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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.


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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, 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.