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Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Zoo Review: American International Rattlesnake Museum

William Conway's "How to Exhibit a Bullfrog" has always been my guiding light for if I ever got to design a major zoo exhibit.  The thought of educating visitors holistically about a species really appealed to me - I thought of versions of it for prairie dogs, alligators, Asian elephants, and jaguars, among other species.  The closest I've seen so far is the Gomek Forever museum at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to see a facility designed around this concept, and I rushed to pay a visit.  The results were... so-so.

It's very easy to miss the grandiosely named American International Rattlesnake Museum.  Tucked away between the small stories and tourist spots of Albuquerque's Old Town, there is little to outwardly indicate what lies inside.  Through the front door and past the gift shop (where you will be issued a Certificate of Bravery... I kid you not.  I'm seriously thinking of having mine framed and hung over my desk) is one of the most impressive collections of rattlesnakes ever assembled under one roof.

It was ironically the gift shop which gave me the most positive vibe about the place.  A sign hung prominently stated that (and I'm paraphrasing here, as I forgot to take a picture) "The zoo doesn't sell rhino horns, the aquarium doesn't sell shark fins, we don't sell rattles."  Not that the three are necessarily equal, seeing as rattles often fall of naturally, which seldom happens to shark fins, but I liked the message it sent.  Then I went inside.

The museum is a series of small rooms, lined with terrariums of not only rattlesnakes, but a hodgepodge of other reptiles and amphibians.  Rattlesnakes, to be sure, are species which ask little of their caretakers in captivity, and the majority of the displays are simply glass-fronted wooden boxes, floored with sand or wood chips and decorated with a few plants and rocks.  Some looked a little small for the size of the occupants (rattlesnakes seldom move much, which I think can make it easy for a caretaker to misjudge how large an enclosure should be), but none were what I would call unacceptable... it's just that I remembered some of the much bigger, more beautiful displays I'd seen at other facilities (I'm thinking, for example, of the western diamondback exhibit at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo's Desert Dome), and finding myself wishing that the museum had opted for fewer, larger, better displays.  Heck, they probably couldn't have done larger, mixed-species exhibits if they wanted to preserve the diversity of the collection.

Apart from the snakes, the museum component consisted largely of shelves of stuff.  Some of it was kind of kitschy (obvious touristy knickknacks), some was kind of cool (like the display case of snake oils that peddlers used to sell in the Old West).  There were some bones and skulls, some graphics, and televisions playing David Attenborough's Life in Cold Blood.  The most interesting educational feature I saw was a low table of sand, with large river stones in it.  Each stone had a trivia question about rattlesnakes painted on one side, the answer of the other.  It was a fun, simple interactive device... though on second thought, a room full of a) semi-supervised children, b) glass-fronted rattlesnake habitats, and c) fist-sized rocks might not have been the ideal combination.

I'm glad I went to the Rattlesnake Museum - it was certainly worth a look - but it failed to meet my hope of finding Conway's vision realized somewhere.  Which was frustrating, because I think much of it could have been done with some better organization and messaging.  There was lots of stuff and a lot of animals, but together they didn't tell much of a story.  There were missed opportunities - the New World sidewinder rattlesnake was displayed next to the Old World sidewinder viper, which could have been a better-told story of convergent evolution.  Gila monsters were on display, as well as scorpions and tarantulas - these could have all been grouped together to better tell the story of venom.  I think it would have been really cool to have some specimens of the rattlesnake's natural prey - kangaroo mice or rabbits, for instance - on hand, but I can understand why the museum wouldn't - you bring in mammals, you open yourself up to annual USDA inspections, which they might not have wanted to get involved with.

One notable omission that concerned me - I don't think I saw a single mention anywhere about rattlesnake roundups, one of the greatest welfare and conservation issues associated with rattlesnakes in this country.  This is especially important in the western United States, where visitors to the museum could potentially be from states where roundups still occur, and where their voices could be put to use in changing these practices.

So in conclusion, the American International Rattlesnake Museum was a cool visit... but not the rattlesnake version of Conway's bullfrog.  I suppose I'll have to keep looking for that.

Monday, June 19, 2017

My Favorite Bed-Time Story

"I sensed that M. was devilishly pleased my now subdued demeanour and I hastened to point out that, after all, he had started the discussion by demanding a proper exhibit for bullfrogs - but that this display offered a great deal more than bullfrogs.  'That', he rejoined, 'is what makes it a proper exhibit of bullfrogs."

Once upon a time, there was a magical kingdom (the Bronx Zoo), ruled by a wise old king (William Conway)... The kingdom was a mostly happy one, but the old king felt that there must be some way to make it even happier for his subjects.  Then one night, he had a dream.

Okay, that's not quite how it goes.

When I first got to the age where the thought of entering the zoo field began to pass from a daydream to an actual possibility, I had one major thought in my head.  I was going to build exhibits.  And not just any exhibits - the best exhibits that there were, the ones that would delight the animals, marvel the visitors, and set the bar for the next one-hundred years.  Even though I'd never been there, I knew on some level that the exhibits I wanted to emulate the most were at the Bronx Zoo.

Perhaps even more so because I had never been there at the time, the Bronx took on an exaggerated importance to me, and its director at the time, William Conway, was some sort of philosopher king.  I read pretty much every article by him that I could find.  There was one, however, which made an enormous impact on me.  It was called, simply, "How to exhibit a bullfrog: a bed-time story for zoo men" (we'll excuse Conway on that last point - this was in the 1970's, and women had just begun their eventual conquest of the zookeeping profession).

Conway's article is presented as a dream, in which he is confronted by a charismatic, devil-like character who takes him to task for his sins.  His sins, in this case, are mediocre zoo exhibits - rare and exotic animals in bland, otherwise empty enclosures, with a label stuck on front.  This, back in the 1970's, was called "Conservation" and "Education."  "You don't gave a proper exhibit of bullfrogs!" the devil fumes, to which Conway essentially replies, "Who cares about a damned bullfrog?"  It turns out, no one really does... yet.

Conway's devilish companion then proceeds to take him for a dream-tour of "The World of Bullfrogs", a sprawling building that shows the visitor every aspect of the bullfrog.  Sure, the simple, 20-gallon tank is replaced by a massive pond habitat with underwater viewing... but there is so much more to it.  There are displays of bullfrogs in different stages of their life-cycle.  Close amphibian relatives of the bullfrog are display here, as are the bullfrog's predators and prey.  Graphics detail the evolutionary history of the bullfrog, its annual cycle through the seasons, and its role in history, culture, and literature, as well as its conservation status.  Visitors can learn about bullfrogs through movie clips, audio recordings, and interactive games.  Then, exhausted by all of their learning, they can sit for a themed snack on a porch overlooking yet more bullfrogs.

By the end of their tour (which doesn't even cover the whole building), a now-shamefaced Conway is made to realize that a zoo doesn't need to have 50,000 species on display - it just needs to have better exhibits of the species that it does display.  In an old-style zoo exhibit, visitors would see a bullfrog.  In this dream-display, they would not only fully experience one, they would understand one.

In this closing, Conway quips, "By now, some of you may suspect that I am pulling your leg; that I really haven't had such a dream about the exhibition of bullfrogs; but if you think that, you would be wrong.  To develop such an exhibit in the Bronx Zoo is one of our fondest dreams."

Since reading this article back in the pre-Internet days, (when I nervously wrote to Conway himself and received a copy in the mail), it's been one of mine, too.  One day, I hope to build one.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Father's Day

I've spent a lot of this month droning on about education.  I've talked about messaging, and what we should be messaging, and how best to convey that messaging.  One thing I haven't talked about is who should be doing the teaching.  I've talked a lot about how zoos and aquariums can share educational messages.  I've talked about teachers.  But in many cases, the most important teachers are the ones that have no formal role, either at the zoo or in the school system.

In my case, that teacher was my dad.

Both of my parents worked growing up, my mom in a soulless, evil corporation, my dad self-employed.  They were both extremely busy (still are, as it happens), but still managed to make plenty of time for my brother and I growing up.  They helped with homework.  They came to sports events (until I was mercifully allowed to quit), and music performances (where I played abominably), and the only slightly-less cringe-worthy theatrical productions.  And, when I was good (and sometimes when I wasn't), they indulged me in my favorite treat ever.  We'd go to the zoo.

Of all the members of my family, nuclear and extended, he was the one who most shared my excitement about animals and nurtured it in me.  I have memories of a him showing me salamanders he found while out on the job, or learning to identify local birds for a merit badge in Boy Scouts, or explaining to me firmly but gently why buying the baby caiman in the pet store wasn't the great idea that I was sure it was.  Mostly, I remember the zoo.

Growing up, I'd probably go to the local zoo (about a half hour drive away) once a month, taken by my dad.  He'd herd me patiently down the paths, taking the same route through the exhibits each time.   Going down the paths, he'd encourage me to read the signs and learn to recognize the animals.  He'd push me to make connections and think a little harder about concepts.  He made me slow down instead of racing wildly from one animal to the next.  He asked me questions about the animals (which I now suspect that he already knew the answers to), not only to make me think, but to help me build some pride in the store of knowledge I was building up.  He also taught me to stand up for animals.  I remember one visit to the National Zoo, seeing my normally mild-mannered dad bellowing at some teenagers who were throwing sticks at an alligator, scattering them like birds, then searching for a keeper so he could give a description of them, so staff could be on the look-out if they tried anything like that again.

As I entered high school, I began volunteering at our local zoo, first three times a week, then almost every day.  It wasn't until I became an adult, with the worries of time and mileage adding up on an old car, and the exhaustion of having worked all day and just wanting to rest, that I came to realize what an effort that was for him.  He never complained.  As high school wound down and I began to look at colleges, he went with me on the road-trips.  Each usually happened to be by a near zoo or two.  And when I did graduate from college and got my first zoo job across the country, he drove with me to help me settle into a new zoo... and it was with him that I walked around my new zoo for the first time.

My parents both still work, a lot more than they really should, to be honest, and I don't see them as often as I really should.  I still call home a few times a week, mostly to rant and rave about whatever is going on/wrong at the zoo this week.  A year or two ago, my dad suggested that we go on another zoo trip, just like the good old days, and we drove out to Toledo and Cleveland.  I had a friend working at each and was able to get us in for free and get him a behind-the-scenes tour at each zoo.  It made me happy, like I was treating him for a change.

There were plenty of people who helped me along to where I am now in my career in the zoo profession.  My mom, lacking in animal enthusiasm as she was (the last time I took her through my zoo on a tour, I think she had her eyes covered half the time, convinced I was about to get myself killed as I showed her a few favorite animals), supported me, pushing me to do better in my schooling, editing and proof-reading resumes and cover letters, and counseling me on how to navigate my first workplace dramas.  My older brother gamely pitched in with ferrying me to and from the zoo once he was old enough to drive.  Some teachers in school and professors in college helped me learn how to learn, and at each zoo and aquarium I've been at, there's been at least one person more senior than I who was willing to take the time to teach me.

But with all of the help I've gotten along the way, I feel pretty sure -  wouldn't have become a zookeeper without my father.  Thanks, Dad.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Touch-Screen Signage

Exhibit signage is the basic unit of zoo-based education - everyone exhibit has one, at the very least explaining what animal is in the enclosure.  As technology has continued to develop, more zoos are moving towards more sophisticated, modern educational tools.  Among those are touch-screens.

I first encountered touch-screens in a zoo setting at the Dallas World Aquarium.  I found myself in massive, free-flight aviaries full of many species that I had never seen before and wanting to know more about.  After stalking back and forth looking for more conventional signage, I finally noticed the computer screens scattered around the enclosure.  A few random taps later, I was hooked.

There are many advantages to using computer touch-screens as opposed to regular signage.  They can hold an enormous amount of information on a small device.  You can put as much data on as you like, and have it expand out to meet the visitor's informational needs.  If they just want to know what a duck in an aviary is called, they can see it easily.  If that duck appeals to you for some reason, you can keep tapping away, seeing all the information that there is to display about it in great detail.

You want to add video or sound clips?  Go ahead,  it's a great way to highlight behaviors that are fascinating but might not be seen by many visitors, such as a rattlesnake striking, or a chimpanzee using a twig to fish for termites.  You have a lot of visitors who speak languages other than English?  No problem - you can have settings to change the language. Changes to the collection?  These devices are much easier to update than traditional signage.

With so many advantages, why aren't these touch-screens in use everywhere?

For one thing, they are expensive.  This is especially problematic if you have them in an outdoor setting, where they are exposed to the elements (or an indoor area, even, if it happens to be an aviary where birds are raining down poop and uneaten food on them).  They may be installed in the fanfare and funding of a new exhibit, but once they are broken, they might not be replaced.  Also, because they are expensive, there tend to be few of them, and they are quickly monopolized by folks who may be more interested in pushing buttons of the screen to see what happens then actually reading about the animals.  I was at the Shedd Aquarium a few years ago, and almost had a seizure from the rapidly flickering touch-screens being manipulated by excited kids.

I think I'm also a slight hold-out just because of the technological aspect.  Visitors - especially kids - spend much of their day looking at screens.  Do we want them to come to the zoo and aquarium to look at more screens - or to look at animals?

Friday, June 16, 2017

Give Me a Sign

Relatively few zoo and aquarium visitors enroll in camps.  Field trips capture only a portion of the guests who enter the gates.  Only a small percentage of the visitors on a given day will be at a specific keeper talk or feeding demonstration.  These educational opportunities will only reach a relative few people every day.

Instead, most visitors will rely on a single tool for most of their animal information.  The most basic item in the zoo's educational arsenal.  The sign.

And I immediately sensed a few of my colleagues rolling their eyes.

There are many kinds of signs in the zoo.  There are directional signs.  There are rule signs.  There are temporary signs.  There are guest safety signs.  Most prevalent of all are the informational signs.

It's almost taken as a given among many people that signs are useless.  Mostly, in their eyes, because no one uses them.  The thought of reading the information provided seems to escape many guests; just the other day, I heard an adult exclaim, "Look at the coyotes!"... while the was literally leaning against a sign that said "WOLF" (the same applies to other kinds of signs as well - also last week, I saw a parent stand their kid atop the "Please Keep Off of Fence" sign nailed to an exhibit railing... all I could think was, "I think I've seen this movie before...").

Anyway, this is a common view point... and one that I disagree with entirely.  I think a well-made sign that conveys good information is one of the best educational tools available.  Sure, it's not as engaging as an actual demonstration or a chance to interact with a staff member (or animal!).  But unlike many educational opportunities, it has the potential to easily and cheaply reach everyone.

So what makes a good sign?

It should be attractive.  More than attractive - visually arresting.  A sign has to at least temporarily hold the attention of a visitor who has a thousand other things to look at,  It should be visually appealing with attention-getting images.  At the very least, one good picture of the species, multiple if there is sexual dimorphism.  (Note: for some animal imagery, there is a line between fascinating and disgusting).  There are no rules for color scheme, except maybe avoid road-cone orange.  Some zoos prefer very bright, colorful signs that catch the eye.  Others prefer signage that blends in and creates a natural feeling.

And don't be afraid to be unusual.  One of the coolest signs that I ever saw was the black rhino sign at the Lincoln Park Zoo.  It was life-sized and shaped like a rhino, letting visitors stand right up against it and get a sense of the size of these animals.  Also, interactive is good, too.  Many zoos have signs of wingspans of various birds, encouraging visitors to stand up and spread their arms, seeing how they measure up to a condor, an eagle, a hawk, or a kestrel.

It should be brief.  Remember the elevator speech.  Few visitors will delay the pleasure of seeing the animal for too long, even for a well-made sign.  The sign isn't going to teach them all that there is to know about the animal; what it ideally will do is introduce the animal, then encourage them to seek out more information about it,  I'd say 100 words is an ideal summary,  If possible, use images to replace words.  For example, use a map to highlight an animal's geographic range, rather than words.  Represent whether or not it is endangered visually with a thermometer or other graphic rather than text.  Save your words for a brief message that conveys an essential impression of the species.

It should be universal.  No sign is going to reach every member of an audience... especially if every member of the audience doesn't share a common language.  Still, the sign should work for a broad, general audience of adults and kids.  If you have to error one way or the other, I would suggest simple, child-friendly text with maybe a few technical words introduced, but explained ("These animals are nocturnal (active by night)".  Adults who are reading the signs with children can use these as teachable moments to share information with the kids.

It should be interesting.  Or relevant.  Ideally both.  When you write your draft text, step back, read it aloud, and then ask... who cares?  You only have that brief moment to make an impression, so make it an interesting one.  If you're telling guests about Arabian oryxes, don't use your window to explain that they have a single calf at a time - tell how they nearly went extinct and were saved.  Don't tell people how many subspecies of clouded leopard there are - describe how amazing they are at climbing - maybe complimented by photos of a cat hanging upside down from its back feet, or climbing a branch upside-down.

Attractive.  Brief.  Universal.  Interesting.  All things that this post maybe isn't entirely.  I better go work on my elevator post.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Book Review: Confessions of an Accidental Zoo Curator

"Territorial behavior in animals doesn't surprise us, but we rarely speak of it in human terms.  I noticed that the heads of different zoo departments were equally territorial, defending their turf, and that included me as well... It always amused me how observing animals often made me reflect on humans."

When Annette Libeskind Berkovits describes herself as "an accidental" zoo curator, she's not joking.

Throughout the course of a childhood that spanned three continents, there was nothing to suggest that animals would ever play a prominent role in her life.  She had only two pets - a dog, which she was terrified of and almost accidentally killed, and a bullfrog tadpole... which she did accidentally kill.  Seeking to re-enter the workforce, she applied to a somewhat mysterious job advertisement that was a little short of details.

Imagine her surprise when, a few days later, she got a call from the Bronx Zoo.

If Berkovits was a novice to the field of zoo education (as became quickly clear on her awkward, animal-packed first day), then she had the double-handicap of being a novice in a field with no experts.  When she accepted her position at the Bronx Zoo, the field of zoo-based education was still in its infancy.  Essentially, her job consisted of holding an animal ambassador and talking to visitors.  Over the next several years, she worked to re-invent her position, using the zoo as a classroom to convey powerful educational messages about wildlife, coming up with increasingly innovative ways of reaching audiences young and old.  One chapter describes TV appearances (with Captain Kangaroo, no less), while another details the creation of the zoo's first summer camp program - an idea that is now extremely widespread, but was controversial and trailblazing at the time.

Not all of these educational-adventures take place at the Bronx.  WCS conservation programs are active in countries across the world, and it seems that their education programs follow closely behind.  In one chapter, Berkovits describes a visit to Belize to implement a conservation education program, while in another, she ushers a crowd of VIPs (including one trustee from hell) through communist China.  Likewise, there are several wildlife stories that take place within the Berkovits family, reminding us that you aren't just an educator or a conservationist when you are at work - you occupy the job all the time.

Like any zoo memoir, however, it's the animals that take center-stage.  On this blog, I've reviewed a few other books about the Bronx Zoo, and I noticed a few stories from other memoirs that popped up here (notably the king cobra escape detailed in You Belong In A Zoo!) - the same story, but told through fresh eyes and a much different perspective.  Much of the book centers around the animal-shy Annette as she comes to terms with the constant presence of her winged, four-footed, or scaly colleagues.  It's fascinating to watch the transition of a woman who is so terrified of cats that she insists her neighbor lock up her house cat before she'll come over for a visit then finding herself working with a very affectionate, half-grown puma.

It's that trait - an initial separation from animals - which made Annette Berkovits an "accidental" zoo curator.  It's also what makes her such a fascinating, insightful narrator.  So many books that I've read about zoos and aquariums are written by the Gerald Durrells or the Peter Brazaitises - people who have always loved animals and always wanted to work with them.  Those people are great, and I'm glad that they are out there - I consider myself one of them.  But those aren't the people who we really need to be getting into zoos and aquariums - we're already reaching them.

Instead, we need people like Annette Berkovits - someone who may have the passion and drive to do fantastic things for wildlife... but just needs someone to make that sometimes awkward first introduction.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

A Flood of Field Trips

I once dated a girl from rural northern Vermont.  She liked to say that there were four seasons up there, just like everywhere else, but they were different seasons - winter, still winter, semi-winter, and construction.   I've heard our groundskeeper jokingly refer to his four seasons as mulching, watering, raking, and snow-shoveling.

As near as I can tell, our Education Department has four seasons, too - Camp, School Visit, Quiet, and Field Trip.  The later has a tendency to feel the longest.

Every year, over 10,000 school children descend upon our little zoo.  Their buses fill up the parking lot almost completely.  Their voices blot out even the loudest of the animals' calls.  Sometimes, I think I can feel the macadam shake under the impact of their sneaker-clad feet.

Field trips are one of the greatest challenges of a zoo to manage.  They involve thousands of guests coming in, all at once, on a select few days.  The child to adult ratio is the most skewed we ever see (as opposed to the summer, when children are most often brought by their parents), which often means more lost children, more minor injuries, and more kids getting into trouble.  There are endless logistical hurdles, including how to handle bus parking, coordinating lunch time, and, often, arranging keeper talks and education presentations.

Which is all good and manageable, in the end.  That's not my beef with field trips.

My issue is that it seems like kids are largely just dumped loose in the zoo.  It's treated as a day off, a chance to run around and blow off steam at the end of the school year.  Except for maybe a worksheet, not much effort is often made to encourage the kids to learn too much.  Sometimes, it seems like zoo field trips are just something that is done for tradition's sake, without much thought being given to how to best learn from the experience.

Another observation - students on field trips all tend to be on the younger side of the spectrum.  I feel that the zoo would actually be a great living classroom for older students, students who are better at making connections, handling abstract concepts (like conservation, adaptations, and animal behavior), and better equipped to supplement what they learn at the zoo with homework or research projects back at school.   Even university students could benefit from time at the zoo in many ways, depending on their major.  Biology majors could study the animals of course, but psychology majors could study training and enrichment, chemistry majors could study water quality, education majors with signage, business majors with non-profit accounting, etc.

A change to zoo-based-education for schoolchildren can't begin with the students, though.  It needs to begin with teachers.  Zoos and aquariums should work harder to bring teachers and other educators in on their programs - special teacher workshops for instance, discounted memberships for teachers, and other ways to encourage teachers to become a part of the zoo's network.  We need to help them recognize the zoo as a partner and a tool that they can better use for their classroom, and maybe help them identify new ways to incorporate it into their studies.  The zoo may end up being the best outdoor classroom they have.

PS: One final note.  I loved going to the zoo as a small child, especially on field trips.  I have come to feel, however, that zoos are a poor choice for a class' first ever field trip.  Students on their first field trip may have a hard time understanding that the rules of school still apply, even though they are off grounds.  I'd say it's best to have that lesson reinforced in a smaller, more enclosed, easier to control environment, not twenty-five acres of wild animals.  Come to the zoo when they're a little more familiar with the idea of what is expected on a field trip.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Sporcle Quiz: Animalology

Zoology is the study of animals; the very name "zoo" is short for "zoological park" - a place for the study of animals.  That field, in turn, is broken down into dozens of other, more specialized fields.  Can you identify the correct animal-ology?

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Camp Keeper

We're in the quiet before the storm right now.  The last of the field trip kids have rolled off into the sunset on their cheese-buses.  We've got some summer tourists starting to appear, like the first few migratory birds that let you know the season is about to change.  The mornings are silent (at least as silent as a zoo ever is) and child-free... for another week or so.

Then camp begins.

Almost every zoo I've ever worked at has offered camp in one form or another.  They've ranged from daycare programs for kids so young that they can hardly walk without falling over to teenage volunteer programs that work alongside zoo staff.  At most facilities, campers are nominally the responsibility of the education department.  That doesn't matter too much, as the responsibility inevitably spills over to encompass the entire staff.  Managing a zoo-full of kids is a big job.

What the children do in camp varies mostly by age.  For very young kids, it typically doesn't differ much from other day cares.  There are arts and crafts, games, sing-a-longs, and, of course, naps and snacks (side note: I've decided that no longer having designated nap and snack periods throughout the day is the worst part of adulting).  There tends to be an animal twist to most of these activities, as well as walks around the zoo, and maybe some special feedings or demonstrations, as well as meetings with animal ambassadors.

The older the campers, typically the more "zoo-ish" the camp.  At our zoo, for example, campers may help keepers make enrichment items (which they then get to see in use), do little projects around zoo grounds, and tour behind the scenes (under careful keeper supervision).  Some of the oldest campers even have the option of enrolling in a camp where they can work alongside the keepers in caring for some of the zoo animals, sort of like a "So-You-Wanna-Be-A-Zookeeper?" type deal.

Not too surprisingly, I was in zoo camp as a kid.  More surprisingly, I didn't like it too, too much.  Camp tends to mean group activities, which tend to be held to the lowest-common-denominator.  Kids who are too young in the group (or just kind of immature) can hold back the group, and keep the rest from enjoying the full scope of activities.  The difference was that I wanted to be a zookeeper when I grew up.  Most of the others were there as a substitute to daycare.  Camp leaders have a tendency to manage kids collectively, so kids acting up can have negative consequences for everyone (maybe I'm just bitter - we had a few camp clowns in my zoo camp as a kid, which resulted in the loss of a few activities).

Still, I can't deny that many of our campers seem to love it.  Some of our past campers have even gone on to become docents or involved in other capacities.  For many camp participants (yes, me too), camp provides a first introduction to the world of the zoo.  For some of them, it might be the first step towards falling in love.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Tentacled Snake (Erpeton tentaculatum)

Tentacled Snake
Erpeton tentaculatum (Lacepede, 1800)

Range: Coastal Southeast Asia
Habitat: Stagnant/Slow Bodies of Moving Fresh or Brackish Water, Ditches, Rice Paddies
Diet: Small Fish
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Ovivioparous (eggs hatch inside body of the mother, young born live).  Up to 10 young are produced in a litter, which is delivered underwater.
Lifespan: 12 Years
Conservation Status: Not Evaluated

  • Average size 50-75 centimeters, but up to 90 centimeters long, and weigh up to 150 grams
  • Body coloration varies from dark brown to pale gray or tan.  Specimens often have contrasting stripes or blotches.
  • The species name refers to the two small "tentacles", up to 2 centimeters long, on the snout.  These are believed to be used for the detection of prey.  They are the only snake species to possess tentacles
  • Capable of staying underwater for up to 30 minutes without coming up for air.  They are highly aquatic and move very awkwardly on land
  • During the dry season, they may bury themselves in the mud until the rains replenish their water sources
  • Hunt by resting motionlessly in the water, their bodies curved into a "J" shape ready to strike.  When a fish approaches, the snake twitches part of its body, startling the fish into swimming closer to the mouth.
  • Tentacled snakes are very mildly venomous - their venom is specialized for the fish that they prey upon, and has no impact on humans except for - in some cases - mild itching.  The small fangs are located in the back of the mouth

Monday, June 5, 2017

Elevator Education

I tell my friends, not really joking, that if I was born a year or two later, I'd have been diagnosed with ADHD, or maybe ADD.  As it were, a fair number of my classmates were, and when I first began working with kids during my late high school, early college years, I noticed an increased number of them were, too.  It's not that I was particularly hyperactive, bouncing off the walls.  It's just that I had a hard time paying attention and focusing on any one thing, for any length of time.

I still do.  Only now, I don't think of it as an anomaly.  It seems like almost everyone has difficulty paying attention to any one thing for too long these days.  Maybe it's always been that way.  Maybe the scientists and artists and creators who are able to focus on one thing for an extended period of time, absorbing every detail, maybe they are the outliers.

What I take away from this, then, is the the fact that short-attention spans are a characteristic of zoo and aquarium visitors as they are any other segment of the population.  I was reading a study a while back that said that the average visitor spends 30 seconds to 90 seconds at an enclosure.  Maybe longer if there is a baby, or a feeding demonstration, or perhaps the animal is playing with some enrichment, but not too much longer.

And if you want to experience a really short attention span, try talking to visitors as an educator.

A lot of the educators and docents I've worked with have labored under a misapprehension.  That misapprehension was that the visitors came to the zoo to hear them talk, and to have their heads filled with an impressive assortment of facts.  They do not.  They come to see the animals, enjoy some time with friends or family, and have a nice day out.  They can be very receptive to education, but on their terms.  And the most important term is that isn't boring, and certainly not too time-consuming.  And so, with every animal in the zoo, I try to develop an elevator speech.

An elevator speech, if you aren't familiar with it, is the concept that you have find yourself in an elevator with someone, and you have the duration of that ride to convey an idea to that person.  No, the elevator never breaks down, leaving you two trapped together so you have a captive audience for hours until the fire department rescues you both.  You've got a minute or so to convey a message, that being the length of their attention span.  All you have to do is choose what the message will be.

The message should have a few attributes.  Accuracy is a good place to start - make sure what you're saying is true.  We've already covered brevity.  Perhaps the most important is to try and make it so that visitors find it interesting, relatable, and perhaps even relevant.   For example, check out these two blurbs I've overheard keepers sharing with visitors about capybaras:

Number 1: Hello.  These are capybaras.  They are the largest rodent in the world.  They can weigh over 100 pounds and measure 4 feet long.  They have eyes and ears and nostrils on the top of their faces to help them see, hear, and smell while the rest of their body is under the water.  They live in northern and central South America and are found in wetlands.  They eat grasses and aquatic vegetation.  Any questions?

Number 2: Hello, and welcome to the zoo.  These are Al and Peggy, our capybara.  These guys are the largest rodents in the world - you can sort of think of a capybara as a guinea pig the size of a sheep that thinks its a hippo.  Capybara do act a lot like hippos - they spend a lot of their time in the wetlands and underwater, sometimes with just their faces over the surface, eating lots of wetland plants.  Do you have any questions about the capybara?

Sure, number 2 is slightly longer, but it's a lot more likely to hold the interest of the visitors.  It doesn't contain numbers (I avoid numbers in talks unless there is a specific reason one is cool and noteworthy, like how fast a cheetah can run, or how much an elephant eats in a day).  Instead, it creates imagery and makes comparisons with more familiar things.  Note that it also repeats the animal's name - capybara - four times, improving the odds of visitors actually remembering what they are called.

The best way to perfect your elevator speech is to talk to as many visitors about the animals as you can.  Take note of what interests them, and incorporate that into your speech as a hook.  Also, ask yourself - if I want this person to leave here knowing only one thing about this animal, what is it?  Is it that rattlesnakes aren't monsters trying to kill us all?  That tamarins don't make good pets?  That polar bears are threatened by climate change?

Whatever it is that you want to say, say it quickly.  You've got their attention - and you only have about sixty seconds to keep it.

Friday, June 2, 2017

From the News: Climate Change Is Tough to Teach, So Aquariums and Zoos Are Stepping In

After yesterday's disappointing news regarding the US and its withdraw from the Paris Climate Change Accord, I can think of no better piece of news to share than this article from Education Week.  Education at the zoo isn't just about teaching people what an animal is called or where to find it on the map.  It's about helping people make connections and deepen their understanding of wildlife and the habitats that support them, helping them become better informed and better equipped to protect wild animals, locally and around the globe.

Over the next few years, I suspect our role is going to become that much important.

Climate Change Is Tough to Teach, So Aquariums and Zoos Are Stepping In

Louise Bradshaw, the education director at the Saint Louis Zoo, said her training on climate change was useful in helping the zoo create the new polar bear exhibit shown behind her. —Sid Hastings for Education Week

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Education at the Zoo

“If your plan is for one year plant rice. If your plan is for ten years plant trees. If your plan is for one hundred years educate children. ”

- Confucius 

Over the years of writing this blog, I've primarily focused on two things.  Firstly, on the lives of the keepers and aquarists who care for animals in zoos and aquariums.  Secondly, on the greater conservation goals of those organizations.  The first describes my daily day, the second of what my coworkers and I labor in the service of.  Easy enough.  You write about what you know.

It would be a mistake, however, to think that the zoo is all about the keepers and the kept.  Especially in larger zoos, there is a larger team at play.  There are administrators and veterinarians, horticulturalists and maintenance teams, marketers and customer service staff.  There is also the field that I originally started off in, and what got me my first zoo paycheck - Education.

Education is often described as the partner of the zoo's other primary goal, Conservation.  The two go hand in hand; all of our research programs and captive-breeding and reintroduction schemes aside, all of our efforts will be for naught if we don't instill knowledge and a desire for a better world for wildlife in our visitors.  This month, we'll explore the world of zoo education.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Zoo History: Penguins on Parade

The walk-through aviary is one of the classic archetypes of zoo exhibition, with almost every zoo or aquarium featuring at least one example of this habitat.  Visitors (except those that are morbidly terrified of flying birds... of which there are a surprising number) greatly enjoy the chance to enter the habitat of zoo birds.  At some facilities, the situation is reversed, however.  There, the birds are given a chance to talk a walk among the humans.

Almost since the zoo first opened its gates, penguins have been the pride of the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland.  In January of 1914, a half-dozen of the flightless seabirds arrived from South Georgia, complements of a whaling expedition, becoming the first zoo penguins seen in a zoological park.  One great first follows another, and within five years the zoo was celebrating the first hatch of a king penguin, incidentally also the first penguin hatched above the equator.  This was followed years later with the first hatch of a macaroni penguin, and later a gentoo.

With such a bustling penguin family, it's no wonder that keepers might have felt a little overworked and absent-minded (as keepers can sometimes be).  In 1951, a zookeeper mistakenly left the gate to the penguin exhibit open, and the birds began to march out of the exhibit.  Fortunately, escape proved to be fairly far from their collective mind, and instead of making a very-slow-run for the exits, they instead found their keeper and trooped behind him in a single-file line.

Today, watching the Penguin Parade is the highlight of any visit to the Edinburgh Zoo.  It provides an exciting opportunity for visitors to get closer than they ever would otherwise to some very charismatic birds, while at the same time providing exercise and enrichment to the penguins themselves.  If you think about it, it's sort of like a trip to the zoo for the birds, allowing them to file past the other animals, curiously inspecting them as they go.

Oh, you love penguins but don't think you'll be making it out to Scotland any time soon?  Don't worry about it.  An increasing number of zoos around the world are duplicating Edinburgh's Penguin Parade; never having been to Edinburgh myself, the picture on this article comes from Kentucky's Newport Aquarium.  Other facilities have tried it with flamingos or cranes.

And if first-exhibitions, first-hatchings, AND the Penguin Parade weren't enough to put Edinburgh on the map, penguin-wise, there's more.  The zoo also is the home of the famous Brigadier General Sir Nils Olav.  What does a general have to do with penguins.  Simple - he IS a penguin (I know, it sounds weird, but it's all explained here).

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

From the News: Hamerton Zoo Keeper Dies in "Freak Tiger Accident"

As zookeepers and aquarists we have, hands down, the most amazing jobs in the world.  And then, every once in a while, something happens to remind all of us how dangerous it can be.

Yesterday, Rosa King, a carnivore keeper at the Hamerton Zoo, lost her life in an incident involving one of the tigers she cared for.  She was 34-years old.

Picture Credit: Hamerton Zoo Facebook page

When tragedies like this occur, people react differently.  Sure, the anti-zoo folks will parade this as additional evidence of why animals shouldn't be in zoos (note: if I'm ever killed on the job, I will personally haunt forever any jerk who tries capitalizing off of my death as a fundraiser for their organization).  There's often a tendency for people to blame the facility, claiming that something must have been inadequate about it.

Regrettably, I've also seen keepers in other cases try to find fault with the victim.  That, I think, is mostly fear - people are desperate to convince themselves that this was the other person's "fault", a mistake that they themselves would never make, to convince themselves that nothing like this could ever happen to them.

The truth is, sometimes it's just what the headline says it is - a freak accident.  Sometimes the best trained keepers in perfectly acceptable facilities with animals they know very well still come together in a tragic way.  The details of this incident are still coming out.  I see no advantage in poking a raw wound on the hearts of the staff of this zoo, trying to find fault that might not even be there.

The zoo staff and the police are to be congratulated for the quick, effective, and professional manner in which they evacuated the facility and made sure all visitors were gotten to safety.  I am so, so, sorry for their loss, and wish them privacy and space to grieve for their fallen friend.

Monday, May 29, 2017

When Birds Fly The Coop

This weekend, the North Carolina Zoo is asking residents to be on the look-out for a pair of leggy fugitives.  A pair of secretarybirds has escaped from an off-exhibit holding pen and is roaming the surrounding area.  The zoo has set up a hotline - 336-879-7610 - to request information if the birds are seen.  Members of the public are asked not to try and capture them for fear of injuring the birds or potentially scaring them off.

Few animal escapes cause more stress for staff members than birds.  Not so much secretarybirds, cranes, flamingos, and other birds that are normally kept in open-air paddocks.  Mostly aviary birds.  Catching an flying bird on the wing is an enormous headache, as you can imagine.  With the ability to fly, there really is nothing stopping a bird from taking off for Mexico the second it clears the enclosure.

The only factors that really will prevent a bird escape from going downhill super-fast are aspects of the bird's own behavior.  Knowing this is what has allowed me to capture escapees the two times that I've had birds fly the coop.

The first incident was a screech owl, on his way back from a vet check.  I was carrying the crate (by the handle) back to the enclosure... when suddenly my load got a lot lighter.  Looking down, I saw the bottom half of the crate had just... dropped off.  The tennis-ball sized owl took off, with me in hot pursuit.  Fortunately, owls are disinclined to fly much during the day, when they are exposed.  This is especially true for very tiny owls, which are vulnerable to all sorts of predators.  Instead, the little fellow took refuge in a maple tree, about twenty feet tall, not fifty yards from his enclosure, still in the zoo.

We hatched a plan where our smallest, nimblest keeper - who was not me - would climb the tree with a hose and lightly mist the owl.  The water would make it too heavy to fly, allowing her to then grab it with a glove.  I was stationed below with a net, ready to catch the owl - or, possibly the keeper - if things went south.

They did.

The keeper in the tree misunderstood her mission and hit the owl with the full brunt of the hose, basically power-washing it out of the tree.  Luckily, I was ready with my net and caught it in time, and soon the furious, sodden-wet bird was back in its enclosure, dripping irritably.

The second incident involved a parrot that had gotten out from its aviary; fortunately for us, parrots are pretty sociable, and he'd left his twenty best friends behind in the aviary.  Not willing to venture too far, he stuck around long enough for us to try - and fail - many attempts to either trap him or net him.  Some of the most memorable efforts involved keepers balancing precariously on top of the enclosure (which, upon further reflection, was not meant to support the weight of three keepers), racing back and forth along the beams, waving nets.

Finally, we had an epiphany and brought in the big guns... I mean, nets.

A mist net is a long, barely visible net of fine filaments, used by scientists to trap birds and bats for research.  You stretch it across an opening in a forest where flying animals are funneled to and boom, it smacks right into it and becomes entangled.  Their use is very heavily permitted - one irresponsibly used net, say, one that was left up and then ignored, could claim the lives of untold birds and bats.  Luckily, we knew a scientist in our area who had a net and had a permit, so we set it up.

That same afternoon, not twenty minutes after we'd hung the net, that parrot was flying circles around us, cocky as ever... we suddenly it looked like he'd be frozen solid in midair.  I couldn't even see the net from where I'd been standing.  It doesn't seem that he could have seen it either.

Catching escaped birds always makes a great story in retrospect... if you get the bird.  While it's in progress, however, it's ulcer-inducing to the extreme, and I count myself very lucky that we were able to get the birds back in each case.  While we've been lucky in the past, I'd rather be careful in the future.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Zoo - Season 2?

Calling all fans of Animal Planet's awesome TV series, The Zoo!.  Animal Planet's Facebook page put out a survey today soliciting opinions of the series.  It seems to be a tool that they are using to consider whether to renew the series or not.

The Bronx Zoo is, of course, enormous, and with its conservation projects spanning the globe, there is an almost endless list of stories that they could share.  Still, I threw out the suggestion that maybe they could try different facilities for a season.  Behind the scenes at an aquarium would be really cool, for instance.  Or maybe a season that goes behind the scenes of lots of the smaller zoos - sort of, see how the other half lives.

Please give your feedback, and hopefully we'll be enjoying this show again soon!

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Zoo Joke: Bird Auction

Francis, the Bird Curator of the City Zoo, is in search of some new parrots for a display, so he goes to a bird auction.  The auctioneer steps up and announces that the final bird for sale that day is an exceptionally beautiful, rare macaw, and that the bidding will start at $2,000.

Determined to win it, Francis bids immediately, only to hear a voice from somewhere else in the hall call out "$3,000!"

Miffed, Francis raises his bird to $4,000, only to hear that same voice call out "$5,000!"

Undeterred, Francis goes up to $6,000, only for that same voice again to shout out $7,000!"

And so the bidding goes on and on between Francis and his unseen opponent, before the later finally relents.  Francis steps up to the auctioneer later that day to pay his $20,000 and claim his prize.

"That's the most expensive parrot I've ever bought," he confesses to the auctioneer as he starts to fill out the check.  "I hope at the very least that he's a talker."

The auctioneer smirks slightly.  "Of course he is.  Exactly who did you think was bidding against you the whole time?"

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Nothin' but Net

In my first job out of college, I moved across the country to take a position in the reptile house of a southern zoo.  About a month after another new keeper and I started, the whole staff went out after work one night to a British-themed pub.  Pints were drunk.  Fish and chips were consumed.  Darts were played.

I'm really, really bad at darts.  Or anything that involves throwing object with precision.  So bad, in fact, that the people standing directly behind me begin to wince whenever I came up, convinced I was somehow going to launch the dart in the exact wrong direction and nail them in the eyes.  As I walked up to the cork-board to pull out of all my misses, one of my new coworkers cackled, "Hell, son, if that's your depth perception, I'm gonna hate seeing you learn to hook cobras!"

He needn't have worried.  I'm pretty damn good with a snake-stick.  And I'm pretty awesome, if I do say so myself, with a net.  They ever make netting hawks an Olympic event, and I'm bringing back some golds.

It startled me the first time I went to net birds.  I have, as I just mentioned, no skill at throwing things, or otherwise launching things (like golf balls).  With a net, however, it's nothing that you throw, or lose control of.  It's an extension of your arm.  You are able to make lots of slight adjustments swiftly, which is useful in response to a small, fast-flying bird.   You can feint one way then double back and catch the bird when it seeks to evade you.  You can launch it straight up, or turn it suddenly.
At first glimpse, netting birds in a large aviary seems impossible.  In some cases, it probably is, especially when the aviary is absolutely huge and very tall.  In those cases, keepers may resort to traps or catch-pens to capture birds.  A small cage is baited with food, the bird enters, the trap is sprung.  It's not that much more sophisticated than a box propped up with a stick tied to a string, a la Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.

In smaller aviaries, it can still be challenging to catch birds.  Thankfully, they tend to become fairly predictable after a while, developing flight patterns.  Often, they stick to these flight patterns faithfully, making it easy to predict when and where they will be - and having your net ready.  It's important to be mindful of the birds' and their stress-levels as you try to make a capture - not just that of the bird you are after, but all of the others in the aviary who are being stressed by your efforts.  What you absolutely don't want is to push the birds too hard, allowing them to succumb to capture myopathy, which can be lethal.

You want to know your net for the task.  How big and deep is the net?  I've tried to capture tamarins with a net that was so shallow that they popped out of it the moment I caught them.  How light is it?  For small, fast-flying birds, you're going to need to be able to handle it over your head for quite a while and move it swiftly.  What size is the mesh?  It's obviously no good to net an animal, and then watch it wriggle its way out before you can extract it.  How strong is it?  Will the animal rip it apart?  Be careful about the heavy rim of the net - you don't want to accidentally bring it down on a wing, leg, or neck and cause injury.

In recent years, the expansion of training programs in zoos has helped to reduce the need to net birds and other small animals, as positive reinforcement can be used to coax an animal in.  It's much safer and less stressful for the animal (and the keeper), and can be far more reliable.  That being said, netting is still a very valuable skill for a keeper to be practiced in, whether its snagging an animal that just refuses to be caught up when it needs to be, or its capturing a wild animal that's made its way into your zoo.

So I'm going to keep practicing my netting.  After all, you never know what's going to happen before the next Olympics.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Great Blue Turaco (Corythaeola cristata)

Great Blue Turaco
Corythaeola cristata (Vieillot, 1816)

Range: West and Central Africa
Habitat: Rainforest, Montane Forest
Diet: Fruits, Leaves, Flowers, Buds, Insects.  Chicks fed regurgitated leaves
Social Grouping: Pairs, Small Flocks.  Territorial Year-Round
Reproduction: Parents build a stick nest in a tree, lay 2 pale blue eggs.  Eggs are incubated by both parents and hatch after about 31 days.  Chicks leave nest at 6 weeks, but may be watched over by parents for 3 months.
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern

  • Largest species of turaco.  Body length is 70-76 centimeters, weight between 800 and 1200 grams.  Males are slightly smaller than females
  • Sexes look alike.  Turquoise-blue feathers, turning slightly gray on the face, which is crowned by a black crest.  The tail has a broad, black band near the end.  The beak is bright yellow, tipped with bright red.  Some greenish-yellow on the lower breast and belly, fading into a reddish-brown on the lower belly.  The legs and feet and black.  Juveniles duller than adults
  • Very vocal, call is a deep, guttural sound ("kok kok kok") with soft trills.  Often call at dawn and dusk, especially for courtship.  Other courtship displays involved chasing, mutual feeding, and raising and lowering the crest and tail
  • Older chicks will sometimes stay with their parents to help assist with the next clutch of eggs
  • Very agile at climbing among the branches, like parrots.  Typically come to the ground only to drink and to bathe.  Not very good fliers, only fly a short distance
  • Hunted for its meat as well as for its feathers, used in making good luck talismans.  Tolerant of habitat disturbance and can live alongside humans if not hunted

Sunday, May 21, 2017

A Walk Among the Wings

There were many exhibits that I enjoyed immensely during my recent visit to Zoo Miami, but Wings of Asia is the one that made the biggest impression on me.  Part of it was its size – every time I thought that the aviary was finished, I discovered an entirely new section to explore.  Part of it was its beauty, from the trickling creek to the peak of the ruined temple.  Part of it, of course, was the birds, and my pleasure at seeing so many species flying, swimming, and scurrying all about me.

And, of course, part of it was the fact that I was right there on the inside.

The walk-through aviary is not a new concept.  It dates back to antiquity, at least back to when wealthy ancient Romans would dine in their aviaries… sometimes dining on birds that had previously that day been flying in that same aviary.  Almost every zoo and aquarium I have ever been to has had a walk-through.  Many have had several.  They are perhaps one of the most common exhibit archetypes, and unlike other exhibit models – bear pits, monkey houses – they never seem to fall out of favor.

They are also one of the most difficult bird exhibits to manage.

You have all of the challenges of any mixed-species exhibit.  Will birds predate one another – either on the adults or, far more commonly, the eggs and chicks of other species?  Will birds compete with one another or view each other as rivals? Will birds steal each other’s food?  Can the enclosure be made comfortable for all species present? 

Then, in the mix you throw in the least predictable, most dangerous species on earth – humans.

The most obvious threat is the risk of birds being injured, either deliberately or accidentally, as birds wander underfoot, or trustingly land too close to an inquisitive child.  Injuries can happen even if the humans involved mean well, or wish to have no direct interaction at all.  I’ve seen overly friendly birds unexpectedly land on zoo visitors, who then proceed to thrash and flail and, in general, freak out. 

On that same note, you also have to worry about the possibility of visitors being injured by birds.   When I rounded a corner in Zoo Miami and found myself face-to-beak with a pair of Sarus cranes, no barriers in between us, I came pretty darn close to trampling my girlfriend to death making a break for the exit.  Not that those cranes had done anything slightly menacing towards me… I just don’t trust cranes.  Especially not ones bigger than me.

A lack of barriers means it’s also that much easier for visitors to feed birds, either intentionally or unintentionally through spills or drops of people food.  This in turn can lead birds to a) spend more time on the visitor path, where they can be potentially injured or b) learn to beg aggressively.  Plus, potato chips aren’t good for birds.  Heck, they aren’t that great for us, either.

Lastly, there is the risk of escape.  Aviaries have double-doors for people to enter without allowing birds to escape, but on a busy day with lots of folks coming in (especially gentlemen/ladies who were brought up to hold the door for others) there can be lots of openings for a quick-flying bird.

That’s a lot of things that could go wrong.  It’s easy to imagine a zoo director, especially one averse to lawsuits and bad press (as all of them are) saying, “Why bother?”

Elementary.  Because walk-through aviaries, especially well-crafted ones, are magic.

There really is no experience like sharing a space with a wild animal, or in this case, several wild animals.  Not knowing where the animal is likely to appear, and perhaps finding it using a combination of your senses – a rustle in the leaves overhead, a flash of color, or perhaps a fishy smell that tells you a nest in nearby (visitors are advised not to use “touch” or “taste” when appreciating aviary birds).   A walk-through aviary instills a sense of discovery among its visitors.  They don’t view the bird anymore.  They experience it. 

Another advantage is that they tend to result in larger habitats than a traditional aviary would provide.  That is because they have to accommodate the visitor walkways and buffer spaces.  Sure, they may not use these places too much when the zoo is open and visitors are present, but on slow days or after-hours, they are open.   I’ve always been daunted by the prospect of managing birds – especially smaller, flightier species like passerines and doves – in large aviaries, for fear that they’d prove too difficult to monitor, or to catch up for vet procedures, or even to make sure they are feeding.  Still, the thought of seeing them flying in such a spacious exhibit, getting plenty of exercise and lots of enrichment from a complex, spatially-varied environment, has made me feel that it must be worth the effort.

Two caveats for walk-throughs, however.  One, there must, must, MUST be sufficient places for birds to get away from visitors.  I have seen some aviaries which were basically walk-in closets.  In those cases, it would be best to have excluded the “walk-through” part.  Birds should be able to be comfortably distant from zoo guests if they choose so.  Let close-up proximity to the public be their decision, not your imposition.  Two, zoo staff must constantly monitor the birds in the aviary to identify those that are engaging in risky behaviors – risky either for themselves or for humans.  I have a bird in my collection who came to us from a walk-through at another zoo.  His keepers decided that he wasn’t working out in that type of setting when they started seeing visitors taking selfies with this (chicken-sized) bird perched on their shoulders.

In recent years, zoos and aquariums have begun to expand upon the walk-through aviary concept, adding additional species of mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.  Among the species that I’ve seen sharing walk-through aviaries are squirrels, small primates, fruit bats, small antelope, sloths, and turtles and tortoises.  Many zoos in recent years have added kangaroo walk-through exhibits.  I’ve seen pictures (but not in person) of visitors walking among capybara.

I could even imagine a zoo-of-the-future consisting of a series of football-field sized enclosures, where visitors walk through first an African kopje, then an Asian rainforest, then an Australian desert, and so on.  For some species, walk-through enclosures will never be practical (looking at you, big cats and bears).  Still, I’m sure that increasingly-innovating zoos and aquariums will continue to push the envelope in creating larger, more complex habitats that allow visitors to share space with an increasingly diverse array of animals. 

Then, the magic of a walk-through aviary could be recreated on an even grander scale.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

From the News: 200th Condor Chick Hatches at San Diego Zoo Safari Park

I thought I'd take a break from me blathering to share some really exciting news.  The San Diego Zoo Safari Park has announced the hatching of the 200th chick at its facility.  That's 200 condors hatched at San Diego, alone, many of which have been released into the wilds of the American west and Mexico.  All this for a species that came about as close to the brink of extinction as a bird can without tumbling over, a species many had been inclined to write up entirely..  It a poignant reminder that zoos matter, and - working together with our conservation partners - we can save species.

Celebrate by showing off your condor savvy and taking our condor trivia quiz!

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Zoo Review: Zoo Miami

In the 1970s, the staff of Miami's Crandon Park Zoo, located on Key Biscayne, got a chance to do something that literally every other zoo in the United States would kill for - a chance to start over.  A brand new zoo was built on the Florida mainland, opening as the Miami Metro Zoo in 1980 and recently renamed Zoo Miami.  The old zoo was deemed too small and too exposed to the deadly hurricanes of south Florida.  The new facility, spread over 750 acres, is a gorgeous facility and the only subtropical zoo in the continental United States.

The first exhibit that visitors see upon approaching Zoo Miami is the flock of American flamingos, nosily squabbling around the edge of the their pool.  Unlike at any other zoo in the country, the flamingos aren't exotics - south Florida boasts of native, wild flamingos.  More Floridian natives are seen in the new Florida: Mission Everglades trail, located nearby.  Meandering down the sometimes confusing trails, visitors are exposed to a host of native species, many of which they could probably spend months in the Everglades without seeing, such as American black bear and Florida panther.  There are raccoons, bobcats, bald eagles, a host of non-releasable waterbirds - pelicans, ibises, herons - and, of course, alligators aplenty.  Animals are seen from elevated bridges, underwater viewing windows, or eye-level Plexiglas windows, depending on the display.  The exhibit is a fun chance for kids to explore habitats in different ways - maybe riding an mini airboat through the exhibit, or taking a slide through the otter pool, or even crawling through an underwater tunnel that passes through the habitat of a massive American crocodile.

In most zoos, South America is represented by a rainforest building.  In the tropical weather of Miami, the wildlife of the green continent is too expansive to be held in a single building.  Amazon and Beyond, centered around a South American mercado plaza, is a three-lobed trail that takes visitors from the cloud forests of the Andes to the bottom of the Amazon River.  Along the way, they will encounter giant otters, giant anteaters, jaguars, howler monkeys, and Orinoco crocodiles, among other species.  There is a walkthrough aviary, a tank of massive Amazonian fishes, a stunningly beautiful waterfowl lagoon, and one of the most impressive Neotropical reptile collections I've ever seen - Miami is America's gateway to Latin America, and many smuggled reptiles are confiscated coming into the city.  The result - a host of rarely seen species, including some I'd never even heard of before and exhibited nowhere else.  Many of the exhibits occupy both sides of the trail, with animals either passing overhead (as with the harpy eagles and jaguars, to say nothing of the very innovative bat exhibit) or under the feet of visitors, such as the giant otters.  Habitats are lush and well-planted, creating the most realistic rainforest vibe I've ever encountered in a zoo (outside of Belize).

Tucked off into a corner of the zoo is a small Australian area, home to the zoo's koalas.  The ever popular marsupials - along with tree kangaroos - are tucked into two small habitats (the smallest koala exhibits that I've ever seen, but then again, koalas don't actually do anything, so why waste the space?).  Far more exciting are the animated New Guinea singing dogs.  In a tree nearby, a crocodile monitors basks at eye level with visitors filing by, but can be difficult to spot among the leafy branches.  Kangaroos and emus occupy a dusty yard across the path.

The oldest parts of the zoo are the Africa and Asia loops - of course, here "oldest" means back in 1980, so still very much keeping with modern zoo design.  The huge selection of African ungulates are kept in moated enclosures and includes okapi, gerenuk, addra gazelle, and an impressive breeding herd of giant eland, the world's largest antelope.  Visitors will also find zoo favorites such as lions, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, giraffes (with a feeding deck), Grevy's zebras, spotted hyenas, and the largest collection of pachyderms I'd ever seen - African and Asian elephants, Indian and black rhinoceroses, pygmy hippos, and Malayan tapirs.  If there is a show-stealer for these loops, however, it would have to be the tigers.  I think I actually gasped when I first saw the display - a recreation of Angkor Wat, with a pair of Sumatran tigers lounging in the grassy yard that sprawled out before it.  I assume that the temple ruins serve as the night house for the cats.  When one of the tigers got up, stretched, and walked right in front of the ruins, I think I heard the cameras of one hundred visitors click at once.

There is only one exhibit at Miami which surpasses the tiger exhibit.  I'm speaking of the zoo's most famous exhibit - Wings of Asia.  To call Wings of Asia  an aviary is sort of like calling the Lourve an art gallery.  Over an acre in size, it is a massive, multi-level habitat where birds as large as man-sized Sarus cranes can be lost from view along the curving waterways and dense vegetation.  Wandering down the trail, you'll probably first notice the big birds - painted storks, green peafowl, or maybe the great Indian hornbills located in a side aviary - and be so intent on them that you'll probably be shocked when you finally notice the little banded rails skittering around your feet.  Take a path up the hill, or climb the stairs of a ruined temple to better observe the smaller flying birds - songbirds and pigeons - or to better appreciate the size of the aviary from an elevated vantage point.  Be sure to check out the diverse waterfowl collection, not only from across the creek but through underwater viewing windows, where you may also spot Fly river turtles or painted terrapins.  Outside of the aviary, the link between the past and present of birds is brought home with dinosaur sculptures.  Wings of Asia was decimated by Hurricane Andrew in 1992, but has reopened with all of its former glory... and then some.

Hidden around the zoo are other exhibits - lemurs, Komodo dragons, spider monkeys - and I know this brief review hardly does justice to the sprawling splendor of Zoo Miami.  The zoo is so large that many visitors opt to take the monorail from point to point across the facility - it's an option I rejected out of fear of missing anything, no matter how minute.  It turns out, I still missed things - I simply did not leave myself enough time to explore the zoo, and pretty much had to be shoved out of the gate at closing by the staff.  This, I suppose, means I'll just have to go back for another round.