Tuesday, May 19
Thursday, February 11
One of my favorite benefits of being a zookeeper is the many opportunities that we have for professional development. All of the professional training courses and conferences offer opportunities to network with other professionals, learn about the latest research and conservation efforts, and to grow and further develop as an individual. Next week I will be attending the annual meeting of the Southeast Partners in Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (SEPARC) at Fort McDowell in Alabama. This is always an exciting meeting since it is comprised of individuals who are dedicated and devoted to the work of protecting and conserving all of the fascinating reptiles and amphibians that call the southeastern U.S. their home. There will be a myriad of presentations on the status of animals such as the eastern hellbender, eastern indigo snake, diamondback terrapin, and Louisiana pine snake, just to name a few (all of which are represented here at Zoo Atlanta!). In addition there will be meetings of various task teams focused on the monitoring and conservation of key endangered species as well as workshops focused on new research techniques, such as using environmental DNA to detect and monitor amphibians and reptiles. Cool stuff, right? No doubt you can see why I’m excited to go, and if you are interested in any of this feel free to track me down at Scaly Slimy Spectacular and I’ll be happy to fill you in!
Keeper III, Herpetology
Tuesday, February 9
Hello! My name is Taylor, and I’m the newest addition to the Bird Team here at Zoo Atlanta. I’ve worked with animals for several years as a researcher, veterinary nurse and educator—but working with birds as a keeper has its own unique challenges. As a newbie, I’ve been trying to learn as much as possible about all 450 birds here at the Zoo! Being a great observer is a primary skill for anyone who works with animals. How well you know an animal species or an individual animal directly affects your ability to be an effective caretaker.
Within a multi-species exhibit, observation skills are especially important. The Living Treehouse is home to about 15 species of birds, all with their own unique behaviors. Each morning, we start our day by checking on everyone, assessing the health of each bird and noting anything unusual or concerning. In order to know what, exactly, is unusual for a particular species or bird, I need to spend time watching and observing them every day. For example, our trio of white-crested laughing thrushes tend to like to stick together, so if one bird is by herself one day, it’s something to be aware of. To complicate things, unusual behaviors in one species may be quite normal in another species. Green woodhoopoes love to hang upside down and explore new crevices, and it’s delightful, not alarming, to see a woodhoopoe dangling off of a branch to investigate new-grown leaves. That same behavior in a white-cheeked turaco, on the other hand, would be very troubling.
Some behavioral observations are subtler, like where in the habitat different individuals like to spend their time. You will almost always find at least one speckled pigeon perched above you as you enter the boardwalk in The Living Treehouse. Our superb starlings love to spend time high the tree at the center of the exhibit. The white-faced whistling ducks are obviously partial to the pond, but they also love to follow keepers into the kitchen for their morning snack and hang out while diets are being prepared. All these subtle notes contribute to the greater understanding of each individual animal in a collection. The best way to get to know an animal is to spend time watching it.
Being a good observer isn’t just a useful skill for keepers! You can learn a lot as an amateur naturalist by simply using the tools you already have to observe an animal. Next time you visit us, spend some quality time watching your favorite animal in their habitat. Take note of what behaviors you see, how often you see them, if there are any patterns you can distinguish, and in what context they occur. For example, do you see Gumby, our male southern ground hornbill, parading around with a piece of mulch every time he sees a new visitor stop by his habitat?
The same techniques can be used in your own backyard. How many birds visit a certain tree by your house? Can you tell what species they are? Is there a certain time of day or year that you see a particular species? Do different species tend to perch in different parts of the tree? Everything we know about animals started with someone making a simple observation. Whether you want to be a zookeeper someday, or whether you just want to know a little more about the ecosystem in your own backyard, practicing being a good observer will be rewarding. So get out there and start watching!
Thursday, February 4
Keeper I, Birds
This February I will have hit my one-year mark as a full-time keeper at Zoo Atlanta. I moved to Atlanta last November from Washington State, and let me tell you that the transition from the northwest to the south was pretty interesting. “Y’all” is slowly but surely becoming part of my vocabulary, I have never tasted better sweet tea, and a part of me dies inside every time I see a palmetto bug. Along the way I have learned a number of invaluable lessons that have helped me develop as a keeper.
Lesson number one: It is always okay to ask for help. When I was hired as a new keeper in Outback Station I got my own set of keys, and with them came my own set of responsibilities. As an intern, the keepers make the big decisions, and you are there to do what you can in order to help make it happen. Now I was expected to make those decisions. This is where lesson number one really hit me. I’m not going to lie; it’s difficult to be the rookie and try to keep up with seasoned keepers. When I was interning and when I first got hired, the keepers had this magical way of making everything they did look so effortless. As a new keeper you have to hit the ground running, and the truth of the matter is that you are going to stumble somewhere along the way. I found a great amount of security knowing that I could rely on my coworkers and mentors at the Zoo to help me get back up and learn from each experience. In this field, there is always going to be someone who has constructive criticism or words of wisdom. My coworkers have been my biggest resources and supporters during my time here, and I wouldn’t be where I’m at today without each one of them.
Lesson number two: training is not as easy as it looks. Remember when I said that the keepers have a way of making everything look easy? Well, the same goes for training. When I personally began training the animals in my area is when I realized just how much work goes into each behavior an animal learns. Something that may seem simple most likely took weeks, maybe months, of planning to execute. In almost all areas of the Zoo, the animals recognize new keepers. It is then that they test just how much they can get away with doing (or not doing) during a training session while still getting the treats that come along with it. For months I had watched as keepers completed complicated training behaviors like it was as simple as tying a shoe. There I was, barely able to get a goat to follow me in the direction I wanted even when I had food in my hand. With some guidance from my coworkers and trial and error, I am now comfortable training our animals! I am even working on some new husbandry behaviors of my own!
My final lesson is actually more of a realization. In this past year I have found that the most rewarding part of my job, other than the awesome people I work with, has been developing the relationships I have with the animals I care for. We aren’t supposed to pick favorites, but any keeper is probably fibbing just a little if they tell you they haven’t. My favorite furry friend that I care for is the always adorable Nani, one of our red kangaroos. So far, she has been the animal that has tested my patience the most, developed my confidence, and rewarded me with her trust. Our kangaroos can be very shy, and getting to a point where I walk into the exhibit and am instantly greeted by her has been hands down my best experience so far. Knowing that an animal who used to be afraid to come within 10 feet of me is now completely comfortable approaching me and asking for treats or a scratch on the back has given me the greatest sense of accomplishment. To me, her trust is a representation that I have finally caught on to this whole zookeeper gig and I am doing something right.
All in all, this past year has been a year of learning and new experiences. I might smell like a goat 95 percent of the time, but I wouldn’t trade my job as a zookeeper for anything. Let’s hope this next year of learning is just as exciting as the last!
P.S. Dr. Norman S. Baaaaa wanted me to send his apologies for not being much of a blogger lately. He has been too busy training our newest keeper, Jordan, on the proper way to fluff his hay beds and maximize his grain treats.
Tuesday, February 2
Keeper I, Mammals
Reader, there is no denying that Georgia has been experiencing some crummy weather lately, and honestly, I think that’s just fantastic. I’m a big fan of bad weather. To me, there’s no better zookeeping than bad weather zookeeping. Those are the days that remind me why I entered this career in the first place.
You see, when you ask a zookeeper why they became a zookeeper, you’ll likely hear a really great story. It could be a story about an empowering mentor, maybe a trip to the Serengeti , or possibly something moving about a baby bird. For me, the answer is simple:
Young Mikey Marazzi really, really liked Jurassic Park.
Now, I know most reasonable people can look at a film like that and think “Why would anyone want to live like that?” And I know most zookeepers can look at a film like that and think “This is just one big manual for ‘what not to do.’” And I will be the first to admit that both of those groups are completely correct. The film is littered with poor animal care practices and the dangers that can lead to. But to me, deep down, the film is just about a group of people, who genuinely care about animals, trying to just make it through a really bad day. It’s the kind of day where paleontologists, ecologists, and mathematicians get to be the heroes.
When I’m working in a storm, all those feelings of excitement and urgency that made exotic animal care look so cool just rise up back inside me. I find myself wanting to shout to my coworkers “Hey guys! Look at all this adversity we get to deal with today! Isn’t it just the best?” At which point, I’ll pull on my boots and start cleaning my orangutan yards, singing a heroic John Williams score in my head. In my time as a zookeeper, I’ve had the chance to work in tornado warnings, tropical storms, and blizzards, and I had a great time in all of them. And if I’ve learned anything, it’s that no force of nature is greater than my own delusions of grandeur.
So reader, the next time you find yourself stuck inside on a rainy day, just remember that somewhere out there, a zookeeper is staring up at the clouds, and softly muttering to themselves:
“Hold on to your butts.”
Thursday, January 28
Keeper I, Primates
Greetings and salutations from Program Animals! Let me tell you a tale. In June of 2011, I began a five-year journey through the furry, feathery, scaly world of Zoo Atlanta as an intern at Wieland Wildlife Home. I learned an enormous amount of information about animals I had never worked with before and spent a lot of time learning how to speak in front of audiences of variable sizes doing trivia at Amy’s Tree Theater and animal encounters with the animal ambassadors. I learned very quickly that I was responsible for all of these little creatures and to help spread conservation messaging and impact Zoo guests on their importance to the environment.
After a few months working with the Primate Department, when Remy the orangutan was still teeny-tiny, I made my way back to Wieland Wildlife Home as a seasonal keeper before joining the team full-time. After a year of hard work, I was in! Four years later, I have been able to accomplish so much professionally with such an amazing group of people around me within my immediate area and all around the Zoo. My supervisors have been incredibly supportive of my goals and training projects. Coworkers have taught me how to use power tools in variable ways to create and maintain exhibits.
As a first-time professional, I learned how to communicate, organize, and create/maintain helpful documents. Alongside Education, we created the Show Birds and Animal Ambassadors Keeper for a Day program. Training is a huge part of my job in order to not only prepare for shows, but also to make tracking health and welfare of the animals a smooth process. My first training project as a keeper was training rats to voluntarily go into a kennel so that we could clean their area. After the kenneling behavior was solid, we were able to train a “rat run” at Amy’s Tree Theater. It was a great challenge but very exciting and super-cute once finished. There is nothing more exciting to me than changing perceptions about animals like rats, opossums, snakes and other critters that have a bad rap.
I say all this because I am leaving Zoo Atlanta now and headed to a new opportunity so that I may continue to grow as a zoo professional and experience new animals and a new environment. I have enjoyed working with so many around the Zoo, including Volunteers, interns and Volunteens. I also have had the pleasure to collaborate with Education, Horticulture, Advancement, and other administrative departments, as well as the Maintenance Department! Anyone would love working at this zoo and educating the public about the importance of all the creatures (and plants) of the world and the impact we have on the environment. We have the ability to make such a difference, and the people at this zoo are so passionate about sharing that message with y’all!
Keep tuning in for information about more exciting news happening in the department. Show season is approaching. The pressure is on for training behaviors and creating costumes and stage sets, in addition to the daily routine. I will now be tuning in for Zoo Atlanta updates just like you and am very excited to see what happens. See you on the flip side, everyone.
Tuesday, January 26
Keeper II, Program Animals
Being an elephant keeper can be messy work. If I stop anywhere on my way home, I'm treated with a wide berth and prompt service and gratuitous side eye from anyone within smelling distance. I'm not allowed into my own house without thoroughly hosing my shoes and wiping my feet on three doormats, I can't walk on the rugs, and I have to leave any work clothes in the garage with the yard tools and trash. My car needs new floor mats. And all of those things are fine with me because of a quote from a movie I watched almost 20 years ago.
Let me preface it by saying that it's easy to know everything about elephants. We're all attached to our mobile phones and can do a quick internet search, and everything that has ever been learned is available for us to read.
But knowing something and experiencing something are completely different. You know what Tara looks like (she's cleaner with longer tusks and thicker around the belly) and how much she weighs (around 8,500 pounds, depending on how much she's eaten that day) and how tall she is (8.5 feet tall, a few inches shorter than Kelly).
What you don't know is how puny she makes you feel when you're standing next to her, or how she shakes the foundations of the barn with a good morning rumble, how aloof she acts when the mood strikes, or how much of a clown she suddenly becomes if somebody so much as touches the storage bin full of wheat bran. Tara will do anything for some wheat bran.
Such things aren't facts that you can look up on your phone; they're things you need to come inside to experience.
The movie I mentioned was about a genius kid who knew too much and experienced too little, and the quote was this:
“I'll bet you can't tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel.”
Thursday, January 21
Keeper I, Mammals
It’s a brand-new year and while 2016 doesn’t have any grand openings or entire collection-sized moves coming up, it doesn’t mean things have exactly slowed down in Herpetology.
Aside from our usual day-to-day routine of cleaning animal exhibits and maintaining our off-exhibit collections, the Herpetology staff are involved in a number of off-site conservation programs. These range from helping our state authorities to assess the health of our hellbender populations to helping establish breeding and educational programs for beaded lizards in Guatemala.
For example, next week I am winging my way down to Bolivia to help establish a new facility for breeding the critically endangered Lake Titicaca frog (Telmatobius culeus). These unique frogs are only found in Lake Titicaca, which spans the border between Bolivia and Peru and ranks as one of the world’s highest lakes with an elevation of nearly 13,000 feet (altitude sickness here I come)! For a little perspective, the highest peak in Georgia (Brasstown Bald) is just shy of 5,000 feet. The frogs are completely aquatic and don’t even have to come to the surface to breathe, instead absorbing oxygen through their skin.
Unfortunately, they are also extremely sensitive, and pollution of the lake has become one of the major threats to this species with large die-offs recorded as recently as this past spring. They are also collected in large numbers and consumed by humans.
To help create a stop-gap for these frogs, institutions both in Peru and Bolivia are developing ex situ (off site) captive assurance colonies. These colonies will allow the species to keep going until threats to them in the wild are mitigated, at which point captive born offspring may be able to return to their natural home.
Thankfully, the governments of these countries and a number of international partners are working together in efforts to save these unique animals.
I’m very proud to have been given this opportunity to help the Lake Titicaca frog and am excited to report back with more details of how things are going. Until then, if you would like to learn more about efforts to help Lake Titicaca frogs in Bolivia, please go to http://bolivianamphibianinitiative.org.
Tuesday, January 19
Assistant Curator of Herpetology
Next week we are shipping four of our 2014-hatch flamingos to the zoo in West Palm Beach. Easy to write, harder to do. Two issues get in the way of this being easy. The first issue is that it feels like we are sending out our kids. Yup. Sentiment gets in the way of making this easy! It’s like sending them off to college. How can I live without my little girl #24? Sweetest little flamingo girl on this planet, the most huggable flamingo I ever met! Okay, so flamingos are badly shaped to really hug, and their shape is really the second issue that we face when shipping birds to other zoos.
Think about it. A Chilean flamingo is nearly four feet tall but only eight inches wide and 20 inches long. They don’t make shipping crates for birds like that. Any tall crate is also very wide.
Tall crates are often a challenge. Only a very large jet can carry the tallest pet shipping crates because the loading doors on the planes are of limited height. A 48-inch-high crate just doesn’t fit through the normal 36-inch-high loading door! In this case, we would have to send the birds to the Miami airport, which is the closest airport that can handle a crate of this height.
So we will be driving our flamingos to West Palm Beach in a ZooMobile. And we are going to use the best shipping crate imaginable for four flamingos: a giant cardboard box subdivided vertically into four compartments! The sort of box that held your new washing machine. Super cheap, recyclable, and the sides are not hard. The floors are covered in pine shavings to absorb their messes and give them traction. The top is covered with soft mesh so the birds can’t come out, yet have lots of ventilation. And the keepers driving there will have 10 hours sharing the vehicle with four tame but honking flamingos and their associated lovely flamingo fragrance. What could possibly be better!
Thursday, January 14
Curator of Birds and Program Animals
Hi animal lovers! As usual, there have been so many developments in Program Animals. I previously updated you in the amount of animals that have come in to the animal ambassador program, and things are coming along great as far as their progress, and staff have been putting a lot of work in seven days a week to make sure they are prepared and comfortable in their roles.
Grayce, the new hybrid grey rat/corn snake, moved into educational programming rather quickly. She was easily handled from the start and we realized we could introduce her to her many handlers right away. So far so good it seems, and she is a rather unique looking snake with some personality.
Voldemort, the legless lizard or scheltopusik, has been very fun to work with so far. After giving him some time to adjust to being handled by Program Animal staff only, we have given his additional handlers two months to practice with him and give him more practice before having him participate in ZooMobiles and larger educational programs. He has been a part of several Wonders of Wildlife shows and is adjusting well to groups of guests at the Zoo. I am personally very excited to have him meet more people, and he is so unique, I just know guests and program participants will enjoy learning about him.
Let's see...Louis! Louis (Loo-ee) is the Virginia opossum. We only receive as animal ambassadors opossums who are non-releasable due to injury or otherwise. He was injured very young and due to his home environment before we received him, has adjusted to being handled. We are also working on his voluntary kenneling behavior using the only food item that is nutritionally approved for him, cat food. Training this behavior will ensure that he is choosing to participate in programs because kenneling will precede program participation. If he chooses not to kennel, then he doesn't have to go. Cusco and Walnut the chinchillas are trained in the same way. Voldemort and Louis will receive their animal ambassador "badge of honor" in February and will begin to attend more regular animal programs at that time.
Little Foot, the teeny-tiny red-footed tortoise, has made a few appearances as well. Keep your eyes peeled for him. Occasionally he travels with Carlos the veteran red-footed tortoise so you can see the difference between the sizes. Whew! Now that that is all close to complete, we are still actively working on preparing Finnegan, the male three-banded armadillo, for programs. He is also being kennel-trained and handled almost daily by staff. Aria and Diesel, the new rabbits, are taking their time adjusting. We hope to have them ready in the next few months.
I hope everyone is just as excited as I am about these new critters and the opportunity to learn about new and exciting animals and their role in the environment. Please visit our weekend Wonders of Wildlife show which has moved into the Conservation Action Resource Center (the ARC) for the winter. This indoor venue provides a more comfortable experience for guests and the animals with a break away from a cold day and convenient bathrooms. Informational about the new show setup can be found online and at the front gate of the Zoo.
Tuesday, January 12
Keeper II, Program Animals
Well, so many great subjects have been talked about lately, where does one begin? Well, to go along with the top questions keepers get asked, here are a couple others: “Are the animals friendly?” “Do you go in with them/play with them?” The answer for most of us is not just a simple “Yes” or “No.” There are many factors that can determine how closely keepers are able to work with the animals in their care. I’ll just answer from the primate perspective.
I work with the great apes housed here at Zoo Atlanta. We have western lowland gorillas and both Bornean and Sumatran orangutans. We work with these guys through what’s called “protected contact.” That means we are never in the same space at the same time as one of our apes. We can train and interact with them through a mesh barrier. They are still wild animals that are habituated to humans, but we haven’t altered their personalities or natural instincts. We do our best to work with them and figure out what they find rewarding to allow easier training and daily husbandry. We work hard to build bonds of trust with each of our primates, and it’s very rewarding when you have a breakthrough training moment or an animal chooses to come near you to “hang out” for a minute or even just lets you witness them do something silly.
Primates are very strong for their size, even the young ones, so it’s just too risky to trust that we would be okay in the same enclosure with them. If you get a chance to watch them play or even get a little rough with each other, you can imagine that it wouldn’t go so well for us fragile humans!
For instance a few years ago one of our gorilla babies became ill and had to be looked after by the Vet and Keeper staff. The little gorilla was around 7 months old and weighed between eight and nine pounds, but she had all of her teeth and knew that we were not her mother! We handled her very carefully and kept her swaddled in thick blankets. We also wore thick leather “bite” gloves to protect our hands. She would go from sleeping peacefully to trying to bite us in a matter of moments. We never take them away from their family casually; she was very ill and it was important for her health and recovery that we were able to have access to her for medications and fluids. As soon as she was feeling better, she was reunited with her worried mom ASAP!
Now, on to the MacGyvers of the primate world…the orangutans. Our smarty-pants Bornean family is no longer allowed to have sheets or fabric. They figured out that by taking strips of material and wrapping it around the mesh bars they could “saw” through some of the metal welds. That takes not only brains, but a lot of strength!
So, you see, it’s a little more involved than “Yes, they’re friendly” or “No, we don’t get to go in and play with them.” They are allowed to be as wild as possible in our zoological setting, and we are privileged to spend time with these amazing animals on a daily basis.
Thursday, January 7
Keeper II, Primates
For the past two years Zoo Atlanta has been home to two species of otters. We had the Asian small-clawed otters (ASCOs) as well as the giant river otters. While these two species lived in the same building and used the same exhibit, we were not ever able to physically put them together. Because of this, we used a rotation method for the otters. The ASCOs would go onto exhibit first thing in the morning and stay there until breakfast a couple of hours later. After breakfast, the giant otters would take their place in the habitat, where they would stay until mid-afternoon, when the ASCOs would once again take their place.
Several years ago, when the decision was made to obtain giant otters, many of the members of our large ASCO family had already been placed in other zoos where they started families of their own. When the giant otters arrived, we only had three remaining ASCOs from the original family of 10. The three remaining otters were parents Moe and Nava Lee, along with their daughter Harry. Because of the advanced age of Moe and Nava Lee, we decided to let them live out the remainder of their years here the Zoo. Harry, on the other hand, was prime for starting her own family at another institution, so we started to set the plans in motion for this.
Placing animals in other zoos is not always as easy as it sounds. There has to be another zoo out there with a need for your animal before you can send your animal to a new home. Sometimes, this process can take several months to find a suitable new home. As time went by, as it tends to do, both Moe and Nava Lee sadly passed away, leaving Harry as the sole ASCO in the Zoo's collection. As luck would have it, she did not have to stay by herself for long, because a suitable new home was found for her. While we were waiting for all of the details to be ironed out, the keepers began training Harry to be comfortable with calmly entering her shipping crate. Sometimes this is a long process, but Harry was a champ. Because she was comfortable with the crate pretty much from the start, we actually left it in her den and allowed her to build her nest and sleep in it. This was great, as she would now be shipped in a crate that she was extremely comfortable with and where she felt safe. This is optimal as it eliminates a lot of challenges during the move. After a lot of hard work from the Zoo's registrar, all of the paperwork and permits were soon all approved and obtained. Early on the morning of December 17, we came in to get Harry in the crate and take her to the airport. We allowed for a little bit of wiggle room with the time, because no matter how much training you do, there was always a chance that she would not enter the crate for us, and we would have to come up with an alternate crating plan. On this day, however, no additional plans were needed. Harry was up and ready to go, and when we readied her crate, she literally threw open the door and ran into the crate and remained calm as we loaded her in to the van for her trip to the airport. Several hours later, she was in the air. After a two-hour flight, she arrived safe and sound in her new home, The Bermuda Aquarium, Museum, and Zoo. After a standard quarantine period, she will be introduced to one of their male otters, and the family making can begin.
While this brings us to the end of an era here at Zoo Atlanta, where we have housed ASCOs since 1997, it also brings us to the beginnings of another era: the giant river otter era. These large (some would say giant), beautiful, and usually very vocal guys will now be in the otter habitat all day long. If you haven't had a chance to see them yet, make sure to make it a point to come check them out.
Thursday, December 31
Lead Keeper, Carnivores
One of the most popular questions I get asked when I tell people I work at the Zoo is "How did you get involved with this?" Though we all have different and unique stories, I thought I would share my journey with you.
It started way back when I was a little girl. My parents always took me on trips to Florida every year. During these trips we would visit all the theme parks. I was amazed at seeing any animal, whether it be a dolphin, snake, monkey, or a bird, I had to see it! I learned as much as I could about marine mammals and I dreamed of working with dolphins one day.
As I started middle school I sought out ways that I could get involved with animals. In my search I found a local children's museum that I could volunteer at and work with animals. As a teen volunteer I helped take care of their animal collection which included reptiles, amphibians, birds of prey and small mammals. My passion was volunteering at the museum. I spent all of my extra time there; it was my second home. During my time at the museum I learned how to care for their animal collection, as well as do public talks for the visitors. This volunteer position led to a paid part-time position while I was in high school. I was lucky to gain paid experience very early on in my life. This position opened up my general love for reptiles and amphibians and led me into teaching summer camp classes the summer before I went off to college.
After high school I studied for a Bachelor’s degree in Zoology from Oswego State University in Oswego, N.Y. One of my favorite classes was Field Mammalogy, where we would go out to Rice Creek Field Station and take data on small mammals. Nothing was more thrilling than tracking meadow voles with a black light in the middle of the night or catching bats! One of my favorite, but rather clumsy, memories for my Field Herpetology class was collecting snapping turtles in a rowboat at the field station in Oswego. With 50-pound snapping turtles breaking out of traps, you should see how fast I can row a boat!
During my time in Oswego, I interned at the Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, N.Y. I spent my time working with primates, lions, bats and otters. Now remember, I went into this whole animal thing with the intent that I would work with marine mammals, but that all changed when I set my eyes on what to me is the most beautiful animal in the world... a mandrill! Yes, that’s right, a mandrill. With only a day with working with them, my heart was set to work with primates! Oswego State University opened up an opportunity for me to get a second degree with only five years of school! Who would pass that up? This opportunity led me down to Gainesville, Fla., to work and go to school at the Santa Fe Teaching Zoo to earn an Associate’s degree in Zoo Animal Technology. This program gave me hands-on experience in every aspect of wild animal care, from daily care of animals, habitat construction and maintenance, to working with the public. This program allowed me to work with a variety of mammals including carnivores, primates and Hoofstock, as well as bird species and reptiles (venomous and non-venomous). I have valued everything I have learned from the teaching zoo. I always fall back to the basics that I was taught there and I even credit them in pairing me up with my husband! Some of my most fond memories there were mucking the pond, alligator catch-ups and my first animal training experience with Asian small-clawed otters. It was there where I had to learn quick how to prepare for three hurricanes and the clean-up that comes with it! One of the most important traits of a zookeeper is being adaptable!
Right out of Santa Fe I started my first “real” zoo job at the Birmingham Zoo as a primate keeper. Man, was I lucky, because they had mandrills! I was in heaven. Birmingham gave me lots of hands-on experience with a variety of primate species: orangutans, gorillas, macaques, gibbons, marmosets, tamarins, and the list goes on and on! Not only was I able to get to work with all of these awesome species, but I also had the honor to take care of naked mole rats, some cool cichlids and a whole bunch of Australian animals! I served on the zoo's enrichment committee where I taught enrichment classes to new keepers and was heavily involved in their AAZK chapter.
After five years at the Birmingham Zoo it was time to venture on, which led me to Zoo Atlanta, where I have been for the past five years! The road wasn’t always easy, and there was a lot of hard work, but it was worth it to be where I am today.
To sum it all up, there are many different paths to take to become a zookeeper. The best advice I can give anyone is to get as much hands-on experience as possible and have fun doing it!
Tuesday, December 29
Keeper III, Primates
As many of you may know, I have been one of the main project partners in a number of conservation programs in Guatemala for the past 11 years. Our projects are called “Conservation Abronia” and “Conservation Heloderma” [formally Project Abronia and Project Heloderma]. These long-term projects are holistic in nature and combine natural history studies, conservation education, land preservation, breeding and head-start programs, reforestation programs, local capacity building and inclusion, and what I will talk about today: our social programs. We focus on two main social programs: a scholarship program and a house construction program. I want to focus on the house program in this blog edition.
Our goal was to try and build at least one house per year for the poorest of the poor, and so far we have been able to accomplish this goal. In fact, we have funds for the fourth house and for half of the fifth house at this time. Last month I traveled to Guatemala to catch up with our project partners on the ground, have some meetings about the next five years, and to travel to see the houses. This is no small feat, given the distance and condition of the roads and, to a lesser extent, the political instability in the area. After 14 hours of driving, we met up with Hugo in Huehuetenango; he has been the volunteer construction manager for three years now and has been critical to the house program. He finds the families, coordinates the construction crews, and oversees the construction of each house. He also speaks a number of Mayan dialects, which allows him to communicate and be an effective manager in this area.
Hugo coordinated our meeting with the families that have received the last two homes: one last year in November, and one this year that was completed on the 15th of November. I arrived on the 14th of November and saw the family on the 18th! It was a humbling experience to meet and talk to the families that have received our houses. They are more than grateful, and each one told us to please continue this work for the many others that were in their same situation or worse – amazing people and amazing families with loving homes. Like our home program saying goes, “A House for every Home.” Many of you reading this have donated to this program, and I really want you to feel good about it. This is an amazing collaboration, and thanks!
Brad Lock, DVM
Curator of Herpetology
Tuesday, December 22
Hello Zoo Atlanta fans! I hope you’re ready for a slight change of pace. I know many of you read this blog frequently to check up on what the keepers here are working on. Well, you’re in for a holiday treat! Don’t you ever wonder what the animals in this place are up to? You do come here to see me, I mean us, after all! My name is Norman, but I prefer to go by Dr. Norman S. Baaaaaa. That is at least what I insist my keepers call me. I am a Gulf Coast Native sheep and I live down in Outback Station. I’m 12 years old but I do pull it off well. Some would say I am the best-looking sheep at the Zoo, but please don’t mention that to the Babydoll sheep. They are still young and oh so sensitive.
If you haven’t visited me yet in the petting zoo you’re missing out! The keepers keep this place looking very nice and up to my standards. The goats here have no respect for their sheep roommates as far as cleanliness goes, but I love them anyways. Actually, chances are you probably have visited the petting zoo and glanced right over me. I am very particular and enjoy my hay beds nicely fluffed, right behind the water tower. My keepers are very accommodating with my requests, but it also might just be because I stare at them longingly for hours if they don’t have my bed ready for me after I go into the petting zoo for the day. If I’m not in my bed behind the water tower, the goats have probably used it for a bathroom or I have retired to the night yard for a bit. Did you know I am the only animal in the petting zoo that gets to move between the quiet time yard and petting zoo whenever I choose? The keepers say it’s because I am old (rude) but it’s really because I have put in my time in the petting zoo and deserve such treatment. I think all these years of getting my wool fluffed deserves that respect.
Despite my age I am quite agile and learn just as quickly as my younger friends here in the petting zoo. The keepers here give us treats when we do the things they ask, and I have found it interesting to see the different things my friends here at the Zoo receive while they are training. I recently had lunch with Chelsea the tiger (no, I was not her lunch) and she said she gets goat’s milk when she trains! Heath the Kunekune pig gets all sorts of vegetables and fruit. I, however, am a sheep of simpler tastes, and am just fine with a handful of sheep grain. I also love to get scratches, but it has to be on my terms. If you see me on the run, there are probably several children behind me or Franklin the sheep is trying to steal my bed. That lamb has got some nerve.
I know you are probably already planning your Zoo trip based off of which times it is best to come see me, so I will help make that just a tad easier for you. I’m technically supposed to be in the petting zoo from 10 a.m. to 4:15 p.m., but like I said earlier, I am pretty old. Check my bed behind the water tower, somewhere between all of those round goat bellies at the hay feeder, or the night yard. If I am in the night yard don’t get disappointed just yet; I'll come back out when things calm down a bit. I can’t handle the big crowds like I could when I was a young lamb. The baby sheep stay in the petting zoo more than I do, so you can still go visit them. They won’t admit it to the humans, but they told me they are shy. So if you see them please just remember to walk slowly and be gentle! I should probably also mention that if you come near 3 p.m., I will be inside the barn demanding my afternoon snack and medicine from my keepers. They get busy, so I am a merciful sheep and remind them with a nice, friendly BAAAA that it is time. Trust me, you’ll know it when you hear it.
Well, I should probably get back to the petting zoo before my bed is stolen or Ariel decides it is a good place to relieve herself. This desk chair really isn’t made for my robust, muscular shape either. Also, as you can imagine, typing with no thumbs is quite exhausting. Maybe the keepers will give me some treats for the good job I did. I hope you enjoyed my blog and please check baaaaaaaaack for future updates!
Dr. Norman S. Baaaaa
Keeper I, Mammals
Thursday, December 17
Earlier this year I had an opportunity to travel to Denmark. After a couple stops, like rapid transit in the States, I assumed I would be at my destination. Little did I realize the extensive transportation system in Denmark. Copenhagen has a city-wide train system, trains that went to Germany and Sweden, and a train that went out of Copenhagen into the rest of Denmark. Even though it was a very comfortable and fast train, it still took about two hours to get to the final destination, a couple islands away.
Since that trip, I often think what would it be like to have a system in the States for high-speed rail for longer traveling options. Many cities in the east are within a two-hour drive. A transit system would be a fast, efficient mode of travel for many to leave their home city for a weekend away, a longer-term vacation, jobs in other places, or an energy-efficient alternative to traveling around the country. In the end it could reduce traffic congestion on major roadways, save money, and even help with stress if managed correctly.
Tuesday, December 15
Lead Keeper, Birds and Program Animals
I became the newest permanent keeper in the Bird Department here at Zoo Atlanta in mid-October. In this department there are four different routes, each with unique species, and as a swing keeper I work all of them. This means that I regularly care for over 45 species and nearly 200 birds on a weekly basis. As you can imagine, there's a lot to memorize and a lot of intricacies for each route.
For Flamingo Route, which includes our flamingos and the exhibits near the rock climbing wall, time management is key. Preparing diets for all of the birds in the lower Zoo is your responsibility, and if you are late with that, you won't have enough time to service all of your exhibits. You also learn little tricks from other keepers, such as the Victoria crowned pigeons eat their diets best when all of the components are kept separate. In the Treehouse Route, which is The Living Treehouse, wreathed hornbills and kori bustards, you quickly learn what order works best and is quickest for your morning routine. You also learn a lot through trial and error; like if you don't focus on hosing and cleaning the trees in The Living Treehouse before you hose the boardwalk, you'll never be able to tell which leaves are dirty once they're wet from overspray.
For the Prop Route, our propagation center and exhibits surrounding the petting zoo, you have to be exceptionally observant: our propagation center holds breeding birds and others that need special attention. This route is also a practice in tricky shifters, but if you know your birds, things get a lot easier. For example, if all else fails, giant mealworms will convince the blue cranes to shift, and our king vulture Roswell loves rib meat and can usually be convinced with that.
For the Parakeet Route, which includes the parakeet aviary and exhibits across from the elephant barn, you are constantly trying to think of new and different enrichment. Southern ground hornbills and lappet-faced vultures are both very intelligent, so keeping them stimulated is one of our major tasks. We are constantly coming up with new ideas for enrichment and working on training behaviors with them. All of this doesn't even include our new switch route, which changes which route is responsible for certain exhibits!
All of this learning comes through total immersion and on the job training, and is pretty fast-paced, but I have loved every minute of it. I'm constantly learning new things and improving my husbandry, and I find myself looking forward to coming into work each day.
Thursday, December 10
Keeper I, Birds
Hey, has anyone noticed that new green building just down from Scaly Slimy Spectacular? Well, we are finally out of the old World of Reptiles building. That’s right! All the amphibians and reptiles that were formerly housed there have now moved into our new Conservation Breeding Center! So, that green building that peers just over the fence where you can purchase a hot pretzel is the new home for all of our off-exhibit collection.
What’s inside? Well, we’ve got aquatic turtles just as you walk in. Many of these guys are youngsters like baby mata matas and Pan’s box turtles. The first room to the left is the salamander room. It is kept cool (~60 F) and houses a number of species including the hellbender and Pacific giant salamanders. The next room houses frogs and toads and is kept humid with misters that turn off and on automatically to keep the 20 different species comfortable and in peak condition. The largest room in the building securely houses all of our non-native venomous snakes as well as several species of lizards like basilisks and various monitors. The smaller room next door houses all of our native venomous and non-venomous snakes. This room will be cooled, and the snakes here will be allowed to hibernate just like they would outside over the winter. The upstairs holds all the non-venomous snakes and lizards including our large pythons and boas. Outside the building new pens have been constructed to house our flagship conservation species, the Guatemalan beaded lizard. There is also a new set of cages that will allow lizards like the Jamaican iguana to take advantage of optimal breeding conditions outside. So, as you can see, we are still moving and shaking things up in the Herpetology Department!
Tuesday, December 8
Keeper III, Herpetology
Contrary to popular belief, Lead Primate Keeper Bernie Gregory was not born at Zoo Atlanta, although he did start as a young man in December 1979. That is 36 years: 12 years before I was even born, but who’s counting? Bernie has seen the Zoo through a variety of changes and improvements and has been a contributor to that progress.
Bernie was awarded a degree in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Florida. At the time, he was considered overqualified to be a zookeeper, and was almost not hired. He has worked with nearly every department in the Zoo. He started his Zoo career working with the Zoo’s 24 big cats. He then moved on to bears, and then worked in Hoofstock with the Zoo’s first giraffes. As the primate yards were being completely renovated, he also worked in program animals. Since then, he has stayed in the Primate Department, mostly working with the gorillas.
One of his favorite animals that he has worked with was the legendary gorilla Willie B. He says it was an honor to work with Willie, as he was such a symbol for the Zoo. His greatest experience was helping Willie adjust from cement and bars to grass under his feet, and watching him go out into his habitat in The Ford African Rain Forest for the very first time. His favorite part of being at Zoo Atlanta has been watching the baby animals grow up and become adults, with some of these now moms and dads themselves.
Bernie is a man of structure and routine, and works hard every day at his job. He is the only member of our crew to work all three primate areas every week: small African primates, orangutans and gorillas! He also has the daunting task of making our weekly schedule. Bernie has the distinction of being the first tenured employee at the Zoo and has even received an award for most recognizable voice on the Zoo’s radio!
Bernie is the picture of dedication. He really loves his job and the animals he works with.
When he is not at the Zoo, Bernie loves to travel, especially to Italy. He also likes to go RVing with his family because he can take his dogs. Although he is often reserved, Bernie is actually very lighthearted. Anyone who knows him would readily admit that he is a decorated character. He makes me laugh every time I see him, and I have thoroughly enjoyed his mentorship.
The animals that we work with change our lives every day, but it is not often enough that we talk about the people that we work with who change our lives. And as I move on to more adventures in the zookeeping world, Bernie is definitely one of the primates who I will miss the most.
Thursday, December 3
Seasonal Keeper, Primates
A sturdy relationship, building a trusting foundation of mutual respect, and being in tune with individual needs. Do I sound like I’m running a dating show? In a way, I kind of am! I’m the primary keeper for our Bird Propagation Center and adjacent areas. I get to work with a collection of birds that are on exhibit, but the majority of birds I work with are behind the scenes.
The propagation center is where we house many birds that we do in fact hope will make a great match! We work really hard to make sure that birds have the ideal conditions and a suitable mate so that they have the best chance to produce fertile eggs.
We have hard-to-breed species, such as our amethyst starling pairs, that breed well and we have some new pairs that we hope will be successful, such as Bali mynahs. Our breeding pairs need privacy from other birds. We provide privacy by putting up barriers, adding plants, nest cavities and proper nesting material. It’s a fun challenge to figure out what materials and areas are the birds’ favorites and then implement them into their home.
There are also birds in the propagation center that are not there to be bred. Some are offspring ready to go to other zoos, and some birds are housed there through the winter that don’t handle very cold temperatures well. You’ll never hear a complaint out of me! This way I get to work with birds I otherwise wouldn’t get to see on a regular basis. With these birds I aim to provide exciting enrichment items that will suit their tastes. I put together puzzles for highly intelligent birds like toco toucans and Raggiana bird of paradise, chewing toys and plant browse for the parrot species, mirrors for the social species such as starlings, and so much more! In order to stimulate our birds’ minds, we change out enrichment daily and provide exercise days where we open up a special flight area for each pair of birds.
My favorite part of being a keeper goes back to the beginning of this blog. Not only do I like finding birds that work well together so that they have a good relationship, but I love getting to know the birds myself. If I have can build a positive relationship with the birds I care for, it helps me to understand what will benefit their mental and physical well-being. And that’s a part of why we do what we do!
Tuesday, December 1
Keeper I, Birds
In the time that I have been an elephant keeper at Zoo Atlanta, I have heard some pretty insightful, hysterical, silly and just plain odd comments from guests passing habitats or watching one of our elephant training demonstrations. But, there will always be one comment that rubs me the wrong way, and that is “Look! That elephant is doing tricks!” Anytime I hear this comment I try to explain that our animals at the Zoo are trained to do behaviors and not tricks.
As defined in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a trick is a “clever and skillful action that someone performs to entertain or amuse people,” while a behavior is “the way a person or animal moves functions or reacts”. At Zoo Atlanta, we mainly focus on behavioral husbandry. This is defined as “an animal management technique that promotes animal well-being by observing behaviors and subsequently improving care based on behavioral ‘needs.’ Staff members observe the animals' behavior and then provide changes to their environments with the goal of promoting natural behaviors.” Yes, Kelly and Tara do engage people that come to watch our training demonstrations, but almost every trained behavior benefits them both mentally and physically and could potentially save their life in case of a medical emergency. A trick can’t do that.
For example, Kelly and Tara are trained to place their feet on a foot rest, which allows us to check and maintain their feet. We do weekly blood draws with Kelly and Tara from their ears; they are trained to stand still and flap their ear out while the veterinary staff draws blood. We also do fun more physically challenging behaviors like having the girls lie down, stretch, pick up heavy logs and tires, or step up on ledges – all behaviors that wild elephants do every day. Whether it’s a blood draw or a stretch, Kelly and Tara always have the option to opt out and not volunteer; we never force them to do anything. They participate because they want to, and of course, they get tasty treats for coming over and working with us. For veterinary procedures they get really special treats like bananas and watermelons, kind of like how a doctor would give a child a lollipop after they get a shot.
If I’m not training with Kelly and Tara there is an excellent chance I am training with Eleanor, our 1 ½ year-old warthog (the Elephant Department also takes care of the warthogs and meerkats). Eleanor has learned all sorts of husbandry behaviors in the past year. She will lie down and present her stomach so I can inspect it, she knows to stay still for vet checkups, I can check her hooves and tusks while she lays still, and she is currently learning to open her mouth so I can inspect her teeth. In the summer time Eleanor likes to come in and lie down for a quick sponge bath to cool her off, which I could not do without the help of her trained behaviors. The Elephant Department is even developing a cardio program for Eleanor and Shirley where they are being trained to come to one keeper on one side of the habitat to another keeper on the opposite side of the habitat so that we keep them physically fit and active so they maintain a healthy weight. Training animals for new behaviors is important for both their physical and mental health, so I also like to train Eleanor for mentally stimulating behaviors like kneeling, sitting, vocals, bows (only kneeling on one leg at a time), and pushing objects around with her snout. These keep our training sessions interesting and are also all natural warthog behaviors that they would do in the wild.
So next time you come to visit Zoo Atlanta, remember that all the awesome things you see the keepers do with the animals aren’t tricks; they are part of how we care for our animals. And that’s it from the Elephant Department, where the people are filthy but the intentions are pure.
Thursday, November 26
Happy Thanksgiving to all from the Zoo Atlanta family!
Keeper I, Elephants
So guys, I have some bad news and some good news. The bad news is that Max, the prehensile-tailed porcupine, passed about week ago. He was definitely a crowd and staff favorite and will be missed. He leaves behind a new porcupine friend, Quinn, who is in training now to become part of programs as well. The plan was for the two porcupines to breed, but we are not sure yet if that happened. Quinn will be monitored for signs of pregnancy. Until then, we will proceed with her training. She has a lot of spunk, so it will be a fun process for her trainers!
The good news, folks, is that we have yet another animal addition to Wieland Wildlife Home. His name is Louis, the Virginia opossum. Louis came from a private home where it seems he was provided with excellent care. It is illegal, however, to own these animals as pets, and because he has always lived in a human home, he does not exhibit “normal” opossum behavior such as hiding from predators, scavenging for his own food, climbing trees, etc., and is considered non-releasable. In other words, he would not likely be able to survive in the wild on his own, so and we are happy to be able to provide him with the best care possible. He should be beginning animal ambassador programs very soon, but first we will kennel-train him so he can choose to participate like our other animals do. It is also nice to have a recall system in place in case of an emergency. All of our birds are kennel-trained as well as a few of our mammals, even the rats and Quinn the porcupine!
Another point of good news is you should begin to see Little Foot, the tiny red-footed tortoise, participating in programs, as well as Grayce the hybrid cornsnake and the Ninja Turtle rats! We have been busy here at Wieland preparing new animals to become animal ambassadors. If all goes well, Voldemort, the legless lizard, and Louis the opossum will be ready by February after all of the animals handlers get a chance to practice with them first.
Keeper II, Program Animals
Tuesday, November 24
I had the privilege to attend the Southeast Regional Gorilla Workshop (SERGW) from November 5-8, hosted by Busch Gardens in Tampa, Fla. The conference brought together like-minded gorilla professionals from other institutions in the eastern U.S. who are committed and passionate about improving the management of gorillas, keeping up on industry topics and gorilla conservation in the wild. I cannot begin to tell you how inspiring and motivating it is being in the same room and sharing the latest management practices.
The conference was chock full of information. There wasn’t one person that left that conference not learning something new. Attendees shared their challenges and experiences.
The zoo industry is continually committed to working together to provide the best care possible for the animals in our stewardship. Attending these conferences and workshops ensures that staff have the knowledge to produce the greatest results possible. I can’t wait to share what I’ve learned with the rest of the staff! I would really like to thank a very generous friend of Zoo Atlanta for her continuous support each year to allow the keepers the opportunity for professional growth. I would not have been able to attend this conference without her, and I learned so much!
Thursday, November 19
Lead Keeper, Primates
While the new Scaly Slimy Spectacular has been open since April, the Herpetology Department has still been using the old World of Reptiles and behind-the-scenes areas to house our off- exhibit collection. This past week we had Operation Move Number Two. The first move was, of course, when we moved into Scaly Slimy Spectacular. But now, with Move Number Two, we have completely vacated the former reptile building into our new off-exhibit Conservation Breeding Center. This is the end of an era; the old reptile building was built in the early 1960s, and it was the last remaining building from that time being used for public displays.
Our new off-exhibit building is conveniently located near the new Scaly Slimy Spectacular, as opposed to the other side of the Zoo like the old World of Reptiles. It is equipped with multiple rooms, each with its own heating and cooling unit, so that we can maintain different rooms with different temperatures. This will give us the ability to mimic the environmental conditions of different parts of the world at the same time. Our animals are now put in rooms based on what type of ecosystem they are found in naturally. Some animals will be allowed to hibernate through the winter (ex. our native snakes), while others will be kept warm all year (ex. tropical species).
This makes two major moves in an eight-month period. It has been very busy in Herpetology, but we are settling in nicely and we hope to see you at Scaly Slimy Spectacular.
Tuesday, November 17
Keeper II, Herpetology
As we say goodbye to the warm weather of summer, we say hello to the weather of winter. As we prepare to bring out multiple shirts, long sleeved shirts, sweatshirts on top of that, winter coats, and thicker socks, we aren’t the only ones that have to brace for the cold. Here at the Zoo we have instituted temperature guidelines to help keep all of our animals comfortable and warm. Each area has different temperature-tolerant animals. The areas inside the Mammal Department include Outback Station, Hoofstock, Elephants and Carnivores.
The Outback area consists of sheep, pigs, goats, tanuki, naked mole rats, bush dogs and kangaroos. Most of these animals could be considered prey to many of the animals I take care of. The Kunekune pig is given a pig pad once the temperature drops below 50 degrees, and freezer flaps are installed to prevent as much wind as possible from entering the petting zoo. The tanuki, bushy-haired raccoon dogs, are given access to a heated area once the temperature creeps below 45 degrees. Those, um, unique naked mole rats have their tunnels closed off if it reaches a balmy 20 degrees and get to stay inside a heated building of 75-80 degrees. Must be nice.
The Hoofstock area consists of giraffes, bongos, kudus, zebras, duikers, black rhinos and ostrich. The giraffe and rhino buildings are set to a nice, comfortable 65-70 degrees. The ostrich are the heartiest of the Hoofstock bunch. They can go outside, with access to the building, when the temperature is at 26-32 degrees. Rhinos, the bulkiest animals, are given access to their temperature-controlled building when temperatures drop below 32 degrees. Giraffes need a little extra love and can go outside between 40-49 degrees. They receive wood shavings inside their indoor area, and every day the yard is inspected to determine how slippery it is. If the yard is treacherous, giraffes will stay inside to prevent injury. All the other Hoofstock animals are given hay and straw inside their areas for warm bedding throughout the day.
The Elephant Department consists of meerkats, warthogs, and, of course, elephants. The tiny meerkats are given access to the building once the temperature drops below 60 degrees and can chill out in a 75-degree building. They are also given hay beds and heated nest boxes on exhibit. The heated boxes are mostly for Prince, the old man of the group. Warthogs receive heat lamps, heaters and bedding. They also have freezer flaps on their entry doorways to cut down on cold breezes.
Elephants are by far the most temperature-tolerant animals we have. They can still be outside and have access to their barn at 20 degrees. That’s a champ right there. There will be freezer flaps covering their entry door, and if you’re lucky enough, you might see them munching on some evergreen trees to make their yard and barn smell piney fresh.
The Carnivore Department consists of sun bears, Sumatran tigers, lions, Reeves’ muntjac, fossa, binturong, giant otters, small clawed otters, leopard, red panda and pandas. Pandas have their own blog, so you can read more about them there. The big carnivores can usually go out at long as it is above 30 degrees and have access to the building until 49 degrees. All have heated buildings set between 60-70 degrees. All the carnivores also receive hay beds on exhibit. The fossa and binturong have freezer strips on their exhibit doors to reduce the wind chill. Our clouded leopard, if you ever have the opportunity to see her (she is there, I promise!) has a newly constructed “ice palace” that comes with a heating system. She has freezer flaps coming from all directions from the entire off-exhibit area. She is kept toasty between 60-70 degrees. Our least cold-tolerant member of this department by far would be the muntjac. If it gets considerably colder than 30 degrees for long periods of time, the freezer flaps, heating lamps and haybeds just aren’t enough. We will transport him inside the bird holding area just near the train tracks to keep him from becoming an icicle.
Snow may intrigue the animals, some will eat it. Others like to test out just how strong that ice is covering the pool. I am going to try and stay inside as much as possible and regain feeling in my toes. Enjoy the winter wonderland of Zoo Atlanta!
Thursday, November 12
Keeper II, Mammals
Occasionally, Zoo guests ask me which animals are my favorite within the animal ambassador collection. While some people may choose a crowd favorite such as a parrot or porcupine, some of my absolute favorite animals are the rats! When I first became a Program Animals Keeper, the first training project I took on was working with the rats to run at the Amy’s Tree theater show. I helped raise the Mo’ Rats (Eeeny, Meeny, Miney and Moe) and prepared them for programs before training them for the show. Preparing them in that order was important for socializing them with their handlers and introducing small and large crowds of people.
I’m sure you can imagine how scary it would be to meet hundreds of people all at once, so beginning with just the rats’ trainers, then moving to small groups of people before meeting a show audience is definitely the way to go. We also introduced them to their kennel to make sure they had a comfortable, safe place to reliably go to once leaving their enclosure for training. This is known as a recall.
The Mo’ Rats are no longer with us (that was four years ago, and they only live to be 2-3 years old), but we currently have two groups at the Wieland Wildlife Home: The Cheez-it rats (Queso, Gorgonzola, Muenster and Brie) and the Ninja Rats (Raphaella, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Donatello). I have learned over the past several years that they are incredibly social when they are in a comfortable environment. Rats leave a scent trail to assist their family and friends with finding food, which is a behavior they utilize during training. It helps them (in addition to positive reinforcement) become more comfortable with the route we train them to follow during the shows and helps them get back on track when they steer off course a bit. We will be training similar behaviors for the summer season of 2016, but for now the rats are being used primarily for education programs (ZooMobiles, field trip programs, etc.).
Anyway, I might be a tad biased, but I think rats are the coolest little critters, and I love convincing people that they are amazing and important for many reasons. They help aerate the soil by digging and are our natural garbage disposal. Their numbers are plentiful, so they satisfy the needs of animals that eat rodents, including birds of prey and snakes. They are truly important to help keep the balance of our environment and serve well as animal ambassadors. Next time you come to the Zoo, perhaps you will see a handler with one of these amazing animals. Check out your map for our new show times and locations on the weekends. You never know what you will see!
Keeper II, Program Animals
Tuesday, November 10
(Photo by Kaya Forstall)
Another day, another bird. Zoo Atlanta has a wide variety of birds in its collection, and they are constantly moving around to make space for new arrivals. From bigger aviaries where birds can really fly about to open exhibits where they mostly walk about, we have them all! So how do we make space in habitats that all birds can use?
Perching! A perch is a place where an animal can stand, sit, or rest. For our birds, we hang branches and put in plants so they have a variety of places to land around the habitat. Each species, and even individual, has different places they enjoy hanging out. This also varies depending on the season.
For example, our golden pheasant is a bird that mainly stays on the ground. He picks through the plants, mulch and whatever else on the ground to find what he likes to eat. For the most part, he just requires low perching, but every now and then he likes to get up high to roost. So we provide logs for low perches and branches of medium thickness for higher perching so he has no problem balancing when he hops up there.
Another example, on the opposite spectrum, would be our parakeets. These guys are much smaller than the golden pheasant, so they utilize different perches. For their tiny feet we provide lots of tiny branches with little twigs that they’ll have no problem hanging onto.
For all these species, it’s important to have the right perching as well as a variety to give them options just like we have in our own homes. So next time you’re at the Zoo, take a look at the bird exhibits and see who’s sitting where. You may just find out where someone’s favorite perch is!
Tuesday, November 3
Keeper I, Birds
This Saturday we are celebrating World Lemur Day! From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., you can come to The Living Treehouse and learn about lemurs. There will be fun for all ages! We’ll have a coloring table with booklets of drawings of our lemurs you will see on exhibit. We’ll have posters featuring facts about lemurs and their habitats. We’ll be selling buttons, magnets and little sock monkeys and will teach you why you should not have lemurs as pets. It should be a fun event so I hope you can come out!
Madagascar contains populations of animals found nowhere else on Earth. The reason World Lemur Day was started was because, as lemurs are found only in Madagascar, an island off of Africa, the local people needed to raise awareness of the problems facing lemur populations. Last year (2014) was the first Lemur Festival held in Madagascar. Lemurs are losing their habitat due to logging, forests being converted to farmland, overgrazing by livestock, and mining for coal. Lemurs are an important natural resource. They help in seed dispersal. Lemur feces has been found to contain seeds from trees. When the lemurs defecate, the seeds have actually been shown to start the growth of saplings.
Lemur populations are also declining due to hunting. Madagascar is a poor country that relies on tourists coming in to help the locals. Hunters hunt for food even though lemurs are now illegal to hunt. People are also keeping lemurs as pets. Lemurs do not make good pets. When wild animals are kept as pets, they can become aggressive. Wild animals do not become domesticated just because they’re living in a home. As I say in many keeper talks when asked if we go in with gorillas, monkeys, etc., “They have teeth. I know they can use them.” Being in a zoo does not make wild animals domesticated either.
Here in the U.S., the Prosimian Sanctuary is the only sanctuary dedicated solely to prosimians. It is one of the Endangered Primate Foundation’s (EPF) projects. The EPF is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting primates through conservation, education and husbandry. The Prosimian Sanctuary is located on the outskirts of Jacksonville, Fla. Money raised at World Lemur Day, this Saturday, November 7 at Zoo Atlanta, will help this sanctuary continue to help lemurs.
Thursday, October 29
Keeper II, Primates
By far one of my favorite parts of my job is getting to train new behaviors. Here at the Zoo, we use positive reinforcement training for a wide variety of purposes. Training is helpful when it comes to husbandry, medical and research procedures. It is also a great form of enrichment, and the extra mental stimulation is immensely beneficial when it comes to animal welfare. Keepers use training on a daily basis. Here in Hoofstock, we've been working with our oldest giraffe, Abu, on X-ray training. Keepers began to notice some changes in the growth of one of Abu's hooves and called in our Veterinary Team to take a look at him. After giving Abu a visual exam, they decided that they wanted to take a closer (or rather deeper) look into Abu’s hooves. So the hoofstock keepers had to develop a plan to voluntarily obtain an X-ray.
Luckily, Abu is no stranger to footwork. We have worked with him in the past on basic hoof trims and filings. Abu already knew how to present his foot on a small wooden platform so that vets could examine it easier. We used his previous knowledge to our advantage and integrated that behavior into our X-ray training. Our giraffe barn is equipped with a hallway shift area that we call the chute. This chute area has platforms on either side that allow keepers to climb up and stand at eye level with the giraffes. This catwalk is not for the faint of heart! It is about two stories tall! A keeper was positioned on the platform to reward Abu with his favorite treats while training. The chute also has removable panels along the sides that allow keepers and vets access to different areas of the giraffe's body. The bottom panels were utilized in his training to allow access to his feet.
We began by getting Abu to voluntarily walk into the chute and place his foot onto a wooden board as he’s been trained to do in the past. He excelled at this phase and allowed us to palpate his legs and hooves like a pro. The remaining steps involved desensitizing Abu to lots of new stimuli. We began to introduce tools used to obtain an X-ray. Our Veterinary Team had an extra film holder that they were more than happy to share with us during the training process. However, we had to get a little creative with our practice X-ray machine. For this we used a kitty litter container in the same yellow as the X-ray machine. A much lighter and less costly stand-in! After several sessions and lots of positive reinforcement, Abu was confidently stepping onto the platform and standing while the “kitty litter X-ray” was positioned into the open panel by his feet.
One of our vets recently came to do a run through with the real thing. The X-ray machine shines a light on the area that is going to be photographed to aid with alignment of the shot. This is one aspect of the process that we didn’t think about trying to mimic. Abu was not so sure about the bright light on his feet. It took him a few times to feel comfortable with the scary new light on his foot, but we were able to get some really great shots! Moving forward, we are still working with Abu to get him more comfortable with the light projected by the X-ray machine. We once again had to get creative to mimic the light. We have since continued training with the addition of a flashlight! He is doing great and is ready for any more exams that he may need in the future!
Tuesday, October 27
Keeper I, Mammals
I have been working at Zoo Atlanta for about three months now, but I have been working with birds for almost 10 years! I am a true bird-nerd, and am constantly asked why I like birds so much. The short answer is, they are amazing and they are everywhere! They are a part of our daily soundtrack, many times going unnoticed.
The best thing about birds is that many of your Zoo favorites can be seen in your own backyard. Take our local Georgia toucans for example. Okay, they may not be toucans, but woodpeckers and toucans belong in the same order of classification, meaning they are related to one another. Like toucans, woodpeckers nest in tree cavities, sometimes making the cavity bigger to better suit their needs. Georgia has many varieties of woodpeckers including the crow-sized pileated woodpecker and the smallest woodpecker in North America, the downy woodpecker.
Pigeons are another backyard bird that get a lot of attention. Did you know that Zoo Atlanta is home to the largest pigeon species in the world? The Victoria crowned pigeons stand at a little over 2 feet tall. And with their brilliant blue feathers and gorgeous lacy crests, they are a sight to see!
And lastly, if you have a bird feeder at home and need variety from the usual cardinals and finches, come take a look at Zoo Atlanta’s superb starlings! They are by far one of my favorite species in the collection. They are a social African starling with brilliant blue and rusty feathers and have beautiful songs and personalities to match!
It’s now your “tern” to “sparrow” a minute and appreciate the birds around you, and with this new appreciation, you will be “pheasantly” surprised to see how many amazing birds we have here at Zoo Atlanta. Come visit them! You won’t “egret” it! “Owl” see you at the Zoo!
Thursday, October 22
Lead Keeper, Birds
So much has developed with program animals over the past few months. For one, we have finally introduced Max and Quinn the prehensile-tailed porcupines with the hope that they will breed. We also have acquired a female African pied crow who will be a companion for Onyx the pied crow. Many of you know Onyx from the World of Wild shows in the past. Well, he has retired as a show bird and crows are extremely social animals, so we hope that he will appreciate having a companion who came in with the name McFemale. Aria and Diesel are the rabbits who joined us and are currently in training for programs. We would like to see them voluntarily kennel for programs like Walnut and Cusco the chinchillas already do so well. The rabbits are making progress with their training and we look forward to you meeting them.
As far as our reptile ambassadors, we said goodbye to Cairo the uromastyx and Mel the blue-tongued skink who were both fairly old for reptiles, but we welcomed to the team Little Foot the red-footed tortoise, Solomon the prehensile-tailed skink, and a female hybrid ratsnake (we are still figuring out a name for her). Voldemort, the legless lizard, is not as new but he is still in training as well. You may see him at an Amy’s Tree show getting in some practice. Program animal keepers are very excited to work with these really cool reptiles and prepare them to be super animal ambassadors.
As we approach the colder season, check your maps for changes in activities around the Zoo. November 7 through February 14, we are trying out our Wonders of Wildlife and Fantastic Flights show at the Coca-Cola World Studio in the ARC. At this new location, you can warm up during the show and take a bathroom break. How convenient! We will also be able to discuss a larger variety of animals in the warmer environment than we would otherwise outside in the cold weather. Please join us this winter for our new indoor shows. Inquire about tickets at the front gate and at the KIDZone ticket booth.
Keep an eye out for progress with our new animals, and we look forward to seeing you at the shows and around the Zoo. On October 24, 25 and 31, you can also check out Zoo Boo Town and trick or treat around the Zoo from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. So exciting! See you at the Zoo!
Tuesday, October 20
Keeper II, Program Animals
Apart from working with some of the most fascinating animals on the planet, one of the best parts of being a keeper is the collaboration with other keepers, sometimes from all over the world! As animal care professionals, we all strive every day to provide the highest quality and most up-to-date animal care that we can, and part of that means communicating with other facilities and their staff to gather new information and ideas. Over the past few weeks, our Primate Department was able to do just that, and we had the opportunity to welcome two keepers, one from England, the other from Australia, to visit our facility and observe our daily routines.
The visiting keepers worked with us over the course of several days, observing our husbandry practices, and taking notes on some of the amazing health care techniques we have implemented through the successes of our training programs. Plenty of conversation was to be had, with the focus on comparing training programs, enrichment and exhibit designs, and public interactions. In addition, we were able to hear all about the training, enrichment and conservation programs at their facilities, and gather new ideas on how to improve our pre-existing programs. Beyond that, it’s always fun hearing stories about the animals they work with, as well as what day-to-day life is like in a different part of the world!
As a keeper, I am always striving to learn new information in the zoological field, and it is fascinating learning about the husbandry practices from other facilities, even more so from other countries! Through these collaborations, we are able to broaden the knowledge of our staff, and offer ideas to keepers from other facilities. There are always some differences here and there but generally, the techniques are very similar, and the goal is always the same: provide the best care that we can for the animals that we work with!
Thursday, October 15
Keeper I, Primates
If you venture into Scaly Slimy Spectacular, you might notice the newest addition, our king cobra, Hannah. She is in habitat #19. The king cobra is called the “king” because it eats other snakes, just like our local kingsnakes do; it’s also why she doesn’t have any snake roommates. We named her Hannah after the king cobra’s scientific name, Ophiophagus hannah
. This habitat was originally slated for her, but some recent renovations have made it suitable for her needs. Those needs are more for the keepers’ safety, as our interns and I built a pond in her habitat that will allow us to empty and fill it without going in with her. This will allow us to give her fresh water whenever we need to without risking our safety. We also installed a misting system in her habitat for keeping plants watered and sustaining a humid jungle environment like she is used to in Southeast Asia. Another feature in her habitat is the big rotten tree on the far right, which is made of concrete, believe it or not, and is the access to her shift box.
If you go to see her and can’t find her, she is probably in her shift box. The shift box is connected to the exhibit by PVC plastic pipe and is about one foot by two feet, and when she goes in there we can secure her in it for short periods of time in order to perform maintenance on her exhibit and to feed her. Every once and a while we need to get a close observation on her, and in that case we will “tube” her. Tubing is a term for when we put a snake in a clear PVC plastic tube that is about three feet long. When the snake is far enough in the tube, we grab the snake and end of tube simultaneously, and the snake is then safe to get close observations and physicals. When we tube Hannah, the black mamba, or other cobras, they go straight from the shift box into the tube. This remarkably safe system is the way we work with the deadliest of snakes with no sweat.
Tuesday, October 14
Keeper III, Herpetology
How can you tell if a tiger is pregnant or not? The most surefire method is to simply wait about 105 days after breeding and see if anything happens. Here at the Zoo, we like to be a little more on top of things than using that method. After successful breeding introductions, we have a protocol that gets put into action. The first thing we do is simply count 105 days from breeding on the calendar to determine her due date. This date will be used for all subsequent actions. During the possible gestation period, the keepers will monitor the female closely to see if any changes occur.
There are several things that we look at. First, we examine our female tiger closely every day to see if there are any obvious physical changes. Weight gain can be a good indicator, but it is not foolproof. Secondly, the keepers watch for any changes in behavior for the possible mother-to-be. She may seek out keeper attention more than she normally would, or she may become a little inactive during times of normal activity. These could be good signs if they do occur, but they will not confirm a pregnancy. Third, the keepers closely monitor the female's diet. Is she eating all of her food every night, or is she leaving some? If she is eating all of her diet, does she still seem ravenous after she has just eaten? If this is the case, she will get an increase in her daily diet. Again, this is a good sign, but it is not definitive by itself. If we mix all of these tests together, and all signs point to yes, we can be pretty sure that tiger cubs will be on the way, and we need to start preparing things for a possible birth. We can be pretty sure, but we cannot be 100 percent sure.
The last method we use takes the most time for the keepers as well as the tiger, but it gives us the best information. Just like with expectant human mothers, we perform routine ultrasounds on our tiger. In order to avoid having to immobilize the tiger for each ultrasound, which is very time consuming, and possibly dangerous, we utilize positive reinforcement training. We have constructed a special bench in both our lion and tiger holding areas where this can occur. All of the training we do here at the Zoo is purely voluntary on the animals’ part, and if they do not wish to participate, that is their choice. The only thing the keepers will do if the animals do not participate is to come back later to see if they would like to join in the training then. If the tiger does what the trainer is asking her to do, the tiger will get a treat, some type of food, and good times will be had by all.
With our training, we ask the tiger to jump up on the training bench and to lie down with her belly directly over a small opening in the table. When she is over the opening and is calm, one of the Zoo's vets will reach through a safety cage in order to get to the opening in the table. The vet will then spray either alcohol or ultrasound gel onto the tiger's belly, quickly followed by the ultrasound probe which will enable us to actually see if there are any tiger babies in there. This is the method we use to make a definitive decision whether our tiger is pregnant or not.
This whole process may seem like an easy thing to do, but it is actually quite involved and takes many weeks or months to prepare for. The keepers spend lots of time every week training for this behavior, among others, in the chance that we will have actually have to utilize it. All that work is well worth it, though, when you actually get to see the image of babies that are on the way, or confirmation that babies are not on the way and we will have to start the process over again. Recently, we have unfortunately confirmed the latter with our female tiger, Chelsea. We were hopeful for some little tigers, but she is indeed not pregnant at this time. We will now reset all of the protocols and wait for the tigers to start showing some amorous interest in one another again. When this occurs, will reset the clock and do it all over again, hopefully with some positive results this time.
Tuesday, October 6
Lead Keeper, Carnivores
It’s that time of year again where the weather takes another turn in a different direction. The leaves are beginning to fall and the overnight temperatures are getting cooler. Besides making the outdoors more enjoyable for keepers and animals alike, this change means one specific thing for our department: winterizing!
Winterizing is our fun way to say “time to prepare for winter.” While our preparation might seem a little too early, since there has not been a truly cold day, it is essential that we start this process early. The birds of Zoo Atlanta have a wide variety of temperature recommendations and needs that are as numerous as the number of species we have. The bird staff reviews our temperature guidelines about this time each year.
Some birds are more cold-sensitive than others. These birds are brought into a temperature-controlled building such as our Avian Propagation Center or Living Treehouse holding. Starting in November, birds like our scarlet ibis and hammerkops are moved into these spaces. Here, they will ride out our “frigid” southern winter until March, again temperature-dependent. We are fortunate that most of these birds also have outdoor access during the day. But these transfers to other living spaces also require us to keep the birds stimulated in their temporary areas with an increase in variety of enrichment items.
Some birds are very tolerant of the cold weather and can be left outside, within reasonable parameters. These include our Chilean flamingo flock and our golden pheasant. The flamingos’ pool is set up with a water circulator to keep the water from freezing. Should freezing temperatures last multiple days, we will escort the flock indoors as a precaution. The golden pheasant is from Asia, just like our giant pandas, where they experience the cooler temperatures regularly. As a result the species has evolved to deal with extreme conditions, even snow. It is quite striking to see such a colorful bird against a background of snow.
The vast majority of our birds fall somewhere in between these two scenarios. Many are left with the choice to stay outside or to access their indoor areas for a little more warmth. For those who do not have indoor areas, keepers thoroughly prepare their habitats for the months ahead. This includes chores such as placing heat lamps for birds such as white-crested laughing thrushes if they get chilly. We will also place windblocks to block breezes if the forecast calls for a more blustery day.
No matter what their temperature requirements are, the birds in our collection are well taken care of during the winter. We do our best to manage the needs of birds while trying to keep them visible for the many guests who visit the Zoo during this time. Getting ready for winter is challenging process, but seeing our animals warm and happy makes it all worth it.
Tuesday, September 29
Keeper II, Birds and Program Animals
When talking to others about my line of work, there are a few questions I run into almost every time. The main two questions are: "Is it every bit as glamorous as it seems?" And "How does anybody actually become a zookeeper?"
The first is easy. The answer is "No, of course not, it's much more glamorous than that.”
Answering the other question, however, can be complicated. Reader, if you were to ask 10 different zookeepers how they found their start, you'd likely hear 10 astoundingly different stories. You will find one common thread, though, and that’s a solid education. Just about every zookeeper is a proud recipient of a college degree, and any aspiring zookeeper should see that as a mandatory step towards breaking into the field.
The great majority of zookeepers you meet will likely have a degree in biology. Biology is a great gateway into the world of animals, and most zoology coursework falls under these programs.
Many zookeepers have come out of psychology programs. Psychology can give you a great understanding of the mind that will be incredibly useful in the field. Psychologists can make great animal trainers. A lot of what we know today about animal training and positive reinforcement actually comes from the work of history’s great psychologists.
Aspiring zookeepers who are interested in outreach programs might also consider education degrees. Outreach keepers spend a great portion of their time with the public and teaching our guests about the animals we care for. It comes in handy to have people on our staff that are experts on educating the public.
My degree is actually in anthropology, the study of humans. Now, reader, I know what you’re thinking: “Mike, why would someone who studied humans end up working with animals?” This is a reasonable question. Anthropologists study everything that makes us human. This includes our culture, but it also includes our own biology. In studying human biology, we can learn a lot from our closest relatives the non-human primates. I always loved primates and focused as much of my coursework as possible on studying the apes, monkeys and prosimians. Naturally, after spending all that time with my nose in a book about primates, I wanted to spend as much time with them as possible.
So reader, I hope this gives you some insight into what it takes to become a keeper. Stay in school. Make good choices.
Thursday, September 24
Keeper I, Primates
Once upon a time in the not-so-far away land of Atlanta, there was a princess named Eugenia. Eugenia was painfully beautiful, frighteningly brilliant, and modest to a fault. She was also a zookeeper at Zoo Atlanta with the most important job of all – taking care of the animals, of course! Every morning before the sun came up, Princess Eugenia arranged her long, shining hair into a casual (but perfectly coiffed) French twist, threw on her tiara and went to work ready to face the day’s challenges with poise and absolute tact.
The Zoo was one of the most exotic and picturesque places in all the land. Most mornings before Eugenia flitted into the Outback Station Barn, she was met with the kind smile of one of the Zoo’s horticulturists already hard at work caring for the largest living collection at the zoo. She reflected to herself that the many herbivores at the Zoo would be terribly disappointed without the variety of browse which the Horticulture Team carefully selects. Princess Eugenia began to realize that all around the Zoo, plants were carefully arrange inside and outside of animal exhibits to provide shade to visitors and residents and create hiding places for the more timid animals. “The Horticulture team must work very hard indeed!” she thought to herself; “I am truly an astute naturalist for observing the impact that plants can make on animal welfare!”
Princess Eugenia often spent her days in the petting zoo with an ambassador herd of goats and sheep. Here, they met and engaged with almost every visitor that came through the Zoo gates, and on rare occasions, Eugenia might be asked a question to which she was unsure of the answer. Never one to give up, she knew she could always broadcast her lark-like voice over the radio in a call for aid from the Zoo’s front line – the Admissions gate. She was so grateful to the knowledgeable members of the Guest Services and Education Departments for their wonderful interactions with guests during their visit, and for supporting Eugenia and the other keepers to the same end. She knew how important it was for guests to be inspired and continue the message of conservation the Zoo represented, and which Eugenia fully believed in.
While the Princess considered herself fully capable of completing any task at hand, regardless of training or lack thereof, there were times when she was obliged to request assistance from the exceptionally clever Maintenance Team. She would see them every day working on a seemingly endless list of tasks from realigning drains, replacing aging electrical outlets, and scaling buildings to repairing roofing. Their help was tantamount to keeper and animal safety, as well as to an efficient workplace. Suddenly, Eugenia was stuck by how many people at the Zoo worked every day to care for the animals, regardless of whether they worked with the animals. From the custodial team, who kept the grounds and exhibits free of debris, to the Security officers, who worked around the clock to keep the animals and people safe. It even occurred to her how busy her bosses must be to provide for the needs of such a large animal collection and seamlessly manage their employees. Whew!
And so it was that Eugenia learned there was no singular job of utmost importance. Instead, she saw that all Zoo employees worked together to support the animals through education, husbandry, management, or maintenance. She felt full of gratitude especially toward the unsung, un-blogging members of the Zoo Team who dedicated their hard work for the sake of the animals. Princess Eugenia vowed to put her formidable baking skills to use in order to thank them so they could all live happily ever after …
Tuesday, September 22
Keeper I, Mammals
If you are a frequent visitor here at Zoo Atlanta, then you probably have figured out that the Bird Department is always changing/moving birds around. Normally, reasons for these change-ups can be seasonal (temperatures dropping or rising) and also because of breeding purposes. One other reason is, in my opinion, very exciting, and that is the acquisition of new birds! New birds offer more breeding opportunities, as well as add new behaviors and colors to our bird habitats. In the coming months, be on the lookout for a few new species such as white-cheeked bulbuls, masked lapwings, and crested wood partridges (aka roul rouls). Along with these incoming individuals, we may be acquiring two more female king vultures.
When any new animal becomes part of the collection here, it goes through a routine quarantine period which usually lasts about a month. During this time, our vet staff makes certain that the animal is not carrying any unwanted parasites or zoonotic diseases. Now, it may sound easy enough to just put a few new birds out on exhibit once they are cleared from quarantine, but there are many variables you have to consider. Which exhibit will allow the bird to be the most visible to guests? Will they get along with their other exhibit mates? So next time you are checking out one of our many cool bird habitats, you’ll have a great idea of the whole process!
Thursday, September 17
Keeper II, Birds
As keepers, our primary jobs are the husbandry, training and enrichment of the animals in our care, as well as raising action and awareness of the need to conserve their counterparts in the wild. But conservation isn’t just limited to animals and plants; conserving our resources is another critical piece of the puzzle.
There are many ways to conserve water in our homes and jobs. Simple things like turning off a faucet or having water-saving fixtures help. But did you know you can save water through your food choices? You can save water by eating leftovers. Yes, leftovers. The UN Food and Agriculture organization reports that nearly one third of all food produced for human consumption is wasted through production, storage, transportation, consumption, and disposal. That food consumes 25 percent of all fresh water consumed annually. When the leftovers from dinner sit in the refrigerator, many factors play a role in how much water is wasted and the overall environmental impact of one meal. Some things to think about include the fertilizer use, land use, and how far the food has to travel to your dinner plate. For example, California leads the nation in production of fruits, vegetables, nuts and wines. Some of the food we eat travels more than 2,200 miles from California to Georgia. Over 80 percent of water used in California goes into agriculture. During the past several years California has been experiencing drought conditions. So what we eat plays a large role on the water usage in California.
How do your leftovers impact water supplies? Some foods require more water than others. Meats use the most because you have to take into account the water animals drink as well as the water that goes into growing the feed. For instance, beef is the most water-intensive meat, requiring over 1,900 gallons per pound! A lot of water goes into processed foods. On the other end of the spectrum are root vegetables and greens that require less than 30 gallons of water per pound to produce. The push to eat a diet of fruits, vegetables and grains is not only healthier, but also cheaper and better for carbon emissions. With greens using the least amount of water to produce, salads just became more appetizing.
Keep it in mind next time you’re planning dinners for the week!
Tuesday, September 15
Lead Keeper, Program Animals
I am beginning my fourth month as a Primate Research Intern at Zoo Atlanta, and my position allows for a unique, big-picture perspective of what the Zoo is able to accomplish.
Half of my work focuses on cognitive and behavioral research with the gorilla and orangutan populations found at the Zoo. This work has been fascinating and engaging. The orangutans are currently working on different cognitive programs on large, modified, touch-screen computers, and the programs increase in difficulty as the animals become proficient at a task. Six different long-term observations of the gorillas are also underway. Next time you come to the Zoo, look at the roof surrounding the gorilla habitats and you will likely see me watching the gorillas as well!
In addition to seeing these incredible animals actively learn, think, play and interact, I have had the opportunity to form relationships with them. I’ve also had the chance to see much of the work of the outstanding primate zookeepers, whose dedication to the health and well-being of our primates is inspiring.
The other half of my work is done with The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International, which has been based at Zoo Atlanta for the past 20 years. Much of my work at Dian Fossey involves analyzing and compiling the data from the wild population of mountain gorillas the Fossey Fund protects and monitors. I also see the work my coworkers do, which includes community outreach, fundraising, and active field work in mountain gorilla habitat. An incredible amount of time, energy and dedication is involved in running a nonprofit organization focusing on gorilla conservation.
Once a week, I give a talk at the Zoo about primate research and conservation, which has allowed me to better understand how the two different halves of my job come together. Arguably, one of Zoo Atlanta’s biggest roles is to expose people to the wonderfully diverse wildlife housed here at the Zoo. We hope you can come to the Zoo and see some of the amazing animals. The joint work of Zoo Atlanta and the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International allows for the collaborative efforts of so many individuals to come together, which means I approach each day at my job with the knowledge and hope that all of this hard work will lead to a healthy, sustainable future for all wildlife.
Thursday, September 10
Primate Research Intern
Even though the days are still getting hot, there’s a certain twinge in the air signaling that fall is on its way to Atlanta. Fall is my favorite time of year, and I can’t wait for it to get here! For me it means evening cookouts, relaxing by the fire pit, camping, and leaving the windows open at night! However, for those of us in Zoo Atlanta’s Herpetology Department, the end of summer and beginning of autumn means work!
Regular visitors to the Zoo are accustomed to seeing several of our turtle and tortoise species doing their thing along Trader’s Alley, in the Wonderful Wetlands, or in the outdoor exhibits at Scaly Slimy Spectacular during the warmer months. But once those brisk, chilly nights come along, many of our animals have to move indoors. Many, like the eastern box turtles (Terrapene carolina) and common sliders (Trachemys scripta) will spend the cooler months outdoors going through their natural brumation cycle. As these animals are native to our area, they can weather the winters here without a hitch. For others, such as the Burmese star tortoises (Geochelone platynota) and impressed tortoises (Manouria impressa) that call Trader’s Alley home, the winter bite is just too much and they have to move indoors until the heat returns.
But where do all of these shelled critters go? For those that can handle our winters, they stay where they are. For all of the others, we have two places they will go. The first is the enrichment room in the orangutan building. No, the orangutans don’t get to cuddle with the turtles! What is now used as the enrichment room is actually very well-suited to overwintering many of our chelonian collection. The temperatures are warm, but not too warm, there’s a hose so we can mist and provide fresh water, and plenty of outlets so we can plug in basking lights. It takes several days of prep work to get it set up every year, and the Herpetology Team is grateful to those who donate their time to help every year. We are also continually indebted to the Primate Department for sharing their space with us!
Soon, we’ll also finish construction on our Conservation Breeding Center right next to Scaly Slimy Spectacular. You may have already read a bit about it in our department’s last blog entry by Daniel Benboe. Many of our turtles and tortoises will be spending time inside this new area as well. And although we’ll soon be moving many animals indoors, don’t forget that the animals inside Scaly Slimy Spectacular are on exhibit year-round!
Tuesday, September 8
Lead Keeper, Herpetology
I may be an elephant keeper, but there are other animals I like just as much. My favorite animals are camels. Mostly dromedary camels, but I’ve made friends with a Bactrian or two in my day. “Well, Josh, if you like camels so much why do you work with elephants?” You might ask. Allow me to answer: I don’t work with the elephants because they’re elephants, I work with them because, to me, they are Kelly and Tara. Kelly and Tara are incredible individuals who just happen to be elephants. I had the beautiful privilege of gaining employment with them a few years ago, I’ve gotten to know them pretty well in the time since, and now I wouldn’t leave them for any number of camels. Not even for baby camels.
Kelly and Tara (always Kelly and Tara, never Tara and Kelly, for mysterious reasons) are not just elephants. They don’t just eat peanuts and trumpet all the time. They honestly hardly ever trumpet, don’t eat peanuts, and any behaviors they perform in cooperation with us have husbandry purposes behind them. There is infinitely more to Kelly and Tara than you might ever believe.
Every morning Kelly rumbles a greeting so tremendous it rattles your teeth. She knows each of us and adjusts her behavior accordingly, unflagging in her desire to please Nate or Courtney, generally ambivalent to me, no matter the apples I offer. She loves to be kept busy, she’s rough on her toys, and she will open her mouth as wide as it goes to drink from the firehose. She has been known to throw sticks at her lion neighbors when they were being too loud – something I can certainly relate with. She can be bossy and pushy, but loves spending time with people, is always willing to train with us, and is an enthusiastic painter.
Tara, on the other hand, is as relaxed as she can be. If you see an elephant in the yard looking like she’s falling asleep on her feet, resting her trunk against a convenient boulder with her eyes closed, still as a statue, it’s always Tara. She moves a bit slower, as if she’s calculating every step she takes. She’s more likely to ignore our requests and offer something more suited to her mood, and she’s more likely to seek compensation for the initiative. She’ll lay down when asked but won’t get back up. She manages to make us look stupid all the time, but does so with a twinkle in her eye as if it’s all a big joke to her.
Camels will always be my favorite animals, but Kelly and Tara will always be my favorite coworkers, and the distinction between the two is something that can’t really be explained; it can only be understood.
And that’s the news from the elephant barn, where the people are filthy but the intentions are pure.
Thursday, September 3
Keeper I, Mammals
Spending my summer working in Wieland Wildlife Home with various animal ambassadors has truly been an eye-opening experience. During our busy season, we put on six shows a week with our animals, and they are taken around Zoo grounds more frequently to interact with guests. Meanwhile, they are still being handled monthly by a variety of handlers, keepers and staff.
One thing that has really resonated with me during my internship at Zoo Atlanta is the fact that our animals have their own voices and their own choices to make. If our black-tailed prairie dog has had a long day or is feeling a bit off, then he can decide not to kennel to go on whatever outing we had planned for him. If he decides not to kennel, he realizes he is giving up his treat and reward, but that’s a choice only he can make. Although I’ve only ever seen him run happily into his crate and accept his treat, he can make the choice not to enter the kennel, which can tell us many things. It may indicate that the reward for his behavior is inadequate, that he’s tired and not up for the task or even (if it is a frequent occurrence) that he’s not feeling wonderful.
While the majority of our animals are more than happy to hop into a kennel and eat dinner or appear in a show, we do occasionally get a chinchilla that would rather stay in a familiar, cozy home than to hop into a kennel for dinner or go encounter guests around the Zoo. That’s okay. That’s their choice to make. And if they’re not feeling up to it, we’d rather take a different animal. We have the ability to pick up our animals and transport them places, but we’re more concerned about their well-being and ability to make decisions, which is a wonderful thing.
Tuesday, September 1
Program Animals Intern summer 2015
It’s been a long time since we’ve seen flamingo chicks on exhibit here at Zoo Atlanta. For a variety of reasons it has become our standard practice for the Bird Team to hand-raise all of its flamingo chicks. This is a daunting task and takes a great deal of time, so we are only able to do it once every two or three years. But with new staff comes new ideas. Our new Lead Keeper of Birds, Christine, came to us from Riverbanks Zoo in South Carolina, where for the last five years they have implemented a novel approach to raising their American flamingo chicks, and we decided to try the method here this year as well. Though we face a different set of challenges from the Riverbanks Zoo and we are working with a different flamingo species, we are hoping to be able to do something rather similar.
Since we have never done this before, we decided to work with just three chicks. As soon as each chick hatched in our incubator we placed it under a pair of birds already incubating on a nest. We left the chick with the parents for the first night so they could fully bond with each other. After the first night, the chicks were removed at the end of each day and placed in brooders in the flamingo building. They remain there overnight and then are put back with the parents in the morning. This is possible because flamingos are extremely devoted parents and always accept their chicks back. By rearing chicks this way we can protect them from overnight predators, the curse of mosquitos, etc. We have continued this routine since, and all three chicks are thriving and doing well. They have all left their nests and can be seen roaming around the flamingo habitat with their parents. Come out and see them before they are all grown up!
Keeper III, Birds
Thursday, August 27
(Photo by Monica Halpin)
It has been nearly five months since the opening of Scaly Slimy Spectacular: The Amphibian and Reptile Experience. All the animals have settled in their luxurious new homes, and the keepers are getting into the swing of things. There is so much to learn about this state-of-the-art facility with its high-tech exhibits, lighting, filtration, heating and other life support systems.
Though the excitement surrounding the opening of our newest exhibit is still buzzing, we often get asked about the old reptile building, The World of Reptiles. Believe it or not, we care for over 200 reptiles and amphibians that are not housed in the new facility. Many are surprised to hear that we still have a substantial part of our collection still residing in the majestic old behemoth. The old building has been a source for many fond memories and we can say that its sturdy walls are still in proud service. Good news, however: Construction has already begun on the new breeding and conservation center that will house our auxiliary collection and breeding colonies! While we don’t yet know the ultimate fate of the World of Reptiles, we keepers are still happy to work in its spacious corridors and familiar galleries. We salute the World of Reptiles for 50 years of delighting Zoo guests and professionals alike. Hip hip hooray!
Tuesday, August 25
Keeper III, Herpetology
Starting work at a new place is always an exciting experience, especially when that place is Zoo Atlanta! As a new keeper in the Primate Department, I have spent the past few months getting to know our group of 20 gorillas and learning the ins and outs of their daily care routine. Let me just say, the day is always an interesting one when your coworkers aren’t necessarily all human!
The gorillas here at Zoo Atlanta are full of personality, and each one has his or her own unique skills and preferences, something we as keepers make sure to remember! For example, I have come to find out that Charlie, one of our bachelors, is very prominent at making and using tools and will often utilize his big branches of browse to retrieve treats that are just out of reach; Taz, the dominant male in our family group, prefers fruit punch or grape juice to strawberry kiwi; and hammocks, vines, and swings are always a big favorite with the playful juveniles. In addition to knowing all about their personalities and preferences, it’s important that keepers also have a thorough understanding of their species history and behaviors. This type of information allows us to know how best to care for them, what sorts of foods will keep them healthy, and what kinds of enrichment will bring out their natural behaviors.
As you can probably imagine, there is a lot to remember during the day, especially when our keepers are combining their knowledge of the species, the gorillas’ behavior, and their individual likes and dislikes. Multiply that by 20 gorillas and you have quite a bit on your plate! However, the keepers here do just that and more every single day to ensure that these animals have the best care, catered to each specific individual. We work just as much with the gorillas as they do with us, and it is both a challenging and inspiring experience. I am excited to be a part of this team and look forward to continuing to learn from my coworkers, human and gorilla alike!
Thursday, August 20
Keeper I, Primates
All year long, we celebrate special days with themed enrichment that the animals love: giving out heart-themed treats on Valentine’s Day, World’s Best Dad cards on Father’s Day, and countless pumpkins for Halloween, but next month holds our biggest enrichment event of the year: Play the Animal Way on September 26. This day is dedicated to all things enriching, with carnivores pouncing on animal hides and bones, papier mâché flying in the primate habitats, and cardboard boxes being demolished by the Kunekune pig and tanuki. Bamboo puzzle feeders are prepared along with miles of paper chains. Our Commissary Team works hard ordering special items like those animal hides and bones, fish and novel produce items. The Volunteer Enrichment Team spends hours putting together and decorating the enrichment, making fruitsicles and Jell-O eggs and organizing all the items for delivery to the animal areas.
Before the animals receive a new enrichment item, however, the item has to go through a process of approval. All animal areas have enrichment liaisons who coordinate special enrichment days and help new enrichment ideas go from a concept to reality. Every enrichment idea is brought before our Curators and veterinarians to make sure it is safe to try. Once approved for trial, keepers can start enrichment observations, in which the item is given to the animals, and keepers closely observe to make sure the animals interact with it in a safe manner while recording the animals' behavior toward the new object. After a minimum of three observations, we send our records to our area Curator for final approval to be used in rotation with other enrichment items. Multiply that by all the enrichment items (and foods!) you see around the Zoo every day, and you have a very busy Zoo staff!
I hope you'll come out for Play the Animal Way to see some of the animals' newly approved enrichment items, as well as some of their old favorites!
Tuesday, August 18
Keeper I, Mammals
In the Bird Department, we are proud to take care of some of the rarest and most exquisite birds in the world. As keepers, it is our job to study the birds we work with and to educate our guests as to their importance.
As you may know, some birds disperse seeds, helping more plants to grow, in turn providing food and shelter for other animals. But what you may not know is that some birds help to prevent the spread of bacteria and disease, which affects our very health!
Over the course of time, vultures have been considered unpleasing to the eye and potentially unsanitary creatures. In reality, vultures have many adaptations that help them to stay clean while they clean up the decay and bacteria found in carrion. You got it; vultures actually help to keep our environment clean! But sadly, most of the world’s 23 species of vulture are in danger.
In an effort to educate guests about their importance, we’ll be participating in International Vulture Awareness Day in September. For this event we will have activities, keeper chats and conservation information concerning vultures. Our hope is to reach and inspire people of all ages to take action to help nature’s clean-up crew. Stay tuned for more event details.
We are also pleased to have another special event coming up this Saturday, August 22, when we’ll be celebrating a hatch-day for one of our oldest Zoo residents, Cecil the cassowary.
To learn more facts about these amazing creatures, participate in the fun, and find out how you can help, visit us for these events! We look forward to our journey together to save, and give awareness to, species worldwide.
Special-edition Keeper Blog: Happy Birthday, Jabari!
Monday, August 17
Keeper II, Birds
As a swing keeper for the Mammal Department, I often spend my week floating between the different areas and assisting where I'm needed. Lately I've been spending a lot of time working with our amazing Hoofstock Team. Today I'm back in pandas, and I'm finding myself reminiscing about a panda shift from just about two years ago. While working on overnight cub watch with the panda twins, the nursery keepers were also tasked with remotely monitoring our female black rhino, Andazi, for signs of labor. This was such an immense help to our Hoofstock Team, and I'm so glad that I got to be a part of it. I arrived for my panda shift shortly after Andazi's water broke, and I had just finished helping swap Mei Lun and Mei Huan as Jabari, our bouncing black rhino boy and the first rhino calf ever born at Zoo Atlanta, arrived! Now that our panda girls and rhino boy are bigger, they resemble their parents much more closely both in size, personality, and characteristics.
Keeper II, Mammals
Thursday, August 13
It has been a crazy past four months in the Herpetology Department as Scaly Slimy Spectacular has opened and we have gotten used to our new building. The first month was the most intense as we brought the animals in to their new homes and figured out our new routines. I am lucky enough to have the section in our new complex that goes along the gallery on the left, from the blood pythons to the diamondback terrapins. On a Sunday afternoon you might find me feeding all along this side of the gallery at 3:30 p.m. It is fun and a bit challenging trying to feed the mata mata turtles when the caiman lizards are trying to come get the fish that I am offering to the turtles. In one of our new aquatic exhibits, you may find our female alligator snapping turtle up against the glass – fishing – that is, floating her lure to attract fish. I also have a number of amphibian exhibits which are relatively new to me but have been a great learning experience.
In our new diamondback terrapin habitat, we are able to show the young terrapins as they grow up as part of a rear-and-release program. We have been doing this before, but all behind the scenes. Now with this new exhibit, we can show our guests what we are accomplishing while having the terrapins on exhibit. The baby terrapins are brought from the Georgia Sea Turtle Center in Jekyll Island, and we raise them up for several months until they are bigger and stronger. The 10 we have had since April have grown a lot and will be going back to Jekyll Island today to be eventually released into the wild. With that, 25 new baby terrapins will come up to get their start in our new exhibit in Scaly Slimy Spectacular.
As you come up the walk to the new complex, you might see big green building rising just behind the fence. This will be our new conservation breeding center. We are excited to see its construction in progress, as it is another big component to our complete move out of the old World of Reptiles.
Tuesday, August 11
Hujambo! Habari gani? Jina langu ni Jane na ninatunza nyani katika Zoo Atlanta!
Keeper III, Herpetology
(Hello, how are you? My name is Jane and I care for primates at Zoo Atlanta!)
The Ohio State University gave me the unique experience of studying the African language of Swahili or Kiswahili. The language is spoken in East Africa, including the countries of Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Many people have never heard of this language, but if you’ve ever seen a certain Disney movie with characters named “Rafiki” (friend) and “Simba” (lion) and have uttered “Hakuna matata,” then you know more Swahili than you think!
I tried Swahili the first quarter of my freshman year of college and instantly fell in love with the language and the culture around it. Of course one aspect of the East African culture that I love is their reverence for the animals that co-inhabit their land. My professor and mentor, who is from a small town in Kenya, told me stories of running through the savanna as a young boy and observing the wildlife around him.
If you look closely around Zoo Atlanta, there are hints of Swahili, particularly in the African Plains area. This includes signs for Twiga (giraffe) Terrace, Nyumba ya Tembo (House of the Elephant), and Mandhari ya Simba (Lion Overlook). I even found a Karibu (Welcome) sign in the copy machine room! Lots of our animals have Swahili names too. For example, gorilla Willie B. Jr., aka Kidogo, means “little” (although he is nearly 400 pounds!), and our young rhinoceros is named Jabari, which means “brave."
My Swahili professors, the language, and the East African culture were so embracing that I studied Swahili from freshman through senior year, and I continue to practice it in my spare time. I hope that one day I can travel to all the diverse areas of Africa and see the wild cousins of the many African animals here at the Zoo. But, for now, a quick walk through Zoo Atlanta’s African Plains will put a smile on my face and remind me of the joy that the Kiswahili language has brought me.
Siku njema! Kwaheri!
(Have a good day! Goodbye!)
Thursday, August 6
Seasonal Keeper, Primates
A day in the life of an intern is busy to say the least, but despite the tired feet at the end of the day, I always leave with a contented sigh. As a Program Animals Intern, my day begins in Wieland Wildlife Home, where I start laundry and put away dishes. After the daily tasks are done, I care for on-exhibit animals, such as tortoises, hedgehogs and rabbits, to name a few. Once that is done, I complete husbandry for the reptile room, which is my assigned area. Before this internship I had no reptile experience. I am grateful to have been able to work with them; I love working with them all, from the 7-foot-long red-tailed boa to the 5-inch-long leopard gecko! After husbandry is complete there may be time for a few projects, such as thoroughly cleaning enclosures and organizing enrichment, but some days I head straight to the World of Wild Theater to assist with the bird show.
At the bird show I welcome guests and thank them for coming. One perk of doing this is that I get to watch the bird show, which is always different and entertaining, even though I see it six times a week! Lunch comes around the corner before you know it. After lots of laughs with the other interns and staff, it’s time to get ready for the Amy’s Tree show. We do a lot of work backstage, handing animals to those on stage and making sure the music and other props are used in sync. I have loved doing these shows. The interns had the opportunity of acting in a show on stage as well. That was a blast! I love educating the public and sharing information. Speaking of which, animal encounters are a perfect way to do just that. Once a day, sometimes twice, I bring an animal out to the public to share cool facts and allow people to touch the animal. It is a lot of fun to see the surprise when I bring out a snake or hear the “awws” when I bring out a tenrec (a mammal closely related to the shrew).
As an aspiring veterinarian, I have loved learning about the different species, especially their medical care. I knew I would enjoy the animal experience, but I didn’t realize how much I’d enjoy the public interaction. Not only learning about animals, but also sharing that information has been very rewarding. I highly recommend the Program Animal Internship to anyone interested in animal care and education!
Tuesday, August 4
Program Animals Intern
Here’s a little inside peek into the goings on of Zoo Atlanta’s Birds and Program Animals Department. You see, we have a great group of people working with not only our fantastic bird show, but in Wieland Wildlife Home and in our bird areas around the Zoo. The way our keepers work within these areas vary, so today I’ll give you the inside scoop on the Bird part of the department.
In the Bird section, we have four main routines. Each routine has a primary keeper who focuses mainly on that area and knows all the ins and outs of the animals in that area, how to work the area, and any projects that might need doing. The routines are Flamingo, Treehouse, Parakeets and what we have affectionately dubbed Prop. Each routine takes care of a number of different bird enclosures around the Zoo, with their “titles” centering on their main focus exhibit. However, each routine also possesses its own quirks. For instance, the Flamingo routine, which focuses on several exhibits in the Lower Zoo, has the main job of taking care of the flamingos in Flamingo Plaza. Yet this keeper also starts the day by making the diets for every bird habitat in the Lower Zoo. There are a total of 18 habitats in that part of the Zoo. That’s a lot of food!
The story doesn’t end there, though! If the primary keepers are the main base of a routine, then the swing keepers are the supporting structure. These keepers don’t have a set routine, but instead have the ability to work all four. They keep each routine going smoothly when the primary keeper is away. The fun part about this position is that the swing keeper gets to work with all the birds in each area. However, that is also the struggle. Keeping up with everything that’s going on in every routine is a challenge. Things change in Birds all the time, so keeping on top of those shift and changes is pivotal to doing the job well.
Despite all the unique challenges, I have yet to meet a friendlier bunch of people than those that make up this department. We work as a team to keep our animals happy and healthy to the best of our ability, and to share their beauty with the guests of Zoo Atlanta. I hope this helped in revealing just a little bit more about what our jobs here at Zoo Atlanta entail. Come and visit us soon!
Keeper I, Birds
Thursday, July 30
For those of you who follow Zoo Atlanta, you may have already heard the news that Utenzi, our adult male black rhino, left to start a new chapter of his life at Cincinnati Zoo. This move was initiated by a Species Survival Plan (SSP) breeding recommendation. Zoo Atlanta participates in this program to help ensure the survival of species that are threatened or endangered in the wild. The SSP takes many factors into consideration and makes pairing recommendations to ensure the gene pool remains diverse. Utenzi has moved on to breed with another black rhino, just as he was brought to Zoo Atlanta to breed with our female Andazi. Unlike most of our smaller animals, Utenzi had to be transported in a very large crate that was placed inside a huge temperature-controlled semi truck. In order to make Utenzi’s journey as stress free as possible, the hoofstock keepers were tasked with crate-training him. Since we don’t move rhinos on a regular basis, we had to borrow a rhino-sized crate from another zoo. We made sure to have the crate delivered long before the move date to ensure that Utenzi could get familiar with it. Once the crate was positioned in our off-exhibit corral area and well secured, the training began.
Black rhinos tend to be more skittish than other rhino species, and Utenzi is no different. He’s a bit of a scaredy cat to be honest, which made crate training more of a challenge for myself and the other hoofstock keepers. Because we exclusively use positive reinforcement training here at the Zoo, we relied heavily on Utenzi’s willingness to participate. He was able to choose when he wanted to partake in a training session and was handsomely rewarded for doing so with some of his favorite treats (watermelon and cantaloupe, just to name a few). Our most senior keeper, Kim, and our Assistant Curator of Mammals, Tammy, were instrumental in creating a step-by-step shaping plan. This plan set small goals for Utenzi and the team, from the day he was introduced to the crate to when he was comfortably standing all the way inside. It was a long process that spanned several months and involved consistent daily training.
We began by simply getting Utenzi used to the idea that the crate was in his space. This was a big step in itself. We started to offer Utenzi food outside in the corral where the crate was located and systematically moved the food closer and closer. Our training sessions at this point included giving Utenzi treats and rewards from outside the corral anytime he would approach the crate. Once he began getting close, we positioned a keeper at the head of the crate to call him inside. The crate was outfitted with vertical steel bars and Dutch doors on the front and back that allowed us to safely work with Utenzi. He quickly caught on and started to make his way inside the crate, inching a little closer to the front every day. We were all thrilled the day that we received an ecstatic email from Megan, one of our newest hoofstock keepers, informing us that he had walked all the way into the crate for the first time.
Every step of the process was a huge victory for the team. From the first day that he got close to the crate, to the day that he took his first step inside, to when he ultimately walked all the way in. By his last few weeks here, he was confidently walking inside the crate and enthusiastically taking treats from us. Much of the time he would beat us to the crate and be waiting for goodies when we opened the training panel. I am extremely proud of our hoofstock team for accomplishing such an amazing task and the wonderful rhino who made it all possible.
Keeper I, Mammals
(Photo by Kim Morrell)
Tuesday, July 28
Milestones are being met by the Primate Department’s one non-primate species, the Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth, this month! For starters, Raisin became the official name for our baby sloth. And, just announced, Raisin is a girl!
Sexing a baby sloth is quite difficult, so we used DNA testing to determine Raisin’s gender. After sampling just a few of Raisin’s hairs, keepers awaited results. And how better to share the news than with a sloth gender-reveal party? As keepers cut the specially-made cake, PINK icing was exposed!
Raisin is growing faster than one would imagine a sloth could. Although she is still spending much of her time clinging to mom, she is also climbing on her own, independently exploring, and munching on plenty of solid foods. Her favorite? Everything ... grapes, lettuce, carrots, sweet potato, and more.
Raisin will become completely independent around 10 months of age, so she still has a ways to go. However, Raisin paused from nursing for a moment and began to briefly hang upside-down for the first time after just one month of age. Although Raisin is growing up quickly, she will have a close relationship with her mom for up to two years.
Each time I work with Raisin, she does something new. I can’t help but get excited and tell guests each time I see her develop a new behavior and grow. So don’t be surprised if you see a keeper standing on a ladder in the sloth exhibit cooing over little Raisin.
Keeper I, Primates
(Photo by Jane Solimine)
Thursday, July 23
Positive reinforcement training plays a huge role in the zoo world. I'm sure many of you have seen training demonstrations either at Zoo Atlanta with some of our animals or at other zoos. However, many people don't realize that this happens as a part of our daily routine within the Bird Department and not just for the bird show. As keepers, we are constantly working with our animals to improve the quality of their care, make their daily routine run smoothly, and enrich their lives.
We are currently working on several behaviors from multiple species. The blue cranes are currently being trained to step onto a scale so we can more easily monitor their weight and health. Another keeper is working with our cassowary to desensitize him so vet staff can more easily draw blood. We are also currently training behaviors to make management easier. Our lappet-faced vultures are being station trained to receive their diets. This makes distributing their diets simpler and cuts down on quibbling. One keeper has taken on the task of conditioning the parakeets in the aviary to shift on cue -- no small feat. While all training is enrichment, some is specifically geared for that purpose. Our southern ground hornbills are incredibly intelligent and require enrichment on a daily basis. One creative way we mix things up for them is through painting. The hornbills not only enjoy the keeper interaction, but also the process of puzzling things out while learning a new behavior.
All of this takes a great deal of patience, time, and usually some trial and error. Despite this, or maybe because of it, there is always a great sense of accomplishment when the behavior becomes routine. In the end, the work put in pays off through making their lives better and ours a little easier.
Thursday, July 16
Seasonal Keeper, Birds
We’ve recently made a number of exciting updates to the Bird and Program animals Department here at Zoo Atlanta. For one, a variety of really awesome animals have been added to our collection! One individual that we are happy to welcome into our animal ambassador program is a sheltopusik, also known as a European legless lizard. Our sheltopusik, named Voldemort, will be calling the Wieland Wildlife Home his new home and will be an excellent teaching tool for educating guests on the differences between snakes and lizards. Wieland also became home to three juvenile American alligators recently. The alligators are named Hercules, Perseus and Odysseus, and we’re hoping that they will be on program and serving as ambassadors by the end of August.
Lastly, the Program Animals Department has also welcomed a symbol of our great nation into his new home. That’s right; a bald eagle has landed in the World of Wild Theater! Our new bald eagle habitat will allow Zoo guests to appreciate the national animal of the United States. Not only can guests learn about how bald eagles survive in their native environment, but they will also have the opportunity to learn about the history of our nation’s symbol. The bald eagle is a perfect example of a success story in terms of habitat conservation and species recovery. Bald eagles were classified as endangered in the late 20th century; however, research and recovery plans have dramatically improved population numbers. I could talk about how amazing these birds are all day, but we look forward to your getting the chance to see him for himself! He’s still adjusting to his new surroundings right now, but lucky visitors may enjoy sightings of him beginning this weekend. Keep your eyes peeled!
Tuesday, July 14
Keeper I, Program Animals
Exciting things are in the works for our intern programs. Our very first intern seminar occurred at the end of this past June. Assistant Curator of Birds and Program Animals Becky Bearman and Senior Primate Keeper Lynn Yakubinis held our Training 101 class for the current group of interns at Zoo Atlanta. Several of our interns were in attendance. This class is the first of many that will be developed over the next few intern terms, to help expand on the knowledge that our interns are getting through their time here at Zoo Atlanta. The new training course included topics on why we train our animals, proper terminology of current training theory, and examples of training we use here at the Zoo to help us take care of all our wonderful animals. Our interns not only got to witness a quick training session by Becky and the sulfur-crested cockatoo, Sydney, but the next morning, several of the interns also got to watch an early morning training and exercise session with our fabulous elephants Kelly and Tara. Our interns got to see first-hand the training theory and methodology used when training our animals.
Upcoming for future intern terms, we are planning on adding classes on animal enrichment; public speaking; and resume building with interview standards, in addition to a class on animal welfare and conservation initiatives that we here at Zoo Atlanta support. We are all excited about the future of the intern development program and about encouraging our interns toward positive goals and moving them ahead in future endeavors.
Keeper III, Mammals
Thursday, July 9
Here in the Zoo Atlanta Herpetology Department, we do more than just take care of reptiles and amphibians. We are also involved with multiple research projects. Currently we have projects on bearded dragons, red-tailed boa constrictors and Guatemalan beaded lizards, just to name a few.
We have 15 male bearded dragons, something that you would not ordinarily see in a zoo’s reptile collection. One of the first rules about most research is sample size. The more individuals that are in the study, the “stronger” your results will be. So, in order to have an adequate sample size, we have 15 individuals that we are using for a UVB study. Most reptiles require exposure to UVB rays for processing vitamin D3, something that is ordinarily supplied in plenty by the sun. But in a zoological situation, we must artificially supply this UVB. With this study, we are testing the effectiveness of three types of light bulbs by measuring blood chemistry levels for one year.
The red-tailed boa constrictors are involved in a growth study. There are 22 individuals in three different treatment groups, each with a different feeding regiment. These animals were actually bred here at Zoo Atlanta, and currently the female (Luchadora) who had these babies is on exhibit at Scaly Slimy Spectacular. This growth study will also be for one year.
Our Guatemalan beaded lizards are here primarily for conservation breeding; we have the only zoological breeding group of this species here at Zoo Atlanta. We have had success breeding this species for the past few years by housing six males with four females in one large group. This means that we do not know who the father is of any offspring, as there are multiple males that can breed with the females. We have begun using molecular techniques to try and identify which males have fathered offspring. This information is essential to captive population management. Knowing the parentage allows us to maintain the best possible genetics for future generations of Guatemalan beaded lizards in zoos.
Tuesday, July 7
Keeper II, Herpetology
Reader, as you may or may not know, finicky eaters are a challenge that every zookeeper has had to deal with at some point or another. It can be frustrating when an animal wants to turn his or her nose up at a meal when you have plenty of other hungry mouths to feed. More importantly, we need to make sure those animals are getting all the nutrition they need. But as time goes on, you learn the little tricks that get those animals to chow down.
Take, for instance, Biji, one of our 11 unique orangutans. Biji is not a fan of her primate biscuits and will not hesitate to leave her biscuits in a neat pile in the corner of her night area. That is, unless her keeper for the evening remembered to soak those biscuits in grape juice. If those biscuits have been soaked in grape juice long enough to soften up, Biji will happily eat them. Also, word to the wise, it has to be grape juice. You would be a fool to think Biji is going to settle for whatever other second-rate juice you’ve been keeping in the back of the fridge.
Some of our orangutans take a little more work, like Benny. You see, Benny is one of our pickier orangutans, and he just happens to share a space with Blaze, who will eat just about anything in sight. Luckily, we have a versatile space here in the orangutan building, and it’s not a problem to separate these two when it’s time to eat. The problem is that Benny doesn’t always like to be by himself and prefers to eat when he has some company. This means it falls on the loyal zookeepers to keep Benny in good spirits so he can eat in comfort. This is accomplished by spoiling Benny a little bit with his favorite things, like extra helpings of juice and dance parties. Yes, reader, it may sound strange, but Benny likes to dance with his keepers. When the radio is on and he sees his keeper start to groove, Benny can’t help but start shimmying his shoulders as well. Sometimes that can be just the thing to jump-start his appetite. Soon enough, he’ll finish his dinner and be able to see his mate Blaze again.
It can be time consuming, but there are few things more satisfying than getting a finicky eater to clear his or her (figurative) plate, even if it means doing something a little foolish, like dancing for an orangutan. Just know, reader, that if you ever find yourself at the Zoo and in the distance you hear what sounds like a Taylor Swift song being played a little too loud, it’s just me and Benny shakin’ it off. Let the haters hate hate hate all they want.
Thursday, July 2
Keeper I, Primates
Two summers ago I interned with the Program Animals Department here at Zoo Atlanta. I primarily worked at the Wieland Wildlife Home and dealt with a wide variety of small mammals and reptiles. Prior to my internship I had a good bit of experience rehabilitating birds of prey and songbirds, experience that would eventually help lead me to becoming a seasonal keeper for the department I had come to love.
Going into this position I knew that I would be primarily stationed at the World of Wild Theater and that I would be helping to take care of our birds. Now, although I had worked with birds before, I never had the opportunity to get to know them personally. Everyone always talks about how mammals have different personalities, but I was shocked to find out how much personality our program birds have! Each individual bird has their own unique preferences for things they like and things they don't like. I was surprised at how much relationship building you have to go through just to get a bird to trust stepping up to your hand or arm. Their mental capacity astounds me.
These animals, parrots especially, will test a newer keeper to see how much behavior they can get away with. Some have the intelligence of a four and a half year old child, so they will definitely keep you on your toes! Each bird has a different way of expressing themselves as well. Some will dance when they are happy (Cortez, our blue-and-gold macaw), and some will make vocalizations that let you know they are in a good mood (Abby, our Abyssinian ground hornbill). I have had so much joy getting to know each of our birds individually. Forming relationships with them and earning their trust has been so fulfilling. It has created a bond between us that I know will be hard to say goodbye to when my time at Zoo Atlanta is over. No matter what, though, I am so grateful to have had this experience. I wouldn't trade it for the world.
Tuesday, June 30
Seasonal Keeper, Program Animals
The Bird Department is the animal department here at Zoo Atlanta that has the most opportunities to house multiple species together. But in order for this to be successful, a lot of prior thought and discussion is needed to ensure that they are well suited to each other. What we are looking to create is a big happy group. As much as possible, we hope they will ignore each other. We are absolutely aiming to avoid the feuds between Montagues and Capulets! As a department, we feel we are pretty good at creating harmonious mixtures of species, and there are obvious mixes we don’t try – predators with prey species for instance. However, the world is not a perfect place. Some species are generally fine, but you end up with an individual with an attitude. Turacos are reliably unreliable, one bird being dreamy and another of the same species being a scoundrel. It’s rather like high school; cute doesn’t mean innocent, and grouchy doesn’t mean bad. So if you are here at Zoo Atlanta and are trying to find that beautiful bird that you saw in a certain exhibit last week, let me share a few reasons why you may not find it.
The easiest to explain are the few species that come off exhibit for winter because they just can’t handle the cold nights. This mostly affects a few species in The Living Treehouse aviary who will not reliably use heat provided at night.
Sometimes we have birds in exhibits that are too curious for their own good. They are the ones that feel the need to check out everyone else’s nests. Imagine dozing off in your nest box dreaming of your babies soon to hatch. Suddenly a woodhoopoe is sticking its head into your nest. “Whatcha doin’? Can I see? Are you listening to me? Hey, honey, kids, come see what this bird is up to!” So annoying. Interfering with breeding rituals is not tolerated by their exhibit mates well, so it’s possible that someone will have to be moved. On the other the hand, superb starlings and buffalo weavers won’t tolerate such nosiness and can be housed with woodhoopoes because they stand up for themselves.
The third big reason that birds move around is when parent birds have decided it’s time for the kids to move out – a dikkop will tolerate its offspring for four months, but then the chick has to move out. This is what would happen in the wild, but as the chick can’t leave on its own we have to help out.
Therefore, if that bird isn’t where you remember it last, some birdie politics are more than likely at play!
Thursday, June 25
Keeper I, Birds
I recently had the opportunity to attend the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Crocodilian Biology and Captive Management (CBCM) course at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm in St. Augustine, Fla. If you have never had the pleasure of visiting this facility you are missing out on a real treat, specifically because they are the only facility in North America to house all 23 species of crocodilians. This, of course, makes it the perfect setting to hold such a training course. The course itself is an eight-day intensive study of everything crocodilian. Some of the subjects that were covered include basic husbandry, training, exhibit design, disease treatment and prevention and captive reproduction. I got to witness some very interesting training demos that included station training, desensitizing for blood draws, and proper capture techniques. The instructors were extremely knowledgeable, and I learned a lot of new information that has left me much better equipped to provide quality care for the four American alligators that we have here at Zoo Atlanta.
One of the most amazing experiences, however, was that I got the chance to get hands-on with some of the rarest crocodilians in the world. I got to hold a large male Chinese alligator (less than six feet long, but big for the species), a slender-snouted crocodile, and a Philippine crocodile, which is the rarest crocodile species in the world.
Getting to attend CBCM was an amazing opportunity, and I now have a much deeper understanding of these amazing creatures and an even better appreciation for what makes each one unique and special.
Tuesday, June 23
Keeper III, Herpetology
One thing that we do to keep the animal habitats new and exciting is to change up the “furniture,” or props. Last week I was able to get three great volunteers to help accomplish a “re-prop” day in the lemur habitat. We use branches that are cut from approved trees on grounds as propping for animal exhibits. We gathered materials all week, and finally on June 16, we were ready to work. By adding a few new climbing areas and new “bridges,” we were able to create a new environment for the lemurs. They then spent all day exploring and jumping around.
First we discussed what was going to go in the yard, and then we grabbed the branches we wanted. We worked together to tweak ideas we had already come up with the previous week. Having all the new volunteers with different experiences and knowledge really allowed the ideas to come together. After getting all the materials in the yard, we saw even more potential to create some new structures the lemurs would enjoy. It was great to work with the volunteers who came in with fresh eyes and great ideas.
We were also grateful to have help from our Horticulture and Maintenance Teams. With their help, we were able to bury some logs and put up some awesome shelves the lemurs could use to get up high where people could see them better. It takes many departments working as a team to make one project come together.
Around 1 p.m., we were able to send the lemurs out! It was so much fun to see them use everything we put up. It was great to watch them explore and climb. Our guests also appeared to enjoy them being so active. The new props really added a lot to the yard, and being able to get such long branches, the lemurs were able to utilize vertical space they hadn’t previously been able to access.
Doing these large projects and seeing the positive results really energizes a keeper’s creativity and dedication to the job.
Thursday, June 18
(Photo by Michele Dave)
Keeper II, Primates
Now that the weather has been consistently warm here at the Zoo, we can see a lot of behavioral and physical changes in our animals. Down in Outback Station, that mostly means extra napping and sunbathing for our petting zoo animals. Just up the hill, the bush dogs can often be seen splashing in their pool, and the naked mole rats remain scurrying through their temperature-controlled nest boxes. The most extreme change among the animals that we Outback keepers take care of can be seen in our tanuki. Since becoming a keeper in Outback Station, the tanuki have quickly become one of my favorite species. As one of Zoo Atlanta’s only two canid species (the other is the bush dogs), both Thor and Loki have some very unique and intriguing characteristics.
Tanuki have played a significant role in Asian folklore since ancient times and are often symbolic of mischief and shape-shifting. While Thor and Loki can be quite mischievous when they want to be, the most shape-shifting these two do is growing their thick fur coats for the winter. Their winter look is often the cause of one of the most common questions we keepers get about the tanuki: “Are those raccoons?” Well, despite the tanuki’s striking resemblance to the raccoon, they are more closely related to wolves and domestic dogs. Their appearance does, however, provide us with their more common name, the raccoon dog.
If you visit the Zoo in the colder months of the year, Thor and Loki are almost always seen snuggled up in a hay bed together in their habitat. Tanuki form strong bonds with their social units, and our two brothers are no exception. What may look like one giant pile of fluff taking a nap is actually two giant piles of fluff, I promise. When the temperature begins to drop, tanuki enter a state of lethargy referred to as torpor. In fact, tanuki are the only species of canid that have developed this adaptation to survive in their natural harsh, northern climates. During this time, Thor and Loki pack on some extra weight and decrease their metabolism by about 25 percent. The most obvious physical change during this time is the increased thickness of their fur. Their winter coats make them appear to almost double in size!
With the passing of spring and the arrival of the summer heat, we now see two very different tanuki on exhibit in Trader’s Alley. Thor and Loki have completely shed their winter coats and are much more active. They love playing with their favorite toys, and their increased motivation for food makes them more eager to train and interact with the keepers. My personal favorite is watching them jump and sneak up on insects flying overhead.
Next time you’re at the Zoo, make sure you take some time to stop by and visit Thor and Loki. As one of only two zoos in the United States that have tanuki, Zoo Atlanta is a great place to get to know these rambunctious little guys before they gain a few pounds and hit snooze for the winter!
(Photo by Danica Wolfe)
Keeper I, Mammals
Tuesday, June 16
The Living Treehouse is a very busy exhibit throughout the year at Zoo Atlanta. With lemurs bouncing from tree limbs, small African primates foraging, and 52 individual birds to see, you could spend over an hour in this exhibit alone. Actually, strike that number of individual birds and make it 53! That’s right, the Bird Department is happy to welcome a yet another new chick into the world. The pair of white-headed buffalo weavers are first-time parents and they are making quite a fuss about it. If you’re a buffalo weaver drama is good!
There was a time when we were concerned if the parents would ever hatch an egg. They have laid several eggs this year, but all were infertile or did not develop very far. Our theory is that the inquisitive weavers are so easily distracted that they really can’t find the time to sit on the eggs properly! Life outside the nest is far more interesting.
Here is where the Bird Team steps in to help. We made the decision to pull a set of eggs from the nest to be placed in our artificial incubators to see if our theory was correct. Sure enough, one of two eggs that were pulled was fertile and developed nicely in the incubator. Approximately 14 days later the chick hatched, and we immediately returned it to the parents’ nest for them to raise. We were pretty certain that raising a chick would be much more absorbing for them than sitting on eggs, and they have come through like champions! The chick weighed a tenth of an ounce at hatching, and at 14 days, it weighed 24 times its hatch weight. That’s the equivalent of a newborn six-pound baby weighing 146 pounds at 2 weeks old. Impressive. By late June the chick should be out and about with his parents, looking very like them but just a little bit smaller!
Thursday, June 11
Keeper II, Birds and Program Animals
Greetings, Zoo explorers. Today I come to you with some great and some not-so-great news. The great news is that we welcomed a female prehensile-tailed porcupine to Wieland Wildlife Home! She is off exhibit for the time being as we allow her to adjust to her new environment and begin to build strong relationships with her keepers. We have begun to hand-feed her favorite food items, which will assist us with her training moving forward. It will be a while before she makes appearances. The goal is for her to breed with our very handsome male prehensile-tailed porcupine, Max. All very exciting! We will keep you posted.
The not-so-great news is that today, we said goodbye to Maize the corn snake. Maize had been living at Wieland for quite some time now and was about 21 years old, which is pretty old for this species. He was a great animal ambassador, and Zoo guests enjoyed learning about his camouflage ability and his ability to mimic other snakes. We his keepers enjoyed working with him as well. Thank you for all you did to serve as an ambassador for yours and many other snake species over your many years with us, Maize. You will be missed!
Tuesday, June 9
Keeper I, Program Animals
There have been some big changes recently in the Carnivore Department. About 19 months ago, we had the perfect pair of lions, Kiki and Kamau. They woke up, had breakfast, and went on exhibit together every day. At close, they came in, had dinner, and stayed with each other overnight. Things were pretty great. Nice and quiet. Then came November 19, 2013.
On this date, Kiki had four cubs, three males and a female. While we had to separate Kamau from the group while they were newborns, things were a little hectic at times, but still pretty nice. As the cubs grew, we were able to introduce them to dad as well as the exhibit. When this occurred, we were able to put the entire family out into the habitat together, and once again, all was right with the world and our family of lions.
As we all know, though, kids do have the tendency of growing up, and grow the cubs did. Pretty soon, we had six fairly large lions. As many people already know, male lions typically do not get along with other male lions. Fathers usually end up kicking their sons out of the pride when they are about a year of age or so. This way, the cubs can go off and form their own prides. Kamau put up with the young whippersnappers as long as he could, but we eventually had to separate the cubs from Kamau to prevent anyone from being harmed. So then, we had two groups of lions.
We have two lion yards, so the groups rotated through these yards each day. Things went back to routine, and things were good. All good things must come to an end, though. After a while, Kiki started becoming irritated with the boys because they were always jumping on her and generally just being a nuisance. When Kiki couldn't stand it anymore, the decision was made to separate her from the cubs. Because we didn't want the boys looking at their sister as more than a sister, we decided to place Zamaya with Kiki. Now we had three groups of lions, and because we did not want any more baby lions at the time, we kept it at three groups.
This is how things have been for the past several months now. We all worked into a routine, and things were good again. The challenge was, we were pretty much at our capacity for lions, and the cubs were doing nothing but growing. Our first choice was to find new homes for all of the cubs and once again have only Kiki and Kamau. Another challenge, however, was that it is not the easiest thing to find homes for three male lions at the same time. We were motivated to explore other options.
After many meetings here at the Zoo, and consulting with the Lion Species Survival Plan (SSP), the decision was made to keep the boys and place the parents and sister in new homes. Kamau is a very strong, virile male in his prime and was quickly chosen to move onto the Dallas Zoo to once again enter another breeding situation with a pair of females. Kiki and Zamaya, who will stay together, were chosen to move out west to Fresno, California, to form the beginnings of a new pride in the Fresno Chaffee Zoo's new African exhibit. The boys are to remain here, together, for the foreseeable future.
Males, usually siblings who are raised together, can and will readily stay together throughout their lives. There are many instances of prides in the wild being controlled by a pair or trio of brothers. Early last month, we began the process by moving Kamau to Dallas, where his new lady friends awaited. Kamau's trip went very smoothly, and he settled in very quickly to his new home. Just this past Friday, we transferred the girls to their new home out west. It was very sad to see our dear friends go, but we knew they were all moving onto new adventures in great places. Now we are left with our three young lads, Hondo, Hatari and Azizi. They are a little gangly and awkward right now, but over the next several years, they will grow up into a very impressive group which will grace our lion exhibit for years to come.
Thursday, June 4
Lead Keeper, Carnivores
As you may be able to imagine, things are still very busy in the Herpetology Department here at Zoo Atlanta. We (humans and animals) are settling into our new home at Scaly Slimy Spectacular. While the opening was on April 2, several more exhibits have been populated since: American alligators have been added, and my personal favorite is the new Aldabra tortoise habitat.
We have one male, Shuffles, and two females, Corky and Patches. Shuffles and Corky have both been here at Zoo Atlanta since 1967, certainly longer than I have! We estimate their ages to be between 50 and 70 years old. Shuffles, the largest, weighs in at around 300 pounds, and the girls weigh about 200 pounds each. One of my favorite activities at the Zoo is our daily Wild Encounter program. Wild encounters are available with several species at Zoo Atlanta. Each day at 1 p.m., guests have the opportunity to go into the new Aldabra habitat with a keeper and meet the tortoises (special ticket required). What I like most about the encounter is the behavior of the tortoises; they absolutely love having their necks scratched and getting special food treats. Generally speaking, most reptiles do not respond emotionally like your cat or dog at home, but the Aldabra tortoises are extremely personable and absolutely enjoy the attention.
Tuesday, June 2
Keeper II, Herpetology
You may have noticed the two little ones running around in Taz's family group. That's Anaka and Andi! They may seem small, but they have a lot of spunk in them. You can see them running around and playing with their brother Henry and their sister Merry Leigh. To us, it may look like they are playing kind of rough, but for them it is just a good time. Gorillas’ favorite way to play is wrestling. While they wrestle, you can hear them making a lot of vocal sounds as well. One of their loudest vocalizations is when they laugh. Their laughing sounds more like a lot of grunting noises compared to our laughing. This happens to be my favorite vocalization that they make!
In the wild, gorillas usually play during the middle of the day when the adults are resting. However, our little ones seem to be able to play all day! You can also see Taz, our big daddy of the group, playing with Henry. Henry likes to roll around and cause a fuss near his dad until he joins him in a wrestling match. This type of social interaction is vital for the young ones. It helps them become more familiar with the others in the group and teaches them vocalizations that wouldn't come to them instinctively. Kids are not the only ones that play. You can also see some of our bachelor groups running around after one another as well. See if you can catch them in action in one of our gorilla yards while visiting Zoo Atlanta!
Thursday, May 28
Seasonal Keeper, Primates
Georgia Commute Options has partnered with Zoo Atlanta’s Green Team on a couple of activities and initiatives in the past couple years. Most recently, they have helped in providing resources and support to get staff connected for carpooling. They have also been assisting with getting the MARTA bus stop that is located in front of the Zoo to take riders directly to the train station. In addition, last fall and this spring, they have been working on encouraging more staff to bike to work. We were surprised when we were nominated for their awards ceremony despite all the collaboration with Georgia Commute Options.
On April 29, the Green Team was invited to attend an awards breakfast through Georgia Commute Options. We received a nomination for the Best Overall Program Award for small/ medium business. The event was a great success, rewarding many companies within the community that are doing a lot of programs to assist in making Georgia’s roads better. It was exciting to see grade schools, government agencies, and large and small companies all represented with award nominations. Erin Coleman from WSB-TV was the Master of Ceremonies. Other presenters included the CEO of MARTA, Keith Parker and the DOT commissioner, Russell McMurry. When so many great organizations are gathered in one place, it is easy to see the reality of every employee in every job site taking a part to improve their commute. Some of the perks for commuters include less congestion, less stress with traffic hassles, a healthier and more productive commute. What is your plan to receive those perks?
Tuesday, May 26
Lead Keeper, Program Animals
The Program Animals Team is back in full show mode for our summer season. The amount of effort and work that goes into bringing all the animals into show mode is just phenomenal. An opossum walking free across the stage and disappearing into his assigned exit hole is the culmination of months of work and practice. It's taken two years for Sydney the cockatoo to be really comfortable flying a circle around the World of Wild Theater. Practice, practice, practice, and absolute synchrony of training techniques from all trainers. Planning, organization and amazing attention to detail every single day.
Remember also that most of the birds in the bird show have been a part of the Zoo Atlanta collection for 15 years plus. Two of the parrots have been here for over 20 years. The newest recruit is Lupe the toucan, who’s going into her second season. She's a star on the rise! All she has to do is appear on stage and she gets oohs of delight, but it's all thanks to the team of Becky, Christina, Kaya, Justin, Lyndsay and a cohort of devoted interns and seasonal keepers. So the next time you come to one of the shows, give a few thoughts to the uncountable hours that have gone into making them happen. What a great team!
Thursday, May 21
Curator of Birds and Program Animals
There is a lot to talk about in the hoofstock area! For starters, we have two new primary keepers on the team, myself included. You may recognize my name from the PandaCam page. I spent about nine months as a seasonal swing and had the opportunity to work with many of the animals in our Mammal Department. I am happy to share that I have found my home in Hoofstock. Bridget has also joined the Hoofstock Team. She started out as an intern in Hoofstock and then ventured over to the Outback station before coming back to join the Hoofstock Team.
We have had so many events centered around our hoofstock animals lately, as so many of them face endangerment. Save the Rhino Day was a huge success, and just this past week we observed Endangered Species Day. One of the main goals of zoos is to educate the guests on dangers facing the many great species that inhabit our Earth. Conservation efforts to save these animals from going extinct are so important, and it starts with educating and spreading the word. With these special days come special enrichment for the animals! Enrichment is one of my favorite parts of being a keeper. For the bongos, we made a fruit bongo, complete with a watermelon body, bamboo legs, a cantaloupe head, celery horns and kale ears to represent those adorable oversized ears. Unfortunately, it was not on Tambo's agenda to go on exhibit that day, so the squirrels got to enjoy our work of art. The rhinos received papier-mache boxes with goodies inside, fruitsicles and colorful paper-linked chains. Our savanna animals also received frozen fruitsicles with their favorite treats.
One of the most exciting things to report is something that you probably already heard. We have a new baby bongo in the barn. Matilda gave birth to her fourth calf, an adorable baby boy, on Wednesday, April 29. Eastern bongos are critically endangered, with numbers in the wild down to fewer than 500. Every new birth is exciting for this beautiful species. They are the largest of the antelopes and dwell in the forests of central Africa. Before becoming part of the Zoo Atlanta team, I had never even heard of bongos. In the month or so that I have worked in the Hoofstock Department, the bongos have proven to be one of my new favorite animals. I walk in the barn each morning and see a Lawson nose, a Matilda nose, a Tambo nose and now a little crinkly calf nose waiting to greet me. Come visit the Zoo in a few weeks and this little man will be out on exhibit with his mom!
Keeper I, Mammals
This past Saturday, Zoo Atlanta participated in Endangered Species Day, helping to create awareness of some of the serious threats faced by wild animals that are represented at our zoo. Many of the species you see at Zoo Atlanta are endangered or critically endangered in the wild. Unfortunately, the reason behind the threats they face often times come back to humans. Whether it’s deforestation, poaching or climate change, the impact humans have on the world is creating enormous challenges for other species.
The Zoo wanted to take part in this event by providing animals within our collection that are endangered in the wild with blue and green colored enrichment activities (blue and green are the official colors of Endangered Species Day). This also gave us the opportunity to talk with guests about each of these species and let them know of specific threats they faced. We also gave our visitors information on what they could do to help out. Often times, even little lifestyle changes can make a difference.
If you’re interested and want to learn more about some of the specific issues that the species at Zoo Atlanta face in the wild, check out the Keeper Talks the next time you visit us. Not only will the zookeepers tell you a little bit about the animals they work with, but there's usually also a conservation message tied in to help you learn how you can help save their threatened wild counterparts.
Thursday, May 14
Keeper II, Primates
Well, as we’ve been seeing with the weather and the number of folks visiting the Zoo right now, it is very clear that spring is in full swing!
The Herpetology Department has been very busy lately. Certainly the grand opening of Scaly Slimy Spectacular has been keeping us all on our toes. But this is also the time of year when love is in the air, and eggs are hitting the ground for many species.
If you’ve walked by the old World of Reptiles (the inside of which is now closed to the public) in the last week or so, you may have noticed some strange-looking activity from our female Burmese black mountain tortoise (Manouria emys phayrei). Late spring to early summer is egg-laying season, and female Burmese black mountain tortoises are very OCD about where they lay their eggs. This species is only one of two chelonians (aka turtles and tortoises) that construct above-ground nests for their eggs. The other is the impressed tortoise (Manouria impressa), which you can observe trucking around their exhibit on Trader’s Alley.
Over a period of several days, our female Burmese black mountain tortoise gathered every bit of leaf litter in her exhibit, as well as lots of extra that we provided her, to build a nest mound that was around two feet tall. Watching her drag leaves from every corner of the exhibit to make the perfect mound is just plain fascinating. About halfway through construction, she packed the nest down a bit in the middle to create a perfect depression. This is where she laid 67 eggs! Once she completed laying all of those eggs, Herpetology staff quickly removed them for incubation, but we allowed her to continue construction as part of her natural cycle. She continued to pile up and pack down leaves for several more days. These tortoises are remarkable in that they will also remain close to their nests to help keep them safe. This puts them in the same category of super-builder reptile parents, as are many crocodilians and king cobras! The eggs take about six to eight weeks to hatch, and the young are pretty much ready to live on their own right away.
We hope you stop by to visit the Burmese black mountain tortoises, and if you stop by soon enough, you can see our girl hanging out near her incredible nest mound!
Special Keeper Blog from the Zoo Atlanta Green Team
Lead Keeper, Herpetology
Thursday, May 14
Georgia Commute Options has partnered with Zoo Atlanta’s Green Team on a couple of activities and initiatives in the past couple years. Most recently, they have helped in providing resources and support to get staff connected for carpooling. They created a dot map last year where staff could locate their dot on the map and locate other dots near them. These were other staff that they could go to as carpooling options. They have also been assisting with getting the MARTA bus stop that is located in front of the Zoo to take riders directly to the train station. In addition, last fall and this spring they have been working on encouraging more staff to bike to work.
The week of May 10-16 is National Bike to Work Week. On May 15, Zoo Atlanta’s Green Team is hosting another group ride. We are partnering with Georgia Commute Options again to help you win prizes and money for participating in a green commute option. The Green Team will be at Octane Coffee from 7 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. with information on how to have a green commute. Plus there will be coffee discounts. The group ride will begin at Octane Coffee and head to the Zoo, leaving around 8:30 a.m. Have a great and fun zero-emissions commute to the Zoo.
For more information on getting started on your green commute, visit GaCommuteOptions.com/bikeweek. Hope to see you there!
Tuesday, May 12
Lead Keeper, Birds and Program Animals
Instead of writing about any new updates in our bird collection, this blog entry is dedicated to our dear Assistant Curator of Birds, Katie Vyas. Taking on this entry is definitely not easy, so I will try my best … here it goes.
Katie has been a solid foundation to this department as a leader in both roles as Lead Keeper and, as of recently, Assistant Curator. Her organization and attention to detail is unsurpassed, which we all know will add nothing but greatness to her new adventure as Assistant Curator for Denver Zoo’s bird department, where she will be co-managing a staff of 24 bird keepers! From being a studbook manager for white-headed buffalo weavers all the way to initiating the “Cokes for Koris” program, she has contributed more than an average person’s workload to her already busy job. The Curator is in mourning, hiding his head in the sand with the ostrich this morning.
More than all of this, Katie is just a lovely human being. She is upbeat and positive, a great role model to all of us. We are going to miss her enormously, and Denver Zoo can only begin to understand how fortunate they are to have this opportunity to work with Katie. The sky is the limit for Katie’s career!
Katie, we love you!
Tuesday, May 5
Keeper II, Birds
The Zoo is a melting pot unto itself. Not only do we house a diverse collection of animal species from around the world, but we also employee individuals from all around the country.
The elephant area is no exception to this. With home states from California to Connecticut, not a single member of the keeper team within the elephant department is an Atlanta native. Yet despite this conflict of geographical opposites, we have created a group of individuals who not only thrive in their differences, but excel in a common desire to improve and succeed.
One of the reasons why so many of the different species at the Zoo receive such excellent care is because of the diverse individuals who, as a team, produce great results. This is a quality in which Zoo Atlanta takes great pride. It is a critical component that the elephant area would not succeed without.
While many employees throughout the organization have opportunities to work independently throughout the day, elephant keepers are required to work together for safety. Teamwork is more than a motivational idea. It is a necessity for us. We are committed to this idea, and it is a concept that sets our area apart at times.
It is a privilege to work with such great individuals.
Thursday, April 30
Elephant Program Manager and Lead Keeper, Mammals
I’d like to take some time to talk about impressed tortoises (Manouria impressa
), a threatened tortoise from Southeast Asia. They are a unique and “impressive” tortoise that lives in montane forests from Myanmar to Malaysia. They are one of only two species in the genus Manouria
, which is believed to be the most primitive species of tortoises, as they are the only turtle species that build their nests above ground with vegetative material. They are also fungivores, meaning they specialize in eating mushrooms. They are obviously not your typical tortoise, as they like it very humid and wet and they spend most of their time in leaf litter. Impressed tortoises don’t get their name for being impressive, but get their name from the impressions in the scutes on their shell.
Impressed tortoises aren’t just a cool turtle; they are also threatened from the illegal wildlife trade where they are overharvested from the wild for food, medicine and the pet trade. If that wasn’t enough, they have also proven to be extremely difficult to keep in captivity, and Zoo Atlanta is one of the few places to successfully breed them in captivity, with our first hatchlings in 2010. I am the Studbook Keeper and Coordinator for impressed tortoises, and the captive population across the country is just shy of 60 tortoises. This studbook population works as an assurance colony for the species to ensure their survival.
Zoo Atlanta has worked hard to save the impressed tortoise since 2004, when our first group of adults came to us from a confiscation. We have strived to improve the husbandry techniques crucial to creating a sustainable captive population and have become a leader in impressed tortoise care. We have also researched studies that have followed M. impressa in the wild to gain insight into their ecology and habitat preferences. Another component to their conservation is to share what we do and have learned about the species. I was able to give a talk to the Herpetological Taxon Advisory Group Conference this April on how we care and breed the species. Our last breeding success for impressed tortoises was December 2014 when five babies hatched, all on the same day! You can check out these tortoises at the Zoo on Trader’s Alley.
Thursday, April 23
Keeper III, Herpetology
The Program Animals family has welcomed two new members to our animal ambassador team. After much deliberation, they finally have names. Very soon, Zoo guests will be able to meet Vinnie the vinegaroon and Sparkle Muffin a.k.a. Muffin the rose hair tarantula. Both are very cool little critters we are excited to debut.
Additionally, Walnut and Cusco are two of the four chinchillas who live in Wieland Wildlife Home. These two in particular have been through extensive training over the past year to make the handling process less challenging for them. They have been trained to voluntarily enter their travel kennel. This means if they choose not to participate in an animal program, they have the choice. They are also rewarded before being picked up from their kennels. This process has worked very well for us and for the chinchillas, as about 80 percent of the time they are in fact entering their kennels with the expectation of being picked up and handled in front of a group of people. All animal handlers had to be trained on this process as well, which put Walnut and Cusco to the test as they came in sometimes three people at a time to handle the new chinchillas. This has been a very exciting development for us, and Lead Keeper Christina Lavallee presented a paper on this training at the ABMA conference in Copenhagen. Go, Christina!
There are several opportunities coming up to see all of the animal ambassadors. Beginning Memorial Day, we will do shows five days a week and training demonstrations on Mondays for the public. Reference your map for more details. Happy Spring and we hope to see you soon at Zoo Atlanta!
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, April 21
On the other side of the world on the large continent of Africa, there is a small population of North African ostriches that are becoming critically endangered due to habitat loss and unsustainable harvesting. To help with a conservation effort, Zoo Atlanta has partnered with the Sahara Conservation Fund in order to prevent the extinction of this great species. This is where we step in by selling blown out, unfertilized ostrich eggs to help out this initiative.
If you’ve ever walked through the barn down here at Outback Station and taken a peek into the kitchen window, you might have seen a few ostrich eggs sitting in a bin. The process these eggs go through to get to this point involves a few different departments and some special care. Year round, the two female ostriches in Zoo Atlanta’s African Plains lay eggs, just like chickens do, up to seven to 10 eggs at a time. However, since we do not have male ostriches at the Zoo, the eggs are never fertile. The eggs weigh roughly two to three pounds each, which is similar to two dozen chicken eggs! Whenever our hoofstock keepers find an egg, they bring it to Outback Station. From there, bird keepers take care of preparing them. This includes evacuating the egg contents by taking a power drill with a fairly large drill bit and drilling a hole carefully through one end of the egg. After this, we take a large syringe to blow out the yolk. Finally, the insides of the eggs are rinsed with diluted bleach to sanitize them. Once the eggs are dry, they are taken to the Gift Shop, where they are available to purchase, with proceeds going to the Sahara Conservation Fund to help out ostrich populations in Africa.
So let’s highlight the great things from all of this:
• The eggs travel through three different departments, including Mammals, Birds, and finally the Gift Shop.
• By purchasing an egg, you will be helping out an entire population of ostriches through conservation efforts.
• If you are ever in the Outback Station barn and come across a window full of these large eggs and you see one of us in the kitchen, feel free to ask us about them! We will be more than happy to give you a closer look!
Thursday, April 16
Keeper II, Birds and Program Animals
“Are all of these goats pregnant?”
This is a question that we Outback Station keepers get on a regular basis in the petting zoo. Many guests are then shocked to hear that we do not breed any of our goats or sheep. “So they’re just fat and happy,” is generally the next question in this chain. And while our goats are happy (and some of them are indeed a touch pudgy), they are essentially just “goat shaped.” All of our petting zoo animals are ruminants, which means that they have four-chambered stomachs. Each chamber inside this one large stomach performs a different task.The work that each section carries out enables the animal to break down some really tough foodstuffs.
Many guests also notice that the goats seem to be doing a lot of chewing. This is because with rumination comes cud chewing. The first time goats take in food, they do very little chewing before they swallow. The mostly intact food then travels down the esophagus into the first two chambers of the stomach, the rumen and the reticulum. The rumen is the largest section of the stomach, holding a volume of three to six gallons.The lining in the rumen has finger-like projections called papillae which increase the surface area of the stomach. This increases the amount of absorbing it can do. Goats also get a lot of help from very tiny organisms to break down their food. Bacteria, protozoa and fungi located in the rumen help start the digestion process. Without these tiny powerhouses, digestion would be impossible! The reticulum acts as an overflow compartment for the rumen and keeps large food particles from entering the next chamber without being broken down further. Next is every person’s favorite step, cud chewing.
The large particles of food that are unable to move to the next chamber are regurgitated back up into the goat’s mouth to be broken down further. What a tasty process! Once broken down a little further, the particles go back through the rumen and reticulum and move to the omasum. This section of the stomach works as a filter and removes all the water from the food. From there, the partially digested matter travels to the last section of the stomach, the true stomach, or the abomasum. In this compartment, low pH and enzymes are used to further break down the animal’s food. The food then leaves the stomach, continues down the digestive tract, and exits the body.This step is a huge hit with our younger petting zoo patrons. We could go on and on about this stuff, so if you’d like to learn more, make sure you stop by the petting zoo and talk to the Outback keepers. And now that you have a healthy respect for what goes on inside of our goats’ and sheep's stomachs, make sure you stop by the yard and give those cute little bellies a scratch. Hope to see you around!
Tuesday, April 14
(Photo by Bridget Conner)
Keeper I, Mammals
Recently one of our young bachelor gorillas, Mbeli, was favoring his left hand. The Vet Team decided that they would like to get an X-ray on it to see what was going on. Mbeli has been training to put his arm into a PVC sleeve in preparation for blood draw training. Luckily, the arm that he’s used to putting in the sleeve is the same one that was bothering him. The Vet Team brought up their portable X-ray machine, and we set everything up. Mbeli couldn’t wait to put his hand in the sleeve! In addition to enjoying participating in training sessions, Mbeli was also excited to get the treats we use during training, such as diluted juice and his daily fruit which consisted of oranges, melon and grapefruit. He was very cooperative, and we took several views of his hand. The images turned out great, and because of the positive reinforcement training that we do at Zoo Atlanta, we were able to get answers without having to put Mbeli under anesthesia. Mbeli is feeling much better now!
Keeper II, Primates
Tuesday, April 7
Spring is the perfect time to take a stroll around the Zoo. Trees are getting green, flowers are blooming, and Snake the kori bustard is booming! Breeding season for our kori bustard pair generally starts in February and lasts until late summer. In the wild, male kori bustards gather in groups (called leks) and do their best to impress the females. The males will inflate their necks, raise their tails and head feathers, and make a very deep vocalization termed “booming.”
Snake is working very hard to impress his lady, Tuza. Both birds are about 9 years old and have just reached breeding age. This species is considered “near threatened” in the wild, so it’s very important that we do our best to support the population in zoos. The kori bustard exhibit can be found on the Zoo map. Be sure to stop by and see Snake in full display!
(Photo by Katie Vyas)
Thursday, April 2
Assistant Curator of Birds and Program Animals
Sweet summertime! Or at least it’s springtime. And with that comes show season. Currently we are only doing bird and small animals shows on the weekends, but just in time for spring and summer break, we will be moving to daily shows, and with an upgrade!
The entire Program Animal Department has been working very hard to bring some fun new elements to the shows this season. First thing you may notice, or at least when summer kicks off, the Wildlife Theater will have a makeover! With its new official name, The World of Wild Theater Sponsored by Georgia Natural Gas, it will be sporting a new and upgraded front entrance. But it’s not just a new look you can look forward to; we will also be introducing some new birds! You can expect our Toco toucan, Lupe, to be a new regular face. We will also be introducing our amazing new hooded vulture, Baobab, who has more character than he knows what to do with! And fear not, our wonderful veteran birds everyone knows and loves will be along for the ride as well. Tahoe, our Harris hawk, will also be back in action after taking a season off.
And as for our show at Amy’s Tree Theater, we will begin our production of season two of America’s Next Top Zookeeper! For those who have never seen it, you’re in for quite a treat in this action-packed show with lots of animal fun and antics. And for those who joined us during season one, you will be excited to see some of the new elements we have added to the show.
So come on out and join us this summer as we inspire you to love our animals and the world around you!
Keeper I, Birds and Program Animals
Tuesday, March 31
They grow up so fast...
Last year was the year for Zoo babies. We had a litter of happy, healthy lion cubs; two black-and-white bundles of panda joy, a bouncing baby rhino and a slew of bird and reptile hatchlings. As a keeper, we have the privilege of watching all of these incredible animals embark on their journey to adulthood and watch all of their unique personalities develop. Let’s check in on our kings (and one queen) of the jungle.
In November of 2013, Zoo Atlanta’s breeding lion pair, Kiki and Kamau, welcomed four cubs into the world: Hondo, Azizi, Hatari and Zamaya. Now, even though all lions share the same natural history, that does not mean that all lions are created equally. Of the four cubs, Hondo is the biggest and the baddest. He outweighs his brothers by 15-20 kilograms, and just like his father, has a rough and tough attitude. Azizi lives by the “curiosity kills the cat” govern. This lion can get into some trouble! Due to some of Azizi’s shenanigans, we monitor the lions’ enrichment and toy selection very carefully. Never underestimate the power of a curious cat! Hatari is the stud muffin of the group. As the cubs start morphing from adorable, spotted kittens into handsome sub-adults, their manes start to slowly come in. Hatari’s rugged salt and pepper mane surely makes his brothers look at him with a twinge of jealousy. These three boys may be very different in appearance and stature, but they are all going to look stunning while sunbathing together on exhibit.
Enough talk about the bachelors. Zamaya is our calm and timid girl cub. Unlike her boisterous brothers, Zamaya is much more low-key. She is well behaved during feedings, she is focused during her training sessions, and she is a spitting image of her mother. However, her father’s attitude has begun to emerge as well, and we are certain that she will be a lioness to be reckoned with.
Be sure to get out to the Zoo soon and see all of the youngsters before they grow out of their playful teenage awkwardness!
(Photo by Christina Ward)
Tuesday, March 24
Keeper I, Mammals
Positive reinforcement training has been revolutionary in the world of primates living in zoos. In particular, training behaviors that facilitate medical procedures have allowed us to take much better care of our primates.
Regular medical exams are a necessary element of caring for Zoo animals, but as you probably know from the last time you took your pets to the vet, animals do not always understand that what veterinarians are doing is in their best interest. And, when dealing with wild animals that are potentially very dangerous, it becomes necessary to use anesthesia for extensive medical exams to take place.
Before positive reinforcement training became commonplace in zoos, veterinarians had to use projectile darts filled with an immobilization serum in order to safely transport a dangerous animal to the operating room. And, if this animal was in a group of animals, it may have even been necessary to immobilize the whole group in order to get access to one of them! As you can imagine, this sort of experience wasn’t ideal.
This is where positive reinforcement training comes in. First off, we train our primates to separate themselves so we can have access to each one of them individually. But, even more importantly, at Zoo Atlanta we now train all of our primates to take voluntary injections. Over time, we desensitize them to being touched with a needle so that when a time comes that they need to be injected, they will present their shoulder or thigh voluntarily. This allows us to give them beneficial vaccines, like yearly flu shots, and also helps us to avoid the type of scenario I’ve just described above. It takes a lot of patience and planning to train an animal to volunteer for injection, but the end result makes it well worth the effort.
Just last week, we completed exams on Kazi and Macy, two adolescent female gorillas who are scheduled to be transferred to another zoo next month. Before they can be sent to another institution, we have to ensure that they are ready to make the trip and that they will not be carrying any harmful diseases to their new home. I am happy to report that we were able to get voluntary injections on both of them, and the procedures went very smoothly! They were placed back with their family group that same night and were able to go back out on exhibit the next day. This type of procedure could have been traumatizing for Kazi, Macy and their whole family group, but due to careful planning and skilled positive reinforcement training, we were able to reduce the amount of stress to the bare minimum.
At Zoo Atlanta, we also train our primates to perform behaviors that allow us to get medical information without having to use anesthesia at all. All of our adult male gorillas let us do voluntary echo-cardiograms to monitor their heart activity on a yearly basis. Heart disease is one of the leading causes of death in captive adult male gorillas, so this research is extremely valuable for learning about the causes and possible ways to prevent these heart-related deaths. We are also able to perform sonograms on our pregnant female primates to monitor their pregnancies and discover any complications as soon as possible. And, we have trained our animals to allow us to take blood pressure readings and even have blood drawn voluntarily!
Being able to collect medical data on our animals voluntarily has greatly reduced the need for immobilization, and through training we have been able to reduce the stress associated with immobilization when it is necessary. Considering that positive reinforcement training only burst onto the zoo scene a few decades ago, we have come a very long way in taking the best possible care of our animals!
Keeper I, Primates
Thursday, March 19
A few weeks ago I had the wonderful honor of going to the annual conference for the International Association of Avian Trainers and Educators (IAATE) in Charlotte, N.C., to present a paper written by James Ballance, Rebecca Bearman and me. The paper is entitled “Incorporating Creative Design Features in Show Bird Housing to Provide More Stimulating Living Environments” and is about the modifications we made to our Wildlife Theater show bird housing for enrichment and animal management purposes. It was really exciting to be among a group of about 200 fellow bird nerds to share what we had done and to hear their feedback and opinions on how we could improve what we had done. I also answered questions about how other facilities could incorporate our ideas into their own bird housing.
It was even more exciting to hear what other trainers were doing in their own programs through their own paper presentations. All of the conference attendees from Zoo Atlanta, including James Ballance (Curator of Birds and Program Animals), Justin Eckelberry (Keeper I, Program Animals) and me (Swing Keeper I, Birds and Program Animals) got to see how the trainers at Disney’s Animal Kingdom were able to train groups of 20 macaws fly over a mile around the Tree of Life. Another trainer in Mexico trained his Harris hawk to participate in voluntary health exams, and another trainer even got to hear from a gentleman who found a hidden frequency in flamingo calls that he could play to get them to dance! In addition to the papers and posters that were presented, we had the option of taking classes to help develop our professional skills as bird trainers, from basic mechanics and enrichment items to repairing broken feathers for flighted raptors.
IAATE was a really great experience, and I learned a lot about the bird training community while connecting with a bunch of new friends at zoos all across the country. I just can’t wait till next year to go back!
Swing Keeper, Birds and Program Animals
Tuesday, March 17
It’s a commonly known “fact” that ducks quack. Everyone knows that, right? Well, quacking may be a common activity for ducks, but not all ducks quack. If you’re listening closely during your next visit to the Zoo, you might hear the three-note whistling call of our white-faced whistling ducks!
We have four white-faced whistling ducks here at Zoo Atlanta. You can find two hanging out near the pond in The Living Treehouse aviary, and you’ll find a pair of brothers befriending the Palawan peacock pheasants in an aviary near the Canopy Climber rock-climbing wall. In addition to their distinctive call, these ducks can be identified by their brown bodies, fairly long legs, black necks, and brilliantly white faces. White-faced whistling ducks are commonly found in South America and Africa and are part of the tree duck family. This means that unlike some species of duck, it’s not unusual to see them or their tree duck relatives perched on a branch, instead of standing on the ground or in the water.
Our little white-faced whistling ducks may not be from Georgia, but heading out to some of the local ponds and lakes might offer a lucky glimpse of some of their wild cousins – the black-bellied whistling ducks or the occasional fulvous whistling duck. Whistling ducks are more often found in South and Central America, but it’s not unusual to see them moving further north in recent years.
So next time you come to the Zoo, see if you can spot our white-faced whistling ducks. We’re sure they’ll greet you with an enthusiastic triple-whistle!
Keeper I, Birds
Thursday, March 12
As an “animal person,” I enjoy being involved in more than just Zoo animals. I try to be an integral part of anything that touches a part of an animal’s life: whether it is environmental like recycling at home and picking up trash as I see it, or physical/emotional like transporting shelter dogs to vet appointments or to their foster homes or rescues.
But this type of animal transport happens more than you know, not only with the foster dogs I help take care of, but also with Zoo animals! Between the various Association of Zoos and Aquarium (AZA) accredited zoos, there are 450 Species Survival Plan (SSP) programs, each having their own Taxon Advisory Group (TAG) that is responsible for making studbooks on animals and keeping track of the breeding/transfer plans in order to have a genetically diverse population represented in zoos. In other words, we don’t want a male breeding with a close female relative, so we are advised to move that male or female to another facility in order to spread out the genetics. The TAG members keep track of the genetics of the populations so they can send the male or female out to a zoo that has no closely related animal.
This is not an easy or quick process because lots of steps are involved. Not only from the paperwork side of things, but also from the keeper side: training, desensitizing - if possible - to the shipment crate, along with communications with the receiving facility on the animal’s likes and dislikes when it comes to his or her food, water and favorite environmental enrichment, as well as training behaviors. A lot goes into the preparing and planning for such important transfers. We want to make sure this is as smooth and as little stress as possible for the animal(s) involved, as well as for us and the receiving institution.
So next time you're on the highway, if you happen to see a transport van full of dogs, or just a horse-trailer, or a huge crate or trailer that looks a tad bit odd, you will know a small amount of what goes on behind-the-scenes to help transfer such precious animals around the country.
Keeper II, Mammals
Tuesday, March 10
Sweet, shy, independent, intelligent and full of spunk. That’s Macy. Gorillas are very intelligent, and watching Macy during her training sessions and interacting with her enrichment is almost eerie because you can actually see her thinking.
Macy is slated to leave with her half-sister, Kazi, to go to the Riverbanks Zoo in Columbia, S.C., as part of a recommendation made by the Gorilla Species Survival Plan (SSP), a national breeding program whose goal is to maintain a healthy, genetically diverse population. I always say that it’s like a dating service for gorillas. This SSP committee goes through genetics to determine who is under-represented and pairs gorillas that are genetically compatible together. If it were only that easy, right? We are all hopeful that there will be a love connection between Macy and Kazi to Cenzoo, who is also moving there from the Birmingham Zoo, but there is no guarantee. I’ve seen a few recommendations made by the SSP where there was no chemistry between the gorillas and it just didn’t work. Beyond genetics, the animals’ social needs come first, and if a match doesn’t work, something else is recommended. You can’t force love!
Born into elite status as the first grandchild to the local zoo celeb Willie B., Macy is no stranger to getting attention, so she’s sure to turn Cenzoo’s head her way. We are going to miss our Smarty Pants. I know that I am really going to miss her. There has been a special place in my heart for her from the moment I laid eyes on her when I came into work on December 12, 2007, and found her in her mother Kudzoo’s arms for the first time. It’s hard to see her and her half-sister go, but knowing they have lives of happiness and opportunity ahead of them makes it all worth it. I’ve visited every gorilla who has left Zoo Atlanta in my 12 years here, so rest assured, I’ll see them soon and will give everyone an update on how their love story with Cenzoo is going.
Lead Keeper, Primates
Thursday, March 5
Wednesday and Thursday of this week I had the pleasure of cross-training with the Bird Department. I shadowed and assisted with the propagation routine, which includes birds who are getting set up for breeding season and the birds located near the petting zoo (wattled cranes, kookaburras, etc.). I had so much fun learning about how different yet similar their area functions and their exhibits are set up. Andy, Keeper II and Melissa, Keeper I, showed me all the ropes: food preparation, cleaning protocols, shifting on and off exhibit during the day, and preparation for cold and rainy temperatures like today. We washed and prepared nest boxes to get ready to go into the enclosures to set up for a successful breeding season. I have chosen cross-training with the Bird Department as one of my annual professional development goals, so I am excited to spend time with the parakeet keepers, Living Treehouse aviary exhibit keepers, and flamingo keepers throughout 2015. I plan on bringing some of my newfound knowledge back to the Program Animals Team and hope some of what I learned will benefit our animals: for example, enrichment ideas, exhibit setup, etc. I had such a great time with the Bird Team over the last two days, and I am excited to share what I learn in the other areas. I don't like to play favorites, but the crested screamers might be mine! They have insanely cool-looking spurs! If you haven't seen them, check them out when you visit the Zoo!
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, March 3
It’s almost time! Spring is just around the corner, and that means one thing for many of our birds: breeding season. First things first: They have to find that perfect spot and then it’s time to start building nests. That’s where their keepers come in.
Since many of our birds are in a busy aviary, nesting options are limited. As keepers, we have to provide our birds with whatever they need for a successful breeding period. During this time we build and hang a variety of nest boxes, or nesting platforms, in different locations around the birds’ enclosures. This gives them the opportunities to pick which spot is most desirable for them, like real estate shopping.
Once they have found their home, it’s time to fill it with material that will be perfect for their upcoming family. Birds will hunt far and wide for that perfect twig, leaf or blade of grass to place in their nest. Here at Zoo Atlanta, we make it easier for our birds by bringing the materials to them. On a daily basis, we keepers will give our birds as much nesting material as we can. We provide them with many options to choose from because we never know which stick out of the 50 we give that day is the perfect one.
We have many species of birds that require different types of nesting material to make them happy. A lot of research, trial and error goes into it. As a keeper, we strive to make our animals happy, so it can become frustrating when the bowl of moss and pine needles goes untouched. But the moment you see that beautiful starling flying off toward a nest carrying a bamboo leaf makes it all worth it. So next time you visit one of our aviaries at Zoo Atlanta, see if you can spot the hard work in progress.
Keeper I, Birds
Thursday, February 26
This past weekend I had the privilege of travelling to Covington, La., to attend the Southeast Partners for Amphibian and Reptile Conservation (SEPARC) annual meeting. PARC is a national (and now recently international with the addition of the Caribbean chapter) organization focused on not only protecting endangered herpetofauna (reptiles and amphibians), but also on keeping common species common.
Meetings like this are always a great way to learn about what is going on with research and conservation in our corner of the world. With topics ranging from the use of environmental DNA to detect rare species like hellbenders to regulation of the commercial collection of wild snapping turtles, there is no shortage of things to learn about!
The annual SEPARC meeting is also a great way to reconnect with colleagues and old friends. It is also a fantastic way to spark new interests or get fresh insights into what we’re already doing. From talking to some fellow gopher frog working group members (yes, there is a whole working group devoted entirely to gopher frogs and their close relative, the crawfish frog) , I learned a way to fix a problem with our own gopher frog program that has been vexing me for years! Had I not had the chance to meet up with everyone, I may very well be trying to figure this problem out for years to come!
Another wonderful treat was a visit to the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans. If you haven’t been, I suggest you pay them a visit! I travelled there with Mark Mandica of the Atlanta Botanical Garden, and we received the royal treatment. As usual, getting to visit another facility brings fresh viewpoints and ideas that we’d love to bring back to our respective institutions. And boy did we get some ideas!
The ideas gained from the SEPARC meeting and zoo visit ranged from different species combinations we haven’t thought of for exhibits, new thoughts on husbandry, to even new ways we can assist in local conservation efforts. The trip was very well worth the drive!
Robert L. Hill
Lead Keeper, Herpetology
Tuesday, February 24
As the newest addition to the Elephant Department, I would like to discuss a topic that I am very familiar with: internships. Animal care internships are the key to opening the door towards a career as a zookeeper. I would know, because before I was the Elephant Department’s newest keeper, I was the Elephant Department’s 2014 summer intern and an intern at three other facilities before that. Not only did I gain animal care and training experience from all of my internships, but I also gained a lot of knowledge on the “dos” and “don’ts” of being an intern. I do believe knowing these “dos and “don’ts” was just as equally helpful in acquiring my current keeper position as was my animal care knowledge.
• Research your facility and the species of animals you will be working with. Every keeper loves a knowledgeable intern who is happy to provide accurate information to guests while they are busy working with an animal.
• Talk to guests. You have an amazing opportunity to educate and inspire people about the animals in front of them and provide them with some great information to make their visit at the Zoo more meaningful.
• Get to know your keepers. If you want a job working at the zoo where you are interning, then you should probably talk to the people you will be working with. It will also make you a memorable and favorable intern when it comes time to fill an open position.
• Ask questions. If you don’t know the answer to a question or what you should be doing at that point in time, just ask us. It is much better than providing the wrong answer to a guest’s question or doing something incorrectly that would directly affect an animal’s or your safety. Asking questions shows keepers that you are interested in the internship and want to learn; they want you to get as much out of your internship as possible.
• Take initiative. Once you have been at your internship for a while, start doing things that you know you are allowed to do without being asked. There is always something to sweep or a bucket to wash when you find yourself with nothing to do, and in a pinch, just ask “Is there anything I can be doing right now?” Initiative shows that you are responsible. This does not go unnoticed and will more than likely result in some fun animal-related responsibilities provided by the keepers.
• Don’t assume. Always ask! Never assume you can do something or go somewhere, such as into an animal’s holding area for instance, even if you think that animal isn’t present. Communication between yourself and the keepers is key to ensuring yours, the keepers’ and the animals’ safety.
• Don’t sit when no one else is sitting. If we are busy doing something, then you should be too.
• Don’t be on your phone unless you are given permission or are on lunch. If you want to know what time it is, then buy a watch. Being on your phone makes you appear disinterested in your internship, and it makes you and your facility look bad if there are eager guests with questions that you are ignoring while you stare at your phone.
• Don’t complain. Internships are a lot of work and no play at first. No one is going to let you feed an elephant or tiger on your first day. These are things you need to earn, and complaining about not getting to do something just does not help anyone. Be patient and work hard, and you will get to do a lot of cool things come the end of your internship. In this career path, you start at the bottom and work your way up; all keepers started with a shovel and ended with a whistle (something we use to train our animals with).
• Don’t blame others for your mistakes. You are an intern; you are bound to make a mistake. Own up to it. You look like a better and more responsible person. Zookeeping is a team effort, so if you are blaming fellow interns for your own mistakes, it just shows that you are not a team player. There are a lot of eyes at the Zoo; someone probably saw that you did it anyway.
I understand that some of these may seem like common sense, but coming from my own personal experience of either doing or witnessing these “dos” and “don’ts,” you would be surprised. So, to all of the aspiring keepers out there, please take my advice to heart and your dreams of working with awesome animals (like Zoo Atlanta’s African elephants Kelly and Tara) will come true just like mine did. Believe me, all of that time as an unpaid intern is well worth it when you can call yourself an animal’s keeper, and get paid to do so!
And with all of that out of the way, our elephants, warthogs and meerkats are all doing well and warm in these chilly winter months, but I’m sure that just like their keepers, they are eagerly waiting for this nasty winter to fade into a sunny spring. And that’s it from the Elephant Department, where the people are filthy but the intentions are pure.
Keeper I, Elephants
Thursday, February 19
At Zoo Atlanta, Spring Break, summer and holidays can be pretty busy! The Program Animals Department responds by having several shows so that all of our guests can enjoy our bird and animal presentations. But what happens in the off-season? When the keepers don’t have as many shows to do, what do they do with all of that “free time?”
Having fewer shows doesn’t give the keepers a lot of extra time. The off-season is when we do lots of things that don’t have to be done very often. For example, our animals get an annual wellness exam, and the off-season is the perfect time to do that. With the little extra time that is left, keepers come up with many creative ways to use their time that benefit the animals – and you!
Studying is something that keepers can do to help them be better at their jobs. Some keepers take online courses on a topic related to their work, and then share what they’ve learned with other staff. Others may train with keepers in another department. By seeing how other departments work and by exchanging ideas, keepers learn new and creative ways to provide the best care for the animals.
Keepers might also work on enrichment ideas. Enrichment is when we do something for the animals that changes up their day and helps them to be active and mentally stimulated. If you give your dog a toy, or play fetch with him, that’s enrichment! Our animals rotate through their enrichment on a regular basis. When keepers work on new ideas, they can come up with a new way of offering enrichment, or a brand-new type of enrichment for that type of animal. This is good for the animal, but it can be enjoyable for our guests, too, when these new enrichment ideas are put on exhibit for everyone to see.
Training is also important. Keepers throughout the Zoo do training projects. Many of them are for husbandry behaviors; that is, the animals are trained to do a behavior that helps keepers care for them. Some behaviors are for other reasons, such as presentations or research. In the Program Animals Department, several of our keepers are working hard on new behaviors for our Amy’s Tree and Wildlife Theater shows. These behaviors will help us to teach our guests about the amazing wildlife that share the world with us – and will be fun for everyone to see! When the summer season starts, come by and check out what we’ve been working on in our “free time!”
Keeper II, Program Animals
Tuesday, February 17
This past weekend, we celebrated Valentine's Day here at the Zoo with some love-themed animal enrichment. Although we enrich our animals daily, our Volunteers made extra-special enrichments which take several hours to prepare, especially for the entire Zoo.
And for the keepers, just taking a few minutes out of our busy, and sometimes hectic, day to watch our animals enjoy their treats, reminds me why we are zookeepers: because we love animals. Although loving animals seems like a prerequisite, there is much more involved in zookeeping. Being a zookeeper means putting years into developing skills and knowledge required to properly care for animals. Many have a background in biology or psychology, and have volunteered or interned before becoming employed. Cuddling and petting is not in the job description, but you should know your way around a shovel!
I've been working with the monkeys for a year now, and I can't tell you how soft a tamarin's hair is, what it feels like to be groomed by a guenon, or how warm a lemur ball is. But I can tell you that zookeepers worry when their animal gets sick, rejoice when they recover, mourn when they pass away, celebrate when they are born, miss them when they move, and are proud when they succeed. And this year, I was fortunate to have 31 furry Valentines.
Keeper I, Primates
(photo by Lynn Yakubinis)
Thursday, February 12
Where are all of the turtles? For our native turtles that are ordinarily on exhibit outside (examples are box turtles and sliders at the wetlands exhibit by Outback Station), they are still out there. For these animals, winter is no big deal. Since they are native to our region, they are very capable of handling the winter weather. Why don’t you see them in the exhibit then? Well, the way that these animals endure through the cold temperatures is by burrowing deep into leaf litter (ex. box turtle) or by sinking into the mud at the bottom of the pond (ex. sliders) where the temperatures stay above freezing. For months, these guys will stay motionless in their hiding spots until the temperature gets high enough for them to come out. During a winter like the one we have been having this year, a few days of warm sunny weather (like the past week) and they will be out sunning themselves, soaking up the heat. When the cold weather returns, the turtles will go back to hiding.
When the new Scaly Slimy Spectacular: The Amphibian and Reptile Experience opens this spring, one the large outdoor exhibits is going to have several species of native aquatic turtles that stay outside all year long, similar to the wetlands exhibit. During the summer months there will be lots of activity and turtle movement, then during winter, those same turtles will be motionless and very difficult to see. This seasonal cycling is very important for these species. Most will not breed unless they have gone through the dormant cold period. We try to emulate seasonal cycles with all of our collection, but it is always easiest with native species because the weather is always just right, even if we think it is very cold.
The new complex is moving forward very quickly, and we hope to see you there soon for a summer of outdoor turtle activity.
Keeper II, Herpetology
Tuesday, February 10
Every year, many workshops and conferences are held at various zoos and aquariums for professionals within the industry. One of these workshops was hosted by the Houston Zoo just a couple of weeks ago and my coworker Kyle Loomis and I were fortunate enough to attend. Thanks to a grant, we were both able to participate in this four-day-long incubation workshop that extensively covered embryology and artificial incubation techniques of bird eggs. This is an important tool to help manage bird collections in zoos. The entire incubation process, from candling eggs (shining a light through the egg to determine fertility) to even drawing blood from an egg for sexing, was covered in full detail with hands-on demonstrations provided. All of this is very important considering that we do a lot of artificial incubation with the bird collection here. The flamingo chicks that hatched late last July and are now out on exhibit with the rest of the flock are a great example of this!
Each day of the workshop broke into two parts, with a detailed lecture starting at 8 a.m. and an interactive lab in the afternoon until about 6 p.m. We had about two hours for lunch each day, which gave us a chance to see the Houston Zoo and tour around in some of the behind-the-scenes bird areas. This gave us the opportunity to throw around some ideas with the other keepers on how we do things differently from zoo to zoo and even species to species. By the end of the workshop, both Kyle and I were very excited with what we had gained from the whole thing and are significantly prepared for this coming breeding season, which is right around the corner. Be sure to stop by and visit the birds to hopefully see some chicks of all shapes and sizes when the weather starts to get warmer!
Keeper I, Birds
Thursday, February 5
It’s raining. The petting zoo is quiet. The murmur of excited children is absent under the Zoo’s entryway today. Warm inside the barn, the goats contentedly munch their hay. The bush dogs are nestled affectionately together, quietly napping away the rainy day.
But there’s a different story being told within the naked mole rat tunnels. A small, young rat is searching for something, traveling hurriedly from chamber to chamber. He’s a part of the working class which can be seen scurrying about the colony foraging for food, nesting, and digging. Like bees and ants, naked mole rats are eusocial; that means each individual has a distinct job to do to care for the colony and the queen. Our friend has found what he seeks: large pieces of sweet potato hidden in a far chamber. Now he must use his strong teeth to whittle the vegetable down so it fits through the narrow tunnels that lead to the food cache.
Another rat silently watches as our young friend disappears through the next tube, laboriously dragging his prize. She has been diligently guarding her chamber, lying at the mouth of the tunnel, ready to face what dangers may come (this may look like lazy napping to the untrained eye, but don’t be fooled). She plays the role of soldier with others of her same age and size who have earned a spot in this elite group. In her youth, she paid her dues in days spent digging, using her independently moving teeth as they worked through the dirt, keeping her mouth and nostrils closed so nothing is swallowed or inhaled.
Suddenly, a change rouses her from her reverie. The eyes of a naked mole rat may not see well, but they can detect the gentle breeze that has just blown through the tube under her charge. As she lifts her head to take a sniff, she quickly recognizes the familiar smell of her keeper. Now that the threat of danger has passed, she can relax once again into the grueling duties of colony sentinel.
Only one rat in the entire colony is excused from these daily chores: the queen. Forgive her if she appears lazy; she fought an epic battle to win the title of queen and a job which may be the most important of all. She is the only naked mole rat in the colony capable of giving birth, a feat which can be accomplished every 80 days and result in as many as 25 pups! The rest of the females in the colony are infertile, and only two or three males are lucky enough to be chosen as her mates. So, while the rest of the colony busily goes about their jobs, she is warmly snuggled with her mates and caretakers, patiently waiting for the newest members of her colony. She sleeps soundly in the knowledge that her family is protected by soldiers, well fed by her dutiful foragers, and is frequently visited by the friendly khaki-clad keepers who always seem so busy (though what with remains a mystery to her still).
It would be a shame to skip over the naked mole rats on your next visit to the Zoo. You may not think they’re the cutest animals there, but they’re strong contenders for most interesting! If you want to know more about these fascinating rodents, ask the keepers at Outback Station (you can find one of us in the petting zoo).
Keeper I, Outback Station
Tuesday, February 3
Several times a year the orangutans at Zoo Atlanta rotate to a different habitat. This gives them a novel environment to explore and is a part of our enrichment program. We have four separate habitats for our orangutans. Three are visible to our guests, while one habitat is more secluded and offers a more private setting for the apes. We generally rotate our groups seasonally through these habitats.
With this round of habitat rotations, we also decided to merge two of our orangutan groups together. Bernas, our 12-year-old male Sumatran orangutan, recently moved to the Denver Zoo on a Species Survival Plan breeding recommendation. With Bernas leaving, this opened up a spot for Chantek and Dumadi (two males, ages 37 and 8) to take his place. Chantek and Dumadi will now be living with Madu and Remy. Madu is a 31-year-old female Sumatran orangutan, and Remy is a 4-year-old male. These four individuals have been together previously, so they should do well as a group again.
Orangutan group management can be a fluid situation with many factors to consider, such as behavior and breeding recommendations. Stay tuned to learn what new opportunities we might be offering the orangutans in the coming months. So, for review, the next time you visit, look for Dumadi and Remy play-wrestling with each other in Orangutan Habitat Two; Miri with her sons Satu and Pelari trying to figure out how to take down the ropes in Habitat One; and Biji high in a hammock overlooking everyone in Habitat Three.
Keeper II, Primates
Thursday, January 29
These past couple weeks have been busy! The Program Animals Team is doing some shadowing with the dolphin training team at Georgia Aquarium this month. Each of our staff will have an opportunity to shadow them for a day, and several of their staff members are coming to spend a day here at the Wildlife Theater. As different as our worlds are, there are a lot of similarities in how we care for and train our animals, and there is so much we can learn from one another.
In addition to the cross-over time, Lead Keeper Christina and I have been working hard to earn our credentials as Certified Interpretive Guides so that we can better impart our visitors with awesome animal information! This past Saturday, I got to be involved in two awesome educational opportunities. I met over 80 teens who think they might want to work with animals at the first installment of our Career Exploration Series. I also got to meet with local teachers who were looking for information about adding a pet to their classroom, and I got them thinking about all the ups and down to having a finned, feathered or four-legged classmate. We also kicked off a new program this weekend at the Wildlife Theater with the help of some awesome Volunteens. Teens will be recording behavioral observation data for the birds in the shows for the next few months so we can get a better idea of just how they like to spend their time.
Then there is the big news. On Monday, January 19, we hatched a milky eagle owl chick! Mom had laid two eggs, but with this species there is intense sibling rivalry, leaving only one survivor, so we pulled one of the eggs to be hand-raised and left the other egg under mom. Our chick is strong and healthy and is hitting all the right milestones. We’re not yet sure how long he (or she) will be here or where his final zoo destination will be, but we’ll love him while we have him!
Unfortunately, the egg that was under mom didn’t hatch correctly, and that chick did not survive. We are going to do our best to make sure this chick knows he’s a chick and not a tiny person. We do this by limiting our voices when we’re feeding him and using an owl puppet to get food to him. Also, when he’s a bit bigger, he’ll room next to his brother Mandela, who flies in our shows. This setup will let the chick hear and see his own species as he (or she!) grows up.
Assistant Curator of Birds and Program Animals
Tuesday, January 27
All birds go through their breeding season during the warmer parts of the year, right? If you said yes, you are selling some birds short on their capabilities to breed in less than ideal temperatures. While it is probably true that the vast majority of birds breed in the warmer weather, there are a few here at Zoo Atlanta that don’t follow that trend. One such example is our pair of lappet-face vultures, Anubis and Creepie.
If you were to stop by the lappet-faced vulture habitat, you might notice a large pile of debris in the front left corner. That messy conglomeration of sticks, branches, leaves, etc., is the beautiful work of our male Anubis. Do not tell him that it is a mess, because to Anubis, it is a finely crafted work of art. Since about early December, he has been tirelessly combing his habitat for anything to add to the structural integrity of his nest. Keepers have had to provide a steady supply of sticks just to supplement his desire to build.
Lappet-faced vultures have a wide range throughout much of Africa. The vultures’ breeding season will vary depending upon where in Africa they live. For example, vultures that live in the northern parts of Africa, or above the equator, will usually begin breeding around November and will possibly continue into July. They can lay one to two eggs per clutch, but usually one egg is the norm. Before hatching, the egg or eggs will be incubated by the parents for approximately 55 days. The chicks will remain dependent upon their parents for quite some time.
Zoo Atlanta has not had a successful lapped-faced vulture hatch to date. However, with increased breeding behaviors, such as nesting building, we are more hopeful than ever that it is just a matter of time. That being said, Anubis has a tendency to be a little pushy toward his lady. While his nest-building skills have increased, his ability to woo Creepie needs to improve if we are to be graced with the presence of a baby vulture.
Keeper I, Birds and Program Animals
Thursday, January 22
A few days ago I asked a coworker about blog topics to consider writing about for this entry. Having only been back in the Herpetology Department about a month after working with elephants, I wasn’t sure what topics I should explore. My coworker said, “Why don’t you write about coming back to reptiles and how it’s your first love after working in so many areas?” My career trajectory has certainly been a wild ride. It is true, I have moved around a lot over the years. What people may not understand is how absolutely rewarding the journey has been.
It's been said that the benefit of traveling the world is that we get to see how other cultures live. Those who are fortunate enough to travel abroad have an informed perspective. Conversely, it may be suggested that staying put might lead to a more myopic perspective. Since arriving at Zoo Atlanta, I’ve had the pleasure of working in multiple areas: Education, Birds and Small Mammals, Reptiles, Primates, Large Mammals, Hoofstock and Elephants. By now, I’ve become a bit of an expert on the subject of change. So when people ask what the transition has been like, I simply smile because while different, we are all a part of one Zoo family.
Each department has contributed to my skill and experience in a unique way. For example, working in education taught me the power of collaboration. While in Birds, I learned how to handle large, aggressive birds like cranes and hornbills. Working with reptiles and amphibians taught me persistence. This area really is special to me, and with the new Scaly Slimy Spectacular opening this spring, the energy in the Herpetology Department is electric.
Working with primates taught me dedication. And, of course, who doesn’t love lemurs, monkeys and apes? Saying goodbye to the primates was difficult, but oh what a joy it was to work with rhinos, giraffes, antelopes and zebras.
Leaving the Zoo and moving to Minnesota to work at another zoo was bittersweet but exciting! I was eager to work with brown and polar bears, snow leopards, pumas and Amur tigers. When I arrived, I realized I had taken for granted all the wonderful comforts that our Zoo provides, such as a centralized Animal Nutrition Department, Security and Distribution Teams, full-time veterinarians, and the list goes on. There, I learned appreciation.
Of course, as luck would have it, I found myself back home. I returned to work in some familiar areas as well as a new one: elephants! Teamwork is absolutely important when working with these gentle giants. It truly was a pleasure working with such a great team, Kelly and Tara, especially.
Taking care of such a diverse assortment of animals and working with such a talented group of zoo professionals has been rewarding. Collaboration, confidence, persistence, dedication, patience, appreciation and teamwork are all values that I’ve learned in my zoo travels, and I wouldn’t change one thing. It sure is good to be back!
Keeper III, Herpetology
Tuesday, January 20
For those of you who are frequent visitors at the Zoo, you may remember our male clouded leopard, the late Moby. Unlike most clouded leopards, which are shy and reclusive, Moby was very much an in-your-face kind of clouded leopard. He would routinely sit and relax right in front of the viewing glass and allow all of the Zoo's guests to get an eyeful. When Moby passed away last March at the geriatric age of 17, it left a glaring hole in our hearts as well as in Moby's exhibit. We discussed getting a replacement animal for the exhibit, as if anything could replace Moby, but it was decided that we would hold off on obtaining another leopard for the time being. It just so happened that our two Sumatran tiger cubs, Sohni and Sanjiv, had recently begun living independently from their mom Chelsea. We also had just received the male, Kavi, back from his year at the National Zoo, where he sired two other cubs. That left us with three "groups" of tigers and only one tiger exhibit. It was out of need as well as convenience that we decided to utilize the clouded leopard exhibit as a second tiger exhibit. This gave all of our tigers opportunities to be outside and on exhibit every day.
After several months, both of Chelsea's cubs were transferred to different zoos as part of Sumatran Tiger Species Survival Plan (SSP) breeding recommendations. Our male cub, Sanjiv, was sent to the Akron Zoo in Ohio, and his sister, Sohni, was transferred to Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida. We decided to utilize the exhibit for tigers for the summer, but I put out the word to the Clouded Leopard SSP that we once again wanted to house a clouded leopard.
In September, I was notified that the SSP was recommending that Zoo Atlanta receive a clouded leopard. Zoo Miami in Florida had two female cubs, born in March, that were both looking for a new home. We jumped at the chance and began making arrangements to have one of these young females join us in Atlanta. The day finally arrived in mid-November, when she arrived at Zoo Atlanta safe and sound. She then spent her mandatory 30-day quarantine period in our quarantine facilities under the care of the Zoo's wonderful hospital animal keeper. While the leopard was in quarantine, the carnivore staff was busy making improvements to the clouded leopard exhibit for when she would be passed to our care.
While in quarantine, she was a normal clouded leopard. She was shy and reclusive toward the keeper and kept to herself, but would come out and explore once the keeper had left. Unknown to her, we had a camera on her 24/7, so we could keep an eye on her. She began making some progress with the keeper near the end of the quarantine period, but we then had to move her to her new home at the clouded leopard exhibit. After a day of acclimating to her new den, she was given access to the clouded leopard exhibit, where she couldn't wait to get out and explore. It has been nearly a month now, and she is still shy and reclusive with the keepers, although we are making some progress. These relationships take some time. What surprised everyone, though, is that while she is shy and reclusive toward the keepers, she has no problem going right down to the viewing glass to sit and stare at the public, much like Moby used to do. While she is slightly smaller than Moby was, as most female leopards would be, she is no less beautiful. Make sure you stop by Complex Carnivores when you're at the Zoo and say hello.
Lead Keeper, Carnivores
Thursday, January 15
The weather outside has been frightful, but our chinchillas here at Wieland Wildlife Home are enjoying every minute of it. Long-tailed chinchillas are native to the Andes Mountain range in Chile, South America, where the temperatures are often harsh, windy and cold. They are built for surviving in such temperatures, and this is evident in the dense, soft fur that covers their bodies.
Long-tailed chinchillas have up to 60 hairs for every follicle. Compare that to us humans, who only have one hair per follicle. This vast amount of fur provides plenty of warmth on a bitter cold day. Throughout the winter, we will house our two female chinchillas, Kechua and Elsa, outside in the exhibits located directly in front of Wieland Wildlife Home. When in these exhibits, the chinchillas have the ability to stretch their legs and use their natural abilities to climb, and jump up to five feet from a standing position. Stop by and catch a glimpse at them enjoying the cool temperatures.
We are working with our two male chinchillas, Walnut and Cusco, on training them for voluntary pick-up and kenneling behaviors so they can begin traveling to programs, including ZooMobiles. For now, they will be appearing in unscheduled animal encounters throughout the Zoo or during one of our Wonders of Wildlife shows currently taking place on Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. at the Amy’s Tree Theater.
Keeper II, Birds and Program Animals
Tuesday, January 13
Potter, one of our black-and-white-ruffed lemurs, recently left Atlanta for sunny Florida. That morning, one of our staff drove down to Tifton, Ga., to meet staff from the Jacksonville Zoo halfway so that they could take him to his new home. Potter left Atlanta on a breeding recommendation by the Species Survival Plan (SSP).
Animals go through a routine quarantine period when they go to other institutions, as well as when they are new arrivals at Zoo Atlanta. Once the quarantine period is over, the introduction process can begin. I can’t wait to hear how Potter will do with his new family!
You would think that since our group of 1.3 (one male and three females) have lived together here and are related (mother, father, children), they would just be able to live happily ever after when you change up their living quarters. This, my friend, is not quite true...
Females are the dominant sex in lemur society. Our group of females consists of Meva (dominant and mother); Luna (youngest daughter and second in command); and Malaky (older of the daughters but picked on by other females). Ian is the father and is the only male now that Potter has left. Their habitat has plenty of room for the lemurs to climb around and stay away from the others if they choose. There may be chasing or chattering, but they coexist beautifully. Indoors, however, these dynamics can change.
We placed Ian, who is laid-back and easygoing, next to Malaky in two separate rooms in their indoor area, allowing them to see one another and allowing us to observe their interactions. After observing their initial period of visual interactions, we decided to put them together. When the doors opened (we gave Ian a chance at having more space first since females are dominant), Malaky chased and swatted at poor Ian. We waited to see if it would cease after a while, and then we gave them both a break. We did this introduction when it was possible. With the cold weather upon us, we had limited days where the lemurs could go outside. Malaky is sometimes difficult to shift out, and some days she decides she wants to stay inside. On days she would decide to stay inside, the intros would continue. When she wanted to go outside, we let her. Everyone should enjoy the fresh air when they can!
As the intros continued and Ian was still being chased, we decided that maybe living together next to each other was better for these two. Even social animals need their alone time sometimes!
We miss you, Potter! Can’t wait to see your beautiful babies!
(Photo by Michele Dave)
Keeper II, Primates
Thursday, January 8
Many of us have had the opportunity to witness a snake ingesting a meal. For those of you who haven’t, you are missing a demonstration of one of the most amazing adaptations to have ever arisen in nature. When seeing it for the first time, or even the 100th time, it’s difficult to imagine how an animal can swallow a food item that is 10, 20 or even 100 percent or more of its own body weight. Well, to accommodate this, snakes have one of the most highly adapted skulls that you can find and include some key features that allow for the passage of those huge meals. One of the key adaptations is that their lower jaw is not one single unit, as with most other animals. Instead the two sides are separate from one another, allowing them to move independently. Added to that, they have an extra bone in the jaw that you and I do not possess, called the quadrate bone. This connects the lower jaw to the back part of the skull and thus creates two points of movement for the jaws, allowing them to move not only up and down, but also in and out. Another interesting fact is that basically all of the bones within a snake’s skull, with the exception of those that are around the brain, are able to move to some extent. These together create a highly mobile mouth cavity that can adapt to both very small meals and unbelievably large meals. With these things in mind it’s easy to see that snakes do not “unhinge” their jaw, as many people believe. So the next time that you are able to witness a snake feeding event I encourage you to think on these things, and also to appreciate the amazing things that nature is able to accomplish.
Keeper III, Herpetology
Tuesday, December 30
A new year often brings change, and that will likely be the case for the Mammal Department. Some of the newer members of our Zoo family have grown considerably over the past year, and as bittersweet as it can be, we must remember that at some point they may need to move on to start families of their own. Or, in some cases, the offspring may stay here, but other members of their pride/herd will relocate to another zoo.
Lawson the eastern bongo, for example, has grown into a strapping young man. His horns are looking bigger every day. He’s still doing very well in his family unit, but come spring, the Bongo Species Survival Plan (SSP) will likely have a new home lined up for him. Over in our carnivore area, the Asian small-clawed otters Harry and Nava are certainly not newbies. For most of us, however, they’ve forever nestled themselves into a corner of our hearts. With the death of patriarch Moe, the girls are wonderful candidates for new homes. They can’t be introduced to the giant otters, so a new location is a good option for them. What of our biggest baby, eastern black rhino Jabari? For now, he’s happy as can be with his mom. And she appears to be happy to have him. We’ve got a little bit of time before we even need to entertain the thought of saying goodbye to him (phew, right?).
It’s always hard to say goodbye, whether we’ve known the animals for years, or only for a short time. We take comfort in knowing that when the animals do leave us, they’re headed to another great zoo, with more opportunities to explore and socialize, and maybe even breed. 2015 is full of possibilities. Here’s hoping you and yours have a safe and happy year!
Megan Wilson, PhD
Curator of Mammals
Tuesday, December 23
This past Sunday, Zoo Atlanta held its annual holiday enrichment extravaganza. Throughout the day, our animals received a wide variety of fun toys to play with and tasty treats to munch on. From wrapped presents and papier mache ornaments, to cardboard cutout candy canes and red and green colored fruitcicle, there was something for all of our animals to enjoy.
The orangutans had a great time ripping open their presents to find out what treats where hidden inside. Chantek, our 37-year-old male, found popcorn and a variety of fruit inside his gifts. Although he had a tough time competing with 8-year-old Dumadi who ran ahead of him to collect up as many gifts as his arms could carry. Dumadi appeared to enjoy his cardboard candy cane that had peanut butter smeared on the back of it. The rest of the orangutans had just as good a time.
The gorillas had a great time as well. Our bachelor group of Kekla, Stadi and Charlie even received a cardboard holiday train set. Kekla and Charlie displayed at each other to see who would get first dibs on the train. It turned out Kekla earned a rare victory over the more dominant Charlie for the right to tear into the train cars to see what was inside. I'm sure the rest of the animals had just as good a time exploring their holiday enrichment items.
While all of our animals here at the Zoo receive enrichment regularly as part of their daily care, we put on holiday themed enrichment days like this a few times a year. These holiday enrichment days would not be possible without the help of Zoo Atlanta's Enrichment Volunteer Team, who work multiple weekends creating all sort of items for our animals to enjoy. Whether its papier mache pumpkins for Halloween or gift-wrapped boxes for Christmastime, our Enrichment Volunteer Team does an excellent job of helping us provide for all the animals here at Zoo Atlanta.
Thanks, guys. You rock!
Keeper II, Primates
Thursday, December 18
The holidays give us a great opportunity to talk about saving green(the planet and all animal life) and saving green (the money in your pocket).
Did you know...?
• Americans throw away about 25 percent more trash between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve.
• If every American family wrapped just three presents in reused materials, it would save enough paper to cover 45,000 football fields.
• Thirty-five percent of Americans have an unused present collecting dust in the closet.
Wow! Here’s changing the current statistics with thoughtful decisions to help the planet and our bottom line.
Let's start with decorating!
• Soy candles are a simple decoration. They produce less soot than do paraffin candles, don't emit unsafe hydrocarbons, and are made from renewable soybean oil. (They also make great gifts.)
• Popcorn and cranberries create a unique garland. It can be used on an outdoor tree to provide edible decorations for wildlife.
• Ornament swaps are a fun way to introduce new ideas into worn-out decorations. Visiting antique shops or thrift stores is a great way to reuse. Plus, by redecorating boring bulbs using ideas from Pinterest and other creative sites, items around the house can also reinvigorate decorations.
• LEDs (light emitting diodes) use up to 90 percent less energy than do incandescent bulbs yet produce the same amount of light. LEDs can be found for both indoor and outdoor lights.
• Put lights on a timer so they are on when someone is around to appreciate them. This is a great way to not worry about unplugging them at the end of the night.
What about a tree?
• Use a native live tree with the root ball so it can be planted in the yard after the holidays. (This provides a money-saving shade tree or wind break.)
• If the tree has been cut, recycle it at the end of the season it into mulch. Your garden will be happy for it.
• If you opt for an artificial tree, use it for many years. It takes a lot of energy and petroleum products to make artificial trees.
How about gifts?
• Use mass transit or your legs. In this manner, you can save money from gas and parking fees, but you will also be cutting emissions. Plus, it doubles as a money-saving workout.
• Patronize local shops. Support locally-made or grown, fair trade shops.
• Look for areas where several stores are close together. Then, combine errands into one trip to save gas, time and hassle.
• Shop online.
• Supply your own bags.
Some green/ green-minded gifts include:
• Supporting local community gifts like gift certificates, movie tickets, theater performances, charitable donations (like Zoo Atlanta), etc. These also generate minimal waste.
• Give the gift of time by volunteering for a charitable organization.
• Re-gift a past present to someone who might appreciate it.
• Give the gift of helping someone else go green. (I have given and received green gifts.)
• Giving electronics? Give an Energy Star labeled item.
• Ensure that candy or other products are using certified sustainable palm oil. That information can be downloaded from Cheyenne Mountain Zoo's palm oil app.
Are you ready to wrap it up? Gifts can be wrapped in a wide variety of green items, including:
• Reusing newspaper (comics add color)
• Brown grocery bags (decorated by the kids for a touch of personalized artwork)
• Fabric bags (that can find other uses after the holidays)
• Baskets, boxes or tins
• Wrapping gifts in useful items (example of kitchen utensils wrapped in a kitchen towel)
• If you have to use wrapping paper, find wrap made from post-consumer recycled content and printed with plant-based inks. Recycle the paper when done with the holiday. Avoid metallic colors as they can't be recycled.
• Sturdy cloth ribbons can be reused year after year.
• Raffia (natural fiber) is a great ribbon substitute. Twine or yarn made from recycled material is a win too.
• Use real popcorn or shredded paper instead of Styrofoam packing peanuts. The foam peanuts can be recycled where Styrofoam is accepted, or call 1.800.CLEANUP for the nearest location.
• Make gift tags from last year's holiday cards, or write your salutations on the box to reduce waste.
• Substitute postcards for cards requiring envelopes.
• Purchase cards made with recycled paper and printed with plant-based inks. Purchase cards in the least bulky packaging.
• Finally, save on paper altogether. Send an e-card or give a phone call to that special friend.
Jump-start a green New Year's resolution too. Happy holidays!
Lead Keeper, Program Animals
Tuesday, December 16
The big draw of an Elephant Wild Encounter is that it gives a person the chance to touch and feed an elephant. Touching an elephant! Imagine laying your hands against an elephant’s flank, feeling the roughness of its skin and the warmth of its body, and having your soft hands scraped by black belly hairs that are thick and stiff as wires. Touching an elephant! Imagine standing close and reaching up to sheath your arm between shoulder and ear, the one side rugose, the other softer than chamois cloth, striated with veins and hot enough to melt a block of butter.
And the feeding! Imagine standing stone-still with arm outstretched and a leaf of lettuce for the trunk to take. Seven feet of trunk unfurl and arc towards you like a sluggish snake striking, the fingers grab the lettuce with businesslike brusqueness, and the whole affair is swung back to deposit the treat into a gaping mouth. So practiced is she at the transaction, so adept at gauging depth and distance by scent alone, that the elephants’ eyes were closed the entire time. And her tongue was out. Look over here, not at the elephant! It makes for a better picture.
It’s not for the touching of an elephant that people come, and it’s not for the chance to feed one. I like to think it’s not just for the photo opportunity, and it most certainly isn’t to listen to one of the keepers rattle off a mouthful of elephant facts and anecdotes (though we do wish it were about us, sometimes). No, the people don’t come for any of those selfish things.
People come to be touched by an elephant. People come to feel the hot breath blowing from an elephant’s trunk, to quail under the thoughtful grandeur of their gaze, to marvel at the delicate tread of those tree-trunk feet, to hear the earthquake rumbling of their speech, and to transfer some of that red Georgia clay from elephant elbow to human hand. Imagine now an elephant’s eye staring, with sclera the size of an egg, her brown iris iridescent like a mud puddle after the first storm of summer, reflecting the sun and boring into your soul from behind four inches of mud-splattered Maybelline lashes.
The exchange of lettuce leaves isn’t about food or payment for entertainment rendered. No, it is an offering of thanks from us to them. The bit of trunk snot and mud they leave on your fingers as they grab the food is a receipt from them to us, and should be kept for one’s personal records.
An empathetic person understands the true significance of an elephant encounter. I hope to see some of you there, and to share with you the wrinkled beauty of our elephants.
And that’s it from the Elephant Department, where the people are filthy but the intentions are pure.
Elephant Keeper I
Thursday, December 11
Things are moving forward with construction of Scaly Slimy Spectacular: The Amphibian and Reptile Experience. The dome’s glass panels are installed, and exhibits are being built and painted. The completed exhibits look amazing, and I can’t wait to see the finished product in the spring. To go with our new building, we also have a new keeper: Daniel Benboe has joined Herpetology Team once again. Daniel has been a member our team on two other occasions; he has worked at Zoo Atlanta for 15 years and comes most recently from working with elephants in the Mammal Department.
Even though it is winter, we still have plenty of things happening in the World of Reptiles. Within the past few days, five impressed tortoises have hatched. Interestingly, most reptiles seem to hold on to their breeding patterns, even when you move them to another part of the world. What this means is that even though it is winter here in Georgia, where reptiles are dormant, several of our non-native animals will still reproduce because their biological clocks are programmed to their home range where the environmental conditions are correct for reproduction. For example, our largest female Burmese star tortoise is currently looking for a suitable nesting location. Most of the time turtles and tortoises will dig several test holes, looking for just the right spot to lay their eggs. I have found her digging on several occasions, and I suspect she will lay them soon. This particular tortoise was born here at Zoo Atlanta in 2005, and I am very excited about her first clutch of eggs. Burmese star tortoises are considered highly endangered by the IUCN.
Keeper II, Herpetology
Tuesday, December 9
Breeding season has come to a close for most birds here at Zoo Atlanta, but for a few species, the season has just begun. Love is in the air for at least one pair of birds, and the species I’m referring to are our tawny frogmouths. These birds are different than many species of birds in that they will show signs of preparing for breeding season by losing weight, rather than gaining it. Much of their energy is spent gathering nesting material during this time in order to build a suitable place for laying and incubating eggs. We recently added a nesting platform to our frogmouth exhibit where the birds have a nice space to build a home for their chicks.
If successful, a frogmouth’s clutch size will be one to three eggs, and both the male and female will take turns sitting on the nest and caring for the chicks after they hatch. These birds are native to Australia, and their appearance is similar to an owl, but they are a closer relative to a nightjar. One difference between frogmouths and owls is that a frogmouth’s mouth is wide, and even though they eat similar food as owls, they must swallow their food whole instead of tearing it into pieces with a sharp beak. Therefore, chicks rely on parents to feed them small objects, like insects, until they can handle larger items. Another difference between frogmouths and owls is that a frogmouth’s nest is built in an open area in a tree instead of in a hollow cavity because the frogmouths depend on their excellent camouflage to keep them safe from predators. Chicks will stay in the nest for approximately 25 to 35 days and will then fledge the nest but will still look to their parents for support for a short period of time until they can hunt on their own.
Keeper I, Birds
Thursday, December 4
I am a new keeper here at Zoo Atlanta and this is my first time writing for this blog. I thought to myself, what better way to start off than to explain why I do what I do?
Though I’m new to Zoo Atlanta, I’m not new to the zoo world or animal care. I worked with thoroughbred racehorses all throughout middle and high school, and I started my zoo career in college, like most keepers. I began at Columbus Zoo and Aquarium as a seasonal education staff member and then an intern. I quickly realized there was a huge difference in the satisfaction between caring for animals for entertainment and caring for them for conservation. I instantly knew that this was what I was meant to do. However, the impact of what I was doing didn't quite hit me until I took the next step in my career.
After college, I moved back to Georgia and took a lead position at a small private zoo. An event occurred there that would forever solidify my dream and desire to be a keeper and make an impact on the world around me. I took care of all the birds of prey at this facility, and it included a pair of Harris hawks that had been donated. A few months went by, and a man and his family came to the zoo. I was told he was coming and that he was the previous owner of the birds, but little did I know that he would make one of the most lasting impacts on me in my life. I was waiting at the mew for his tour group to arrive as I saw our golf cart coming with this very elderly man and his family walking behind. When they got to the mews, he very slowly got out of the cart. As his daughter grabbed his arm to assist him, he shrugged her off and proudly walked up to where I was. Now, these particular birds were aggressive, and I had just gotten them to accept me and come to my glove, so I was very apprehensive about letting him come so close. As he moved toward them, however, both birds immediately flew toward him and perched next to him as if seeing an old friend. I was awestruck; this sort of affection is rare in hawks, especially when these hadn’t seen the man in nearly three years.
I began to talk to him and learn his story. He started falconry when he was young in Poland and continued it when he immigrated to the U.S. I sat with him for almost two hours listening to stories. Finally he began to get tired and started back towards the entrance. I walked back with them and spoke with his daughter and learned why he had donated the birds. He had had a very serious stroke and couldn't care for them the way he thought was necessary anymore. She said his mind was quickly going and that he couldn't remember much except when it came to his birds.
I got a radio call that the old man wanted to see me before he left, so I ventured down to our main entrance. There he sat with a box in front of him. He said, "I can't do this anymore, so I want you to have this." Inside were some leathers to make equipment, some cutting tools, and finally his glove. He gave me his very old and very used glove. I have never been more honored in my life.
This man's passion was nothing short of inspiring. See, I may not have the most glamorous job in the world, but at the end of the day, what I do means something. It means something to the animals I care for, it means something to the people whose dream I am living, and it means something to people whose legacy I will continue. I get paid to do something that I live for, and because of that, I will never “work” a day in my life.
Keeper I, Birds and Program Animals
Tuesday, December 2
November 30 was Kibali’s first birthday! He is our baby Schmidt’s guenon and is the youngest, most rambunctious monkey at Zoo Atlanta. Kibali acts the way one imagines a monkey would; he jumps on other monkey’s heads, chases everyone’s tail (including his own), does back-flips off trees, and dive-bombs enrichment items. I've even caught him pouncing on his own shadow.
Keepers and interns began making birthday enrichment a week in advance. We know he especially enjoys dragging paper chains around, so we spent hours cutting and connecting long, long, long chains. We also discovered his new favorite enrichment: giant birthday banners! Keepers used a ladder and paper chain to hang a painted banner up high, but with a single leap and one-handed grab, Kibali ripped down and paraded the banner around the exhibit.
Recently, Kibali has been asking his keepers for treats. He does this with a high-pitched trill which almost sounds like a bird’s chirp. It's a very distinct sound and is almost impossible to resist. Kibali vocalizes when he sees us with peanuts, which we often use during training sessions. Kibali has learned that his keepers are friendly and have delicious food! It's important that keepers establish these positive relationships with our animals. Relationships are key for proper husbandry. It's never too early for an animal to learn husbandry behaviors, so Kibali is already learning behaviors such as getting on a scale, touching a target, and shifting from one area to another (although sometimes he doesn't listen and his mom has to carry him).
It's been a privilege for me to watch Kibali grow from a timid infant to an independent burst of energy. And watching him enjoy his birthday party has been the highlight so far. So next time you visit Kibali, make sure he gets a proper birthday song:
“Happy birthday to you!
You live in a zoo!
You look like a monkey,
And you smell like one, too!”
(Photo by Whitney Taylor)
Seasonal Keeper, Primates
Thursday, November 27
Happy Thanksgiving from the Zoo Atlanta family!
Healthcare is a very important part of our day-to-day tasks as zookeepers. It’s our job to make sure our birds stay healthy, and part of that is making sure they get annual physicals and check-ups. As you can imagine, this is quite a task with our flock of 57 Chilean flamingos!
To prepare for our annual Flamingo Roundup, we coordinate with our awesome vet staff and determine who needs a physical this time and which birds need a blood sample taken. We also figure out which of our birds will need their flight feathers trimmed back, to keep them from being able to flap their way out of their pool and habitat. Our list of birds also includes known health issues, like our female with the blind eye or our male who was moving a bit stiffly earlier this month. Like humans, as birds age they can develop some health problems that we need to be on the lookout for, such as cataracts or arthritis. Our flock ranges in age from 3 months to over 30 years old. Flamingos in the wild are lucky to make it to their 20s, but flamingos in zoos can easily make it to their 40s or 50s.
You may have noticed the fence and building in the back of our flamingo exhibit. That is the main off-exhibit area for our birds. It’s where the birds go when the temperatures get too cold for them to stay outside, where we raise our chicks, and where we do our Roundup. When we need to bring them in, we walk them from their pool, up the hill, and straight into their corral. Flamingos move as a flock, so as long as each bird is moving the same direction, they will walk calmly into their behind-the-scenes area. Once there, we can catch each bird. We can hold a flamingo by tucking the bird under our arm, with the bird’s head behind us. We sometimes have to have a second person to hold the bird’s head, because their necks are long enough that they can sometimes loop them back around to peer over our shoulders. Once we have the bird in hand, vet staff has a chance to listen to their hearts and lungs, feel their body condition, and check their eyes, feet and legs. We take pictures of each bird’s feet to add to our records. Vet staff also checks the transponder each bird has, to make sure it is still functioning correctly. Once blood is drawn and the physical is over, we trim wings and weigh each bird. Then we carefully walk them back out to their main pool, let them get their feet back under them, and let them go.
It is quite a process, and depending on the day and how many people we have helping, it can take anywhere from three to four hours from start to finish. The results are worth it, though! Because of our Roundup, we know our birds are healthy, and that is the important thing. Besides, there’s nothing like the fresh (some would say “strong”) aroma of flamingo feathers to add some spice to a zookeeper’s day!
Keeper I, Birds
Tuesday, November 25
Happy Thanksgiving from Outback Station! This year, we have a lot to be thankful for around the barn. In the spring, we introduced a new female red kangaroo, Rory, to our mob. Soon after Rory settled in, we discovered she had a joey in her pouch! Roland was born in April and now spends almost all of his time out of the pouch, although he is still nursing.
We also had the successful introduction of 10 new petting zoo animals. This summer, we brought in seven new goats and three new sheep to join our herd. After a couple of rambunctious days, the herd is fully integrated, and we’ve even started catching some of the dominant goats allowing the goat kids into their hay beds to snuggle (I’m looking at you, Jasmine!). On top of all that, we’re also celebrating the addition of a new full-time Outback Station keeper, Erin Johnson, who has integrated quite successfully into our keeper herd! We think we’ll keep them all around!
Have a safe holiday season!
(Photo by Michelle Elliott)
Keeper I, Outback Station
Thursday, November 20
Have you noticed that it’s cold outside? Well, we have in the World of Reptiles, and so have our animals. In fact, some of our aquatic turtles have entered into their "winter phase". What does that mean? Since turtles, like all other reptiles, are ectothermic (meaning that they use their environment to regulate their body temperature), their body temps have lowered with the cooler air temperatures. One huge advantage of being ectothermic is that your metabolic rate can also be regulated by temperatures. So what that means for these turtles is that as their body temps and metabolic rates slow down, so does their bodies’ demand for fuel. This allows animals such as these to enter into extended periods of time when they need virtually no food or water, so they can basically sleep until the environmental temperatures warm up again. The technical term for this is “torpor".
So does that mean that they sleep underwater for days on end? Actually, yes, it does! Another amazing thing that these animals are able to do during these periods of torpor is to draw all of the oxygen that they need from the water around them, absorbing it through their skin. So even though they can’t breathe underwater (since they have lungs just like you and I do), they manage to break the rules just enough that they can stay underwater throughout most of the winter and then emerge in the spring completely unfazed. However, they are not completely inactive during this time. Some will still come out to bask on warm, sunny winter days. So keep your eyes out for these guys when you’re near your local pond this winter or when visiting the wetlands exhibit here at the Zoo.
Keeper III, Herpetology
Tuesday, November 18
Did you know that gorillas and orangutans get flu shots every year just like people do? The great apes are some of our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. Since they are so close to us, they can get a lot of the same illnesses that we can, including the flu. Let's face it, though – no one likes to get a shot! So how do you get a gorilla or an orangutan to cooperate?
We do lots of training with our animals at Zoo Atlanta to make daily husbandry and veterinary procedures less stressful. We use practice syringes and blunted needles to get the apes used to the sight and the feeling of the needle touching them. Then we give them a high-value food reward (grapes, bananas, etc.) when they accept the needle touching them and hold still. We often do gorilla training demonstrations in the Willie B. Gorilla Conservation Center (weather permitting). Stop by and learn more about our training program!
Keeper II, Primates
Thursday, November 13
Hondo, Hatari, Azizi and Zamaya the lion cubs turn 1 on November 19! It’s hard to believe that they are almost a year old. This past year sure has flown by. It’s difficult to imagine life and routine without their antics. Like human children, they sure do add laughter to the day, as well as some occasional stress. They have spent the last year doing a lot of sleeping, eating, growing, playing, learning, and, of course, getting into whatever mischief they can find!
The cubs have had many milestones in the last year. They first exhibited play behavior when they were only 18 days old. Their teeth were first starting to break through their gums when they were 42 days old. They were first introduced to their dad Kamau (in the same space) when they were 50 days old. They quickly learned that he was much stricter than mom Kiki. When he got annoyed, they quickly backed down, although Kiki was always right there to put Kamau in his place as well. When they were 62 days old, they explored the exhibit for the first time. Only 10 days later, they got to experience the exhibit covered in snow! At 3 months old, they spent the entire day on exhibit as a pride for the first time. Just a few days later, they got to have bones for the first time. They loved them, and bones continue to be a favorite.
Just like human children, the cubs all have their own unique personalities. Hondo is our largest cub (over 200 pounds already!) and has probably been one of the most independent. He is not the first to seek out attention from Kiki or the keepers. He tends to be fairly mellow except when he insists on chewing on the training bench!
Hatari likes to interact with the keepers the most. He is very curious and is one of the first to come up to the mesh to see what we are doing. Azizi is probably the cub most attached to his mama. He is always the last to shift away from the pride. He can be difficult to train because he is so focused on the fact that he is not with the rest of his family.
Zamaya is our lone female and is quite the explorer. She was the first to eat meat (by almost two months!) and was the heaviest cub during that time. Zamaya was also the first to start climbing on the benches in their indoor area. When she got her official name, and we saw that it had no known meaning, we joked that Zamaya meant “first at everything.”
As their first year is coming to a close, they have continued to have new experiences. Though they are not yet showing aggression toward each other with food, we have begun to occasionally separate them for dinner so that they get used to it. We are starting to do more training with them. They are not only learning the basic target, sit, and up, but we have also begun the preliminary steps for injection training. Also, they are currently going through the process of losing their baby teeth and getting in their adult teeth. Unfortunately, this means that they are chewing on everything in sight. This is where their mischievous sides are really showing! Being the big kids that they are, nothing fazes them for long, and they are always ready for the next adventure. Come out to the Zoo and see them soon, before they get any bigger than they already are. Seriously, I wish they would have listened to me when I asked them to stop growing. Kids!
Keeper II, Carnivores
Thursday, November 6
Where are the crocodiles? Will your new building have crocodiles in it? We hear those two questions all the time in the World of Reptiles as we move toward completion of Slimy Scaly Spectacular: The Amphibian and Reptile Experience.
Currently, our herpetology collection doesn’t include any crocodilians (alligators, caimans and crocodiles). These amazing animals are the closest living relatives to birds, and up until the last decade or so have been a major component in the World of Reptiles. At one point or another, Zoo Atlanta has maintained nearly every species of crocodilian in the world. The Zoo was the first to breed Morelet’s crocodiles in captivity, which was a major achievement.
Many of us Atlantans, including myself, had many great memories of coming to see these awesome creatures on exhibit in the solariums that graced either end of the World of Reptiles. These large, glass-walled greenhouses boasted live plants, large pools, and big sandy beaches for the crocs to bask on. These solariums have since been covered over, so you won’t see any crocs in the building nowadays.
However, don’t fret! We’re very excited that the new Scaly Slimy Spectacular will be exhibiting one of the world’s rarest and (in my opinion) most spectacular crocs in the world, the Cuban crocodile. This species is threatened by habitat loss and genetic swamping by cross-breeding with American crocodiles. They are now found only in the Zapata Swamp in western Cuba but once ranged across a large part of the Caribbean. Cuban crocodiles are among the most beautiful crocs, with yellows flecked with blacks and browns. They don’t get especially large, with most males topping out around 12 to 13 feet and females averaging 7 to 8 feet. They are very athletic as far as crocs, go and are well-known for their jumping abilities and galloping. Yes, I said galloping! They are also fairly long-lived, with many zoo specimens living well into their 50s and beyond.
So if you’ve been missing the crocodiles, be sure to come visit Scaly Slimy Spectacular this coming spring to see these incredible animals!
Robert L. Hill
Lead Keeper, Herpetology
Tuesday, November 4
At Zoo Atlanta, we take pride in keeping our gorillas healthy and lean, and there’s a lot of work that goes into making sure they stay that way. We manage their weights through a combination of close observation, strict dietary guidelines and encouraging active behavior. The temptation to spoil our gorillas with all of their favorite foods is certainly present, but we resist because we know that it is better for them in the long run. Keeping gorillas at a healthy weight helps avoid many potential health problems including heart disease, arthritis, high/low blood pressure and diabetes. Sound familiar? It should, because gorillas are susceptible to almost all the same weight-related illnesses that humans are!
A typical adult male gorilla weighs between 300 and 400 pounds, while females are usually between 150 and 250 pounds. We have trained all of our gorillas to station on scales so we can record their weights every month and track any significant changes. We do generally target the average weights listed above, but we also take into account the different body types from one gorilla to another. Just like humans, some gorillas are built heavier or lighter than average, and that does not necessarily mean that they have a problem with their weight. For cases like this, we use what we call the “eye test,” which is simply an assessment of how they look to keepers, veterinarians and other staff. If we determine that an individual is having issues with weight, then we have to deviate from the standard weight management plan and create a new plan to better fit their needs.
Our gorillas all receive standard diet amounts determined by the nutrition experts in our commissary, and their diets are delivered on a daily basis. The complicated part for keepers is ensuring that every animal gets his or her fair share. Most of our bachelor gorillas are housed separately overnight, so it is easy to give them their specified amount of food. But our family group, which consists of 11 gorillas, is housed together, and due to some personality differences, certain gorillas cannot be confined to small spaces together. So we have to split the group into sub-groups in order to get food to every individual. As you can imagine, feeding time can sometimes be a bit frenzied! But once you learn the tendencies of each individual, you can anticipate where they feel safe and provide them a clear pathway to where they want to go. It takes a lot of time and experience to learn the dynamics of the group and make feeding time as smooth as possible.
In combination with our dietary guidelines, we also try to keep our gorillas active throughout the day. Obviously, we cannot force them to exercise if they don’t want to, but we can give them good reason to exercise. One way we do this is by chopping their food into small chunks and scattering it throughout their habitat. This keeps them busy moving around and also encourages natural foraging behavior, which takes up a large portion of gorillas’ time in the wild. Another way we encourage active behaviors is by giving them browse. Browse is simply a word for any edible vegetation. For gorillas, this includes bamboo, elm, willow, hibiscus, dogwood, oak, mulberry and many more. Giving them browse once again keeps them busy and also encourages muscle use as they strip the bark and leaves from the branches.
One might assume that we are always worried about gorillas being overweight, but that is not the case. Certain animals are pickier than others and will not eat their allotted amounts of the standard diet, so we must alter their diet to be sure that they are getting enough calories to maintain a healthy weight. In these cases, we may add extra starch such as corn, potatoes and sweet potatoes. Then, we have to be very careful to ensure that only the underweight animal is getting extra food. When isolating him or her from the rest of their group is not possible, we have to keep the other animals distracted long enough to allow the underweight gorilla to finish his or her extra diet. Doing this takes practice, because you have to be able to read the animals’ body language well enough to prevent any aggression from occurring.
So as you can see, it takes a lot of consistent effort to maintain healthy weights for our gorillas, but it’s rewarding to know that our work will extend their lifespans and keep them happy and healthy throughout!
Keeper I, Primates
Thursday, October 30
One of my favorite things in science is the opportunity to consider questions I may take for granted about the animals I study, from professional or amateur scientists versed in other disciplines. These situations frequently offer novel perspectives that I might not have ever considered. Fun times! This happened last week when we got a call from a producer at The Weather Channel. She described to me two separate events where her field teams were documenting terrific hurricanes when, as soon as the eye passed over, all the chaotic storm sounds went silent and suddenly “millions of frogs” started calling like crazy. She showed me the videos, and it was pretty spectacular. I have never been in a hurricane, and if you had asked me outright “What do frogs do during hurricanes,” I am sure I would have said that they likely hunker down and hope to ride out the storm like every other animal with good sense. I certainly would not have said “They sit tight during the storm, but suddenly erupt in huge vocal choruses as soon as the eye passes over.” Nope, I would not have thought of that, but the data from the field clearly show that this is what happens.
Huh? I got thinking about it, quickly confirmed my memory that the eye of a hurricane brings sudden massive drop in barometric pressure, and then made the connection that frogs often call when the barometric pressure drops because that (outside of hurricanes) usually signals the arrival of a storm system, usually with rain. Frogs are more active, and typically breed, during rain. So I figured that the pressure drop under the hurricane eye likely convinced all the male frogs that it was time to breed, so they start calling. Maybe I am right? But there certainly is no place to look up that information, so it’s time to go frog-chasing right behind the storm chasers...see ya there!
Joe Mendelson, PhD
Director of Herpetological Research
Tuesday, October 28
“I like to move it, move it!” – a song by Reel2Real made popular because of the Pixar movie “Madagascar”, in which King Julian, all of his lemur subjects and the main characters dance the night away. In reality, it would have been Queen Julia who led the dance party. Lemur society is matriarchal, meaning that the females are dominant over the males, and there’s usually one matriarch who leads the group in terms of where they forage for food, as well as where they settle down for the night.
Lemurs are only found on the island of Madagascar, and there are about 105 documented species of lemur, two of which are hosted here at Zoo Atlanta: the Black-and-white-ruffed lemur and the Ringtailed lemur. Both of these species are some of the most vocal; their raucous calls can be heard from anywhere in the Zoo, multiple times a day. The ringtails are nicknamed the “sun worshipers” because of how they sit when sunbathing.
The ruffed lemurs sometimes like to hang upside down by their hind feet; this is because in the wild, they must hang in order to reach the fruit hanging in the trees. Next time you visit the Zoo, stop by The Living Treehouse to watch the lemurs swing from poles, rope walk, and nap in a big lemur ball.
The 2014 World Lemur Festival will be held October 25-31 on the island of Madagascar, in the capital city of Antananarivo. The purpose of this festival is to increase the awareness of the importance of lemurs and how vital they are to the country’s economic development. There could be a small hiccup in the idea to bring more ecotourism to the country … over 90 percent of lemur species are listed as endangered, with 24 species listed as critically endangered. Five of those are on the World’s 25 Most Endangered Primates list:
• The red-ruffed lemur – heavily hunted for food
• The northern sportive lemur – only about 60 remain in the wild
• The Lac Alaotra bamboo lemur – found only around the banks of Madagascar’s largest lake
• Perrier’s black sifaka – with only around 100 individuals left, this lemur may not have enough genetic diversity needed for species survival
• The Lavasoa dwarf lemur – recently discovered in 2013; there could be fewer than 100 left in existence.
With the rate that Madagascar’s habitat is being destroyed for timber and agriculture, these particular lemurs could become extinct within the next few years. It is the hope of the committee who organized this festival that the festival and World Lemur Day will educate the world about the uniqueness of these animals and why they are worth saving.
Seasonal Keeper, Primates
Thursday, October 23
Recently, several Zoo Atlanta staff members participated in the Atlanta Bike to Work Challenge. On October 10, about a dozen staff met at Octane off of Memorial Drive to take part in this ride. Many of the Zoo's departments came together for the group ride. We had a representative from Mammals, Reptiles, Education, Advancement, Finance, Retail and Program Animals. There are many reasons to ride a bike to work. We all came together for a simple reason: to help the animals and the planet by reducing our carbon emissions.
As it turned out, there were other reasons too. Some wanted to avoid traffic and parking hassles, save money, get a workout in, save time, reduce stress, improve air quality, or set an example for others to follow. What a great example for the community to follow. Another perk is that both the Georgia Commute Options and Atlanta Bicycle Coalition have prizes and the chance to win money and save money. It only gets better in that the easy downhill ride from Octane to the Zoo was about a mile, and the weather couldn't have been any better.
During the Bike to Work Challenge, the goal was to encourage people to try cycling for a minimum of 10 minutes. Between those who registered for the challenge, Zoo Atlanta had over 126 miles cycled during the challenge. Atlanta as a whole saved over 12 tons of CO2. Way to go! Let's see if next year can be even better. If you don't participate next year, have fun sitting in traffic!
Lead Keeper, Program Animals
Tuesday, October 21
It is a gorgeous day at Zoo Atlanta as I conduct rounds through my areas of responsibility, which are the mammal areas. The sun is shining, and we have lots and lots of friends visiting from all over the Atlanta community (children and adults, friends and families from all over), as well as all over the world. Tara, one of our African elephants, is is munching on a big stalk of bamboo... could the day be any better?
Well, yes, the day could get even better! As you meander through our Zoo pathways today, you may be immersed in the festive décor in place for our final weekend of Boo at the Zoo this Saturday and Sunday. You’ll witness some amazing mammals such as giant otters Bakairi and Yzma. You may catch a whiff of Timber the binturong (who some say smells like over-popped popcorn), or you might catch a smiling child interacting with Benson, one of our babydoll sheep. While you’re hanging out near the black rhino habitat, you may see Jabari, our young rhino, walking over a large tree trunk, just trying so hard to scratch his belly. Just beyond the rhinoceros habitat, you may see our zebra ladies’ tails swishing back and forth swatting at flies. You might actually see a delightful joey peeking out of his or her mom’s pouch inside the red kangaroo habitat – it’s so exciting to see this kangaroo kid’s first steps toward independence. I could go on and on... there’s something cool to see around every curve of our Zoo pathways.
As I continue my walk through the Zoo today, I marvel, as I do every day, at the exciting, interesting and just plain amazing animals, plants and people I encounter each time I am conducting my rounds. We invite everyone out to our Zoo – your Zoo – to experience all the wonderful things Zoo Atlanta has to offer. I’m biased, of course: I want you to come see all the mammals, but feel free to enjoy the other non-mammals as well. Can’t wait to see you!
Assistant Curator of Mammals
Thursday, October 16
I usually love to share stories about the animals in the World of Reptiles, but today I’d like to talk about a trip to Kiawah Island, S.C., that Robert Hill and I just got back from. We spent three days helping a study with diamondback terrapins that has been going on for 32 consecutive years! Diamondback terrapins are native to the coastline of the eastern and Gulf Coastal United States. They are the only North American turtle species to live in marshes and tidal creeks with brackish water (slightly salty water from the mix of fresh and sea water). They have a number of threats including boat accidents, human development and habitat loss, the food and pet trade, and most notably, drowning when they become trapped in crab traps that have been forgotten. These traps are known as “ghost crab traps” and are making a significant impact on diamondback terrapin populations, especially young and male terrapins which are small enough to enter the traps.
The study is lead by Mike Dorcas’ Herpetology Lab at Davidson College and consists of sampling tidal creeks at low tide in May and October to assess terrapin populations and their ecology. Sampling is done by setting trammel nets and pulling seine nets through the creeks to catch the turtles. This sounds simple, but trying to hold the net in proper position while swimming, fighting through boggy pluff mud, and avoiding razor-sharp oyster rakes can be easier said than done. A number of times we would have to make a chain of three or four people pulling the net to get down the creek.
All turtles caught are marked and measured and then are released back to the creek where they were found. They have caught over 1,500 terrapins over the years. Historically they would catch over 20 turtles per creek, but these days they catch only a few, with the populations showing obvious decline, especially with younger animals. Work is being done to save them though, as many crab traps have Bycatch Reduction Devices that keep out unwanted animals, including terrapins. It’s also studies like this that provide scientific evidence to change management-based decisions and turn the tide for terrapin populations. Right now we don’t have these guys on exhibit to see, but our new complex opening next year will display this American treasure.
Keeper III, Herpetology
Tuesday, October 14
Crested screamers live in South America where there are marshes, flooded grasslands and lagoons. Imagine trying to walk through mud all day or trying to stay afloat on top of water in order to survive; it wouldn’t be too easy. For the screamer, walking over flooded banks and sunken logs is a piece of cake. While screamers are members of the waterfowl family, they do not have noticeable webs on their feet, and what little they do have is at the base of the toe. Instead, these birds have very wide-spread feet that allow them to grip onto plants and to spread out their body weight so that they won’t sink. Another reason these birds can get around easily in a wetland is because they are lighter in weight than they appear, as most of the bones in their bodies are mostly hollow.
Now, even though the crested screamer isn’t heavy, that doesn’t mean it can’t pack a punch to defend itself. Crested screamers are equipped with two spurs on each wing, and these spurs can grow as long as two inches apiece. Imagine a hissing bird running at you with four daggers attached to its wings. I doubt anything would pursue the bird after it saw that horrifying display.
Lionel, our crested screamer, has specialized bumps on his tongue so that he can eat rough grasses, leaves and stems without injuring himself. He also loves to eat bugs and grain. We plan to get a female screamer shortly from the West Palm Beach Zoo in Florida. Her name is Homer. Yes, Homer. Once they’re introduced, if all goes well, you may hear a great deal of noise as screamers are extremely loud and vocal during courtship. Screamers are monogamous and will lay two to seven eggs, taking turns incubating the eggs, and their chicks will gain independence at the young age of only 12 to 14 weeks.
Come visit our fascinating screamer, Lionel, and be on the lookout for his new gorgeous wifey, Homer, sometime in early December. Just forget about her name … coming to a zoo near you!
Keeper I, Birds
Thursday, October 9
This week was Pre-K week at the Zoo. Wildlife Theater animal ambassadors helped us celebrate with the Pre-K students, both with classes and home-schooled. We hosted a private show for these students each day this week so they could get an up-close-and-personal look at a few of our birds but also receive personal attention in terms of the information they learned. This can be difficult during “normal” shows when the fun facts can be a little advanced for them.
For example, when talking about how birds of prey are carnivores, Pre-K students understand that they eat mice and rats rather than the definition of the word “carnivore.” We also talked about feathers and how they help birds fly and stay warm, in addition to the idea that birds use their feet the way we use our hands – to hold their food but also to perch in trees.
Speaking to a younger audience can be challenging, but it is fun when we make the information relatable to a 5-year-old. “How many feet and toes do YOU have? Well, this falcon also has two feet, but only four toes on each foot!” Or “Feathers keep birds warm on cold days the same way our sweaters and coats keep us warm!” We use a similar style of teaching when we conduct animal encounters throughout the Zoo. I likely would not ask an adult to count his or her toes! Other things were happening around the Zoo for these great students, and I hope your school was able to join us this year. If not, the Education Department would be glad to share the information with you for the next available Pre-K week. Until next time, Pre-K students, you can see us at the weekend shows (weather permitting). Be sure to join us for Boo at the Zoo later this month!
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, October 7
Play the Animal Way is a day when keepers get to go all out with fun enrichment for the animals in their care. Saturday, September 27 was this year’s event. For primates, we were able to give all sorts of fun things that the public does not normally get to see. Non-natural looking objects, such as painted cardboard boxes, cardboard cutouts and papier mache balls, as well as other fun things, were put out on exhibit, and the animals were let back out to find them and enjoy. Inside the boxes we hid the fruit we normally give them at lunch. We also hid popcorn, peanut butter, oatmeal mixed with raisins, coconuts, whole watermelons and pumpkins out there for the gorillas to find.
It is always so much fun to watch the animals go back outside and enjoy all this enrichment. Enrichment is something we give all our animals in order to stimulate their natural behaviors. We make toys made out of PVC or other safe materials that are designed with the animal they’re made for in mind. For instance, some gorillas will eat cardboard, so we do not give that group boxes or much paper, whereas other gorillas just open the boxes and eat whatever special treat was put inside. Using tools is something apes are known for. Some of the toys we make require them to use sticks they find (or give them when inside) to get the treats out. Some of the monkey species can unscrew nuts and bolts that are used to secure or make the toys, so those must be tightened down more securely. Most of the time, toys given to a monkey cannot be given to gorillas.
We have enrichment volunteers that come in twice a month to help the keepers make the most of these objects. This is the time of year when the keepers make lists of all the goodies we would like to give the animals on exhibit for the public to watch. We have Play the Animal Way, Halloween and the holidays all in a short period of time. With such a small amount of time to complete all the requests, some of the volunteers will come in on other days if they can to complete a project. The volunteers deserve so much credit for making the special days happen. These volunteers do so much and work so hard to help make the animals have a great time!
(Photo by Lori Kirkland)
Keeper II, Primates
Thursday, October 2
Winter is coming (Game of Thrones fans). That means a number of things for the Herpetology Department, especially as it pertains to moving animals to their winter quarters and taking some animals off exhibit for the season. But it also means that we get a new crop of eastern indigo snakes to raise up for 18 to 24 months and then see them released into Conecuh National Forest to continue our participation in the reintroduction program.
Zoo Atlanta has participated in this very effective project for five years and has raised and released over 100 indigo snakes back to their former range in Alabama. This program is a collaboration between Zoo Atlanta, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Georgia and Alabama Departments of Natural Resources, Alabama Forestry Department, the Orianne Society and Auburn University.
In a nutshell, the program works like this: Gravid (pregnant) female snakes are captured in Georgia, moved to Auburn, and allowed to lay their eggs. These important adult females are then released back to Georgia at their exact GPS capture points. The eggs are hatched at Auburn, and the young snakes are brought to Zoo Atlanta and raised until they are large enough to be released. For the first three years, the snakes had radio-transmitters implanted into them so they could be tracked and monitored. Now, they are simply released into the forest at designated sites. The population of released snakes has done well, and the snakes have grown up to be adults and fathers and mothers (a number of females have laid eggs that have hatched out little baby indigos). This has been a very rewarding project to be a part of for Zoo Atlanta, and we hope to continue it for many years to come.
Brad Lock, DVM
Curator of Herpetology
Friday, September 26
This Saturday is a day that we all get very excited about because it is Play the Animal Way. Animals all over the zoo are scheduled to receive all sorts of enrichment and we all get to watch. Animals interact with their enrichment in a way that allows them to utilize their natural behaviors. For example, new scents for them to explore. Boxes, toys ,etc. will have food inside for them to forage for their food and/or tear it apart just for the sake of being destructive! Manipulating objects is a natural behavior for many animals in order to find and get to the food in their natural environments. We try to simulate the same environment here at the zoo as best we can and use enrichment to help us out. Smell, sight, touch, sound, taste are all of the senses we use on a daily basis. Animals do the same. We can be pretty spoiled and lazy, but animals have to use their senses in order to survive whether it is to avoid predators, find and manipulate food, build shelter and nests or find a safe place to sleep, navigate their environment in a safe way, etc. There is a whole big amazing world out there we don’t know about. On the one hand that’s a good thing so we can leave those animals alone to play their role in the ecosystem. On the other hand we should be aware of the environments we cannot see so we have help them be successful. I digress – come to the zoo this Saturday so you can see all of the animals interact with their enrichment. Remember, based on natural history that might mean a snake deciding to hide underneath something like a pumpkin or a kinkajou manipulating its enrichment to get to its dinner. Either way, all very fun to watch. Of course I have to plug the Wildlife Theater and Amy’s Tree shows which will include some enriching moments of their own with animals you can see up close and personal. Pictured is Onyx “foraging” for some of his favorite treats with an enrichment toy he can manipulate to access his food. It’s going to be so much fun to see Zoo Atlanta’s animals “Play the Animal Way!” There will be a schedule waiting for you as you enter the zoo so you don’t miss any of your favorites. See you Saturday!
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, September 23
It’s been a quiet week here in the Elephant barn.
The weather is good. Maybe even ideal. The days are warm and the nights cool, with a little breeze and clouds enough to make everyone appreciate the sun whenever it finds its way through. It’s a welcome respite from the heat and humidity of the summer months for us and for our animals; the elephants throw less mud on themselves and I haven’t sweated completely through my shirt for at least two days.
Kelly and Tara are keeping busy in a manner that can only be described as elephantine (the adjective, not in reference to the island on the Nile). You all know the way: ponderous and plodding but every measured movement belying a ballerina’s grace. They’ve been helpful with the yard maintenance lately, delicately picking up any fallen leaf and eating it before we have a chance to get out there with our rakes, and stripping the leaves and bark from the low lying trees on the berm to show the Horticulture department where needs trimming. They’re cheating on their diets a little bit, but who can begrudge them the opportunity to forage every once in a while? And everything they pick up is one less thing I need to bother with, so I welcome the assistance. There has been talk of teaching them to clean up after themselves, but we keepers dare not teach them to do our jobs lest we find ourselves redundant, and have become adept at selective hearing difficulties whenever such a proposition rears it ugly head.
The warthogs are keeping busy, as evidenced by the height of the mud splattering the viewing glass of their exhibit. Lex and Eleanor work hard to make Shirley appreciate the quietude of their afternoon siesta. The piglets eat the majority of the food, scatter the browse all over the yard and drag it through the mud wallow to make it unpalatable to even so indiscriminate an eater as a warthog, eat the Bermuda grass beds instead of sleeping on them and bowl their Mother over to nurse with a frequency that borders on indecent. That being said, they’re all healthy and happy and Shirley is back to her pre-pregnancy figure.
The meerkats are all very well. Sniff and Scarlet have been enjoying the recent addition of a camouflage shade net. They dig their holes and scarf their food and spend the rest of the day alternating between keeping watch and lying on their backs in the shady sand. Prince and Co. next door do about the same. They’re pretty easy going, those meerkats, and are happy as long as they have a place to dig and bugs to eat and aren’t bothered unnecessarily by us trespassing keepers. Unless we bring crickets, in which case they swarm our feet and beg as if they’re actually interested in us.
Last, but certainly not least important, our interns are both doing amazing. They need more training than do the animals sometimes, but generally make up for it by virtue of their hard work and the frequency with which they bring snacks to share. It isn’t easy working alongside a bunch of elephant keepers, pushing full wheelbarrows, raking and shoveling and scrubbing for hours at a time, throwing hay bales, carrying elephant sized toys and cleaning all day long, but Christina and Katelyn manage to do it every day with wry smiles, and hardly ever roll their eyes at our jokes.
And that’s the news from the Elephant department, where the people are filthy but the intentions are pure.
Thursday, September 18
I’m always surprised by the number of guest questions and comments that we get about the animals in our collection, and I always enjoy answering those questions when given the opportunity. One of the most commonly commented-on snakes in the World of Reptiles is the black mamba, and for good reason. At an average of nine to ten feet in length, it is the longest species of venomous snake in Africa. It is also one of the fastest-moving snakes on the planet, moving at approximately seven miles per hour and capable of reaching around ten miles per hour in short bursts. If the combination of size and speed weren’t enough, the black mamba also produces one of the most highly toxic venoms of any snake. The effects from a bite are a roller coaster of symptoms ranging from high to low blood pressure, blood hemorrhaging, and nerve and muscle damage. This combination of size, venom toxicity and unpredictability make it one of the most dangerous and feared snakes in Africa.
With all of these things considered, however, it should be noted that the black mamba doesn’t necessarily use its speed to catch its prey or chase down and bite humans, but instead uses it to escape from predators or other threats. In fact, as with most other snakes, the black mamba will usually only stand and fight when given no other choice. The high venom toxicity is a means to quickly secure prey in an environment where competition for resources is high.
So how do we address all of these things in a zoological setting? Well, the answer is that we have a strict “hands off” approach to working with our black mamba. What this means is that if we ever need to move the animal off exhibit, we do so through the use of a shift box, which is a specially designed box that we can attach to the exhibit and then safely secure him inside. He can also be safely restrained from that box if the need should arise. That way we highly minimize the chance that a bite can occur.
One final interesting note about the black mamba is in the name. If you come by to see him, you will notice that his skin is actually gray. That’s because the animal is named for the black skin on the inside of its mouth. We encourage you to come and see our mamba, as well as all of the other fascinating animals in the World of Reptiles!
Keeper III, Herpetology
Tuesday, September 9
Do animals know “how much?” In everyday life, people seem to associate abstract numerical thinking with complex thought, math and science, and something that makes us unique among all the animals of the world. Yet the last decade of research has found that many animals – from mosquito fish to elephants – understand some things about numbers. For example, if a zookeeper let an elephant choose between two cups of food, one cup that contained two peanuts and a second cup that contained eight peanuts, the elephant would likely choose the cup with the larger number! This is because elephants do understand that some amounts are larger than others. However, most animals are not very precise when it comes to thinking about numbers. If you asked the same elephant to choose between a cup with five peanuts and a cup with six peanuts, she wouldn't be very good at choosing the larger number. This is because five and six are close together, and just by looking at the two numbers of peanuts, it’s hard to tell which cup has more food. Researchers think that humans can solve this task because we have invented a number system, which includes words for discrete number amounts (like five and six) and ordered counting (one, two, three, etc.), which allows us to count the number of peanuts in a cup and always be able to find out that six is more than five.
Zoo Atlanta has a history of researching how well animals can represent numbers, showing that gorillas, orangutans and elephants are pretty good at knowing which set of food pieces is larger. In a couple of our studies, we also looked at how young adult and older adult orangutans and gorillas did with number tasks, and these studies found that older apes lost some ability to reason about numbers, having a more difficult time determining the difference between number amounts. Right now, researchers at the Zoo are thinking about new ways to test very young orangutans and gorillas to see how they perform on number tasks. Before human infants and young children learn how to count, they too can tell the difference between number sets, just as gorillas, orangutans and elephants can; that is, they can tell the difference between amounts if the difference is large, but not if the difference between amounts is small.
Interestingly, because human infants' brains are still growing, they are particularly bad at determining which amount is larger, and can only do so with very large differences, like six versus twelve items. In our new experiments with young immature apes, we'll be looking at whether their knowledge of numbers is similar to human infants, or if apes grow up in the number abilities much faster than humans do and act like adult apes at a young age.
Thursday, September 4
Things are moving forward quickly for Scaly Slimy Spectacular: The Amphibian and Reptile Experience. One of the major exhibits in the new building will be for Cuban crocodiles. Last week, keeper David Brothers and I went to see the Cuban crocodiles that are currently at the National Zoo and will be making the move to Atlanta. It is going to be a challenging time for these animals; they have been living at the National Zoo for quite a long time. In order to facilitate the move and keep the stress to a minimum, we scheduled a visit where we observed the protocols that they have in place for working with these large animals. These animals are extremely intelligent, can jump well, and move quickly over land while lifting their entire bodies off of the ground. Together with their power and size, these make safety a concern, which training can facilitate. Currently these animals are trained to go into crates, and shift though doors that keepers can operate from the outside of the enclosure. This allows keepers to move animals from one area to another and then enter an empty area safely. It has been some time since Zoo Atlanta had any large crocodilians in the collection, and we are very excited about bringing Cuban crocodiles to our city.
Cuban crocodiles are listed as endangered by the IUCN and are restricted to a small range of freshwater swamp in the Zapata Swamp of Cuba. It is estimated that there are 3,000 to 6,000 animals in the wild. Historically they could be found in other freshwater swamps of Cuba and a few surrounding Caribbean islands. Some of their biggest threats are habitat destruction and alteration. The destruction and alteration has allowed other crocodilian species, the common caiman and American crocodile, to invade these freshwater swamps and out-compete or hybridize with the Cuban crocodiles. This creates a problem where we see the genetic degradation of a species. After hybridization occurs, it is not possible to extract or produce pure-blooded individuals. The Cuban crocodile has a Species Survival Plan (SSP) in place to manage the captive population; within participating institutions, there are approximately 50 individuals.
Keeper II, Herpetology
Tuesday, September 2
Don’t get me wrong; I love flamingo chicks, but ours are getting to that stage in life when they are starting to wean themselves. They are not yet eating enough to be self-supporting, so we continue to have to hand-feed our five chicks. They remind me of some human teens, heavily dependent still on Mom and Dad, but those childhood good manners have been replaced by eyeball rolls and “what-EVER!” Their names are Red, White, Yellow, Green and Black, those being the colors of the bands on their legs. Their personalities have become more obvious with age. Yes, flamingos have personalities!
Red: The first hatched, was a bossy, squabbling bully by the time it was 3 days old, always picking on the others. Now it’s the Goody Two-Shoes of the gang.
Yellow: A strange child. A couple of minor health issues early on and a horrible wriggler, this is the bird who will poop on you at feeding time! Can we say “drama?”
White: What a baby! Same age as the others, but all it wants is its next feed and to snuggle. White probably has the most character of the bunch. Wherever you go, he/she is at your heels. This is the only chick that still allows you to bury your nose in its down and smell the distinctive aroma of baby flamingo. Yeah, my favorite.
Green: Independent, will be the first to wean. Green is that high-school kid who’s more mature for their years than the others – calm, dependable, no trouble, straight-A student, Ivy League material.
Black: Started out independent, small for its age and the slowest grower. But he or she is mature, a self-starter and will be an excellent contributor to society!
Weather permitting, we’ll be rotating these chicks into a small viewing area in the entry plaza for Members Only Night this Saturday. We hope to have them out from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., so if you’re a Member and are attending, please come visit them!
Curator of Birds and Program Animals
Thursday, August 28
The Program Animals Department has seen many staff-related changes over the past several months. Before the summer season began, we lost Caroline Ledbetter (Keeper III) as she decided to further her experience at another Zoo. In view of her departure, Tommy Hutchinson was hired on as a Seasonal Keeper I and has since then accepted a full-time position as a swing keeper with both the exhibit birds and the animal ambassadors. He has been an excellent addition to our team. Not only has he taken on an enormous amount of responsibility and knowledge within a short period of time, but he has also utilized his construction experience to help complete some much-needed projects within the department. Tommy previously wrote a blog about a handful of his projects.
Lyndsay Newton has also joined us from Florida as a Keeper II. She has several years of experience with reptiles, mammals, birds, etc., and will be a valuable source of information and experience for us. More recently, Briel Ritter (Keeper I) presented her last Wildlife Theater show with us. She was an interesting character within the department and had a way of drawing anyone in with her sense of humor but also with her passion for the animals. We will certainly miss her bouncy personality and appreciate everything she has done for us and for the animals.
With Briel leaving us, Justin Eckelberry has joined us as a Seasonal Keeper from the Education Department and will spend most of his time at the Wieland Wildlife Home, but he’ll also assist with the Wildlife Theater as needed. He started with us this week, so we look forward to working with him as well. In the animal world, staff moving on is fairly common, as everyone wants to expand his or her experience as a keeper and trainer. We wish Caroline and Briel well with their future endeavors and welcome Tommy, Lyndsay and Justin as members of the Program Animals and Zoo Atlanta crew.
Although the Zoo will remain open seven days a week, after Labor Day this Monday, Amy’s Tree and Wildlife Theater shows will continue on weekends only, weather permitting. Please come say hello to the new and old team members as we introduce you to our amazing animal ambassadors. See you there!
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, August 26
It’s hard to believe that summer has gone by so quickly! It has been a busy time for the Primate Department. If you have been by the orangutan exhibits, you may have noticed that we have switched around which groups of our orangutans are in the yards. Since each of our three yards is different, we like to let all the orangutans take turns in each of them throughout the year. With 13 orangutans in five groups, it takes a bit of thinking and planning to accomplish yard changes. Right now, Chantek our hybrid adult male, and Dumadi, our Sumatran juvenile male, are visible in Yard One. Adult female Bornean Miri is in Yard Three along with her two sons, Baby Pelari and sub-adult Satu. Adult Sumatran female Biji and adult Sumatran male Alan take turns in Yard Two with Sumatran family group Benny, Blaze and Pongo.
In addition to rotating our orangutan groups, we also make changes to the yards themselves. A few months ago, keepers decided to redo the ropes hanging in Yards Two and Three. Since the wooden climbing structures the ropes are attached to are so tall, a tree-trimming service actually came to the Zoo to help us reattach everything! It was a lot of work, but was definitely worth it to see the orangutans exploring on the new ropes. Changing the ropes is just another example of all the different things keepers can do to enrich the orangutans and help keep them mentally stimulated. It also encourages them to engage in natural behaviors. In the wild, orangutans are arboreal and live high up the trees. They rarely ever come down to the ground. Providing them with lots of ropes and climbing structures allows them to brachiate, moving by swinging one arm after the other. Next time you visit the Zoo, perhaps you will see one of the orangutans brachiating on the ropes!
Keeper II, Primates
Thursday, August 21
Greetings from the carnivore area! Summer for us has been otterly crazy! If you’ve been to the Zoo recently, you may have seen our newest residents, the giant otters. These two animals, male Bakairi and female Yzma, are the first giant otters here at Zoo Atlanta, and they are quite a bit larger than our resident Asian small-clawed otters. None of the current keepers have ever worked with giant otters, so we have been busy this summer learning about the species and working out our daily routine.
We now have extra pool cleaning duties, a new pump system, and extra feedings, not to mention once again managing two separate groups of otters. It has been a crazy couple of months, but I think we’re starting to get the hang of it! Thankfully, the animals themselves have adapted very well. Bakairi and Yzma came from different zoos, and we were hopeful that their introductions would go smoothly. We were extremely pleased that they got along right away and have been the best of friends since. As for our Asian small-clawed otters, they’ve gotten used to their large, noisy neighbors and seem to have adjusted well. Our Asian small-clawed otter, Moe, will be 21 years old in September!
As for the rest of our animal charges, they helped us during this adjustment period by remaining fairly status quo. Logan the fossa had a routine physical a few weeks ago and appears to be in excellent health and body condition. Timber the binturong loves her remodeled “bamboo bench” and remains her diva self. Kavi and Chelsea the tigers take turns in their two habitats.
Our lion pride is on exhibit together all day every day. In spite of my daily insistence that the lion cubs stop growing, they continue to get bigger and stronger every day. They’re even starting to sound more like adult lions when they try to roar! Xander and Sabah the sun bears have been keeping cool with the frozen treats they get most afternoons. Last but not least, Marvin the muntjac has moved back into this habitat next to the Komodo dragon. He loves to hide, so see if you can spot him on your next visit.
Oh, my! It’s time to go feed those otters again. Come by the Zoo to say hi to everyone, see the lion cubs again before they get any larger, and welcome Bakairi and Yzma to Zoo Atlanta.
Keeper II, Carnivores
Tuesday, August 19
Many of the primates in our collection at Zoo Atlanta are involved in various research projects. These range from behavioral observation, where researchers simply observe the day-to-day activities of our primate groups in their natural settings, to more in-depth cognitive research where individuals actively and voluntarily participate in learning behavior studies.
The goal of all of these studies performed by our research staff, as well as by outside researchers that often times will work with our collection, is to work toward providing better care for the animals we work with, as well as provide information that can help us in the conservation of their wild counterparts.
One study that is underway involves our golden lion tamarin groups. Currently, Zoo Atlanta houses 10 total golden lion tamarins in four separate groups. We are currently working with Brett Frye, a PhD student at Clemson University, who is looking at the effect of novelty, or something new or unique, on the behavior of female golden lion tamarins. Information gathered from this study can then be theoretically used to help predict how female individuals will react to changes in their environment. This study could help us predict how individuals will react to being introduced into new environments and could potentially help us better manage golden lion tamarins.
Golden lion tamarins are endangered in the wild, with around 1,800 individuals remaining. One way to increase this number is to supplement it by reintroducing captive individuals back into the wild. From 1984 to 2000, about 150 golden lion tamarins were reintroduced to Brazil from zoos all over the world, including two groups from Zoo Atlanta. The research we do in zoos can help us better manage the primates in our care and make important contributions to conservation!
Keeper II, Primates
Thursday, August 14
As the summer begins to wind down, the work in the World of Reptiles certainly doesn’t! Summer is hatching season, and we’ve had a pretty successful one so far this year with dozens of scaly babies.
We’ve continued our success with critically endangered Guatemalan beaded lizards, of which seven hatched this year! In addition, we have also hatched several more Iranian eyelid geckos, a close cousin of the more familiar leopard gecko. And at this point in time, we are making space for lots and lots of baby Burmese black mountain tortoises. Zoo Atlanta has been very successful in the captive breeding of this large tortoise (the fourth-largest in the world) from Asia, and no matter how many we hatch, it is always fun watching these little guys climb out of their eggs.
Aside from our continued successes, 2014 has also been a year of firsts for the Herpetology Department. Back in June, we marked our first litter of sidewinders, and within a few days we had our second, for a total of 15 tiny rattlesnakes! Sidewinders live in the deserts of the southwestern United States, and this small rattlesnake earns its name from its unusual sideways movements, which are extremely efficient at moving across shifting sands. We also had our first successful breeding of Meller’s chameleons, with the hatching of 29 babies. This is the second-largest species of chameleon in the world and can reach lengths of over two feet! Mexican horned pitviper babies also made their appearance on our list of Zoo Atlanta firsts, with two babies born in July.
But of course, we’re not done yet! Eggs are still incubating from three species of critically endangered Asian box Turtles; our female impressed tortoises are showing signs that they will be nesting soon; and our female red-tailed boa constrictor, Luchadora, is due to have her second litter of babies over the next several weeks. Whew!
Robert L. Hill
Lead Keeper, Herpetology
Thursday, August 7
Many of you have already returned to school for the new school year. Can you believe the summer is already practically gone? We keepers are still in full keeper mode to ensure everything runs smoothly here at Zoo Atlanta. No summer break for us! In fact, this summer has been quite an adventure.
The Wildlife Theater and Amy’s Tree Theater shows seemed to be a big hit as we introduced a new theme. With seven staff and seven interns, we were rockin’ and rollin’ seven days a week nonstop. Many of our interns are returning to finish school as well, so things have been tight but exciting. “Summer” shows are still in full swing until Labor Day. If you have not been to see us at Zoo Atlanta this summer, come check us out and laugh at our corny jokes!
After the Labor Day holiday, shows will resume only on weekends, weather permitting, at 11 a.m., 2 p.m., and 3 p.m. We love to see new faces and Zoo Members at our shows. A lot of new and exciting things have happened over the summer. Some of these we have already shared, some are coming up, and we will be excited to share them with you when the time is right. Stay tuned!
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, August 5
Zookeepers take vacations too. As much as we miss our animals at the Zoo, we too need these much-needed breaks. This past month gave me a good 11 days off and when I came back, boy did I have a lot to catch up on! Working every day (with the normal two days off during the week), you see the animals and sometimes cannot notice the subtle changes that occur … like Anaka, the almost 1-year-old gorilla, sprouting up like a weed! I cannot believe that when I came back she was leaving her mom, Sukari, more than I had seen her do just before I left, and she was joining in the play sessions with the other younger ones. She is more independent (as much as Sukari will allow) and has just grown bigger than what she was 11 days ago (to me anyway).
With Anaka turning 1 on August 30, it will be fun to watch her interact more and watch her personality come out. She seems to be gaining some dominance at such a young age. I have seen her bark and chase off 3-year-old Merry Leigh when she wants juice. I have seen her climb over her mother’s head and interrupt training sessions to get at grapes. She is becoming a hellion, and it will be so interesting to see where she will fit in to the group as she gets older.
Along with getting to see the animals I currently take care of, it was great to visit a zoo I had worked at previously. When the animals recognize you from far away in their exhibits and come running up to greet you, it is the best feeling! Three chimpanzees I had worked with eight years ago came to say hi, and two offered me gifts of bamboo leaves. One came up and blew raspberries at me and nodded her head as her greeting. I spent some time with them and saw how they have changed in these last several years. The three chimpanzee kids that I had taken care of have grown so much; it is hard to believe it was that long ago. They didn’t recognize me like the adults did, but I guess that’s okay. When I left the back of the building, I made my way eventually to the front of the exhibit, and one of the same chimps came back up to greet me and offer me bamboo through the glass. I left happy as a clam that I got to see them again.
Keeper II, Primates
Thursday, July 31
Summertime in the elephant barn is all about keeping your trunks up. The elephant care professionals at Zoo Atlanta spend hours every day working closely with the elephants, Kelly and Tara. One of the most important aspects of elephant training is establishing manners, or more specifically, keeping trunks up and sometimes down when the situation calls for it. Kelly, a 31-year-old African elephant, and her companion of almost 30 years, Tara, also 31, need to be able to keep their trunks in a safe position when elephant care staff are working closely with them. Daily tasks such as foot care, baths, exercise and Wild Encounters all require that the elephants not only are able to voluntarily comply with what the keepers ask of them, but that they also do it a well-mannered way.
Summer is a fantastic time to visit the elephants at the Zoo. On any given day, you can find them rolling in the mud, playing in a fire hose, or being bathed by the caretakers. Both elephants have a daily allotment of produce that they each receive. This produce is essential to the training process and is used as a reinforcer, meaning the elephants are rewarded for presenting their feet, shifting in and out of the barn, being bathed, and keeping their trunks up and down. The specific timing of the delivery of the produce, in correlation with a training whistle, increases the likelihood that the elephants will repeat the requested behavior again.
Next time you find yourself in the Zoo, stop by the elephant barn. While the elephants do not have scheduled training demonstrations, they occur every day and are always worth a look.
Elephant Lead Keeper
Tuesday, July 29
Hatching day for flamingos: it’s going on right now!
As I type at 1.30 p.m., we have future members of our flamingo flock hatching in the incubators. The eggs were all laid on the same day by different parents and have been incubated in our incubators for the last 28 days.
As of yesterday morning, four chicks were hatching in our incubator room. They had gotten to the stage where the tips of their beaks had just created a small hole in the eggshell, and they were all calling loudly. It’s quite an experience to listen to a squeaking egg.
Now, as of 1.30 p.m. today, one chick has hatched and the other three are in process. The hatching chick has chipped off the cap of its egg and is lying with its head out on the hatcher floor resting. The next stage will be to kick itself out of the egg, and we will have a new baby to raise. We expect the other chicks to be out by tomorrow morning.
Late tonight this first chick will get its very first meal of egg formula, heavily diluted with water to keep him going. The chick probably doesn’t need feeding till tomorrow morning, but we have a tendency to nanny them! The egg yolk is still inside the chick, and that is its primary food source for the next 24 hours.
Unfortunately we do not a have place to rear flamingo chicks where they can be seen by guests, but they will certainly be visible on Members Only Night on September 6. Look for them in Flamingo Plaza that night. A 5-week-old flamingo is pretty darn cute!
Curator of Birds
Thursday, July 24
I’m sure you’ve all noticed our little construction project happening on the backlot of the Zoo—our exciting new reptile and amphibian complex! With opening still scheduled for spring 2015, you can be sure that the Herpetology Department is scrambling getting everything “just right” for this great opportunity.
Aside from state-of-the-art exhibits and conservation breeding spaces, the new facility will have modern educational graphics that will allow us to tell so much more of the stories and fascinating biology behind the animals we work with. So this is what I have been working hard on all summer long: creating the informational text files that will eventually be displayed on various digital screens throughout the new facility.
It is no mean feat, let me tell you, to summarize so much information for over 150 species of reptiles and amphibians that will be featured, at various times, for our guests. I feel like I have spent the summer writing a textbook on reptiles and amphibians! Hopefully, our guests will also feel like they have access to as much information as they wish to pursue among our snazzy new graphical displays. We want our new complex to be a lovely aesthetic experience, highlighting some of the most diverse and spectacular animals in the world, while also serving as a launching point for inquiry into their biology and conservation. So while the contractors labor on the new buildings, you can be sure that the Herpetology Department is laboring on all of the contents.
Meanwhile, our existing World of Reptiles will remain open for our guests until the big opening day arrives, and we hope to see you there this summer, fall and winter. But we especially look forward to seeing you in the spring as we all join to enjoy the newest feature of Zoo Atlanta.
Joe Mendelson, PhD
Director of Herpetological Research
Tuesday, July 22
When visiting the Monkeys of Makokou habitats, you'll notice that our drill monkeys are separated into two groups. Although they would ideally live as a single cohesive family group, the monkeys had other plans. In order to keep the peace, the drills were separated into two groups based on the hierarchy they naturally developed: a group of one male and female, Bobby and Inge, and a group of three females, Lucy, Achi and Drew.
With the hopes of eventually reuniting the two groups, Zoo staff decided to move Drew from the female group to Bobby’s group back in March. It was successful! Drew went from being the lowest-ranked female in the female group to a higher rank in the male group. Drew can often be spotted grooming Inge or playing around with the juvenile Schmidt’s guenon, Kibali.
Drew and her older group still have a social connection, and they can be heard vocalizing to each other, especially in the mornings. Keepers hope this bond will aid in future reintroductions. Recently, a wall was taken down between the two exhibits. This wall acted as a visual barrier between the two drill groups.
Once the wall was removed, keepers monitored the drills to make sure there weren’t any negative or aggressive behaviors between the two groups now that they could see each other. And to our surprise, the opposite occurred! All four females, although separated by mesh, will sit close to each other and groom, as though they are a single group.
This is a step in the right direction. And although a successful reintroduction is a slow, dynamic process, we are hopeful they will continue to have positive interactions and become a cooperative family group.
Seasonal Keeper, Primates
Thursday, July 17
This past Wednesday here at the Wieland Wildlife Home was a day of grief, and at the same time, a day of celebration. One of our beloved education animal ambassadors, Opus the Virginia opossum, passed away. Opus arrived at Wieland three years ago and spent his life as an educational ambassador teaching thousands of visitors about Virginia opossums.
When working with an animal for as long as three years, keepers are bound to develop some type of attachment. Opus was no different. Opus had a unique personality which quickly made him a favorite among keepers and handlers alike. On the day of his passing tears were shed, but we were also able to recognize the fact that Opus was able to give so much throughout his life here at Wieland, and that is what we celebrated. Throughout his life, Opus educated many children and adults about opossum behavior; he debunked many myths surrounding opossums, and even made clear that there is in fact a difference between an Opossum and a Possum. Opus will be missed dearly here at Wieland Wildlife Home and will always be remembered as serving as an extraordinary animal ambassador to his wild counterparts. Thank you, Opus, for all that you have done!
Keeper II, Program Animals
Tuesday, July 15
Outback Station has been a busy place this summer! After the arrival of our newest red kangaroo, Rory, we welcomed three new Saanen goats to the barn. Now approaching 4 months old, Wembley, Bogart and Tobias are weaned off of milk and ready to begin meeting the rest of the goat herd in the petting zoo! They have had introductions with several of our goat girls, who are the most important herd members for the boys to win over, but not for the reason you may think.
Goat herds are usually matriarchies, with a dominant female in charge of the herd. This means our three little boys need to be accepted by the alpha female, Nessie, and her best buddy Bella in order to be peacefully accepted into the herd. As you can imagine, this process involves a lot of head-butting! Goats use head-butting and climbing onto things like the benches in the petting zoo to establish who is dominant. Keepers are always present during introductions to ensure no animals injure each other.
Wembley, Bogart and Tobias had their first introductions with females Cinderella and Snow White, who have a lower rank in the petting zoo herd’s pecking order and thus are going to be less forceful in putting the goat kids in their place. Some slight head-butting and posturing on goat furniture occurred, but the big show was from Tobias, who immediately started engaging in courting behaviors like wagging his tongue at the girls. What a little ladies’ man!
Overall, the introduction went well and they have gone on to meet the remainder of the herd out in the petting zoo. It’s going to take a few more monitored play dates before they’re ready to be out on their own in the herd, but we are excited that they are well on their way. And don’t forget to be on the lookout for even more new arrivals around the barn in the coming weeks as our other new petting zoo animals move in!
Keeper I, Mammals
Thursday, July 10
Right now is my favorite and most exciting time to be a reptile keeper, as most of our turtle species are laying eggs or have eggs in the incubators. The year’s time, energy, and thought is surrounded around producing these little white pearls. As Wade mentioned in a previous update, our Burmese mountain tortoises were the first to go, with both females building nests and producing over 100 eggs. Our flowerback box turtle, one of my focus species, was next laying one enormous egg that is already showing signs of development. Two of our McCord’s box turtles have laid a clutch so far, and the other should lay any day now. We also have a gravid Pan’s box turtle who should be laying any day now, as she has been digging for a week or so. Lastly, we have a fingers crossed for impressed tortoise eggs coming in the next few weeks.
One cool strategy that we work on with many our turtle species at Zoo Atlanta is putting them through a yearly climate cycle, as they come from temperate climates similar to Atlanta. A current hallmark of these efforts has come with the Pan’s box turtle that is gravid right now. We got the Pan’s box turtles last year from a zoo that kept them inside all year long and got no reproductive success. After only one year in Atlanta, hibernating at the bottom of a pond we built for them during the cold season, she is gravid with a clutch of eggs! These moments make me proud to work at Zoo Atlanta!
Keeper III, Herpetology
Tuesday, July 8
Once you walk into The Living Treehouse, you will notice a huge mound of leaves, sticks, twigs and maybe even a map or two. That “thing” is a nest! It belongs to the male and female hammerkop, and they have been diligently working on it since they moved out into the aviary two months ago.
Hammerkops are small, brown wading birds thought to be closely related to the storks (in the Order Ciconiiformes), although recent DNA evidence places them closer to the herons and flamingos (in the Order Charadriiformes). You can often find them shuffling through shallow water raking up aquatic insects, small fish and frogs with their feet.
Lifespan of individuals in the wild is not well known. Hammerkops can live at least into their 20s in zoological settings, but this species was not common in zoos until recently, so their true longevity is not yet known.
One of the coolest aspects of the hammerkop’s behavior is the extremely large nest that these relatively small birds build. This nest of sticks, mud and grass can weigh more than 100 times the weight of the bird and may be one of the largest nests of any bird. Hammerkops are compulsive nest builders, although we don’t know exactly why they build such a big nest. One theory is that protection within the large cavity formed in the middle may be a factor. A pair of hammerkops may build multiple nests each year on their territory. This is good news for many other animals such as Egyptian geese, speckled pigeons, barn owls and honeybees, all of which been known to use abandoned hammerkop nests.
Hammerkops appear to breed year-round in east Africa and breed primarily during the dry season in other locations. After building their large nest, a pair will lay three to six eggs inside the central chamber. The eggs will hatch in 28 to 32 days, and the chicks will fledge from the nest about 50 days later.
Come to The Living Treehouse and check out these awesome birds building their huge nest. Just don’t let go of your map, or your hat, or your wallet, or your stroller, or your loved one. They may end up in the hammerkop nest!
Keeper III, Birds and Program Animals
Thursday, July 3
Rats, rats, rats! Rats are very important animal ambassadors for the Program Animals Team. Our older group has been named the Royal Rats: Liz, Kate, Mary and Diana, all named after British royalty. They are the rats you will see running across the stage backdrop at the Wildlife Theater shows. This behavior required a lot of training and repetitions.
We also have four new rats living at the Wildlife Theater. At only about 3 months old, they are being socialized for animal encounters and are in the beginning stages of training in preparation for their future show behavior. They’re the Creature Rats: Fossa, Coati, Sifaka and Bear! This younger group of rats gets handled every day so we will be able to take them on animal encounters and safely handle them for health checks. The more we handle them, the more they will feel comfortable. Based on their natural behavior, a larger “creature” (humans in this case) is perceived as a predator. Their natural response is bite or flight! Regular handling will let them know that we humans are not trying to eat them. They are also learning to voluntarily kennel for some of their favorite treats so that we won’t have to physically remove them from home. We will be able to give them the option to participate or not. Eventually, they will learn a similar behavior as the Royal Rats have, and they’ll participate in the Wildlife Theater show.
Additionally, during animal encounter programs we like to talk about how they are keystone species, meaning they are a very important part of our environment. They are a great food source for other animals we enjoy watching from afar, such as birds of prey, some exotic birds like crows and kookaburras, snakes and other meat-eating animals. Rats are also great diggers to help them find food and to dig their homes. This helps aerate the soil. On the other hand, they also poop a lot, fertilizing the soil. We can also consider rats our natural garbage disposal. As much as I’m sure we all try to get our trash to a proper trash receptacle, they’re also willing to help clean up our pizza and sandwich leftovers.
The Royal Rats and the Creature Rats are safe and sound at the Wildlife Theater, and we are excited to have the “younguns” in shows as soon as they are ready! For now, come to the Wildlife Theater to see the animals who are in the show. We will be here tomorrow, July 4, and look forward to seeing you there!
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, July 1
Recently we decided to “spruce up” one of our gorilla habitats that is not on public view. What goes into redoing an animal habitat? Number one, we look into things such as human and animal safety. Next, we start looking at what the animals need for comfort, such as hiding spots, sleeping areas and access to water and food. Then, we can think about promoting natural behaviors and encouraging exercise and play to keep the animals mentally and physically fit.
The habitat already had a large wooden climbing structure, several concrete platforms of varying heights and two smaller wooden towers to climb on or use as visual barriers. So in this case, we decided to add some hammocks and lots of (hopefully) indestructible toys, a large plastic culvert pipe to hide in, fire hose swings and climbing ropes. We also plan on constructing some extra shade structures that can double as lookout platforms in the habitat in the next couple of weeks.
It has been a fun project to work on with our department as we all try to think up ways to make the habitat a place the gorillas will enjoy spending time in!
Keeper II, Primates
Thursday, June 26
Tuesday at the otter exhibit, I overheard a young boy ask one of the keepers if the animals that he was looking at were the same otters that he had seen before. The boy was asking because the otters that he was looking at were very large. Some might even say that they were giants. Yes, our giant river otters were introduced to not only each other yesterday, but to the exhibit as well. Yzma, the female, and Bakairi, the male, have been living in adjacent dens inside the otter building during the past 30 days while they completed their quarantine period. During this time, we saw lots of positive behaviors between the two, including rubbing on the mesh that separates the two dens. Tuesday we gave Yzma access to the exhibit and after a few minutes, she ventured out to do a bit of exploring. When we gave Bakairi the opportunity to join her, Yzma went back inside, where the two otters officially met for the first time. We left them together for the morning, during which they played most of the time and took periodic breaks to check out the yard. After a few hours of this, they curled up together in their nest box for a nap. We’ll continue to increase the amount of time that the giant otters spend together, and on exhibit. If you’d like to be one of the first people to catch a glimpse of them, your best bet is to stop by in the mornings. I can guarantee that you’ll be entertained!
Megan Wilson, PhD
Curator of Mammals
Tuesday, June 24
Summer is here, and breeding seasons in the Bird Department are well underway! It seems that almost every exhibit has birds displaying and nesting. If you find yourself down near the Canopy Climber in the next few weeks, take a good close look at the birds nearby!
Our Victoria crowned pigeons have been dutifully working on their nest platform. It may not be the prettiest nest in the world, but it does the job! They mostly use shredded leaves and twigs to build their nest, and both parents will take turns sitting on the egg to keep it warm.
The Fischer’s lovebirds have also been very busy lately! As parrots, lovebirds are very social birds with bright green and orange feathers and very loud voices. They spend a lot of time with their family groups, and those social bonds are very important. We have three adult lovebirds. I specify adult because we also have one brand-new chick! Our little lovebird baby has the undivided attention of all three adults, and as a result, he (or she) is growing fast! We expect our new arrival to be venturing out of the nestbox by the end of the month, so next time you find yourself walking through the KIDZone, stop on by and see our little lovebird flock!
(Photo by Molly Desmet)
Keeper I, Birds
Thursday, June 19
This summer we have been working on a lot of projects to improve the habitats in the Program Animal Department. We are very proud and excited about some additions to our birds of prey “lookouts” at the Wildlife Theater. These are basically raised sections of their roofs with some creative perches that allow the birds to get a 360-degree view of their surroundings. In the wild, these birds would normally spend a large portion of their day perched in trees watching for prey to pursue, and our aim with these additions is to enrich the lives of our theater birds by simulating that natural behavior. Currently, our red-tailed hawk, Nate, spends most of his days watching Zoo guests and keepers from his lookout overlooking the spine, and we have also added this feature to the area where our hooded vultures, Baobab and Acacia, currently live. We have plans to add these lookouts to several more areas as the summer goes on, and we are excited to see how it enhances the birds’ lives.
Another project we are excited about is the movement of our kinkajou, Maya, into an outdoor habitat that can be viewed by the public; look for Maya between the Aldabra tortoise yard and the Wieland Wildlife Home. Since she’s extremely nocturnal, we gave her a sleeping box adjacent to her habitat that she can relax in during the day, and while she’s there, we can let other animals use the habitat. This gives her the ability to be outside and have access to a larger play area when she is up and about at night, and we are very excited to be able to share her with the public.
Seasonal Keeper, Program Animals
Tuesday, June 18
Zoo Atlanta hosted approximately 180 veterinarians, gorilla caregivers, managers, researchers and field biologists from all over the world at the 2014 International Gorilla Workshop last week to share the most current information on husbandry, conservation and emerging issues pertaining to zoo-housed and wild populations of gorillas.
This conference played an important role in advancing the well-being of captive gorillas through lectures, panels and roundtable discussions on innovative husbandry techniques. So much knowledge was shared during the workshop, and we continue to receive great feedback about the success of it. We’re excited that so many attendees left with many ideas to implement at their facilities and are eager to start. The attendees (nine countries were represented!) are some of the most amazing and talented people that I know, and it was such an honor to host them!
Senior Keeper, Primates
Thursday, June 12
The World of Reptiles is busy as usual. Both Burmese black mountain tortoises have laid their eggs (located on exhibit in front of the World of Reptiles), and we now have over 100 eggs in the incubator … good thing we only have two females of this large tortoise species. Several other turtles and tortoises are getting ready to lay eggs. Two of our McCord’s box turtles are gravid and will be laying soon.
We are preparing for the new reptile and amphibian complex already; just yesterday, 12 new snakes were released from quarantine, with more on the way. In a way it’s like Noah’s Ark: We received two Cape cobras (now on exhibit in the World of Reptiles), two fer-de-lance, two Sri Lankan pit vipers, two Mexican lance-headed rattlesnakes, two Timor pythons, and two sharp-nosed vipers. While only the Cape cobras are on exhibit in the current World of Reptiles, all of these species will be on exhibit when the new complex opens, along with many others.
Be sure to come see us at the World of Reptiles during your next visit to Zoo Atlanta.
Keeper II, Herpetology
Tuesday, June 10
What a baby boom we’ve had in the Mammal Department! You may be wondering what our new, and not-so-new, babies are up to. Jabari the rhino, who was born in August of 2013, is now so big that it’s hard to remember that he’s still a baby. He currently weighs around 1,000 pounds. The first weight that we got on him, about a month after he was born, was 190 pounds. Since then, he’s learned to participate in regular checks on his weight and also received his vaccinations by hand! With a little food and some scratches, he is happy to sit still for this, which is quite an achievement for not only him, but for the keepers as well. On a related note, Jabari has grown so much that we can no longer weigh him on his personal “baby” scale, but instead we need to weigh him on the same scale that we use for his mom and dad.
The male bongo calf, Lawson, has also done some growing. He was born in April of this year and already weighs about 100 pounds. I know this doesn’t seem like much, considering how big Jabari has gotten, but Lawson put on about 50 pounds in one month. Pretty impressive! He’s currently on exhibit with his mom on a regular basis and is living next door to his dad. It won’t be long before dad Tambo officially meets Lawson, at which point they will live as a family.
Finally, the warthog piglets. I’m not sure what to say about them, except that if you haven’t come to visit them, you really should. These pint-sized cuties, Lex and Eleanor, are almost 8 weeks old and are pure energy. Although they do rest, they’re having a great time exploring their exhibit and playing, playing, playing! The entire warthog family is now back together. Vern has proven, once again, to be a patient and doting father. And Shirley, after her initial period of protectiveness, is content to let the piglets play with each other, or their dad, while she enjoys a cooling mud bath.
These aren’t the only mammal babies that you’ll see that the Zoo this summer, but you’ll have to wait a bit for an update about them. But here’s a hint: You’ll want to visit Outback Station next month, but only if you like to be surrounded by adorable animal babies that you can actually pet. There’s going to be some major cuteness in that area, trust me!
Assistant Curator of Mammals
Thursday, June 5
Summer’s upon us! That means, as the Zoo gets a lot busier, so do the animals. As the weather changes in the Zoo world, a lot of animals you didn’t see in the winter are more likely to be on exhibit. At the same time, if we see temperatures reach closer to 90-100 degrees, the animals may have the option of choosing to be outdoors or inside. Each animal area has guidelines to follow when it comes to extreme temperatures, rain, and, of course, inclement weather.
Different species from different parts of the world have different preferences when it comes to seasons and temperatures. An animal originating from South America is less likely to be comfortable on a cold winter day in Atlanta, Ga., than is a Georgia native such as an eastern indigo snake. In order to keep our animals as comfortable as possible, we ensure they are provided with shady areas to cool off, areas to relax in the sun, and water to drink or cool down in. On chilly and hotter days, some animals may have access to their indoor housing.
There are a few animals we are seeing more activity from as well. The lesser Madagascar hedgehog tenrecs will go through periods of torpor, which is similar to hibernation but different in that it only lasts for a few hours during the day. With torpor, animals do not metabolize their food as quickly, so we begin to see a reduction in the amount of food they are eating. We continue to monitor them daily throughout the winter to make sure they are still healthy. We also began to see some snakes eating less, as well as the American Alligators Grits, Chomper and Okefenokee. This week, in fact, we have begun to see an increase in food consumption from these animals.
On the other hand, other animal species will use their ability to lighten or darken their coloration to cool off or stay warm. For example, Saphira the bearded dragon will adjust her scales to a darker color in order to attract sunlight if she is feeling cool. She will do the opposite and lighten her color of she is feeling too warm and wants to cool off. She can also move to a shady spot in her home environment! Cairo the spiny-tailed lizard will “pancake” his belly out, which is very similar to how we lay out on a towel at the beach. He is allowing the sun to hit as many points on his body as possible. When he is ready to move under a rock or tree, as we would move under our beach umbrella, he has that ability. Other animals, like alligators, might hang out in the water to cool down. That is also a nice spot to find dinner. I like to call that multitasking!
It is really interesting to see how animals function differently throughout the year in order to survive temperature changes in their environments. As you walk throughout the Zoo, think about the temperature. Stand in the sun; then stand in the shade. Do they feel different? Where are the tigers hanging out? Is your favorite bird spreading his or her wings out while sitting in the sun? We call that sunning! Is the Komodo dragon lying out in the sun or chilling in a shady spot? Is there an Aldabra tortoise taking a nap in the pond? Is your friend who might be wearing a black shirt sweating a little bit more than your friend wearing a white shirt? It’s amazing how that works, huh?
Keeper I, Program Animals
Tuesday, June 3
If you walk down the main spine of the Zoo, you might see our brand-new birds, the crested couas, or you might not! Why? While they are mostly grey with a white breast and bright blue skin around their eyes, you might think that they could be easily spotted. However, these characteristics actually help them blend into the shadows of the trees and bushes of their native habitat in Madagascar.
The crested coua is found in the forests, savannas and brush lands of Madagascar. It is found from sea-level to an altitude of 900 meters. Their diet consists mainly of various insects, fruits, berries, seeds, snails and chameleons.
Crested couas are cuckoos, but unlike cuckoos, crested couas build their own nests out of twigs, and incubate their own white-colored eggs. The nests are usually well-hidden in trees or bushes. A clutch usually consists of two eggs. They also raise their own young. Coua chicks try to make it easy for the parents to feed them: They have bright red-and-white markings inside their mouths that look like bulls-eyes. It gives the parents the perfect target!
Couas are not particularly great fliers. While they can fly and do often make short flights from one tree to another, they prefer to walk and hop along the tree branches. They use their long tails for balance and a reversible third toe to grab onto perches!
Keeper III, Birds and Program Animals