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Monday, January 22, 2018

Shut Down At the Zoo

Today, the US Federal Government entered its third day of a shutdown, as Democrats and Republicans wrangle over immigration and other hot-button issues.  So what does that mean for the only federal zoological facility in the country?

The National Zoo is still open to the public for now - just as well, because there are a lot of federal workers who aren't coming in today, and they might as well have somewhere to go and get out of the house.  This is a change from the most recent shutdown, where a photo of a child standing outside the locked gates of the zoo became one of the most iconic images of the kerfuffle.

Regardless if the zoo is opened or closed, someone needs to be going in - animal care isn't like many other professions, where you can leave the lights off and come back in a few days later to catch up (not making light of everyone else's work, of course).  There is still the added stress of when paychecks will be issued to the keepers, but hopefully this won't go on too long to impact that aspect of their lives.

Ideally, the animals will never even notice that anything different is going on, the zoo will stay open to the public, the government will reopen, and everyone will get paid.

Until then, everyone should know that the zoo is still there, and plugging along as best as they can.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Species Fact Profile: North Island Brown Kiwi (Apteryx mantelli)

North Island Brown Kiwi
Apteryx mantelli (Bartlett, 1852)

Range: North Island of New Zealand
Habitat: Temperate Forest, Scrub
Diet: Earthworms, Insects, and other terrestrial invertebrates
Social Grouping: Pairs are territorial, especially during breeding season
Reproduction: Monogamous (sometimes for life).  May lay at any time of year, but usually June through November.  Nest in hollow logs, burrows, or rock crevices.  Usually single egg (if a second, it is laid up to a month after the first), with up to 3 clutches per year.  Egg incubated by male for 75-90 days (left unattended at night while male goes off nest to feed).  Chicks venture out of nest a week after birth, but stay close to nest until 4-6 weeks old.
Lifespan: 40 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Endangered



  • Body length 40 centimeters.  Weigh 1.5-3.2 kilograms, with females larger than males
  • Spiky brown plumage (resembling hair more than feathers), often streaked with reddish-brown.   The long, thin beak is off-white.  The species is flightless, and the wings are extremely small, barely visible.  No tail.
  • Nocturnal, spend the day in burrows that are dug with their powerful claws
  • Communicate with a whistling call - male call is higher-pitched, faster than female whistle
  • Lay one of the largest eggs compared to their body size of any bird species, approximately 15% of the mother's body weight
  • Unlike many birds, kiwis have an excellent sense of smell, using smell to find prey.  Their nostrils are located near the tip of the beak.
  • Previously considered to be same species as Apteryx australis and Apteryx rowi; some taxonomists still list them as one species
  • National bird of New Zealand; New Zealanders often refer to themselves as "Kiwis"
  • Tremendous decline in population, having lost as much as 90% of their rang.  Primary threat is the introduction of mammalian predators (dogs, cats, stoats) to New Zealand, where previously none existed.  Habitat loss is also a major threat.  Sometimes killed by poison bait set out to kill invasive possums
  • Conservation measures include predator removal, captive-breeding and reintroduction, and head-starting chicks until they are large enough to be safe from predators

Zookeeper's Journal: Perhaps the most unbirdlike of birds, the kiwis of New Zealand are sometimes known as "The Honorary Mammals."  For all of their fascinating adaptations (and adorable appearances), the kiwis make poor exhibit animals.  They are nocturnal and cryptic, and the best I've ever seen in a zoo display was a slouching shadowy figure scurrying across the back of a dark exhibit.  So where did I get the picture above?  Back when it was still open, the National Zoo's Bird House used to offer a "Meet a Kiwi" program, where a keeper would bring out a special ambassador kiwi for a few minutes three times a week.  The bird, specially selected for his temperament, would sniff around a small enclosure and eat some worms, all while zoo staff highlighted the unique awesomeness of the kiwi.  The Bird House has since been shut as part of renovations, and when it reopens, it is my understanding that kiwis will not be displayed (though they are still maintained at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute).  Which is a pity - those encounters were probably the only way that I ever would have had to experience close-up one of the world's most remarkable birds.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Zoo Review: Zoo New England - Franklin Park Zoo

The geography of zoos has always puzzled me.  Cities that I never thought of us major metropolises - Cincinnati, Toledo, Omaha, Kansas City - wind up with some magnificent zoos, while some of the biggest, oldest cities in the country... sometimes don't.

Until fairly recently, Boston was definitely a "don't."  Opened in 1912, the Franklin Park Zoo, located in the city's Emerald Necklace of parks, had been in decline for many years - by the 1980's, magazine articles referred to it as one of America's worst zoos.  That all began to change shortly after - an ambitious program of new exhibit construction, changing collection plans, and new management turned the city zoo around completely.  Still a relatively small zoo compared to those found in other major eastern cities, the Franklin Park Zoo of today is a far superior facility to what it was just a few short years ago.


The exhibit which truly heralded the rebirth of the Franklin Park Zoo is its flagship Tropical Forest building.  When it opened in 1989 it was limited solely to African species; it now contains a fairly even mixture of African and South American animals.  Gorillas are the stars here, occupying a large, rocky habitat (one Boston gorilla, a young male named Little Joe, brought Franklin Park some unwanted fame due to a series of escapes he pulled off).  Also found in the building are dwarf crocodiles, giant anteaters, Baird's tapirs, capybara, DeBrazza's monkeys, and cotton-topped tamarins.  Pygmy hippos may be seen either across a moat or from an underwater viewing gallery, while fruit bats and pottos (lemur-like primates) are displayed in nocturnal habitats.  A small reptile gallery is dominated by massive green anacondas.  Flitting about the forest are different species of tropical birds, while larger birds - saddle-billed storks and griffon vultures - are confined to specific enclosures.  Outside, grassy habitats house cranes (including very rarely-exhibited Siberian cranes) and spotted hyenas (but not together).



More African animals can be seen across the zoo in a series of savanna yards.  Maasai giraffes and Grevy's zebra occupy one yard, while just up the path a second yard houses plains zebra, wildebeest, and ostrich in Serengeti Crossing.  A trail sneaking behind the second yard leads to Kalahari Kingdom, where lions may be observed from several vantage points - including through the windshield of a jeep that appears to have crashed through the exhibit's viewing windows.  Nearby, an extra enclosure was squeezed in to accommodate confiscated tigers that were in need of a home.  Scattered around the lions and the zebras are additional habitats for Kori bustard, bongo, red river hog, warthog, and crested porcupines.  Tucked among the animals is a lonely little stone tower.  This is Sargent's Folly, the last remnant of an estate which predated Franklin Park (the zoo and the park itself), dating back to 1840 - a fun little sighting for any history buffs in your party.


Across from Tropical Forest is the zoo's other major indoor exhibit, Bird World.  This Asian-styled pagoda is a relatively small bird house, consisting of a few habitat-themed galleries: swamp, rainforest, desert, and riverbank.  Among the birds seen inside are tawny frogmouths, boat-billed herons, and aracaris.  More birds are seen outside, either in a row of aviaries attached to the building, in the waterfowl pond, or in a small flamingo pool.  The coolest exhibit, however, is the Andean condor aviary - visitors walk through the center of the massive flight cage in an enclosed walkway, while the giant vultures swoop overhead (or, more accurately, sit and preen while periodically glaring at you... because that's what condors do).


More birds can be seen in the zoo's Australia area, not least of all in the budgie feeding aviary.  Far more exciting for a zoo buff (though probably no one else) are the kiwis, seen in a special nocturnal building.  Mammals can be found in Australia too, of course - a walk-through kangaroo exhibit allows for close-up encounters with the big marsupials.

The zoo's last major exhibit area is the Children Zoo, designed around the concepts of play and exploration.  Visitors young and old enter a number of habitats and meet different animals - red panda climbing through tree branches, cranes and waterfowl milling around a stream in a walk-through aviary, or prairie dogs bustling around their town (where kids can pop up in the middle of the exhibit in a Plexiglas dome).  Many of the displays are interactive and encourage the uses of the senses - one display allows children to climb a replication eagle nest, then use their lofty perch to go on a scavenger hunt for small "animals" hidden around the Children's Zoo.  Next to the Children Zoo is a small interactive barnyard.


Even in the last few years, between my most recent visit and the one prior to that, Franklin Park Zoo has grown and refined itself tremendously.  Some of the new exhibits are quite nice - the Giraffe Savannah, for instance, is one of my favorite displays of African ungulates - spacious, beautiful panoramic views.  There are some educational/interpretive aspects that I also loved.  The Children's Zoo was great, for instance.  And I loved the hidden safari clues that were scattered among the savanna exhibits - a fake impala carcass stashed up in a tree, for instance, showing where a leopard had supposedly stashed its kill, or an ostrich nest, complete with replica eggs that kids could sit on.

Some of the exhibits that were state of the art at the time of their opening, however, are now beginning to show their age.  Bird's World struck me as kind of... empty.  Walking through it, I found myself imaging how I would restock it to make more active multi-species aviaries.  Tropical Forest is the quintessential zoo rainforest building that I don't like.  It's basically a monkey house with lots of fake rocks.  Considering the species involved, I wonder if there is a way to replace some of the smaller habitats with larger, mixed-species ones - for example, forming one large habitat for giant anteater, capybara, and tapir, rather than three smaller ones.  Ideally, the building could be gutted and redone completely, but I can't begin to imagine how much that would cost...


Which isn't to say that I don't like Franklin Park Zoo.  I really do.  It's just that I see the potential for it to do so much.  The zoo has already come so far.  With a little more time and more resources, I'm sure it can accomplish some wonderful things for its visitors and its animals.




Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Saying "No" to Nosey's Law

Last year, a Florida couple - Hugo and Franciszka Liebel - were arrested in Alabama and charged with animal cruelty.  As is often the case in these situations, the animal in question was confiscated and placed in temporary care while the case is being resolved.  What's not usual?  The animal is an African elephant, named Nosey.

Private ownership of large exotic animals - those not in zoos - tends to fly under the radar throughout much of the country.  Most Americans are entirely unaware that there are more tigers living as pets than in zoos.  Whenever private ownership does bubble up to the surface of the news, however, it's seldom in a good way - and there tend to be legal repercussions.  Ohio once had some of the loosest exotic animal ownership laws in the country.  Then came the Zanesville Incident, with big cats and bears running amok through the woods.  Now... not so much.

And so, when Nosey's story broke the news, it wasn't surprising that at least some states would stop to re-examine their own exotic animal laws.  Among those was New Jersey, which was set to pass what became known as "Nosey's Law", officially S2508, which would outlaw the use of animals in traveling acts.  Sounds good, right?

Just to be clear, this is not Nosey. It is an African elephant female that is used for elephant rides at the Natural Bridge Zoo in Natural Bridge, Virginia - though to the best of my knowledge, one that does not leave zoo grounds for traveling exhibitions

The problem with laws like these is that they are seldom written or thought out by people who actually know the issues at hands.  A strict reading of Nosey's Law would have banned not only circus elephants, but any kind of traveling exhibition of animals, which could have outlawed nature outreach programs, including possibly even zoo education departments taking their animals to schools and other settings.

Thankfully, we have Chris Christie (I honestly never thought I would type that sentence) who, to the surprise of many, vetoed the bill.  Now, Christie did so as one of his last acts as governor of New Jersey, but lawmakers are pledging to tighten up the bill, making its language more in line with their original intent (and clearly exempting zoos and aquariums) before they send it to the new governor.  Still, that was a close one.

This goes to show that it is extremely important for zoos and aquariums to keep up on upcoming legislation, lest things become passed into law which could inadvertently harm their programs or collections.  Even the best intentions can make for bad laws when implemented by well-meaning but misinformed people - and it's a heck of a lot easier to stop a law from being passed than to change it or repeal it after the fact.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Hawaii: Nuking the Zoo?

This past year, zoos and aquariums across the country have had to cope with (almost) everything - fires, floods, terrorism, mass-shootings, and, most recently, record-shattering cold.  Think we haven't scraped the bottom of the barrel yet?

Well, we haven't yet - though for about a half an hour today, it looked like we might have.

An alert was sent out across Hawaii today announcing the ballistic missiles had been launched (presumably from North Korea) and were on their way to destroy the state.  People were all advised to take shelter.  What I would have loved to have known is - what happened at the Honolulu Zoo?  Or the Waikiki Aquarium, for that matter?

Did some staff flee the facility to try and get back to their families?  Was there a frenzy of activity in trying to move some animals to secure locations?  If so, how do you carry out such a frantic plan on a moment's notice?  Were there visitors panicking in the zoo, trying either to rush for the exits or cram into what looked like a safe place?

In the end, it was all a false alarm.  But now, it's just a reminder that there's always something else to worry about...

Friday, January 12, 2018

Sporcle Quiz: Famous Gorillas

So far on this blog, I've written about Willie B., Colo, Harambe, Jambo and Binti Jua, and, most recently, Bushman.  It turns out, there are a lot of famous gorillas out there - some of them real, some existing only on screen or in print.  See how well you know them with this latest Sporcle quiz!