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A Big Sur Adventure into Condor Country

by | December 20th, 2012

A couple of months ago, I had an incredible opportunity to tag along with our Associate Veterinarian, Dr. Goodnight and my boss, Nancy Filippi on a trip to Ventana Wildlife Society in Big Sur, CA. The trip began very early in the morning with a wake up time of 5:00am. I picked up Dr. Goodnight in Pleasanton and we carpooled down to Big Sur. Nancy traveled down to Carmel the night before and met us at Ventana at 10am.  If you haven’t made the trip to this gorgeous coastal area, I highly suggest it. I had driven through the town once prior and was instantly reminded that I need to bring my husband back. The views of the ocean are breathtaking. It reminds me how lucky I am to be a Californian and that I have the opportunity to travel to these areas during a day trip.

Not only were the views a bonus of this work trip, we also had the pleasure of meeting Kelly Sorenson. We spent a great deal of time with Kelly traveling up into the mountains of Big Sur. Luckily, he had a 4×4 truck that was able to take on the steep terrain and dips in the dirt road. The road was definitely rough and one less traveled. Through the twists and turns, it took us probably 2.5 hours to drive up the mountain to the California Condor research camp. No one got car sick; however, I was a little queasy and requested the front seat for the trip down the mountain.

Once we reached the research area, Kelly hiked us down a very steep mountainside to an area where they feed carcasses to condors, monitor the giant birds, and test them for lead poisoning. The hike down was extremely scary. I have weak ankles and kept thinking that my life could flash before me at any moment should one of them give out. I pictured myself rolling down the mountain and being stuck without a way out. A helicopter rescue would be dangerous in such conditions. As those thoughts flashed before me, I kept reminding myself to stay focused on the task at hand…getting to the research area. Once we made it to “the spot,” you instantly knew you were there, not by the obvious structure, but by the stench. California Condors feed on dead carcasses and the smell is so strong. It was one of those moments I wished I had the handkerchief my Dad always has in his back pocket. That would have come in handy during this smelly situation. But, I was in the company of Kelly, the Executive Director of Ventana Wildlife Society, a researcher, two interns, a veterinarian, a FedEx Public Relations Executive, and my boss. I had to buck up and quote unquote “deal with it.”

The purpose of the trip was to acquire footage of the California condors, the research being done, and to also to interview Kelly Sorenson of Ventana Wildlife Society about a project he has invested decades of his career into saving. The Ventana Wildlife Society’s goal is to save the California Condor from extinction. In 1987, there were only twenty-seven birds left in the wild. They were on the verge of becoming extinct due to hunting, poisoning, habitat loss, and electrical power lines. However, with the help of the Ventana Wildlife Society, the LA Zoo and the San Diego Zoo, the wild population today is around 200 birds. A captive breeding effort and rehabilitation program has helped bring the numbers up and has provided researchers with more knowledge on how to save the species. One of the main threats right now, is lead poisoning. Lead poisoning sounds crazy, but these birds are scavengers and they feed on dead carcasses. Some of the dead carcasses have lead fragments in them, remnants from a hunter that may not be aware of how his ammunition is impacting a bird that has found a free meal.

In late October, Oakland Zoo joined the LA Zoo in helping to rehabilitate condors with lead poisoning. Once a bird has tested positive, it is identified in the field and will be transported to the Oakland Zoo for treatment. Dr. Goodnight and the Zoo’s Veterinary Medical Staff will put their expertise to work and will take aim at rehabilitating the bird back to health, so it can then be released back into the wild.

The prehistoric looking bird has a wing span of six feet long. Their beauty isn’t in seeing them up-close; instead, it is the majesty of their flight that can take your breath away. They are able to glide over mountain tops and are just incredible to watch. While at the research camp, there were two condors that were flying above us with the blue skyline as a backdrop. I had to pinch myself a few times to be reminded that what I was watching was real. As my boss was filming the footage around us, my eyes were taking in the scenery, making memory notes that I was sure I could never forget.

I can still see the Executive Director of Ventana Wildlife Society in my mind as he sat on a huge rock with the Pacific Ocean behind him and mountain tops around him. Nancy and I did a thirty minute interview with Kelly where I asked him in-depth questions about the plight of the California Condor and the efforts to save this bird. The interview was used for a video Nancy and I recently completed. The goal of the video is to make more people aware about a bird that may not be as beautiful as a bald eagle, but it’s definitely an animal worth saving. Oakland Zoo Links up with California Condor Recovery Program

20 New Frogs Arrive

by | October 14th, 2010

Panamanian Golden Frog

I received a call on Friday, October 8th that went something like this, “Hi Nicky, we just came back from the airport. The frogs are here.” I thought to myself, well, that’s pretty cool.  I’ve never seen frogs get unpacked.  This would be a chance to get away from my desk and see something rare. So, I grabbed a camera and headed down to the Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo to check out our new Panamanian Golden frogs.

As I walked in behind-the-scenes of the RAD Room (Reptile and Amphibian Discovery Room), I was delighted to see Keeper Adam Fink eager to unpack TWENTY brightly colored little frogs.

Keeper Adam unpacks frogs

The yellow and black amphibians reminded me of those little plastic frogs you see in gum ball machines, except these were very jumpy.  There were ten containers that resembled something you would see at a deli counter. Each container held two frogs…and yes, each container had breathing holes. As soon as I arrived, Adam jumped into action to unpack each frog carefully, weigh it, photograph it, and place it into a special aquarium. These tasks took patience and persistence because the frogs are fast and slippery!

Frogs in containers

The twenty Panamanian Golden Frogs were born at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, MD. The frogs are extinct in the wild and several zoos in the US are breeding them for release into the wild in the future.  The Oakland Zoo does not breed them, but instead we are holding individuals for the breeding program and to help educate the public about the Panamanian Golden Frogs.  They are the national symbol of Panama.  So, to Panamanians, this would equate to the Bald Eagle being gone in the US.  They are one of the poster-frogs for the global amphibian crisis, which is being caused by climate change, the chytrid fungus, pollution, and other things that has caused one-third of the amphibian species in the world to decline and become endangered or extinct.

Panamanian Golden Frog

The frogs were packed into the cargo area of a Delta flight bound for Oakland and arrived the morning of October 8, 2010.  This frog shipment was the second shipment the Oakland Zoo has received in the past six years. They were born in December, 2009, so they are almost one year old. They are now off exhibit for a thirty day quarantine, which is part of the Oakland Zoo’s regulations with acquiring new animals. We monitor new animals and test them for diseases to ensure they do not have anything that can spread to our animal collection. Currently, we have nine Panamanian Golden frogs on exhibit in the RAD room, so when the new ones are added, we’ll have a total of twenty-nine.

I asked Adam if they make any ribbit sounds and I was told no, but they do make little wheezing sounds.  I tried to listen closely while they were being unpacked, but didn’t hear a peep. Adam also mentioned that these frogs are not big swimmers; they are more of a waters edge species, meaning they like to be around water but not necessarily in it. The black and gold patterns on their backs also change each year, so it’s hard to name and distinguish each frog. But, the Oakland Zoo weighs and photographs each frog every three months. As for food, these frogs feast on tiny crickets and fruit flies.

So, the next time you are at the Oakland Zoo, stop by the RAD Room and see if you can spot a Panamanian Golden Frog.

Baby Eland Makes Debut

by | May 12th, 2010

Baby Eland with Mom. Photo by Julie Hartell-Denardo

It’s been nearly 30 years since the Oakland Zoo has experienced the joy of an eland birth, so keepers were very excited on April 21st when after a 9 month gestation, one of our young female eland, Etana, gave birth to a healthy female calf.  Etana began her labor in the early afternoon and almost exactly 3 hours later she gave birth to her first calf, a daughter named Bali.  Eland have extremely precocious young and Bali was up on all 4 feet and nursing within 30 minutes of being born!

Common eland are a species that “tucks” during the first 10 to 14 days after birth, with calves lying extremely still and hidden in vegetation to hide from predators.  For the first week Bali spent most of the day hidden, curled up in a tiny little ball in a big straw bed.  She would stand to nurse and play and then immediately “tuck” herself right back into her favorite hiding spot.  Common eland calves grow very quickly, due in large part to the nutritiously rich milk provided by their mother.  Eland milk is twice as fattening as the milk of domestic cattle!  We have been immensely enjoying this great privilege of having a front row seat to Bali’s growth and development.  At just 3 days old we saw her learn how to coordinate the movement of all 4 legs as she began bucking, running, and leaping about.  As a prey species, eland calves have to develop very quickly. At just 6 days old we saw Bali start to munch her first solid food, sampling the fresh weeds picked for her and her mom.  As the days passed Bali showed great coordination, hopping about and cornering on a dime, and she stopped hiding and began following her mother throughout the day.

When she was 13 days old we decided it was time to introduce her to the big exhibit and the rest of her animal family.

Giraffe and Baby Eland. Photo by Julie Hartell-Denardo

Bali ventured onto the Veldt to meet the rest of the eland herd, her aunties Bella and Kashka, as well as our Dama Gazelle, Bhoke.  Leaving the nursery area and moving to the big exhibit was filled with firsts for Baby Bali.  She had room to run, waterfalls and pools to explore, rocks to climb, and many other big adventures!  Bali demonstrated the eland’s remarkable running speed and agility while galloping and leaping across the Veldt with her herd.  Adult eland have been clocked running at speeds up to 42mph, and can easily jump heights of over 5 feet.  At 14 days old Bali was introduced to the giraffe and she did very well!  The younger giraffe spent some time investigating and chasing her, curious about this new baby, but after some initial fireworks everyone is getting along splendidly.

Bali Takes off into a Run. Photo by Julie Hartell-Denardo

On your next trip to the zoo visit us on the African Veldt and enjoy this unique opportunity to see some great natural behaviors in our eland herd, as well as some fascinating interactions between different species.   Please come by Oakland’s own mini safari and help us welcome our newest little addition!

Keepers Amy and Sara

Watch an Elephant Munch a Watermelon

by | February 24th, 2010

African Elephant Enjoys a Watermelon. Photo credit Nancy Filippi

I remember arriving to work bright and early on a Saturday morning. It was 8:00am, caffeine hadn’t even taken affect, yet the parking lot of the Oakland Zoo was packing up with people. I scanned the lot and smiled as I watched children who could barely hold their excitement start to line up. Brown bags of groceries were accompanied by parents drinking Starbucks, giddy girls, and babbling boys.

Guests Donating Produce to Feast for the Beasts Event

Guests Donating Produce to Feast for the Beasts. Photo by Adam Fink

They were at the Zoo early for Feast for the Beasts: A day when the public can donate produce to the Oakland Zoo animals. Feast for the Beasts makes me laugh, because it is so much fun to be a staff member and people watch. The first 250 guests through the gate get a ticket, some might say it’s a “Golden Ticket,” and actually get to go inside the elephant exhibit, before the hungry herd, to place their produce in nooks and crannies throughout the enclosure. It’s a special moment to see kids with tomatoes, watermelons, apples, carrots, grapes, and cucumbers. The children really get a kick out of hiding treats. After the produce is all in place and the public has cleared the exhibit, the pacaderms go after their grub. You can actually see an elephant munch down an entire watermelon in a couple of bites. The crowd roars and kids cheer in delight, during this popular produce event.

Little Girl Placing a Carrot into the Elephant Exhibit

Little Girl Places a Carrot into the Elephant Exhibit for Feast for the Beasts. Photo by Amber Frisbie

If you have never experienced Feast for the Beasts, mark your calendar now for 9:00am Saturday, March 27. And, remember to arrive early! The first 250 guests will receive “golden tickets” for the elephant exhibit. Watch special animal feedings throughout the day, see live entertainment, and participate in family friendly activities. The Oakland Zoo welcomes produce donations for all of our animals. This event is included with general admission. For more information, check out our website

Guests Wait for the Elephants to Come Out During Feast for the Beasts Event. Photo by Margaret Rousser

ZooKeeper Celebrates 30 Years at Zoo

by | December 22nd, 2009

Erica Calcagno, Animal Keeper III Photo credit: Nancy Filippi

“It’s a dangerous job, but somebody’s gotta do it.” This is a cliché Erica Calcagno would laugh at, because those words would never come out of her mouth. Calcagno works with lions, tigers, camels, bison, and California tule elk. It’s a job she truly loves. When asked if the work she does is dangerous, Calcagno replied, “Obviously lions and tigers are dangerous, but it’s the pressure and responsibility of taking care of the animals that can be stressful. They can’t tell you what they want or what they need. You have to anticipate it and figure it out.”

Erica began her career at the Oakland Zoo in 1977, and she’s had the opportunity to bond with many animals, watch them grow up, and sadly, she’s been there when they die. She prefers working outside with animals rather than indoors with humans. “It’s a job that just fits,” stated Calcagno. It’s a fit that’s lasted thirty years.

The relationship between an animal keeper and an animal is unique and inspirational to see first hand. Erica Calcagno actually gets greeted by the tigers with a noise similar to that of a cat purring. “But, it’s different than actual ‘purring,’ because tigers only make the chuffing sound to greet one another or someone they know,” said Calcagno. When you are in the same room as a lion, “you actually feel the vibrations of the roar in the air around you,” said Calcagno. The male camel expresses himself to Erica by expanding his throat to make a percussive sound. It’s a sound Calcagno really enjoys hearing.

The Oakland Zoo is very fortunate to have animal keepers like Erica Calcagno; she is a person who has spent decades providing quality care to animals. Thank you, Erica, for the hard work you put in each day and the dedication you show the animals at the Oakland Zoo. Happy 30th Anniversary!