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Saturday, September 28, 2013

Learning from Animals

The TV Nature shows are great - all that hunting, all that mating -
... educating, fascinating.
Still the pictures can't compare, with the joy of being there.
So take me out the nearest zoo. There's nothing I would rather do
Than hear the local lions roar, or watch the seals perform for more.
I want to see what I can see, and I want the animals to look at me.

- Philip Machy

          Fairly recently, I saw an amazing exhibit of birds of paradise at the National Geographic Museum in Washington, DC.  It certainly pulled out all of the stops – it had video clips, colorful graphics, mounted specimens, and feathered headdresses from tribal New Guinea.  There were lots of interactive devices, from a dance-dance-revolution game that encouraged visitors to mimic the moves of courting males to a greater-than-life-sized robotic bird.  Cutesy cartoon segments with catchy lyrics (“Sexual selection is choosing a mate, to keep your offspring looking GREAT!”) played on loops.  It was a great educational opportunity, and I certainly learned a lot about birds of paradise.  The only thing it lacked, it seemed, was an actual, live bird of paradise.


I’ve occasionally heard the opinion expressed that technology will be the undoing of the zoo or aquarium as we know them.  One hundred years ago, visitors had to either read a book or go to the zoo to learn about lions… and both the books and zoos of the era left a lot to be desired as educational tools.  Today, there is the internet, where you can watch live wild lions on webcam.  There are nature documentaries, where every aspect of lion life – from the hunt and kill to the rearing of cubs – has been compiled by filmmakers.  Why come to the zoo to watch a lioness sleep on a rock shelf in its exhibit when you can watch one race across the Serengeti and tackle a zebra on a David Attenborough special? 

The answer, I suppose, is that no one would really care in the end.  Everything is digital and televised these days.  There is endless content online, some of it real, some of it fictional.  We become so overloaded with content that very little manages to actually reach us.  We may be amused, enchanted, or outraged, but only until something new comes and recaptures our attention.  What makes the plight of whooping cranes more real than the plight of Harry Potter?  What makes radiated tortoises more real than Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles?  Zoos and aquariums give visitors the chance to actually meet animals, to make a connection with them that is not possible even in the wild.  When an otter dives into the water in front of you, splashing water onto the glass, or when a peacock fans out its tail, or when a lion simply decides to ignore you, that’s real.  That’s an actual animal in front of you, and that can’t be ignored.  That animal then has the potential to become a more powerful, potent ambassador than any web download could ever be.  I’ve seen many popular zoo animals in the wild – big cats, bears, rhinos, elephants - and found them all to be beautiful and majestic.  The zoo animals, however, the individuals that I have known and cared for, are the ones that have touched me the most, and inspired me to work for conservation.

There certainly is a role for increased use of different media in zoo education, and the Birds of Paradise exhibit at National Geographic showed me several examples.  Video clips and graphics can be used to illustrate behaviors that occur only rarely or seasonally and that visitors might otherwise not see, such as the courtship display of a male bird of paradise.  Touch screen graphics can display much more information than a simple sign, and allow visitors to choose what information they want to view, not simply what we think they should want.  Web cams of wild habitats can be great tools for helping to put zoo animals in the context of their environment; this can be especially helpful for zoos that sponsor or donate to specific habitat protection projects, as visitors can then actually see the world that their zoo is helping to protect.  While taxidermy mounts or models can never compete with real, live animals, they can be of great use in educating visitors about animals of which live specimens, for various reasons, are not possible or practical to display.  This is especially true for aquariums – very few aquariums can display a whale shark, and none display giant squids or coelacanths, as fascinating as these species may be.

Educational technologies versus live animals… it is a meaningless, false debate.  Technologies allow zoos and aquariums to better illustrate the beauty and complexity of animals in their world.  It is important to remember, though, that zoos and aquariums are first and foremost about animals.  It is the animals that visitors come for.  It is the animals that have the best chance to reaching them and making a difference in their lives.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

From the News: British Zoo Bans Guests From Wearing Animal Prints


Interesting idea, but I have to say, of all of the annoying or potentially disturbing behaviors that zoo visitors can inflict upon the animals, a leopard-print is probably one of their least concerns.  I mean, are we to believe that a gazelle can't tell the difference between a leopard and a middle-aged woman in a leopard-print dress?  Why not ban stuffed animals from the zoo gift shop - a stuffed leopard looks more like a real animal than a piece of clothing, anyway...

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Sporcle Quiz: Crocodilians of the World

The Cuban crocodile is one of the most endangered crocodilians in the world.  Can you name the others?  If you can't, head on down to St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Zoological Park, the only place in the world where every living species of crocodile, alligator, caiman, and gharial is gathered in one place!


Species Fact Profile: Cuban Crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer)

Cuban Crocodile
Crocodylus rhombifer (Cuvier, 1807)
Range:  Northwest Cuba (Zapata and Lanier Swamps)
Habitat: Freshwater Wetlands
Diet: Fish, Turtles, Mammals
Social Grouping: Solitary, Loose Groups
Reproduction: Breed in late spring, construct mound nests (sometimes nest in holes) containing 30-40 eggs, incubation period 58-70 days (sex is determined by the temperature of incubation - more males occur when the temperature is between 30-32 degrees Celsius, more females occur when the temperature is outside this range). Both sexes are sexually mature at 6-7 years of age
Lifespan: 18 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Critically Endangered, CITES Appendix I


  • Measuring 2-2.5 meters in length (occasionally up to 3.5 meters, possibly as much as 4)and weighing 130 kilograms (males are larger than females), with a broad head and high bony ridges behind each eye
  • Sprinkled black and yellow pattern on back, resulting in nickname of “pearly crocodile”
  • Very agile on land (in part due to the comparatively long legs and the reduced webbing between the toes) and capable of powerful leaps, allowing them to snatch arboreal mammals out of overhanging branches
  •  Sometimes hunt cooperatively, demonstrating a dominance hierarchy; they are believed to have once preyed upon now-extinct giant ground sloths that once inhabited Cuba
  • Have the smallest natural distribution of any crocodilian, though fossils indicate that the species was once also found in the Bahamas and Cayman Islands
  • The major threats to their survival are habitat loss and competition/hybridization with the American crocodiles (C. acutus)
  • The species is heavily commercially farmed for its skins, resulting in a substantial captive population (sometimes hybridized on crocodile farms)
  • Despite their modest size and the scarcity or reports of attacks in the wild, typically considered most aggressive crocodilian towards humans in captivity

Monday, September 23, 2013

From the News: Zoo Closes After Entire Zookeeping Staff Quits

Zoo Closes After Entire Zookeeping Staff Quits

I'd always wondered why Los Vegas didn't have a zoo - it seemed to be the largest American city without one.  Turns out, it does... just not much of one.  And it seems like it might not have one for long.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

World Rhino Day

Today has been designated as World Rhino Day, meant to celebrate the world's five rhino species, and call attention to efforts being made to save them from extinction.  Rhinoceroses are some of the most majestic, powerful, and unique mega-vertebrates left on earth, and its a tremendous crime that all five species have become so threatened.  A multi-prong approach is needed to secure the future of these species.  Fortunately, there are ways to help
  • Protect Rhino Habitat Around the World: Big animals need big living spaces, and rhinos are threatened with habitat loss.  Zookeepers around the world are active fundraisers for rhinos, collecting monies that are used to expand and protect rhino habitat in Africa and Asia.  These protected areas shelter not only rhinos, but also all of the species that share their habitats.  Learn more about Bowling for Rhinos
  • Support Zoo Based Rhino Conservation: Accredited zoos around the world are working to create captive-bred "insurance colonies" of white, black, and Indian rhinoceros.  They also conduct important research on behavior and biology (especially reproductive) of rhinos.  While Sumatran rhinos are barely represented in zoo collections - and Javan rhinos not at all - zoos can still educate visitors about the plights of these endangered species.  If we support accredited zoos, we support the good work that they do.
  • Battling Poaching of Rhinos: "Protected areas" are only protected if they are free of poachers.  Reintroduction and relocation programs won't work if newly released rhinos are gunned down by poachers.  The only way to save rhinos is to make the wild a safe place for them.  This means stopping the trade in their horns.  Government officials around the world give lip service to the conservation of rhinos and other endangered species, but need to make it a priority.  The US, China, Vietnam, South Africa, and other nations need work together to end the demand and stop the trade.  We in turn need to put pressure on our elected officials.
Alright, so there's the plan... let's get out and do something!


Thursday, September 19, 2013

Book Review: America's Best Zoos

First of all, a note to my coworker readers: just because your zoo isn't one of the "60 best" described in this book doesn't mean that your zoo isn't awesome.  Mine isn't in here either...

In America's Best Zoos, Allen Nyhuis and Jon Wassner tour sixty of America's best and most renowned zoos and safari parks.  It is an update of a previous work by Nyhuis years earlier.  Since the initial version, some zoos have been down-listed, some up-listed, and at least one - Nashville Zoo - brand new to the scenes.  Each zoo is described in detail, with special attention to its signature exhibits. 

Besides descriptions of the zoos featured, the book provides other useful information.  It provides rankings and listings of zoos according to various criteria (best Children's Zoo, best bird collection, etc).  It provides information on unusual zoo animals (i.e., clouded leopard, bonobo).  It provides tips and advice for visitors to get the most out of their zoo visit.  I would have loved for these sections of the book to have been expanded upon in greater detail - more zoo history, more tips, more animals, more insider info, etc.  Perhaps the most important information provided by this book, however, is insight into why folks should consider a visit to the zoo.  Too many potential visitors seem to think that all zoos are the same, and therefore that there is no reason to add a trip to the zoo to their travel or vacation plans.  Nyhuis and Wassner show that this is not the case.

The book is written for the general visitor, and it caters to that audience, not the zoo professional.  I also suspect that it will go out of date fairly soon - I read Nyhuis' previous book ten years after its publication, and most of the zoos described are unrecognizable.  This is no fault of the authors, of course - a good zoo should be constantly changing and striving to improve itself.  If I have one objection to America's Best Zoos, it is that it is sometimes too extravagant in its praise.  Every zoo is described with such lavish acclaim that everything is made to seem... perfect... which we all know is not the case.  If we make everything seem extraordinary, we shortchange those things that truly are.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Building the Ark (From National Geographic)

Building the Ark

There's not too much that I'm going to say - this article does an excellent job of conveying something that I've long believed to be true.  There is a dichotomy between the animals that zoos DO work with and those that they SHOULD work with.  If we want zoos to be doing as much as possible to help endangered species, then every zoo should have an amphibian house.  Instead of filling up spaces with brown and American black bears, more zoos would be displaying (and breeding) sloth, sun, and spectacled bears.  Each exhibit would be planned and filled according to the question, "What is best for conservation?"

The big hold up, here, is visitor expectation.   I've written elsewhere about the challenges of getting visitors to recognize and learn about unfamiliar animals.  We often think that we know exactly what animals the visitors want to see - lions, giraffes, zebras.  Have we ever really tried to sell them on other animals?  That lion-tailed macaques can be just as cool as gorillas?  That just because they never heard of Panamanian golden frogs before they come to the zoo doesn't mean that they can't be excited about them? 

There is definitely still a place for the "classic" zoo animals in our collections.  It would be great, however, if we could get visitors excited about lesser known species.  That would be of great help in making the transition from the collections we have to the collections that we need.


Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Species Fact Profile: Double-Wattled Casowary (Casuarius casuarius)


Double-Wattled (Southern) Cassowary
Casuarius casuarius (Linnaeus, 1758)

Range:  New Guinea, Aru Islands, Australia (Cape York)
Habitat: Lowland Rainforest, Savannah, Forested Swamp
Diet: Fruits, Small Vertebrates, Invertebrates, Fungi
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Polyandrous (one female mates with 2-3 males per breeding season), breed during the winter.  4-8 bright green eggs are laid in separate nests for each male, incubated by the males for 47-61 days.  Chicks stay with their father until they are nine months old and are sexually mature by 3 years of age.
Lifespan: 40 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable
  • The third largest bird on earth (females being larger than males), may weigh 39-59 kilograms and measure 102-170 centimeters long 
  • The black-brown feathers are coarse and hair-like; the head and neck are naked and electric blue with two red wattles.  The head is crowned with a casque of bone and cartilage
  • Flightless, with very small wings.  The vestigial primary feathers appear now as spines
  • Can run up to 50 kilometers per hour, using the casque (the origin of the name "cassowary" is the Malay for "horn head") to push through vegetation as they run; they are also good swimmers and jumpers
  • Considered by many authorities to be "the most dangerous bird on earth", as they occasionally kill humans with their sharp claws
  • Territories are claimed with loud, deep roars - another possible use of the casque is sound amplification
  • Believed to be important seed dispersers for some rainforest trees, as they are the largest fruit-eating animal in their range
  • Occupy an important role in the mythology and culture of New Guinea; chicks are captured and raised in villages, their feathers are harvested, and they are killed and eaten upon reaching adulthood.  Cassowaries could be traded for pigs or wives
  • It is possible that the cassowary is not truly native to Australia, but was introduced there (and to surrounding islands) through trade with New Guinea
  • Habitat loss is the main threat to the survival of the species; other threats include car collisions and disruption of nests by pigs and dogs

Zookeeper's Journal: Most people know of cassowaries for their reputed ferocity and violence, and it is true that they can be fiercely aggressive birds (this aggression normally sets in at an age of about three years or so).  Having spent a small amount of time working with them - and much more time working with ostriches, emus, and rheas - the main impression I got from them was fragility.  They are the most delicate of the ratites in captivity, less cold hardy and more easily stressed by crowds.  Whereas other ratites are birds of open country, cassowaries are inhabitants of dense forests, and are most comfortable in heavily planted enclosures.  They also breed far less readily in captivity than do the other ratites - there are ostrich and emu and rhea farms... no cassowary farms.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Zoo Review: National Aviary


As much as I love the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium, I do have to admit – the bird collection is rather small.  That’s okay by me, though.  It just means that when I’m in Pittsburgh, I have an excuse to drive across town to see one of the country’s best bird displays at the excellent National Aviary.
As a facility, the National Aviary is limited by its campus.  Except for the attached condor and eagle enclosures, the Aviary is one building with no outdoor components.  This does limit the collection, and some visitors might be disappointed to see that some of the largest and most popular zoo birds – such as the ratites and the cranes – are not featured here. Inside, however, you can find a very impressive selection of birds from around the world, including many rarities from a zoo perspective.

Most of the birds are encountered in three habitat-themed walk-through aviaries, each allowing the visitor to walk among an impressive assortment of birds.  In the Wetland, visitors walk along the water’s edge, where American flamingos strut and pelicans swim, while Incaterns wheel overhead and curassows perch on guard rails.   Beautiful finches and doves flit about in the Grassland.  In the Tropical Rainforest, ibises, macaws, and starlings are among the birds encountered.  The disadvantage (for the visitor) of such massive aviaries is that it can make it difficult to find some of the birds, but when you do spot them, it’s a great treat.  I spent twenty minutes alone in the Rainforest trying to find and photograph the African jacana, a splay-footed bird that walks across lily pads.  I never did get a good picture, but it was incredible to watch the beautiful little bird as it popped in and out of view, weaving its way through the water and ducking behind roots and vines.
There are single-species exhibits as well, the most impressive of which hold the Aviary’s biggest birds – Andean condors, bald eagles, and (my favorite) stunning Steller’s sea eagles.  Other displays include rhinoceros hornbills, spectacled owls, and a wonderful African penguin display, complete with underwater viewing.  A special window allows guests a peak behind-the-scenes to watch aviculturalists prepare diets for their charges.

For most visitors, the lorikeet feeding aviary is the highlight.  For a facility that is literally one building, the National Aviary has a lot of great opportunities to get personal with the birds.  Besides the lorikeet feedings and the walk-through aviaries, there are free flight bird shows, educational interactions, and even special encounters that allows visitors to meet the penguins and flamingos.  The National Aviary is truly one of the best facilities in America for bringing people and birds together.


Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Tragedy at Pittsburgh


I was in South Africa in the fall of last year, spending a week on safari near the Botswana border.  I’d been to Africa once before, but that was east, not south, and on this trip I encountered several animals I had never met before.  I saw kudu, white rhino, and brown hyena, but the most exciting find, the one that I’d been hoping for the most, was Lycaon pictus – the African wild dog.  Sometimes called the painted wolf, the wild dog is one of Africa’s rarest hunters, having been extirpated from much of its range.  We were lucky enough to catch the pack coming home after a hunt, with dogs trotting back to their dens and reunited after a chase.  It was easily one of my favorite animal encounters in the wild ever.  Then I came back from safari and turned on the news…
While I’d been out in the bush, another far less pleasant wild dog encounter was taking place, this time at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.  A young boy, visiting the zoo with his mother, was lifted up to get a closer view of the dogs.  He some how slipped from her grasp and fell.  There was a net in place down below, but it was meant to catch cameras and cell phones, not toddlers, and he bounced right out of it, landing at the very feet of the dogs below.  By the time emergency personal arrived, it was over.  One dog was killed driving the pack away from their kill.  The rest of the dogs were herded away; they were eventually sent to another zoo.  The news went international.

It probably didn’t surprise anyone that there was a lawsuit.  Almost universally, public support was on the side of the zoo.  Much of said public support has gone on to say some very harsh words towards the mother, both for putting the child in the position of danger and then for going on to sue the zoo.  We don’t need to repeat what was been said here: there are few pains worse than the loss of a child, and I would not wish it anyone.  Likely the lawsuit is less about the money (I’m sure the lawyers thought about that as they attached themselves to the case later on) than it is about absolving herself of responsibility for the child’s death.
What horrifies me the most about this case is how avoidable it was… and how often I’ve seen near misses since then.  Visitors hoping to see big cats closely hop guard railings and approach the fence… within reach of the cats within.  Visitors drop phones or cameras and climb railings to retrieve them… balancing precariously over moats.  Confront them with the fact that what they are doing is idiotic or dangerous and they are apt to greet you either with baffled confusion or with outrage that you would presume to interfere with them. 

In the time between its opening and its closure, thousands of zoo guests had visited the wild dog exhibit at Pittsburgh.  None of them had fallen in.  Most zoo visitors follow the rules put in place to ensure their safety.  Of those that don’t, most count on idiotic luck to keep them safe… if they think of it at all.  One of these days, they won’t be so lucky.
 
 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Sporcle Quiz: US Zoos by Exhibit

So I was reading an article (see below) about the new polar bear exhibit being planned at Buffalo Zoo (don't worry - not another polar bear exhibit tirade), when I got to thinking.  Many zoos - especially the larger ones - have one or two exhibits that serve as their crown jewels, star attractions.  Some become famous - by name - throughout the zoo community.  Mention "Lied Jungle", most zookeepers know that you're talking about Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo


Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Rules of Animal-Inflicted Injuries

"Yeah, I've done some pretty stupid things but hey,
I'm a little bit harder and a whole lot smarter,
That's how I got to be this way"
Justin Moore, "How I Got To Be This Way"

recent blog post commented on how the animals that are most likely to hurt a zookeeper aren't the ones that the public is most likely to think of as dangerous.  I've never been bitten by a lion, but I have gotten the living crap chewed out of me by a spotted skunk.  I've been taloned by a hawk once or twice while holding it for examinations - no big deal - but I have run for my life and leapt over fences to escape the wrath of a sandhill crane. 

I would now like to introduce my two rules of zookeeping animal injuries, based on a few years and a lot of minor injuries... illustrated with anecdotes!

1) You are most likely to be hurt by an animal that you do not take seriously as a threat.

My first job out of college was as a reptile keeper at a zoo in Texas.  It was a big collection - crocodiles, alligators, half a dozen species of monitor lizard, and every venomous snake that I'd ever heard of, along with plenty that I hadn't.  It was a terrifyingly awesome workplace.

Another keeper started the same week as I did, and we became buds of sorts.  We set up a friendly wager as to which of us was going to be the first one to be bitten... by anything.  For months we watched our steps (and, more importantly, fingers) as we worked all of the reptiles.  We fed crocodiles.  We wrangled varanids.  We handled pythons.  No bites.

One late spring morning, we had just finished moving our herd of Galapagos tortoises to their outdoor enclosure.  To help them settle in, we put some plates of food out for them.  A grape rolled off one plate.  My friend absent-mindedly picked it up and - still talking to me - nonchalantly held it out for the nearest tortoise.

The yelp of pain/shock/indignation that ensued as the tortoise closed its beak around his finger will stay with me forever...



2) You are most likely to be hurt by the animal that you regarded as a friend

An Andean condor came into quarantine at another zoo where I worked.  The quarantine stall was tiny - 10 x 10 foot - with no shift, so we became close... very.  Getting over some initial discomfort of being in the tiny room with the giant bird, we soon became very comfortable with each other, soon the point where I could pet him on the back, scratch his neck, or even hand-feed him his diet (I know, I know... idiot).

The condor eventually cleared quarantine and was moved to an outdoor enclosure. We still stayed on very friendly terms; when I'd go inside, he'd instantly hop off his perch and run over for a neck scratch.  Sure, he was nasty to the other keepers, even chased a few out of the enclosure, but we were buds!

One day I was training a new keeper when we came to the condor exhibit.  I showed the new guy his duties and introduced him to the bird.  As we were leaving, I casually patted the condor on the back saying, "Yeah, he's a good bird."  That's when he decided he didn't want to be a good bird anymore.

His neck twisted backwards, his head struck upside down, and his beak - that nasty curved beak so effective in opening up llama carcasses - latched into my forearm.  With a great deal of swearing and swatting, I dislodged him and exited the exhibit... only to realize that the new guy was still inside, with the condor (now eyeing him with keen interest) between him and the door.  I had to go in and usher the thoroughly-terrified new guy out to safety.  He wouldn't do that exhibit by himself for months.

I don't know what set the condor off that day.  Probably it was having two people in close proximity; he probably suspected that we were up to no good, trying to trap him up, for example.  I don't hold it against him personally, and we worked together for another year before I left that zoo.  I just didn't give him any more pats on the back.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Movie Review: Fierce Creatures

John Cleese, Jamie Lee Curtis, Kevin Kline, and Michael Palin star in this comedy about an evil media tycoon who's most recent corporate takeover has added a zoo to his empire.  There aren't that many movies in which zoos play a prominent role (usually just existing to allow for a random animal escape).  Of those that do, this is the one that I find that zookeepers enjoy the most. 

Fierce Creatures is silly, fun, and unbelievable in some aspects - yes, I'm sure that staff meetings would be so much more fun if every keeper had their favorite animal sitting in their lap.  At the same time, it also uses comedy to tell a few truths that many zoo staff will relate to.  I don't think I've heard a single discussion on zoo marketing that doesn't reference the movie's crazy sponsorship scenes, cumulating in a tiger wearing an "Absolut Fierce" poster.  Many keepers have had the frustration of answering to managers who just don't get what it is they do.  When faced with danger (in this case, from cost-cutting management), keepers will do any number of crazy things for their charges. 

On a side note, not a single one of the zookeepers is portrayed as having even a little bit of a life outside of work... which is also pretty accurate, based on my experience.

Fierce Creatures has long been a favorite of mine for being a funny, enjoyable flick - a zoo movie that uses animals for more than action scenes and comedy relief.  What is probably the most rewarding thing about watching Fierce Creatures is that the keepers are the good guys/gals.  All of the other major protagonists are eventually won over to their side, realizing that the true value of a zoo can't be summed up on a ledger sheet.  That alone makes it a worthwhile movie in my eyes.


PS: Another interesting side note - working with ring-tailed lemurs in this movie left John Cleese with a special attachment to lemurs, leading him to make a documentary about the primates.  In 2005, a newly discovered lemur species was named after the actor: Avahi cleesei

Monday, September 9, 2013

Species Fact Profile: Arabian Oryx (Oryx leucoryx)


Arabian (White) Oryx

Oryx leucoryx (Pallas, 1766)

Range: Arabian Peninsula (Historic)
Habitat:  Desert (especially gravel or hard sand)
Diet: Grass, buds, tubers, fruits
Social Grouping: Mixed-Sex herds of 2-15 (sometimes form larger congregations)
Reproduction:  Female produces one calf a year during any month after a gestation period of 240 days; the young are weaned at 4.5 months, reproductive maturity is reached at 2.5-3.5 years
Lifespan: 20 Years (Captive)
Conservation Status: IUCN Endangered, CITES Appendix I


  • The smallest of the oryx species, standing 1 meter at the shoulder, measuring 1.5-2.3 meters long, and weighing 70 kilograms
  • Coats are white with brown undersides and legs, a black stripe where head meets neck; black is also present on the forehead and on face around the eye and mouth; a small mane runs from the head to the shoulders; males have tuft of hair on throat
  •  Both sexes have long, mostly straight ringed horns measuring 50-75 centimeters long (the horns of the female are longer and thinner); calves are born with horns
  • Oryxes can go several weeks without water, obtaining the moisture they need from plants in the diet
  • Will travel great distances in search of rain, and can detect it from afar; one herd in Oman is known to have ranged 3,000 square kilometers
  • Wolves are the only natural predator of adults; drought, malnutrition, disease, and snakebites are other leading causes of death
  •  Dig shallow depressions to lie in and rest during the hottest parts of the day
  •  Considered a possible source for the legendary unicorn, as they appear to have only one horn when seen in profile; the oryx is possibly the identity of the creature called the re’em from The Bible
  •  Species underwent dramatic decline due to hunting; in “Operation Oryx”, all of the known remaining Arabian oryx on earth were relocated to the Phoenix Zoo for an emergency breeding program.  Phoenix was chosen as it is climatically similar to Arabia
  • Reintroduction efforts began in 1982 in Oman, and have since expanded to include Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel, and the UAE; the wild population now stands at 1,100, with a captive population at 6,000-7,000 animals

Friday, September 6, 2013

From the News: It's All Happening at the Zoo


Seriously, reporters need to get more creative with titles for their zoo stories.  I swear, it's always either "It's All Happening at the Zoo" or "What's New at the Zoo?"

Anyway, here's a nice little community shout-out to the Red River Zoo in Fargo, ND.  When we talk about zoos, there's a tendency to focus on the giants in the profession.  In the US, that translates to WCS, National Zoo, San Diego, St. Louis, and the other mega-zoos.  It's nice to see, however, the good work that the smaller zoos are doing, and seeing it recognized to boot.

Fargo is by no means a major city (if it weren't for the movie, how many people would have heard of it?), located in one of the least populated states in America.  Still, even here a community has banded together to form a zoo which is able to provide great quality care for animals, educational resources for the public, and participate in conservation breeding programs.  The fact that the zoo is self-sufficient makes it all that much more impressive.

Congrats to Red River Zoo on this anniversary, and hope that they next 20 years brings it even greater success.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Most Dangerous Game...

When I was young and just starting off in the zoo profession, I was told that zebras used to be the second-leading cause of death among zookeepers.  That was the explanation that was given to me when my supervisors told me in no uncertain terms that I was never to enter the yard with them.  The number one killer, incidentally, has always been elephants.

Most zookeepers who stick with the profession for any length of time are going to start collecting some pretty eccentric injuries.  Now, the majority of workplace injuries are rather mundane - if painful - falling off ladders, cracking skulls on low branches, getting snagged on wire fences, and the like.  What I'm talking about, however, are, of course, those injuries which are animal inflicted.

You get a lot of variations on the "Have you ever been bitten by..." question from visitors.  (The other side of the coin is the "Do you play with the...", usually referencing the cuter animals).  The answer is, quite often, yes.  I have been bitten by (nonvenomous) snakes, lizards, and small crocodilians.  I have been bitten by vultures and (thankfully, small) parrots and taloned by hawks.  I have been bitten by coati, binturong, fennec fox, and - on one very unpleasant occasion - a spotted skunk that refused to let go for some time.  A lot of people have asked me if I'd been bitten by a lion or tiger, and I can say confidently "no", but only because I never go in with one.  In fact, I've never been bitten by a large predator - a big cat, bear, wolf, or hyena - and I suspect that if I did, I probably wouldn't be writing this now.

Ironically, the animals that make me the most nervous are the ones that would never occur to most visitors to fear.  I'll go in with wolves, cheetahs, or crocodiles without batting an eye... but a big, aggressive male bird in breeding mode (cranes, pheasants, ratites)?  That can get downright dangerous.  I'm a bit ashamed to admit that some of those exhibits have gone to hell a tad during the breeding season - it's hard to rake very well or fix perches when you're constantly fighting off a stabbing beak that's aimed at your favorite eye.  Perhaps the one animal that I've worked with that I feared a bite from the most was an aquatic caecilian.  I have no idea why.  Just the thought of being bitten by an animal without a visible face was somewhat unnerving.

Animals that are unlikely to be even remotely dangerous to man in the wild can be lethal in a zoo setting.  Part of it is the close-quarters - an antelope that would run in the wild will charge and gore in a zoo.  Another part of it is that many zoo animals have lost that natural fear of man.  Add some extra factor - mother with babies, breeding season, very hungry animal wanting that food bucket - and you can have problems.

Zookeepers can sometimes spend so much time with their animals that they can become complacent about how dangerous they can be ("Yeah, I know polar bears can be dangerous, but honestly, he likes me!").  Even more commonly, zoo guests, many of whom are not used to being around animals apart from dogs and cats, might not appreciate the danger that they can put themselves in when they hope fences or stretch extra far and reach through the wire to touch the cute monkey or otter.

We try our hardest, but some people seem determined to learn lessons the hard way...




Wednesday, September 4, 2013

In Defense of Trash


I’ve worked with a lot of bosses over the course of my career, some of whom could charitably be described as “old school.”  Their outlook on virtually every aspect of zoo work was stunted back when they started in the field, be it in the 1980s or the 1950s – exhibits, training, diets, etc.  A lot of them have been especially old-fashioned on the subject on enrichment.  To them, enrichment can be summed up in one word: trash.

Now, the idea of environmental enrichment has advanced tremendously over the past few years.  It’s not uncommon now for keepers to develop extremely complicated, elaborate, naturalistic enrichment devices.  For example, chimpanzees can fish for termites (or, more likely, honey, peanut butter, and raisins) out of artificial termite mounds.  An entire mini-industry has sprung up creating toys for zoo animals.  Some of the larger zoos have employees whose sole function it is to manufacture, implement, and evaluate enrichment.  Enrichment for some species is now required, both by AZA and USDA
. 
Of course, to the old-timers, enrichment will always be trash: paper bags, cardboard boxes, phone books and the like, scattered to pieces over the exhibit floor, caught in the branches and clogging up the pool drains.   This, in their eyes, is enrichment as it stereotypical worst.  I can understand their feelings – you spent a lot of time and a lot of money trying to recreate a naturalistic habitat for the animals, and then you put a cereal box in the middle of the exhibit.  But is it that bad?

“Trash” enrichment really does have a lot to recommend itself.  For one thing, it is cheap – every zoo can afford it without budgeting for it (after all, produce and other zoo necessities come in bags and boxes anyway, right?).  Second, they are ideal enrichment for “destructive” animals.  If we can’t give live prey to zoo carnivores, we can at least let them “kill” inanimate objects – ripping open bags, tearing stiff cardboard, etc (this is also a great argument in favor of whole carcass feeding).  Primates, like human children, love to destroy things: it’s cliché but true that small children on Christmas morning get more joy out of wrapping paper than the presents within.  Animals are the same way. 

Surveys have shown that visitors, contrary to the worries of some zoo professionals, don’t seem to mind seeing “trash” enrichment in the enclosure; it works especially well if a keeper or docent is at hand to explain what visitors are seeing (also good to discourage them from adding trash of their own).  At any rate, the animals themselves don’t share our aesthetic opinions on what makes an exhibit “natural.”  Many of them just want to have some fun.

So let’s let them…

A meerkat pawing through a paper-bag filled with treats at the Philadelphia Zoo

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Sporcle Quiz: Endemic Animals

The Japanese giant salamander is endemic to Japan, meaning that it is found naturally in that country and no other.  Almost every country has at least one endemic species that makes it unique among all others.  Some are world famous, like the giant panda of China, others... considerably less so.  Today's quiz asks you to match the endemic animal to the country - the only country! - where it is from.



Monday, September 2, 2013

Species Fact Profile: Japanese Giant Salamander (Andrias japonicus)


Japanese Giant Salamander

Andrias japonicus (Temminck, 1837)

Range:  Japan (N. Kyushu Island, W. Honshu Island)
Habitat:  Mountain Streams
Diet:  Fish, Salamanders, Aquatic Invertebrates
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction: Congregate at nest sites in August, where the females lay 400-500 eggs in strings; these strings are fertilized by multiple males, who protect the eggs until they hatch 12-15 weeks later
Lifespan:  55 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Near Threatened, CITES Appendix I


  • The second largest salamander in world (after closely related Chinese giant), they can measure up to 1.5 meters long and weigh 25 kilograms.  The large boy size (and lack of gills) are thought to limit the salamander to the coldest, most oxygen-rich streams
  •  Skin - mottled gray, black, and cream - is heavily wrinkled; the tiny eyes are barely visible on top of the broad head
  •  Primarily nocturnal, it has poor vision and finds prey based on smell and touch; days are spent hidden under rocks or in underwater caves
  •  Metabolic rate is extremely slow, allowing the salamander to go for weeks at a time without eating
  • Metamorphosis is incomplete – the species does not develop eyelids, retains a single pair of closed gill slits on the neck, and has vestigial lungs
  • Males are very aggressive towards one another during breeding and nesting; sometimes killing (and subsequently eating) one another during disputes
  •  When threatened, the salamander excretes a quick-hardening gelatinous substance as defense mechanism; this secretion, which is said to smell like pepper, is responsible for the Japanese name of “giant pepper fish”
  •   The meat of this species is considered a delicacy and it is hunted for its flesh; they are also threatened by the pollution of their waterways due to soil erosion and siltation
  • Conservation efforts to save the Japanese giant salamander include the construction of artificial breeding holes incorporated into new waterways


Zookeeper's Journal: I will never forget my first encounter with a Japanese giant salamander... mostly because it is the only time in my life I was ever physically intimidated by an amphibian.  On a college field trip to the Reptile House of the Buffalo Zoo, we were shown around the various exhibit galleries (the building was, at the time, closed to the public for renovation).  At the end of the tour, we were taken into a back area to meet the crown jewels of the collection - the Japanese giant salamanders.  The behemoths were lying in bath tubs beneath screen lids.  The keeper who was guiding us lifted the lid to offer us a better look, and the salamander looked up at us with beady little eyes, barely visible... and began to crawl out of the tub.  For reasons I can't describe, that salamander unnerved me more than most large carnivores ever have.  They can be pretty vicious towards one another, sometimes ripping off limbs during combat or their aggressive mating rituals.  This has partially explained why the species has not bred successful in western zoo collections - zoo curators are unwilling to risk damage to their precious rarities.  Japanese zoos, I am told, let the salamanders rip each other up and breed.

On a completely unrelated side note, this species (and its extinct fossil relatives), served as the inspiration behind one of the greatest, most brilliant pieces of political/social satire ever written, Karel Capek's War with the Newts.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

From the News: St. Louis Zoo Begins Construction of New Polar Bear Habitat


I'm going to gripe about polar bears for a moment.  No, that's not entirely right - I'm going to gripe about zoo polar bear exhibits for a moment.  Now, St. Louis is one of my favorite zoos in the world and possibly the greatest in the country (with Bronx, Brookfield, and a few other stiff competitors).  I've loved all of their recent exhibits and have no reason to doubt that this one will be excellent as well.  It's just that I've never seen an animal that has had its zoo exhibits botched so repeatedly as I have with polar bears.

Zoo design teams try to recreate the natural habitats of the animals displayed - savannahs, rainforests, coral reefs.  In the case of polar bears, this is, of course, the Arctic.  This in turn translate to concrete "ice" and a big pool.  It creates the picture-postcard that they're looking for - a white bear on a white or gray background, diving into a pool.  It's a hit with visitors, especially when underwater viewing is available.

The problems are twofold.  First, it's not an entirely accurate representation of polar bear life - besides pack ice, bears sometimes move south into the tundra, where they encounter grasslands and sometimes even trees.  Minor quibble.  The second problem is that "natural" (in the sense that concrete pack ice is natural) might not be what's best for the bear.  A zoo habitat is a super-condensed territory, which means that it has to be super-enriched.  If you air-lifted a perfect one-acre section of Arctic landscape (some how making it not melt) and transported it to the Lower 48, it would probably be pretty boring for the bears.  I once read an account of polar bears being introduced into the brown bear exhibit of one zoo, where they dug in the dirt, rooted around, and even climbed trees.  It might not be the image of the Arctic that zoo guests are expecting, but they could still see some pretty cools bears engaging in some pretty awesome behaviors.

They just might not be swimming as much as we're used to seeing...