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Monday, July 31, 2017

From the News: George Rabb, influential former Brookfield Zoo director, dies at 87

George Rabb, shown with an okapi, was the influential longtime director of Brookfield Zoo. He died Thursday after a brief illness, the zoo announced. He was 87.  
 (Chicago Zoological Society)

Friday, July 28, 2017

An Otterly Romantic Proposal

I've said it before and I'll say it again - sometimes, you really just need an uplifting (if slightly contrived) animal video to get you through the week

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Dear AZA

To Daniel M. Ashe
President and CEO, Association of Zoos and Aquariums
July 26, 2017

Dear Mr. Ashe,

Congratulations on passing the half-year mark in your tenure as President and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.  I have been a proud member of AZA for nearly a decade, and must say that I have been pleased with many of the changes going on in the organization.

I appreciate your willingness to become an increasingly vocal advocate for the zoo and aquarium community - the very first statement that I ever saw from you wasn't a press release, it was a Facebook comment extolling the great work of our community in saving species.  I have been pleased to see how successful you've been in rallying AZA member institutions behind efforts to save the critically endangered vaquita.  I've very much admired your willingness to use AZA's platform to take a stand on political issues, whether testifying before Congress on behalf of the Endangered Species Act or allying zoos and aquariums with the March for Science.

There is, however, one subject which I would like to broach which I feel some concern about.  Not anger, not disappointment - just concern.  I'm sure you can guess what it is.  From what I've heard, AZA has received many emails on the subject lately.  That subject, of course, is the Humane Society of the United States.

Apart from PETA, HSUS (H$U$, as I see many zoo professionals deride it) is probably the most well-known animal right's organization in the country.  While their platform has never been explicitly anti-zoo or aquarium, that bias has definitely been implied.  Whereas other animal welfare organizations have at times celebrated the care that zoos and aquariums provide their charges - I'm thinking most specifically about the American Humane Association's new accreditation program - HSUS has always given off the air of tolerating - just - zoos, with the AZA and its members being the best of what they see as a regrettable lot.

So are you sure that they are an organization that we want to ally ourselves with?

I certainly understand the importance of listening to differing viewpoints.  If it weren't for that, zoos and aquariums would never have evolved past the dark ages of small, sterile cages.  I also appreciate that, both being organizations concerned with animal issues, there are plenty of times that our interests will be aligned.  There are plenty of concerns that both of our organizations should take a stand together on, from shark-finning and rattlesnake roundups to backyard big cats.  Even PETA, after all, has occasionally found itself in uneasy, temporary alliances with zoos and aquariums, as evidenced by the rescue of the polar bears known as the Suarez Seven.

That being said, how sure are we that we want to partner with an organization that, at best, sees zoos and aquariums as a necessary evil?  One that might begrudgingly admit our role in saving the California condor, the Arabian oryx, and a handful of other species from extinction, but remain highly skeptical of every aspect of our programs that isn't either a wildlife rehabiliation or an active reintroduction program?  One that is dubious of our educational roles, and thinks of us as stationary circuses?  Such a partnership, I fear, would be a temporary one, and one that is largely defined simply as a lack of open hostility.  When Humane Society CEO Wayne Pacelle speaks to the general session of AZA's Annual Meeting in Indianapolis this year, what agenda will he have in mind?  Is it truly collaboration - or simply a delay in attack?

Furthermore, I am concerned that this partnership may allow HSUS to aim its fire at non-accredited facilities, putting AZA in the awkward position of having to either a) stand by and watch as some good facilities have their names dragged through the mud, or b) stand up against their newfound partner.  While there are some truly horrid non-AZA facilities out there, there are others which are excellent institutions which contribute in very concrete ways to conservation programs, often in collaboration with AZA.  Where would our waterfowl programs be, for example, if not for the input and expertise of Sylvan Heights Bird Park, Pinola Preserve, and Livingston Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy?

Please don't get me wrong - I still firmly believe that AZA is the best force for good in the zoo community at this time.  Its accreditation standards continually push zoos and aquariums to become better.  The Species Survival Plan program manages populations of hundreds of species with the goal of genetic and demographic stability.  Its Conservation Grant Fund marshals millions of dollars into field conservation programs around the globe.  The new SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction) initiative combines ex situ and in situ conservation efforts.  Working together gives zoos and aquariums an amplified voice for collaborative messaging and education programs.

I've always thought of AZA as a big-tent sort of organization, one that was big enough to welcome anyone who believed in the power of zoos and aquariums to build a better future for wildlife.  I still do.  It's just that now, I find myself wondering if that tent is truly big enough to include an organization like HSUS.

Thank you for your time.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Zoo Review: Albuquerque BioPark Aquarium and Botanic Garden

Albuquerque, New Mexico, is home to one of the most spectacular environmental education centers in the country - the Albuquerque Biological Park.  Originally consisting of just the Rio Grande Zoo, the four-part complex now also consists of an aquarium, a botanical garden, and Tingley Beach (not an actual beach, this is New Mexico, after all, more like a fishing beach).

Compared to the rather expansive zoo and botanic gardens, the ABQ Bio Park Aquarium is rather tiny affair.  Opening in 1996, the aquarium focuses (mostly) on the aquatic life of the Rio Grande and the ocean it feeds into.  Upon entering, visitors are introduced to the river through a series of small aquarium tanks, displaying fish of the Rio Grande.  Nearby, a small movie theater plays a brief documentary on the life of the river.  Outside the theater, a shallow, open-top tank is patrolled by large stingrays, while a shrimp boat lies run-aground in the background.

Down the hall, a series of tanks display an assortment of fish and aquatic invertebrates.  Among them are clownfish, jellyfish, cuttlefish, nautilus, and seahorses.  In a small side-chamber, a touch tank features rays and bamboo sharks.  When the area is opened-up by aquarium staff, visitors have the opportunity to touch the fish.

The largest display at the aquarium is the quarter-million gallon shark tank.  A half-dozen shark species, including zebra sharks, sand tiger sharks, and black-tip reef sharks, cruise around, sharing the water with barracudas, moray eels, and loggerhead sea turtles; this facility was the first aquarium in the world to breed the black-tipped reef shark in an aquarium.  Dive demonstrations are conducted daily.  Past the tank is a restaurant and gift shop.

Outside, the aquarium opens up into the stunningly beautiful botanic gardens.  Among the many themed gardens are pools (often adorned with wild waterfowl), greenhouses, a children's fantasy garden with a maze and giant dragon statue, and a New Mexican homestead farm, complete with domestic animals.  For the animal enthusiast, however, the crown jewel of the gardens is the extraordinary BUGarium, one of the coolest collections of insects and their kin.  There is an enormous variety of tarantulas, a beehive, a neat nocturnal gallery, and a fascinating series of desert bugs from the surrounding landscapes, set into an artificial rock face.  And, of course, there are naked mole rats, like there are in every insect house on earth, it seems.

The single coolest display for me was the leaf-cutter ants.  Now, I've seen leaf-cutter ants in a half-dozen zoos across the US.  What made this display so unusual, however, was that there were zero barriers.  Just like in other zoos, the ants get their leaf chunks and march overhead.  Only here, there are no glass or plastic tubes confining them.  Watching them trot by, I was amazed at how... close they seem.  I could have probably jumped up and touched them.  Not the best idea, mind you, but still... it was really cool.

I first read about the concept of the Bio Park - the combination of zoo and aquarium, botanical garden and natural history museum - in the writings of Dr. Theodore Reed, the fourth director of the Smithsonian National Zoo.  I'd always thought that it sounded like the ideal way to do things, highlighting the interconnected nature of life on earth.  Animals move back and forth between land and water, they are sustained by the plants around them, and when they pass into extinction, they leave fossils behind them.  The Albuquerque Biological Park does an excellent job of reminding visitors that zoos and aquariums are more than just collections of living things - they are celebrations of the incredible diversity of life on earth.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Japanese Spider Crab (Macrocheira kaempferi)

Japanese Spider Crab
Macrocheira kaempferi (Temminck, 1836)

Range: Japan's Pacific Coast (Islands of Konshu and Kyushu)
Habitat: Continental Shelves with Sandy or Rocky Bottoms
Diet: Carrion, Small Invertebrates, Kelp, Algae
Social Grouping: Asocial
Reproduction: Mate in the spring (January through March).  Packets of sperm (called spermatohores) are inserted into the female's body.  Females may lay over one million eggs per season, less than 1 millimeter in diameter, which she carriers on her body.  Eggs hatch after 10 days, after which there is no parental care.
Lifespan: 50-100 Years (Speculation)
Conservation Status: Not Evaluated

  • Largest (but not heaviest) living arthropod with longest legspan - up to 4 meters from the tip of one leg to the tip of the opposite.  Pear-shaped body is up to 37 centimeters long.  Females are wider but slightly smaller than males with shorter legs.  Weigh up to 20 kilograms
  • Color is mottled red-orange, usually fading int a cream color on the underside.  Colors tend to be brighter after a molt
  • The long legs are very fragile and somewhat weak.  Most crabs are missing at least one due to predation or getting tangled in nets; legs grow back with molts
  • Folk tales describe spider crabs seizing sailors and dragging them underwater to eat; unlikely to be true, but have have been inspired by sights of crabs scavenging drowned humans
  • Adults have few predators.  As such, they do not camouflage themselves by decorating their shells with sponges and other items as many other crabs due
  • Specimens have occasionally been found at a considerable distance from Japan, as far as Taiwan - it's likely that these individuals were carried there either by fishing trawlers or by extreme weather conditions
  • Considered a delicacy in Japan, though catch has declined significantly in recent years.  Law prohibits fishing for them during the mating season

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Star Power at the Zoo

"New spoiler for Avengers: Infinity War. Hulk vs Sea Lions confirmed. You saw it here first folks!"
- Comment from Georgia Aquarium's Facebook page

On a recent trip to the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, I was strolling around behind-the-scenes with a keeper friend of mine.  We rounded a corner and unexpectedly came across country star Brad Paisley and his family, lolling about in the grass with... a cheetah.  "Crap, I forgot they were back here," my friend whispered, "Just act casual and walk on by..."

Those thirty seconds impressed me with yet another huge divide between her big zoo life and my small zoo one.  For me, a major celebrity visit was an unheard of event.  For her, it was a typical weekend, and they had the drill down flat.  The higher ups would take the star for a special tour with lots of animal meet-and-greets.  Everyone not involved tried not to get too much in the way.   Not that Mr. Paisley isn't a nice guy - I'm sure he is.  It's just that no one wants their quiet family outing spoiled by autograph and selfie seekers.  That's what the concert that night is for.

As long as there have been zoos and aquariums, there have been celebrity tours (or how else would you characterize Montezuma II's behind-the-scene tour of his royal menagerie for Cortes and his men?  It's a great opportunity to build support for the facility, get some exposure, and who knows, maybe a donation or a spokesperson?  Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson recently spent a day at Zoo Atlanta.  Chris Pratt and his wife Anna Ferris are supporters of the Woodland Park Zoo.   Betty White and Guns n Roses' Slash are spokespeople for Los Angeles Zoo.  Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is a huge zoo buff and always makes a point of visiting zoos on his travels.

Sometimes work and pleasure overlap.  Staff at Boston's Franklin Park Zoo got some great exposure to Kevin James as they collaborated on his movie, The Zookeeper.

Of course, sometimes, this special tours can get a bit... awkward.  Sharon Stone's husband, Phil Bronstein, got his foot chomped on by a Komodo dragon during a tour of the LA Zoo.  And an aquarist acquaintance of mine has a pretty embarrassing story about her, Mark Wahlberg, and a giant Pacific octopus.

Mark Ruffalo and Chris Pratt aren't the only Marvel stars to be a zoo fans.  Chris Hemsworth has said that if he wasn't an actor, he'd love to be, you guessed it, a zookeeper.

We'd love to have you Chris.  Feel free to bring the hammer.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Book Review: Journey of the Pink Dolphins - An Amazon Quest

"I had followed the dolphins into realms I had never before imagined they might take me - into treetops, inside black waters, though the looking-glass world of the forest's powers.  And now, they had led again to new territory: to the people's understanding of the world beneath the river; to the edge of that thin line between animal and human, water and land, fear and desire."

Over the years I've spent in zoos and aquariums, there is one creature of the Amazon that I've always wanted to see, but have never had the chance.  During my lifetime, only a single zoo specimen has existed in this country - a solitary male at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium known as "Chuckles."  That creature is the Amazon river dolphin, Inia geoffrensis, one of the most enigmatic creatures of an enigmatic river.

In Journey of the Pink Dolphins, nature writer Sy Montgomery has fallen under the spell of the dolphins, and her desire to know them better draws her to the very heart of the Amazon.  Mostly, she is drawn to the unique role that the dolphins play in the folklore of the local peoples.  To them, the dolphin is a shape-shifter, one with the power to take the form of a handsome man or a beautiful woman and to lure unsuspecting humans to Encante, an enchanted world beneath the surface of the river.

In her pursuit of the dolphin, known locally as the boto, Montgomery and her friends meet up with various researchers who study the dolphins and other creatures of river.  Many of them describe their frustrations with studying the elusive dolphins, hidden in the murk and only visible in patchwork glances.  Even the most basic questions - Are they endangered? Do they migrate? - prove difficult to answer.  Among the researchers that she encounters is, to put it lightly, a bit of a new-age hippie, who's research seems largely to consist of determining if the dolphins like Pink Floyd more or less than other bands.

If Journey of the Pink Dolphins has one major failing, it's the narrator.  As compelling as the botos are, I have a hard time getting past my personal irritation with Montgomery.  She often comes across as rather sappy, other times plaintive and whiny, seeming more like a spoiled tourist than a naturalist,  All of her descriptions are too drippy, too misty-eyed; for all of her mocking of the new-age naturalists that she encounters periodically, she doesn't seem that much more grounded in science.  It's almost as if the botos aren't extraordinary enough as they are, and she feels as if they need to be dressed up in hyperbole.

Montgomery offers readers a few into a life that few would otherwise see - the life of a traveler on the world's largest river.  She meets many extraordinary people who share their stories of dolphins and other creatures of the Amazon.  Unfortunately, we only ever see things through her eyes, and, for me at least, she's a hard writer to enjoy.  But, for a special peek into the life of an animal that I've always wanted to encounter, I'm willing to read on with just the occasional eye-roll.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Celebrating Our Week

This week is National Zookeeper Week, which means... what exactly?

That was the question posed recently by Penny Jolly, the President of the American Association of Zookeepers.  In an open letter to the leadership of her organization, Ms. Jolly suggests that, like every other holiday, National Zookeeper Week has lost its way.  It is not, she argues, an excuse for us to get gift baskets or donuts.  It's not an opportunity for everyone to pat us on the head and tell us what good boys and girls we all are.

Instead, it's our chance to show the communities that we serve who we are and what it is that we do.

That being said, someone offers me some donuts (especially whatever Krispy Kreme has as it's seasonal cake flavor), I'm not saying "no."

Monday, July 17, 2017

Life, Death, and Social Media

At least for the keepers of the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, National Zookeeper Week got off to a pretty awful start.

The giraffe keepers at Baltimore had spent the last month in a desperate struggle to save the life of Julius, a male calf who had failed to obtain necessary antibodies from his mother and was fading fast.  The keepers at Baltimore engaged in Herculean efforts.  They were supported by two other facilities - Cheyenne Mountain and Columbus - who rushed them plasma for transfusions.  They did everything possible.  In the end, "everything possible" just wasn't enough.

This weekend, the decision was made to euthanize Julius.  It was a heartbreaking tragedy for the team.  What perhaps made it more difficult than many struggles to save a fading animal is that it all played out almost live on social media.  Aside from the keepers and vets, the heroes here are the folks who have to man Maryland Zoo's facebook page, patiently answering the same questions over and over again with good grace, acknowledging condolences, dealing with a few self-proclaimed experts, and dealing with the odd keyboard-warrior who feels the need to express an anti-zoo sentiment at the expense of a tragedy.

Birth and death are a cycle than all keepers become familiar with, in varying degrees.  If you work with a large collection of small, short-lived animals (and I'm not even talking about invertebrate keepers here), birth and death may be a weekly or even daily occurrence.  If you work with apes, elephants, or other large, long-lived species, you may go years without either.  That just means that when it does hit you, it's that much harder.

An ongoing debate in recent years has been on how much to let the public in on these comings and goings.  Traditionally, zoos have waited a few days to announce the birth of a new animal.  An animal's first few days are fragile and precious, and so much can go wrong.  Was it born healthy?  Will its mother care for?  If it's a mammal, will the mother produce milk?  Will the baby suckle?  What about accidents and illness in those vulnerable first few days?  Better, in the minds of many zoo administrators, to quietly focus on the baby and see what will happen before going public.

I'm inclined to agree with the benefit of privacy.  Birth is a stressful time for mother and young in many species, and there is no sense in letting folks from the outside badger the poor family when they're just trying to get to know one another in peace.  At one zoo, a baby bear was born - and before the birth was announced (but after it had become common knowledge), we were constantly dealing with folks trying to sneak a peak behind-the-scenes.

The new trend - which I can understand - is full disclosure.  Even if the baby doesn't make it, let everyone know about it, being as open and honest as possible.  If the baby is healthy, let the public celebrate with you and join in your happiness.  If it doesn't, let them mourn with you, let them see the sadness and realize how deeply keepers and other staff truly care about the animals.  Look at Cincinnati Zoo's uncrowned princess - Fiona.  I seriously doubted that that little hippo would make it - so premature, so little known about hand-rearing hippos (compared to, say, giraffes).  And yet, they pulled it off, and Fiona's struggles, triumphs, and eventual reintroduction to her family played out in front of an adoring audience of millions.

Sometimes I get unfairly exasperated with mourners on social media.  The endless comments about "the rainbow bridge" irritate me.  If we really thought that there was some sort of paradise awaiting all of our animals, we might as well euthanize them all now and get them there faster... wait, I think that actually is PETA's mentality.  And whenever an anti-zoo troll rises from the muck and says in a sanctimonious fashion, "Well, he/she is FREE now," I want to yell at my screen, "No, they are DEAD.  Which is not anyone's desired outcome."

It's very sad what happened with the loss of Julius the giraffe calf.  Still, Maryland Zoo keepers, as keepers everywhere, know that they have to pull themselves together and get back to work.  There are other animals that are counting on them.  Especially in this case.  You see, Julius has a big sister, born just a few months before him.  Her name is Willow, and she was the first giraffe born at the zoo is several years.

Which makes her birth - announced over social media - cause for extra celebration.

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Ocean in the Jungle

"There is a river that runs from the mountains,
That one river is all rivers, all rivers are that one...
It is the song of life, it is the flower of faith,
It is the tree of temptation, it is the river of no regret."

- John Denver, Amazon

If you asked any ten zookeepers to create a short-list of the places around the world that they would love to see before they die, I'm sure there would be a fair bit of overlap.  I'm sure many would say the Serengeti Plains, and the Australian Outback, the Galapagos, and perhaps the Himalayas.  I'm also sure that most, if not all, would say the Amazon.

I know I would.

For many people - zoo staff and zoo visitors alike - the Amazon is the quintessential, paragon rainforest in our collective imagination.  And that rainforest is defined by its the river for which it is named.  Spanning five countries, the Amazon isn't the longest river in the world, but it is the largest, pushing out more water into the ocean than the next seven largest rivers combined.  It freshens the sea for miles from its mouth.  Its waters are home to some of the most extraordinary freshwater creatures on the planet, from anaconda and caiman to manatees and river dolphins, to say nothing of the thousands of species of fish, with more being discovered annually.

For all of their many positive traits, zoo and aquarium directors tend not to be an especially imaginative lot, and you tend to see a lot of repetition among zoo designs.  Someone comes up with an idea, it blooms at their zoo, and then you can sit back and watch it spread like wildfire throughout the community.  Sometimes the fad burns out, sometimes it doesn't.  Amazon River displays are one of those which have shown no signs of burning out.

National Aquarium in Baltimore has its Amazon River Forest.  Shedd Aquarium has Amazon Rising. Audubon Aquarium of the Americas has its Amazon Rainforest. Dallas World Aquarium devotes most of its collection to the Orinoco River, which shares many of the same fish species.  The National Zoo has Amazonia, Zoo Miami has Amazon and Beyond (including a river-life building), Milwaukee and Pittsburgh devote large chunks of their zoo aquariums to the Amazon.. even the tiny, now-closed DC aquarium was basically divided in half between oceans and Amazon.

I don't think that it would be an exaggeration to say that about 90% of the freshwater exhibit space I've seen at zoos and aquariums has been devoted to the fishes of the Amazon.  Apart from a few displays of Rift Valley cichlids (an endangered group of beautiful little East African lake fishes), almost the entirety of the remainder has been devoted to native freshwater habitats (Baltimore gets some points for originality with their Australian river display).

You certainly can't blame them. Ichtyologically speaking, the Amazon is the stuff of legends.  You have some of the most massive freshwater fish in the world, such as the pacu, red-tailed catfish, and the arapaima.  You have the notorious red-bellied piranha, nowhere near as savage as the stories claim, but still a major crowdpleaser.  You have the electric eel, a predator with a power that defies imagination.  Bull sharks and sawfish are known to make appearances.  You have a host of gorgeous fish, from the tiny neon tetra to the handsomely striped tiger oscars.  Throw in the reptiles - crocodilians, twenty-foot long snakes, and turtles the size of coffee tables - and you have an amazing collection of aquatic life.

The advantage of having many zoos and aquariums working with the same set of fish species is that expertise can be developed and better husbandry will result.  The downside is that allowing one habitat to monopolize our aquarium collections can lead us to overlook other, equally fascinating habitats.  Do you know how many fish species from the Congo River I can name?  Zero.  The Mekong?  Maybe one or two.  It would be beneficial for education and research purposes to start focusing a little more on other imperiled freshwater habitats around the world.  Those species may not have the star power of the Amazonian fishes, but could still benefit from our help and understanding.

I do hope to see the Amazon someday, though I doubt I'll see too much of its fishlife, unless someone has hooked it and pulled it onto dry land.  I've said before, I'm not a diver, and even if I was, I've been told that it's almost impossible to see anything in the murky waters of the Amazon - literally anything could be in there with you.  Which is one of many reasons that I'll always have a major softspot for aquariums.  They've shown me - shown all of us, really - a world that we would otherwise not be able to even imagine.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Electric Eel (Electrophorus electricus)

Electric Eel

Electrophorus electricus (Linnaeus, 1766)

Range: Northeastern South America
Habitat: Rivers, Swamps
Diet: Fish, Aquatic Invertebrates
Social Grouping: Asocial
Reproduction: Breed during the dry season. Thousands of eggs spawned and deposited in a nest of saliva built by the male.  Males will defend the nest and the newly hatched fry.
Lifespan: 10-20 Years (Captivity).  Females live longer than males
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern

  • Long, snake-like body is up to 2.5 meters long and weighing up to 20 kilograms, with an elongated anal fun, but no caudal, dorsal, or pelvic fins.  The internal organs all occupy the first fifth of the body length.  The remainder of the body houses the electrical organs
  • Color ranges from gray to brown or black, with some patches of yellow on the underside
  • Generate weak electric discharges to allow them to detect foreign objects (they have poor eyesight), with more powerful charges generated for predation and defense.  Towards the head they generate a positive charge, negative towards the tail.  They are very sensitive to changes in the conductivity of the water.  Even very young individuals are able to generate a charge.  An eel can generate 860 volts and has been likened to the power of a stungun
  • The mouth of an electric eel is very sensitive due to the lack of maxilla teeth and the abundance of blood vessels for oxygen absorption.  Shocking prey is believed to protect the mouth by reducing thrashing
  • Despite being a fish, electric eels are dependent on surface air, obtaining about 80% of their oxygen by gulping air from the surface.  This allows them to survive in water with very little dissolved oxygen
  • Despite their name, electric eels are not actually eels - they are members of the knifefish family, which in turn are closely related to the catfish

Zookeeper's Journal: The main fame of the electric eel, of course, is it's electricity - the very trait that is responsible for both parts of the species Latin name and takes up 80% of the animal's body length.  The eels are most popular in zoo and aquarium displays which allow visitors to actually see the electrical power of the fish, often by powering a small electric device attached to the exhibit, such as a lightbulb.  At the Tennessee Aquarium, a specimen named Miguel Wattson actually powers its own Twitter feed by periodically charging a small computer attached to the tank.

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

From the News: US Aquariums Launch Anti-Plastic Campaign

Plastic litter found during Fort McHenry Field Day (Handout/Theresa Keil.  National Aquarium Event Photographer

"One Word: Plastics"

- The Graduate

Okay, let's add a few words - "No more plastics."

At least, that's the goal that many major American aquariums are working towards.  Plastics are a major source of pollution - ocean-life can die entangled in plastics, or suffocate on it.  The phasing out of plastics is an important, practical way for aquariums to lessen their contribution to the conservation of ocean ecosystem.  It will also provide an excellent lesson to their visitors on how they can changes in their own lives that will make a better world for the animals of the sea.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Good Fences, Good Neighbors

There is a children's book that I vaguely recall from growing up - part of the fun of today's post was that I got to waste a lot of time on Google trying to recall what it was - about the various animals of a zoo (talking, of course - this is a children's book) bickering about who lives next to who.  It seems everyone has an issue with whoever lives next door - from stolen hay to slips caused by carelessly discarded banana peels - and envisions how much better life would be if they lived next door to someone else.

When planning a zoo and laying out habitats, we try to be conscientous of where animals are placed.  After all, they can't pick their own neighbors.

Neither, alas, can the zoo.

There's a keeper at the zoo - we'll call him Jerry - who has been there since before the reach of man's memory... in other words, a while.  Decades.  He tells a lot of stories about the old days, and since I've been around for a while (though nowhere near as long as him), I've heard quite a few repeats.  Besides the classics - escapes, keeper injuries, erratic bosses - there's one story - not even really a story, an anecdote, really - that always cracks me up.  In concerns a woman who lived across the street from the zoo.

To hear Jerry tell it, he would be cleaning an exhibit near the zoo's perimeter fence - the section of fence across the street from the old woman's home - when, at least once a week (more often in the summer), she would imperiously call his name from her window, and he would shamble over to the fence.  From there, she could look down upon him from her bedroom window across the street.

"Jerry!" she would call.

"Yes ma'am"

"Tell Dr. Bryant (that's what we'll call the zoo director here) that the stench is particularly offensive today."

"Yes ma'am."

And then Jerry, who would do no such thing, would get back to work.  I mostly like the story because of Jerry's rather impressive rendering of a snooty, wealthy old woman's commanding voice.

I've lived in a zoo before, and rather enjoyed the experience, neurosis and all.  That being said, I love animals and I love the work that goes into caring for them.  The same can't necessarily be said for our neighbors.

We get complaints.  Often.  Sometimes it is about the smell, but not as much as you'd think.  More often it's the noise.  Macaws screaming, monkeys chattering, flamingos honking, wolves howling, and big cats roaring... those are the sorts of sounds which might sound charming and incredible when you first hear them... but, as I discovered when I lived on grounds with my gibbon alarm-clocks, the allure can wear off.  Especially between the hours of 11PM and 5AM.

Many of the problems can come from visitors.  Traffic can be problematic, especially during the busy season. We're very close to a residential area (obviously, considering the story above), so visitors have been known to block driveways with their cars.  Special events can lead to late night noise issues, which we try to control.

Oh, and ask me how popular we are when our free-roaming peafowl go for a walk around the neighborhood?  The answer is "not very."

As sympathetic as I am to the concerns that neighbors raise, I do sometimes wonder what they expected.  After all... the zoo is rather old.  Some American zoos are plugging their way through their second century in their current location.  It's not like *SURPRISE* there's a zoo next door - all of our neighbors moved in knowing what they were coming in to.

I shouldn't make our neighbors all out to be complainers (nor should I pretend that their concerns aren't sometimes valid - I've seen what kind of a "hood ornament" a peacock can leave on a car).  Many are delightful people who are regular visitors, and I often see them strolling through the gates as soon as we open in the morning for a quiet walk.  Many visit so often that they sometimes pick up on new things before members of the staff even do.

But, back to our cranky old neighbor, the belaborer of poor, long-suffering Jerry.  She has since passed on to her heavenly reward, so we no longer get daily updates about the smell.  Her adult daughter, on the other hand, has since moved in.

She's not a fan of us, either.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Sporcle Quizzes- Sporcle at the Zoo

I'm continuing on my Sporcle at the Zoo project with three new quizzes.  When I'm finished, I hope for there to be dozens, providing a fun learning tool for people interested in popular (and less-well-known) zoo animals.

Sporcle at the Zoo - Okapi
Sporcle at the Zoo - Komodo Dragon
Sporcle at the Zoo - Penguins

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra)

Fire Salamander
Salamandra salamandra (Linnaeus, 1758)

Range: Central and Southern Europe, North Africa, Middle East
Habitat: Temperate Woodlands Near Water
Diet: Earthworms, Slugs, Insects
Social Grouping: Den Socially in Winter Refuges
Reproduction: Males deposit sperm packets for females to pick up.  Female retains the eggs inside her body until the young hatch.  In some subspecies, females retain the larvae until they are fully-formed.  In others, the female deposits larvae in a body of water
Lifespan: 50 Years (Maximum, Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern

  • Length 15-30 centimeters long.  Females are slightly larger than males
  • Body is black with varying spots and splotches of yellow or orange; some individuals appear to be primarily yellow with some black spotting.  Underside tends to be more uniform in color
  • Bright coloration serves as a warning of toxicity.  Poison is secreted from the paratoid glands behind the eyes and rows of glands down the length of the body.  Poison can be actively sprayed at predators
  • During daylight hours, hunt visually, attracted to motion.  At night, they hunt by scent
  • Primarily active by night, but on rainy days will emerge during the day.  Spend much of their time under logs or in other shady, moist spots; inactive during periods of extreme temperatures, whether winter in Europe or summer in North Africa
  • There are several subspecies, some of which have recently been reclassified as separate species, including the African fire salamander (S. algira) and Coriscan fire salamander (S. corsica).
  • Primary threat is loss of habitat, pollutants in water ways.  Sometimes collected for the pet trade and for use in research.
  • "Salamander" comes from the Arabic for "lives in fire."  Salamanders were often seen crawling from logs tossed onto fires, leading to the belief that they were born in fire

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Rockets Red Glare

Happy belated Fourth of July.  Last night was a long one.  \

Sure, my friends and I did many of the same things that everyone else did.  Watched fireworks.  Went for a swim.  Ate questionable foods deep-fried or grilled to perfection.  You know.  Independence Day stuff...

Then, there was an extra level of adventure.  Late last night, when the last of the major fireworks were finished (because there will always be yahoos letting random fireworks off all night), I needed to go and check the zoo.

Interestingly enough, a late-night-post-fireworks-check was one of my closest near-death experiences as a zookeeper.  I used to work at a facility with a large (think 30 acre) safari exhibit filled with mixed hoofstock and ratites.  The night of the Fourth, I patrolled the exhibit after the fireworks to make sure that all of the animals were okay - riding on a John Deere Gator, armed with a flashlight that could, with a fresh battery, illuminate the six or seven feet directly in front of me.  Thus prepared, I drove off into the darkness.

The results were... interesting.  The good news was that all of the animals were hale and hearty, with no injuries related to fireworks-induced-panic.  The bad news was that I was able to count them all because they were chasing me.  You see, we fed the animals from the back of the Gator, toting buckets around the enclosure to various feeders, and they had all grown accustomed to chasing after it.  Normally we fed them during the day, of course, but apparently they were flexible in their thinking and adjusted to a night-time Gator visit quite readily.

So this is a little sneak-peek of what it looked like by day (having already dropped a few buckets of grain and therefore losing some of the bigger guys, like the bison and Watusi).  In the lower left corner, you can see my trusty John Deere Gator.

Before I knew it, I was racing through the enclosure as fast as the Gator could take me, pursued by a mixed-company of deer and antelope, camels and zebu, bison and zebra.  When I tried to crest a hill and make my escape, the way out was blocked by a pair of Watusi cattle, their seven-foot horn spread looming as they approached.  What I did learn that night was that, in extraordinary conditions, a John Deere Gator can apparently drive up veritcal surfaces... at least that's how I assume I got out of there.

It's important to remember that the Fourth of July is a scary time for many animals, especially pets.  The day after (so... today), be on the lookout for runaways who may have fled their homes in terror over the fireworks.  Ideally, pet owners should keep their animals inside and sheltered in a secure, comfortable place on the night itself.

As it happened, our zoo animals didn't seem to even notice the commotion.  The zoo is rather wooded, with trees blocking out the lights and deadening much of the noise.  I wonder what they would have made of the spectacle, if they'd been able to see it.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Zoo Outside My Window

I hadn't been out of college for a year yet.  I was lying awake in my too-small bed in a too-cold house which I was not in the position to heat adequately.  As I lay, huddled under the sheets, probably close to midnight, I listened to the wind whistling through the branches outside, occasionally tapping against the window.  Periodically, an owl would hoot - under normal circumstances, this would have caught my interest, but lately it had become routine.  Soon, overlaying the hooting came the howling of wolves - two of them, in fact - just a hundred yards from my room.  After that, there was a pregnant pause... shattered by the sudden roar of a tiger.

Muttering, I slipped my boots on and pulled my jacket off of my chair.  Probably should go and check that out, I thought as I grabbed a flashlight and slouched off into the night.

Growing up, I'd always wanted to be a zookeeper.  Not just that, the thought of living at the zoo held enormous appeal to me.  No messing around with a crazy commute.  Always being on hand for emergencies.  Always having the option of an after-dinner stroll among the animals, or finding inspiration in my work.

The reality, for the two months that I enjoyed it, was a little less thrilling.

Zookeeping is a hard job - physically, mentally, and emotionally.  It takes a lot out of you, and you really need a chance to recharge, lest you burn out.  When you literally live at work, it becomes very hard to take the necessary step back to recharge.  Take up another hobby.  Get some rest.

Well, maybe it's easier for other people.  I'm neurotic as hell, so I couldn't.  I felt like I owed the animals every moment of my time... and, as I believe I mentioned in the intro to this piece, they ate into what should have been the sleeping time too.  Long after I'd officially clocked out, I'd be roaming the grounds, fixing up enrichment, squeezing in a training session, or cleaning an enclosure for the second or third time that day.  If I couldn't think of anything animal related to do, there were always weeds to pull.

Oh, and having a house on grounds means that you always have to worry about the potential of intrusion from the most vexing of zoo animals - the public.

Which isn't to say that there weren't some quite enjoyable perks to the living arrangements.  Not least of all, there was all the money I saved.  I don't think I ever took half as much to the bank as I did during those two profitable months.  Even discounting the financial side, there were the moments of joy with the animals.  After hours, when all was quiet and still, I got the chance to get to know many of my charges far better than I did during the day.  Shy animals came out and were active.  Aggressive ones tend to be calmer, less riled by crowds.  With the heat of the day long past, animals emerge from their sleeping spots and engage in all sorts of behaviors - with only me to watch.

Plus, there were the perks of convenience, living right at work.  I'm a quick riser in the morning, so I was literally able to roll out of bed fifteen minutes before my shift started.  If I had slow time (and there was a lot of that on those rainy few months), I could pop back home for a rest.  Covered in muck?  Easy enough, go home and take a shower.  Forgot lunch?  No I didn't - I never bothered to pack it, since I could just saunter back to the kitchen every noon.

For reasons unrelated to my choice of residence, I eventually left this zoo and took on another job at another facility, where I lived in a far less exciting set-up.  It really helped lower my stress levels and allowed me the time to take up some guilt-free hobbies (like... blogging about zoos).

Still, I miss those wolves howling on those late autumn nights.

The five AM wake-up calls from the siamangs?  Less so.