Author Archive

Adventures in Activism

by | August 30th, 2013
My first attempt at protesting.

My first attempt at protesting.

At Oakland Zoo we pride ourselves on the “protected contact” system of care for our four resident African Elephants. This system is based on positive reinforcement and prevents the need for keeper domination through barbaric tools such as the bullhook. Each year we host “Celebrating Elephants” to benefit the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Kenya, and at this event we encourage people not to attend “free contact” elephant programs such as amusement parks where elephant rides are given and circus shows featuring elephants and other animals.

Well, I figured it was time for me to put my money where my mouth is. This last Friday our longtime volunteer Cheryl Matthews, my sister Chelsea, and I decided to boycott the local circus show at the Oracle Arena in Oakland. There was a group meeting there and the directions were pretty clear: Just Show Up.

I really wasn’t sure what to expect. I’ve never been to the circus before  - as a protestor or a patron – so I wasn’t sure how exactly we were to go about protesting. I’m not a very confrontational person and the idea of yelling into a megaphone or accusing people of wrongdoing didn’t exactly appeal to me.

Cheryl Matthews - who wouldn't take a flier from this face?!

Cheryl Matthews – who wouldn’t take a flier from this face?!

Luckily this group is about educating people through peaceful means, not aggressively. Signs were provided for all of us and we were given flyers in both English and Spanish to offer to people as they walked by. Each of us was instructed to be polite, and to try to be as friendly as possible despite potentially negative reactions.

Truth be told, there were far less ‘angry’ people than I thought there would be. Many people refused our fliers and seemed irritated at being offered them, but no one was rude. Many people also took them on their way in. And holding signs is an attention-grabbing mode of spreading the message as well. There was an Oakland A’s game that night at the Coliseum and far more people were headed to that venue than to the circus. There were also encouraging people like the man who told my sister what a good job she was doing and that even if people don’t take the flier, they are listening, we are still a presence.

 

Cheryl engaging with potential circus goers.

Cheryl engaging with potential circus goers.

My hope is that for everyone that took a flier on their way into the show, they’ll at least give that flier a look. Maybe they were unwilling to tear up their tickets or turn around and drive home, but maybe that flier, and our message will make them think twice the next time the circus comes to town. And maybe if we’re really lucky, there won’t be a next time.

Happy Birthday Mokey!

by | August 30th, 2013

This Sunday Oakland Zoo’s youngest zebra celebrated her 17th birthday! Mokey was born on August 18, 1996, the daughter of mother Bingo and sister of Domino who are both currently housed with her at the zoo. Zebras typically live to be about 25 years of age but in captivity they have been known to live as long as 40 years.

Carrots and cookies, yum!

Carrots and cookies, yum!

I am lucky enough to be the primary trainer for Mokey during our collective training sessions and of course I felt we had to celebrate our girl in style! Lead keeper Leslie Storer suggested making popsicles with different layers of goodies in them for each zebra. The result was a double decker popsicle with a layer of carrots on the bottom and cookie crumbs on top.

The day turned out to be quite warm and muggy and I thought for sure we had one grand slam of a birthday hit. The initial reaction was a little wary on all sides and only Domino and Mokey actually ventured close enough to the pops to touch them. Their reactions were underwhelming to say the least. In all fairness to the species they tend to eat in what might be described as a nibbling action with the front teeth and then move to grind with the molars.

Keeper Jason Loy encourages the birthday girl towards her treat.

Keeper Jason Loy encourages the birthday girl towards her treat.

Surely, I thought, once these bad boys begin to melt they’ll be nibbling away at these carrot shards!  Well, no dice. By the end of the day the popsicles were completely melted and all that was left were several empty chains and a pile of unappetizing sludge. Stormy eventually moved in to pick up some of the leftovers.

It’s the thought that counts, right? Besides, there’s always next year!

Michelle Jeffries: Zoological Manager Extraordinaire

by | September 23rd, 2011

For the most part, when you think of the term “manager” the words funny, energetic, and caring are not necessarily the first which come to mind. More often it may be along the lines of hard-working, diligent, and organized. Luckily for the Oakland Zoo, our newest Zoological Manager, Michelle Jeffries, encompasses all of these attributes. As lead keeper Amy Phelps points out, “Michelle is an inspirational team leader and one of the most positive people I have ever had the pleasure of working with.  She brings an upbeat attitude to every situation and never misses an opportunity to positively reinforce her staff!”

Michelle leading one of the zoo's camels into the night quarters.

With a degree in Zoology and Marine Science, Michelle has spent around thirty years accumulating an extensive and impressive background in marine mammal research and behavioral studies.  Michelle has worked across the U.S. for such renowned institutions as the Long Marine Lab at U.C. Santa Cruz where under Ron Schusterman she says, “the best thing I learned was that you train to a certain point and then you stop and see what the animal is capable of.”

From UCSC Michelle moved to the Brookfield Zoo’s Seven Seas in Chicago, then the Mote Marine Lab in Florida and finally back to California where she spent eleven years at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. There, Michelle held positions as Senior Sea Otter Aquarist and then Associate Curator of Mammals. (For a fun and educational video of Michelle showing a “Day in the Life of a Scientist” at the otter exhibit visit: http://Pbskids.org/dragonflytv/scientists/scientist10.html). At Monterey Bay, Michelle was able to take part in an innovative program in which orphaned otter pups were brought to the aquarium to be raised by exhibit females. These pups were later re-released back into the wild where they were able to breed successfully.  This experience holds a special place in Michelle’s heart. “When I look back at my career, I’m proud of a lot of things I was able to do, but the thing I’m most proud being a part of was the reintroduction program at the aquarium.”

Her human coworkers aren't the only ones who appreciate her!

 

So just how does someone with such extensive marine mammal experience end up in the very terrestrial world of the Oakland Zoo? Ready for a change, Michelle applied, in her own words “at the last minute of the last day” for the Zoological Manager position – and it was lucky for us she did! Michelle was hired in January of 2011 and definitely had her work cut out for her. Michelle has had to take over a section of the zoo which features some of our most senior keepers, a broad range of species, and over 180 individual animals! In addition, Michelle has the office aspect of the job to contend with, overseeing a variety of programs and initiatives. Her hard work is greatly appreciated by her colleagues. As fellow Zoological Manager Victor Alm points out, “I like Michelle because she is easy to work with and will always offer assistance on projects or staffing if needed.”

It’s not only her helpful attitude that her colleagues appreciate. Curator Colleen Kinzley credits Michelle as being  “wonderful to work with because she is consistently positive and optimistic, no matter what the obstacle her response always starts out with something like ‘That’s ok we’ll just . . .’” This sentiment is backed up by the keepers she oversees. Lead keeper and Oakland Zoo titan Erica Calcagno notes, “Michelle is quick to compliment someone for a job well done, is attentive to her staff’s needs, and has a great sense of humor.”

As much as we all appreciate Michelle, she attributes much of the success and enjoyment of her new position to the keepers she oversees.  With seven keepers totaling a combined 60 plus years of experience between them, Michelle recognizes “I’ve got great keepers who really know their animals.

In Michelle can be found the respect and professionalism required to make a wonderful leader, and the caring and compassion to make an exceptional boss and an amazing animal caregiver. Michelle’s enthusiasm and overall wonderful personality have made her a fantastic attribute to the Oakland Zoo. With all of the amazing people who work in the Animal Management Department, Michelle has definitely been a welcome addition here.

It's not all office work!

 

So if you see our wonderful Manager Extraordinaire Michelle Jeffries around the zoo, please tell her to keep up the good work!