Search This Blog

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Zoo Joke: Andy and the Elephant

After graduating college, Andy decided to take a year off to travel and see the world.  First he went through Asia, then Europe, then he found himself in Africa.

While on safari in Africa, Andy saw an elephant, limping heavily.  Andy got out of his car warily and approached the elephant cautiously.  The elephant in turn walks towards him, approaching with obvious pain.  When he gets to within a few feet on Andy, he lifts his front right foot up.  There, embedded in the sole, is a massive thorn.  Andy pulls it out with some effort, and the elephant trumpets in relief.  He affectionately massages Andy with his trunk for a moment, then lumbers off.

Before he walks away for good, he turns back to Andy and winks.

Years later, Andy is a successful businessman, married, and settled in his new life.  One day, he is visiting the city zoo, passing the elephant exhibit.

He is about to pass by, when one of the elephants approaches the railing and, to Andy's disbelief, winks at him.  Then, he slowly lifts his front, right leg and waves it at Andy.  Andy is shocked.  He can't believe it.  Overjoyed, he hops the fence, jumps into the moat, and scrambles over to the elephant with arms wide open.

The elephant in turn rushes towards Andy... then snatches him up with his trunk and bashes him against the wall of the exhibit in front of the horrified crowds.

Probably wasn't the same elephant.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Madness of Musth

Besides the general concerns about having enough space or large enough social groupings, the greatest challenge to the keeping of elephants in zoos has been ensuring reliable breeding.  In recent years, there's been a tremendous amount of research done on assisted reproduction in elephants.  The reason for this isn't that elephants won't reproduce naturally in a zoo - they will, fairly readily.  The problem is that breeding requires a male.  And a male means musth.

"Musth," from the Hindi for "Madness" is a period of super-sexual aggression among adult male elephants.  Even the most placid bulls becomes the pachyderm equivalent of the Incredible Hulk, behaving in a violent, unpredictable manner, thinking only two thoughts - smashing things and female elephants.  Wild elephants are known to take out their fury on other species, chasing giraffes or killing rhinoceroses.  During musth, the temporal glands of a bull elephant leak a black, tar-like substance, while the penis dribbles constantly.  Swelling in the head causes eye pains and toothaches.  Testosterone levels increase by as much as 60 times.  Strangest of all, no one quite knows why this happens.  There is no correlation between when bulls enter musth and when females are reproductively receptive.  Bulls in musth are as likely to interact with females that are in estrus as those who are not.

In the logging camps of South Asia, the traditional method of dealing with a bull is musth was simple.  Chain him up, starve him, deprive him of water, and wait for him to come back to his senses.  Isolation was also prescribed - no female elephants to tempt him, no male elephants to provoke him.  For much of the history of the American zoo, the traditional method was even simpler - don't.  Many zoos refrained from breeding due to the need of having a male... or out of fear that their female would give birth to a male. The fears weren't unfounded.  Elephants are big, powerful animals who are capable of accidentally injuring or killing a keeper... and with bulls in musth, it wasn't an accident.

The situation has changed considerably in recent years.  Most zoos now work their elephants protected contact-instead of free-contact, greatly reducing the risk on injury.  As many zoos redevelop their elephant facilities, they are including specialized bull quarters, powerful enough to contain a male in musth.  As more zoos are capable of housing these animals - potentially the most dangerous in the zoo - the more successful breeding can take place.

This in turn will help to establish a future for elephants in American zoos - and considering how things in the wild are looking, we can use every elephant birth we can get.

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Elephants In The Room

With almost certainty, there is no wild animal which has a more complicated, intimate relationship with humans than the elephants.  Sometimes I think that one or two of the large carnivores – the lion, the wolf – might rival it, but then I settle back on my original position.   Elephants have been used for warfare on three continents, sharing the battlefields on the ancient world with Alexander the Great and Hannibal of Carthage.  They have worked the forests of South Asia as loggers for millennia.  They have been worshiped as gods, hunted for sport and ivory, and carried kings and emperors upon their backs.   They have fought and died in the Coliseum and been gifted to rulers as symbols of power and might.  In the modern era, they appear frequently on TV and in the movies.  Tourists flock to see them in the parks of Africa and Asia.  They are the stars of zoos and circuses.

For most of us, our experiences with the great big beasts are confined the last sentence.  Elephants have been displayed in America since before there was an America, and certainly before there were any formal zoos here.  Throughout the late 19th and most of the 20th centuries, a zoo could hardly be considered a zoo at all unless it had an elephant, preferably a gigantic specimen who was tolerant enough of children to permit rides.  Jumbo of the London Zoo was probably the ideal... apart from the periodic bouts of rage.

Those days may not be with us for much longer.

With the exception of the whales and dolphins – which only a tiny handful of American facilities display – elephants are the most controversial of zoo animals.  They are the species that people are most likely to be critical of the keeping of.  Even some keepers I know are dubious about the suitability of elephants to life in a zoo… though none are foolish enough to express their opinion to an elephant keeper.  Those guys are intense.

So what is it about elephants?  Their size dictates that they require large enclosures – the most frequent critique leveled at zoos is that they can’t provide large enough spaces for them.  Their intelligence means that they require consider stimulation, often provided by training and enrichment.  Their social nature (of females and their young, at any rate) means that an exhibit must be large enough to accommodate a group of at least three.  They are one of the most expensive and labor-intensive of zoo animals, usually requiring a dedicated staff, that is not shared with other animals.  For most of zoo history – at least until the shift began away from working with elephants free-contact – they remained the most dangerous of zoo animals, responsible for the most zookeeper fatalities.

Today, most zoos with elephants are going in one of two directions.  Some zoos are doubling-down and expanding their habitats, investing heavily in large, state-of-the-art exhibits that provide room to roam and are equipped to handle multi-generational female herds in a protected-contact setting; most new facilities are also capable of managing reproduction… which often means maintaining at least one bull (and the complications that can arise from that).  Other zoos are washing their hands of elephants, taking the expense and resource requirements into account and deciding they can’t commit.

There’s nothing wrong with choosing the latter option.  A zoo could reasonably decide that they’d rather spend the 5-10 acres working with 10-20 other species, some of which could be of very high conservation potential.  It’s better not to keep a species in some cases than to keep it in facilities that are unsuitable.  I think the movement away from the “You aren’t a real zoo unless you have elephants" mentality has been a wonderful trend in zoos… though it hasn’t seemed to have spread as readily among members of the public, who will criticize an elephant-less zoo.

At any rate, I think that the decision on whether a zoo can manage elephants or not belongs to animal care professionals who have experience with elephants... not grandstanding politicians, as often proves to be the case.  Likewise, if a zoo decides that they do not want to manage elephants, that should be their decision, and no politician should strong-arm them into keeping pachyderms just because they are a big draw.

I do, however, feel that there are zoos that do elephants and do them well.  Obvious among these are the facilities that can devote large tracts of land to their elephants, such as the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the North Carolina Zoo.  Plenty of urban zoos manage the species just fine as well – the Dallas Zoo, the Lowry Park Zoo, Zoo Miami, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo, and the National Zoo being a few examples.  Size isn’t everything.

What does make a suitable elephant habitat?  Space is important, yes, both in terms of quantity and quality – are their dirt areas for digging, pools for wallowing, shade structures, etc?  Is the zoo able to maintain an appropriate social grouping – a minimum of three?  Are the keepers able to implement sufficient training and enrichment to provide physical and mental stimulation, as well as to provide appropriate care for the surprisingly delicate bodies of elephants?

When the PAWS sanctuary of California took in the Toronto Zoo elephants, they boasted of their spacious paddocks.  What they can’t boast of, however, is getting their elephants managed as a cohesive social group, and the three elephants from Toronto were never maintained as a herd at PAWS.  Furthermore, the hands-off approach of the sanctuary meant that some elephant care procedures, such as maintaining proper foot health, become more difficult without constant training from the keepers.  Both American elephant sanctuaries have also had incidence of tuberculosis, a serious disease that also occurs in the zoo populations, showing that sanctuaries don’t necessarily provide better veterinary care, or that a big enough roam to walk around solves all ills.

Given proper environments and care, elephants will thrive in a zoo setting.  For proof, look no further than the two recent imports of African elephants from Swaziland toAmerican zoos since the turn of the millennium.  Wild-born elephants, accustomed to roaming small, crowded national parks, settled in comfortably in American zoos and have adjusted to the zoo routine, learned the workings of protected contact, responded positively to training, and have even bred.

Elephants are big animals, and they take a big commitment to ensure proper care.  They definitely aren’t for every zoo.  Heck, I’ll say they probably aren’t for most zoos.  But I feel like it is incorrect to claim, as some zoo critics do, that they cannot be happily and healthily maintained under human care.  

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Two Zebras, One Head

Having completed an exhilarating 12 hour day today (the first of what I suspect will be many as the season picks up), I'm going to go ahead and go to bed.  And by "go to bed" I mean start on all the paperwork that I was probably supposed to be doing while I was at the zoo today before other stuff came up.  If you're looking for entertainment tonight, I'm going to have to pawn you off with this zebra meme.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Riches of Zookeepers

If there is one single aspect of zookeeping that turns off many applicants, or sends the most new keepers back out the gate, it's the salary.  Not the sloshing around in fecal matter.  Not the bone-melting heat of summer or the bone-chilling cold of winter.  Not the assorted bites, scratches, kicks, and sprays of urine and/or vomit (from animals, mostly, but hey, I've had some crazy unruly visitors before).

Nope, it's the pay.

How much an entry zookeeper makes varies based on location and institution, usually hovering somewhere between the "Eh, I'm getting by okay" and "Oh boy, saltines for dinner again!" range.  I don't know if I've ever seen a zoo offering minimum wage per se, but I do know a lot of keepers who were watching the "Fight for $15" drama unfold with considerable interest.

It doesn't help that most zookeepers and aquarists have college degrees, which often mean that there are student loans to payback.  It also doesn't help that most zoos and aquariums are located in cities, where rent is usually considerably higher.  So what's a keeper to do?  Take on a second job, maybe a third.  Get a roommate.  Mooch off of family and more fortunate friends.  Tighten the belt, and be opportunistic.  I've never seen such ferocity at a feeding frenzy as entry-level staff when free food is available.  At one of my earlier zoos, making less than $10 an hour in a very expensive East Coast city, my colleagues and I were in a perpetual state of hunger.  When a leftover pizza from a birthday party at the zoo was brought into the break room, I almost lost a finger in the scramble for a slice.

Typically, I can't complain too much about the salaries.  With the exception of the aforementioned hell-hole (where the tyrannical owner once shared his favorite philosophy with me - "Keepers are like Kleenex.  You use them up, then get a new one"), most of the places that I've worked have paid a reasonably wage.  I live pretty cheap as it is.  Most importantly, I don't have student debt, which is a major advantage for a young adult.  Eventually, I got promoted high enough to get a salary that allows me a fairly comfortable existence.  Even so, in my early years as a keeper, there was a year or so where my parents insisted on giving me a grocery allowance, not trusting me entirely not to starve myself to death in the name of misplaced pride.

Keepers complain about salaries, but not as much as you'd think.  Sure, they swap tips for second jobs and roommates and such, and joke affectionately about significant others who are the breadwinners, but it's almost considered bad form.  Maybe it's because they know we all are or were in the same boat at some point, but largely it's because none of us do this for the money, and they fear they'd come across as less committed or too materialistic if they seemed overly focused on matters like money.  I get that.

The thing is, keepers do need to eat.  They need a place to live.  They need gas, or bus fare, or a bike to get to work (unless they are lucky enough to live within walking distance, as I've been before).  We aren't volunteers.  We want to do this, but a livable wage is required.  We'll never be rich, and I don't think any of us expect that.  I do, however, hate when people try to shame anyone who expresses concerns about the salary as "not caring enough" - as in, "If you REALLY wanted to be a zookeeper, you wouldn't mind the salary."

Now, all of this is complicated by the fact that many zoos - almost all AZA ones, at any rate - are nonprofits, so no one is drowning in cash (if you couldn't tell, my humanitarian-of-the-year boss mentioned a few paragraphs up was not AZA, and was certainly not a nonprofit).  Zoos and aquariums are expensive to run as it is without boosting keeper salaries.  Besides, they want to put a lot of that money back into the animals - improved habitats, better care, etc.  I get that too.

The one thing that I wish some directors and curators would understand better, though, is the cost its taking, summed up in one word - turnover.  Animal care is like most professions - there is an element of pure talent, coupled with the need for experience and training.  When good keepers who have the potential to become great ones drop out because they just can't afford it anymore, you need to replace them with new ones.  New keepers that need time to be trained, and will spend a few years as inexperienced-mistake-makers.  If you have one keeper working a section for ten years rather than five keepers doing it for two years each, you're going to have a much more experienced, productive employee, one who will be more responsive to the animals, notice things more quickly, and work more efficiently.

Zoo administrators are willing to invest in other aspects of the organization - facilities, exhibits, tools, equipment.  Surely we're worth investing in a little more, too.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Pronghorn (Antilocapra americana)

Antilocapra americana (Ord, 1815)

Range: Southern Canada, Western United States, Northern Mexico
Habitat: Grassland, Brushland, Desert
Diet: Forbs, Shrubs, Grasses, Cacti
Social Group: Large, loose groups of up to 1000 individuals (both sexes, all ages) in autumn and winter, breaking into smaller groups, segregated by sex, in spring and summer.  In wetter areas, males are territorial, with female groups passing through the territories of different males
Reproduction: Breeding from July through October.  Usually a female has a single fawn after her first pregnancy, twins after that.  Weaned at 4-5 months old, mature at 16 months
Lifespan: 10 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern, CITES Appendix I

  • ·         Shoulder height 87 centimeters, head-tail length 128-150 centimeters, weight 47-70 kilograms.  Stock body supported on long, slim legs.  Males about 10% larger than females.  Northern pronghorn larger than southern
  • ·         Upperparts bred-brown to tan, underparts and rump are white.  Two white bands across neck.  Males have black patches on the face and side of the neck beneath the ears.  Northern pronghorn tend to be darker than southern pronghorn.  Hair is dense, filled with air to provide insulation, guard hails are hollow, overtop finer, shorter underfur
  • ·         Horns are unique that they are like antelope in consisting of a keratin sheath on a bony core, yet like deer in that they are forked and the outer sheath sheds annually.  Both sexes have horns, but those of the male are enlarged, with forward-facing prongs below backward-pointing hooks
  • ·         Fastest land mammal in the Americas, with speeds up to 86 kilometers per hour and capable of maintaining 70 kilometers per hour for several kilometers.  Speed likely evolved in response to now-extinct predators, such as American cheetahs.  Adaptations to bone structure make pronghorns excellent runners but poor jumpers; in their natural state there are few obstacles to jump over, but in a human-shaped landscape they have difficulty with fences
  • ·         Active both day and night, with peaks just before sunrise and after sunset.  Daily movements vary depending on seasons, travel more in winter
  • ·         Predators of fawns include coyotes, bobcats, and golden eagles.  Adults may be preyed upon by wolves and mountain lions.  Speed is main defense, but will also use horns and hooves.  When fleeing danger, will erect white fur on rump as a warning to others
  • ·         Only surviving member of the family Antilocapridae (means “Goat Antelope”).  Closet relatives uncertain, may be the giraffe and okapi.  First seen and described by 16th century Spanish explorers, not formally records until Lewis and Clark expedition
  • ·          Believed to have been 35 million before Europeans, reduced to 20,000 by 1920s due to hunting and habitat loss (fragmentation, fencing, competition with livestock); peninsular and Sonoran subspecies listed under US Endangered Species Act, recovery projects underway.  Legally hunted with permits in all western states.
  • ·         Feral population briefly existed in Hawaii in the late 20th century

Friday, April 21, 2017

Have You Seen Me?

Earth Day is, by its very nature, a holiday with activist inclinations.  This year, it looks to be taking advocacy even further, as "Marches for Science" crop up across the country, supported in part by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

As a reminder of what the struggle is about, a group of scientists are sounding a final warning call for 25 species of plants and animals - species which they suspect may already be extinct.  In some cases, specimens haven't been observed in decades, but their fate is still uncertain (unlike other species, like the Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, which have been officially declared "Extinct" by the IUCN, but still have occasional unconfirmed sightings).

The list of the probable-goners includes a duck, a parakeet, a tortoise, and a tree kangaroo, among others.  Each one in many ways represents a failure - a failure of us to protect a species, which is now presumably lost forever (just not definitively yet).  It's sad to think that some of these species could have been saved with better habitat protection, better regulation of hunting or harvesting, better attention to the spread of invasive species, etc.  Some of them could have conceivably have been saved if zoos and aquariums had taken an interest early on and created insurance colonies for future reintroduction.

Mostly, I wonder what species will be on this list 25 years from now... species that we'll be kicking ourselves for not having done more for.

The Pink Headed Duck has remained elusive since it was last seen in 1949. Photo credit: Philip Nelson via Global Wildlife Conservation.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Satire: Donald Trump Jr. Takes Son on Hunting Trip in National Zoo

This is a dark one.

Earlier this year, First Daughter Ivanka Trump took her family for a day out at the Smithsonian National Zoo.  The Internet... didn't respond well.  Many of the comments that resulted were jabs at Ms. Trump's two brothers, both of whom are avid trophy hunters and who have infuriated many with their cheerfully-posted photos of dead leopards, elephants, etc.  Not surprisingly, many readers quipped that while they hoped Ivanka enjoyed her visit, they would just as soon that the rest of the Trump clan keep out of the zoo, lest it turn into a shooting gallery.

Naturally, The Onion went there.

What makes this especially eerie to me is how accurate and detailed it is.  Not about the Trumps, but about the zoo.  The species list, the exhibit names, even the names of individual animals - spot on.  I can't imagine how weird it would be for a keeper at National to read this and stumble across descriptions (albeit fictional) of the bison you take care of casually being gunned down.  Freaky.

According to witnesses at the zoo’s Elephant Outpost, Donald Trump Jr. told his son to aim for a calf that had wandered away from its mother in search of a play partner.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Zoo Review: Turtle Back Zoo

I don't know how I managed to overlook the Turtle Back Zoo for so long.  Actually, I guess it shouldn't be so surprising that I had - I can think of few other zoos which have seen such an explosion in growth over such a short period of time.  When I first heard the name, I was in college; a classmate mentioned it to me, referring to the tiny zoo back home in New Jersey where she volunteered during her high school years.  I was totally unprepared for what I found when I ended up visiting - a rapidly growing facility that boasts of some of the most unique and impressive exhibits I've seen.

I'll admit, I was a little underwhelmed when I first walked in the gate.  The African penguin exhibit wasn't terribly impressive, nor was the nearby bison paddock.  There was a hawk in a corn-crib cage, as well as a"closed for the season" butterfly habitat.  The prairie dog exhibit did catch my eye - it was a unique, hill-shaped structure with a visitor tunnel cutting right through the middle, allowing visitors to pop up in the middle of the habitat and watch the scurrying rodents eye-to-eye.  But no, I don't think I was that impressed the first hundred yards or so.  Then I hit the bears.

I consider bears - large, intelligent, destructive, and easily bored - to be some of the most difficult animals to build a good display for.  And so I mean this as a great compliment - I consider the American black bear exhibit at the Turtle Back Zoo to be the finest bear exhibit I have ever seen.  It wasn't just the enclosure - a sprawling patch of New Jersey forest with several sizable trees and grassy expanses.  It was the presentation.  Visitors view the bears from inside a suburban house, where the TV is playing a bear documentary and the bears are visible from out the glass patio door.  The house serves as an educational classroom for how humans and bears can coexist peaceably.  If you can't see the bears from the patio, don't worry - take a rambling walk along the nature trail, which offers several scenic viewpoints into the habitat.  You might also catch a glimpse of a red fox sharing the exhibit; I'd heard of mixed-species exhibits with bears, but this is the first I've ever seem in person, and I loved it.

A tour through the wilds of New Jersey continues with bobcats, bald eagles, ravens, and North American porcupines, before the path turns back to a large, wooded gray wolf exhibit.  The wolves were in fine form that morning, curiously nosing visitors through the viewing windows, then trotting off, only to come back a short while later.  More large carnivores were to be seen just down the trail in side-by-side habitats for puma and jaguar.  The exhibits were designed to resemble a mining camp in the southwestern US; I'd never seen a zoo do a desert jaguar display.  Even though it is accurate (jaguars do inhabit the borderlands of the American southwest), I do prefer rainforest exhibits, as they usually incorporate more climbing structures, whereas desert displays tend to be less complex.

Turtle Back is one of the most kid-friendly large zoos I've ever visited, with lots of opportunities for interaction.  Around the corner I discovered a petting barn, a budgie-feeding aviary (surrounded by exhibits of kangaroo, emu, and wallaby), and a prehistoric-themed playground, where parents can take a breather while their kids scramble across the fake dinosaur bones.

Past the playground is the zoo's Asian area, where red pandas shuffle through the pine trees and snow and Amur leopards inhabit mesh-enclosed yards, complete with rock formations and trickling water features. Completing the trail are muntjac deer, white-naped cranes, and a towering display of white-cheeked gibbons.  The gibbon exhibit also includes an indoor habitat, resembling the ruins of a southeast Asian temple.

Turtle Back Zoo gets its name in reference to an Iroquoian creation legend, which states that North America is actually standing on the back of an enormous turtle.  It is perhaps with respect to that legend that the zoo boasts of a sea turtle hospital, where stranded or cold-stunned sea turtles can be nursed back to health before they are released back into the wild.  Right next door is a building housing a touch-tank of sharks and rays, overlooking the zoo's sea lion pool.  Scattered around these structures are habitats for American alligators, North American river otters, scarlet ibises, and a small tropical aquarium building.

More reptiles can be seen in the Reptile House, perhaps the finest I've ever seen for a zoo this size.  The Komodo dragons steal the show in their enormous exhibit, taking up an entire wall of the building.  The remaining exhibits are divided between fan-favorites, such as a giant reticulated python, and several obscure, seldom-seen species, such as New Guinea ground boa.  The most popular animals in the building are probably the sloths, which occupy a mixed-species exhibit with caiman lizard, red-footed tortoise, and a few species of bird (if I have one major complaint about Turtle Back, it is that the zoo has almost zilch in the way of a bird collection).  Located immediately outside the Reptile House is the zoo train station.

If Turtle Back Zoo didn't have enough to attract visitors, even more animals are on their way.  Nearby the Reptile House is the first phase of African Adventure, a spacious grassy paddock with ostrich, eland, and giraffe.  Peppered across the zoo were the signs of fresh construction projects, hinting at the promise that the zoo has many more surprises in store.  The zoo boasts of tremendous support from the local community and local government, which is fueling its rapid development.  If the new exhibits keep the pace with the recently opened ones, Turtle Back may prove a serious challenger to the WCS zoos across the river in New York City.  At any rate, it will continue to shine as perhaps the finest mid-sized zoo in the Northeastern states.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Here Comes Peter Cottontail

Happy Easter, Everyone!  There is probably no holiday that has an animal more closely associated with it than Easter (okay, maybe Groundhog Day...).  That animal, of course, is the rabbit.

There are few aspects of the history of human-animal relations that strike me as more unlikely than the domestication of the European rabbit.  That early man was able to take one of the wiliest, jumpiest (pun intended), and neurotically fearful animals on the face of the globe and get enough specimens to survive and breed in captivity long enough to become domesticated astonishes me.

Don't believe me?  Ask yourself - how many non-domestic rabbits and hares do you see when you go to the zoo?  Cottontails? Jackrabbits?  Pygmy rabbits?   I know of some zoos in the Pacific Northwest working with pygmy rabbits, but I've never seen one.  I can think of one that I've seen in the last several years - a desert cottontail at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo.

And so we are stuck with humble domestic rabbit, staple of zoo education departments, famed of magician's hats.  And the famous stand-in for the Easter bunny.

With Easter comes the one time of year when rabbits are on everyone's brain, and not a few parents end up getting their kids a floppy-eared pet as a surprise.  Rabbits can make excellent pets - some of my closest friends have pet rabbits that they are very attached to.  No pet, whether it's a hound or a hermit crab, should be purchased as an impulse pet.  Rabbits require care after Easter Sunday... and a diet that includes much more than carrots.

Have a Happy Easter, but keep your rabbits chocolate (and your chicks marshmallows).  If you want a pet rabbit, by all means, do your research.  Talk to current pet owners about their experiences.  Make sure you have the budget, the space, and the time for it.  You may find a rabbit to not be the pet for you.  You may find it to be ideal for you.  Just skip the Easter Basket.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

All Good Things To Those Who Wait...

Well, it's about damn time.  Not that I was really impatient with April, the giraffe.  I was mostly tired of the constant "news" updates of reporters chiming in that "Nope, no baby yet."  Although, to be fair, I really must say that I've been impressed by the collective staying power of the internet's attention span.  I expected everyone to have fizzled out and gone over to the latest viral meme or webcam by now.

Okay, that's enough cynicism.  Congratulations to Animal Adventure Park for their bouncing baby boy.  Hopefully all of this goes on to reflect more attention of the suddenly, surprisingly imperiled giraffe, and what zoos can do to help save them.  Sometimes it just takes that personal connection to get people to care, like feeding a giraffe at a zoo, or smelling its breath from a viewing platform... or spending a total of 18 hours watching webcams and waiting for labor to start.

If there's one another lesson I'd love to take away, it's this.  April began her climb to notoriety when the anti-zoo folks tried to block her webcam from YouTube, claiming it was pornographic and sexualized.  This led to a well-deserved backlash as everyone wanted to see what all the fuss was about, turning a pregnant giraffe from a local celebrity to a beloved internet icon and causing the collective internet to rally around the zoo's reasonably bemused proprietor.  Sometimes, all publicity really is good publicity.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Buzz About Bees

If there seems to be one constant in the news about wildlife today, it's this - everything is in decline.  Literally, almost everything from the Sumatran rhinos in Indonesia to the frogs in the ditch in your backyard.  Among those species in decline are the bees, which many people find rather concerning.  After all, not only do bees produce honey, which everyone loves, they are responsible for pollinating a rather large percentage of the crops that our economy depends on.

Without bees, we're in a lot of trouble.  How much trouble?  We stand to find out in the near future.

In an attempt to raise awareness of the plight of bees, General Mills temporarily banished their bee mascot from Honey Nut Cheerios, and instead announced that they would be distributing free packets of wildflower seeds to customers.  The idea being, of course, that by planting the seeds there would be more wildflowers, which would then produce more nectar to feed the bees.

The rub, however, is that not all flowers are created equally.  Some of the "wildflowers" in General Mills' lovingly-produced bags are invasive pests with zero beneficial value for bees.  Some, in fact, might have harmed bees by crowding out the plants that they do feed upon.  The bags of seeds aren't specific to any locale within the United States (which, after all, is a big country).  Some flowers might be native to one part of the country and be an noxious weed in another.

It's also worth pointing out that, while the US does have lots of native bees and other pollinators, the species which makes our honey and pollinates our crops is a European import.  There are lots of native bees which are in trouble.  Unlike honeybees, they don't have an army of paid professionals and devoted hobbyists working to boost their numbers.

This is an area where zoos could make a great local impact.  Their grounds are a fantastic place to plant lots of native vegetation that could provide suitable habitat - and food - for native bees.  They can also be a great educational resource for local communities about their local pollinators.  In fact, they could even take a page from the General Mills playbook and distribute seed packets of their own.  Most zoo visitors are locals (especially outside of the tourist summer months), so it would be more likely that recipients would walk away with ecologically-appropriate seed packets that would do well with local conditions.

What General Mills was trying to do isn't really to be condemned.  Their hearts (or at least marketing departments) were in the right place, and getting people interested in planting pollinator gardens is a great step.  It just takes a little guidance, direction, and planning to steer it in a direction that does the most good for local ecosystems.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

There's an App for That

Of course there is.  Whatever "it" tends to be, in this case, there's an app for it.  There's an app for everything these days.

This was what was going through my mind one rainy day at work earlier this year while I huddled over my semi-functional computer, working on data for the zoo's new app.  Specifically, I was sorting through the dozens of species we have on display and writing fact sheets for them.  I spent a lot of time on Arkive and a lot of time pirating info off of other zoo's websites and, I'm not too proud to admit, a little time on Wikipedia.

I had to work with our education team and development staff to try and decide what species we were going to work on, how much information we were going to include, and what the exact target audience was.  You don't want to talk over the head of a curious elementary school student by using seven syllable words.  You don't want to baby-talk to a college student.

Through it all, through the researching and writing and editing and proof-reading, I had one on-going thought... Are people even going to use this damn thing?

There's a lot of positive things to be said for apps.  They are less visually intrusive than signs.  You can change them and update them easily; if you move an animal from one exhibit to another, or change a species, or have something that you wish to convey about the individual animals on displau (information on a newborn, or about a geriatric animal that might cause some concern), you can add it easily.  You can put a lot more information on them, linked to our sources.  You could, for instance, have the signage at your orangutan exhibit be linked to information about palm oil, or at your aquarium display to the sustainable seafood program at Monterrey Bay Aquarium (which has its own app, naturally).  You can incorporate audio or video - at your chameleon exhibit, visitors could watch a clip of a chameleon tongue in action, or see a bird-of-paradise display, even if the actual birds are not displaying.

The downside is that it just gets people doing the one thing that they should be coming to the zoo in order to not do - look at screens all day.   I worry about visitors spending their entire visit looking at the phones and not looking at the animals.  Furthermore, I worry about visitors looking at the phones and not interacting with each other.  Some of my happiest zoo memories are of watching guests interact.  Seeing parents read a sign to their child and explain the words to them, or seeing a couple converse over an animal, pointing of odd traits.  I would hate to lose that and replace it with a horde of people walking back and forth, only occasionally glancing up from their phones.

We had enough of that with the Pokemon Go thing last year.

My director tells me that the apps are the future.  He even briefly flirted with the idea of taking down all of our signage and replacing it with the app.  We were able to convince him not to on the grounds that we have lots of seniors and other folks who don't have smartphones... and people like me, who are just technologically inept and have barely worked out texting, let alone apps (seriously, I'm current in negotiations with the Smithsonian to buy my current cell phone as a historical artifact).

So the signs stayed up, and we're adding the app, too.  We've also gotten WiFi for the entire zoo.  I suppose that's the best option - having different sources of information available to accommodate different learning styles and preferences.

As long as people look up from their phones now and then to remember where they are, I guess I'm fine with that.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Sporcle Quiz: Tiger

Today I released the second in my "Sporcle at the Zoo" series.  The first one was "Lion", so fittingly, the second one is "Tiger."  Though to tell you the truth, looking at the answer results from the first quiz, I'm making these too easy.  I've got to get some tougher questions...

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The Midwest Abortion Sanctuary City Zoological Park?

Wait... it's not April Fools?  You mean this crap is real?  *Sigh*

A Missouri State Senator, it seems, really, really wanted to argue about abortion.  Unfortunately, the topic up for discussion was not abortion - it was whether or not to boost tax revenues for the St. Louis Zoo.  Now, a rational human being might have felt that trying to turn a debate about one into the other might be a bit of a non-sequitur, but then again, this is a local politician.  Rationality doesn't apply.

Instead, Senator Bob Onder offered an amendment that would have renamed one of America's greatest zoos "The Midwest Abortion Sanctuary City Zoological Park"... just to make sure we all know that he doesn't like abortion.  He and a fellow senator then began to muse that women who want abortions should go to the zoo, since zoo vet facilities and procedures are better than those of abortion clinics (I know that's supposed to be a dig at the abortion clinics, but I can't help but feel we don't come across that great in it either... "I mean, even THE ZOO keeps a better hospital, for Pete's sake...").

Oh, there was also some factually incorrect bull about how zoo's have a mandatory waiting period before euthanasia... just in case another facility wants to ADOPT.  A little heavy-handed, huh?

All through this, I'm sure St. Louis Zoo is collectively sitting in the corner muttering, "Leave us out of this, leave us out of this."

I still didn't hear if the zoo got their funding or not.

Friday, April 7, 2017

Animal Rights - The Other Extreme

They are a zookeeper's favorite foils.  People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.  The Born Free Foundation.  Zoocheck.  The Humane Society of the United States.  Organizations that are opposed to the keeping of animals under human care.  They dislike zoos.  They deplore aquariums.  They're okay with sanctuaries, but to tell you the truth, most of them don't actually seem to know what that means, so I'm inclined to discount that one.  In short, they are not our friends.  A major challenge of zoos and aquariums in the past few decades has been the struggle for the hearts-and-minds of an increasingly fickle public, with loyalties swinging back and forth according to the latest news cycle.

I've actually encountered very few of the anti-zoo crowd myself... in real life, anyway (they abound online, in Facebook and in comments sections).  I've met a few, though... even dated one, actually; I like to think I converted her, though I can't be sure that she didn't backslide after we parted ways.  There really is no way to boil the blood of a zookeeper faster than to introduce these folks into a conversation (especially if you do so while tapping loudly on the exhibit glass).  I've kind of made peace with the fact that they are there, and that some of them I'll never be able to reach.

Lately, however, there's been something bothering me.  It's what I've come to identify as "The Other Extreme."  It exists in every animal care field, from agriculture to the entertainment industry, and zoos and aquariums are no exception.  They are a group - and I use this term only in the most informal sense, since they are not organized under any label - that has risen as a natural counterbalance to the sometimes (well, ofttimes) ridiculous excesses of the animal rights' groups.  Their main unifying ideology seems to be that any critique of any aspect of the animal care profession is a direct assault on the entire community, and that any challenge to any facility or individual who cares for animals is a challenge to all.

Politically, these keepers tend to be more conservative than others, so I'm sure they won't be offended when I compare them to a different group - the NRA.  Like the gun industry, the exotic animal profession really could stand to have a little more restriction and a few more guidelines.  I'm not saying that because I like red-tape (I do not), but because I've seen too much bad crap go down with animals in the hands of owners - be they private pet owners, professional handlers, and, yes, some zoo administrators - to believe too much in laissez faire.  There need to be standards on what people can have what animals and do what with them.  To these keepers, however, every step towards regulation (no matter how minor or rational) is just a step on my least-favorite rhetorical device, "the slippery slope."  That makes any conversation a nonstarter.

Right now, the rules vary a lot by state and jurisdiction.  Florida, for instance, requires persons wishing to own dangerous exotic animals to complete hours of training and inspection.  In Delaware (of all places), anything seems to go.  Often, it seems like it takes one tragedy to push the pendulum from one direction to the other.  Ohio used to have pretty lax animal ownership laws.  Then came the Zanesville incident...

What makes the "Other Extreme" keepers extra-exasperating to me isn't their hyper-aggressiveness online, usually demonstrating itself by throwing out insults, accusing other keepers of being animal rights' activists, or claiming that AZA is working with PETA and HSUS to sell out all of the other zoos.  Don't get me wrong.  That's annoying.  It's not dangerous though.  What is dangerous is a mind-set that creates an us-vs-them mentality where, in order to win, we try to make the "us" part as big as possible, and invite some unsavory characters into our tent,

I have absolutely nothing against private ownership of exotic animals... provided that it's done in a manner that does right by the needs of the animal in question (proper diet and veterinary care, species-appropriate enclosure and social group, etc) that in no way jeopardizes wild populations (see: Spix's macaw).  I do have a major problem with irresponsible pet owners who - intentionally or otherwise - mistreat their animals, or abandon them after they become too great of a responsibility.  I have problems with tourist traps which exploit animals for profit while jeopardizing the health or safety of animals and customers alike.  By inviting these people into our coalition, we dilute and cheapen the message that we should be standing for - conservation and education, ensuring a place for wildlife in the world for generations to come.

At the end of the day, I believe in zoos and aquariums (and responsible private owners) as stewards of wild animals.  I will stand up for this belief against PETA, or HSUS, or any keyboard-warrior or armchair activist.  But I am NOT fighting on behalf of someone who wants to breed monkeys that they can snatch from their mothers, dress up in costumes, and have pose for pictures with tourists.  Nor am I standing up for someone who claims that breeding ligers is great for conservation.

A reluctance to criticize animal care practices which are sub-par also holds our profession back.  Zoo critics like to paint zoos as barren prisons of concrete slabs and iron bars... and that's what they used to be.  We changed, but we only did so because of the bomb-throwers and the malcontents, they people who were willing to say, "This isn't good enough, and we need to do better."  If those people had been shouted down or drummed out of the profession, the zoos of today would be much worse places... if they had survived this long at all.

And to anyone - keeper or curator or private owner - who insists that we all have to stand together, otherwise we'll get picked off one-by-one, I'm going to have to say: We'll have to agree to disagree.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Rock Hyrax (Procavia capensis)

Rock Hyrax (Dassie)
Procavia capensis (Pallas, 1766)

Range: Sub-Saharan Africa, Southern Arabian Peninsula
Habitat: Mountains, Cliffs, Kopjes (Rock Outcroppings)
Diet: Grasses, Shrubs, Fruits, Leaves
Social Grouping: Groups of up to 25, consisting of a breeding male and several females
Reproduction: Breeding season is August through November,  Female gives birth to up to 6 young after a pregnancy of 202-245 days.  Young grow quickly and are mobile at 1 day old, start eating solids at 2 weeks, and are weaned at 5 months.  Males disperse, looking for a colony that they can live at the periphery of until winning their own.  They are sexually mature at 16 months old.
Lifespan: 10 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern

  • Body length 40-58 centimeters, weight 1.8-5.4 kilograms.  Short snout, small ears, short legs, compact body
  • Fur is brownish-gray, often with lighter-colored underparts.  A patch of black or yellow-orange fur on the back marks the scent gland.  The soles of the feet are very soft and pliable, providing excellent traction when climbing rocks.  A hollow on the sole of the foot acts as a suction cup
  • Usually active during the day, hyraxes are sometimes heard calling on moonlit nights.  Most nights are spent hidden in caves and crevices.  Upon awakening, the hyrax usually spends 1-2 hours basking in the sun before becoming active for the day
  • When feeding, one or more individuals will sit atop a high rock or in a branch, acting as lookouts.  At the approach of a predator (such as leopards, pythons, and eagles), the lookout will yelp, sending the colony scurrying for safety
  • Hyrax colonies defecate and urinate in communal spots.  Their urine often crystalizes into white patches on the rocks
  • Sometimes considered an agricultural pest and culled; in other areas hunted for food
  • Although they resemble large guinea pigs, the closest relatives of the hyrax are the elephants.  The hyrax has a similar tooth structure, including two pointed incisors which resemble minuscule tusks
  • Also called the coney, rock hyraxes appear in the Bible and Torah, where they are celebrated as clever animals... though their flesh is still considered unclean.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Now or Never for the Vaquita

Over the past few weeks, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums has been quietly lobbying its members for financial support for what may be the most desperate conservation story of the century.  With over $1,000,000 in contributions from zoos and aquariums, AZA is joining the Mexican government in unveiling VaquitaCPR - the "CPR" standing for "Conservation, Protection, and Recovery."  It's the last real chance to save the world's smallest cetacean, and it's going to be a hard one.

The vaquita has almost been entirely wiped out by gill nets strung out to capture drum fish for Chinese markets.  Last year, there were about 60 vaquita left in the world.  Now, there are about half of that.  The plan calls for the capture and relocation of the tiny porpoises to a small, protected marine sanctuary in the hope that, safe from gill nets, they can replenish their numbers.

I'm not optimistic, to be honest.  Vaquita have never been kept in zoos or aquariums and we know very little about their needs in captivity.  There are major questions as to whether they will breed.  It's doubtful if there are even enough left to be able to rebuild the population, or whether they canv be captured at all.  Lots of doubts... and only one certainty.  That certainty is that, if nothing is done now, vaquitas will go extinct.  Very soon.

All other options for saving this species have failed.  AZA's plan is a risky one, but if it isn't implemented - and soon - it'll be too late to try anything else.  Good luck.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Book Review: Modoc - The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived

"'Well, son, this was no ordinary elephant.  It is said that one in every ten thousand elephants is special... very special.  They have something happening in their heads.  Something we humans wouldn't understand, but they know the ways of Man.'"

Just in time for April Fool's Day, our latest book review.

On a winter day in Germany at the dawn of the last century, circus trainer Josef Gunterstein had the best day ever.  Not only did his wife give birth to a long-prayed for baby boy, Bram, but Emma, his star attraction elephant, delivered a calf - a female named "Modoc."  Modoc, told by veteran animal trainer Ralph Helfer, is the story of those two children, raised as siblings, and the life they shared.  Bram is born to train elephants and Modoc is born to be a circus star.  Their bond is meant to be a life-long one, and nothing - not cruel circus owners, not murderous terrorists, and not even a sinking ship can keep the two apart for long.

Okay... about all of that.

If Modoc were to be presented to the reader as fiction - something along the lines of Life of Pi - I would have been okay with it.  No, the writing isn't very good, but that can be excused - Mr. Helfer isn't a professional author, he's a man conveying a story about a topic that he is passionate about.  Sure, the dialect is sappy sweet, sure there are more ridiculous coincidences in one chapter than in all of Shakespeare's plays, and sure, it's downright predictable at times, but it's a story... right?

The thing is, Helfer bills it as a true story (while acknowledging some poetic license).  That's what ticks me off.

My first suspicion came with the tiny handful of photographs in the center of the book.  None of them seemed to match up to the Modoc of the story.  Modoc was supposed to be enormous.  None of the elephants pictured looked particularly big (I mean, for an elephant).  Modoc was supposed to be scarred from various misadventures over her globe-spanning career.  I didn't see any scarring.  Most telling, none of the elephants pictured had tusks.  Now, unlike African elephants, female Asian elephants very rarely have visible tusks, but Helfer's book mentions on a few occasions that Modoc had huge tusks, tusks that were decorated for the circus shows, tusks that enabled her to perform marvelously as a logging elephant in the teak forests of Burma while she was on the run with Bram.   So what happened to them?  The lives of other circus elephants, most notably Jumbo, are far better documented than Modoc... and Jumbo lived decades before Modoc.  Why isn't their more of a paper trail, or photographs?

They more I read Modoc, the more curious I became and I tried looking into her story.  The only references I could find all came back to Helfer's book.  Sure, I did come across a few "Modocs" out there - "Big Modoc", 'Little Modoc", "One-Eyed Modoc", and I began to suspect that "Modoc" was a compilation of these elephants.  Nor could I find much about Bram Gunterstein, but that I could at least sort of understand.  Being a German Jewish immigrant, I suppose it's possible that he spent the years around World War II quietly under the radar.  But other details don't add up.  In their old age, Bram receives a letter from a man he met in South Asia while he was a youth.  The letter-writer was an older man when they first met, which would have made him incredibly ancient at the time of his supposed correspondence.

I'm not nearly as informed about the history of circuses as I am about zoos and aquariums, so I reached out to colleagues who are.  The reaction to inquiries about Modoc has been, uniformly, an eye-roll and a shrug.

I can understand the Ralph Helfer has strong feelings about animal training.  He himself appears towards the end of the book as an Angel of Mercy of sorts.  He may want to use a book to tell a story about trainers and their charges.  He should.  Stories are excellent educational tools; again, Life of Pi is an excellent story that teaches the reader much about zoos (And animal training.  And religion.  Not so much about seafaring).  But trying to pass off something as a true story when it is not, as I suspect is the case here, is a distraction, and comes with a cost of credibility.  As such, I'm going to have to put Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived, back on the fiction shelf.

Saturday, April 1, 2017

From the News... Sort Of.

Just a reminder folks, whatever you see in the news today... check the date.  Actually, that rule of thumb worked very well in the newspaper era.  Not so much in the online age, when a story written on April Fool's Day seven years ago gets re-shared every six weeks to an audience that isn't expecting a practical joke.  I'm sure I'll see this again in my newsfeed once or twice by Christmas, shared by folks who are convinced that it's true.