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Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Deja Vu, All Over Again

How much is your life worth?  More or less than the cost of an entry ticket to a zoo?

Well, we almost made it through the first month of 2017 without someone jumping or falling into a zoo exhibit with lethal results.  In this case, there were two fatalities - the human, a man known only as Zhang, and a tiger, which was shot in a failed attempt to save Zhang's life.  According to officials, Zhang had not purchased a ticket, and was killed after scaling a wall.

I swear, if I ever get a load of money and am allowed to build a brand new zoo, all of the visitor paths are going to go through acrylic tunnels.  At no point will visitors have unobstructed access to any animal.  Obviously, our species has devolved over the past century or so, and we can, as a whole, no longer be trusted around moated zoo enclosures.

Reading the last paragraph, I feel slightly bad... but maybe I'm just having fatigue from seeing this totally-preventable occurrence happen over and over again.  This wasn't a child who was too young to know better, as in the Harambe incident in Cincinnati, or was accidentally dropped by a family member, as happened in Pittsburgh.  This person doesn't appear to have been mentally ill, like man in Chile, or a deliberate suicide, as was the case in Pakistan.  This is just a guy who climbed a fence... and paid a terrible cost. 

The thing is, though, he's not the only one who had to pay it.

Image result for tiger zoo china

Monday, January 30, 2017


I swear, my zoo is always the last to find out about... anything.

Take 2015, for instance.  That was the year that, after the release of Jurassic World, every other zoo in the world took up the brief craze of Prattkeeping - keepers striking ridiculous poses a la Chris Pratt training the raptors in that movie.  We didn't notice it until weeks later... at which point, it was a question of whether we should let it pass us by, or jump on a bandwagon way freaking late.

We passed.

Now - after the fact - we learn about the latest social media craze we've missed - drumroll - the #cuteanimaltweetoff.

It began with the announcement of a baby gray seal at the Smithsonian National Zoo, and the zoo's PR people bragging about the baby via twitter.  Well, Virginia Aquarium couldn't let that pass, and insisted, good-naturedly, that their collection was cuter than DC's.  Boom.  Stuff got real, real fast.

Okay, not really.  Instead, it became a game of one-upmanship as zoos and aquariums across the country flooded Twitter with their cutest baby pictures.  Mass public adulation ensues.

And we get left out.  Completely didn't notice until today.  Probably too late to enter without looking like total posers.  Which makes me kind of depressed.  But at least there's lots of cute baby animal pics to cheer me up.  *Boop!*

Sunday, January 29, 2017

A Hippo for Hope

"Art for wisdom,
Science for joy,
Politics for beauty,
And a Hippo for hope."

The bronze hippopotamus stands guard of the George Washington University campus, on the corners of 21st Street and H Street in Washington, DC.  It's not an especially old addition - presented to the campus in 1996 by University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg, the hippo has since become the unofficial mascot of school, giving it's official mascot - the Colonial - a run for his money.  Students (supposedly) have taken to rubbing the bronze snout of the hippo for luck.  The quotation above is inscribed on the plaque beneath the hippo, along with the fanciful legend of the hippos that roamed 18th century Mount Vernon, swimming in the Potomac as George and Martha watched approvingly.

"And a Hippo for hope..."

Over the last few days, there's been another hippo in the news, one that's been generating lots of hope (though not from cramming pre-med students).  Just months after opening their new exhibit, the Cincinnati Zoo has been blessed with a baby hippo.  Only problem is, the little guy was a little early... like, two months early (hippo gestation is only 8 months, making this kind of a big deal).  Anyway, the little calf is too small to stand up, so the keepers have had no choice to hand-rear.  Mama hippo, on the other hand, has been a real team player here, allowing keepers to milk her to supplement the formula. 

That's right.  Someone out there is milking a hippo today (see the video clips below).  Even by zookeeper standards, that's pretty wild. 

Providing 24-hour care to a premature baby is quite a challenge.  Fortunately, the team at Cincinnati has been doing their best and making great strides in helping the calf along.  Even more daunting for them, this has been done completely in the eye of the public, a public which is demanding constant updates, cheering the zoo on.

Last year was a brutal one for Cincinnati Zoo.  It's been fantastic to see the public rally back around them as they work to save the life of a very special baby.  Best of luck to the keepers... and, of course, the hippo.


Thursday, January 26, 2017

Help Find Sunny!

Just doing my part to get the word out on this.  Sunny, a red panda from the Virginia Zoo in Norfolk, is missing.  While zoo staff hope that she is still on grounds somewhere, if anyone in the area happens to come across her, please contact the zoo ASAP!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Endangered America

"Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn't mean politics won't take an interest in you."

- Pericles

I'm concerned.  Very concerned., if I'm going to be honest about it.  The Trump Administration is less than a week old, and already we've witnessed several moves against the Environmental Protection Agency, a reversal of the former administration's climate change policies, and more than a little noise about targeting the Endangered Species Act. 

I can't imagine that, in the current political climate, there's going to be too much support for reintroduction programs - the California condor program is doing well enough, but I fear very much for the future of wild red wolves.  Also, with the increased emphasis on "America First" and pulling back our involvement in the international community, I worry about our country losing our leadership role in the fight to save endangered species on a global level.

... and, if that weren't enough, the federal government also oversees the Smithsonian National Zoo.  While I'd very much doubt that the zoo - perhaps the single most popular aspect on the federal government - is in much danger, I do worry about it's Front Royal facility, the Conservation Biology Institute.  So overlooked, so seldom seen, so... easily swept away.  It's not idle paranoia, either.  The facility, which has done so much to save so many endangered species, from the avifauna of the Marianas to the endangered antelope of North Africa, was almost shuttered during George W. Bush Administration, part of the cost-cutting measures favored by Bush's Secretary of the Smithsonian, Lawrence Small.

It's very easy for zoo and aquarium folks to hide their heads from the problems surrounding us.  We can maintain that we have to be neutral, or that it's not our place, or that we risk the wrath of politicians if we speak up.  All of that is true.  What is also true is that we risk losing species that we value and the habitats that support them.  But then again, as a cynical buddy of mine recently quipped in response to the announced changes,  "The good news is that, pretty soon all the animals will be extinct in the wild, then everyone will support zoos, right?"

Zoos and aquariums need to be leaders for conservation, and they need to be smart about it.  That means not ignoring the issues, and it also means not making self-destructive statements.  We need to engage - not only our visitors with educational messages, but our political leadership.  Lobby for responsible environmental management.  Reach out to local politicians about local environmental issues.  Champion local endangered species, then work our way up.  Make sure we are setting an example of proper environmental stewardship.

Presidents and politicians come and go.  Some will be supportive of wildlife and wild places.  Others... less so.  No matter who sits in the Oval Office, no matter if it is an election year or not, zoos and aquariums need to make sure that they are campaigning for the animals.

Monday, January 23, 2017

Book Review: Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo

"That is why we find the adult male orangutan so compelling.  In his eyes we see a precarious balance of ruthless strength and brutality on the one hand, and gentleness and serenity on the other.  The eyes of the male orangutan remind us of the awkward combination of angel and beast that characterizes the human soul."

People called them "Leakey's Angels", or sometimes "The Trimates" - the three young women who, in service of the Kenyan anthropologist Louis Leakey, devoted themselves to studying the world's great apes by living among them.  Jane Goodall was a young Englishwoman who's pioneering studies of chimpanzees made her perhaps the most famous living biologist of our time.  Dian Fossey, who studied the mountain gorillas of Central Africa, was immortalized in film by Sigourney Weaver in Gorillas in the Mist, the motion picture that shares a title with her book. 

Far less renown, far more overlooked is the third member of the triad.  Her name is Birute Galdikas.  Reflections of Eden: My Years with the Orangutans of Borneo is her story.

It strikes me as a shame that Galdikas doesn't get more credit in the popular imagination, for in many ways she had the most challenging study subject.  Compared to chimpanzees and gorillas, orangutans are largely solitary.  Galdikas comments more than once about how Fossey or Goodall would be able to observe more behavior, more social interactions in an afternoon than she would see in months.  Months would pass without Galdikas getting so much insight to orangutan life as a glimpse of red fur, vanishing in the trees.  On more than one occasion, her study subjects expressed their displeasure at being followed by actually trying to kill her, looking her calmly in the eyes as they dropped dead branches onto her.

It's a testament to the perseverance of Galdikas and her then-husband, Rod, that the orangutans eventually accepted her, offering her fascinating insights into their lives.  She learned that orangutans are not as solitary as was initially believed, that they are capable of tool use (just like chimpanzees), and detailed the intricate relationships between mother and offspring.  In the later case, she learned more than she'd planned on when she became the foster mother to a handful of emaciated young apes which she had confiscated from illegal pet-owners.  In another case, she learned the truth behind one of the most horrifying local legends about orangutans... and almost certainly wished that she hadn't.

Field biology memoirs are always partially the story of the animals and habitats involved, partially that of the people.  Reflections of Eden teaches the reader a lot about orangutans, but it's also about Galdikas' struggles, personally and professionally, as she copes with indifferent bureaucracy and a culture which is simultaneously welcoming and sympathetic yet distant and labyrinthine.  Doubtlessly her greatest struggles, however, come from within her own family, as her passion for saving orangutans and love of Indonesia separates her from her husband and son.

Reflections of Eden is the story of a woman who set out to study a strange and little known world, and, bit by bit, found out that she had become part of it.  It is not a heart-warming, feel-good book.  If anything, the story gets bleaker after the book was written.  Since it's publication in 1995, the plight of wild orangutans has reached a critical new level, as palm oil plantations threaten to swallow the whole of Indonesia's rainforests.  Still, people won't fight to save orangutans if they don't know that they are in danger, and we won't know that they are in danger if we barely know them at all.


Sunday, January 22, 2017

Satire: Goodbye otters! 9 things that might take their place at the Newport Aquarium in 2017

Surfing lessons!  Monk seals!  Jonah: the Interactive Experience!  It took me a moment to realize that this was satire - Jonah being the giveaway.  Happily, the Newport Aquarium's otters will be off-exhibit only briefly.  It's good to see the news having some fun with the story.

Friday, January 20, 2017

Safari Showdown

Years ago, Discovery Channel debuted a television show called "Animal Face-Off."  The premise was simple.  Each episode was a comparison of two animals, their relative strengths and weaknesses, ending in a CGI duel-to-the-death.  Who would win if a saltwater crocodile fought a great white shark?  A polar bear versus a walrus?  A sperm whale versus a colossal squid?

I watched the show as kind-of a guilty pleasure, but got bored with it eventually.  The fights seemed too implausible in many cases.  I also never could quite get over its similarity to the Roman death games, though of course no one was actually killed in these.

I can easily understand the show's appeal to the public.  Zookeepers are constantly peppered with questions about animal fights.  Would a lion beat a tiger?  How about a gorilla?  Would a gorilla beat an orangutan?

Among zookeepers, the question of importance isn't who would win a fight.  It's who will start one.   Animal death matches might make exciting TV, but they don't exactly reflect optimal welfare.

The challenge is especially real in safari park settings, where large numbers of different species are housed together.  The challenge for curators and collection managers is to stock an exhibit that recreates the African savannah or Asian steppe without bloodshed resulting.

Predators, obviously, are out of the picture.  The lions and cheetahs at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park may have a panoramic view of the herds below, but that's as close as they get.  Herbivores require careful mixing too, however.  Hippos are seldom included in safari parks, in large part due to their irascible nature (I've read of hippos killing zebras).  Zebras for that matter are no angels, especially males.  White rhinos are typically okay, black rhinos... not so much. 

Even relatively docile giraffes can be problematic in some causes... even if it's only because they are provoked.  A bull giraffe at one zoo was constantly harassed by an obnoxious male eland, an antelope the size of a large cow.  Eventually, the giraffe had enough and with one swing of its neck, sent the eland flying like a golf ball.

Conflicts are most likely to break out between the males of similar species, which may view each other as rivals.  They are especially likely to break out during rut, the period of heightened aggression that prepares males for the breeding season.  The birthing season is also a risky one, as animals may display hostility to the young of other species, whereas they would ignore the parents.  Mothers, in turn, may react aggressively to innocent curiosity from other species.

There is a lot of trail and error that goes into creating a safe, well-balanced safari park.  While each species tends to have a characteristic demeanor, a lot of the success comes down to the individual personalities of the animals involved.  When in doubt, I always recommend erring on the side of caution.  A beautiful exhibit is a wonderful thing, but not at the expense of animal safety.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Tawny Frogmouth (Podargus strigoides)

Tawny Frogmouth
Podargus strigoides (Latham, 1801)

Range: Australia, Tasmania
Habitat: Open Forest, Woodland
Diet: Insects, Worms, Snails, Small Mammals, Reptiles, Frogs
Social Grouping: Pairs
Reproduction: Monogamous (may be for life).  Breeding season is August through December.  Nest on a loose platform of sticks in a tree, about 30 centimeters in diameter.  Both sexes incubate the 1-3 eggs.  Chicks fledge at 25-35 days.
Lifespan: 14 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern

  • Body length is 34-53 centimeters, weigh up to 680 grams (usually 350-500)
  • Sexes look alike: silver-gray plumage (slightly paler on the underside) streaked and mottled with black and rufous.  There is also a russet-red color phase.  The eyes are yellow; the wide, heavy beak is olive-gray.  Albino frogmouths have been observed.
  • Hunt from elevated perches, pouncing onto the ground to seize prey.  They will sometimes take insects on the wing, or sit still with their mouths open, snapping shut if insects fly inside.  Larger prey is beaten to death against a branch
  • Most active by night, usually just after dusk and right before dawn
  • Main defense is to sit extremely still with the head pointed up, resembling a broken branch
  • Major threat is road accidents; frogmouths pursue the insects attracted to car headlights and are then hit by cars
  • When threatened, adults give an alarm call to the chicks, indicating they should stay motionless.  Throughout the night, they give steady grunting noises.  Couples sing drumming duets.
  • During the winter, frogmouths spend much of their time in torpor to save energy, lowering their heart rate and metabolism
  • Three subspecies: the nominate (from eastern and southern Australia), P. s. phalaenoides (northern Australia), and P. s. brachypterus (western Australia)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Goodbye, Colo

I've heard a lot of people complain that 2016 took away many of the best celebrities that we have.  Well, now it's half-a-month into 2017, and we've already lost two of the most famous zoo-and-aquarium celebrities of our times.  Earlier this year, of course, we had the death of Tilikum, the infamous orca from SeaWorld.  Today, Columbus Zoo announced the passing of Colo, the world's first captive-born gorilla.  She was 60 years old when she passed away in her sleep.

Colo was rejected by her mother and was hand-raised by keepers.  At the age of two, she was introduced to her future mate, Bongo, with whom she had three children.  Having never gained first-hand parenting experience, Colo never raised her own children... but she did help raise her grandchildren.  By the time of her death, she was a great, great grandmother, with two dozen some descendants.  Some went to zoos around the country, but many remained with her in Columbus.

What makes Colo's passing truly remarkable is its testament to the changes in zoo animal welfare over the years.  Prior to Colo's birth in 1956, gorillas had never been bred in captivity, and it hadn't been the long ago when they were considered virtually impossible to keep alive in the first place.  Today, there are hundreds of gorillas in zoos around the world - virtually all of them zoo-borns - making them one of the most sustainable, most genetically-secure zoo populations.  We no longer worry about getting them to eat, or watch them fade away from depression and disease.  We now have large, vibrant family groups, and one of our greatest medical challenges is maintaining geriatric gorillas in good cardiac health; one of our main demographic challenges is managing young bachelor males.

Colo's passing doubtlessly has left a huge hole in the hearts of her many keepers and admirers.  It's been touching, however, to see the community rally around them with support and fond memories of a great, great grandmother of an ape.

Colo at her 60th birthday party, courtesy of Columbus Zoo

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Ringling Brothers: End of an Era

The news hit me like a bombshell last night.  After 146 years of being the iconic circus of the world, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey will be closing this spring.  Permanently.  The cause was simple - the business was no longer profitable.  A major contributing factor that was mentioned, however, was the company's ongoing feud with PETA, HSUS, and other organizations over its use of performing animals.  It was this decision which led Ringling to retire its traveling elephants last year.

Like many zookeepers, I've always been conflicted about circuses.  I have no doubt that Ringling's staff cares for their animals, and that the training methods of today aren't those of the past.  I also know that Ringling is a major contributor to elephant conservation, to say nothing of the most successful breeder of Asian elephants in North America.  Still, I've always had a hard time thinking of a life on the road as the best option for large animals.

The question that many zookeepers ask now is - after Ringling and SeaWorld, what's next?  Is it our turn?

Zoos and aquariums, it must be said, do have some advantages in the upcoming struggle.  For one, most are non-profits, which lets us contradict the "exploiting animals for money" claim.  Second, our facilities - including the enclosures, where the animals spend their days - are open to the public, providing visitors with a better understanding of how our animals live.  Third, the conservation and education message are out front and center, with much less of a blatant entertainment appeal.  It is hard to get visitors to take you too seriously if you have elephants in tutus and bears on bicycles.

Our biggest asset, however, is our audience.  Ringling wasn't shut down through government legislation.  It was worn down by attendance.  And forget the animal side of things for a second, because that does make sense.  A century ago, the traveling circus was the only entertainment available to small towns.  Now there are movies and video games and concerts, to say nothing of professional sports; haunted houses and farms appear in droves every autumn, and every empty storefront seems to have been converted into an escape room.  There are also zoos and aquariums - providing another outlet for viewing animals that once would have been seen only in circuses.

Oh, and let's not forget the one thing circuses are synonymous with - clowns.  Does anyone still like clowns?  Because when I hear the "c" word, I don't think Bonzo and Ronald McDonald.  I think of Pennywise from It and Twisty from American Horror Story.  That couldn't have helped.

Anyway, my point is, unlike circuses, zoos and aquariums are seeing increasing rates of visitors.  The public, for now, is still on our side.  And we need to keep them there.

How do we do it?

Be bold and be vocal.  Share our success stories - loudly.  Celebrate births.  Unveil new and improved habitats.  Tout our commitment to conservation programs.  And tell the story of what's happening in the wild.  Remind the public that endangered species are in a lot of trouble, and they need all the help they can get.

We also need to be as open as possible about our animal care.  To the end, Ringling has been plagued with accusations about how they beat or otherwise mistreated their animals.  All the keepers I know who went behind-the-scenes, however, said that they were impressed by the commitment and care shown to the animals.  It's just that the majority of people never saw that, never understood that.  We have to help them see and understand.  Do keeper talks.   Give behind-the-scenes tours.  Reply to comments on social media.

Above all, we return to my professional mantra, one which I developed in the wake of the Toronto elephant sagaBeyond Reproach.  Do your job like the eyes of the world are on you.   Because on day, they might be.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

From the News: Fitness Trackers Aim To Improve The Health And Happiness Of Zoo Elephants

Of course, the idea behind giving animals large enclosures, like in a safari park setting, is that they will use them to exhibit natural behaviors... most of which involve moving.  Animals in the wild, however, don't generally roam for fun.  They do it to find food, water, shelter, and mates, as well as avoid danger.  In a zoo environment, those needs are condensed, and, not surprisingly, animals don't move and exercise as much.

Musi, an African elephant, is one of Fresno Chaffee Zoo's five elephants enrolled in the Elephant Welfare Initiative. Courtesy of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo hide caption toggle caption Courtesy of the Fresno Chaffee Zoo

This innovative study will help increase the health of elephants in zoos by helping to answer the questions of how much exercise do they need, and how much are they getting.  Many zoos are already developing - or have recently renovated - their elephant exhibits to improve exercise options.  Changes include the addition of deep pools and the construction of walking trails to get the big beasts moving. 

As the research seems to suggest, a fit elephant is a happy elephant... and happy elephants make more elephant babies.  And as perilous as the situation has become for elephants in the wild, that can only be a good thing.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Safari Parks

For many members of the public - especially those who may feel on the fence about the ethics of keeping animals in captivity - safari parks may seem like an idyllic answer.  There's obviously the element of space.  An enclosure of fifty to a hundred acres in size hardly constitutes a "cage."  The chance to display larger, more natural social groups is obviously desirable, as it leads to more expressions of natural behavior.  In every respect, safari park settings seem to more closely resemble the wild.  Heck, there were moments when the San Diego Zoo Safari Park seemed more "African" than the actual African national parks I'd visited did.

There are, as you can imagine, also plenty of challenges to maintaining animals in these conditions.  Most have to do with space. Sure, you obviously need a lot of space to pull this off, which is why many American and European zoos - built in the center of cities in the 1800s and 1900s - don't have the room.  From an animal welfare perspective, however, it's very difficult to manage animals when they are in enclosures so big that you can barely see them.  How do you make sure everyone is getting enough to eat (especially if they are a part of a big herd?).  How do you monitor for signs of illness or injury if you can't get close enough to observe carefully?  Heaven help you if you need to catch an animal up and it's not inclined to let you do so. Bigger exhibits are hard to ensure the safety of, as well, and the longer the fence line, the more likely that a wily predator will find a gap.

Big social groups can also lead to problems.  For one thing, there is an increased likelihood of bullying.  Another challenge concerns breeding programs.  For the purpose of creating sustainable populations, zoos want to promote genetic diversity - and to do that, you need to know who has been breeding with whom.  If you have a large herd, it can be difficult to say for sure which sire and which dam produced which offspring. 

The climate has to be suitable for the animals in the park also, since the animals are maintained outside all the time.  San Diego's dry, warm climate works well for East African ungulates, while East Asian species do well at The Wilds in Ohio, or the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute in Virginia.

Not all species work well in safari park settings - some are simply delicate and require closer care than can be provided in those enclosures.  At San Diego, for instance, the okapi, as well as many of the smaller, more skittish antelope, live in their own enclosures.  Here, keepers can be sure that they are getting a proper diet (not bullied by exhibit mates) and are easily accessible for care.

In safari parks, it's more of a matter that certain species and certain facilities do mesh, combining to create an exhibit and an experience that few guests will forget.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Zoo Review: San Diego Zoo Safari Park

By the 1960s, the still-young San Diego Zoo had begun to cement its reputation as one of the leaders of the international zoo community. So much so, in fact, that it was decided that the zoo needed more room, especially for the breeding and management of its hoofstock collection.  What was originally intended to be a series of large breeding pens, with maybe an overlook deck and a snack bar for visitors, has since become so much more.  The San Diego Zoo Safari Park (formerly known as the San Diego Wild Animal Park) now sprawls over almost 3 square miles and features single exhibits that could easily encompass other US zoos.

Hundreds of acres of the park are given over to massive, mixed-species exhibits featuring the ungulates of Africa and Asia.  Years ago, during my first visit to the park, these exhibits were toured by the Wgasa Bush Line, a monorail that swept visitors past panoramic views of giraffe, rhinoceros, and a startling array of wild cattle, wild goats and sheep, deer, antelope, and equines.  It was on that ride that I saw many species for the first time, including at least three - European bison, Bornean bearded pig, and black wildebeest - that I've never seen since, and are no longer at the park.  This was also the last zoo in the western hemisphere to house northern white rhinos, a subspecies now teetering on the edge of extinction.

Regrettably, the hour long ride proved too much for the attention span of many visitors, so a new, shortened ride now takes guests across a fraction of the terrain, but leaves much of the landscape unvisited.  Visitors interested in seeing the rest of the park are able to take special photo safaris, where staff load guests into the open backs of trucks and drive them out into the exhibits to meet the animals.  Hot air balloon views of the park are also possible.  I've heard it said - but not confirmed - that the San Diego Zoo Safari Park served as a resource for the movie Jurassic Park... and I believe it.

The heart of the park is Nairobi Village, a recreated African fishing town situated around a series of waterways that house flamingos, waterfowl, and rarely-exhibited shoebills.  Located around the shores of the pools are a walk-through aviary featuring birds from around the world (including seldom-seen species such as Storm's stork and Madagascar ibis), a walk-through lemur exhibit, a lorikeet aviary, and a petting kraal.  Also featured here is a paddock for young ungulates from the main park which are in need of hand-rearing (with as many hundreds of deer and antelope as the park has, there are always bound to be a few rejected by mothers).  Nearby is a spacious, moated gorilla habitat, with rolling grassy logs and lots of climbing structures.  Equally gorgeous lion and cheetah habitats are nearby.

Breaking off from Nairobi Village are a series of side trails, featuring walking safaris that take visitors past other unique species.  The African Woods trail is a meandering boardwalk through an African forest, with close-up views of okapi, giant eland, and warthogs.  Several bird species can be found here, too, including cranes, vultures, and secretary birds.  Another trail leads through a gorgeous new habitat for Sumatran tigers, while also offering an overlook of the African elephant habitat. 

My personal favorite trail is Condor Ridge, home to the native wildlife of southern California.  Ocelots, bald eagles, and burrowing owls are seen in a series of meshed-in enclosures, before visitors reach the trail's climax.  A flight deck is situated between habitats of two of the southwest's most iconic species - desert bighorn sheep and California condors.  San Diego Wild Animal Park (as it was known then) was instrumental in the captive-breeding and reintroduction of the condor, and was the first facility to publically exhibit them following their brush with near-extinction (exhibits have since opened at a handful of other western zoos).

For a casual visitor or a zoo connoisseur, the Safari Park is an extraordinary place to visit.  Granted, it does not have the diversity or variety of species seen at many zoos - the collection is heavily African, heavily ungulate and bird.  There are a few carnivores (no bears, for instance), a few primates, and fewer reptiles and amphibians.  Some of the animals can be difficult to see in large, natural enclosures.  The wait for the monorail can be exhausting at times.  And it must be admitted that the park has more of a crowded, theme-park vibe than many zoos, especially around Nairobi Village, the hub of guest services.

Still, there are few zoo experiences more impressive than watching herds - not pairs or trios but honest-to-God herds - of animals moving across an enclosure so big that animals have actually established neighboring territories in it.  Or of seeing five or six species of large mammal in one landscape without turning your head.  Or simply of knowing that you are visiting an institution which has done so much to help save so many endangered species for extinction.  The vast, sprawling grounds of the park have enabled San Diego to maintain larger groups of hoofed mammals; being maintained in more natural social settings, with the potential for males to compete and females to be selective, breeding of many species has been quite successful.  The park's history is full of individual animals which failed to breed at other facilities, but happily procreated here:

"Whether Mandhla [the white rhino] selected the females or they him, they results were the same.  His relationships were platonic no more.  Whenever a female indicated that she was in heat, he stood ready to oblige.  Soon, allowing for an 18-month gestation period, his offspring began to arrive one by one."

- Lifeboats to Arafat, Sheldon Campbell

Monday, January 9, 2017

A Farewell to Tilikum

Where were the so-called “animal rights” crusaders, so abundant on Twitter and Facebook, when J-34 was suffering? Why is the death of a geriatric, professionally cared for animal a national ignition point, but the slow and steady destruction of a group of wild whales a special interest story?

- Erin McKinney

Earlier this month, the world's most famous (and infamous) orca passed away at SeaWorld San Diego.  Tilikum had lived at the park for 33 of his 36 or so years, but was best known for his fatal attack on a trainer, which resulted in the controversial documentary (if you want to call it that) Blackfish and the eventually fading out of SeaWorld's orca program.

Photo Credit: National Geographic

Tilikum always posed something on a conundrum to me.  I'm sure that his caretakers miss him terribly - he had, after all, been a fixture at the park for decades (longer than some of his trainers have been alive, I suspect) and was, by all accounts, an exceptionally intelligent and charismatic animal.  Take the picture above, for example.  I've seen it several times, and have always loved it.  It's like the SeaWorld team is having a staff meeting, which they are holding at the edge of the tank so Tilikum can participate.  He looks like he's listening in intently, waiting politely for a break in the conversation so that he can chime in and make a point.

On the other hand, there's the whole killing-his-trainer deal.  Tilikum is not the first captive animal to take a human life and then spend several more years in the care of people.  I just can't imagine what it would be like, though, if a big cat or bear that I worked with took the life of a coworker (especially a friend), and then I spent the next several years working alongside that same animal.  I think I'd find it fairly haunting.

The reaction of Tilikum's death after long illness (he was a respectable age for an orca) has been predictable.  Sorrow and condolences from some, snark and bitterness and accusations from others.  I personally feel like the SeaWorld team has shown tremendous integrity and openness is dealing with Tilikum's medical history over the past several months, knowing that no matter what they do, there's a certain set of the population which will revile them.  Few things are harder than losing a beloved animal companion, but you can always count on PETA to help make it worse.

As a final thought, I wanted to share this excellent article that I found, contrasting Tilikum's passing with the recent death of another orca.  What it says about our comparative reactions, I think, explains a lot about why so many species are circling the drain while we all sit and point fingers.

Rest in Peace, Tilikum.  Thoughts and well-wishes to those who knew him and cared for him.

Deceased J34 – image via CBC

Saturday, January 7, 2017

After the Storm

As much as I gripe and moan about cold weather, you'd think that I really hate snowy days.  And you'd be right, in a way.  In other ways, though, the snowy days are some of the most peaceful at the zoo. 

Often, we'll be closed - paths can be treacherous and slippery, not the sort of place you want litigatious members of the public strolling around on.   Many of the smaller, less cold-tolerant animals are tucked in and warm, and you wouldn't want to disturb them too much.  Furthermore, in cases of heavy snowfall, there's not much cleaning to do - you can't pick up much poop when said poop is covered beneath six inches of snow.

It's the day after that kills you.  Then, you have the accumulated muck of the past few snow days to tend to.  The same is true after heavy rainfall.  Even the most tyrannical of zoo curators is seldom inclined to send the keepers out into the deluge for anything other than the most basic of cleaning.  Poop, uneaten hay, etc. can wait until after the rain.

Given the choice, I'd take the snow or rain after the mess afterwards.  True, they're unpleasant - sometimes bitterly so.  Still, you get to feel like something of a hero every time you step outside into the storm.  Someone in the office will usually spring for donuts or some other treat as a sign of appreciation.  And still, there's usually plenty of time to do indoor projects - build some enrichment, catch up on some paperwork, or clean a building that you seldom have time for.

It's the poor saps who work the shift after the storm who have it rough.  Not only do they get no glory (and, too often, no donuts), but they have to clean the messes that you left to accumulate during the foul weather.  They're the real heroes of the zoo.

Friday, January 6, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Nene (Branta sandvicensis)

Nene (Hawaiian Goose)
Branta sandvicensis (Vigors, 1833)

Range: Hawaiian Islands
Habitat: Volcanic Slopes, Scrub Forest
Diet: Grasses, Fruits
Social Grouping: Pairs, Small Flocks
Reproduction: Monogamous for life, lay eggs August through April (longest nesting season of any wild goose).  Eggs are laid in hollows among vegetation on lava.  Usually 3 eggs, incubated for 30 days.  Independent at 1 year old, sexually mature at 2-3 years old.
Lifespan: 40 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable, CITES Appendix I

  • Body length 63-69 centimeters, weight 1.8-2.3 kilograms 
  • Sexes look alike - the face, crown, and the back of the neck are black, the front of the neck is golden-buff, with black diagonal furrows, the body is gray-brown
  • Compared to other geese, they have relatively long legs (which allow them to run and climb over lava fields) and partially webbed toes.  The wings are considerably smaller than those of other geese, and as a result they are poor fliers (but can still travel from island to island).
  • Goslings are flightless until they are three months old, making them vulnerable to predators
  • The native name comes from the "nay-nay" call they make; the Latin name references the "Sandwich Islands", an old name for Hawaii
  • Species is believed to have been descended from the Canada goose
  • World's rarest goose species.  The population declined due to introduced species (predators and ungulate competitors), hunting, and habitat loss.  By 1949, the population was reduced to 20-30 birds
  • The species was saved through a captive-breeding and release program, full legal protection, and the removal of endangered species
  • Adopted as the State Bird of Hawaii in 1957, making it the rarest state bird

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Boss Magazine: How the San Diego Zoo Made Employee Wellness a Priority

Keeping's hard.  It's tough on you physically - pulled backs, sprained muscles, mysterious leg bruises, etc.  It's hard to eat healthy when you're constantly on the go, possibly working two jobs, and entry pay isn't that great.  It's stressful, emotional, and easily leads to caretaker fatigue.  It's never surprised me that so many new keepers drop out before too long.

I've often heard boards of zoos and aquariums say that they need to pay top dollar to keep a talented, capable administrator.  But what about the talented and capable keepers?  Who has their backs?

It was enjoyable to read about how San Diego Zoo is looking out for the wellness of its employees (not just animal care staff, of course).  Book clubs.  Healthy snacks.  Yoga.  Meditation.  All great strategies to reduce the stress load on the staff. 

One staff perk that was not mentioned in the article was professional development.  In recent years, the zoo unveiled its San Diego Zoo Global Academy, an online teaching program for its keeper and education staff to help them grow as professionals.  Recently, the zoo has opened up this program to staff at other zoos around the world.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Understand. Love. Conserve. Maybe Not in that Order

"In the end we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."

I'm sure that he's a really great guy, and he certainly could turn a heck of a good phrase.  But I'm sick of Baba Dioum.

Who is Baba Dioum?  I have only the foggiest idea.  He's a Senegalese forester and conservationist.  What I do know about him, besides that, is that he is responsible for one of the most enduring conservation quotes in the history of the world.  You've probably seen it before.  I have never, ever been to a zoo or aquarium and not encountered this quote somewhere.  On a piece of signage.  Tucked away in a brochure or pamphlet.  In some cases, scrawled on walls in letters a foot high.

I don't think I've ever had a conversation with a bunch of zoo educators without someone squawking it like a parrot.

It shouldn't bug me so much, but it does, and for one simple reason.  I think it's wrong.  Backwards.

I love animals, and I want to conserve them.  I also study them in great detail.  But the thing is, I don't love them because I've studied them.  I study them because I love them.  Growing up, I would go to the zoo or aquarium, and see, on every visit, something that would stay with me.  An animal I'd never encountered before, maybe had never even heard of.  Maybe it would be a behavior I'd never seen - I remember being fascinated once by watching a hippo waddle up to the edge of its pool and... take a drink.  I don't know why, but the sight of an animal that normally spent almost all of its time immersed in water taking a drink really intrigued me.  Or maybe it would just be a special encounter with an animal.  A tiger resting right up alongside the window, and then turning and looking at me briefly.  Something as simple as that.

Then I'd go home and grab the books and start reading (this was before internet was a thing, mind you), until my parents told me it was time for dinner and (if it was during the school year) reminded me that I had plenty of actual homework as it was and to get started on that at some point.

The educators and keepers who croak the Baba Dioum quote at the drop of a hat, however, just irk me for some reason.  They seem to think that enough facts will carry the day and make people love nature.  To me, it seems to downplay the emotional, visceral, and very real connection that you have to establish between visitors and animals first.

You can rattle off enough if you like and see if you make a difference.  Tell a North Carolina farmer what the average home range size is for a pair of red wolves, or how they differ from gray wolves and coyotes, or what their average litter size is.  See if they care.  But let their children hear red wolves howling to the moon, or maybe catch an intimate glimpse of a pair at a zoo tending to a riotous mob of pups - picture the kids whispering back and forth with their parents, trying to guess which adult is the mommy and which is the daddy - and then you've got the foundations for something that'll last.

Facts are useful things.  They are the bricks of which knowledge is built.  But it doesn't matter how sturdy your knowledge is if the foundation that it is built on is weak.  And, as much as some of my colleagues in education may hate to admit it, that foundation is caring.

So maybe Baba should have said, "In the end we will only conserve what we understand.  We will only understand what we love."

Monday, January 2, 2017

Resolving to be Greener

Many people make (and break) resolutions, mostly aimed at self-improvement.  Lose weight.  Quit or cut back on smoking and drinking.  Read more books.  Those are all important things to do.  Still, there's also a lot of be said for making New Year's Resolutions that better the planet.  Here are 16 relatively small life changes that can help reduce your footprint on the planet. 

Most of these I already do, in some variation (partially because I like the environment... also because I spent most of my post-college years being semi-broke).  Others I'm a little perplexed. 

Wrapping your fruit before putting it in the fridge?  That's a thing?

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Happy New Year!

Happy New Year!

I'm excited to begin the fourth calendar year of The Zoo Review, and am looking forward to another 12 months of exploring the world of zoos and aquariums.  2016 certainly was a... dynamic year (horrifyingly so, in some cases).  We'll just have to see what 2017 brings.