Thursday, March 6
Ever wonder what zookeepers do when they’re not at work? There is an 87.8 percent chance they’re thinking about the Zoo, talking about the Zoo, or reading a book about animals. I’m doing all of the above during vacation.
Technically, I am in Italy vacationing as I write this. However, as I pass by statues, boats and the other wonderful things I walk by, my brain is fascinated by the pigeons in the plazas and the dogs (not on leashes) faithfully following their owners. Anyway, am I truly on vacation when the things that excite me in a country not known for its animals are the pigeons and pups?
Today, I was briefly distracted by a male pigeon trying to mate (vocalizing, tail fanned out, you get the gist). Meanwhile, I have a guidebook of Italy with millions of other things to be excited about. My leisure read of choice is a book about elephants and rhinos. There is no escape!
So my point in saying all this is to remind you of the dedication all of us at Zoo Atlanta and other AZA-accredited locations give to our animals. We think, dream, talk, breathe, sweat, freeze, and bleed for our animals. Notice I threw "freeze" in there based on recent events!
Considering that I work with birds and small animals at Zoo Atlanta, I have had my eyes peeled for birds in the sky and small creatures on the land. The green space here is limited, so I’m mostly searching the sky. Not too much there either, but the point is that I’m hopeful everywhere I go for a new animal experience, however big or small.
Occasionally at the Zoo, there is a very small child who, as I’m handling something like a snake or a porcupine, is distracted by the squirrel that scurries by or the tiny little ant on the ground. It surprises me every single time the ant wins the child’s attention, but now I get it. So now you know what zookeepers do when they’re not with their animals. They find other animals to fill a huge void that only the “torture” of a vacation week can create. Ciao!
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, March 4
One of our infant gorillas, Andi, will celebrate her first birthday on March 14! She has reached a number of milestones in her first year. For instance, she has all of her baby teeth, she can walk and climb on her own (mother permitting!), and she is eating solid foods (though she will continue to nurse until she is 3 or 4 years old). She loves playing with her older brother Henry, who will be 4 years old in May. He can often be seen carrying her or wrestling with her indoors. Lulu is still keeping Andi close by her in the outdoor habitat, but hopefully it won’t be long before Andi gets to go exploring on her own!
There are four youngsters in Taz’s group: Henry, Merry Leigh, Andi and our youngest, Anaka. They are sure to provide hours of entertainment this spring and summer, so stop by Habitat 3 and check them out!
Keeper II, Primates
Thursday, February 27
The recent warm-up has gotten things into the spring fling here in the World of Reptiles. Our various turtles that have spent the winter outside have begun to show signs of activity and have even been out basking on sunny days. We have a few animals that are gravid (the term used for “pregnant” in reptiles and amphibians) and should be producing either babies or eggs soon. We have also begun spring preparations in some of our outdoor reptile habitats. We have transplanted some new greenery for many of our turtles and tortoises and have sown grass seed in the exhibit yard of the Aldabra giant tortoises. This will provide something fun for them to enjoy once they come out for the summer.
Things outside of the Zoo have been pretty busy as well. Our involvement with the eastern indigo snake reintroduction project in the Conecuh National Forest in Alabama is ongoing, and just this past weekend our colleagues collected four gravid females that were from previous release events. This is fantastic news because it proves that the males are able to locate the females in order to reproduce, and is proof that these animals have been successfully reintroduced into that area. Our involvement with head-starting the offspring will continue, however, and they will come to Zoo Atlanta once they hatch. Here we will raise them for approximately two years before they are released back into the wild.
Also, as was mentioned in the last update, Jason Brock has left our team. While we will miss his presence, things will continue to operate as normal. We will keep you updated as we search for the best person to replace him. In the meantime, please be sure to come and visit us in the World of Reptiles!
Keeper III, Herpetology
Tuesday, February 25
You may have noticed that we have three new young male giraffes on exhibit in the African Plains. They were just introduced to the exhibit on Monday, February 17, and appear to be right at home! They were then allowed access with our resident adult male, Abu, on Thursday, again with no incident. They are all getting along just great. We will slowly introduce them to the rest of the savanna animals (i.e., ostriches, lesser kudus and zebras) as the week progresses. By the time this is posted, everyone may be out on exhibit together as one big happy savanna family!
The three new boys came to us from Riverbanks Zoo in South Carolina. Riverbanks Zoo is now where our former adult female giraffe, Glenda, lives with her new herd or “tower” of giraffe. The boys arrived in late 2013 and underwent a routine quarantine period during which we watched for any health issues, as well as helped get them acclimated to their new surroundings.
To tell you a little about them: Zuberi, which means “powerful”, is the oldest (born February 13, 2010), darkest in color and tallest. Isooba, meaning “walks slowly”, is next in line, born July 11, 2011. He’s the smallest (for right now) and has what looks like a hoof-print in the middle of his chest. Then we have Etana, meaning “strong”, born July 27, 2011. He has a little lighter coloration on his head.
They are all very curious, interested in what is going on, and usually come down to our level to say “good morning” when we first come into the barn. They are always interested in what we are carrying when we are walking through the barn or outside the corrals on our way to feed the ostriches. We hope that this curiosity will encourage them to go meet everyone at the giraffe feeding platform when it opens in April.
Please stop at the African Plains habitat and say hello to our new additions. They are super handsome!
Keeper II, Mammals
Thursday, February 20
Baobab and Acacia are the newest additions to the Program Animals collection. They are hooded vultures (Necrosyrtes monachus) from sub-Saharan Africa. This species of vulture is endangered in the wild, with its population declining due to similar issues as other animal species face, including hunting and habitat loss. They really are cool animals, as are all species of scavengers, because they eat everything, especially leftover scraps from other animals’ prey … yum! Unfortunately, habitat loss in any environment includes that of the animals they might eat in their natural habitat.
Baobab and Acacia are still in the early stages of training, as they have not had any wildlife show training before. We are beginning to hand-feed them so we can reinforce them during shows as we do with the other Wildlife Theater birds. Today, Program Animals Lead Keeper Christina managed to entice Baobab onto her glove voluntarily for the first time. That is a huge accomplishment! Of course, she had some help from the vultures’ favorite food, mice! They have also moved to an exhibit right down the hill from the king vultures, the milky eagle owls and Quincy the Eurasian eagle owl. Check them out on exhibit and (fingers crossed) within the next year in the Wildlife Theater show. Each Wildlife Theater animal works at his or her own pace, so we are working on having the new vultures join shows as soon as they show us behaviorally that they are ready.
In the photograph taken by yours truly, Baobab and Acacia are sunning after a rainy day. This helps them dry out their feathers. Think of it like we sit out in the sun after swimming, only they don’t need to work on a summer tan!
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, February 18
On January 29, we not only had a snowstorm, but we also had a new arrival in the Bird Department. Our milky eagle owl family welcomed a beautiful new baby girl. That brings the count of milky eagle owls at Zoo Atlanta to five individuals. We have the two parents, one male chick from last year, the newest female chick, and their first male chick, who can be seen free-flying in the Wildlife Theater show. As of now, when you go by the exhibit you may only see two birds: the dad and the male chick from last year. Sometimes, if you look in the nest area toward the back left corner of the exhibit, you can see the female’s head peeking out of the nest box. We expect the chick to fledge in two to three months, just in time for Spring Break! (When bird folks talk about fledging, we mean when a chick gets the necessary feathers for flight and is able to leave the nest by itself.)
Milky eagle owls, also known as Verreaux’s eagle owls, are one of the largest species of owl in the world! They are true owls and get the “eagle” part of their names because of their large size. As in most species of birds of prey, the females are larger than the males and range in weight from 5.5 pounds to 7 pounds. These owls are the largest species of owl found in Africa. They can thrive in different habitats, but prefer savannas and woodland areas near rivers and lakes.
Long-term pairs defend enormous territories and announce their presence with deep booming hoots that can be heard at considerable distances through the quiet African nights. This is one of the very few owl species in which offspring from the previous year will stay with the adults the next season to help rear young. At Zoo Atlanta, the owls consider their habitat as their territory, and it requires three keepers with helmets and shields to clean the exhibit safely!
Milky eagle owls eat small to medium-sized mammals. The species is the largest night predator
among African birds. They are extremely powerful and will often crash down through the tree canopy to catch sleeping prey. This is also one of the few species in Africa that can kill and eat hedgehogs.
Milky eagle owls generally lay two eggs in a clutch. Generally only one chick survives. Both adults are involved in rearing; however, females generally do the incubation and most of the feeding. Males hunt and bring food back to the nest. Chicks leave the nest at approximately 9 to 10 weeks of age and become sexually mature around 3 years of age. Milky eagle owls can live into their 20s.
Come visit our milky eagle owls on the path from elephants to the Children’s Zoo. Or you can experience a milky eagle owl in an up-close-and-personal way at the Wildlife Theater on Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Don’t forget to say hi to Mandela!
Keeper III, Birds and Program Animals
Thursday, February 13
The Herpetology Department has lots of changes coming now. We have several new exhibits opening over the past weeks and in the next couple of weeks. We recently added a green basilisk exhibit to the World of Reptiles. These beautiful, bright green lizards have been known to run across the surface of the water. We will have one of our new Meller’s chameleons on exhibit within the next couple of weeks. This is the largest species of chameleon and comes from eastern Africa. These beautiful animals are known to change color as a form of communication between rivals or even to show breeding interest.
One of the biggest changes in the Herpetology Department is going to be a change in staff. I will be leaving the Zoo Atlanta Herpetology Team after almost eight years. I have to say this has been the best job I have had. Not only have I gotten to work with such amazing animals as the Komodo dragons and black mamba, but I have been given the opportunity to work with many of these animals in their native habitats. Watch for updates on new keeper staff coming to join the team. Thanks for the many years of great memories.
Keeper III, Herpetology
Tuesday, February 11
One question I get asked often during keeper chats is “Where do the orangutans go at night?” The answer is that they shift off exhibit to their indoor areas in the orangutan building. There are several reasons why they do this. First, keepers want to get a good up close look at all the orangutans after they’ve been outside on exhibit all day. While we check on them frequently throughout the day, we always want to get a good look at everyone before we leave for the night. That way if any of the orangutans have any injuries or seem to be not feeling well, we can notify our vet staff right away.
The orangutans also come inside at night so keepers can feed them the rest of their diets for the day. Getting fed is a big motivator for them to come off exhibit! All our orangutans have specific diets that were calculated by our animal nutrition staff and veterinarians to ensure that each of them is getting the proper nutrition to stay healthy. Every day the orangutans receive a variety of fruits, vegetables, greens and dry primate biscuits. The biscuits look similar to dry dog or cat food that you would feed your pets at home. They have lots of vitamins and minerals in them, and the orangutans love to soak a mouthful in water and make it into a big mushy ball to eat! Just like humans, the orangutans have items in their diets that they prefer over others. Blaze, for example, will eat corn before any other vegetable, whereas Chantek wants carrots. And all the orangutans love their fruit! In fact, fruit from their diet is often what we use as rewards during training sessions.
Shifting the orangutans inside at night is also useful for us keepers, so that we can clean their exhibits. Orangutans are very strong, so we use “protected contact,” which means that we do not go into the exhibits or enclosures with them. Every morning, while the orangutans are still inside, keepers clean the exhibits and scatter vegetables and greens for the orangutans to find. Since they would spend a large amount of time foraging for food in the wild, spreading the food around allows them to do this in the Zoo as well. Keepers also make sure the exhibit is safe every day. Sometimes we have to make repairs to the wooden climbing structures or ropes, remove fallen branches, or limbs or trim plants. We make sure that the orangutans will be safe and happy.
Since the orangutans sleep in the building every night, we make the indoor enclosures fun and interesting. We hang fire hoses for the orangutans to climb, and there are shelves and hammocks for them to play on. We also give them lots of hay. In the wild, orangutans build a new nest to sleep in every night high up in the trees. They use leaves and other kinds of plant material to build with. So here at the Zoo every night before they go to sleep, the orangutans build their big nests out of hay. They must be pretty comfortable because every morning when we arrive the orangutans are up and ready for another fun day on exhibit!
Keeper I, Primates
Thursday, February 6
The petting zoo is one of the most visited exhibits here at the Zoo, and for good reason! Here, visitors get to interact with a truly stellar set of animals. Being a petting zoo animal is a very rewarding job, but it’s also a tough one. The goats and sheep exhibit such patience and affection for our visitors that it’s easy to see how much they love their ambassador jobs here.
One of the most common questions we receive is how we are able to have such calm, well-mannered animals. The answer is that we use training and positive reinforcement to help make the petting zoo a fun place for our herd to live. It’s a continuous process that begins when members of our herd arrive at the Zoo as babies.
Two summers ago, we had four adorable new arrivals to the petting zoo. Our “Princess Goats” – Ariel, Jasmine, Cinderella and Snow White – had just cleared quarantine. Our first step was to socialize them with people. Keepers and Volunteers spent time with the girls getting them used to people being near them and rewarding them for coming over and accepting attention from us. After they felt comfortable with us, we started introducing them to the herd. We started slowly, introducing just a couple of animals at a time, until we felt that the girls were beginning to bond with the herd. Goat herds consist of a social structure that is made up of varying degrees of dominant animals, so when the “Princesses” were introduced to the entire herd, the other goats needed to make sure the “new girls” knew where they belonged in the pecking order. The ensuing head-butting is still something you may see on occasion today, as social dynamics can change over time and with a change in group composition. The next step was introducing them to our petting zoo yard and our visitors. All four of these girls did well with their new roles, and before we knew it we had a fully integrated goat herd!
The “Princesses” just turned 3 years old. They have grown up into sweet young goats with unique personalities, and they have captured the hearts of their keepers as well as many visitors. Next time you stop by the petting zoo, be sure to ask us to introduce you to the “Princesses” as well as the other goats and sheep. I’m sure you’ll love them as much as we do!
Soon, we will be repeating this socialization process as we expect to introduce some new animals to our herd and our visitors in the coming months. There are exciting times ahead for our petting zoo!
Keeper I, Mammals
Tuesday, February 4
Snow-pocalypse 2014. Snow-tastrope 2014? Whatever you want to call it, we all know that the city was shut down by the snow and ice last week. What happens at Zoo Atlanta when we have inclement weather to that extreme? Well, we have a plan of action. Keepers, as mentioned on Good Morning America, slept at the Zoo. We had an entire Veterinary Team and some members of our Maintenance Team here too! There were employees who walked and carpooled as well. We are a staff that is totally dedicated to the care of our animals. As we give many thank-yous to those who were able to stay or get in, we do not want to forget the staff members that were not so fortunate and ended up either stuck in their cars or on the floor of a grocery store.
Some of the animals were able to have lots of fun in the snow. While most of the birds were locked inside holding staying nice and warm, one pair of them were actually able to go out and have fun. While they had to stay in at night because of the cold temperatures, and even though we were not open, the wattled cranes were outside during the day enjoying the snow!
Wattled cranes stand approximately six feet tall and weigh, on average, about 14 pounds. Their back and wings are ashy gray. The feathered portion of their heads are dark slate gray above the eyes and on the crown, but is otherwise white, including the wattles, which are almost fully feathered and hang down from under the upper throat. Most of their other feathers are black. The skin in front of the eye extending to the base of the beak and tip of the wattles is red, bare of feathers and covered by small round wart-like bumps. Wattled cranes have long bills and black legs and toes. Males and females are almost identical although males tend to be slightly larger.
The wattled crane occurs in 11 sub-Saharan countries in Africa, including an isolated population in the highlands of Ethiopia. More than half of the world's wattled cranes occur in Zambia. The single largest concentration occurs in the Okavango Delta of Botswana. Wattled cranes are thought to have historically ranged over a much larger area, including coastal West Africa.
The snow has melted, and the wattled cranes are still enjoying themselves out on exhibit. Since all of the roads are nice and clear, you can some to Zoo Atlanta and visit our wattled cranes across from Outback Station.
Keeper III, Birds and Program Animals
Tuesday, January 28
With the exception of a few species, such as the Japanese macaque, almost all primates live between the tropics where it is warm year-round. Atlanta lies about 10 degrees north of the tropics, so it gets colder here than our primates can adjust to. Thus far it has been colder than normal; we even have the possibility of snow today.
All our primates have temperature parameters to make sure they don't go out in weather they are not well adjusted for. The size, age and natural history of each species helps us determine when it is or isn't appropriate for our primates to spend the day outside. With the weather being as cold as it has been these past couple of months, our primates have been indoors on more days than usual to stay warm.
When staying inside for the day, we offer all our primates extra enrichment. With our orangutans for example, we give out multiple feedings and multiple enrichment opportunities. We also have the ability to rotate them inside so they can have a different area to stay in each day. We give them things such as large sheets of wrapping paper, scents to investigate and sheets or burlap bags (to those individuals who won't get into trouble with them). Diets can also be given in puzzle feeders where the orangutan has to manipulate an object in order to get to the food item. Many of our enrichment activities also help promote the natural behaviors of the animal receiving them.
When staying indoors for the day, we also spend more time with the animals, interacting with them through training or just spending some one-on-one bonding time to build up relationships and trust. So the next time you’re at Zoo Atlanta on a chilly afternoon and see those large "Animals off Exhibit" signs in the primate yards, know that they have plenty to keep them occupied inside throughout the day.
Keeper II, Primates
Thursday, January 23
Boy has this been a winter! Another week of freezing temperatures and even a good bit of snow flurries has many Zoo animals (and keepers!) hunkering down to stay warm. However, for us working in the World of Reptiles, even amidst blistering winter cold, it’s always summer … but not for all of our scaly and slimy friends.
Despite the cold, many of our endangered Asian box turtles are spending the winter outdoors behind the World of Reptiles. One of them, the critically endangered Pan’s box turtle, is whiling the cold hours away on the bottom of specially-constructed ponds that they spend the entire year in. Two other critically endangered species, McCord’s and flowerback box turtles, are cuddled up in specially-constructed “hibernacula” that give them a stable environment to spend the winter. And if you’ve wandered by the native turtle pond next to the Wildlife Theater, on sunny warmer days you may see our North American wood turtles out soaking up some rays. We didn’t just put them out there for a quick bask; they live there year-round with a group of eastern box turtles, which may also perk up and take a stroll in the sun.
But wait … don’t reptiles need to stay warm? Why on Earth would we let them endure such chilly conditions? For many reptiles and amphibians, a winter cool-down is a necessary part of their natural life history. It is important for their physiological well-being. In many cases, successful breeding will not occur unless males and females have gone through a period of cooling. And in fact, the eggs of some turtles even hatch just before winter, and the babies stay inside the nest all winter long until it warms up again.
For some amphibians, believe it or not, winter is their prime breeding season. Upland and mountain chorus frogs come out on cool rainy nights clicking up a storm to attract a mate. Winter and early spring rains bring out one of our state’s rarest amphibians, the gopher frog. Go a couple hours south of Atlanta on a wet “froggy” night, and you just might hear the males’ long growling snore which can carry for a mile. And salamanders, oh my! They just love the cold! Take a trip up to the mountains of north Georgia and visit a farm pond. Even if the surface is frozen, look closely, and you’ll likely see red-spotted newts cavorting and gallivanting just underneath the ice.
Robert L. Hill
Lead Keeper, Herpetology
Tuesday, January 21
The Bird Department is ever-changing, and winter doesn’t slow us down much when it comes to getting new birds and swapping things around! Our female Argus pheasant, Agnes, has moved from her home across from the milky eagle owls over to the yard next to Cecil the cassowary. Why? Well, because her new mate-to-be, Farkus, just cleared quarantine and moved in next to her! Agnes is a very lucky lady pheasant; male Argus pheasants are very impressive birds, and Farkus has quite the personality.
Like peacocks, male Argus pheasants use gorgeous feather displays and vocalizations to catch the eye of their girl, but they go about the ritual in a very different way. They get their name from the Greek mythological character Argus. Argus is said to have been a guardian with 100 eyes, which were transferred to a peacock’s tail upon his death. Well, the Argus pheasant may have stolen more than a few of them, since the birds are absolutely covered in hundreds of eye-like spots, particularly on the display feathers of the male! When attracting a female, the male Argus pheasant clears out a dance floor, removing debris and making a clearing large enough to put on a show, and then he begins to call. Residents of the Grant Park area may recognize the distinctive whooping call; it can be heard up to a half a mile away!
When the female arrives, that is when the true display begins. In addition to the eye-spots, the male Argus is well-known for his two very distinctive tail feathers. These tail feathers can grow to be over three feet in length. During his display, he will open his wings to show off the multitude of eye spots hidden there, lifts his tail up to tower over both of them, and begins to quiver and dance for her, hiding his head behind his feathers and peeking at her through a tiny gap in the display. Farkus will have to work very hard if he wants to win Agnes over!
The two “lovebirds” can be found near Outback Station, next to the cassowary, so stop by and say “Hi!” next time you’re in the area!
Keeper III, Birds and Program Animals
Thursday, January 16
At the Wildlife Theater show at Zoo Atlanta, we often get questions about why the birds don’t just fly away. If you’ve been to a show, you might notice that there is no mesh covering the theater. In previous blogs, we’ve talked about positive reinforcement training. This is super-important for the Zoo’s day-to-day routine and for ours. Each bird has special needs based on his or her natural history. For example, Lupe the toucan receives a daily diet including papaya, grapes and other fruits she would eat in her native South America. Mandela the milky eagle owl eats primarily rodents, so we prepare “meeses pieces” for shows.
Each bird receives food to complete a behavior. For example, if Savannah the lanner falcon is asked to fly to a perch, we make sure she is rewarded with food for flying to the correct perch. This ensures we are creating a positive experience for her and that she stays in the theater. The majority of birds like Savannah’s days consist of sitting on a perch, pooping, and eating. Why not give her food for completing a behavior? Other types of birds, like parrots, are food motivated and socially motivated. They “feed” off of the audience and the trainers’ energy, but are also rewarded with food. Occasionally, the social interaction is plenty for them, and they prefer to hang out with a trainer than go home for treats.
The most important place for any of the animals to be is safely at home. Several trainers have been working hard on voluntary kenneling with the birds of prey. One day, Nate the red-tailed hawk found a nice spot in a tree. His primary trainer, Briel Ritter, asked him to kennel from the tree, and he did right away. Of course, he got a large amount of food for doing this. Kudos, Briel and Nate! This behavior has been very important for us because it can potentially help us secure a bird if we encounter a situation where a bird does fly away from the theater.
We practice the same behaviors with some of the Wieland Wildlife Home animals. The rats you see in the Amy’s Tree Theater show are kennel-trained, as is Petie the black-tailed prairie dog. Both are very familiar with kenneling, and if they get frightened, are always offered the opportunity to go into the kennel.
Program animals are very different from other animals at Zoo Atlanta in that they interact more closely with the public through programs, shows and encounters, and a lot of the training we do makes a big difference. Come see a show on the weekend to see our birds in action or to ask us more questions. We love to share!
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, January 14
Happy New Year from the Primate Department! The animals in our care enjoyed the holidays and had a special enrichment celebration for Christmas. In particular, the gorillas enjoyed Christmas presents, stockings, and PVC candy canes filled with goodies as part of their celebration. We often use the holidays as an opportunity to stimulate the animals’ environment with themed enrichment. Enrichment is an important part of the daily care and well-being of all of the Zoo’s animals, and holiday enrichment is a favorite among keepers, animals and guests.
Our next holiday enrichment will be on Valentine’s Day: The gorillas will be celebrating on Friday, February 14 at 2:15 p.m. Stop by and see the fun!
Senior Keeper, Primates
Thursday, January 9
The last couple of weeks in the Herpetology Department have been fairly uneventful. Since the animals that we have been expecting eggs from have all laid their clutches of eggs, our breeding updates will slow down for a bit until hatching starts. This doesn’t mean we have stopped bringing new exhibits into the World of Reptiles. As always, we strive to present new and unique species of reptiles and amphibians in natural habitats that showcase each species’ special adaptations. Our newest exhibit is the Allison’s anole, from Cuba, Honduras and Belize. This is a four to seven-inch bright green lizard that looks much like the green anole, except the Allison’s anole male has a beautiful blue color to its head and shoulders.
Keeper III David Brothers has begun construction on a new exhibit for another group of lizards that we received from Toronto Zoo, the green basilisk. This lizard, also called the plumed basilisk, ranges from Honduras south through Panama. Watch for this exhibit to open soon.
In a continuing effort to enrich the lives of our reptiles, David also presented treats to one of the department’s favorite groups of animals, the giant Aldabra tortoises. He offered several pieces of vegetables hung from ropes. Tex, one of the males, took several bites from his absolute favorites, sweet potatoes! We use these different methods of presenting food or changing exhibit furnishings from time to time to allow our animals some of the same diversities they receive from native habitats.
Our Komodo dragon, Rinca, gets several types of enrichment. Sometimes he is offered several small frozen or thawed prey items, such as mice or rats, inside a Boomer Ball. This is a hollow, hard-plastic ball with holes drilled for food items to fall from. This week we offered Rinca a beef rib. We chain the full rib high from his exhibit. This promotes tree climbing, which is a natural behavior of dragons of his size, and simulates scavenging behavior, this specie’s main source of acquiring food.
Be sure to come by the World of Reptiles often to see new animals, exhibits, and enrichment activities for the reptiles.
Keeper III, Herpetology
Tuesday, January 7
The family Canidae includes our well-known domestic dog, but did you know there are two different species of wild dogs that you can visit here at the Zoo? They're easily mistaken for other mammals, but that's probably because they don't look much like dogs at all! They are very interesting and unique animals, which is why they are two of my favorite species to work with.
If you venture over to Complex Carnivores, you may catch a glimpse of our bush dog brothers, Ernesto and Davi, soaking up the sun in their habitat. Bush dogs are small and stout, weighing only 13 to 18 pounds, but what they lack in size they make up for in incredible strength and teamwork. These small carnivores are cooperative hunters, meaning they live in packs and work together to catch prey. In the wild, bush dogs primarily hunt large rodents like agouti, but they will also eat smaller rodents, birds and lizards. Bush dogs living in larger packs are capable of hunting capybara, which are the largest rodents in the world and can weigh up to 145 pounds! Bush dogs are semi-aquatic, just like their preferred prey, so they are almost always found near water. They also have partial webbing in between their toes to help them swim. In the warmer months, Ernesto and Davi can often be found playing in their pool or napping nearby, but because bush dogs are native to the tropical climates of South America, our boys choose to spend most of their time in their heated, indoor den space during the winter. Even if you can't see them, listen closely! Bush dogs are a very vocal species so it's not uncommon to hear them "talking" to each other, usually in the form of high-pitched whines and barks.
Just up the hill in Traders' Alley, you will find our tanuki, which are native to eastern Asia. Tanuki are also called raccoon dogs thanks to their uncanny resemblance to raccoons, even though they are not related to them. Like raccoons, tanuki have dark facial markings and long, bushy tails. They are nocturnal, meaning they are most active at night. Tanuki can weigh anywhere from 8 to 22 pounds, making them similar in size to their bush dog cousins, but they're not nearly as strong. Tanuki are much more omnivorous than bush dogs, which means they eat both plant material (like nuts, seeds and berries) and animals (like bugs, small mammals, amphibians and fish). During the fall our tanuki brothers, Loki and Thor, had increased appetites and grew thick fur coats, which are both adaptations to living in regions with very cold climates. Another cool adaptation that tanuki have for surviving cold temperatures is that they’re the only canid species that hibernates! Tanuki aren't considered "true hibernators,” but they do experience torpor, which is a significant reduction in metabolism and, as a result, a decrease in activity. Our brisk winters in Atlanta aren't quite cold enough for Loki and Thor to go into full-blown torpor, but they are typically less active during this time of year. Being a cold-tolerant species means that Loki and Thor are usually on exhibit, even on the coldest of days. Just because they're a little sleepier right now doesn't mean that's the only thing they're up to, though. If you stop by in the afternoon, you may be lucky enough to see them playing together!
Next time you visit the Zoo, be sure to stop and take a peek at our dogs. You never know what these boys will be doing!
Keeper I, Mammals
Friday, January 3
As everyone is discarding their Christmas trees for the season, the primates at the Zoo are starting to enjoy theirs! Every year we receive Christmas trees that didn’t sell from the tree farms, and the primates get to play with and sometimes eat them after the holidays. They’re great for enriching the animals! This year we received a huge donation of trees from North Star Christmas Tree Farm and a local Boy Scout troop. All of the Zoo animals are able to enjoy the trees in various ways, and these will last into February.
We do get many requests from people wanting to donate their personal trees, and while we appreciate you thinking of the animals, we can only accept new, unused trees that have not been in homes. Visit the Zoo instead, and look for trees in the animal habitats!
Senior Keeper, Primates
Thursday, January 2
As they sing in The Lion King: “It’s the ciiiirrrcle of life…” For the Zoo Atlanta carnivore area of the Mammals Department, the year 2013 certainly did cover that circle of life. Sadly, we had to face one of the hardest parts of our job twice. In spring, we lost two of our elderly cats, Farasi the African lion and Moby the clouded leopard. Luckily for us, 2013 ended on a much happier feline note, as we observed two different sets of young cats navigating through new stages of their lives.
As most of you know, our juvenile Sumatran tigers, male Sanjiv and female Sohni, turned 2 in July. They have now been separated from their mother, Chelsea, for a year, as she determined that she was done raising them last Thanksgiving. The cubs were very vocal at first but were certainly old enough to fend for themselves and adjusted quickly. Eventually Chelsea was able to start going out into the former clouded leopard exhibit, and the cubs were enjoying spending the day together in the tiger exhibit. Because the juveniles are male and a female we did begin to separate them overnight early in the year to prevent any possible breeding, especially since no keepers were here to observe them. Things were going great and we were not seeing the beginnings of any breeding behavior, so Sanjiv and Sohni continued to spend the day together on exhibit. All of that changed, however, in the middle of November. Keepers began to see some preliminary interest in breeding (e.g., attempted mounting and biting of the scruff by the male and more tolerance of those behaviors by the female). That meant we had to separate Sohni and Sanjiv for good. Anyone who was here for those first few days could hear how displeased they were, as Sanjiv and Sohni continuously called for one another, vocalizing quite loudly! A month and a half later, the two tigers have calmed down for the most part and have accepted this new phase of their lives. They still do happily chuff at one another whenever they see each other and love to cheek-rub against each other through the mesh!
A few days after Sohni and Sanjiv parted ways, we had some very special deliveries in the lion barn. Kiki, our 9-year-old lioness, had given birth to her second litter of cubs on November 19, and this time there were four babies! Kiki was a great and protective mother to her first litter of three male cubs, and she has proven that she will be just as great with this litter. These new cubs are getting bigger and feistier every day, and they are keeping Kiki very busy. They were born in a wooden nest box and remained there for a couple of weeks before getting more mobile and starting to explore. They have been living side-by-side with their father, Kamau, for several weeks now in preparation for introductions with him. They seem to enjoy watching him when they aren’t nursing, sleeping, or wrestling with Kiki or each other. And he likes to watch them too. The cubs are now running, albeit clumsily, all over and exploring every part of their dens. They are eating well and have quite round little bellies to show for it!
As we move through the winter and into spring, our young cats will all encounter even more changes. As part of the captive breeding program of the Species Survival Plan (SSP), we expect to say goodbye to Sanjiv and Sohni as they are moved to new facilities to eventually participate in the breeding program themselves. Though it will be sad to see them go (I might stow away in the vehicle moving Sohni), we know that this is yet one more stage of growing up that they must encounter in order to continue as ambassadors for their species. At least we will have the pleasure of watching the lion cubs grow up, and we’ll have the added bonus of being able to see them interact with Kamau once they are introduced to him. They will be on exhibit sometime later this winter, depending on their vaccination schedule and the weather, so keep an eye out for information on when you can catch a glimpse. I for one can’t wait to watch them navigate through the circle of life!
Keeper II, Mammals
Tuesday, December 31
As always, the Herpetology Department is ever changing, bringing in new animals and sending out animals to other zoos and breeding facilities. One of our former keepers, Luke Wyrwich, now with the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA), came by last week to pick up a few turtles Zoo Atlanta is donating to the ongoing breeding projects at the breeding facility in Cross, S.C. We sent one flowerback box turtle and six juvenile McCord’s box turtles to join the reproductive population at the facility. The TSA is a group that Zoo Atlanta works with on conservation and captive breeding projects for many rare and endangered species of turtles and tortoises.
We’ve also received a few new animals, including Meller’s chameleons and bearded dragons. We are working on a new exhibit for the Meller’s chameleons and should have one on exhibit soon. This is one of the largest species of chameleons and is a native of eastern Africa: Tanzania, Malawi and Mozambique. Watch for the Meller’s chameleon to come on display within the next few weeks.
We recently opened an exhibit that has been under construction in the World of Reptiles for the past few weeks that houses our caiman lizards. Our pair of caiman lizards has now moved into their new exhibit, which has plenty of swimming space for this semi-aquatic lizard. We also moved one of our mata mata turtles into the exhibit with the caiman lizards. This is the first return of one of our large mata matas on exhibit in over two years. We have always kept some of the offspring from our large adult pair of turtles on exhibit, but the adults have been housed off-exhibit to allow them the best breeding opportunity.
We also have our giant day gecko exhibit up and running now. We have moved our male off exhibit to give our two females some time without him. This species of arboreal lizard has very fragile skin that easily tears during regular breeding activity and grows back with no harm coming to the animals.
Off exhibit we are still watching for eggs from a couple of our Guatemalan beaded lizards, a critically endangered venomous lizard species from the Motagua Valley of Guatemala. Last week, had five eggs laid by one of the girls on egg-watch! Watch for updates on new hatchlings in 2014.
Keeper III, Herpetology
Thursday, December 26
It seems the program animals were good this year! Santa came to visit with gifts for enrichment. Each species decided to use gifts differently. Cleopatra and Ferret Bueller the domestic ferrets chose to dig into their stockings, as there were some ferret treats awaiting their curiosity. Some of the reptiles, like Saphira the bearded dragon, decided to use their boxes to get closer to the heat. Christmas Day was a cold one ... brrr! Other reptiles used their gifts to snuggle up nice and cozy for the night. Some of the program rodents, including Max the prehensile-tailed porcupine and Petie the black-tailed prairie dog, decided to chew through their gift boxes to get to the treats inside. Santa was not insulted. He knows they are rodents and that’s their way of thanking him for passing through Zoo Atlanta on his way back to the North Pole. All of us here in the Wieland Wildlife Home and the Wildlife Theater were very thankful and enjoyed a nice holiday meal to top it all off. Among the animals’ favorite dishes were fruits and veggies, seed mix and even bugs! Yum! Hey ... to each his own. Happy holidays, everyone.
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, December 24
You didn't think humans were the only ones who celebrated the holidays, did you? The animals at Zoo Atlanta enjoy this season as well. On December 21, we held our annual Holiday Enrichment Day. This is a time when keepers, Docents and Volunteers work together to give the animals at the Zoo a holiday celebration of their own.
From wrapped presents for the pandas to cardboard cutouts of Christmas trees and candy canes that have peanut butter on them for the gorillas, to reindeer made out of boxes and cardboard tubes for the lions and tigers, there was something for everyone. Working with the gorillas and orangutans myself, I'm a bit biased and enjoyed watching our adult bachelor group of gorillas open up stockings filled with popcorn and grapes. Dumadi and Bernas, two of our orangutans, were also having a great time with the boxes from their wrapped presents (eventually using them as umbrellas when it started to rain). All of the animals I'm sure enjoyed the extra enrichment they received.
Our Holiday Enrichment Day is just one of the days that we celebrate with the animals by offering them seasonal enrichment items. We have similar events on Halloween, Valentine's Day and Easter when we go all out and give them festive enrichment items that they don't receive on a normal basis. These enrichment days would not be possible without the efforts of our Enrichment Team.
The Zoo Atlanta Enrichment Team is a group of Docents and Volunteers that dedicate their time and skills to build enrichment for our animals. Twice a month they come in and build items such as the boxes and paper chains you see at these enrichment days. They also help keepers by creating enrichment that we use on a daily basis. Items such as bamboo shakers and Kong toys stuffed with tasty treats are a couple of the things our Enrichment Team regularly builds for us. Without the help of the Enrichment Team, we wouldn't be able to provide nearly as much enrichment for our animals as we do right now, and believe me, they get a lot. So thanks, Enrichment Team, for all your hard work this year.
Hope everyone has a safe and happy holiday.
Keeper II, Primates
Tuesday, December 17
Many years ago we had a king vulture named Ros who resided here at Zoo Atlanta. Early on in life she had a career at the Wildlife Theater. True to vulture form, when Ros was ready, she let her keepers know that she wanted to end her show career to be out on exhibit. She was a wonderful exhibit bird who garnered much attention from staff and guests alike. She made special relationships with keepers, the Curator of Birds, and even a vet or two!
After careful consideration we played matchmaker for Ros and found her a suitable male, Ron. He was a beautiful bird and, by all accounts from her former keepers, a match for Ros’s often tough personality. Instead of being totally smitten, Ros seemed more agitated by Ron’s presence. Then, when we thought that all hope was lost, another zoo let us know that they had a wonderful new space for Ros. With heavy hearts and fond farewells, we sent Ros down to her new zoo.
Ron’s passing this year left a huge hole in our hearts as well as a habitat to fill. As luck would have it, Ros was able to come back to Zoo Atlanta! And she wasn’t coming alone. Ros had paired up with a young male! Ros and her mate, Marcellus, will be entering their new exhibit by Christmas. If temperatures are warm enough, you will be able to see them on exhibit by New Year’s! Male and female king vultures look the same. However, you will be able to easily tell Ros and Marcellus apart because he still has his spotted juvenile feathers.
King vultures can be found in Central and South America. They are most closely related to condors. They are very distinct-looking birds with light, peachy-colored wings with black tips, a stark white underbelly, and a very colorful head. The reason for the colored head skin is unknown, as both sexes look alike. On average, king vultures are 30 inches tall, weigh 6 to 10 pounds, and have a wing span of 5 to 6 feet.
The female lays a single egg in the hollow of a large tree. Both sexes incubate the egg, which hatches after 38 days. Pairs are monogamous and may stay together for many years. King vultures have been reported to live over 40 years. Chicks take five years to develop full adult plumage.
Although listed as common, king vultures are declining in numbers, primarily due to habitat loss. Vultures are a very important part of the environment because they keep the environment clean by eating carrion, or dead or decaying animal matter.
Keeper III, Birds and Program Animals
Tuesday, December 10
Here at the Wildlife Theater, training is a priority every single day. Whether it's maintaining an old behavior, introducing a new show pattern, or even acclimating fresh faces to new surroundings, it is necessary to carve out time in the day for training. Along with every other department in the Zoo, we train practical husbandry behaviors. These include things like a station behavior for medication application, or even a calm behavior to allow keepers and/or vet staff to check for healthy body condition. The theater birds are also trained for a different and important reason. They are wonderful animal ambassadors that interact with the public in a remarkably unique way: the free-flighted bird show.
We keepers strive to provide an educational message while functioning alongside our most-valued coworkers, the animals themselves. We have the opportunity to implement training that showcases the birds' natural behaviors and individual abilities, as well as entertain our guests. But more importantly, we enjoy educating guests through interactive and (we hope!) exciting, up-close encounters.
When a new bird arrives at the theater, we must first help get him or her acclimated to the new surroundings, birds and keepers. This process can be quite brief or very lengthy, depending on the individual bird. Factors like natural history, age, species-specific behavior, and keeper training all come into play. Once settled, the bird and trainers continue building upon the newly-established relationship. Finally, the training and capturing of behaviors can begin.
One of our newest members to the Wildlife Theater is Lupe, a young Toco toucan. She has just recently moved into the beginning stages of show training. While we're not sure what the completed routine or show behavior will be, we can start with some basic training building blocks. Daily, we make time to work on her kenneling behavior. You might think getting an animal to choose to enter a kennel is a simple task. Rarely is this the case! Think of all of the scary components of a kennel: the small hole to crawl through, the dark interior, a shiny metal door (that swings!), a squeaky hinge … whew! That's exhausting just thinking about it! However, once an animal overcomes all of these obstacles, the kennel usually becomes a very welcoming, well-known, safe place. Kennel training is extremely useful, not only for transport, but also for providing a home away from home. If the animal finds itself in a new environment or a strange situation (maybe seeing an audience for the first time), it can easily have access to a kennel for comfort and be transported back to his/her enclosure.
Along with Lupe's kennel training, we have begun asking her to fly on cue. Since she picked up on flying to a trainer's arm fairly quickly, we have added a second trainer to the sessions. The first trainer calls Lupe to her arm, then the second trainer calls her to the arm from there. This behavior has creatively been dubbed an "A to B flight." These flights can then be transferred to stage, asking her to fly to different locations or trainers. Training is a long and ongoing process that has great benefits, both physically and psychologically, for both animal and trainer.
Keep your eyes peeled for Lupe's on-stage debut in summer 2014. We can't wait to show off her amazing flights, beautiful coloration and unique natural history. Until then, feel free to stop by the Wildlife Theater show (currently Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., weather permitting) and ask about Lupe's progress! Hope to see you soon!
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, December 10
We’ve had a real baby boom in the Mammal Department recently! This is great, and I love talking about how our new babies are doing, but what are the rest of our animal friends doing at the Zoo? They aren’t getting bogged down by baby fever, that’s for sure.
For example, remember our lesser kudus, Watson and Sherlock? Well, they’re learning all sorts of new things, including how to participate in voluntary blood draws. The keepers are so close to collecting blood from one of the kudus that they had Dr. Sam come up to the barn to practice. Considering how shy these two were when they arrived, this is quite an accomplishment.
And don’t forget about Logan the fossa. He’s still doing his thing as well and is learning a new behavior that may end up being part of a training demonstration. I’m currently working with Logan to teach him how to target to a laser pointer. It’s slow going right now, but I have faith in him. Soon he’ll be targeting to the laser pointer dot, leaping about his exhibit.
And finally, our kangaroos down at Outback Station are doing some learning of their own. Several months ago we acquired a new young female kangaroo, Adeline, and introduced her to the mob. Initially Adeline seemed unsure of her new roommates, and the rest of the kangaroos were skeptical that they needed a new mob member. But that all changed very quickly, and Adeline was soon welcomed into the ‘roo family. So sweet!
And just in case you’re wondering about some of the babies in our department, they’re doing great, too. Jabari the rhino calf weighs over 400 pounds, and the lion cubs are getting mobile. And the giant panda cubs are cute and getting cuter. Come see us at the Zoo soon before all of the babies are grown up!
Megan Wilson, PhD
Assistant Curator of Mammals
Thursday, December 5
Given the technological boom that has occurred in recent years, we zookeepers have had to keep up. Some of the avenues the Zoo utilizes are Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and Instagram to keep everyone informed. Recently, a Program Animal Keepers participated in Google+ Hangouts On Air with a few school groups and a homeschooler to invite them into the Zoo Atlanta world no matter where they are.
One of the Hangouts occurred during the Halloween season, and the theme was Myths and Misconceptions. Keepers Christina, Caroline and I featured a few of our “Halloweeny” animals as we tackled some popular myths such as the notion that tarantulas are deadly. Not true. A tarantula’s venom is meant to kill its prey, which are creatures much smaller than humans.
Caroline also participated in a recent Hangout about U.S. native species – her favorite animals. We always enjoy hearing comments and answering questions from students and teachers and will continue to reach out to those interested in learning about what we do and about animals and their importance to our environment.
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, December 3
One of the number one questions I get from the public during Keeper Talks is, “What does your day consist of?” This is a great question! A typical day as a primate keeper here at Zoo Atlanta starts at 7 a.m. The first thing we do when we arrive is safety-check the areas. This consists of checking the areas where the animals stay during the night, checking on everyone, and feeding them some breakfast. Almost all of the primates in our collection, except the tamarins, get an item in the morning called a biscuit. Biscuits are very similar to a piece of dry dog or cat food; the only difference is that this item is made specifically for a primate. Just like us, some of the primates may be on medication. Many of the medications that they are on are very similar to what humans might be on. In the morning we prepare any medications for them. Most of them also receive them in a piece of banana.
Next, we typically set up the habitats and scatter their veggies and greens for them to forage for throughout the day. While the animals are outside, we keepers are inside cleaning their night areas. This involves a lot of sweeping, scrubbing, hosing, and more scrubbing. Zookeeping is a very physical job. It’s the perfect morning workout! Once this is completed, we set up these areas for them to come into later in the day by adding hay and any other enrichment items for them to use. These items may be shredded paper, large plastic playground toys, cardboard boxes, browse or blankets. Typically cleaning takes all morning, so once that is completed we head to lunch.
After lunch, we chop diets for the next day and weigh out each animal’s biscuits. During this time we sometimes do public feedings and Keeper Talks with some of the animals; these may include the fruit portion of their diet for the day. The afternoons are also used to work on projects, such as making new enrichment, cutting browse, filling out animal record logs, and training. One of my most favorite interactions with the animals is training. We use positive reinforcement with all of our animals so that they can participate in their own care. Training provides keepers with an opportunity to get an up-close look at the animals. Many of the primates are able to present body parts, open their mouths, stand on a scale voluntarily to obtain a weight, voluntarily have their blood drawn, and allow keepers to obtain cardiac images or abdominal ultrasounds.
Later in the afternoon we bring in our animals for the day, right as the Zoo is closing. During this time we are shifting them into their night areas. Once inside, they receive more biscuits. We also prepare medication again for those animals who may need it. Once everyone is fed, we secure the area and lock it up for the night … to do it all again tomorrow!
I have worked with many other types of animals, but to me being a primate keeper is by far the best! As a zookeeper, you never know what is going to happen in your day. An animal may get sick, something may break, a new baby may be born. All of these things can throw you a curve ball, and you must be adaptable as you go. You have to because we have animals who are depending on us to care for them 365 days of the year!
Coming to work each day is rewarding for me, and as you can see, it’s not a typical job that most people have. I wouldn’t give it up for anything!
Keeper III, Primates
Thursday, November 28
We have had some wonderful things happening in the World of Reptiles. There have been several new species released from quarantine, including giant day geckos, one male and two females. They have an amazing adaptation that allows them to climb up walls as easily as walking on the ground. You can see our geckos climbing up bamboo and other plants. Watch for the females to lay eggs. This species usually lays two hard-shelled eggs at the base of plants or even inside holes of broken pieces of bamboo. We have a couple of pieces of bamboo split to allow the geckos to lay eggs while allowing our guests to view the process of incubating and hatching these little geckos. We also have another new lizard species coming soon: the large and impressive Meller’s chameleon. This is one of the largest species of chameleons, reaching up to 24 inches in total length. They have beautiful green bodies with yellow markings, and they have a unique look with a single nasal appendage and two large flaps on the backs of their heads; males raise these appendages in defensive displays toward other male chameleons.
We’ve had some breeding successes we’re particularly proud of. Two more McCord’s box turtles have hatched. This is one of the rarest species of turtle in the world, and Zoo Atlanta staff has been responsible for breeding many animals to help raise zoological populations. We work with the Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) on many breeding projects of rare species. We’ve also had a female impressed tortoise lay 20 eggs. These animals were recommended to breed by their Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) studbook keeper, Luke Wyrwich, formerly a Zoo Atlanta keeper and now the Lead Keeper of TSA’s Breeding Center. Luke helped breed our impressed tortoises while he worked with us and continues to lend his expertise for the conservation of this species.
We also had another one of our Guatemalan beaded lizards lay eggs. This is the second female to lay eggs recently, and we are still waiting for another female to lay eggs soon. Curator of Herpetology Dr. Brad Lock will actually be running the AZA studbook for this extremely rare species of venomous lizard. Dr. Lock and Zoo Atlanta work with Zootropic and Disney World’s Conservation Fund to help conservation efforts for this lizard through Project Heloderma.
We have had a few animals leave the collection recently also. One sad passing was one of our male Aruba Island rattlesnakes. He hatched at Zoo Atlanta in 1996 and after several moves to other zoos, he returned to our facility as recommended by the AZA Species Survival Plan (SSP). This is a fairly short-lived species but one of my top five favorite rattlesnakes. We also have a couple of animals leave the collection in positive ways, on breeding programs. We sent one of our male Panamanian golden frogs to Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Fla. This gorgeous little frog is actually extinct in the wild, but captive breeding groups are doing well. This male is going to join the breeding project that is ongoing at several zoos around North America. We also sent one of our male Sulawesi forest turtles out for a breeding project.
Finally, be sure to come see the new caiman lizard habitat opening in the World of Reptiles in the next couple of weeks, followed by the debut of the Meller’s chameleons.
Keeper III, Herpetology
Tuesday, November 26
With Thanksgiving just days away (where did this year go?), the Birds and Program Animals Department has been thinking about what they are thankful for. And there is a lot! Not only do we have very unique and interesting jobs, we are also fortunate enough to be working for such a top-notch facility.
The Birds and Program Animals Department is very thankful for each other, first and foremost. We have such a great department, and that makes coming to work a joy! We have people from all over the country ranging in ages from their early 20s to the … well, older than 20s. In this department, we have keepers that have been here for a decade and ones who just joined the team in May of this year. We have worked in institutions from California to Florida and all sorts of places in between. Our Curator traveled across the pond – he’s a Brit – and manages the Birds and Program Animals Department here at Zoo Atlanta.
It goes without saying that we are thankful for the diverse collection of animals that we are fortunate enough to work with. It shouldn’t go without saying that we are also thankful for the institution of Zoo Atlanta for giving us so many amazing opportunities. The Birds and Program Animals Department is full of professionals, using their college degrees, who have a thirst for knowledge and for contributing to the scientific community. In no better way is that illustrated than by our involvement with in situ conservation programs, keeper exchanges and professional conferences. In fact, due to support from Zoo Atlanta and from a donor, almost all of the keepers in our department were able to travel to participate in one or more of these activities this year!
As the nights get colder and the smell of the holidays is looming in the air, please join us at Zoo Atlanta and think about all of the wonders of the world that there are to be thankful for during this holiday season. It may be a baby panda or two, or a cute rhino baby, or maybe it’s the smiling faces of your family spending quality time together learning and having fun. Whatever you are thankful for, the Birds and Program Animals Department would like to wish you a happy, healthy and safe holiday season!
Keeper III, Birds and Program Animals
Thursday, November 21
There’s been a lengthy move in process at the Zoo! This “length,” though, has to do with size and not the span of the trip. Glenda, our female giraffe, moved to a new home at the Riverbanks Zoo in South Carolina today. In exchange, we’re accepting three younger males from them. These shipments have their challenges as you can imagine, as Glenda is around 14.5 feet tall. Probably the most challenging part is trying to get an animal of that size safely shifted onto an appropriately-sized truck. You’re not going to move a 2,000-pound animal if it doesn’t want to move. I’m sure our friends at Riverbanks will have their own challenges, as they will have loaded tree giraffes.
The new males will join our male, Abu. What this means for Zoo Atlanta is that we’ll have four males exhibited together, forming a small bachelor herd. Bachelor herds of giraffes are not that common in zoos, so this is a new experience for us. This offers a unique opportunity to study the behavior of a new bachelor group being formed, involving males of different ages. When we were looking into forming this group, a literature search for information did not present us with any insight on this subject. So we’ll be collecting behavioral data on how these males interact with each other over the next year.
During the new males’ routine 30-day quarantine period, we’ll be assessing their behavior while they are near each other, having our male Abu separate from the three boys. If they look like they are comfortable with each other, this will present us with the opportunity to introduce them together before they go onto exhibit. There will be an adjustment period for these boys to get used to our exhibit as well as the other animals that are exhibited with the giraffe. Thanks in advance for your patience, since we won’t have giraffes on exhibit during this 30-day period.
Hopefully this winter will be warm enough for all to go outside and enjoy having the room to roam. With any luck, by early spring, they will have had plenty of time to adjust to the exhibit, allowing our Zoo guests to meet the news giraffes at the feeding platform.
Lead Keeper, Hoofstock
Tuesday, November 19
Have you ever tried training seven animals at once? This is a challenge I encounter every time I weigh our family group of golden lion tamarins.
In order to monitor their health, we regularly weigh all the primates to make sure they are at a healthy weight. For Theo's group of tamarins, this is a little more challenging because the group doesn't like being separated from each other. Therefore, in order to make the weighing as positive as possible, I obtain weights on the entire group at once.
First, I enter the enclosure with the scale and the tamarins’ favorite treats: large mealworms and pieces of banana. There is a shelf built into the enclosure where I place the scale that is close to the branches where the tamarins regularly climb around. Next, I give the verbal cue "scale," and see who is first to participate.
Tamarins are known to be skittish around new things, and even though I bring the scale on exhibit at least once a week, every time they see the scale, the group vocalizes and runs away. Robin (the dominant female) or Tiete (the oldest son) are usually the calmest around new stimuli and are also usually the first to sit on the scale. Once they sit on the scale completely, they receive a treat. Theo (the dominant male) seems to be more focused on protecting his family and first has to make sure the group is fine. Afterwards, he will approach the scale, run away, and then come back and sit on the scale for his weight. In the midst of the adults, the youngsters like to run in and see what is happening. They have become very comfortable with the scale, and I can usually obtain their weight every session. Last session, this proved problematic because Pele and Leao (juveniles born in March 2013) decided they enjoyed the scale too much and would not leave it. Therefore, when Eva (oldest daughter) approached the scale, she couldn't get on by herself; one of the juveniles was always on with her. To help with this issue, I am also training the tamarins to sit on a spot to the right of the scale so they can "station" there while another animal is on the scale. The youngest tamarin (born July 2013) is still too young and shy to approach the scale by himself, but soon he will be as adventuresome as his older siblings, and we will obtain frequent weights on him.
Our goal is to obtain monthly weights on all the tamarins, but because of the group dynamics of Theo's group, I train them to sit on the scale at least once a week. Therefore, by the end of the month, we have usually obtained at least one weight on all the members of the group.
Keeper III, Primates
Thursday, November 14
Happy hatch day, Penny! The Wieland Wildlife Home’s Honduran milk snake celebrated her 23rd hatch day (her equivalent of a birthday) today! Honduran milk snakes can be found in Central America and live primarily in the rainforest. Milk snakes are a species of king snake, which are one of the most widespread types of snakes in the United States, and are known for their ability to consume venomous snakes! Their bright color patterns resemble that of the venomous coral snake, which helps deter predators and signal danger. When Honduran milk snakes reach sexual maturity at around 3 years of age, females can lay from three to 24 eggs. The hatchlings can be between eight and 10 inches long!
Snakes use their tongue to smell, so when Penny and other Honduran milk snakes get hungry, they use their forked tongues to help direct them to their prey. They are not a venomous species of snake, so once they have found a meal, they will constrict or squeeze the animal really tightly and then will swallow it whole.
Penny is one of our animal ambassadors, so she is taken out on public programs to help educate Zoo guests on the importance of snakes and other animals in the environment. A lot of people don’t like the thought of snakes hanging out in their backyards, but snakes like Penny help to manage and control the vast rodent population. So if you see a snake out in your backyard, the best thing to do is to just admire the beautiful animal and let it do the job it’s there to do!
Keep an eye out for Penny and other amazing animals at an Amy’s Tree show on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m.!
Melanie Ennis and Dawn Sicchitano
Interns, Program Animals
Tuesday, November 12
Zoo Atlanta is home to two species of lemurs, ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) and black-and-white-ruffed lemurs (Varecia variegata variegata). In the wild, lemurs are found only in Madagascar; because of this, they are sometimes referred to as the Malagasy primates. If you have ever stopped by The Living Treehouse, you may have seen them vertically clinging and leaping their way around their habitat.
When it comes to primates, lemurs have some pretty interesting morphological features. For starters, they have what’s called a rhinarium, or wet-nose, which helps with their very keen sense of smell. The ring-tailed lemurs have scent glands on their wrists, and all lemur species have scent glands under their tails. The scents enable the lemurs to identify groups and specific individuals, and they are especially important during their very short mating season.
Lemurs also have a tooth comb that is made up of their lower incisors and canines. Unlike our teeth, which are situated up and down, the dental comb faces forward, and it is a useful tool for both grooming and feeding. Strangely enough, the lemur also features a sublingual “under-tongue” that is thought to remove debris from the tooth comb. This small second tongue does not have taste buds and is a feature unique to the order, meaning monkeys and apes do not share this specific “toothbrush” trait.
If you’ve ever heard a loud ruckus emanating from The Living Treehouse, you’re probably hearing the lemurs vocalizing with one another. Like scent, auditory communication is very important to the lemurs, so the next time you’re at the Zoo, listen for these contact calls. Typically, if one lemur gets going, the rest will soon join in on the fun. In terms of behavior, lemurs are a bit different from the Zoo’s other primates in that the females are most often dominant. They are diurnal (meaning they are active both day and night), and the males and females are very close in appearance. Lemurs are endangered, so it’s very important that we study these species not only for conservation purposes, but also for insights on primate evolution.
As an intern who’s gotten the opportunity to train as a seasonal keeper, I’m so happy to have had the opportunity to work with such a wide variety of primate species. Whether lemurs, gorillas, or orangutans, I can’t help but notice the similarities between us and our closest animal relatives. The next time you’re at the Zoo, definitely stop by our fantastic primate exhibits. You will not be disappointed!
Seasonal Primate Keeper
Thursday, November 7
Typically when most folks think of the word “amphibian,” they think of either big bullfrogs “jug’o rumming” the night away on steamy summer evenings in the South or brilliantly-colored dart frogs bounding along unknown trails of dark tropical rainforests. It’s easy to see why – there are over 5,000 species of frog, after all! However, unless you’re of a certain ilk, you don’t often think “salamander.” While we maintain a wonderful array of native and tropical frog species here at Zoo Atlanta, we also have a diverse group of native U.S. species of salamanders. Some of these fascinating critters can be seen on exhibit in the World of Reptiles. Some, like the hellbender (also known variously as Snot Otter, Mollyhugger, and Grumpus), may be hard to see at times, but are incredible marvels that call the north Georgia mountains home (along with other parts of the eastern United States). Regarded as North America’s largest amphibian, these salamanders can reach lengths over two feet, although the three we currently have on exhibit top out at a “modest” 12 inches.
If you look closely among the rocks of their stream exhibit, you may notice some weird things about these giant salamanders. For one, their skin looks very wrinkly (which gives them another fun local name … the Lasagna Lizard). There is a reason behind those wrinkles! Hellbenders use the increased skin surface those wrinkles provide to help them absorb more oxygen. The waters they occupy in the streams of north Georgia are very cool (dip a toe before jumping in, trust me!) and highly oxygenated. Also, you’ll notice that they are pretty flat, especially their heads. That helps these slippery creatures not only squeeze under large rocks, but also allows them to walk against the quick flow of the streams they live in by creating very little drag.
Many legends surround these harmless “river monsters,” but they are completely benign members of the mountain ecosystem. Their wild diet includes crayfish, other underwater invertebrates, tiny fish and the odd smaller salamander. Our hellbenders at the Zoo enjoy fish, crayfish, and earthworms.
Hellbenders are among our most imperiled amphibians. In fact, the ones you see on exhibit at the Zoo were captive-raised in an effort by biologists from the state of New York and the Buffalo Zoo to re-introduce populations into parts of that state where they were once plentiful. We hope their efforts pay off and that you enjoy visiting these amphibian ambassadors at Zoo Atlanta!
Lead Keeper, Herpetology
Tuesday, November 5
Even in the colder months of the year, there are plenty of awesome animals to see and things to do here at Zoo Atlanta. As the weather starts cooling down, some of our animals start warming up. The laughing kookaburras (Dacelo novaguineae) at Outback Station are one of those species. They like cooler temperatures!
Laughing kookaburras can be found in eastern and southern Australia in cleared farmland, cities and suburban areas. They especially like wooded areas that are wet and cold. These birds are not migratory, so they will live in the same territory and will defend that area all year long. Laughing kookaburras can generally live 20 to 25 years and have a varied diet that includes snakes, lizards, insects, frogs and rodents.
Kookaburras weigh approximately one pound and are about 45 centimeters long. They have square-shaped heads and brown cheek patches on their faces. They are brown with grayish white patches on the undersides of their bodies and dark bands on their tails. They have a beautiful blue band of feathers on both of their wings. Male and female laughing kookaburras look almost identical.
Kookaburras have a unique song that is commonly compared to a full, boisterous human laugh. The song's cycle starts with a low chuckle “ooo” and then goes into a high “ha ha ha” and then back into a low chuckle. It is a communal (shared with neighbors) laugh and can usually be heard in the early morning and early evening. It is a yearlong song, especially present during the few months before the breeding season. Kookaburras have six distinctive calls: chuckle, chuck, squawk, soft squawk, cackle and kooaa. These are used in territorial, tense or excited behaviors and are used to communicate information only to family members, not to neighbors. The call of the kookaburra is used almost universally as a generic jungle sound in movies. Many times this is a gross misrepresentation, as kookaburras are not found in worldwide jungle habitats.
These birds are not globally threatened and are common over most of their range. They have benefited from human settlement. Kookaburras belong to the kingfisher family, which has 92 different species, 11 of which are threatened, and two subspecies are extinct (since 1600).
Come visit our male and female laughing kookaburras, Dundee and Sydney, at Outback Station right next to the petting zoo. You can also see Aussie, our other kookaburra, flying in Wildlife Theater shows on Saturdays and Sundays.
Keeper III, Birds and Program Animals
Thursday, October 31
Well, as of this post, our little bouncing baby boy rhino calf will be 2.5 months old! He's growing in leaps and bounds! We were first able to weigh him on September 13 (almost a month after his birth since it's kinda hard to separate a calf from a protective mother!) at 190 pounds! Boy, were we shocked that he was so stout so quickly! We knew he was a studly boy, thick and healthy, but we had no clue that he was almost 200 pounds at less than a month old!
We've been able to get weights on him continuously in a third smaller stall in the rhino barn after he became comfortable with having us in the same space with him, as well as separated from his mom while still being able to see her. We have also been able to do a few blood draws with Dr. Sam Rivera, one of our vets, through an ear vein.
However, since he has become a “big” rhino, we are no longer able to go into the stall with him, so this will challenge us on getting blood work and weights on him. But he's a good boy, so our last weight on October 28 showed that he weighed 338 pounds! He still loves getting scratches and attention and will come up to the bars in the barn to greet us in the morning. It's wonderful getting to watch our little boy grow!
Keeper II, Mammals
Tuesday, October 29
Halloween, as well as the whole month of October, is thought of as the time to have fun with the scarier things in life. It turns out that humans are not the only species that think along these lines. Our animals like to give their keepers a scare from time to time as well.
In the Bird Department, we have had so many adorable chicks hatch this month that it is heartwarming, but every one of these chicks have given their keepers small heart attacks as they decide to make their debuts. For example, our Taveta weaver babies decided to fledge on a night when a huge thunderstorm hit Atlanta. A few weeks later, our buffalo weaver chicks decided to hatch on the coldest night of the year to date. Trust me when I tell you that these events have put multiple grey hairs on mine as well as my fellow keeper’s heads. But it is all forgiven in the end to see these beautiful babies flourish.
Keeper I, Birds and Program Animals
Thursday, October 24
In view of Halloween season, some of the animals will also be receiving Halloween enrichment. Keep your eyes peeled for that holiday enrichment as you walk around the Zoo, especially as we approach October 31. For now, this coming Saturday and Sunday, October 26 and 27, are the last days for Boo at the Zoo. Fun-filled trick-or-treating and other activities Zoo-style!
Wintertime is also upon us. In the Zoo world, that means preparing all of our animals for wintertime. A lot of animals have been provided a heat source, extra nesting material and/or or access to an indoor area that is warm and cozy. Wintertime is also an opportunity to create new plans for training, rearranging our areas, building things, and creating things. As our Curator of Birds and Program Animals, James Ballance, mentioned in a previous post, a lot of painting has been happening. Painting typically requires removing things from the wall and moving furniture and such away from the wall. Things can get a little chaotic!
When you come to Zoo Atlanta and spot a keeper, ask him or her what new training plans they’re working on with their animals and what trained behaviors they have already trained and are important to maintain. Ask about what fun projects and enrichment they are working on. There is way more going on behind the scenes than what you can see from the exhibits! Some of the items on the back of the map include training and feedings that are fun for guest to watch, but these activities are also important for the animals to keep them enriched.
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, October 22
When you think of Halloween, your first thoughts might turn to ghosts and goblins or maybe even lots of candy. Here in the Primate Department, we think of the twin gorillas’ birthday! They were born October 31, 2005, so this year Kali and Kazi will be 8 years old.
It’s hard to believe that so much time has gone by already! They are both becoming more mature, with Kali (male) living in a young bachelor group with his 7-year-old half brother, Gunther, and 11-year-old male Mbeli. Kazi (female) remains with her natal group and is learning valuable infant-rearing skills for the future when it’s time for her to join a breeding group of her own. She is often seen babysitting 2 ½ year-old Merry Leigh and occasionally 7-month-old Andi. Come by and wish Kali and Kazi a Happy Halloween Birthday!
Keeper II, Primates
Thursday, October 17
The past several months have been very exciting for me. Just recently I was finishing my time as a graduate student teaching assistant at Georgia Southern University, hoping I would be fortunate enough to get a keeper position at a quality facility. Luckily for me, I was in the right place at the right time, and a position became available here at Zoo Atlanta’s Herpetology Department, where I had been conducting my graduate research for the past two years. Six months later, here I am. I have learned a lot already from the extremely knowledgeable reptile staff here, and I have been introduced to many new rare species of reptiles.
One of my first major tasks was moving the entire collection of on-and-off-exhibit outdoor turtles and tortoises inside for the winter. At this point, the big turtle move has been completed. All of our outdoor turtles and tortoises have been moved to their winter homes inside, where it will be nice and warm.
Two of our four female Guatemalan beaded lizards have been confirmed to have eggs through X-rays and should be laying them soon. In each of the past two years, we have had success in breeding this rare species of lizard, with an increasing number of hatchlings each time. We hope to continue this trend and hatch more this year than we did last year.
Our incubators are slowly emptying as the last of our turtle eggs are hatching. More impressed tortoises, Manuria impressa, from our lower temperature incubator have begun to hatch. When we place turtle eggs into the incubator, we typically split the eggs into two groups. We do this because turtles have something called temperature-dependent sex determinations (TSD), where the temperature that the egg is incubated at determines what sex the hatchling is. By incubating the eggs at two different temperatures, we are hoping to produce both male and female babies. The eggs that are put into the higher temperature will hatch first because they develop faster at the warmer temperature. So now eggs that were in the lower temperature incubator are beginning to hatch.
The most exciting hatchling news, that is hot off of the press, is the arrival of the first flower-backed box turtle, Cuora galbinifrons, hatched here at Zoo Atlanta. He hatched this past Tuesday, October 15, and weighed in at 23.9 grams. He has a lot of growing to do, and we are looking forward to watching it unfold.
Be sure to come visit us at the World of Reptiles. Our doors are always open!
Keeper II, Herpetology