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Friday, December 30, 2016

Animal Planet's The Zoo, Coming February 2017

It's probably not that surprising, but as a kid, I loved watching Animal Planet.  I idolized Steve Irwin and wanted to be him (but, not being able to pull off a decent accent, I would have settled for Jeff Corwin).  When the new version of Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom debuted, I watched every episode.  I loved Big Cat Diaries.  Hell, I even (secretly) liked that stupid Animal Face-Off show.

Then came my college years, followed by early-adult life.  I didn't have time for TV.  When I finally got to a point in life where I could reconnect with Animal Planet, I was horrified.  I hated it.

It's not that my tastes changed - I still kind of want to be Steve Irwin.  It's that Animal Planet changed.  The program kind of stopped being about animals.  When they made their slogan "Surprisingly Human", that should have set off all kinds of red flags.

Which is why I'm super thrilled to see the previews for the upcoming show "The Zoo", a behind-the-scenes docuseries based at the Bronx Zoo.  Based on the trailer, it looks like it's going to be a fascinating glimpse at life at one of the world's biggest, most renown zoos.

Of course, one kick-butt series only goes part of the way to making up for several years of atrociously bad programing (I'm looking at you, Pitbulls and Parolees).  But it's a start.


Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Reflections on a Christmas Not Worked

It was a weird year.  For the first time since I graduated from college, I slept in on December 25th.  And not just because the zoo was closed and I could come in and do my rounds whenever I felt like it.  Because I wasn't there.  It was the first year in my adult life when I did not work Christmas Day.

It's hard to describe the feeling I had as I lay in bed - the sun already shining - on Sunday morning.  There was certainly more than a tinge of guilt that I wasn't out there racing through the zoo, trying to strike that balance between doing the job well and doing it quickly.  There was maybe a little bit of pride that I'd finally achieved enough seniority to score a major holiday off.  There was also something a little akin to regret... regret that today might be an adventure that I was missing out on with some very good friends.

To understand, I'll have to take you back a decade or so to my first Christmas as a zookeeper.

I was far away from home - far enough, certainly, that going to see my family after work wasn't an option, especially since I was working the next day as well.  I was at the bottom of the pecking order at work, so I was one of the few keepers in that day at our small zoo, working  a huge chunk of the zoo that mixed the primates and carnivores, the birds and small mammals (the reptile keepers, using typical foresight, fed their charges the day before, topped off the waters, and told us to call them if there was an emergency... the smug bastards).

With great skillful skill and great speedy speed, my partner and I knocked our rounds out to the best of our ability in record time.  It wasn't the best job ever, but everyone was warm, fed, watered, and comfy enough to make do until the next day.

That's when we got the call from the hoofstock keepers.  Everything was going wrong in their section.  A sick animal.  Broken fences.  A truck that wouldn't start.  Would we mind...?

I should mention, at this point, that this was not what you would call a White Christmas.  It was a gray, bitterly cold one, with freezing rain drizzling down on us.  Of course we minded.  But of course we helped.


We spent the next two hours working the unfamiliar hoofstock run.  My already frozen hands were cut with baling twine as I hauled hay around the zoo.  We ran through the rain to fill grain feeders before our buckets of feed were soaked.  We pushed sodden wheelbarrows along dirt trails to dump (whenever an exhibit generates that much poop, you can't let it pile up).  All in all, we busted our butts.

After work, I went back to the apartment and showered.  Then, many of us holiday orphans congregated at the home of a fellow keeper.  All of us were newer keepers, so none of us knew each other particularly well.  We made a Christmas dinner that, while by no means extraordinary compared to what we would have had at home, was that much more satisfying based on the day we had.  There were no gifts exchanged.  There were no carols.  No stockings.  We all still smelled vaguely like pee.  Everyone hurt somewhere.  Everyone knew they had to work tomorrow.

We still had a fantastic Christmas.  Part of it was the satisfaction that we'd made it through such a crazy day, one that retrospect would turn from hellish to amazing.  Part of it, however, was knowing that we'd found a place in our chosen profession, and were sharing it with people like us.  It was a realization that, even if we were all far from home, that a band of keepers can become its own family.

Now that band doesn't last forever.  Of the four of us, none are still at that same zoo.  One keeper was fired.  Our host quit the profession all together.  Another keeper got married and moved away.  I drifted off to another zoo.  But as I moved from place to place, other keepers filled that void, and each Christmas, I've forged another link with another surrogate family.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

From the News: Grace Mugabe pays military debt to China with 35 elephant calves

Grace Mugabe pays military debt to China with 35 elephant calves

Grace Mugabe, 51, has made no secret of her desire to succeed her husband as president
PHILIMON BULAWAYO/REUTERS

Now I'm all for international animal exchanges - when done legally in accordance with CITES and with the best interest of the animals at heart - but this is pretty ridiculous.  And the rumors of starting an ivory farm?  That's exactly what elephants need right now.  This seems like a cheap political poly, and it's scams like this that give the zoo and aquarium community a bad name.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Night Before Christmas

It's not December 24th without someone making a Christmas-zoo parody.  This year's clever take is by Erik Heinonen:


'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a Mus musculus.
The children were crashed all spread on their beds,
Dreaming of Kratt Brothers and their sifaka friend.
I'd fed the cat and the fish and changed into my night clothes,
Ready to watched Zookeeper Rick on all the late night talk shows.
When out in the skies their arouse such a sound,
I jumped out of bed to see what was going down.
I ran to the window, quickly mind you,
Threw open the curtains and pulled by the blinds
When what to my wondering eyes should appear,
But a golf cart pulled by 0.8 Rangifer tarandus.
With a cute little driver so tan and so strong,
I knew in a moment she must be... a zookeeper?
Those caribou flew quick leaving a trail of hot flame,
And the zoo lady whistled and clicked and called them by name,
"On Colo, on Nola, on  Masala, on Candy,
On Temu, on Dee, on Rika, on Spazzy McGee!
Hurry up, find your station, be calm and don't fight,
The boss hasn't authorized OT tonight."
So onto the roof these Artiodactyls they slammed,
And behind them a golf cart full of toys and a zookeeper crammed.
And then on the roof I could hear the click clack,
When ungulate leg sinews pop, snap, and crack.
I made for the stairs and round the corner I racedm=,
Just as that keeper popped from the fireplace.
She was dressed in a shirt that was made for a fellow,
And khaki pants with hay pieces and stains of brown-yellow.
In her hands were a broom, a rake, and a hose;
What she planned to use them on, nobody knows.
Her eyes showed the enthusiasm needed to save species,
And her mouth hummed that Taylor Swift song the radio plays at least ten freakin' times a day
(Really? Give it a rest already.)
Her hair was pulled up in a ponytail, which hung through a cap in a line,
And her belt, for some reason, was just baling twine
She was tired from spending the day scrubbing and mopping
And I felt bad that she'd worked Christmas Eve while I'd been shopping.
With a nod and an eye roll I knew she had to be quick,
Because on his busiest day Santa Claus had called in sick.
She need not say anything, but got right to the job,
Of gifting out Leathermans, new boots, and key fobs.
And just like that in a second she took off up the chimney,
Climbing as fast as a Diana monkey. 
She climbed back in the cart and gave the sD,
And the reindeer took off, fast as can be.
And I heard her exclaim, as she drove out of sight,
"Let's get this show on the road, I can't believe I've got to be at work in three hours!"

Friday, December 23, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Japanese Macaque (Macaca fuscata)

Japanese Macaque (Snow Monkey)
Macaca fuscata (Blyth, 1875)

Range: Japan
Habitat: Forests (Sub-Tropical to Sub-Alpine)
Diet: Leaves, Fruits, Berries, Seeds, Small Animals, Insects, Fungi
Social Grouping: Troops of About 40
Reproduction: Breeding usually takes place between September and March.  Females will mate with several males each breeding season.  Single infant (occasionally twins) born after 170 day gestation period).  Infants are carried until they are 1 year old.  Females sexually mature at 3.5 years old, males at 4.5 years old. 
Lifespan: 30 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern, CITES Appendix II


  • Body length 47-60 centimeters, tail 7-12 centimeters long.  Weight 8-11 kilograms, males larger than females
  • Long, dense fur is brown to gray in color.  Face and rump are naked, and skin is bright bred
  • Live further north than any other primate, excluding humans, capable of withstanding temperatures of negative fifteen degrees Celsius
  • Macaques may escape extreme cold by soaking in natural hot springs
  • Spend most of their time on the ground, though females are more arboreal than males
  • Troops consist of a group of related females.  Female offspring stay in the troop for life, inheriting the rank of their mother.  Male offspring disperse into other troops.  A strict dominance hierarchy controls access to food and mates
  • Juveniles may be preyed upon by hawk eagles or raccoon dogs; the only natural predator of adults was the Japanese wolf, now extinct
  • A small introduced population of Japanese macaques is found in Texas
  • Not considered endangered, but sometimes killed as an agricultural pest.  It's possible that provisioning troops with food to promote tourism has lead to population increases that are unsustainable, leading to more crop raiding in recent years.
  • Two subspecies - the nominate, and the Yakushima macaque (M. f. yakui), which differs from the others in being smaller and stockier with black hands and feet

Zookeeper's Journal: To visitors, the sight of monkeys lounging or playing in the snow is a surprising one, but it's what Japanese macaques (often known as "snow monkeys" to visitors) do best!  The ability of these macaques to thrive in outdoor environments year-round has made them a hugely popular species for North American zoos, especially those in northern states.  Even more interesting than their cold-hardiness, however, is the degree to what they show what could be described as culture.  Macaques are constantly exploring and making discoveries, which are then passed on to other macaques, even after the original discoverer is dead and gone.  One famous example - a young female in Japan who lived by the sea discovered that her food tasted better after dipping it in salt water.  Soon, almost every other monkey in her troop was seasoning their own food with sea salt!


Wednesday, December 21, 2016

The Winter Shuffle

Today marks the first day of Winter 2016 which is usually a pretty lousy day of the year for me.  I can't stand the cold, and the prospect of three months of being cold makes me fairly miserable.  Furthermore, with it the cold brings a near endless to-do list.  Put up heat lamps and wind breaks.  Check on faucets and spigots and pipes to make sure they aren't freezing.  Prepare to battle the exodus of pests that will suddenly find themselves with no other food options than raiding your animals' dishes.

And, perhaps the most stressful of all, the Winter Shuffle.

As temperatures drop, different zoo animals find themselves less at-home in their own enclosures, and some simply can't stay outside any more.  For some animals, their exhibit comes equipped with a holding building.  In some cases, these buildings are outfitted with viewing windows or have visitor access and become winter exhibits for the animals.  In most cases, the animal is off-exhibit for the winter.  I love these building set-ups - they give a keeper the option of allowing the animal to have outdoor access on the nice days that occasionally crop up throughout even the coldest of winters.

Other animals, however, especially smaller ones that are displayed outdoors, often don't have their own buildings.  In these cases, the animal has to be caught up and moved, either to an indoor holding area or to an outdoor exhibit with better heat and shelter options.  Sometimes Animal A is moved inside for the winter, and Animal B is moved into Animal A's original enclosure, sometimes in association with Animals C and D.  During an exceptionally bad winter - which it seems we have more and more of lately - we find ourselves in the position of having to bring in animals that we customarily left outside all year - often on very short notice.

The shuffle - the annual catch up and move around - is one fraught with challenge.  Catching up animals always leads to the potential for injury (to animal or to keeper).  At the least, it often is a source of considerable stress (to animal or to keeper).  Whenever animals are in transit away from their enclosure, there's the risk of escape - I once was carrying an owl across the zoo when the transport crate literally fell apart.  I spent the next three hours sitting in an extremely prickly tree, coaxing the owl within net-reach.  There's also increased risk of escape when the animal is moved into its new enclosure.  The exhibit, after all, is meant to contain Animal A, not B.

Even if you move the animal, it may not thrive in its new enclosure.  You might move a bird into a winter outdoor exhibit with lots of heat lamps and nest boxes... only for it to refuse to use any of them, sitting out like a fool on a subzero morning.  Then you might have to resign yourself to moving it... again... this time indoors.

In the future, I'm trying to plan any new exhibit to have attached winter holding, so animals can be shepherded in easily and stress-free on the cold nights and given access on all others.  I'm also trying to retro-fit many of our current exhibits with winter holding - limited in what one can do, of course, but better than what the animals had.  Still, doing so takes time and money.  Every spring, my coworkers and I swear that we'll spend the next few months really getting the zoo ready for winter.

Then December comes, we realize we've done nothing, and out come the extension cords, the heat lamps, and the capture nets.

Monday, December 19, 2016

River Horse Renaissance

"I have seen the hippopotamus, both asleep and awake; and I can assure you that, awake or asleep, he is the ugliest of the works of God."

- Thomas Babington Macaulay

Without knowing anything else about him, I've decided Thomas Babington Macaulay was a jerk.

Both for work and for pleasure, I visit many zoos and aquariums.  On an average year I visit about ten institutions, whether its traveling for a conference, going to pick up or drop off an animal, or just out on vacation.  A few years back, I'd visited three zoos in a row for work, and at each had a keeper point out to me, "That used to be the hippo exhibit."  It was after the third zoo that it had hit me - I hadn't seen a hippopotamus is almost a decade.

The gradual disappearance of hippos from American zoo collections was the subject of one of my first blog posts.  It affected me more so than it would your average visitor, because hippos have always ranked high on the list of my favorite animals.  In a career spent with zoos and aquariums, however, having worked with species as varied as tigers and rhinos to sharks and salamanders, I have never worked with hippos.  Nor have I ever encountered on behind-the-scenes.  Watching as hippos disappeared from more and more zoos, I began to suspect I never would.


I tried playing the academic and came up with various theories as to why the hippos were disappearing.  Competition with elephants... expensive of filtration... underwater viewing... non-endangered status... lack of public interest.  All seemed plausible enough.  But none explain what I'm seeing now.

The hippos are coming back.  In a big way.

This summer, Cincinnati Zoo unveiled it's 7.5 MILLION dollar Hippo Cove, completing its African trail with a new habitat featuring underwater viewing of the giant mammals.  The Memphis Zoo, which has a long and proud history of breeding hippos, just opened Zambezi River Hippo Camp, where two hippo exhibits can be seen along a trail that also features Nile crocodiles, lesser flamingos, okapis, patas monkeys, and more.  Next year, the Dallas Zoo hopes to unveil its $13.5 million dollar (yes, almost twice as much as Cincinnati) Simmons Hippo Outpost, a 3.5 acre exhibit - that's the kind of space and money that it would have been absurd to think of being spent on hippos a few years ago.  Fresno Zoo has announced a new hippo habitat, and the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo is announcing that they will be replacing and expanding their hippo exhibit, instead of simply shipping the beasts out, which was the trend a few years ago.


What explains the comeback?  I have no idea.  It's long been noted that zoos are faddish - when an exhibit becomes popular at one facility, it tends to be copied quickly.  Lorikeet aviaries, naked mole rat colonies, stingray touch tanks, penguin parades...  But the thing is, hippos are hardly a "new" thing.

Zoos that have exhibits that highlight hippos - especially their underwater antics - have long known that they can be immensely popular animals.  When I broke my hippo-drought, it was at the Toledo Zoo, the first zoo to exhibit hippos with underwater viewing, which in many ways put the zoo on the map (literally, too, in a sense - the zoo's street address is on Hippo Way).  Underwater viewing allows visitors to get inches away from an animal that can dwarf a pickup truck - an experience that you aren't likely to get at a rhino or elephant exhibit.  And watching something that big twirl underwater in such a seemingly weightless fashion is incredible.

While poking around and getting some stats for this post, I did make one special discovery.  Los Angeles Zoo is now offering hippo encounters, where visitors can (for a fee) get extra close and personal to the zoo's hippos.  So if you'll excuse me, I'm off to Expedia.  When I get back, I'm sure I can cook up some fancy hippo exhibit blueprints to show my director. 

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Polar Service Announcement

I'm very excited to get back to Lincoln Park Zoo in the near future to check out the new penguin and polar bear exhibits.  I would, however, like to take this opportunity to point out one little tidbit, which I feel the zoo may be muddling by placing these two habitats side by side.

Penguins live south of the equator, most famously in the Antarctic, but also in Africa, Australia, and South America, in the later approaching as far north as the Galapagos Islands.  They do not live at the North Pole.

Polar bears live in the Arctic.  They are found in Alaska, Canada, Greenland, Norway, and Russia.  They go no further south, outside of zoos.

Penguins and polar bears do not coexist in the wild.  The Coca-Cola commercials are lying to you.  That is all.  This Holiday buzz-kill brought to you by The Zoo Review.

Oh, and Santa's reindeer are all girls.  Yes, even Rudolph.  Accept flying caribou if you must, but know that male reindeer lose their antlers by December 24th every year.

Gary Larson of The Far Side always prided himself on his accuracy.  He's said that this cartoon is one of his biggest regrets.  Still funny, though

Friday, December 16, 2016

Zoo Review Updates

Last December, I decided that instead of reviewing a new zoo or aquarium, I would give updates on what has changed at some of the facilities I’ve already visited.  Another year has passed, so I thought it would be a good time to give another overview of what’s changed at those facilities.

The Cape May County Zoo has opened a new snow leopard habitat, the latest in a series of new cat habitats at the zoo.  New enclosures for small primates are next on the zoo’s plan.

Following the opening of the award-winning Penguin Coast, the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore is taking things slow.  At the time of my last visit, a bobcat exhibit was under construction in the zoo’s Maryland Wilderness/Children’s Zoo area.

Across town, the National Aquarium in Baltimore made waves earlier this year with its announcement that it would be sending its dolphins to a sanctuary in the Caribbean (yet to be built).  No word yet on what the aquarium will replace the hugely popular exhibit with.

Salisbury Zoo suffered some major flooding, but isn’t letting that hold back the construction of several new exhibits.  Discover Australia (home to wallabies and Australian birds) and a new reptile house are slated to open in 2017.

Last year, I expressed my deep disappointment that the Smithsonian National Zoo had shuttered its excellent Invertebrate House.  Spineless wonders are making a comeback at the zoo, however, as a new coral lab has opened up in the zoo’s Amazonia building.  The zoo is also raising funds for an additional aquatic exhibit, this one highlighting electric eels.  Outside of pandas, the big news at the zoo is the closure of the historic bird house as its prepares for renovation and reopening as Experience: Migration, a migration-themed bird display.

Virginia Zoo faded out on iconic African species – elephants – but gained another – cheetahs.  The zoo also reopened a renovated Farm Yard, complete with a rodent house.  This year, Norfolk also unveiled its plans to completely renovate its reptile house, with underwater viewing of crocodilians as the star exhibit.

Mill Mountain Zoo lost its AZA accreditation, not through any animal care issues at the facility, but rather because of its precarious finances.  Fortunately, the community is rallying around the zoo, and there is pressure on the City of Roanoke to give the zoo some stronger support.

Riverbanks Zoo unveiled a new exhibit for sea lions and seals, complete with underwater viewing.

At the time of my most recent visit, Milwaukee County Zoo had a new North American River Otter exhibit under construction.  The zoo is also preparing for a much larger habitat for its elephants.  To my disappointment, the new exhibit is slated to be on the site of two of Milwaukee’s finest exhibits – its moose and wolf displays (I mean, you can see elephants in more places than you can moose).

Lincoln Park Zoo opened up its new Robert and Mayari Pritzker Penguin Cove.  Located just outside of Regenstein African Journey, the new habitat for African penguins allows the birds to be viewed above or below the water, or as they build nest burrows on the shoreline.  If that wasn't enough, the brand new Walter Family Arctic Tundra just opened up, bringing polar bears (well, so far in the singular) back to the zoo.  The two part habitat features two pools for diving, an ice cave, and a grassy meadow (which I really approve of - too many zoo polar bear exhibits are just concrete and water).  Next on the zoo's list is a renovation of its historic Kovler Lion House.  The tiger exhibit will be phased out and reincorporated into a new, expanded lion habitat.
I wasn't at Lincoln Park early enough this year to catch the new penguin or polar bear exhibits, but I did get my first look at the extraordinary Regenstein Macaque Forest, which opened last year.

Cleveland Metroparks Zoo opened a new habitat for Amur tigers on its Northern Trek.  The new habitat provides several times the space of the old one, and allows visitors to observe the world's biggest cats from a variety of vantage points, including the chance to watch the tigers utilize overhead shift tunnels.

It’s been a rough year for Cincinnati Zoo, but that didn’t stop the zoo from unveiling a long-awaited new hippopotamus exhibit, one of several new hippo habitats popping up around the country.



Perhaps the biggest zoo exhibit of the year is the news Plains of Africa at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo.  Everything Henry Doorly does, they do huge, and this is no exception.  African elephants, white rhinos, giraffes, and impalas roam grassland yards, with lions and cheetahs nearby.  The elephants in question are part of the controversial import of animals slated to be culled in Swaziland earlier this year, and seem to be adjusting well to life in America.  The new lion exhibit is a first step towards the complete renovation of the zoo's outdated Cat Complex.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Bad-Ass Bambi


Sadly, many visitors consider ungulates to be uninteresting, and few have a less-exciting reputation than the deer and antelope (which, in the eyes of the average visitor, are all deer).  These are the animals that the guests tend to stream by without much of a glance.  Which is sad, really.  For one thing, the hoofstock are almost always, without exception, "on" - awake, alert, in sight, and doing something... even if it's just grazing, or chewing a cud.  Secondly, once you get to know them, you'll often find that they can have just as much character, as much charisma, and much spunk as any of the carnivores or primates.

To illustrate that fact, I'll tell the story of one gazelle I used to work with.  His name has been changed, so let's just call him what most of the visitors did - Bambi.

Bambi was probably the single most overlooked animal in the zoo.  At the time I worked with him, he was the only antelope in the entire zoo, though he carried the standard for his tribe nobly.  Barely two feet at the shoulder, he had a plump little sandy body propped up with anorexic thin legs.  His graceful neck held up an impish face, with a small flap of skin on the tip of his nose.  When excited, this flap puffed up like a balloon until it was the size of a tennis ball.  At the top of his hand was a tiny pair of neat, small sharp horns.   Guests rarely saw him; when he was in the yard, he preferred to lie on a dirt heap, where he blended in perfectly against the sand.  He never called attention to himself, and he never made a show for the guests. 

Those first glances were deceiving.  Bambi was a bad ass.


He may have been tiny, but every ounce of Bambi petite frame was crammed with attitude, until he was one fearless, dangerously confident little antelope.  He delighted in racing along the fence line, tormenting the cheetahs and the wolves that flanked his exhibit, practically chanting, “Neener, neener, neener, you can’t catch me!” 

Bambi was under the impression that all things in this world fell under two categories – food and sparing partners.  After I'd been working with him for a few weeks, the zoo acquired two female oryx - massive antelopes, each the size of a small horse, which the zoo decided to try and house with Bambi.  The little gazelle instantly tried to herd and dominate the females.  They promptly kicked his ass. After an unsuccessful attempt or two at introduction, it was decided that they would have to be rotated through the yard; oryx in the afternoon, gazelle in the morning.  To be clear, the oryx never started the fights.  Bambi just wouldn't leave them alone.

Refusing to learn his lesson, the pint-sized gazelle would continue to challenge the oryx (and, later, zebras) through the fencing of their holding yards.  I had a hard time imaging Bambi backing down to a lion, or an elephant, for that matter.  A log or a ball left in his yard was seen as a deadly rival for supremacy of the yard, and was immediately challenged.  On more then one occasion, we found him with an entire flake of timothy hay or alfalfa impaled on his horns, shaking to get the wisps of hay from his eyes, and we knew that he had successfully vanquished his enemy.  During the winter, for enrichment purposes (ours and his), we made Bambi a snowman (err… snow gazelle) to challenge.  He slaughtered it in no time

It was plain where keepers stood in Bambi's two category view of the universe.  Bambi had shared his yard with a pair of crowned cranes; when one of the birds had died, the other had become lonely and bored.  Seeking to fix the situation, the keepers had installed a mirror in the yard, so the bird would have someone else to “talk” to.  It worked marvelously, and the bird spent hours preening and honking and resting with her new found friend.  One day, when cleaning the yard, I glanced up at the mirror for no particular reason.  There, in the reflection, was Bambi, a full fifteen feet behind me, pawing the ground and shaking his little head for the charge.  I spun around, only to find him staring with the look of martyred innocence, as if there was no idea farther from his mind than ramming his horns into the dumb kid who cleaned his yard.    From that day on, whenever I entered his domain, he would slip up behind me, stalking like a big cat.  If I’d turn around, he’d freeze, and then pretend to graze or to take a nap… not only fearless, but crafty. The doe eyes didn’t fool anyone.
I made a habit of not turning my back on Bambi while I was in the yard.

Bambi was quite elderly when I met him, hence the reason for his being alone.  He was the last of his herd at the zoo, and the keepers felt he was too old to stress and ship to another facility for company.  He decided to spite them, of course, by living damn near forever.  Bambi has since gone to his eternal reward (whatever that may be for pugnacious little gazelles), but I still think of him often.

I was brand new in the field when I met Bambi, but he taught be a lesson which stayed with me throughout my career (two lessons, if you count "Never turn your back on an animal with horns).  You can never predict which animals will make the biggest impression on you, and who you'll always treasure the memories of.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Sporcle Quiz: Amazing Ungulates

If there were a Hall of Fame for Animal Obscurities, surely an entire wing would have to be devoted to the ungulates, or hoofed mammals.  In the eyes of most zoo-goers, they're all the same... deer for the small ones, cows for the big ones.  When I started in the profession, I didn't give ungulate much more than a backward glance myself - I wanted to work with the "cool" animals.  Deer were not considered "cool."

At one point I had a curator tell me that hoofstock is an acquired taste - and she didn't mean in the culinary sense.  The more time I've spent working with the deer and antelope, wild goats and wild cattle and wild pigs, the more impressed I've become with their variety, their behavior, and - in the case of males during rut - their single-minded determination to erase you from existence.

Enjoy this month's quiz, featuring some Amazing (and Obscure) Ungulates!



Saturday, December 10, 2016

The Kingdom of Obscurities

Norrington: No additional shot nor powder, a compass that doesn't point north, [looks at Jack's sword] and I half expected it to be made of wood. You are without doubt the worst pirate I've ever heard of.
Jack Sparrow: But you have heard of me.

- Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl

Spotted hyenas may be one of my favorite animals of all time.  A big part of their appeal, I suppose, is that most people really don't like them, while I get to appreciate all of their awesome secrets (secrets you could only obtain by, say, reading a Wikipedia article about them).  In this, hyenas differ from most of the animals that make up my "favorites" list.  Hyenas may be unpopular, but most people have heard of them.

If zookeepers have a soft spot for underdogs, they're absolute mush for the obscurities, the animals no one else has ever heard of.  It becomes most obvious when we're visiting other zoos; when I went to the San Diego Zoo most recently, I had a checklist of "must sees", and the pandas and koalas weren't on it.  Instead, I was after the ratel (honey badger), Tasmanian devil, and superb bird of paradise, among others.  Having checked them out, I then waited for a half-hour in the Children's Zoo for the daily chance to glimpse (the recently deceased) Baba, the only publically-displayed pangolin in the United States.  It was awesome.


But it's not just the species I've never seen before.  Even animals that are relatively common at other zoos, but not well known to the public, fascinate me.  I love tapirs, bongos, and Przewalski's horses.  The giraffes and zebras?  They're nice enough (well, in the case of zebras, not "nice"), but don't excite me to the degree an okapi does.  I'd rather watch Andean bears or sloth bears over pandas and polars any day, and even the smell of a maned wolf or a binturong makes me happy.  If a zoo has a reptile house, bird house, or small mammal house, you can bet I'll be making a trip, happily spending as much time as it takes at each display to find the occupant.

It's not just me.  I've taken to calling these animals "zookeeper animals", a term coined by a supervisor of mine at a private zoo to describe animals that zookeepers love and the public ignores.  Having previously worked at Potawatomi Zoo, she'd fallen in love with takin, and was desperate to add them to our collection.  It was a tough sell, and one she was destined to lose.  The owner of the zoo refused to invest in an obscure species of Central Asian hoofstock that, in his opinion, most visitors would mistake for a bloated, deformed goat.  He's right about that - a perpetual source of irritation for keepers is listening to visitors constantly call their favorite animals something completely wrong.  Hearing the capybara called "beaver dogs"... sigh.

Why do we love obscure animals so much?  Part of it might be that we see them in a light than most visitors don't.  When I worked with clouded leopards, most guests just saw a blotchy, olive-green bundle of fur in a nest box... if that.  Working with them after hours on a one-on-one basis, I knew them as playful, engaging, agile, and scary-stealthy beauties.  Part of it is just knowing more about the animal than other people do.  By parrot-standards, thick-billed parrots aren't that spectacular looking.  By knowing something about them - that they are the last living parrot species native to the United States, for example - they instantly become more fascinating as you try to imagine a future where a flock of them flits through the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona.  An appreciation of how dangerous a cassowary can be really makes you view it in a different light.  And, unfortunately, an understanding of rarity contributes to our perceptions.  It's impossible for me to look at a Kihansi spray toad and not be overwhelmed by its status as so-critically endangered.

One of my favorite parts of the blog is writing the Species Fact Profiles.  Part of it is that it's easy (and, unlike the Zoo and Aquarium Reviews, I'm not always scrambling and worrying about where I'll go next so I don't run out of material).  Mostly, it's that I enjoy devoting a little time and a little space to sharing some really neat, often-overlooked animals. 

When I look at the list of animals featured, it occurs to me that, in my imagination, I'm stocking my own zoo - a zoo filled with the animals that I've enjoyed the most over the years.  It's not a zoo that many people would enjoy too much, perhaps - missing too many of the most popular animals - but that's okay.  I'm imagining it for me.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

A Much-Maligned Beast

"Now, it's not entirely clear to me why we laud the predators so much and so disdain the scavengers, since most of us are hardening our arteries wolfing down carcasses that someone else killed, but that is our bias.  Lions get lionized, while hyenas never get to vocalize at the beginning of MGM movies,"

- Robert M. Sapolsky, A Primate's Memoirs

It wasn't until I finished yesterday's post - a Species Fact Profile on the spotted hyena - and hit the "Publish" button that it hit me.  Wow.  I wrote a lot.  As in, three times more than my usual fact profiles.  Now, there is a reason for that.  A lot more is known and published about spotted hyenas than, say, shield-tailed agamas.  A more prominent reason, however, was that I just really like hyenas.  A lot.

How much do I like them, you ask?  My mother still mocks me at regular intervals over how upset I was as a child over their portrayal in Disney's completely biased, propaganda hit-piece, The Lion King.  So much that I strived - in vain - to get my Boy Scout patrol to take on the name "Hyenas" (you would have thought I'd suggested we call ourselves the Syphilis or something, based on the reactions of my troop mates).  So much that my favorite memories of Africa were going to sleep in my tent, listening to distant whoops and cackles.

What makes hyenas special?  Well, they're badass hunters, who stand their ground against the lions who try to rob their kills.  They have a fascinating social structure; if ever an animal could serve as a feminist idol, it's these guys... I mean, gals.  They can literally eat bones... and not little buffalo wing bones, but femurs.  Their vocalizations are crazy, their appearance is wild, and their role in African myth and superstition is awesome.  Literally every zookeeper I have ever met loves hyenas.

And that's about all of us who do.


Most people just don't like them.  Some think they are vicious and savage.  Others think they are stupid and cowardly.  Most everyone thinks they are dirty and smelly and ugly.  Yann Martel spoke for most of his readers in Life of Pi, when his protagonist mused "That was the animal I had racing around in circles before me.  An animal to pain the eye and chill the heart."

Hyenas are funny-looking, to be sure, though I think they have their own elegance, an elegance of practicality.  To call them stupid is a monstrous slur; they have primate-level intellects, partially reflected in their complicated, ever-shifting social circles.  Their behavior can be interpreted as vicious, but the same could be said of any predatory animal.  If anything, the disdain humans feel for them probably is summed up in one word: scavenger.  But almost all carnivores are scavengers, or at least will be when given the opportunity, including early man.   It's a moot point, however, because hyenas aren't just scavengers - when they sun goes down, they are bold hunters of large mammals. 

At any rate, the hyena's lack of popularity has consequences.  Perhaps most tellingly, it shows itself in their relative scarcity in zoo collections.  I just scrolled down the list of zoos and aquariums that I've reviewed.  A grand total of four currently (December 2016) exhibit spotted hyenas.  That's versus 22 that have lions, 24 that have tigers, and 13 that have polar bears.  I travel to zoos quite often.  Unless it's a really cool exhibit or a neat view, I don't even bother taking pictures of lions anymore.  I see hyenas maybe once a year.  Even Disney, which produced The Lion King, the cartoon that for most Americans calls up the most evocative images of the animal, just added hyenas to their Animal Kingdom Park... two decades after lions, warthogs, mandrills, and other animal stars of the film arrived.

Ironically, if hyenas have any future in American zoos, they owe it to their arch-competitor (both in the wild, for food, and in the zoo, for space) - the lion.  Denver Zoo is perhaps the only zoo to have hyenas as a flagship species, featured in their stellar Predator Ridge exhibit.  Lions, hyenas, and African wild dogs rotate through each other's enclosures; the zoo takes advantage of the natural enmity between the three species to make excellent exhibits.  The hyenas pick up the smell of the lions in their enclosure and immediately go on patrol; the wild dogs, alert to the presence of hyenas in the vicinity, forgo their usual naps and are active and vigilant.  The lions, sensing wild dogs are near, keep eyes and ears open, wanting to see what's going on.  A few other zoos have copied this successful display, earning hyenas some needed spaces in American zoos.


For what it's worth, I think hyenas are awesome exhibit animals.  They can be very active, are super-inquisitive, and imagine how much fun feeding time could be when a whole goat carcass gets thrown over the railing.  I guarantee, you won't have any visitors climbing into that exhibit.

Perhaps the reason zookeepers love hyenas so much, I've mused, is that no one else does.  There are hundreds to thousands of animals at a zoo, depending on its size, and only a handful of "celebrities."  The keepers who know the animals, however, who know how smart or charming or fascinating even the most maligned animals are, see a side of them the public rarely does.  Keepers who work with hyenas often fall head over heels for him.  Besides, it's hard not to want to stand up for the underdog.

Even when it's not a dog.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Species Fact Profile: Spotted Hyena (Crocuta crocuta)

Spotted Hyena
Crocuta crocuta (Erxlebeh, 1777)

Range: Sub-Saharan Africa
Habitat: Savannah, Open Woodland
Diet: Carrion, Ungulates
Social Grouping: Female-Dominated Clans (up to 90 members).  Clans break up and regroup frequently, may be encountered singly or in pairs
Reproduction: Breeding peaks in the wet season, but may occur year round.  1-2 cubs born after 110 day gestation period, reared by females alone.  Young are born with eyes open and teeth developed, and begin competing at an early age.  Weaned at 12-16 months.  Females remain in natal group for life, males disperse at 2-3 years of age.
Lifespan: 15 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern


  • Largest of the hyena species, and second-largest carnivore in Africa after the lion.  Body length 1.3-1.85 meters, stand 75 centimeters at the shoulder.  Body weight 45-70+ kilograms.  Females larger than males
  • Dog-like appearance (though more closely related to cats), with thick neck, large ears, and high shoulders sloping down to smaller hindquarters.
  • Sandy grey-brown coat has dark sports on back, flanks, and rump, fading with age.  Small scruffy mane.  Pups are solid black-brown
  • Extremely powerful jaws enable them to crack and eat bones to access the marrow inside
  • Best known as a scavenger, but very effective hunters in their own right, hunting cooperatively to capture prey as large as young rhinoceros and hippopotamus.  Extremely adaptive, will exploit any available food source.  Take readily to entering human settlements to forage
  • Wide variety of vocalizations, including a whoop which can be heard over several kilometers (and used to recognize individual hyenas) and the famous laugh or giggle, a sign of nervousness or submission
  • Females invest more energy in their offspring than any other carnivore - their milk is extremely rich in protein and fat (14% each), and they nurse for over a year.
  • Unusual among carnivores in their female-dominant clans; the lowest ranking female outranks the highest ranking male.  Female cubs inherit their social rank from their mothers.
  • The genitalia of male and female spotted hyenas look remarkably similar; the female's clitoris very closely resembles the male's penis, and is even equipped with a mock-scrotum.  This similarity led ancient naturalists to theorize that hyenas were hermaphroditic, or could change their sex at will
  • Fierce competition with lions, the other large social carnivore on the African plains, resulting in mutual killings, robbing on prey, and harassment
  • Population declining die to hunting, primarily due to peoples' concerns about hyena predation on their livestock; habitat availability is also declining
  • In African myth and folklore, hyenas were often associated with witchcraft; witches roade hyenas, and sorcerers could turn themselves into hyenas.  In western culture, they are best known either as comedic creatures (because of their laughter) or as cowardly scavengers 

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Book Review: Tibet Wild: A Naturalist's Journeys to the Roof of the World

"Bears, snow leopards, and I like the jumble of limestone which covers some slopes and ridges, a place of strangeness and beauty.  The gray and faintly pink rocks are worn smooth by the elements into congealed shapes of gargoyles and goblins.  When I walk among these pinnacles, domes, and cliffs, it's like being in a strange and silent city, caves in the rocks like dark windows and doors leading into an alternate world."

Before there was Jane Goodall, and before there was Dian Fossey, there was (and still is) George B. Schaller.  Perhaps the world's most renown field biologist, Schaller has spent decades in the field around the world, providing science with its first, most intimate glimpses into the hidden lives of some of the world's most charismatic mammals.  He has been the friend and patron of many of today's leading field biologists, such as Alan Rabinowitz (and he maintains an active role in Rabinowitz's NGO Panthera).  He has studied the mountain gorillas of the Congo, the lions of the Serengeti, and the giant pandas of Sichuan. He was the first westerner to ever see a live snow leopard in the wild.

The snow leopard is one of the stars of Tibet Wild: A Naturalist's Journeys to the Roof of the World, a reminiscence of Schaller's years of involvement in the conservation of wildlife in Central Asia's Tibetan Plateau.  One of the highest, coldest, driest places on earth, the plateau nonetheless supports an amazing variety of wildlife.  Herds of yaks, gazelle, deer, wild sheep, and wild asses are preyed upon by wolves and snow leopards.  Tibetan brown bears forage through the mountains and meadows.  Pikas churn the soil like the prairie dogs of the New World.  An endless variety of birds, from snow buntings to massive vultures, soar across the skies.

It's hard to imagine a more desolate place outside of the polar regions, but there are people here too, and they make up a major part of Schaller's experience.  For generation, the plains have been roamed by nomadic herds, driving their sheep, goats, and yaks across the plateau in search of grazing.  Today, like people all over the world, they find themselves increasingly torn between what life used to be and what they want it to be in the future.  Communities are settling down, building roads, and incorporating more technology into their daily lives.  Immigrants are moving in, attracted by gold mines or by the prospect of hunting (more on that in a moment).  As the human communities change, the wildlife feels the pinch.  Pikas are blamed unjustly for depleted soil conditions caused by overgrazing and are poisoned in mass.  Human-bear conflicts increase, leading to more and more dangerous encounters.  Grazers crash into fences meant to confine once-migratory livestock herds.  In many of the villages that Schaller visits, only the elders remember the presence of some species.

The snow leopard may be the most glamorous of the species Schaller encounters, but the star of the book is perhaps the species least known outside of the Tibet - the chiru, or Tibetan antelope, which graces the cover of the book.  Rivalling the oryx and the rhinoceros as a possible source of the legend of the unicorn, the chiru is the source of some of the finest fleece in the world - Schaller describes how an entire shawl can be pulled through a wedding ring.  Recently, the species has come to the attention of the world's fashion markets, and the resultant slaughter has been dreadful (made worse, in part, by an insistent by incorrect belief that the fleece is shed naturally and that no animals are harmed in the production of the shawls).

Schaller is a naturalist of the old-school... and I mean that he can sometimes come across as a misanthropic crank.  His writing gives the impression of a man who is happiest out in the wild; in fact, he says the happiest his family has ever been was when he, his wife, and their two boys lived out on the Serengeti.  Schaller acknowledges readily that conservation must work for local people to make it work at all - he pens several little fables about pikas to teach Tibetan children in order to broaden community support for the little critters.  Still, he seems irritably dismissive of ecotourism.  For a man who's drawn a paycheck from the Bronx Zoo for years, he has a dim view of captive breeding in most cases.  And he seems to view the current genetics-driven craze of conservation biology with somewhat sardonic amusement. 

Still, no one has done more to open up the world of animals to science than Schaller... even if we get the impression that he'd rather ignore the whole hullabaloo, shoulder a pack, and head over to the next mountain range.




Friday, December 2, 2016

Zoo Joke: The Thrift Shop

The budget was always tight at the City Zoo, but there was always one perk to look forward to.  Every December, the zoo administration doled out a small sum to each department of the zoo, to be spent however that department saw fit.  It wasn't a huge amount, but it was enough to pick up whatever odds-and-ends the keepers felt that their section needed.

When the hoofstock department got their year-end reward, the head keeper summoned the newest member of his staff to his office in the giraffe barn.  "I want you to take the money and go down to the thrift store on Elm Street.  Buy us some duct tape, some zip ties, two new scrub brushes, and some coffee filters."  At that moment, a fat fly - one of the hundreds that always filled the barn, attracted to the giraffes' manure - landed at the edge of the head keepers desk.  With lightning speed, the head keeper smashed it into jelly with a tattered old flyswatter. 

"Oh, will you look at that," muttered the head keeper, looking at the stained, tattered swatter, coated with years' worth of fly guts.  "You better get a new flyswatter while you're out, too."

At the end of the day, the head keeper was at his desk, looking through some reports, when the new keeper entered.  He held out a mug of coffee to his boss, who took it eagerly.  They chatted briefly about the ins and outs of the day, what animals were doing what and so on.  Finally, the keeper pulled a receipt from his pocket and put it on the desk.

"Well, I got the zip ties and the duct tape, and I got the scrub brushes and the flyswatter, but I couldn't find any coffee filters.  Sorry about that."

"Oh?  How'd you filter this coffee, then?" the head keeper asked, taking a sip.  "I thought we ran out of filters a few days ago."

"Oh, easy.  I just used the flyswatter."

"You... what?"

"Oh, don't worry boss.  I know what you're worried about and no, I didn't get your new flyswatter dirty by mixing coffee with it.  I just used the old one instead."

Thursday, December 1, 2016

'Tis the Season of Gimme! GImme! Gimme!

The day after Thanksgiving is generally known as Black Friday, and it hallmarks the start of the Christmas shopping season (officially, anyway - it seems to be creeping up earlier every year).  To counter the big-chain superstores, the day after has become known as "Small Business Saturday", and - Sunday being for rest, of course - the next week kicks off with "Cyber Monday."

In the remote chance that you have any money left in your bank account after that, you are then urged to take a more charitable turn of mind and celebrate "Giving Tuesday."

It's no surprise that zoos and aquariums are all over Giving Tuesday.  Money is needed for renovations, for capital improvements, for new exhibits and the staff support them, and, oh yeah, just to keep open.  Even the smallest of facilities generally has at least one staff member who has the full time job of making the rounds with an empty sack and a meaningful look in their eye, trying to scare up some donations.  The bigger facilities may have an entire department.


It's not so stressful if you're one of the free zoos (few as they are) - it can be a little frustrating if you charge admission, as people feel like they've already given enough... though there was one free zoo where I worked where I was confronted by an angry guest who said that he felt uncomfortable having to walk by the donation box at the entrance.  Could we please put it someplace more discreet so he didn't feel guilted whenever he brought his kids?

I myself, being a zookeeper, am perpetually short of funds, which makes the holiday season one of stress as well as festivity, though I'm sure many people feel the same way, no matter how much they make.  Still, I'm a sucker for a zoo, and have been known to ruefully bid a few dollars goodbye at this time of year (or when the AZA's Conservation Endowment Fund comes knocking each year).  Fortunately, there is a very meaningful way that you can support your local zoo or aquarium without spending much in the way of money or time. 

Not all donations have to be money.

When money goes to a zoo or aquarium, it may get channeled into several funds.  It may go into the operating budget, which keeps the zoo going.  It may go to a specific animal, or a conservation program, or towards the endowment of a specific position.  The easiest way to raise funds is to do so in the name of a new exhibit, especially for a high profile animal - everyone loves to put up money for physical improvements to the zoo that they will enjoy for years to come.  Where money often has a hard time making its way?  To the very necessary, not-very-sexy expenses that make the zoo run on the keeper level. 

Many of these items are relatively cheap (compared to, say, a new polar bear exhibit) but are super essential to the staff.   You know what I want for Christmas, for the zoo?  A microwave that I can use without fear of it exploding.  Some kid-safe paint to make animal artwork with.  Some non-holey pillow cases for snakes.  Towels!  Garden clippers - my current pair is too dull to cut butter, let along a particularly obnoxious vine.  Last year, I was the rock star of the zoo when I brought in a dog kennel that I found in my parent's basement on a visit home, one that their dog had outgrown years ago.  That kennel has since crossed the country back and forth several times on animal shipments.

So as you are cleaning out your garage or closet this year, making room for the new stuff you plan to acquire for the holiday season, consider regifting some things to your local zoo or aquarium.  It's not going to earn you a giant tax write-off, but we'll really appreciate it.  I promise.

Of course, you can still us money if you want to.  I promise we won't so no to that, either.

Or baked goods.