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Wednesday, August 30, 2017

From the News: S.A. Zoo sends helicopter full of supplies to Houston aquarium

The damage from Hurricane Harvey continues to unfold in Texas and Louisiana; the waters have begun to recede in some areas, but more rain is still expected. The human toll - both in terms of property and lives lost - has yet to be fully realized.

There is nothing more irksome to people who are suffering than to have other people who are in far more comfortable circumstances try to put a silver-lining on the situation.  If there is any benefit from this disaster, however, it has been the reminder of how many people will step up to help those in need.  There have been plenty of examples of neighbors helping neighbors.  It's good to see the zoo community respond in kind as well.

Continuing to send positive thoughts to the facilities (and people of Texas).

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Zoo History: Chunee, Star of Exeter Exchange

"The elephant took and gave me my money again - took off my hat - opened a door - trunked a whip - and behaved so well, that I wish he was my butler."

- Lord Byron, November 1813

London in the early 1800s had few stars bigger or more illustrious that Chunee.  He was handsome, he was mysterious, he was charming, but more than that, he was a star of the stage.  His theatrical credits included Blue Beard and Harlequin and Panmadaba.  He counted the poet Lord Byron and the actor Edmund Kean among his acquaintances.  And, of course, he was "big" in the literal sense - eleven feet tall, seven tons.

Of course, it helps to explain that he was an Asian elephant.

Chunee was brought to England in 1809 or 1810 (the records being what they were back then).  Highly trained, he began appearing in various plays - even if the play didn't feature an elephant in the original script, it would pay to have one inserted in, if the opportunity presented itself.  As Chunee began to achieve his adult size, lugging him around from stage to stage became a bit less practical.  Instead, of traveling, he settled down and let his admirers come to him.

Chunee's new place of residence was the Exeter Exchange (popularly known as Exeter 'Change), a building on the north side of London's Strand.  It's most famous attraction had been its menagerie, which opened in 1773.  This was decades before the opening of the London Zoo; the Exeter Exchange menagerie was in competition with its predecessor, the Tower of London menagerie.  Chunee was installed here, under the care of Edward Cross.  He quickly became the star attraction, with countless visitors, large numbers streaming to see him in his upstairs enclosure.  If an upstairs gallery seemed like an odd place to visit and elephant, than that's simply because it was.

In time, a noticeable change began to occur in Chunee.  Later analysis revealed that it was a broken rotted tusk which, in association with musth, began to throw the adult bull elephant into increasingly violent fits of rage (not that different from the story of a later, even more-famous bull elephant - Jumbo).  Again, there were no zoos, no sanctuaries, nowhere else for him to go.  The thought of a rouge elephant tearing through the London Strand was a terrifying one.  The situation peaked in February 1826, when Chunee ramaged and killed one of his caretakers.  The decision was made that Chunee had to die.

After an attempt to feed him poisoned food on March 1st failed, a platoon of soldiers, armed with muskets began to fire upon the elephant. Chunee bellowed in rage, but still did not fall, even after over 150 musketballs had been fired into him.  Instead, a soldier plunged a harpoon in his heart.  Chunee was no more.

With the death of Chunee, Exeter Exchange menagerie began its decline.  It ended its fifty-odd year run in 1828, with the final animals transferred to the Surrey Zoo (itself now closed).  Edward Cross followed his charges there, taking over as the zoo's supervisor.

Even in death, Chunee was destined to be an attraction  Hundreds of curious bystanders lined up to pay to watch his necropsy.  His death caused a public outrage and was, perhaps, the start of the animal welfare movement towards exotic animals in England.  His cleaned and reassembled skeleton was placed on display for over a century.  Even its final destruction was dramatic - it was obliterated in 1941 by a German bomb during World War II.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Hope for the Best, Prepare for the Worst

Harvey's floodwaters continue to devastate eastern Texas, with many zoos and aquariums caught in the middle.  The staff of those facilities are continuing to do their best to protect their animals, all while having to worry about what is going on with their homes and loved ones.  It's a severely unpleasant task - but one that is aided, at least a little, by one thing - they've been preparing for it for years.

By their very nature - large quantities of potentially dangerous animals being brought in close proximity to large quantities of (fairly often) dangerous (or at least careless) people make zoos and aquariums especially vulnerable to risk.  It's not surprising, then, that animal escape drills are often conducted, as are drills for visitors entering animal areas (which seem to be occurring more and more often).  Some facilities may hold other animal emergency drills pertaining to their specific collections - a reptile house staff may conduct venomous snakebite drills, for instance.  The Association of Zoos and Aquariums requires its member institutions to conduct a certain number of animal escape drills per year, with appropriate documentation provided.

Besides the animal-specific drills, however, there are also the drills that must be held for any institution, whether it be an aquarium, an office, or an elementary school.  The most familiar among these are the fire drills and medical emergency drills.  In recent years, active shooter and bomb threat drills have, unfortunately, proven to become increasingly necessary.

Weather related drills vary from location to location.  In the Midwest, there will be a greater emphasis on tornado drills.  In the North, blizzard drills would take top priority.  In California, earthquake drills.  And of course, in the Southeast, and especially along the Gulf of Mexico, there are hurricane drills.

Drills are no one's favorite part of the job.  They are often boring, inconvenient, and take up time that could be used for other duties, which may seem more enjoyable and/or important at the time.  There's also the question of how much resemblance they really bear to reality.  It's very easy to remember the appropriate call-signs and protocols for a fire when we're walking through an office which is totally NOT on fire.  It's another thing entirely when smoke is filling the falls and you're not positive which doorknobs are going to be hot.

Preparation and discussion, despite the nuisance, is still the best way to make sure that actual disasters don't catch your organization off-guard.  They can help you realize what equipment you need (I'm sure there weren't many generators left for sale in Houston last week), what priorities to implement, and what staff are essential.  There is a time and a place for winging it.  A Category 1 Hurricane is not that time.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Aquariums and Arks

Hurricane Harvey may have been downgraded to a Tropical Storm, but it is still the mightiest storm to have pummeled the coast of Texas for many years.  The rains are continuing to steadily fall, with several feet being expected in some parts of the state.  

It's normal for buildings to be wetter on the outside than the inside... though it becomes slightly disconcerting when the building in question is an aquarium.

Even more so than zoos, aquariums are highly vulnerable to hurricanes and other natural disasters.  With zoos, you can keep the animals penned up safely or moved into shelters or high ground and wait out the worst of the storm.  With aquariums, totally dependent on life-support systems, a power outage can mean death for the entire collection.  Ask Audubon...

So far, the Texas aquariums - Houston's Downtown Aquarium, Moody Gardens in Galveston, the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi - have all answered the role-call, reporting themselves, their animals, and their staffs to be staff.  

We'll continue to think of them - and the people of Texas - until the waters abate.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

From the News: First successful wild whale shark health assessments performed

First successful wild whale shark health assessments performed


Studying animals in their natural habitats is one of the greatest challenges in biology.  Many wild animals do not lend themselves easily to being observed, making it difficult to obtain useful observations of their behavior.  Obtaining physical data on live specimens - as opposed to dead ones that are encountered by chance, or collected by scientists - is even more difficult.   

It can be challenging to get your hands on animals without risking harm to either them or to the researchers.  Chemical immobilization and physical restraint are risky.  Research subjects could easily die of stress.  The knowledge that could be obtained could be extremely valuable for research and conservation purposes, but many scientists consider the risk to themselves and their subjects too great.

Among the great contributions that zoos and aquariums have made to conservation is providing a living laboratory for researchers.  In this case, the Georgia Aquarium has provided expertise and techniques for safely studying whale sharks.  In the safety of a controlled environment, with animals that are conditioned to human contact, scientists can perfect their methods for working with the world's largest fish.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Zoo Review: Albuquerque BioPark Zoo

Before there was the Aquarium, or the Botanic Garden, or the Tingley Beach, there was the Rio Grande Zoo.  The original component of what would eventually become the Albuquerque Biological Park, the Rio Grande Zoo (since renamed the Albuquerque BioPark Zoo) was founded in 1927.  Situated in the picturesque bosque cottonwood forests near downtown Albuquerque, it is a serene location that houses a diverse collection of exotic animals.

Taking advantage of New Mexico's climate, the Albquerque BioPark Zoo has an especially impressive collection of animals from the plains of East Africa.  Along a winding trail, visitors will pass by giraffes, mountain zebras, and white rhinoceros in spacious paddocks.  Separate enclosures house the predators of East Africa - cheetahs, spotted hyenas, and African wild dogs - the later two being visible through Plexiglas windows at eye-level.  The most popular exhibit with most visitors is the chimpanzee habitat, where a large troop of the apes races around a grassy yard full of climbing structures.  As far as I was concerned, however, there were two star exhibits.  One was the hippopotamus habitat - nothing remarkable in terms of the new hippo exhibits cropping up around the country - this one didn't have underwater viewing, for instance - but I see hippos so seldom these days that it was a treat to stand on the bridge crossing their pool and watch the family group sink and rise.  Secondly, I loved the African vulture aviary, where a tunnel passed through the exhibit that a few species of vultures shared with ravens and marabou storks  It's a bit disconcerting to enter the aviary, not see a bird anywhere... and then look up and see that it's directly above you, poking a beak down and trying to nip the top of your head.

If Albuquerque does well with Africa, then they excel at Australia.  Located near the zoo's central lake Australia features rarely-seen Aussies, such as Tasmanian devils (do yourself a favor and wait to hit this exhibit until there's a keeper presentation) and wombats.  Of course, there are more familiar Australian animals as well - red kangaroos, kookaburras, emus, and an aviary-load of friendly rainbow lorikeets, eager for a drink of nectar.  A small building nearby was designed for koalas, but at the time of my visit, there were none - Matschie's tree kangaroos were holding down the fort.

Apart from those in residence on the African loop, most of the zoo's carnivores can be seen along the Cat Walk.  Open-air habitats display tigers and lions, while a row of meshed-in habitats features snow leopards, binturongs, jaguars, and fossas.  There are two special exhibits of note.  One belongs to the polar bears, mostly because it's especially surprising to see polar bears in New Mexico.  The bears have a deep, cooled pool, lined with rocky outcrops that give them a commanding view of the zoo.  Nearby is a habitat for Mexican gray wolves, which pad silently through a patch of woodland.  One of my few disappointments with this zoo was how little emphasis it puts on native wildlife - the wolf exhibit was one of my favorite, but I would have loved to have seen pronghorn, bighorns, and more creatures of the Southwest grouped together.

Past a pool of American flamingos lies the zoo's Tropics area, a small loop with black howler monkeys and Wolf guenons, along with a series of small aviaries.  Hyacinth macaws, ground hornbills, and wattled cranes are among the many birds featured here (as are roadrunners, the state bird of New Mexico, and the highly endangered Socorro dove, currently the subject of a reintroduction program).  The anchor of this end of the zoo, however, is the Reptile House.  The building contains a highly impressive collection of species, including several venomous snakes.  Crowd-pleasers such as Komodo dragons, king cobras, and Chinese alligators share gallery spacer with rarely-seen reptiles, including horned lizards, ringed pythons, and New Guinea crocodile skinks.  Outside are habitats for Aldabra tortoises and American alligators.  A separate building displays a massive saltwater crocodile (in a rather plain, dull exhibit for such a magnificent animal - I felt like I was seeing a crown jewel presented in a cardboard box).  Amphibians occupy a small building elsewhere on zoo grounds.

Other attractions at the zoo include a herd of Asian elephants, including a handsome bull (due to the small amount of the exhibit that has viewing areas attached to it, it's easy to think of the exhibit as much smaller than it is), Bactrian camels, and an ape trail that features gorillas, orangutans, and siamangs.  Of course, no zoo visit would be complete without a stop at the zoo's iconic seal and sea lion pool, with underwater viewing, right alongside the central lake (looking back at it, the zoo has a lot of aquatic exhibits for a desert zoo - hippos, polar bears, seals and sea lions, a lot of crocodilians,,,).  Near the elephants, a small train awaits to ferry visitors back and forth between the zoo and the aquarium and botanic garden.

I'd never really thought of Albuquerque as an especially big down, but I must admit that it does have one of the more surprisingly large zoos I've ever seen.  And it continues to grow - penguins are slated to make an appearance in the near future, their exhibit already being under construction during my visit.  I'm not sure how I feel about the inclusion of so many water-demanding species in the American Southwest, and wonder how sustainable that would prove in the long-run.  Albuquerque's climate is already so well suited to so many African, Asian, Australian, and, yes, native New Mexican species, I wonder if there isn't enough animal life to keep them busy and expanding on those fronts (for one thing, I was surprised at the diversity of their East Africa collection... in all regards except antelope).

Maybe I'm needling needlessly.  I'll be the first to admit I don't know what the water situation down there really is.  They are right on a river, after all  I do know, however, that I immensely enjoyed this facility and would certainly swing back again if in the area.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Nothing New Under the Sun

Well, today was the day that the world was supposed to end.  For the past few weeks, I'd been swarmed with visitors, reporters, and other interested parties asking with bated breath about what would happen with our animals during the total eclipse.

I tried telling them over and over again, but no one seemed very satisfied with the answer:  Probably nothing.

Today, we got confirmation of that, not just from my little zoo (admittedly not in the path of the total blackout), but of zoos around the country.

For the humans, it was a day of excitement, awe, and endless reminders not to look up.

For the animals... it was a day.

I did hear one or two folks mention something odd that their animals did during those few minutes.  Maybe some extra activity, maybe some unusual vocalizations.  I'm not sure how much of it meant anything.  Animals do unexpected things all the time, even when the moon isn't blotting out the sun.  In many cases, I don't know if I would say the two are necessarily related, just because they happened to coincide.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Matschie's Tree Kangaroo (Dendrolagus matschiei)

Matschie's Tree Kangaroo
Dendrolagus matschiei (Foster & Rothschild, 1907)

Range: Huon Peninsula (Papua New Guinea)
Habitat: Montane Rainforest
Diet: Leaves, Fruits, Flowers, Buds.  Sometimes will consume insects, eggs, small birds
Social Grouping: Solitary and territorial outside of breeding season.  Ignore each other, even when they are in the same tree.  Male territory overlaps those of several females
Reproduction: Mating usually takes place on the ground.  No breeding season; female goes through estrous every 50-80 days.  Gestation 40-45 days (longest of any marsupial).  Joeys crawls into pouch right after birth; joey emerges from pouch for the first time at 250 days, leaves the pouch at 300 days, permanently at 350 days.  Sexually mature at 2 years old.
Lifespan: 14 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Endangered

  • Body length 55-63 centimeters, weight 6-13 kilograms.  Stocky body - front- and back-legs closer in size than is the case with most kangaroos and wallabies.  Tail equal in length to body
  • Sexes look alike.  Chestnut to red-brown fur; tail, belly, ears, and feet are yellow; dark stripe down the back.  Face is yellow or white.  Thick, dense fur grows in opposite directions on the back and neck, allowing water to run off the body
  • Spend much of their time in the trees, may leap 9 meters between branches.  Cannot climb down headfirst, must back down.
  • Largely inactive, spend up to 60% of their days sleeping
  • Zoo-based diets are often supplemented with tea leaves to replicate the high-tannin diets that they encounter in the wild
  • Genus name translates to "Tree Rabbit."  Species name honors Paul Matschie, a German zoologist who discovered several species of tree kangaroos.
  • Also found on the island of Umboi, but is believed to have been intrdouced by humans
  • Locally hunted for meat (which has increased since the introduction of guns to the region), but habitat loss is the major threat

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

From the News: Lion Saved from Syrian Zoo Gives Birth

As I've stated in previous posts, I am a big believer in the value of zoos not just in the developed world, but in the developing world as well.  That includes the Middle East.  Even a small zoo with a tiny budget and only local species can do wonders for helping a people - especially an urban population - connect with nature.

Zoos in active war-zones, however, are another matter entirely.  When human needs - food, safety, shelter - aren't being met, those of animals seldom are, either.

It's gratifying to see that at least a small handful of Syria's besieged zoo animals have escaped death.  Hopefully, they will thrive in their new home in Jordan, and that happier times are ahead of them.

Also hopefully, happier times are ahead for the Syrian people as well.

Lion Cub

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Book Review: Throwim Way Leg - Tree-Kangaroos, Possums, and Penis Gourds

Being a zookeeper has always instilled in me a desire to travel - an urge to cross the globe, seeking out the most remote, exotic locales.  Each animal I see serves as an ambassador from another corner of the globe, and every once in a while, I catch myself wondering what it would be like to see one or the other in its native haunts.

Years ago, working as a new keeper in a reptile/bird house, I was struck by a curious fact.  Many of the animals that I was most fascinated by - the feathered and the scaled - had one thing in common.  They came from the same place, an island that I had heard of, but knew little of beyond the name.  That island is New Guinea.

If I knew little of New Guinea, I'm not in poor company.  It's an island shrouded in mystery to most of the world, renowned in popular culture for its headhunters and stone-age civilizations, scattered across jungles and isolated highland valleys - so isolated that many cultures are cut off from each other completely (New Guinea is home to one-tenth of the world's spoken languages, even though it is not much bigger than California).  That same isolation has led to the evolution of some spectacular wildlife.

Few people know the wildlife of New Guinea better than Tim Flannery of the Australian Museum.  Flannery has literally written the book on New Guinea's mammals - which is just as well, because he's discovered several of them, including several species of tree kangaroo and a giant bat that was previously believed to have been extinct since the Ice Age.  Throwim Way Leg is not that book.  Instead, it is the story of how Flannery first came to New Guinea - so close to his native Australia, yet totally different - and spent a large chunk of his professional life exploring the hills, valleys, and forests of the island.

In pidgin - the lingua franca of New Guinea - "Throwim Way Leg" means "To Start a Journey" (literally, you are throwing your leg out to take the first step).  Flannery's journey takes him across several years and several locales on New Guinea as he seeks to understand wildlife that has, in many cases, never been documented before.  It's not the Jane Goodall world of field biology - finding your animals, following them, and spending the day jotting down what they do as they gradually come to accept you.  Instead, it's a detective story - searching for the faintest of clues - sometimes something concrete, like a claw in a villager's possession, sometimes just a rumor.  Some of the animals he studies he actually encounters, watching them in the wild.  Some he even captures (with a few specimens going on to zoos, where their behavior can be studied by scientists).  Many remain phantoms, with just a few pieces of bone from a hunter's collection to go on.  From that, Flannery must extrapolate what animals there are, where they are found, and how endangered they are.

Throwim Way Leg isn't just the story of wildlife, however... and it's not just the story of Tim Flannery.  Like every tale of field biology, it's the story of people - in this case, the people of the two nations that make up that island.  New Guineans are often portrayed in popular culture (to the extent that they are at all) as naked cannibals in a constant state of tribal warfare.  Flannery's years in the bush and in the village reveal a network of complex cultures full of complex peoples.  There are enormous differences between their ways and Western ways, but Flannery is as almost as skilled of an anthropologist as he is a mammalogist.  Most importantly, he truly likes the people he meets and wants to share their stories and their cultures with the world, as well as to use his book as a bullhorn to alert the world to some of the struggles and injustices that they are facing today.

Monday, August 14, 2017

The Dark of the Sun

One week from today, on August 21, 2017, the United States will experience a full eclipse of the sun.  The moon will phase between the earth and the sun, creating a brief period of blackness.  Day will turn into darkness.  A similar event has not occurred over the mainland United States since February of 1979.

The eclipse will be visible in various forms across the mainland United States, but it will be most visible (not that you are supposed to look at it) in a belt across the center of the country.  Across that belt are several zoological parks, such as Nashville Zoo and Riverbanks Zoo.   Some zoos, such as the National Zoo, are offering eclipse-viewing parties, where visitors can watch the eclipse, using special glasses provided by the zoo.


A question of great interest to many of those facilities is, how will the animals react to a phenomena that few would encounter in their natural state.  The answer is, we really have no idea.  Full eclipses occur so seldom that we have very little experience with this sort of thing.  It provides an excellent opportunity to learn.  Some zoos, such as Nashville, are recruiting volunteers to observe the animals.

I have no idea what to expect.  Mostly, this is because I've never witnessed an eclipse myself.  Will it be so gradual that the animals won't notice it?  Will nocturnal animals become active, and diurnal animals inactive.  Will we have to fear eye damage from animals confusedly staring up at the sky?  I have no idea.

But I do know this.  I'm not scheduled to work on Monday, the 21st... but I'll probably be at the zoo anyway.  I can think of no better place to watch my first - maybe my only - full solar eclipse than in the company of animals.

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Idea of the Wild

As a zookeeper, I spend a lot of time hearing visitors misidentify animals.  That doesn't surprise me too much in and of itself (though for some reason I continue to be amazed at peoples' apparent refusal to read signage).  If a visitor doesn't know what a certain animal is, if they think a lemur is a monkey, or a pelican is a stork, I can understand that.  Unless they've previously heard of or encountered these animals, how would they know what they are?

What does worry me, however, is when those visitors think that a lemur is a raccoon or that a Aldabra tortoise is a snapping turtle (at least for North American zoo visitors).  Lemurs don't normally raid our trash cans.  Raccoons do.  Aldabra tortoises don't normally plod through our backyards.  Snapping turtles do.  What worries me is that so many of our visitors don't seem to realize that.

It strikes me, sometimes, that many of our visitors have an increasingly hard time coming to terms with the idea of their being actual, wild animals in the world.  I notice it in a variety of subtle ways:

There is the surprise (sometimes disbelief) I am greeted with when I tell visitors that some of the animals that they see in our zoo - river otters, beavers, bobcats, bald eagles - can be found naturally in our area - that wild individuals might be visiting their own backyards at the very same moment that they themselves are visiting the zoo.  And it's not even the more seldom-seen animals - I've taken calls from members of the public who have seen deer in their yards and thought that they must be escaped zoo animals.

There is the shock that some seem to feel when they realize the some of the animals they seem roaming the zoo grounds - the turtles and geese, the rabbits and squirrels - are not zoo animals, and are self-controlled beings.  We have a sign on the creek that runs through our zoo pointing out that turtles often bask on logs in the creek.  Visitors seem confused sometimes that there won' always be turtles on those logs - that they may choose to be elsewhere, and that we have no control over it.

And there is the bafflement I encounter when I explain that, even if they see things at the zoo sometimes that may worry them - two animals fighting, for instance, or an individual who is sick or injured - that worse... far worse... often happens in the wild, with no human caretakers.  I see this most often with our geriatric animals.  Visitors will sometimes complain about older animals who look ragged or who sleep all day, or are stiff of movement, and assume that we aren't taking the best care of them.  My answer is always... "They're old.  If we weren't taking care of them, they wouldn't live to be old."

The "Wild" as we know it continues to change.  It gets smaller and smaller ever year, and our management of it grows increasingly intense.  It is, however, still there... at least for now.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Elephant vs. Goose

The showdown of the century at Utah's Hogle Zoo.  In one corner, we have an African elephant, the world's largest land mammal.  In the other corner... a Canada goose.

Poor elephant.  Never really stood a chance.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Hanging Out With Sloths

In the wild as in the zoo, sloths are the masters of going unnoticed.  I've spent several exasperating mornings scouring the sloth enclosure, looking for that telltale mass of blond fur wedged in a corner. In zoos, they are commonly displayed in large, mixed-species rainforests exhibits, often shared with small primates, various birds, and perhaps tortoises or iguanas.  Never mind the other animals, though - it's the sloths that everyone wants to see.

For reasons that often baffle me, sloths are among the most popular animals in the zoo.

I'm not quite sure when it started... or how.  Parents of small children often attest to the DMV-worker sloths from the popular animated film Zootopia... but I know it predated that.  Perhaps it was actress Kristen Bell's epic sloth-crazed meltdown on Ellen... but it seems like it was before that, too.  Sid the sloth from Ice Age?  He was a giant ground sloth, and bore little resemblance to the sloths in our facilities.

Objectively speaking, sloths are cute, though most visitors won't ever see their faces as they lie curled up.  Perhaps the appeal is in their perceived harmlessness - it's certainly hard to imagine being scared of a sloth or threatened by one... though to be fair, they do have some crazy-looking eyes (again, something that not many visitors see).  Also, I myself have been threatened by an aggressive sloth before... it's not exactly frightening, but there is something seriously unnerving about it.  My money is on their defining characteristic - their sleepiness.  It's the most adorable trait they have, and I think that many visitors relate to an animal that wants nothing more than to lie in a cuddle-ball.

I believe I've heard the word "Spirit Animal" used more than once.

Whatever it is, people love sloths.  Much of what we love about sloths could also explain our collective adoration for koalas... though much of that could also apply to tree kangaroos or cuscuses or binturongs, neither of which has gained anything like this kind of public appeal.

My Director is perpetually baffled by the public fascination with sloths.  Every time they come up in conversation, his immediate reply is, "I just don't understand what it is about them..."  Neither do I.  The thing is, I don't need to understand.  What I do understand is that there is an animal under my care that the public is endlessly fascinated.    It could have been any other species.  It just so happens to be sloths.

Knowing that, we have an opening.  They come to our zoos and aquariums to see animals that they relate to, like sloths.  We can use that to start a conversation - about sloths, about animals, and about the habitats that support them.

That's quite a burden for a sleepy ball of fur.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Hoffmann's Two-Toed Sloth (Choloepus hoffmanni)

Hoffman's Two-Toed Sloth
Choloepus hoffmanni (Peters, 1858)

Range: Southern Central America and Northern South America
Habitat: Rainforest, Deciduous Forest
Diet: Leaves, Fruit, Flowers
Social Grouping: Males are solitary, females for small groups
Reproduction: Breeding is seasonal, with pregnancy occurring during the rainy season and births during the dry season.  Gestation period 11.5 months.  Single offspring carried by mother for 6-9 months, after which it is independent.  Females mature at 3 years old, males at 4-5
Lifespan: 30-40 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern, CITES Appendix III

  • Body length 58-70 centimeters long, weigh 5.5-7 kilograms
  • Males and females look alike.  Coloration is tan, blonde, or light brown; the head and back are often darker than the rest of the body.  The snout is naked.  Long, shaggy fur runs from the belly to the back, the opposite of most mammals.
  • Most of the animal's life is spent hanging from the trees with its powerful claws (two on each front foot, three on each back foot).  It is very awkward on the ground, but is a surprisingly good swimmer
  • Poor senses of sight and hearing, rely primarily on smell and touch
  • The metabolic rate is half as quick as that of a similarly sized mammal; it may take a month to digest a meal with the add of the symbiotic bacteria in its stomach.  The slow metabolic rate also allows the sloth to recuperate from injuries that would kill other mammal
  • Predators include jaguars, eagles, and large snakes.  The sloth may defend itself with its teeth and claws, but its main defense is camouflage.  In this it is aided by the algae that willg row in its fur, allowing it to blend in with the leaves
  • Often confused with the very similar-looking Linne's two-toed sloth; the two species vary slightly based on their internal anatomy
  • Most mammal species have seven neck vertebrae; Hoffmann's two-toed sloths have a variable number, with individuals having anywhere from 5-8 bones in their neck
  • The slowest mammal species on earth; the very name "sloth" is a synonym for laziness, while Choloepus means "lame foot"
  • Five recognized subspecies across range - one in Central America, four in South America
  • Named after the German naturalist Karl Hoffmann

Thursday, August 3, 2017

A Flood of False Alarms

Last week, the Salisbury Zoo had an unfortunate situation.  A large maple tree fell over and demolished the zoo's spectacled owl exhibit.  Two of the zoo's three birds were recaptured without incident; the third remains at large.  Shortly after the tree's fall, the zoo released a statement to the press, alerting them to the owl's escape and advising the public to keep their eyes open.

And therein lies the problem.  I can only imagine the sheer volume of calls that the zoo is receiving.  Most of them will probably not be too helpful.

Whenever an escape occurs from a zoo, the staff can expect to be flooded with false alarms.  Often, the people who report sightings firmly believe that what they are seeing is the actual escapee.  A stray beagle becomes a loose wolf.  A cat becomes a monkey or a red panda.

At many zoos where I've worked, every wild animal found on zoo grounds is considered an escaped zoo animal.  This includes snakes, ground hogs, you name it.  Just last year, I had a panicky visitor run up to me, telling me that there was a big black bird out of its habitat.  It was a Canada goose.

In the case of the Salisbury Zoo owl, I can imagine that in the next week or so, there will be a whole lot of new birdwatchers on Maryland's Eastern Shore.  Folks who never even knew that there were owls in their neighborhood - great horn, barred, barn -  will suddenly start noticing them - and calling them in.  Another fun fact - the call of a mourning dove sounds vaguely like a owl hooting - which will also lead to lots of call-ins.

Working at a zoo during a long-term escape is stressful.  Sifting through the calls, separating the rare true sightings from the many false ones, is often more exasperating than the actual search itself.  Every once in a while, however, it pays off, and a gem can be found that help end an escape and bring an animal home.

I hope that this is the case for Salisbury.  But at the very least, there actually IS an owl loose from that zoo.  Imagine the incredulity from Columbus Zoo staff who had to deal with this nonsense:

"Escaped monkey or bonobo" in Dublin turns out to be a fox

UPDATE: On August 31st, the Salisbury Zoo hosted a special fundraiser to secure support for rebuilding the Spectacled Owl Exhibit.  At that event, it was announced that, earlier that week, zoo staff had recaptured the escaped owl, which was safely reunited with the other two birds.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

We Don't Rent Pigs

"Well, we don't rent pigs and I figure it's better to say it right out front because a man that does like to rent pigs is... he's hard to stop."

- Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry

The best satire mirrors reality, and The Onion often meets that mark.  As ridiculous as it may be, I have, on occasion, had visitors or callers ask about renting zoo animals.  Maybe they want an owl to go along with their Harry Potter costume for a Halloween party.  Maybe they want a snake or a tarantula for a practical joke.  Maybe they want some goats to mow their lawn.

The answer, of course, is always "no."

Sure, we take animals off-grounds, to schools or to fairs or to community centers.  In all of these cases, we always accompany the animals and are with them the entire time.  Also, we try to make sure that the animals are being presented or used in a manner that is consistent with our values and mission - conservation and education.