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Sunday, July 23, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Japanese Spider Crab (Macrocheira kaempferi)

Japanese Spider Crab
Macrocheira kaempferi (Temminck, 1836)

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

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

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Star Power at the Zoo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 20, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Celebrating Our Week

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 17, 2017

Life, Death, and Social Media

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 15, 2017

The Ocean in the Jungle

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

- John Denver, Amazon

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

I know I would.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Electric Eel (Electrophorus electricus)

Electric Eel

Electrophorus electricus (Linnaeus, 1766)

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

From the News: US Aquariums Launch Anti-Plastic Campaign

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

"One Word: Plastics"

- The Graduate

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

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

Monday, July 10, 2017

Good Fences, Good Neighbors

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

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

Neither, alas, can the zoo.

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

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

"Jerry!" she would call.

"Yes ma'am"

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

"Yes ma'am."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She's not a fan of us, either.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Sporcle Quizzes- Sporcle at the Zoo

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

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

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Fire Salamander (Salamandra salamandra)

Fire Salamander
Salamandra salamandra (Linnaeus, 1758)

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

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

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

The Rockets Red Glare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, July 2, 2017

The Zoo Outside My Window

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, June 30, 2017

Sending a Message

Even without encountering a staff member or speaking to an educator or reading a sign, visitors are picking up messages as they visit the zoo.  Consider the exhibits that they view the animals in.  Traditional zoo exhibits - iron bars and tile walls and concrete floors, reminiscent of prison cells - conveyed the message that animals are savage and dangerous, like human criminals.  Putting them in small cages, dominated by their architecture, seemed small, petty, playthings.  Putting them in pits, the visitor was literally - and metaphorically - looking down upon them.

In return, placing animals in large, more naturalistic displays that mirror their natural habitats is likely to invoke feelings of respect.  Immersion-style exhibits, where visitors are made to feel like they are sharing space with the animal, emphasizes the importance of the animal within its habitat.

Consider Conway's fictitious bullfrog display.  In an old-style zoo exhibit, a bullfrog is placed in a 10-gallon tank, one among many in a dark tank-filled building.  The subliminal message?  Bullfrogs are boring.  Move on and see the next one.  In Conway's version, however, bullfrogs are the star of an entire compound, the zoo devoted to exploring every aspect of their lives.  The subliminal message?  Bullfrogs are awesome!  We care about them, and you should too!

Perhaps the greatest opportunity to convey a message - a good one or a bad one - comes from the presentation of animal ambassadors.  On the one hand, they provide an excellent opportunity to share information on their natural history, their adaptations, and their conservation like no other educational medium.  On the other, it can easily convey an undesirable message if not presented correctly - hey, look, this guy has a cheetah on a leash!  That's awesome, I want one!  Or, imagine if they see a zookeeper feeding a monkey.  They may decide to do they same - only potato chips, perhaps, instead of the appropriate diet.

Education, whether in a conventional classroom or in a zoo or aquarium, isn't about the sharing of facts.  It's about conveying a message - a message that will change the way that people think, feel, and act after receiving it.  The thing about messages, however, is that we all share one, whether we intend to or not.  We are continually teaching the visitors to our facilities - but sometimes, we aren't sure what we are teaching them.  That's the dangerous part.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Animal Ambassadors

While teaching zoo and aquarium visitors about the animals under are care, educators have several tools at their disposal.  Some use interactive devices or simply props - using a pair of long forceps to pluck toy fish out a bowl of water, emulating how a stork or heron would feed, for example.  Others prefer to use biofacts - skulls, horns, bones, tusks, and the like.  Often times, however, the most extraordinary teaching tools are the animals themselves - especially those which come out to meet the public.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums defines an ambassador animal as "an animal whose role includes handling and/or training by staff or volunteers for interaction with the public and in support of institutional education and conservation goals."  Put more simply, these are the animals which interact with visitors.  

Sometimes they interact with visitors from within their enclosure - a lorikeet feeding aviary, a stingray touch tank, a giraffe-feeding station.  Sometimes they interact with visitors on zoo grounds - you might see a docent walking around with a hawk on a glove, or a snake coiled around their hand.  Sometimes, they interact off-grounds, visiting schools, community centers, and - every spring - the halls of power itself, mingling with members of Congress during the AZA's Zoo and Aquarium Day on Capitol Hill.

Animal ambassadors are trained  (or, in the case of some species, such as insects, merely habituated) members of the collection.  It is their role to be used to help educate visitors about the zoo's residents and its mission.  Perhaps they will demonstrate unique adaptations (a kinkajou's prehensile tail, a porcupine's quills) or behaviors (birds in a free-flight demonstration).  In many cases (except for animals that interact with visitors in their enclosure), these are a special class of zoo animals which live separate from the rest of the collection, usually in off-exhibit quarters.  They must be prepared to deal with a variety of situations and environments that other collection animals would not be exposed to, from elementary school auditoriums to county fairs to television studios.  

Not all animals - either as species or as individuals - are well suited to this lifestyle.  Over the years, I've trained several animals for use in programs such as these.  Some have been highly successful and have gone on to develop local rock-star status as animal stars.  Others, I've had to throw in the towel on and admit that it just wasn't working out - maybe it would have with a different trainer, or a different individual of that same species, but that particularly combination wasn't going to work, and I wasn't going to unnecessarily stress-out an animal that wasn't ready to thrive in those settings.  Some animals will work very well for some trainers or handlers, not for others.

The dark-twin of ambassador animals - which I reject entirely - are petting schemes.  Which is not to say that all contact is bad - several animal ambassadors can be touched by members of the public in a controlled, supervised manner that makes sure that the animal isn't unduly stressed.  What I refer to is plopping a baby big cat or monkey in a succession of laps for paid photo-ops.  Again referring to AZA's policy statement, the goal of ambassador animals is to further the message of the zoo or aquarium - not just to create an epic selfie.  Every zoo and aquarium has it's own policies of what contact is allowed and under what circumstances.

An ambassador animal can be anything from a Madagascar hissing cockroach, sitting idly in a presenter's hand, to a cheetah, let off its leash to sprint for a demonstration.  Used properly, they are an extraordinary asset to a zoo's educational programming, and can turn an informal chat about animals into a lesson that visitors will never forget.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Talking with Keepers (And Alligators?)

“According to most studies, people's number one fear is public speaking. Number two is death. Death is number two. Does that sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you're better off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”

- Jerry Seinfeld

The zoo had only been open for the season for a few hours.  It was a beautiful early spring day and steady crowds had been coming in all morning.  We had volunteers and educators roaming the grounds with animal ambassadors, lots of action down at the petting barn, and a series of keeper chats scheduled across the zoo.  At that very moment, I was scheduled to give one, down at the alligator pool.  I made a quick announcement over the intercom, then hurried to be in place.

Sure enough, a crowd soon formed at the fence, and I prepared to begin.  I introduced myself, I introduced the alligators, and I started to go into my carefully planned speech about them - all a build-up to a quick feeding demonstration - when a little old lady pushed her way to the front of the crowd.

"Excuse me," she said, looking around in a slightly puzzled manner.  "When will the alligators talk?"

I tried to think of a suitable answer.  All I came back with was... "Huh?"

"The loudspeaker.  It said that there would be an alligator talk.  When do the alligators talk?  I really want to see that."

"Ma'am... this is the alligator talk."

"But when do they talk?"

"They don't.  They're alligators."  At which point, I managed to segue into how alligators do make lots of noises, and even start vocalizing before they have even hatched, but I could tell I'd lost her.  As she walked away, I could only muse about how maybe she should have gone to the parrot talk.

Many zoos, large and small, have education departments, as well as docents and other volunteers.  The folks that most visitors want to hear the most from, however, are the keepers themselves.  The keepers are the ones who actually work with the animals, who have the best stories, who know the animals and their personalities and their quirks the best.  Regrettably, they often are the ones who are least interested in sharing those tidbits.

It's an unfortunate reality that many keepers tend to be a bit asocial towards the public.  They are there because they care about their animals - deeply - and too often associate the public with its worst elements - the glassbangers, the feeders, and that annoying guy who insists on howling his head off at the wolves.  Sure, they realize that the public is essential to the continuance of the zoo.  They just don't want to be the ones to do it.

Still, and with apologies to the educators, they are the ones that NEED to do it.  Zoo education isn't so much a matter of enriching minds, it's the business of touching hearts.  You can fill up someone's head with facts, cool or dull, but in the end, you need them to care about the animals.  That's what will make them check the ingredients for palm oil when they go grocery shopping, or opt for the more sustainable seafood, or maybe even call their congressperson to express support for the Endangered Species Act.  Caring means forming a connection.  The keepers are the members of the staff who best exemplify that connection.  By sharing their bonds with the animal to the public, they invite the public to care, also.

Besides, due to their relationships with the animals, keeper talks have the potential to be far more dynamic than other educational experiences.  They can be combined with feeding demonstrations, or training sessions, or enrichment offerings, allowing visitors to have a brand new insight into the animals.  Shortly after my exchange with the dotty-gator-talk-lady, I entered the gator exhibit with a pair of tongs and a bucket of rats and chicken chunks.  Five seconds later, our sleeping pile of alligators - which many of the visitors took to be fake - became a series of whirling, food-crazed dervishes, and, in the eyes of many of those guests, the coolest thing they'd seen all day, week, or month.  

Keeper talks are often scheduled and planned well in advance.  They don't have to be, though.  Many of my favorite interactions with visitors have been the almost accidental ones - the ones where I pass by an exhibit, point out a hidden animal in passing, and suddenly get peppered with excited questions.   Or the ones where I'm doing something in an exhibit - hanging a piece of browse, oiling a tortoise shell, or adding an armload of nesting material for a pair of birds - and get asked the inevitable, "What are you doing?"

A lot of the time, these are things we have to do anyway in the interest of animal care, we might as well invite the public to come and see them as the learning experiences that they are.  It gives them a better appreciation of the animals, as well as the care and devotion that goes into keeping them happy and healthy.  It gives them a chance to ask questions and dispel false impressions that they might otherwise walk away with.

So yes, most of the keepers I've known over the years are a bit on the shy-side... at least when it comes to public speaking.  Many of them would rather leave such encounters to others, those who enjoy them more.  Many have come to realize, however, that keeper talks are the some of the best tools for really reaching visitors about the animals... and that keepers are the best advocates. 

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Texas Horned Lizard (Phrynosoma cornutum)

Texas Horned Lizard
Phrynosoma cornutum (Harlan, 1825)

Range: South-Central United States, Northern Mexico
Habitat: Deserts, Prairies, Scrubland
Diet: Ants (Especially Harvester Ants), Beetles, Grasshoppers
Social Grouping: Solitary, Loose Groups
Reproduction: Breed from late April through July.  Lay eggs in moist sandy areas, where they incubate for 45-55 days.  No parental care is provided.  Fully grown by 3 years old.
Lifespan: 5-8 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern

  • Average body length 7 centimeters, but may be up to 12 centimeters.  Males are larger than females.  The body is squat and rounded with a blunt nsount an short legs, resulting in the nickname "horned toad."
  • Back is tan or grey with highlights of white, red, or yellow, as well as black spots.  The underside of tan or grey.
  • The Latin name translates to "Toad-Body with Horns", in reference to the horn-like projections growing from the back of the lizard's head.  Smaller spines are found on the back and sides.
  • Active by day.  If too hot, the lizard will burrow in the sand or hide in the shade.  During the cooler parts of the year, they will hibernate
  • When frightened, horned lizards will puff themselves up to appear larger.  If danger persists, the lizard will squirt a stream of blood (up to 1.3 of their body's volume) out of a pore near the eye
  • During rains, horned lizards flatten themselves on the ground and lower their heads so that rainwater is funneled into their mouths.
  • Horned lizards have declined in recent years due to loss of habitat, the use of pesticides, and the introduction of invasive fire ants, which displace the harvester ants that the lizards feed upon
  • Sometimes sold and kept as a pet, but typically prove hard to keep due to their specialized diet.  Released pets have resulted in introduced populations in parts of the southeastern United States
  • Horned toads have featured prominently in the artwork of southwestern Native Americans and were considered sacred by some tribes.  They are the mascot of Texas Christian University and the official state reptile of Texas

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Zoo Review: American International Rattlesnake Museum

William Conway's "How to Exhibit a Bullfrog" has always been my guiding light for if I ever got to design a major zoo exhibit.  The thought of educating visitors holistically about a species really appealed to me - I thought of versions of it for prairie dogs, alligators, Asian elephants, and jaguars, among other species.  The closest I've seen so far is the Gomek Forever museum at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm.

Earlier this year, I had the opportunity to see a facility designed around this concept, and I rushed to pay a visit.  The results were... so-so.

It's very easy to miss the grandiosely named American International Rattlesnake Museum.  Tucked away between the small stores and tourist spots of Albuquerque's Old Town, there is little to outwardly indicate what lies inside.  Through the front door and past the gift shop (where you will be issued a Certificate of Bravery... I kid you not.  I'm seriously thinking of having mine framed and hung over my desk) is one of the most impressive collections of rattlesnakes ever assembled under one roof.

It was ironically the gift shop which gave me the most positive vibe about the place.  A sign hung prominently stated that (and I'm paraphrasing here, as I forgot to take a picture) "The zoo doesn't sell rhino horns, the aquarium doesn't sell shark fins, we don't sell rattles."  Not that the three are necessarily equal, seeing as rattles often fall of naturally, which seldom happens to shark fins, but I liked the message it sent.  Then I went inside.

The museum is a series of small rooms, lined with terrariums of not only rattlesnakes, but a hodgepodge of other reptiles and amphibians.  Rattlesnakes, to be sure, are species which ask little of their caretakers in captivity, and the majority of the displays are simply glass-fronted wooden boxes, floored with sand or wood chips and decorated with a few plants and rocks.  Some looked a little small for the size of the occupants (rattlesnakes seldom move much, which I think can make it easy for a caretaker to misjudge how large an enclosure should be), but none were what I would call unacceptable... it's just that I remembered some of the much bigger, more beautiful displays I'd seen at other facilities (I'm thinking, for example, of the western diamondback exhibit at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo's Desert Dome), and finding myself wishing that the museum had opted for fewer, larger, better displays.  Heck, they probably couldn't have done larger, mixed-species exhibits if they wanted to preserve the diversity of the collection.

Apart from the snakes, the museum component consisted largely of shelves of stuff.  Some of it was kind of kitschy (obvious touristy knickknacks), some was kind of cool (like the display case of snake oils that peddlers used to sell in the Old West).  There were some bones and skulls, some graphics, and televisions playing David Attenborough's Life in Cold Blood.  The most interesting educational feature I saw was a low table of sand, with large river stones in it.  Each stone had a trivia question about rattlesnakes painted on one side, the answer of the other.  It was a fun, simple interactive device... though on second thought, a room full of a) semi-supervised children, b) glass-fronted rattlesnake habitats, and c) fist-sized rocks might not have been the ideal combination.

I'm glad I went to the Rattlesnake Museum - it was certainly worth a look - but it failed to meet my hope of finding Conway's vision realized somewhere.  Which was frustrating, because I think much of it could have been done with some better organization and messaging.  There was lots of stuff and a lot of animals, but together they didn't tell much of a story.  There were missed opportunities - the New World sidewinder rattlesnake was displayed next to the Old World sidewinder viper, which could have been a better-told story of convergent evolution.  Gila monsters were on display, as well as scorpions and tarantulas - these could have all been grouped together to better tell the story of venom.  I think it would have been really cool to have some specimens of the rattlesnake's natural prey - kangaroo mice or rabbits, for instance - on hand, but I can understand why the museum wouldn't - you bring in mammals, you open yourself up to annual USDA inspections, which they might not have wanted to get involved with.

One notable omission that concerned me - I don't think I saw a single mention anywhere about rattlesnake roundups, one of the greatest welfare and conservation issues associated with rattlesnakes in this country.  This is especially important in the western United States, where visitors to the museum could potentially be from states where roundups still occur, and where their voices could be put to use in changing these practices.

So in conclusion, the American International Rattlesnake Museum was a cool visit... but not the rattlesnake version of Conway's bullfrog.  I suppose I'll have to keep looking for that.

Monday, June 19, 2017

My Favorite Bed-Time Story

"I sensed that M. was devilishly pleased my now subdued demeanour and I hastened to point out that, after all, he had started the discussion by demanding a proper exhibit for bullfrogs - but that this display offered a great deal more than bullfrogs.  'That', he rejoined, 'is what makes it a proper exhibit of bullfrogs."

Once upon a time, there was a magical kingdom (the Bronx Zoo), ruled by a wise old king (William Conway)... The kingdom was a mostly happy one, but the old king felt that there must be some way to make it even happier for his subjects.  Then one night, he had a dream.

Okay, that's not quite how it goes.

When I first got to the age where the thought of entering the zoo field began to pass from a daydream to an actual possibility, I had one major thought in my head.  I was going to build exhibits.  And not just any exhibits - the best exhibits that there were, the ones that would delight the animals, marvel the visitors, and set the bar for the next one-hundred years.  Even though I'd never been there, I knew on some level that the exhibits I wanted to emulate the most were at the Bronx Zoo.

Perhaps even more so because I had never been there at the time, the Bronx took on an exaggerated importance to me, and its director at the time, William Conway, was some sort of philosopher king.  I read pretty much every article by him that I could find.  There was one, however, which made an enormous impact on me.  It was called, simply, "How to exhibit a bullfrog: a bed-time story for zoo men" (we'll excuse Conway on that last point - this was in the 1970's, and women had just begun their eventual conquest of the zookeeping profession).

Conway's article is presented as a dream, in which he is confronted by a charismatic, devil-like character who takes him to task for his sins.  His sins, in this case, are mediocre zoo exhibits - rare and exotic animals in bland, otherwise empty enclosures, with a label stuck on front.  This, back in the 1970's, was called "Conservation" and "Education."  "You don't gave a proper exhibit of bullfrogs!" the devil fumes, to which Conway essentially replies, "Who cares about a damned bullfrog?"  It turns out, no one really does... yet.

Conway's devilish companion then proceeds to take him for a dream-tour of "The World of Bullfrogs", a sprawling building that shows the visitor every aspect of the bullfrog.  Sure, the simple, 20-gallon tank is replaced by a massive pond habitat with underwater viewing... but there is so much more to it.  There are displays of bullfrogs in different stages of their life-cycle.  Close amphibian relatives of the bullfrog are display here, as are the bullfrog's predators and prey.  Graphics detail the evolutionary history of the bullfrog, its annual cycle through the seasons, and its role in history, culture, and literature, as well as its conservation status.  Visitors can learn about bullfrogs through movie clips, audio recordings, and interactive games.  Then, exhausted by all of their learning, they can sit for a themed snack on a porch overlooking yet more bullfrogs.

By the end of their tour (which doesn't even cover the whole building), a now-shamefaced Conway is made to realize that a zoo doesn't need to have 50,000 species on display - it just needs to have better exhibits of the species that it does display.  In an old-style zoo exhibit, visitors would see a bullfrog.  In this dream-display, they would not only fully experience one, they would understand one.

In this closing, Conway quips, "By now, some of you may suspect that I am pulling your leg; that I really haven't had such a dream about the exhibition of bullfrogs; but if you think that, you would be wrong.  To develop such an exhibit in the Bronx Zoo is one of our fondest dreams."

Since reading this article back in the pre-Internet days, (when I nervously wrote to Conway himself and received a copy in the mail), it's been one of mine, too.  One day, I hope to build one.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Father's Day

I've spent a lot of this month droning on about education.  I've talked about messaging, and what we should be messaging, and how best to convey that messaging.  One thing I haven't talked about is who should be doing the teaching.  I've talked a lot about how zoos and aquariums can share educational messages.  I've talked about teachers.  But in many cases, the most important teachers are the ones that have no formal role, either at the zoo or in the school system.

In my case, that teacher was my dad.

Both of my parents worked growing up, my mom in a soulless, evil corporation, my dad self-employed.  They were both extremely busy (still are, as it happens), but still managed to make plenty of time for my brother and me growing up.  They helped with homework.  They came to sports events (until I was mercifully allowed to quit), and music performances (where I played abominably), and the only slightly-less cringe-worthy theatrical productions.  And, when I was good (and sometimes when I wasn't), they indulged me in my favorite treat ever.  We'd go to the zoo.

Of all the members of my family, nuclear and extended, he was the one who most shared my excitement about animals and nurtured it in me.  I have memories of a him showing me salamanders he found while out on the job, or learning to identify local birds for a merit badge in Boy Scouts, or explaining to me firmly but gently why buying the baby caiman in the pet store wasn't the great idea that I was sure it was.  Mostly, I remember the zoo.

Growing up, I'd probably go to the local zoo (about a half hour drive away) once a month, taken by my dad.  He'd herd me patiently down the paths, taking the same route through the exhibits each time.   Going down the paths, he'd encourage me to read the signs and learn to recognize the animals.  He'd push me to make connections and think a little harder about concepts.  He made me slow down instead of racing wildly from one animal to the next.  He asked me questions about the animals (which I now suspect that he already knew the answers to), not only to make me think, but to help me build some pride in the store of knowledge I was building up.  He also taught me to stand up for animals.  I remember one visit to the National Zoo, seeing my normally mild-mannered dad bellowing at some teenagers who were throwing sticks at an alligator, scattering them like birds, then searching for a keeper so he could give a description of them, so staff could be on the look-out if they tried anything like that again.

As I entered high school, I began volunteering at our local zoo, first three times a week, then almost every day.  It wasn't until I became an adult, with the worries of time and mileage adding up on an old car, and the exhaustion of having worked all day and just wanting to rest, that I came to realize what an effort that was for him.  He never complained.  As high school wound down and I began to look at colleges, he went with me on the road-trips.  Each usually happened to be by a near zoo or two.  And when I did graduate from college and got my first zoo job across the country, he drove with me to help me settle into a new zoo... and it was with him that I walked around my new zoo for the first time.

My parents both still work, a lot more than they really should, to be honest, and I don't see them as often as I really should.  I still call home a few times a week, mostly to rant and rave about whatever is going on/wrong at the zoo this week.  A year or two ago, my dad suggested that we go on another zoo trip, just like the good old days, and we drove out to Toledo and Cleveland.  I had a friend working at each and was able to get us in for free and get him a behind-the-scenes tour at each zoo.  It made me happy, like I was treating him for a change.

There were plenty of people who helped me along to where I am now in my career in the zoo profession.  My mom, lacking in animal enthusiasm as she was (the last time I took her through my zoo on a tour, I think she had her eyes covered half the time, convinced I was about to get myself killed as I showed her a few favorite animals), supported me, pushing me to do better in my schooling, editing and proof-reading resumes and cover letters, and counseling me on how to navigate my first workplace dramas.  My older brother gamely pitched in with ferrying me to and from the zoo once he was old enough to drive.  Some teachers in school and professors in college helped me learn how to learn, and at each zoo and aquarium I've been at, there's been at least one person more senior than I who was willing to take the time to teach me.

But with all of the help I've gotten along the way, I feel pretty sure -  wouldn't have become a zookeeper without my father.  Thanks, Dad.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Touch-Screen Signage

Exhibit signage is the basic unit of zoo-based education - everyone exhibit has one, at the very least explaining what animal is in the enclosure.  As technology has continued to develop, more zoos are moving towards more sophisticated, modern educational tools.  Among those are touch-screens.

I first encountered touch-screens in a zoo setting at the Dallas World Aquarium.  I found myself in massive, free-flight aviaries full of many species that I had never seen before and wanting to know more about.  After stalking back and forth looking for more conventional signage, I finally noticed the computer screens scattered around the enclosure.  A few random taps later, I was hooked.

There are many advantages to using computer touch-screens as opposed to regular signage.  They can hold an enormous amount of information on a small device.  You can put as much data on as you like, and have it expand out to meet the visitor's informational needs.  If they just want to know what a duck in an aviary is called, they can see it easily.  If that duck appeals to you for some reason, you can keep tapping away, seeing all the information that there is to display about it in great detail.

You want to add video or sound clips?  Go ahead,  it's a great way to highlight behaviors that are fascinating but might not be seen by many visitors, such as a rattlesnake striking, or a chimpanzee using a twig to fish for termites.  You have a lot of visitors who speak languages other than English?  No problem - you can have settings to change the language. Changes to the collection?  These devices are much easier to update than traditional signage.

With so many advantages, why aren't these touch-screens in use everywhere?

For one thing, they are expensive.  This is especially problematic if you have them in an outdoor setting, where they are exposed to the elements (or an indoor area, even, if it happens to be an aviary where birds are raining down poop and uneaten food on them).  They may be installed in the fanfare and funding of a new exhibit, but once they are broken, they might not be replaced.  Also, because they are expensive, there tend to be few of them, and they are quickly monopolized by folks who may be more interested in pushing buttons of the screen to see what happens then actually reading about the animals.  I was at the Shedd Aquarium a few years ago, and almost had a seizure from the rapidly flickering touch-screens being manipulated by excited kids.

I think I'm also a slight hold-out just because of the technological aspect.  Visitors - especially kids - spend much of their day looking at screens.  Do we want them to come to the zoo and aquarium to look at more screens - or to look at animals?

Friday, June 16, 2017

Give Me a Sign

Relatively few zoo and aquarium visitors enroll in camps.  Field trips capture only a portion of the guests who enter the gates.  Only a small percentage of the visitors on a given day will be at a specific keeper talk or feeding demonstration.  These educational opportunities will only reach a relative few people every day.

Instead, most visitors will rely on a single tool for most of their animal information.  The most basic item in the zoo's educational arsenal.  The sign.

And I immediately sensed a few of my colleagues rolling their eyes.

There are many kinds of signs in the zoo.  There are directional signs.  There are rule signs.  There are temporary signs.  There are guest safety signs.  Most prevalent of all are the informational signs.

It's almost taken as a given among many people that signs are useless.  Mostly, in their eyes, because no one uses them.  The thought of reading the information provided seems to escape many guests; just the other day, I heard an adult exclaim, "Look at the coyotes!"... while the was literally leaning against a sign that said "WOLF" (the same applies to other kinds of signs as well - also last week, I saw a parent stand their kid atop the "Please Keep Off of Fence" sign nailed to an exhibit railing... all I could think was, "I think I've seen this movie before...").

Anyway, this is a common view point... and one that I disagree with entirely.  I think a well-made sign that conveys good information is one of the best educational tools available.  Sure, it's not as engaging as an actual demonstration or a chance to interact with a staff member (or animal!).  But unlike many educational opportunities, it has the potential to easily and cheaply reach everyone.

So what makes a good sign?

It should be attractive.  More than attractive - visually arresting.  A sign has to at least temporarily hold the attention of a visitor who has a thousand other things to look at,  It should be visually appealing with attention-getting images.  At the very least, one good picture of the species, multiple if there is sexual dimorphism.  (Note: for some animal imagery, there is a line between fascinating and disgusting).  There are no rules for color scheme, except maybe avoid road-cone orange.  Some zoos prefer very bright, colorful signs that catch the eye.  Others prefer signage that blends in and creates a natural feeling.

And don't be afraid to be unusual.  One of the coolest signs that I ever saw was the black rhino sign at the Lincoln Park Zoo.  It was life-sized and shaped like a rhino, letting visitors stand right up against it and get a sense of the size of these animals.  Also, interactive is good, too.  Many zoos have signs of wingspans of various birds, encouraging visitors to stand up and spread their arms, seeing how they measure up to a condor, an eagle, a hawk, or a kestrel.

It should be brief.  Remember the elevator speech.  Few visitors will delay the pleasure of seeing the animal for too long, even for a well-made sign.  The sign isn't going to teach them all that there is to know about the animal; what it ideally will do is introduce the animal, then encourage them to seek out more information about it,  I'd say 100 words is an ideal summary,  If possible, use images to replace words.  For example, use a map to highlight an animal's geographic range, rather than words.  Represent whether or not it is endangered visually with a thermometer or other graphic rather than text.  Save your words for a brief message that conveys an essential impression of the species.

It should be universal.  No sign is going to reach every member of an audience... especially if every member of the audience doesn't share a common language.  Still, the sign should work for a broad, general audience of adults and kids.  If you have to error one way or the other, I would suggest simple, child-friendly text with maybe a few technical words introduced, but explained ("These animals are nocturnal (active by night)".  Adults who are reading the signs with children can use these as teachable moments to share information with the kids.

It should be interesting.  Or relevant.  Ideally both.  When you write your draft text, step back, read it aloud, and then ask... who cares?  You only have that brief moment to make an impression, so make it an interesting one.  If you're telling guests about Arabian oryxes, don't use your window to explain that they have a single calf at a time - tell how they nearly went extinct and were saved.  Don't tell people how many subspecies of clouded leopard there are - describe how amazing they are at climbing - maybe complimented by photos of a cat hanging upside down from its back feet, or climbing a branch upside-down.

Attractive.  Brief.  Universal.  Interesting.  All things that this post maybe isn't entirely.  I better go work on my elevator post.