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Saturday, December 30, 2017

Zoo Review Updates

The rapidly-growing Turtle Back Zoo has been busy this year.  Their African Adventure exhibit unveiled habitats for Africa's two largest carnivores - lions and spotted hyenas - occupying the ruins of a North African fort.  Elsewhere in the zoo, exhibits of maned wolf, Andean condor, and giant anteater have opened.

The Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium has opened its new Jungle Odyssey trail, with habitats for capybara, giant anteater, fossa, ocelot, and pygmy hippopotamus.  The new loop includes a zipline adventure.

Elmwood Park Zoo unveiled its excellent new jaguar habitat... just in time for cubs!

The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore completed its new bobcat exhibit.

The Salisbury Zoo opened a new habitat for red-necked wallabies, along with an adjacent aviary for kookaburras and tawny frogmouths.  Construction continues on a new reptile house.

The Smithsonian National Zoo opened its new electric fishes lab, starring electric eels, in Amazonia.  Construction is underway for the new Bird House, Experience Migration.  The zoo has recently announced plans to completely renovate its habitat for naked mole rats.

Virginia Zoo is continuing to work on its new reptile house.  The newly renovated complex will star Orinoco crocodiles in a habitat with underwater viewing.

The Jacksonville Zoo is undergoing renovations of its primate exhibits, including the habitats for gorillas and bonobos, to be known as African Forest.

The saga of everyone's new obsession, Fiona the hippo, dominated the news at the Cincinnati Zoo, but other developments occurred there as well.  Most notable was the construction of an indoor habitat for the gorilla troop.

Fresh off the success of its new African Plains, Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo is plugging along with its next project - Asia.  The final project will include habitats for tigers, snow leopards, takin, and Indian one-horned rhinos, among other species.  The zoo is set to shutter its Cat Complex, with species being sent out to other facilities.

Probably the biggest exhibit opening of the year, the World Famous San Diego Zoo unveiled Africa Rocks!  A walk down the length of the continent, the trail goes from North Africa, where gelada and hamadryas baboons scramble over rock mounds, while ibex are stalked by leopards all the way down to the Cape of Good Hope, where African penguins swim.  Also featured are dwarf crocodiles, the lemurs (and fossas) of Madagascar, and rarely-exhibited ratels, also known as honey badgers.  This exhibit also marks the first time ever that sharks - leopard sharks, in this case - have been displayed at the zoo.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

National Visit a Zoo Day

Beautiful artwork from Peppermint Narwhal Creative, and a great message, but seriously - who was the rocket scientist who picked December 27 at "National Visit a Zoo Day"?  Obviously someone from Florida or Arizona.  Erie, Pennsylvania (home to a fine zoo) is buried under five feet of snow today.  I doubt that they are getting too many visitors...

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Bonobo (Pan paniscus)

Bonobo (Pygmy Chimpanzee)
Pan paniscus (Schwarz, 1929)

Range: Democratic Republic of Congo
Habitat: Lowland Rainforest
Diet: Fruits, Nuts, Stems, Shoots, Leaves, Roots, Tubers
Social Grouping: Mixed-sex groups of up to 150, usually splitting into smaller groups for feeding and foraging of about 5-10 individuals
Reproduction: Polyandrous, females will mate with any male in the group except for their sons.  Gestation period 240 days.  Single infant weaned for four years.  Independent at 7-9 years old.  Sexually mature at 10-15 years old.
Lifespan: 35-45 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Endangered, CITES Appendix I

  • Body length 70-84 centimeters, weight 30-45 kilograms.  Males are larger than females.  Despite alternative common name, bonobos are not particularly smaller than chimpanzees, though they tend to be more slender
  • Skin and fur are black, though the later tends to turn grey with age
  • Males have a loose dominance hierarchy and stay with their natal group for life.  Females generally disperse during adolescence
  • Most famous for their use of sexual intercourse in non-reproductive social contact.  Have sex (heterosexual or homosexual, anal or genital) for purposes of conflict resolution or group bonding.
  • Very arboreal, climb searching for food, rest in nests in the trees.  When on the ground primarily walk on their knuckles, but can walk bipedally for a short distance
  • Primarily herbivorous, but will eat meat when it is available.  Have been observed hunting squirrels and other small vertebrates, up to the size of duikers
  • Humans are the only known predators, although it has been speculated that leopards and pythons will also prey upon bonobos
  • Along with the chimpanzee, the bonobo is believed to be the closest living relative to modern humans
  • Very intelligent.  Are known to utilize tools and to be able to recognize themselves in mirrors
  • Name "pygmy chimpanzee" is thought to be associated with the "pygmy" people of the Congo, who share territory with the species.  The name "bonobo" is believed to come from a corruption of the name of a town on the Congo River, near where the first specimen was found
  • Threatened by habitat loss and degradation (having a very small natural range to begin with), compounded by ongoing war in the Congo region of Africa.  Also threatened by the bushmeat trade, though historically was protected by cultural taboos

Monday, December 25, 2017

Christmas Morning at the Zoo

"Twas the morning of Christmas and all through the zoo,
The keepers were bustling with too much to do."

That's as far as I've gotten, so far.  I've been a bit too busy for writing poetry.  In fact, the morning of December 25th every year becomes a frantic effort to see how quickly I can fulfill my morning animal care and get on with the holiday, while at the same time not neglecting or shirking any animal's needs or comforts.  It's a time for being extra careful and cautious, as no one wants their quick Christmas run in to be confounded with, say, an animal escape that takes three hours to recapture, or some similar misfortune.

To that end, I usually spend the evening of December 24th every year doing the Bob Cratchett routine - make sure all the pools are clean, all of the feed bins topped off, extra enrichment provided, and all in all doing such a thorough job that there will (theoretically) be that much less work to do on the day itself.  Does it always work out?  No - with the end result that I'll have put in a marathon day on the 24th, followed by a crazy sprint on the 25th.  As long as the animals are all cared for and I get out the door at a reasonable time on Christmas, I suppose it's all fine.

Merry Christmas, especially to those who worked for their animals today!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Winter on Fire

Within the last week, the zoo community has had to cope with two tragic fires at two different facilities.  Bright's Zoo, a privately owned zoo in Tennessee, had a barn catch on fire, costing the zoo the lives of several birds.  Then, the London Zoo suffered a fire that claimed the life of an aardvark; four meerkats are also presumed to have perished in the blaze.  Each fire was tragic, a zookeeper's nightmare.  Still, as terrible as each was, they could have been even worse.

Some members of our community have been muttering darkly on social media, hinting that these fires are not accidental, or that there is an international conspiracy of terrorists seeking to bring down zoos.  Never say impossible, but I kind of doubt it.

Even without imagining boogeyman, fires in winter are a very real - and very terrifying - threat.  Heat lamps and heaters can be strung haphazardly, sometimes in old buildings where the wiring is poor and dust and cobwebs, both flammable, festoon the corners.  Smaller, tropical animals are inside, sometimes in high concentrations, so a single burning building can claim many lives.  It's not even the fire that you really have to worry about - it's the smoke.  For evidence, look no further than the fire at the Philadelphia Zoo several years ago, which killed every single gorilla, orangutan, and other occupant of their primate house.

I've never had to deal with a major fire at a zoo where I've worked, but I have put out a few minor ones, one of which required us to race into the smoke-filled building and carry out animals, some in cages, most by hand, into the fresh air.  I've also had to visit the charred wreckage of a friend's home, listening to her describe, numbly, the pets that had been inside and couldn't be saved.  It was horrible.

I'm so sorry for the losses that these zoos have suffered.  I hope that the keepers afflicted by these tragedies can find some peace over the holidays.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Zoo History: Only a Hippopotamus Will Do

"I want a hippopotamus for Christmas,
Only a hippopotamus will do.
No crocodiles, no rhinoceroses,
I only likes hippopotamuses!"

The week before Thanksgiving, I made the decision to shut off my car radio, and keep it off through the end of the year.  If I have a CD handy, I play it on long drives, but for short jaunts around town... silence.  Silence is beautiful.  Silences is serene.  And silence is a hell of a lot better than 8,428 renditions of "Winter Wonderland."  Every radio station I listen to is now 24/7 Christmas music, and my ears are about ready to mutiny and give themselves the Van Gogh treatment.

There is one Christmas song that  realized the other day that I almost never hear during my (frequent) involuntary exposure to the songs of the season.  And that little ditty is John Rox's "I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas", best known for its performance by Gayla Peevey.

As any hippo-loving child would (and in particular as one who did, according to family lore, request a pet hippo as a kid), I heard that song growing up.  A lot.  Mostly (well, always) from one or the other of my parents.  I inherited my musical ability from them, so needless to say, it was not a pleasant experience.

What would have made it more bearable is if they had told me the story behind the song - the little Gayla did, in fact, get her hippopotamus... sort of.

Peevey's hometown was Oklahoma City, and though she moved a bit to the north as a child, it was still the closest real city.  Based on the popularity of her song, a local promoter decided that this kid was getting her hippo - care of the city zoo, of course.  The story is often gotten backwards - that Ms Peevey performed the song in order to raise funds for the Oklahoma City Zoo to purchase a hippo.  In fact, they ended up with a hippo because she sang the song.  One can only wonder how different it would be if she's sang, "I Want a Duck-Billed Platypus for Christmas."  Such penny-drives for zoo animals weren't uncommon back in the day, when most animals were obtained through purchase.  It's how my hometown zoo received its first elephant, back in the day. 

Anyway, Oklahoma City Zoo got its hippo i n 1953.  Mathilda was a proud resident of the zoo for fifty years.

History doesn't often repeat itself, but it has been known to rhyme now and then.  Earlier this December, the Oklahoma City Zoo welcomed a new pygmy hippopotamus (Mathilda, the original hippo of song and story, was a Nile hippo).  This one was not purchased through donations - instead, it was a transfer from the San Diego Zoo, fulfilling a recommendation by the Species Survival Plan.

I don't suppose I need to say who the guest of honor at the unveiling was.

Happy Hippo Holidays!

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Fires of Santa Barbara

It's been kind of a rough year for the AZA community, disaster-wise.  There have been hurricanes, early heavy snowfall, and America's deadliest mass-shooting to date, located in the same building as an aquarium.  Through it all, our animals and staff have remained safe.  Let's hope that trend continues as we face our latest challenge.

The fires that are raging across California have now begun to menace the Santa Barbara Zoo.  After a period of careful watching-and-waiting, the zoo has begun some evacuations.  Critically endangered animals have been moved to other facilities (namely Los Angeles Zoo).  The Fresno Chaffee Zoo has offered to care for a baby giant anteater zoo staff have been handraising.  Other animals are being distributed to nearby care centers.  Now, it's just a question of seeing what happens next.

The California wildfires have already done a tremendous amount of damage this year.  I hope that Santa Barbara Zoo isn't added to that damage.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The Price is Right

Like many zookeepers, the thought of owning my own zoo (preferably designing and building it, but settling for buying a preexisting one) has long been a dream.  Needless to say, the news of a zoo for sale in Texas was an intriguing - if impossible - concept.  There was a tremendous amount of discussion about it in the zookeeper groups on line - a few people suggested that we all pull our resources and buy the place.  Bad idea, in my opinion.  As opinionated as zookeepers tend to be, I think we'd all kill each other within a week.

As entertaining as the article was, there was one line which rubbed some of my colleagues - especially those who have never worked in the private, non-AZA sector.  "[Wolston] can rattle off how much the animals are worth like they are cars or bottles of wine."

Historically, all zoos bought and sold and traded their animals, working through brokers like Carl Hagenbeck and Frank Buck.  They bought animals that they wanted, bred them when they could, and sold or traded offspring for other specimens.  As it was, each animal had a known price.  Specimens that were hard to obtain, rare, and popular with the public commanded the highest prices.

With the rise of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and its Species Survival Plans, there has been much less focus on buying and selling of animals.  Instead, animals are moved around the country as part of carefully coordinated breeding programs, working to maintain the genetic and demographic welfare of the populations.  Even species that are not managed by SSPs are typically exchanged free of charge within AZA, sometimes as donations, sometimes as loans.

That doesn't change the fact that AZA-accredited facilities represent only a fraction of the zoos and aquariums in this country.  For the rest, especially those that are not managed by governments or nonprofits, sales of surplus animals represent a crucial part of their income, or represent trading stock needed to maintain their collections.

Working at a non-AZA facility at my last position, I, like Mr. Wolston, knew the financial value of each specimen in the collection (mostly so I could judge how mad the owner would be whenever something died).  I've never been comfortable with the idea of putting a price tag on a zoo animal - in my opinion, they are priceless.  Also, no sum of money is worth the decision to lace the animal in a sub par home, as even a wealthy buyer may prove to be.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

From the News: Want to buy a zoo?

It's one thing to find a souvenir from the zoo under your Christmas tree... it's another to find the zoo (or at least a deed to one) itself.  Seriously, didn't Matt Damon make a movie about this or something?

The Bayou Wildlife Zoo in Texas is for sale by its owner, one Clint Wolston, yours for the sum of $6,000,000.  That seems a bit on the high side for me, especially considering what some first hand visitors have told me about the facilities... not that I even have one million to drop on a new zoo anytime in the near future.

Still, it's nice to hope that someone will swoop in and purchase the place, giving it lots of attention and energy and enable it to grow and flourish.  I just don't think it'll be me...

Clint Wolston, owner of Bayou Wildlife Zoo, feeds "Pee Wee" a white rhino, Wednesday, Nov. 29, 2017, in Galveston County, Texas. Owned and operated by Wolston since 1985, the zoo is currently for sale for the princely sum of $6 million. (Steve Gonzales/Houston Chronicle via AP)

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Book Review: Where the Wild Things Were

"Talk after talk, northern seas to tropical jungles, the conclusions rang in accord, as with a gavel: Big predators were not just missing; they were sorely missed.  It brought to mind a medical phenomenon haunting many amputees; the phantom pains of a missing limb.  These top predators - these missing limbs - were still deeply felt."

The apex predators - big cats and bears, wolves and crocodilians, sharks and eagles - have long been a source of inspiration, wonder, and, yes, terror to our species.  They've been venerated in our art, and folklore, displayed in our zoos and aquariums, sometimes treated as rivals or enemies, other times treated as gods or ancestors.  But what do they mean in the greater scheme of things?  How do they really fit into the natural world?  Are they simply parasites living off of the suffering of their prey, or do they serve a greater purpose?

Wildlife journalist William Stolzenburg analyzes that question, and his answer is a definite vote for the essential role of apex predators.  In Where the Wild Things Were, Stolzenburg travels the globe and meets with scientists to explore how predators don't just fit into their ecosystems, but how they shape them.  Using examples as varied as the wolf of Yellowstone National Park to the starfish of a tidal pool in Puget's Sound, it is demonstrated that the presence of top predators benefits an ecosystem by keeping other species in check.  Remove the predator and some prey species will flourish, but at the expense of others, out-competing them and possibly even driving their neighbors (and themselves) to local extinction.  Similarly, removing a top predator can allow smaller, subordinate predators to explode in numbers, which in turn impacts the species that those animals prey upon.

Science isn't science without experimentation, and Stolzenburg is able to draw upon many case studies to support his position.  Some are created in laboratory or controlled settings, sometimes under a microscope lens, sometimes in less-conventional surroundings (picture a college professor traveling several hours twice a month, just to throw some starfish - literally - out of his research pool and back into the sea).  Others are the experiments that we create ourselves... albeit unintentionally.  Consider, for example, Barro Colorado Island, created with the formation of the Panama Canal.  In the absence of jaguar, harpy eagle, and other predators, some species were able to increase their numbers dramatically, and the forests are suffering as a result.

Of course, no examination of the impacts of an absent predator restored would be complete without the most famous of case studies, the return of the wolves to Yellowstone.  Stolzenburg describes how wolves do more than kill and eat elk - there are a lot of elk in Yellowstone, after all, too many for all the wolves to even make a dent in their numbers.  Instead, the returning predators, by the very presence, change the behavior of the prey species, forcing them to act in a manner that, while making them less vulnerable to predation, lessens their negative role on the environment.  Instead of sitting in one spot and eating every last scrap of greenery, for example, the elk keep on the move constantly so as not to attract the attention of the hunters.

Where the Wild Things Were portrays apex predators not as they are often depicted, as killers lusting after hot blood and fresh meat, but as the gardeners of Eden, who through their actions preserve the diversity and species richness of their environments.  They need not be giant or fierce (at least to our eyes) - some are tiny, some are obscure.  All, however, have a role to play in maintaining biodiversity.  The question is, are we wise enough to allow them to carry out that role?

Our failure to do so may have terrible consequences for nature.  As Stolzenburg says, "The biggest and scariest of carnivores may be more dangerous bu their absence."

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Zoo Under the Christmas Tree

I meant to have more of a profound, interesting, and, ultimately, labor-intensive post tonight... and then I realized that Christmas is two weeks from today... and 95% of those days, I work.  So I had to get shopping done... first online... then at actual stores because I feel back about shopping online and thereby contributing to the decline of actual stores... than back online about an hour later, after I remembered why those stores were in decline in the first place.

One place I have not gone shopping yet is the zoo... emphasis on the "yet."

A zoo or aquarium can be a fantastic resource for holiday shopping for an animal lover, and I don't just mean red panda plushes.  There are several unique, exciting, animal-themed gifts that are available.  Many zoos sell paintings produced by zoo animals, often accompanied by a photo or fun facts about the artist.  Others may sell bookmarks of laminated feathers or snake shed, or perhaps Christmas ornaments that contain feathers or fur.  For the gardener in your family or circle of friends, you may even be able to acquire a bag of zoo-produced compost. 

If it's not an animal-item per se that you are interested it, there are other options, as well.  Many zoos and aquariums sell free-trade items produced in communities around the world.  Among the most popular is snare-ware, jewelry or artwork made from actual wire snares pulled from the African bush.  These snares are a major cause of mortality for many African species, as they indiscriminately kill or maim a wide range of animals for the bushmeat trade.  The snares are collected, removed from the bush so they can do no harm to wildlife, then turned over to African villages, who fashion items for sale abroad.  By purchasing them, you are providing funds to impoverished rural villages, while at the same time supporting the removal of deadly snares.  That wire probably looks better on your best friend's wrist as a bracelet than it would around a cheetahs leg.

And lastly, if you are looking to cut down on consumerism, you could always opt out of possessions and into... experiences.  Go diving with whale sharks at the Georgia Aquarium.   Meet a rhinoceros at the Lowry Park Zoo.  Paint with African penguins at the Newport Aquarium.  Be a zookeeper for a day with a guided tour behind-the-scenes.  Heck, just buy a friend a membership and give their family something to do year-round.

Purchasing some of your Christmas gifts at your local zoo and aquarium is a great way to support a local conservation organization.  And, because many items are specially sold or priced to benefit conservation programs, domestically or internationally, you can be sure that your gift isn't just a gift to the recipient, but to wildlife in need, as well.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Hippo of the Year

Earlier this week, Time Magazine announced its person of the year - people of the year, in this case, as they chose to honor the women who have spoken out against sexual assault as part of the #metoo movement.  Prior to that, there was a lot of speculation over who should receive the honor, fueled mostly in part by President Trump's announcement that he would "probably" be Man of the Year, but wasn't interested.

Cincinnati Zoo decided to get ahead of the drama and through a hat of their own into the ring.

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It's tongue-in-cheek and very cute, but it did make me wonder.  Why isn't there an Animal of the Year Award?  Just like people, animals have the power to make the news and change the world.  For example, in 2015 the world was gripped by the story of Cecil, the Zimbawean lion who was killed by an American trophy hunter.  Cecil's death started an enormous conversation on the ethics and value of sport hunting, and he became a rallying cry for those opposed to the practice.

In 2016, of course, there was Harambe.  Like Cecil, Harambe's death stirred a tremendous amount of attention and debate.  Unlike Cecil, his death largely denigrated to a series of tasteless memes and jokes.  Any chance to turn it into a force for good for gorilla conservation seems to have been lost.

Which brings us to Fiona...

2017 has not, taken as a whole, been a positive year in the eyes of many.   Besides the sexual assault scandals detailed by Time, there have been rampant mass-shootings, natural disasters, terrorism, political unrest, and, oh yeah, the prospect of nuclear holocaust.  And in the midst of that mess, a premature baby hippo is born.  Fiona's story did what no politician or celebrity has been able to do - give people something to root for as her story played out in the public eye.  It didn't matter who you were - everyone wanted that little hippo to make it.  And, despite tremendous odds, she did, and is now a thriving star.

If there is any animal that made 2017 bearable for the world at large, it would have to be Fiona.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Andean Bear (Tremarctos ornatus)

Andean Bear (Spectacled Bear)
Tremarctos ornatus (Cuvier, 1825)

Range: Northwestern South America (Andes Mountains)
Habitat: Cloud Forest, Dry Forest, Scrub
Diet: Fruit, Bromeliads, Cacti, Bamboo, Small Vertebrates, Carrion
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Breeding April-June.  1-3 cubs born between December and February.  Gestation period 5.5 - 8.5 months (variation due to delayed implantation).  Cubs stay with mother for over 1 year, become sexually mature at 4-6 years old.
Lifespan: 20 Years (Average, Wild)
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable, CITES Appendix I

  • Largest carnivore in South America. 1.2-2 meters, 70-90 centimeters at the shoulder.  Tail 7 centimeters long.  Short muzzle and ears.  Males weigh 100-175 kilograms, females weigh 60-80 kilograms
  • Coat is black or brown, sometimes with a reddish tinge.  Highly variable white or cream-colored marks around the eyes (hence the other common name of "spectacled bear"), sometimes extending onto the neck or chest.  These markings may be absent in some individuals.
  • Active by day.  Excellent climbers.  Make nests in trees for foraging or for resting and sleeping.
  • Adults have no predators.  Cubs may be threatened by pumas, jaguars (though the two overlap little in the wild due to habitat preferences), and adult male Andean bears.
  • Make seasonal movements up and down mountains, traveling to lowlands in cooler weather and back up the mountain during warm.
  • Only bear species in South America, and the last remaining member of the genus Tremarctos, the prehistoric short-faced bears once found in North and South America
  • Threatened by habitat loss, hunted for skin, meat, fat, and claws.  Sometimes persecuted as an agricultural pest, as it occasionally raids crops or takes livestock

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

From the News: Visitors dumbfounded by balloon penguins at Chinese pop-up 'zoo'

Visitors dumbfounded by balloon penguins at Chinese pop-up 'zoo'

And now, from the same country that brought you a dog and tried to pass it off as a lion, we proudly present, the amazing penguin balloon!  Seriously, did they think that no one was going to notice?

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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

It's the #selfiepolice!

An ongoing source of frustration for zoo and aquarium professionals has been the enormous popularity of wild animal selfies.  These usually come in two forms. 

In one, an actual wild animal is captured by people for a spur-of-the-moment photo-op.  Sometimes, the animal in question is in obvious distress, such as a dolphin that has become beached and, instead of doing anything useful, everyone grabs their iPhone.  In other cases, it can be less obvious.  Suppose that you and some friends are out hiking and you spot a desert tortoise.  Everyone picks it up and passes it around for pictures - and the tortoise unloads its bladder, which is kind of what tortoises do.  Everyone laughs, it's gross, finishes with their pictures, and puts the tortoise down to go on its merry way, right?  Well, maybe not really "right" - because that tortoise just shed its water stores... and it's the desert.

The second scenario involves animals that are held in captivity for the express purpose of selling photo opportunities to tourists.  Maybe it's a sloth, or a monkey, or a declawed tiger cub.  Most of us inherently feel these are wrong.

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Recently, instagram made it its policy to post a warning for searches of pictures of people posing with animals (i.e. - #slothselfie) on the grounds that these pictures promote unsafe or harmful conditions for animals (similar to how posts that seem to advocate, say, suicide might be barred)..  It's a step that shows a lot of initiative in slowing the craze of wildlife selfies...

Though I do feel like I have to play devil's advocate here for a moment.  We have a lot of ambassador animals with our zoo's education collection, and some of them are touchable by members of the public, under the direct supervision and control of zoo staff.  If a parent takes a pictures of little Billy petting a ball python and posts it, is that in violation of this policy.  I have a ton of pictures of myself with animals accumulated over the years, though I tend not to post those on social media.  I also, however, have a few pictures of myself in field conservation work - say, holding hellbenders for measurements, or displaying snakes that I've caught as part of a field survey.  Do those count as "harmful" wildlife selfies?  Sure, those were taken as part of legitimate scientific work... but what if it was just me out herping with some friends?  What if we display pictures of what we found before releasing it?

These are all things we'll have to be wary of as this new policy sets in, and it may be necessary for some corrections to be made.  We've done it in the past - MasterCard said at one point that they would no longer support animal attractions (mostly with exploitative photo-ops in mind), but when it was brought to their attention that this impacted zoos and aquariums, they reversed course.  For now, let's hope that this is simply a positive step in limiting the spread of images that encourage people to treat exotic animals as toys rather than living things.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Sporcle Quiz - Sporcle at the Zoo: Polar Bear

It's time for another Sporcle at the Zoo quiz, and with Christmas coming and the weather starting to turn, what better species to highlight than the polar bear?  Enjoy!

Sunday, December 3, 2017

True Facts About Erik

When I was a kid, one of the most popular joke series was "True Facts About Chuck Norris" - such as "Chuck Norris is the reason that Waldo is hiding" and "Chuck Norris knows Victoria's Secret" (or, for a zookeeper twist - "Chuck Norris once kicked a horse in the chin and created the first giraffe.")  Recently, a zookeeper I follow on social media started a series of facts about him, the tongue-in-cheek (I assume?) world's greatest zookeeper.  And so, I present, credits to their creater...


Erik litter box trained a fish.
Erik had a breeding colony of rubber ducks.
Erik grows the fake plants for his exhibits.
Erik files a report on the USDA inspector.
Erik thaws frozen locks with just a smile.
Erik doesn't use rubber boots because his feet are waterproof.
Erik created the first okapi by breeding a giraffe with a velour pillow.
Erik's love gives flamingoes their pink color.
Lions spray to mark Erik's territory.
Erik freed Willy.
Zoo sponsors pay for the right to name things after him.
He once blow darted an animal with a pill.
Dangerous animals have Erik drills.
Erik once caught a snake by its leg.
All drains slope towards Erik.
Erik once recorded a number one album using only his Leatherman.
He once gave a naked mole rat a haircut.
He told Simon and Garfunkel what was happening at the zoo.
Chuck Norris tells Erik Heinonen jokes.

And there are many, many more, as well as many contributed by other keepers joining the thread (some were a little to esoteric for a general audience).  Thank you Erik Heinonen.  I actually cried reading some of these.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

St. Patrick's of the Southern Hemisphere

Years ago, when I was little, my parents took me on a trip to Ireland, where, among the historic and cultural sights, I was able to cajole a trip to the Dublin Zoo.  Among the exhibits was a reptile house, where I remember seeing a rock python.  My father, thinking of St. Patrick, made the joke that what we were looking at was the only snake in Ireland.

Imagine a country that doesn't even have that.

I learn something new everyday in this field.  Today I learned that there are no snakes in New Zealand.  Not "no wild snakes" - that I knew - but none period.  None in pet stores.  None in zoo collections.  Now, one zoo curator is looking to change that.

I get where people are coming from - all you have to do is look at Guam and the havoc caused by the invasive brown tree snake.  Still, New Zealand's bird life has already been battered by rats, cats, and weasels - I doubt that a snake or two in a regulated, carefully managed zoological park will pose much of a threat.  Especially when lizards are already allowed, and what is a snake but a lizard missing a few bits?

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Monday, November 27, 2017

Save the Red Wolves? Didn't We Just Do This?

This is exhausting...

The following was posted by the Alt National Park Service.  I've verified it from several sources.

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Attn: Tucked away in the Senate report accompanying the funding bill for the Department of the Interior is a directive to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to end the Red Wolf recovery program and declare the Red Wolf extinct. The red wolf is the world's most endangered canid and currently can only be found in five counties of North Carolina. Thanks to recovery efforts, red wolf populations peaked at 130 individuals. Tomorrow please call and email your Senators about this issue. #SavetheRedWolf
There are so many challenges that we face in saving endangered species.  That we have to actually fight with the agencies that are SUPPOSED to be leading the efforts to protect those same animals is just absurd.  I feel like I have spent an exhausting amount of time sending emails and making phone calls to uninformed politicians (or, more often, their aides), and have even managed to corner one or two at an event once.  The lack of damns given is just breathtaking....

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Mexican Red-Knee Tarantula (Brachypelma smithi)

Mexican Red-Knee Tarantula
Brachypelma smithi (F. O. Pickard-Cambridge, 1897)

Range: Mexico's Central Pacific Coast
Habitat: Desert, Scrub, Deciduous Forest
Diet: Insects, Small Vertebrates
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Breed during the summer rainy season.  Male deposit sperm under female's abdomen using his small front limbs.  Hundreds of eggs laid in the spring in a mass of silk, with eggs hatching three months later.  Young spend a few weeks in the egg mass after hatching, then disperse from the burrow two weeks later.  Males mature at 4 years old, females at 6-7 years old
Lifespan: 5 Years (Males), 25 Years (Females)
Conservation Status: IUCN Near Threatened, CITES Appendix II

  • Body length (excluding leg-span) ranges from 1.5-2.5 inches, with males smaller than females (though males tend to have longer legs)
  • Dark brown body and legs with orange-red coloration at the leg joints
  • In captivity, females are known to kill and consume the male shortly after mating.  It is uncertain if this occurs in the wild.
  • Spend most of their lives in burrows, with entrances just large enough to allow the spider entry.  When vulnerable - molting, laying eggs - the spider may block up the entrance of the burrow with a combination of silk, soil, and leaves.
  • Hunt at night from an ambush position, sensing the presence of the prey by feeling for vibrations.  Prey is held in the front limbs, then injected with venom, which paralyzes the prey and initiates digestion
  • If threatened, will flick hairs off the abdomen, which can cause temporary blindness if they hit the eyes or rashes if they hit the skin.  Some predators, such as coatis, counter this by rubbing the fur off of the spider before consuming it
  • One of the most commonly used spiders in movies due to its large size, striking coloration, and docile, tractable manner
  • Scientific information about this species is somewhat jumbled, as historic reports (and even some contemporary scientific papers) confuse it with other Brachypelma species, some of which look fairly similar
  • Historically one of the most popular pet tarantula species, collected by the thousands from the wild.  Now protected for trade by quota system, though smuggling still occurs.  Habitat loss is the new major threat

Friday, November 24, 2017

Thankful for the Zoo

It might be an oversimplification, but an argument could be made that I became a zookeeper so that my dad and his siblings could better appreciate their pumpkin pie.

I should probably unpack that for a moment.

Growing up, I saw my mother's side of the family fairly regularly, but only saw my father's side on a few holidays - mostly Christmas Eve and Thanksgiving.  They lived in the middle of the city in an old neighborhood... not so far, as it happened, from the city zoo.  Back in those days, the zoo was open to the public on Thanksgiving.  That situation has since changed, to my disappointment but, I'm sure, to the delight of the non-animal care staff, who now have a day they can spend with their families, instead of waiting around for the half dozen visitors or so that would show up that day.

With the zoo being so close, and with most of my father's siblings having memberships, it became customary to eat Thanksgiving dinner, then go to the zoo for a stroll to burn off a few calories and settle digestion, all in an effort to make room for dessert when we returned.  It must have worked.  I don't ever remember anyone coming back from the zoo and being too full for pie.  That being said, I don't remember anyone who didn't go to the zoo not having room for pie either...

I went to the zoo a lot as a kid, but the Thanksgiving visits were always my favorite.  The late November weather was perfect for most of the animals - not yet cold, but crisp, the kind of air that makes you feel energized just walking out your door.  Apparently it had that impact on the animals as well; creatures that would be melting balls of sleeping fur during the summer visits were now active and playful.  It didn't hurt that we also largely had the zoo to ourselves - no jostling crowds, no glass-banging, no screaming.  There was actually time to stand still and watch things unfold.  Some of my best memories of zoo animals (as a visitor, at least) came during those visits -  a snow leopard stalking an unwary squirrel that was obliviously feeding in its enclosure, or a chimpanzee climbing to the tallest structure in its habitat, then sprawling out in the sun.  I once spent several minutes watching a hippo drink - I don't know why, but the sight of an animal that spends most of its time completely submerged in water actually drinking fascinated me.

I loved the zoo as a kid.  So did most of my friends and classmates, especially when it was presented in the form of a field trip, a break from scholastic routine.  I sometimes wonder if those Thanksgiving visits, however, are what started to tip me over from casual enthusiast to future professional.  They gave me a glimpse of the zoo and its animals that none of my friends ever saw - a private, intimate view of a world full of exciting animals.

Those late fall walks shaped my view of zoos and animals, and made me decide to make them a permanent part of my life.  And the pumpkin pie afterwards never tasted better...

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Thar She Blows

Just a few yards from the entrance of the New England Aquarium, Boston Harbor is lined with booths.  They offer a variety of cruises and tours of the harbor and the surrounding islands.  Among the boats are two belonging to the Aquarium itself.  These vessels serve to carrying visitors out to sea for a chance to view some of the ocean's largest creatures in their natural habitat.  It's an experience that could never be replicated in even the largest of aquariums.

It's about a two hour boat ride out from the harbor to the feeding grounds where the whales can be found.  The cold, nutrient-rich waters provide an abundance of food needed to sustain the massive creatures.  The ship is staffed by experienced naturalists who are skilled at spotting the slight rises of a whale's back as it breaks the surface.  The crew members have an encyclopedic knowledge, not only of whales in general, but of the individual whales themselves.  They can recognize many of the whales on sight and know their particular stories, which they are happy to share with the passengers.

It's a delicious irony that, centuries ago, the Massachusetts harbors were full of whalers that sought to kill whales.  Now, whale watching - the opportunity to see whales, preferably up close - is a major tourism business on the coast.  Wildlife viewing is an extraordinary experience, but it has the potential to have negative consequences for the wildlife being viewed.  Overzealous tour operators can get too close to animals, disturbing them and altering their natural behavior, perhaps even putting them at risk.

When I made the decision to go whale watching, I knew I wanted to do it responsibly.  To me, the best way to do that was to go under the guidance of leading wildlife biologists who could be trusted to lead tours that would not harm or bother the whales.  I would love to see additional wildlife tourism opportunities led by zoos and aquariums, working with conservation partners to help introduce visitors to the actual wild.  Doing so could better cement the relationships between zoos and in situ conservationists, while at the same time promoting responsible ecotourism.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Zoo Review: New England Aquarium

For all of its centuries-long history, Boston has been a harbor town, a city built on fishing and trade.  With such an intimate history with the sea, it's no surprise that the city boasts a world-class aquarium, located directly on the waterfront.  Opened in 1969, the New England Aquarium is one of the great aquariums of the northeastern United States.

The fun of exploring the aquarium begins before a visitor has even purchased his or her ticket.  Outside of the main building is a stand-alone habitat for harbor seals.  The handsome little pinnipeds, natives of the Boston area, can be observed above or below the surface of the water.  Training demonstrations occur frequently, allowing visitors to watch as aquarium staff interact with the marine mammals to practice behaviors which allow the seals to assist in their own care and management.

More seals and sea lions can be seen in the New Balance Foundation Marine Mammal Center, adjacent to the main aquarium.  Here, California sea lions can be observed in an open-air pavilion where, like the harbor seals, frequent training demonstrations occur.  The sea lions are joined by northern fur seals - a species that is very seldom seen in American collections.  These were the first fur seals that I'd ever seen, as I was completely taken in by them - so much smaller, sleeker, and (to shed objectivity) so much cuter than the more common Californians.  They also looked so soft and touchable... which, as a nearby docent was happy to demonstrate, using a sample pelt,  is exactly what led to their massive decline as they were hunted for their namesake furs.

Stepping into the main aquarium, the eye is immediately drawn to the literal and metaphorical heart of the aquarium - the Giant Ocean Tank.  Reopening in 2013 after extensive renovations, this 200,000 gallon habitat forms the core around which the rest of the aquarium is built.  Spiraling walkways encircle it, allow visitors to get eye-to-eye with loggerhead turtles, bonnethead sharks, moray eels, and a host of other ocean-dwellers in a recreated Caribbean reef.  The climb eventually ends at the top of the tank, where you may watch divers enter the tank of feed and service the enclosure, or listen to an educational presentation.

Huddled around the base of the Giant Ocean Tank are three separate habitats for penguins from around the world.  African penguins, rockhopper penguins, and little blue penguins - the world's smallest species - inhabit pools studded with rocky islands for them to climb across.  Little blues are uncommon in zoo collections - this was only my second time ever seeing them, which was a treat... although I was unfortunately there during their annual molt, which meant that most of them looked like they had just fallen out of a laundry machine after a double-spin cycle.

Other galleries line the various levels of the aquarium - guests progress up the central ramp around the Giant Ocean Tank, hopping off as the mood strikes them on one floor or another.  The Temperate Gallery has an attractive display of schooling bait-fish, but the stars in the eyes of most visitors are likely either to be the massive Goliath grouper (which looks like it could - and maybe just did - swallow a kindergartner for breakfast), as well as the ethereal sea-dragons - both the weedy and the leafy - drifting in a rounded tank among strands of kelp.  The Northern Waters Gallery is dominated by a massive giant Pacific octopus, as well as lobsters (this is Boston, after all), and an attractive aviary of non-releasable shorebirds.  The Freshwater Gallery displays creatures of the Amazon, including such aquarium favorites as anaconda, piranha, and electric eel, as well as salmon.  There is also a touch tank replication of sea life of the New England coast.  Also present is an exhibit of Asian arowana, I species I first learned about through Emily Voigt's excellent book, The Dragon Behind the Glass.

As with many aquariums, New England tries to engage its visitors with rotating exhibits - at the time of my visit, the theme was "The Science of Sharks", with a touch tank of small sharks and a series of interactive exhibits on the ocean's most famous predators.  Past rotating displays have featured jellyfish and turtles

Like most of the larger, AZA-affiliated aquariums, the New England Aquarium is active with the rehabilitation of marine life. most of which is done off-exhibit.  It also maintains a specialized rehab center for porpoises, located outside of the city.

As a final treat, New England Aquarium boasts of a spectacular wildlife viewing opportunity that makes it very worthwhile for a whole day of enjoyment.

Boston is a fine old city with many exciting historical and cultural attractions to enjoy,  A visit to the city, however, wouldn't be complete with an exploration of its natural heritage as well, and the New England Aquarium is fine place for that exploration to begin.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Sand Tiger Shark (Carcharias taurus)

Sand Tiger Shark (Gray Nurse Shark)
Carcharias taurus (Rafinesque, 1810)

Range: Temperate and Tropical Oceans Worldwide
Habitat: Shallow Waters, Bays, Reefs
Diet: Fish, Crustaceans, Cephalopods
Social Grouping: Solitary, Small Groups
Reproduction: Breed in October and November.  Gestation period 6-9 months.  Females give live birth (eggs hatch within the mother's body) in sheltered areas, typically breeding once every two years. Believed to be mature at 4-10 years (females take longer to mature than males)
Lifespan: 35 Years (Wild Estimate)
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable

  • Maximum length up to 6 meters and weighing up to 300 kilograms, but 3.5 meters long and weighing 95-110 kilograms is more typical.  Females are usually larger than males
  • Grey coloration, fading to dirty white on the underside, with some metallic brown or red spots on the sides
  • Snout is pointed and slender, and long teeth are visible even when the mouth is closed.  This gives the shark a fierce appearance, which results in their having a reputation for being more dangerous than they actually are
  • Although only two pups are usually born, a female may have hundreds of eggs inside their uterus,  The first pups to begin growth will eat the other, less-developed embryos in what is known as intra-uterine cannibalism
  • Populations at northern and southern extremes of the species range will migrate towards the equator in the winter and back towards the poles in the summer
  • Sometimes hunt cooperatively, working together to herd fish into congregations where they can be more easily seized
  • The first shark species to be granted legal protection.  Believed to be in decline, primarily due to overfishing for meat and fins, as well as accidental entanglements in nets set for other species; during 18th and 19th centuries, their liver oil was used in lighting

Zookeeper's Journal: Compared to the great white shark and many of the other large, predatory shark species, the sand tiger shark is a relatively placid fish, which adjusts well to life under human care.  As a result (and bouyed by the popularity inspired by its fearsome appearance), they are one of the most commonly kept large sharks in aquariums - they certainly were the first shark species that I ever saw growing up, and remain my archetypical "shark."  For large sharks, however, "easy" is a relative term with respect to captive care.  Large sharks don't swim in the wild as much as they glide; in an aquarium tank that is too small, they may have to swim much more actively than they would in the wild.  This sometimes results in a somewhat hunched posture for a shark.  The best tanks are the biggest ones which facilitate the constant motion that these sharks would employ in the wild.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

From the News: Chester Zoo successfully breeds rare Catalan newts

Earlier today, the news broke that the removal of a ban on the import of African elephant trophies into the United States has been reversed; the ban is now back in effect.  One good news item deserves another.  Here's a story that is not going to be getting social media all fired up or drawing lots of celebrity star-power, but is just as deserving of attention: the first captive breeding ever of the rare Montseny newt!  Congratulations to the Chester Zoo!

Catalan newt
 Experts have created a purpose-built breeding facility for the newts to ensure their bio-security. Photograph: Chester Zoo

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Elephant Trophy Ban Lifted

Not a zoo issue in particular, but one which many keepers are discussing today.  Today, the Trump Administration announced that it will be lifting a ban allowing the import of elephant hunting trophies from some countries in southern Africa. 

The announcement has been met with widespread condemnation from the keeper community.  There is a fear that this measure could promote the feeling that elephants are worth more dead than alive, that it could serve as a backdoor to smuggling ivory, or that monies supposed to be going to be conservation could be funneled elsewhere. 

The fact that one of the countries involved in this arrangement has undergone a coup this week isn't helping matter.  Nor is the fact that the President's sons are known to engage in the odd trophy hunt.  Maybe someone was hoping for some new decor for the Oval Office...

PHOTO: A Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) ranger leads volunteers to carry elephant tusks to a burning site on April 20, 2016, at Nairobis national park for a historic burning of tonnes of ivory, rhino-horn and other confiscated wildlife trophies.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Just Because It's On the Internet...

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This was making the rounds with a fury earlier this month.  A woman in Virginia was purporting to have evidence of a red panda (which, incidentally, looks not much like a red fox) in a suburban backyard.  Sure, it was a heck of a haul from Norfolk, where an red panda went missing from the  Virginia Zoo months ago, but crazier things have happened, right?

Right, but not in this case.  In this case, it was a prank that spread a little too far and a little too fast.  Someone took a photo of a red panda at a zoo and jokingly sent it to someone else as a "Hey, look what's in my yard!" joke.  That person immediately posted it on the Internet where, it is said, a lie can run around the world before the truth gets its shoes on.

Not that it was a deliberate lie, and I'm sure no one wanted it to build up and then dash the hopes of the Norfolk keepers.  It just goes to show that once something is online, it can definitely take a life of its own.

I have an annoying suspicion that this is going to keep popping up for sometime...

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum)

Ambystoma mexicanum (Shaw, 1789)

Range: Central Mexico
Habitat: Lake Xochimilco
Diet: Algae, Aquatic Invertebrates
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction:  Breed from March through June in the wild.  Sexually mature at 12-18 months.  Males dance to initiate courtship, deposit sperm packets for females to pick up.  Hundreds of eggs laid in mucous envelopes, glued to rocks and other substrate.  Hatch after 2-3 week incubation period.
Lifespan: 10-15 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Critically Endangered, CITES Appendix II

  • Body length 30 centimeters.  Weight 125-180 grams.  Females larger than males
  • Demonstrate an extreme form of neoteny, in which salamanders do not fully undergo metamorphosis and retain their larval features, most notably their branch-like gills
  • If the habitat dries up, the normally larval-like axolotl is capable of undergoing metamorphosis and turning into a "normal" salamander.  Metamorphosis can be induced in captives by thyroid hormone injections
  • Coloration is dark brown or green, often blotchy.  Albinos are frequently bred and seen in captivity, but are not seen in the wild.
  • If wounded, they are capable of converting the affected cells into a stem-cell like state and regrow missing tissue, including whole limbs
  • Herons and other marsh birds are the primary natural predator; larger fishes have recently been introduced to the lakes where axolotls live, adding to the predation pressure.  They are aso consumed by local peoples
  • Common name means "water dog" in the Aztec language, referring to the Aztec god Xolotl, god of the dead and resurrected, as well as ugly beings 
  • Commonly used in biomedical research due to their unique properties.  Breeds very well in captivity; before breeding was established, capture of wild axolotls was a major form of population decline.
  • Major threat causing the decline of the species is habitat loss (one of the two lakes where tis species occurred no longer exists) and pollution from agriculture and sewage disposal, as well as the introduction of predatory fishes

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A Leave of Absence

Due to some personal matters which have popped up, I'll be taking a brief leave of absence from the Blog - I expect to start up again in the second half of this month.  Hope to be back refreshed and ready in a few weeks!

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Trick or Treat at the Zoo

Like every zoo and aquarium in North America, our zoo has Halloween events.  Like everywhere else, we call them "Zoo Boo" or "Boo at the Zoo", because zoo marketing staffs tend not to be too original, and they're suckers for an easy rhyme.  A small army of children (okay, a LARGE army of SMALL children) parades through the gates in search of candy.  There are a few events and games and some roaming animal ambassadors.

The next day is, inevitably, one of my least favorite days of the year, as it seems that the entire grounds of the zoo are covered with a fine coating of candy wrappers, trampled into the dirt by thousands of little sneaker-clad feet.

As I was scrapping the 867th trodden Tootsie Roll off of the pavement the other day, it occurred to me.  There is a depressing lack of animal-themed costume out there.  Looking back on my childhood, I don't think I went trick or treating as an animal once (well, not knowingly - I have seen pictures of my 3 year old self in a zebra costume, which I think is still hanging up somewhere in my parent's house).  I stopped trick or treating at a fairly early age, but many of my coworkers, at my zoo and around the country, still like to dress up as animals for Halloween.  Some get very detailed and very creative.

It would be neat to start trying to make this more of a thing by hosting animal-themed costume contests at our zoo.  We could judge them not only on their skill, but also their creativity.  Imagine someone showing up in a yellow sleeping bag, disguised as a banana slug?  Wearing a football helmet with horns attached as a bighorn sheep?  A bird of paradise costume, complete with the dance routine?  

To keep the theme interesting, the prize should be animal related.  A photo-op with the animal you were impersonating?  A behind-the-scenes tour?  An adoption certificate?  

There are tons of trick or treating venues out there to compete with for kids.  Perhaps it would makes ours stand out a bit more if we took the opportunity to emphasize what makes this one unique - animals.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Walk on the Pride Side

It's a gray, crummy, rainy day here, the perfect sort of day for wishing you were someplace else... someplace sunny, and warm, and exotic.

Australia, for example.  Besides it's extraordinary native fauna, Australia also has some pretty wild zoos - and few of them are wilder than Monarto Zoo.  Check out this new video clip as they prepare to open an extremely unique, very exciting lion habitat.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Satire: Vatican City Zoo Struggling To Breed First Angel In Captivity

Vatican City Zoo Struggling To Breed First Angel In Captivity

VATICAN CITY—After months of failed attempts to coax their sole mating pair into conceiving, officials from the Vatican City Zoo admitted Wednesday that they were unsure whether the facility would ever successfully breed an angel in captivity.
The current effort is reportedly part of an ongoing campaign by the zoo, home to Christendom’s most diverse collection of holy fauna, to increase the world’s angelic population, which has dwindled to fewer than 400 heavenly creatures in the wild.
“No systematic attempt to breed winged celestial beings outside their natural habitat in everlasting paradise has ever succeeded, so this is a daunting task,” said the zoo’s director Cardinal Lorenzo Menichelli, who explained that creating the ideal conditions for procreative intercourse would require theobiologists to learn more about angel fertility cycles and courtship rituals. “While there have been occasional signs of a potential pregnancy, such as elevated hormone levels or a dilated halo, each has unfortunately turned out to be a false alarm.”
“Nevertheless, we still hope that one day we will welcome a new baby angel into our zoo’s Heavenly Messenger Pavilion,” he added.
According to sources within the Holy See, zoo staff built an approximation of the angels’ natural habitat to facilitate breeding, installing sidewalks paved with gold throughout their concrete enclosure and a $300,000 motion-activated mist system to simulate clouds. Reports also confirmed that a special, secluded cage has been set up as far away as possible from the exhibit’s main viewing platform, which is often crowded with photo-snapping bishops and loud Sunday school children known to discourage angelic coition.
However, despite the zoo’s best efforts, Menichelli said the male and female angels seldom show interest in each other, and on the rare occasions they do, the pair often becomes spooked prior to the act of copulation by sounds coming from the Leviathan and Behemoth cages in the nearby Hall of Beasts. The cardinal added that the problem is compounded by the fact that female angels are only in heat once every jubilee year.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Arrau (Podocnemis expansa)

Arrau (South American River Turtle)
Podocnemis expansa (Schweigger, 1812)

Range: Northern South America
Habitat: Rivers, Lagoons, Flooded Forests
Diet: Fruits, Flowers, Aquatic Plants, Carrion
Social Grouping: Breeding congregations
Reproduction: Congregate in large numbers on sandbanks to nest (similar to sea turtles) at the end of the dry season.  Lay 75-120 eggs in a nest in the sand, some distance from the water's edge.  The eggs of one clutch may be sired by multiple fathers.  Eggs hatch after incubation period of about 45 days
Lifespan: 25 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern, CITES Appendix II

  • Largest of the side-necked turtles and the largest turtle in South America, maximum weight 90 kilograms, length 89 centimeters.  Females are considerably larger than males
  • Wide, flat shell is gray-brown or black, skin is brown, gray, or olive green.  Orange or red marks on top of the head; juveniles may have yellow spotting which fades with age.  Two small barbels on the chin.  Males differ from females in having flatter shells and longer tails
  • The long neck cannot be completely retracted into the shell; instead, it is wrapped horizontally, leaving the side of the neck exposed
  • Mutual cleaning has been observed, with turtles taking turns eating algae off of each others' shells
  • Juveniles may be preyed upon by wading birds, caiman, and large fish.  Adults have few predators, but may be taken by jaguars or large crocodilians
  • Historically they have been heavily exploited for food, especially their eggs.  Legally protected today but still poached.  In some areas, conservationists collect eggs, hatch them in captivity, and head-start the young
  • Some attempts have been made at commercial farming, which is complicated by the slow growth rate

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Photobombed by Fiona

There's so much misery and unhappiness in the world these days.  Life needs more baby hippos... especially baby hippos as spunky and sassy as Fiona.  Recently, the uncrowned queen of the Cincinnati Zoo graced a couple that was in the middle of a marriage proposal outside her enclosure (note to the couple involved - excellent taste in animals).

Although to be honest, it sort of looks like Fiona is completely ignoring the bride-to-be, and is wondering a) who is it now who has come to bow before me? and b) what is this shiny, non-edible object that you are offering me?

Congratulations to the newly-engaged couple - I don't suppose they are in search of a rotund little flower girl, are they?  On second thought, best not - I could totally see Fiona upstaging the bride...

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Movie Review: Zoombies

This ridiculous, B-level horror movie could most accurately be described as The Walking Dead meets (meats?) Jurassic Park.  A soon-to-open safari park is getting ready to open to the public, and interns are being toured around for orientation before the big debut.  Unfortunately, that's the same time that a deadly virus spreads through the collection, turning zoo animals into undead killing machines.  It starts of with the monkeys (surprise) before spreading through the gorillas, lions, birds, and yes, we are even treated to predatory monster giraffes and koalas.

I don't know why, but a movie that's so absurdly over-the-top silly bothers me a lot less than something like Kevin James' The Zookeeper, (though both still fall far, far short of Fierce Creatures as best zoo movie).  Fans of the classic zombie horror films will enjoy the new take on this movie, laughing as characters make poor life decisions that soon change into life-ending decisions.

For zookeepers themselves, the most fun would be in the speculation of how this movie would have gone if we'd written in.  Gorillas?  Pshah.  Imagine zombie cassowaries?  Zombie mambas?  Zombie fossas, slipping through the air ducts and dropping down on you?  Granted, a lot of keepers I know have a hard time watching movies where the animals die - I know some folks who refused to watch The Walking Dead because of Shiva, the tiger - but this is just so beyond realistic (and the animals are aren't really themselves, after all) that I didn't find this too objectionable.

I think it would have also been more fun if they'd done more with unexpected zombie killer animals.  Something about watching a giraffe eat a person is very unnerving and very funny at the same time.

For some reason, I can't upload a trailer.  Here's a link to one on Youtube.

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