Archive for the ‘Animal Welfare’ Category

Big Love for Elephants with Big Life!

by | April 24th, 2015

It started with a book:  1,000 Places to See Before You Die. I was planning a trip to Kenya — my last one had been 25 years earlier — and read this:

“An Unspoiled Corner of Kenya:  Ol Donyo Wuas, Chyulu Hills. The owner and occasional resident personality, Richard Bonham chose the site for its view of Mount Kilimanjaro.  Bonham himself occasionally pops up…”

Big Life, one of our Quarters for Conservation partners for 2014-15, is headquartered in the Chyulu Hills at Ol Donyo; Richard Bonham is one of the co-founders, along with photographer Nick Brandt.  Big Life protects 2 million acres of the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem of East Africa, encompassing portions of southern Kenya and northern Tanzania.

Amboseli Tsavo ecosystem map
They implement the philosophy I heard about when I got there:  Wildlife Helping People.  Big Life is the largest employer of community members (predominantly Maasai) in the region, and the organization ensures that tourist revenue derived from wildlife in the ecosystem benefits the locals.

Richard Bonham grew up in Kenya, the son of a Kenya Wildlife Services ranger.  He recently received the Prince William Award for Conservation in Africa, and he thoroughly understands and appreciates Maasai economics and culture.


big life awardFor the Maasai, cattle are their wealth.  They live on semi-arid land that their cattle share with savannah grazers and browsers — elephants, giraffe, buffalo, wildebeest, antelopes, zebras — along with predators — lions, leopards, cheetah, hyenas.  Young boys grow up herding and protecting cattle among all the resident wildlife, and they have a deep knowledge and appreciation of nature, with one exception:  lions are a traditional enemy, and when a lion kills a Maasai cow, teenage warriors retaliate — and prove their manhood — by killing a lion.

Over the last 25 years, Maasai elders — who serve as mentors for adolescents — have realized that their lion-killing tradition can’t continue.  Lions are among the iconic tourist draws, and if every Maasai warrior proved his manhood by killing a lion, tourist revenue would die with the lions.  In 2008, the elders asked Richard Bonham to brainstorm a solution with them, and together they came up with two schemes:  a predator compensation fund, from which the community partially compensates a family that loses cattle in spite of their best efforts to protect them; and the Maasai Olympics, where young men compete in traditional Maasai skills for prizes, displacing the need to kill a lion as a rite of passage.  The elders spent six months on education about the importance of the young generation in implementing a cultural change that would preserve the best of their traditions — but update their values to the realities of the 21st century.

Big Life and their partners have organized Maasai Olympics competitions in 2012 and 2014.  David Rudisha, the Maasai gold medalist in the 800 meters at the 2012 London Olympics, is a fervent supporter, and guest of honor.
During the last quarter of 2014, not one elephant, among the 2,000 that pass through, was poached in Big Life’s area of operation.  Most of the danger for elephants now lies in conflict with farmers:  elephants raid crops, or drain the water supply, potentially destroying a year’s livelihood.  Farmers retaliate by spearing the elephants.

And Big Life comes to the rescue:  a Kenya Wildlife Service vet flies to Ol Donyo when the staff spot a wounded elephant, treats the wound and sends the elephant back to the wild, hopefully wiser about where and what he chooses to eat and drink.


elephant down
The community around Ol Donyo now Gets It about conservation.  Big Life’s latest story:

They arrived with a just cause, eight construction workers to build a classroom. They must have wondered at all the animals, living in peace and not terrified of humans. Clearly they didn’t take the time to find out why.

And this led to a very bad decision. If no one else was eating all these animals, well then they would. They chased down a lesser kudu, an uncommon and shy antelope, and snuck the carcass into the school through a hole in a fence.

But they misjudged the people around them. The message went from a set of community eyes, via the Big Life control room, and straight to the rangers. The cooking fire wasn’t even warm by the time the ranger team arrived, and the men found themselves on their way to the police station. A bad end to their day.

Despite the on-going conflicts with elephants and predators, this is a community that has decided to conserve wildlife, and the sooner visitors get the message, the better for them.

Note: Big Life will be presenting at our annual Celebrating Elephants event on May 16th. Join us!

BeeYond the Sting: The Importance of Bees in Our World

by | April 24th, 2015


What comes to mind when you hear the word “bee?” Do you think of some pesky, stinging insect? Or do you see the bigger picture, appreciating how absolutely amazing they are and how much they contribute to the natural ecosystem? Sure, they produce honey. But there’s a lot more to bees than that. In fact, bees are among the most beneficial members of the animal community. They’re responsible for pollinating a long list of fruits, vegetables and nuts—crops that the entire world depends upon. Without bees, we humans would be in big trouble. But do you know what? Bees themselves are in big trouble. Their populations have been plummeting in recent years—a problem that’s almost exclusively human-caused. So they need our help.

Ready to work with the Bees

Ready to work with the Bees

What’s this got to do with Oakland Zoo? Well, the zoo has been considering starting its own bee program, similar to the ones at Happy Hollow Zoo, Coyote Point Museum, and the San Francisco Zoo. So recently, several members of the zoo’s education staff went on a field trip in Redwood City to visit the home of a man who knows quite a bit about bees. In fact, he’s a beekeeper. Richard Baxter of Round Rock Honey has been raising honeybees for 25 years now and even holds classes on the subject. On February 15th, Education Animal Interpretive Program Manager Felicia Walker and Olivia Lott, the lead Education Specialist for our Creek and Garden programs, attended one of these three-hour beekeeping courses. I recently had a chance to meet with Felicia and find out what she learned.

For one thing, honeybees are not native to this area. Although many types of bees can be found here, the species that produce honey originated in Africa before migrating to Europe and Asia. Then in the 1600s, Europeans introduced them to America. They’ve done very well here until recently, when environmental threats started seriously reducing their numbers.

The most critical of these threats is the use of pesticides—both in agriculture and at home. That’s often the problem with chemical-based solutions to problems: While trying to control harmful pests, we often harm beneficial animals in the process. For this reason Mr. Baxter uses strict organic methods in his beekeeping operations. In fact for the last 25 years, he’s been doing everything he can to ensure that bee populations rebound, like setting up additional bee hives for friends and at various public places in the area. He also sells the products that his own bees produce, such as beeswax, pollen, and honey as well as household products like soap, lotion, candles and lip balm that are made from these materials.

Hive frame being removed

Bees on a hive frame

The zoo’s education department hopes to make its own contribution by installing bee hives here at the zoo and in the surrounding park sometime in the future, utilizing the existing floral gardens as a natural environment. The zoo hopes to hold classes to teach the public about the importance of bees, for example through pollinator workshops that demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between various animals and the plant community.

Given the important role that bees play in our world you might be asking, “What can I do to help?” Mr. Baxter suggests three things that people can do. 1) Don’t use pesticides in your garden. 2) Become a beekeeper. 3) Join a local beekeeping guild. Remember, by advocating for bees you not only help them, but you also help all of us as well. So stay tuned to Oakland Zoo’s website for news. Hopefully you’ll be seeing some busy little additions to our zoo family soon!

So we asked the giraffe, “How do you really feel?”

by | April 21st, 2015

I have worked with UC Davis for almost 10 years on a variety of projects – raising California salamanders, watching turtle interactions, training dolphins, living amongst monkeys in India, and watching chimpanzees – and though all these projects have been fascinating, the current project we are launching excites me to the core. Our Animal Well-Being Research program at Oakland Zoo is still in its infancy, but it’s strong, vibrant, and ready to pave the way in enhancing our animal’s lives and what we know about them.  We’re developing new ways for keepers to let animals tell (or show) us about their emotional lives.  Some of these new ‘tools’ are borrowed from the large human literature on human emotion (termed “affective science”).  Others, we’ll be building ourselves.

The first reason I am excited about the research, which is be described below, is that we will be working directly with Dr. Eliza Bliss-Moreau at the University of California, Davis, with whom I have worked since 2009 on a variety of other forward-looking projects in animal welfare. Dr. Bliss-Moreau studies emotion and the biological ingredients that make up emotions. Her multi-method and multi-species approach to understanding the social and affective lives of both humans and nonhuman animals is, in our opinion, revolutionary. Her work points to evidence from biological research to challenge commonly-held beliefs about what emotions are and about how we interpret their presence in others.  Armed with new questions, she’s looking for ways for animals to tell us about their experiences using biological tools that are new to animal welfare. We are lucky to have such a great mind at the helm, and she has remarked that our animal care team and program supports a ‘living laboratory’ that enhances both science and animal well-being.

The second reason I am excited about this research is it has the potential to be ground-breaking – not only in what we know about animals, but also in what we can do to enhance their lives. The goal of our collaborative research project is to investigate whether the cardiac system in nonhuman mammals functions similarly to that of humans during emotional experiences.  When people interact, we use what we know about emotions to gather information about whether others are feeling down, gleeful, tired, apprehensive, excited, etc. We are all familiar with what it feels like to walk into a final exam or job interview, see a car accident, or fall in love.  They are all experiences that can be felt physically, with our hearts pumping faster, our stomachs tightening, etc. When in doubt, we can ask each other how we feel.

In the same way, as animals keepers, we perceive the behaviors of animals using our own human understanding of them (which may or may not be 100% accurate relative to what the animal is experiencing), but we can’t take the next step in asking them how they are feeling. There is no doubt that animals live dynamic, enriched lives as well, but until recently it has not been possible to look at how animals experience their environment from the inside out—by noninvasively evaluating a biological system (in this case, the cardiac system) that responds quickly and efficiently to the environment.DSC_0013

The current focus of our new efforts is in training the giraffe to participate in a testing process that will record the function of the heart—electrocardiograms (ECG or EKG) and impedance cardiograms. The cardiac system is regulated by two branches of the autonomic nervous system: the parasympathetic branch and the sympathetic branch.  While people sometimes think of the parasympathetic branch is the “rest and digest” system (where activity in the system calms someone down so that they can prepare for the future by eating, sleeping, and reproducing) and the sympathetic branch as the “fight or flight” system (where activity in the system allows someone to attack or run away) the two branches work together to keep us balanced, which allows us to respond appropriately to different situations. Dr. Bliss-Moreau explains it this way: “While the control centers for the autonomic nervous system are in the brain, the system is based in the body and regulating physiology south of the brainstem.  It is largely responsible for generating one of the necessary and critical ingredients of emotion– affect. I typically talk about autonomic nervous activity as giving “color” to experience.  Its activity is why hearing footsteps in a dark alleyway feels negative; the ramped-up feeling when you’re anticipating something major to happen; the pleasantness of a really good massage, and so on.”

Dr. Bliss-Moreau and many other affective scientists (see are involved in research looking at how the autonomic nervous system (ANS) responds to brief emotional stimuli (a honk of a loud horn, a tear-jerking Super Bowl commercial) and also how there are sDSC_0112table differences between individuals in how their autonomic nervous systems function.  With regards to the latter, the idea is that if you track ANS activity in different animals across time, you’ll see patterns.  And then changes to those patterns might indicate changes in mood states. We’ll be doing this work first with the Oakland Zoo’s giraffes and ring-tailed lemurs. “If we can show that variation between individuals or within a particular individual across time is meaningful, then it opens the possibility of asking an animal, ‘how are you today?’, putting on some sensors, recording some data, and getting an answer. Cool, right?  I think it’s SUPER cool!” said Dr. Bliss-Moreau. But before we can do this, we have to develop new ways to collect such recordings in a way that is non-invasive for the animals, as well as train the animals to participate willingly in the data collection.

For each animal involved with this research, we start by training the animals that the research equipment (sensors, leads, stethoscope, etc.) are not painful or even just simply icky. We do this by using positive reinforcement, habituation, and desensitization – training methods that reinforce an animal’s comfort and control in the situation. This basically means that you pair something new (like physiology equipment) with something really good (like pieces of banana) until the animal is comfortable with having the novel stimulus around and touching them.

IMG_0444You can see zookeepers and Dr. Bliss-Moreau habituating and desensitizing one of our giraffes, ‘Benghazi,’ to being touched with sticky sensors. When Benghazi is calm, and allows the training team to touch him with the sensors, he is rewarded with one of his favorite foods (which in Benghazi’s case is bananas, whole wheat bread, and carrots). You can also see that Benghazi is not restrained, and can walk away from the training session at any time he chooses. Over time and with repetition, Benghazi learns that nothing bad happens to him when the keeper touches him with the sensors. Interestingly, we needed to place the sensors on poles and hold them against Benghazi’s skin since giraffes naturally exude an oily ‘insect repellant’ that prevents the sensors from sticking to his skin. In this most recent training session, Dr. Bliss-Moreau and our Oakland Zoo giraffe training team were able to record “beautiful” (according to Dr. Bliss-Moreau) cardiac data – our first major victory!

As we wrapped up the training session Dr. Bliss-Moreau observed, “It DSC_0118was really exciting for us to see the giraffes at the Oakland Zoo participating in this research, especially since we’ve been using the same techniques to get our monkeys ready for physiology data collection in the lab… We developed a reward-based training technique that uses cooperative training allowing rhesus macaques to work with us to participate in similar hands-on testing in just a few weeks. Using these cooperative training techniques and data collection methods means that animals are really our partners in the research—participants, rather than subjects!”

There is still a long road ahead of us, but one that is well-worth traveling. There are likely differences in how animals and humans not only perceive their world, but in how they feel about it as well. Studies like this are important for our understanding of both the similarities and differences. This aids in our understanding of non-human life on our planet as much as it aids in our ensuring the animals we care for have enriching physical, social, and emotional lives.

Oakland Zoo Veterinarian in Africa – Conclusion

by | March 3rd, 2015

March 1 and 2


Parting thoughts…


The journey home from QENP and Uganda takes three days, which gives me ample time to reflect on all I have seen and learned in the past 16 days. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity to travel to Uganda, work in the field alongside conservation experts, discover exotic cultures, and begin a project that may ultimately aid in saving a critically endangered ecosystem. Dr. Siefert and James will continue the fight for tomorrows, while we help from home until we return. I hope that my words from Uganda have been educational, entertaining, and maybe even a little inspirational for those of you who have followed our journey. If that’s the case, or even if it’s just because lion cubs are one of the cutest things on the planet, please be sure to visit UCP’s webpage often – maybe you, too, can give them a chance for tomorrow. Until the next visit…Cub with kob

Papa resting

Oakland Zoo Veterinarian in Africa – Part 6

by | March 3rd, 2015

Thursday / Friday Feb 26 / 27


Lights out, Africa time…


There is a bit of a time delay for this blog. As of Wednesday evening, electricity became variable: in fact, mostly non-existent, especially after dusk. No problem, I thought – my computer is fully charged and illuminated, so I can still write in the evening. Enter those pesky little insects called lake flies. The tiny, buzzing critters don’t bite or sting, but they fly around in packs of thousands, are attracted to the slightest bit of light, and are apparently generally meant to cause extreme annoyance to any human caught nearby. I dove under the mosquito net surrounding my bed in hopes of fending them off…alas, they were persistent and soon my computer screen was covered. Thwarted by microscopic insects, I gave up and attempted to fall asleep to the symphony of whirring wings around my head!


letterEven during the day, the lack of electricity renders sample processing impossible, and prevents Dr. Siefert from printing the letter of support for the community Chairman to sign. Africa time again. Nobody knows when the electricity will return, so Dr. Gottfried and I spend Thursday at the lodge, taking advantage of its’ electricity (the lodge is the only building nearby with a generator). After several hours of surfing the web and reading, we begin chatting with Ugandan waiters Morris and Daniel. They are interested especially in the American system of government and American marriage customs. We learn that there are many language dialects spoken in Uganda, each so unique that tribes living only a few miles apart cannot understand each other. Marriage is a bit different as well. Apparently if a woman in a marriage is infertile, the man immediately takes a new wife!


At 5pm, James calls. “Where might you be?” he asks, as he is suddenly ready to go lion tracking. This evening, we track in the burned crater area and, not surprisingly, find no lions. With nothing to eat, the lion prey have vacated this large part of the park. James again discusses Ugandan politics as he drives toward a village. Apparently we are meant to look at crafts in the village this evening. We are ushered into a small, dark brick building containing several women, a sewing machine, and yards of beautifully patterned cloth. The women here are also partially supported by UCP, so we purchase 12 yards of fabric, at the bargain price of 35,000 shillings ($13). At least we have made a monetary contribution to the community today, despite the electrical setback!lots of crafts


We think we know “Africa time,” by now but Friday redefines this phrase. Dr. Siefert and James arrive at 9:30 with grand plans for the day. We are to pick up crafts from the women’s group, take the letter to the Chairman to sign, take another letter to the UWA Conservation Manager to sign, run a few errands in Kasese town, and try to get some more lion and kob samples. Simple, right?

James calls a representative of the women’s group, “the old lady,” who tells him that the crafts are in the village. Meanwhile, Dr. Siefert speaks with a different representative of the village, Jane, who says they are at her home. Several more phone calls ensue, agitation becoming evident, and it is finally decided that we are to meet in the village. Crafts are finally picked up and bought…2 hours later. And thus the day will go. By 4pm, the outside temperature has risen to the mid-90’s and we have been in the vehicle for 6 hours, still awaiting the two letters of support for UCP grant funding. There will be no lion tracking today.


At the end of the day, exhausted, dusty, and sweaty from 8 hours in a truck, we have accomplished most of the objectives and feel thoroughly indoctrinated into Ugandan cultural habits. Our hostel waitress, Kyria, serves us our final Ugandan meal of grilled whole fish, matoke (plantain), posho, boiled potatoes, rice, and tomato sauce, a perfect end to an imperfect day…then, surprise… the electricity is off and the whirring wings begin again…

Oakland Zoo Veterinarian in Africa – Part 5

by | February 27th, 2015

Wednesday Feb 25

Communication challenges…


This Wednesday morning we accompany a young American couple on their lion tracking adventure. Dr. Siefert is not available for this trek, so while Dr. Gottfried and I narrate and answer questions, James looks for the lions. Obviously we have learned much about the lions and the park ecology – maybe we have a future in eco-tourism?Cub and yawn


We return to the sight of the water buffalo kill, where we have again picked up Sharon’s signal. The buffalo carcass is reduced to mere bones with tiny bits of flesh, and no fewer than 15 white-backed vultures are scavenging the remains…there is no waste here in the park. Sharon and the cubs have moved up the hill and are out of sight in the thick tangle of thorns and low brush. It has become too treacherous for navigation by 4-wheel drive and we must turn back.Vultures


Though the morning has yielded no samples for our study, we have successfully located several more lions. More importantly, we have conveyed a wealth of information to some very receptive park tourists. Hopefully this morning has had an impact on them – now they can not only say they have seen lions, but they understand a little more about complex conservation issues.


This afternoon’s communication challenge seems more daunting. We return to the community visited a few days ago, where we paid part compensation for a calf killed by a leopard. Today, Dr. Siefert will present his ideas to move the community forward, and solicit a letter of support from them to apply for grant funding for these improvement projects.


The community meeting takes place on a few rickety wooden benches placed on the dusty ground underneath a tree. The chairman of the community, Eliphaz, and 10 other high-ranking community members are present. Several other men wander in and out, standing quietly behind the benches as Dr. Seifert talks. He attempts to establish himself as “not the police, not the UWA,” but someone who has the interests of wildlife and the community in mind. He describes how his own family in Germany re-established their financial stability following the “misery” of WWII using a combination of agriculture, animal products, and forest eco-tourism, including a pub and restaurant. His point is that this community can also be more successful financially by utilizing similar ideas.


The most pressing need is for construction of proper corrals for the livestock – made 9 meters tall, with wire fence material and weather-resistant poles, surrounded by a second bio-fencing barrier made of the invasive thorny bushes so prevalent throughout the park. Dr. Siefert introduces the concept of “zero grazing” by which livestock are fed on smaller fenced pastures with grasses cultivated by the community, leaving the park grasses available for wild prey species. Not wanting to leave anyone out, he proposes creating sport-fishing eco-tours for the fishermen in the community, and describes accommodations necessary for that industry.


Finally, one man breaks his silence, and Eliphaz translates for us. The community members would like to comment and are becoming impatient! I have the impression that Dr. Siefert’s ideas are a bit overwhelming. They agree that proper livestock pens are essential, but balk at the idea of shared community pens. They argue that people need to be able to check their livestock throughout the day while at home, there is too much potential for disease transmission, and someone would have to be paid to maintain the outside perimeter wire and bio-fence. Dr. Siefert nods, as if understanding, but reminds the group that community pens are more reasonable given UCP’s limited funds.Tail


After a lively discussion, the community decides that they will only agree to support construction of a separate pen for each family, even if that means waiting indefinitely until the funding is available. Dr. Siefert reluctantly consents, requesting cost estimates to be available tomorrow when we return with a letter of support for them to sign. We close the meeting with my statement as a representative of Oakland Zoo, and shake hands again. A woman who has been silent throughout the meeting speaks up, saying that she is happy for the help, unless we are the ones who brought the leopard to the village.


We drive away with mixed emotions. Dr. Siefert’s ideas have been received and discussed honestly, yet in the end, there is always suspicion. He is baffled by the accusation that he (or we!) moves leopards around the park. I try to understand the resistance to change and improvements in the community, and wonder how best to resolve this communication challenge…