more than the indoor habitats in the primate house.

After I returned from Wisconsin, I paged though a 1994 copy of The Zoo Book, Allen Nyhuis' earlier copy of his America's Best Zoos.  I was astonished at one thing - while every other zoo reviewed by Nyhuis is now pretty much unrecognizable from his description over 20 years ago, Milwaukee County is still almost the exact same.  Not necessarily a bad thing, mind you.  The zoo is relatively young, only existing on its current site since 1951, so it reflects a relatively modern animal care philosophy.  Still, much has been learned in the past 60 years, and I'm sure whatever changes come to Milwaukee County Zoo in the future will reflect that evolution.

Monday, November 14, 2016

Send in the Seals

This past Friday was Veterans' Day, a holiday meant to celebrate the nation's armed forces.  Not surprisingly, zookeepers often like to also commemorate the nation's animal veterans, from dogs to horses to pigeons.  There is a long history of animals used in warfare, from Hannibal's elephants to the "bat bombs" contemplated for use against the Japanese in World War II.  The day before Veterans' Day, our nation lost one of its most unique animal enlistees.

Selkie, the oldest gray seal in captivity, passed away at the Smithsonian's National Zoo at the age of 43.  She wasn't the zoo's flashiest animal - easily overshadowed by the more active sea lions next door - but few zoo residents could match her story.  Born in Iceland, she was "recruited" into the US Navy when she was six months old.  Yeah, that's right... she was a Navy Seal.

Which is not to say she was a member of SEAL Team 6 or anything.  Instead, Selkie was trained to retrieve dropped objects, used tools (including screwdrivers), and turn valves.  She was trained alongside her future mate, Gunnar (deceased 2012), with whom she had four pups after her arrival at the zoo.  Two of them - Kara and Kyja - still reside there.

43-Year-Old Seal Passes Away at National Zoo
Photo credit: Smithsonian National Zoological Park

The US Navy no longer employees seals, though dolphins and sea lions are still in use.  Condolences to the staff who were lucky to care for an extraordinary animal with an extraordinary story.  I'm glad that they were able to share it with the world.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

A Moment of Tao

One of my favorite web groups is "The Tao of Zookeeping", a collection of humorous one-liners of semi-inspirational zookeeping wisdom.  Yesterday, however, I read this.  I then spent the next several minutes trying too hard to convince everyone else in the room that I'd just be chopping onions (which we don't even have), and that's what was up with my eyes...

"Our animals don't care about the stock market, they don't care about who won the World Series, and they most certainly don't care about who won the election. The important thing is that we are there for them no matter what. And maybe more importantly, they are always there for us."

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

The Politics of Extinction

About half of all American adults woke up this morning in a severely bad mood.  I was one of them. 

There were lots of things to worry about Wednesday morning.  The future of the Affordable Care Act.  Voting rights.  The situation in the Middle East.  Everyone who voted had something they were concerned about, whether or not their candidate won.  Lots of things to worry about... among them red wolves.

I don't live in North Carolina, but I follow its politics very closely.  That's because it is politics, not science, which often influences the fates of endangered species.  I was hoping that new leadership would result in an administration that was more favorable to the future efforts to conserve red wolves in the wild.  That hope, it seems, has come to naught (as of this moment, the race is uncalled, but given all else that's happened, I'm a pessimist).

The current administration in North Carolina is decidedly unfriendly to red wolves.  They've put pressure on the US Fish and Wildlife Service to end reintroduction efforts and have made clear their position that wolves have no place in their state.  This has been driven in part by complaints from some local landowners, but even more largely by anti-government sentiment.  The wolves are with the government, therefore, must be bad, the philosophy goes.

The same story has played out, with various themes, in the case of the California condor, the black-footed ferret, the whooping crane, and the snail darter.  Politics.  It plays into decisions as to whether or not grizzly bears, gray wolves, or sage grouse belong on the Endangered Species list or not, or what exactly counts as critical habitat.  It colors conversations about trophy hunting and sustainable yield.  It determines if and where oil drilling is allowed... and that's not even touching the elephant in the environmental room - what is our commitment to fighting climate change.

It determines also where tax dollars get spent - and don't.  It's worth noting that the last time we had a Republican in the White House, the newly appointed Secretary of the Smithsonian attempted to close the Smithsonian's Conservation Biology Institute, an integral component of efforts to save many endangered species through captive breeding.  His argument?  The facility is closed to the public, so what's the point of having it?

Conservation biology is the science of species and their future.  Politics is the science of people.

Whenever I see politics injected into online zookeeping conversations or email threads, it tends to get squashed out immediately.  They say politics has no place in zoos.  I disagree.  As long as zoos and aquariums are in the conservation field, then it has everything to do with them.

Monday, November 7, 2016

From the News: Drought prompts Tennessee Aquarium to launch rescue of endangered Barrens Topminnows

So much of the focus on zoos and aquariums is on the big, glamorous, and often exotic species, it can be hard to remember that some of the most important conservation work involves the small, the obscure, and the native.  The Barrens Topminnow is three for three on that count. 

Something that I feel is worth pointing out here - the Tennessee Aquarium is able to help the topminnow because it has what many other conservation organizations - apart from zoos, aquariums, and related institutions - lack: experience and expertise in maintaining and breeding species under human care.  Greenpeace does not.  Human Society does not.  PETA sure as heck doesn't.  Which isn't to say that those organizations (even PETA) don't have a role to play in making a better future for animals.  It's simply that sometimes you need the skills that only zoos, aquariums, et al possess. 

Aquariums may have had their origins simply in the faddish curiosity of putting fish in little glass boxes to watch, until they died a few days later from improper but well-meaning care.  They've evolved since then.  The work demonstrated by the Tennessee Aquarium shows that we should be grateful that they have.  The survival of many species, not just the topminnow, may depend upon it.

Close up of a Barrens Topminnow on display at the Tennessee Aquarium. (Image: Tennessee Aquarium)

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Puerto Rican Crested Toad (Peltophryne lemur)

Puerto Rican Crested Toad
Peltophryne lemur (Cope, 1869)

Range: Puerto Rico
Habitat: Limestone Karst (Pools in Rock Formations)
Diet: Snails, Beetles, Ants
Social Grouping: Seasonal Breeding Congregations
Reproduction: Breed during rains in temporary pools.  Females lay up to 15,000 eggs in long, black strings.  Eggs hatch within 24 hours and complete metamorphosis from tadpole to toadlet in 18-25 days.
Lifespan: 10 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Critically Endangered

  • Body length 6-12 centimeters, 50-150 grams.  Females larger than males
  • Textured, pebbled skin is olive-green in males, duller brown in females.   Creamy stomach.  Eyes are striking, marbled gold.  Snout is slightly upturned; crest above eyes
  • Nocturnal, spend their days in fissures of the limestone, seldom seen out and about outside of the breeding season
  • Thought to be extinct until 1967, when a small population was rediscovered in Isabella in northern Puerto Rico; later rediscovered in a second site
  • Toads are coaxed out of hiding places by rainfall, with the heavier the rains, the more toads emerging; heavy rains can attract toads from up to 3 kilometers away to breeding pools
  • Only toad species native to Puerto Rico; endangered by habitat loss due to agriculture and development, as well as predation/competition from invasive species, such as cane toads, mongooses, dogs, and cats
  • Captive breeding and reintroduction program began in 1982, now taking place at three sites around the island
  • First amphibian species managed as a Species Survival Plan by the AZA

Saturday, November 5, 2016

It's the Great Pumpkin!

Too often these days, it seems that the moment Halloween is over, it immediately becomes Christmas time.  Hanging ghosts come down from neighborhood trees and are replaced by Christmas lights and stores stop playing "Monster Mash" and begin endlessly looping Christmas carols. 

Except at zoos.  Here, Halloween tends to stick around for a few days longer.  That's because the local zoo is often a welcome repository for that most perishable of Halloween symbols - pumpkins.

Animals of all sizes and all types love pumpkins.  For some, they are tasty treats.  For others, they are hollowed-out toys where treats can be hidden inside.  For others, they're just something fun to smash.  And for some, it's all of the above... except for the inevitable few who are terrified of them.

Elephants stomp pumpkins into mush.  Hippos crush them in their massive jaws.  Bears shred them to pieces with their claws.  Parrots demolish them with their beaks.  Apes carry them up high and drop them.  At the end of the day, there are very few pumpkins which retain their original shape.  There's also quite a mess the next day, between the pulverized pumpkins and the alarmingly orange poop.

That's okay, though.  It's almost a pleasure to clean up a mess that's so much fun to make.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

10 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Zoos, by Mark Mancini

Zoos are a constantly evolving workplace. Over the past 50 years, exhibits have gotten increasingly naturalistic, diets for certain species have become more standardized, and captive breeding programs have turned into nationwide campaigns. Yet if one thing’s remained constant, it’s the fact that keeping the animals in our zoos both happy and healthy requires a great deal of time, coordination, expense, and old-fashioned willpower. It’s not an easy job, but most zookeepers say they wouldn’t trade it for the world.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Ghosts of Zoos Past

I hate to admit it, but I don't especially like ghost tours.  It's not that I scare too easily - I mean, the whole point of them is that you go on them wanting something scary... and that's the problem.  I just don't find them scary.  I've been on half a dozen of them, and only one was creepy enough to make me stay up even a little that night. 

The last ghost tour I was on abandoned any attempt to be frightening early on, and instead just went philosophical.  The tour guide (herself an author of books on the paranormal) had us stopped outside a fire station, and was waxing about how, in her experience, every single firehouse in America was haunted to at least some extent.  Partially, she said, it was due to the close personal bonds between those who work there, partially it was due to the life-and-death nature of the work that goes on there.  The same, she said, was also true to hospitals.

Well, I didn't get a single sufficiently scary story on that tour... but I did get an interesting idea.  Wouldn't that also make zoos a likely haunted destination?

I mean, think about it.  Zookeepers and aquarists are very tightly-knit, spending lots of time together and becoming very close.  Plus, zoos and aquariums are filled with life and death, sometimes rather morbidly.  That's not to suggest that every single Egyptian spiny mouse in your zoo's history has a shade that wanders the zoo at night (draped in tiny chains and squeaking "Scrooooge... Scroooooge....", perhaps), but elephants?  Bears?  Great apes?  I'm positive that someone, somewhere, is claiming that the ghost of Harambe is already hovering over Cincinnati.

And that's just the animals.  At least once a year, a keeper is killed in the line of duty, and their deaths tend to be... dramatic.  In even rarer occasions, visitors have been killed, almost always by entering an enclosure where they didn't belong, quite often at night when the zoo is closed.  I can't really imagine any keeper deliberately turning a colleague's tragic death into a scary story... but I can see a keeper, working in an enclosure where a friend met his or her death (possibly with the animal involved still present) could have a hard time not feeling a shiver up their spine.

Recently, I saw a thread on Facebook of zookeepers asked if they'd ever heard of their zoo being haunted.  Some of the responses included:
  • The ghost of a Hawaiian warrior, appearing in photos taken at the Honolulu Zoo
  • Civil war soldiers trooping through the Riverbanks Zoo (itself the site of combat during Sherman's March to the Sea)
  • Houston Zoo is supposedly haunted by the ghost of one of its former keepers
  • The ghost of an antelope seen reclining in its favorite spot in the barn... weeks after it had died
  • The ghost of a leopard, growling in the dark and making sounds as it climbed through its (now empty) enclosure
There's also the usual assortment of "Is-someone-up-there?" creaks and doors closing by themselves and lights winking on or off, or whatever else happen when you're working in old barns and buildings that aren't maintained super-well over the years.  Many zookeepers report eerie feelings in the older areas of their zoo, especially if that part is now no longer used (Maryland Zoo, for instance, has an entire section of the facility - the original zoo, actually - which is now closed and, I can attest, creepy as hell after hours).

Zoo hauntings extend across the globe, as well.  One of the most famous examples is the specter of a bear that has been seen prowling the Tower of London, once home to England's royal menagerie.

I've never encountered anything especially supernatural working at a zoo, but I can easily understand how people could get that feeling, especially when working late into the evening.  Working at a zoo, it's impossible to shake the feeling that something is watching you... because something always is.