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