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Oakland Zoo ZooKeepers to Madagascar!

by | February 18th, 2015



When you see that word, what do you think? I will guess most of you will say “that DreamWorks cartoon!” King Julian!” or “I like to move it, move it!”

As a keeper at Oakland Zoo, I care for two species of lemur; Ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) and Sclater’s lemurs (Eulemur flavifrons) and I think of the word “Madagascar” a little different than most. I immediately think of lemurs as well as orchids, chameleons, rainforests, fossa and many, many other unique and endangered species.1

There’s no place in the world like Madagascar. Formed over 88 million years ago, it is the world’s 4th largest island and 90% of its animals are found nowhere else on the planet! Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be able to visit such an amazing destination, but, indeed I did!

In November of 2014 my supervisor Margaret Rousser and I were invited by the director and founder of Centre ValBio, Dr. Patricia Wright, to visit her research center in Ranomafana National Park and assist in the capture and data collection of the park’s Milne-Edward sifaka’s (Propithecus edwardsi).

After a 27 hour flight from San Francisco and a 10 hour drive from Antananarivo, the country’s capitol, we finally reached the rainforest and Centre ValBio. Beautiful. Breathtaking. Mysterious. Downright awesome. These are the words that went through my mind as we arrived.

After resting up overnight after our long flight and equally exhaustive drive we were ready to see the park.

Elizabeth holding a recovering adult

Elizabeth holding a recovering adult

Along the length of the eastern Madagascan coast runs a narrow and steep escarpment containing much of the island’s remaining tropical lowland forest. Ranomafana National Park is located on this escarpment. The terrain is extremely hilly and trekking through the forest is challenging as the majority of the time you are ascending or descending these hills. My favorite areas were the ridge trails. Once you reach the ridges, you get a break from the extreme climbing and get to enjoy the views on either side of the hills.

On our first visit into Ranomafana Park with Dr. Wright, Margaret and I were able to see 5 different species of lemurs! To say we were lucky is not enough. Dr. Wright has been studying lemurs in this location for 30 years and was pleased and surprised at seeing so many lemur species on a single visit. We capped our perfect lemur day with an interesting evening, observing students collect data on the world’s smallest primate, a mouse lemur.3

After a few days waiting for the government to finally approve the permits required to capture the Milne-Edwards sifaka’s, we were on our way back into the forest! After a grueling 5 hour hike to one of the park’s most remote sites we arrived to find the lemurs, ready for their exams and new collars. The trackers, who spend much of their time in the forest observing the whereabouts of the different lemur groups and know the individuals intimately, had anesthetized a group of three adults, one male, two females and two infants!

Putting on new ID collar (Photo Joan de la Malla)

Putting on new ID collar (Photo Joan de la Malla)

Margaret and I jumped into our roles immediately! Margaret led a group of graduate students, instructing them on obtaining body measurements along with hair, ectoparasite and fecal collection. I helped the vet with physical exams, blood collection and removal and replacement of new ID collars. This was a most amazing experience. The adult lemurs are given anesthesia to avoid undo stress as they are wild animals unused to being handled by humans. This ensures their safety as well as the humans’ handling them. The infant lemurs are not anesthetized and stay on their moms until the physical exam is performed. The babies are then held by a human until their mother is done with her exam and they are quickly returned to her. It may seem this is too stressful for the animal but the babies seem to feel secure as long as they have an adult primate to cling too. They contentedly sat in our arms, looking at all the things happening around them with no struggling our stressful vocalizations.

We stayed that night camping in the rainforest, which was an adventure in itself, with the lovely pit toilet and cute little leeches!  The next morning we awoke to the sounds of black and white ruffed lemur groups vocalizing around us. The Milne-Edwards sifakas were checked by the vet to ensure they all had recovered fully from the previous day and then the trackers returned them to the same location they had been captured so the lemurs could resume their normal daily life.

The rest of us returned to Centre ValBio’s laboratory where we began processing samples taken from the animals.

The second group we helped with a few days later was just as exciting but luckily only a 30 minute hike to the site instead of 5 hours! We had one adult male, two adult females and one infant. Again, all went well, and once recovered, the animals were returned to their original location.

Once done with our Ranomafana animal captures Margaret and I had a few days to see a little more of Madagascar when we traveled 4 hours by car to visit a village which ran their own lemur sanctuary. This was very exciting for us because at this location they only had one species- ring tailed lemurs!

Anja Community Reserve covers about 75 acres and nearly 300 RT lemurs call it home. It is completely operated by the villagers, who protect the forest, serve as guides and perform administrative tasks.

Mama and baby ring tailed lemur at Anja Community Reserve

Mama and baby ring tailed lemur at Anja Community Reserve

We arrived at dusk and could hear the lemurs calling to each other in the forest below our hotel, I got goose bumps as I immediately recognized the calls as they are the same vocalization I hear from my lemurs at Oakland Zoo! Early the next morning Margaret and I along with a guide and a tracker, headed into the reserve. I was soon choked up with joy as we encountered our first wild lemur group! These lemurs have all been desensitized to the proximity of humans and Margaret and I were able to get quite close. It was amazing to sit in the forest as 100s of lemurs meandered, scampered, jumped, vocalized and foraged all around us. Our guides had a vast knowledge of the area’s flora and fauna as this was their own backyard. They could spot a tiny chameleon who looked like a little twig to me, or another one that was the same green as the leaf he was sitting on!

November was the perfect time to visit Madagascar as there were many babies to be seen. So many cute little guys were riding their moms, daring to be brave and jumping to the ground only to be surprised by a blowing leaf and running back to the safety of momma’s back! It was interesting to see the large troupes of lemurs of all different ages combing the forest together. The older animals were much more interested in foraging for tasty fruit while the youngsters played tag through the trees!

Margaret and Elizabeth with Veterinarian Hajanirina Rakotondrainibe at Centre ValBio

Margaret and Elizabeth with Veterinarian Hajanirina Rakotondrainibe at Centre ValBio

Overall, the trip to Madagascar was an unforgettable journey. Seeing the country, its animals and people was a life changing event. I can’t wait to return to the beautiful Island and continue to see more of the amazing and unique things it has to offer!

The REAL Lemurs of Oakland Zoo!

by | April 3rd, 2014

Ring Tailed Lemur at Oakland Zoo

“Look!  King Julian!”

“I like to move it, move it! I like to move it, move it!”

These are just a few phrases I often hear when I’m working in the lemur exhibit here at Oakland Zoo.  While movies such as “Madagascar” and “The Lion King” may foster an interest of wild animals in their young audience, they don’t provide any actual knowledge of the animals starring in them.

And that’s where I get to perform one of the cool parts of my job as a keeper- to interact with our guests and provide actual facts about these amazing beings!

First I get to tell them there would not be a King Julian in lemur society!  There would be a Queen Julianne instead.  Just like several other awesome species such as elephants, meerkats and hyenas, lemurs are matriarchal, which means the ladies are in charge! And in our troop of ring-tailed lemurs, Amy is the boss!

While observing our lemurs look for the lemur that is always paying attention to everyone else, whose tail is always pointing straight up or forward and who is always first at meal time- that’s Amy. She will be the one who decides where to forage, when to sit in the sun and when to groom.  Her twin daughters Kristina and Jennifer along with their buddy Jaeger defer to her decisions about their daily life.  If not, she may deliver a stern look or possibly chase the misbehaving individual if necessary.  Notice the body posture of the other lemurs.  Because Amy is always on duty, they can be a little more relaxed, with their tails curled over their backs in a question mark as they forage, groom or sun themselves.

Next, I tell our guests lemurs DO like to move it!  But our lemurs don’t move it just for the fun of it- they move to live!  Wild animals have jobs to do.  Their job is to protect their territory, find food and a safe place to live and raise their young.  In the wild this is a full time job.  In captivity, many of these normal behaviors are fulfilled by their keepers- we provide them with a safe place to live, the right diet and social group.  The keeper’s job is to find ways in which the animals in our care can perform these natural behaviors.  We call it “enrichment”.  Enrichment encompasses a wide variety of options and can include;

VLUU L210  / Samsung L210

Lead Keeper Elizabeth Abram training a Sclater’s or Blue-Eyed Lemur.

Manual manipulation- We may put their diet in a “puzzle feeder” or boxes so they have to use physical and mental skills to get their food.

Changes in their environment – We can move or change the “furniture” in their exhibit to keep their environment complex and stimulating.

Sensory stimulation – straw or bedding from another animal enclosure, or even spices or perfume, can be put into their exhibit to add novel  and unique experiences.

Feeding options- a keeper may scatter an animal’s diet in the grass or skewer items onto branches throughout their exhibit, so the animal will have to forage to find their diet items, allowing the them to feed in a natural manner.

And the list can go on and on! These are just a few of the many ways keepers provide necessary and very important enrichment activities, providing the proper psychological wellbeing for our animals.  I think I can speak for the rest of my coworkers- enrichment is one of the favorite aspects of our jobs!

Next time you are visiting Oakland Zoo, take a moment to check out our lemurs moving it around our exhibit.  Is Queen Amy leading the troop to forage in the plum trees or initiating a mutual grooming session?  Has their keeper given them their diet in a box or scattered it about their exhibit?  If it’s a sunny day you might see them sitting in a “Buddha” like pose- soaking up the springtime sun! No matter what, you’re bound to see real lemurs “moving it” just like real lemurs should!

Do you want to get up close and personal with our lemurs here at the Zoo? Purchase a raffle ticket (or two!) to win such a one-of-a-kind experience! During your visit, our lemurs will actually paint a work of art for you to keep. Email to purchase tickets. All proceeds from the raffle go to conservation of lemurs in the wild.