Archive for the ‘Employee Spotlight’ Category

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper

by | January 15th, 2015

A common approach to see in many modern movies is the protagonist country-hopping. It’s so exciting, so romantic. One moment our hero is in Japan, following a corrupt business man about to complete a huge transaction. The next, she is in the Colombian jungle looking for a rare artifact. A quick caption at the bottom is our only hint that we have now shifted location thousands of miles. As I boarded my first of three flights to Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, it was this globe-trotting theme that was surging through me.

My first flight from San Francisco to Toronto was delayed by over four hours, due to*two* planes having mechanical issues and each having to be switched out. I had a 5.5 hour layover in Canada, so it wasn’t that big of a deal- I spent the time in SFO instead of YZZ. Additional boarding delays did make me have to run to my next flight to Addis Ababa, but there was a problem with most passengers’ tickets and so we were delayed boarding as they went through each ticket, one-by-one. Then the plane had to be de-iced. Our 12.5 hour flight was delayed by 2 hours and it left me 10 minutes to get from one gate to the second in a non-Western airport. Three African business men and I were lead very quickly through the crowded airport. When we reached the gate, could see our smaller plane still waiting…and were told the flight was closed. The businessmen exploded with anger, the airline staff snidely told us they had called our names, but we hadn’t answered. While I wasn’t feeling sleepy at this point, my body was so exhausted and the thought of spending 24 hours in the crowded airport until the next flight to Kinshasa made me want to push past the attendants and run onto the plane in a hysterical manner. If this were a movie, surely the villain would have fed my love interest to a pit of crocodiles by this point, tired of waiting for me to show-up.

Hotel Room in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

View from my hotel room in Addis Ababa. The city is developing quickly, so huge buildings are going up right next to slums like this one.

After another two hours standing in a customer service line (with the dozens of people who had also missed Ethiopian Airlines’ flights), one of the businessmen was next in line to be helped. He told us to give him our passports and tickets, then went up to the counter. A young seminary student traveling to Kinshasa to visit her sister had also had a delayed flight to Addis Ababa, so she got in on our group approach as well. Thirty more minutes passed. Finally, he returned with a voucher for a hotel room, meals, transport and one free 3-minute phone call. Everyone in our groupseemed much calmer at this point, but I was more than that. I was completely elated. I had forgotten I had any other purpose in life other than to be alone in a quiet room where I could sleep in a bed, so I was feeling quite accomplished.


My Christmas meal in Ethiopia. Orange liquid is an Ethiopian honey wine that is very sweet and tasty.

Following a 3 minute phone call to Kinshasa which consisted of, “Stuck in Addis Ababa, be there tomorrow, sorry, bye!” I slept for several hours and then the missionary student, Miriana, and I decided to go out on the town. We asked the front desk for recommendations and they sent a woman with us to a restaurant with live performers. Ethiopia is a very old Christian country and they celebrate Christmas on January 7th, which just happened to be that day! Everyone was out in beautiful garb, the restaurant was packed and full of life.

Ethiopian dancing consists of a lot of short, small movements. A series of different dance groups came out, each with a different style and some with singers. Our hostess helped us to order food and explained the history of different dances and songs. There was so much color and beauty, I really fell in love with Ethiopia that night.

After a restless sleep (my body had no idea what time it was or what it was supposed to be doing), I packed up the few things from my carry-on (luggage was unaccounted for at this point) and went to breakfast. I had begun to suspect the reason they hadn’t  let us on the flight the day before was because there were too many people booked for it. Well over 20 people were staying at our hotel, all of them missed connecting Ethiopian Airlines flights due to the fault of the company. If this happened daily, they were bound to get backed up. Also, now knowing it had been a national holiday explained why it was just so crowded in Addis Ababa’s airport.

This realization made me very nervous that morning, as all of us delayed flyers needed to get to the airport, preferably long before boarding time so we were assured a seat. At breakfast, people were talking and in no hurry. But I’m an American: I’m antsy, nervous and overzealous about being on time. I decided I was just going to go sit on the van, a couple of the businessmen I had befriended the day before had the same idea. My fears were realized when the van left several flyers behind, assuring them that another van would be along soon. Our van raced along, swerving precariously between other vehicles (including oncoming traffic). I was in the back along with two Congolese men who worked for a wildlife conservation organization in Kinshasa. We had to move our seat forward to fit luggage behind us, but the seat was not secure on the track now. When we stopped quickly, our seat would squish us forward. When the driver gunned it to cut someone off, we should quickly slam backwards. One of the men proclaimed, “Our seat is not serious. We will soon be in the street.”

We made our flight and the plane was huge, not the typical two-and-two-seat rows for most flights between African countries. This plane was the type used to fly across continents and oceans, so I again suspected they had overbooked yesterday’s flight and were trying to get back on track today.

Welcome banner and sign made for me by Pasha, the head groundskeeper. Also, one of the lucky dogs taken in by the sanctuary.

The four-hour flight was uneventful. When leaving the plane and getting on the tarmac, I was greeted by a man with a sign, “TWOROSKI, NATASHA-MARIE BONOBOS,” who had been hired by the sanctuary to get me. He took my baggage-claim tickets and I went through customs. After a nightmare of trying to locate my bags, I was on my way!

French is the main language of DRC and I had attempted to listen to “Learn French in Your Car” CDs before I left. This has turned out to have been well worth the effort and I regret not investing more time into it. My driver drove me through traffic for an hour through very crowded Kinshasa to get to a point where I would be passed along to a driver who worked directly for Lola ya Bonobo. It was not that far, but the traffic made it a nightmare. This is the fourth major African city I have seen (including Kigali, Kampala and Addis Ababa), but the poverty level is clearly the highest in Kinshasa. So many buildings that were probably once hotels or businesses are now rubble, with collapsed walls and no roof, homes to those who have none. The other big cities I have been to have varied in their approach to cleaning-up roads (Kigali was spotless), but Kinshasa is different than all of those. Trash upon trash builds up on the roads, with homeless children, feral dogs and general poverty everywhere.

At this point, the traveling and lack of any solid sleep was catching up to me. I didn’t have any water, I had a headache, I was almost in a fatal car accident approximately a dozen times. It was one of the moments where you start to think, “Why? Why did I want this so badly?” The driver and an escort from Lola ya Bonobo were in the car and speaking very fast French, mostly like gossiping from the few words I caught. Then the escort leaned forward and said, “Madame Natasha, Welcome to Lola!”

Instant change of emotions. I cannot properly describe how quickly the habitat changed from traditional rural African roads to entering a jungle oasis. Lola ya Bonobo truly lives up to its name, “Paradise of the Bonobos.” The center of the sanctuary, which hosts the offices and living quarters, is built on a large, green hill that is beautifully maintained by the staff. A large archway made of vines and decorated with flowers had been constructed for my arrival, it included a welcome sign in English (which I was later to learn required some effort by Pasha, the head groundskeeper).

My home during my stay at Lola ya Bonobo.

I was brought to my room, which was considerably nicer than any place I’ve stayed at in Africa, and given a quick lunch. The rooms are spacious, well-decorated and each even has a wall air-conditioning unit for when there is electricity (although mine has yet to work).

Soon, I was greeted by the manager of the sanctuary, Fanny. Fanny’s mom is Claudine Andre, the brave woman who started the sanctuary in 1994 in the midst of a violent civil war. Like her mother, Fanny is kind, beautiful and gracious. As I spoke with Fanny, every frustration and annoyance I had felt left me. It was finally time for me to meet the bonobos.

Check back here tomorrow for another journal entry on my adventures in Africa!






Oakland Zoo ZooKeepers in the Field in Madagascar!

by | November 20th, 2014


Awesome is really the only way to describe Centre ValBio. The Brain Child of Dr. Patricia Wright, it is a state of the art research center located steps away from Ranomafana National Park. The raw beauty of the native flora and fauna of Madagascar surrounds you from every angle. At the same, time, the Centre has two floors of dorm rooms and several state of the art laboratories for researchers and study abroad students from all over the world. The sheer amount of research that is possible here is staggering, and the hard working staff atCentre ValBio make the most of it! There are also several satellite camps out in the forest where researchers and students can stay while doing observations. The Centre, however is home base, with electricity, Wifi, and hot showers right on the edge of the Park. One of the few places where primary forest still survives, you can easily run into several species of lemurs on one morning hike.

We were fortunate enough to have Dr. Wright give us a personal tour of a small section of the forest on our first day here.. She showed us her first campsite in the forest some 28 years ago, when she first discovered a new species of lemur. That lemur, the golden bamboo lemur, just happened to be the first one we saw in the wild in the forest – and we saw it with her! On the first trek, we also saw sifakas, red bellied lemurs and red fronted lemurs. We even saw black and white ruffed lemurs, which are not often found in that particular part of the forest.

Slash and BurnBamboo lemur

Centre Val Bio

One of the most striking things I saw on the trek, however, was not the lemurs, but the interactions between Dr. Wright and the locals. Ranomafana National Park is becoming more and more an eco-tourist site, similar to the model used in Rwanda with mountain gorillas. Most recently a French Colony, French is the most common language spoken outside of the native Malagasy which makes it a Mecca for French tourists. We must have run into at least 10 tour groups that day. My French is rusty, but I am able to speak enough to converse and understand most of what was said. Dr. Wright knew every single guide by name! She stopped to speak with each of them and they all made a point to introduce her to their tour groups as the founder of the park and the discoverer of the golden bamboo lemur. They were undeniably proud of her and their forest and cared deeply about the animals that inhabited it. One group had never heard of her, but after the guide explained who she was and how important she was to the park, they lined up to take their pictures with her.

Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. Most people survive on less than $2/day. That poverty was evident on the 10 hour drive we took from the capital city of Antanarivo (simply called Tana by the locals) to the Centre. However, Dr. Wright has done everything in her power to transform this area. Conservation is not just about research, it is also about the people.   The construction of Centre ValBio has brought jobs, education, and even electricity and clean water to the local town of Ranomafana. Logging has all but stopped in the area and though the slash and burn agriculture is apparent all around, more and more locals are finding employment not just at the Centre, but at local luxury hotels that are popping up in the area, bringing even more money into the local economy. Dr. Wright brought us to her Women’s Weaving Centre where the women make their own money by weaving the most beautiful scarves and bags out of cotton and a locally produced silk. In the center of Ranomafana, you can buy perfectly crafted baskets, woven placemats, and carvings made from sustainable wood.

Women Weaver signWeaver

While it may have been the lemurs that brought her here, Dr. Wright has improved life for all of the local inhabitants – human, animal, and plant. She is an inspiration. Earlier this year, she became the first woman ever to win the Indianapolis Prize for Conservation. She jokes that it is fitting that someone who studies matriarchal primates be the first woman to win that prize, but the truth is she deserves it either way! Dr. Wright’s work is the epitome of a well-rounded conservation program and Oakland Zoo is proud and honored to be a part of it.

Oakland Zoo Welcomes New Educator

by | August 14th, 2014
Katie with Spike, the Indigo Snake

Katie with Spike, the Indigo Snake

Recently, Oakland Zoo welcomed a new member to its Education Staff. Katie Desmond is the new Creek and Garden Programs Manager. Raised in Sebastopol (Sonoma County) Katie earned her BS in Biology and Animal Physiology at Sonoma State University. Later she worked at nature preserves where she led workshops for kids. In 2010 she arrived here at Oakland Zoo, where she worked as an intern, helping with the Western Pond Turtle Project. Following a three-year stint at Safari West near Santa Rosa, Katie returned to the Zoo as a full time employee in the Education Department.
As part of her new position here, Katie oversees the restoration and upkeep of the Zoo’s Arroyo Viejo Creek which runs through Knowland Park on its way from the Oakland hills to the bay. She will also be helping to establish a series of themed gardens in the Education Center courtyard. Seven in all, these will include a native California wild edibles garden; a waterscape with marshy habitat for aquatic plants; a xeriscaped drought-resistant sun garden; and several others with different types of soil, utilizing urban composting. The Zoo’s horticultural staff will help with the big job of designing and planting. Katie will eventually be developing a curriculum to go with each of these gardens, so they can serve as “living laboratories.” At a later time when the gardens are established, school kids will become involved, learning about the different types of plant communities when they visit the Zoo.
As the coordinator of the creek program, Katie will also be facilitating the intrepid Creek Crew, an ever-changing group of various outside volunteers that meet here every 3rd Saturday of the month. She’ll be helping them with their ongoing goal to restore the creek to its former natural, healthy state.
In her spare time, Katie enjoys reading, gardening, hiking and snowboarding. Asked why she’s here at Oakland Zoo, Katie says she wants to help educate people about the environment we live in. So let’s all welcome Katie to her new position here, and we look forward to her enthusiastic involvement with Arroyo Viejo Creek!


Connecting Globally for Giraffe Conservation

by | June 26th, 2014
Me and Kayode as I help position him to recieve an acupuncture treatment. Photo by Colleen Renshaw

Me and Kayode as I help position him to recieve an acupuncture treatment. Photo by Colleen Renshaw

Giraffes are magical!  You simply can’t deny it!  I simply cannot imagine a world without giraffes!  What if the only place you could ever see a giraffe was in a zoo?   I remember coming to the zoo as a kid and seeing these gigantic, dinosaur-like animals gracefully moving through their exhibit.  I was fortunate enough to have a family friend that was a giraffe keeper so I was able to feed them and get close to them too.  I still remember how I felt when their giant heads would come down 15 feet, a long strand of drool coming from their big soft lips and floating away in the breeze, their purplish-grey tongue coming out to take the treats from my small hands.  From the time Amy Phelps was a small child, giraffes set the path for her life.   She has always wanted to work with giraffes and has always been drawn to them and now having the great privilege of being the Lead Giraffe Keeper at the Oakland Zoo she has devoted the past 14 years of her life to this majestic species. 

Now imagine if you spent your hard earned savings to take a dream safari to Africa and when you got there you found out that giraffes were so scarce that you may not even see one. Tragically this reality is not that far away. Just 15 years ago, the total number of giraffes in Africa was estimated by IUCN at greater than 140,000 individuals. In 2013, best estimates by the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, a leading authority in giraffe conservation, have the Africa-wide population at less than 80,000 individuals – that is a loss of almost 60% – more than half of the giraffe in Africa are gone.

At Oakland Zoo, we focus a great deal on biodiversity conservation and our efforts are only increasing. Today’s zoos and aquariums are doing a lot to combat the terrifying level of biodiversity loss ongoing worldwide by providing knowledge, skills, and resources to projects in the field to enhance our understanding of conservation issues. But we still have to ask ourselves: if we, as human beings, can’t conserve one of the most iconical large land mammals, what future hope do salamanders and insects have in our world today? With all of this effort, surprisingly much is still unknown about giraffes, which has led to many misconceptions that may be impeding conservations efforts. More baseline knowledge is required to better understand how limiting factors – such as hunting and other human-based pressures, amount of protected viable habitat, and even basic giraffe biology – is needed for us to better understand giraffes and how they interact with and are affected by their environment.DSC06557

Oakland Zoo has also long been a supporter of giraffe welfare and conservation, and we continue to make strides in managing this charismatic species. Two of our Lead Keepers have assisted with research projects on giraffe in Africa; and as the Zoo’s Lead Keeper for giraffes and antelope, I sit on the Steering Committee for the Association of Zoo and Aquarium’s Antelope and Giraffe and Ungulate Taxon Advisory Group, helped lead the development of the International Association of Giraffe Care Professionals, and am a Research Associate for the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. Our veterinary and giraffe management staff consult caregivers and scientists world-wide on our pioneering giraffe management program on topics such as managing positive-reinforcement based animal training for orthopedic and veterinary care, enrichment, nutrition, and geriatric and neonatal care. Even with all this, the truth is we can always do more.

We are in the beginning stages of training new Behavioral Observation Team volunteers on how to collect scientific behavioral data for a long-term study on our giraffes and eland, which will offer insight into how our giraffes interact socially and engage with their environment. The study has many similarities to data being collected by giraffe researchers in Africa for easy comparison, and to assist in the sharing of the data.

This year, our Quarters for Conservation program is raising funds for the Reticulated Giraffe Project. Reticulated giraffes seem to have taken some heavy hits due to poaching and habitat loss, with the population decreasing more than 80% from 30,000 10 years ago to 5,000 today. Reticulated giraffes occur only in the arid rangelands of north-east Africa and are well-sought after by tourists on safari, but surprisingly little else is known about their biology, ecology or behavior. The Reticulated Giraffe Project, a partnership between Queen’s University Belfast and the Kenya Wildlife Service, aims to address this lack of information by investigating aspects of the giraffe’s behavioral ecology and of the population processes operating upon them. Oakland Zoo is raising funds to support The Reticulated Giraffe Project through various means, and this year you can help by voting for this Project at the Quarters for Conservation Voting Station at the Zoo’s Main Entrance.

It appears EVERYONE is getting into the "Jeans for Giraffes" spirit! Donate your old denim to help conserve giraffes in the wild!

It appears EVERYONE is getting into the “Jeans for Giraffes” spirit! Donate your old denim to help conserve giraffes in the wild!

We are also hosting special activities for the first World Giraffe Day, Friday June 27, 2014. The festivities will begin with a Browse Parade where kids waving the giraffe’s favorite types of tree branches will start their browse march at our Quarters for Conservation kiosk in Karibu Village at the zoo’s main entrance and end at the African Veldt, where keepers will then offer the delicious branches to our giraffe. Zoo guests will also have the very unique opportunity to meet our giraffes during 5 feedings throughout the day! All proceeds from the Oakland Zoo’s World Giraffe Day celebration will go to the Giraffe Conservation Foundation to support their efforts throughout Africa. Last but certainly not least, we will be kicking off the new collaborative fundraising campaign called Jeans for Giraffes –bring ion your old and worn denim and recycle in our special reticulated bins around the zoo! The money we gain from recycling the old jeans will go straight to giraffes in Africa!

To learn more about what Oakland Zoo is doing for giraffes and how you can do more, visit our Giraffe Conservation Page on the Oakland Zoo website, and come see us for our World Giraffe Day celebration tomorrow, this Friday, June 27th!  We hope to see you there!

Commissary at Oakland Zoo – the one for the animals, I mean…

by | June 26th, 2014

DSC_0026The daytime diet prep usually takes place in the morning so we have plenty of time pay attention to their details. It consists of the produce diets, meat diets and bird diets. The produce diets are a personal favorite because of how wonderfully colorful they look once done. Some are simple-consisting of only a few ingredients like grapes, apples and lettuce while others are complicated, requiring 9 different types of fruits and vegetables or more. For some of our smaller animals like the coatimundis and macaws individual pieces of their produce must be weighed making for a rather time consuming diet. The Vervet monkeys have a complicated social hierarchy. For this reason we must be careful to make all the pieces of food the same size so no monkey gets shorted which could create a conflict within the group. The heaviest diet by far that we prepare are the elephant buckets. We make we chop and fill to the brim four six gallon buckets with different fruits or vegetables. These can weigh up to 40 lbs and the pieces need to be about golf ball sized. The reason these pieces need to be small is so our elephants are prompted to exhibit natural foraging behaviors like they would in the wild. This is especially achievable if small bits of food are scattered throughout the exhibit or in their enrichment. We use this idea of foraging enrichment with almost all our other animals too.

A giant popsicle I made for the Sun Bears on a particularly warm day last week

A giant popsicle I made for the Sun Bears on a particularly warm day last week

While it can be a bloody and messy job, completing the meat diets is a rewarding feeling. Especially since to get the proper weight, some large pork neck bones must be cut in half! Bones for the tigers, lions and hyenas usually weigh in at around 1.5-2 lbs and our 5 tigers go through nearly 12 lbs of meat per day. I am always impressed by the variety of meat to which our carnivores have access. Not the least of which are ox tail bones, ground turkey, pork bones, frozen chickens, whole frozen rabbits, whole frozen rats, horse loin and even venison on occasion. Nearly every day our big cats and hyenas get bones but the type of ground meat they get changes depending on the day of the week. Our lucky senior Griffon Vulture gets a different type of meat every day of the week but he appears to be most fond of venison. Many of our other carnivorous/omnivorous birds get ground meat, fish and frozen mice in addition to vitamin oils and powders. It’s a stinky job to slice up defrosted smelt for the ibis but they do seem to love it.

Bird diets are another time consuming job taking 2 hours to make but they are well worth it and visually appealing. Over 20 trays are filled with different types of seeds, pellets and produce depending on the aviary they are going into. To make sure our birds don’t get bored we will put in additions like grated cheese, black beans, hard boiled eggs and oyster shell. A large portion of our birds and other animals are partially if not completely insectivores so for this reason we keep and care for live insects in the commissary. Besides, it’s always more soothing to prepare food to the sound of chirping crickets.

With enough volunteer or intern help, the summation of all these diets usually take 3-4 hours to make before they are taken up to the main zoo’s walk in refrigerator.  Defrosting meats, restocking our large fridge, tending to the insect colonies, and lots of cleaning are part of the normal daily duties. Work can be slow and laid back or rushed and stressful but one thing for certain is there’s never a boring day in commissary.

Forty Candles Burning Bright for the Docents’ Big Party

by | April 24th, 2014



Back in the Day

Back in the Day. Oakland Zoo now maintains a “protected contact” system in animal management.

Do you know who’s turning 40 at Oakland Zoo this year? No, it’s not Osh the elephant or Benghazi the giraffe. (Those guys are mere babies by comparison.) I’ll give you a clue. This creature has more than 160 legs and can be found roaming wild on nearly every pathway in the Zoo. Give up? It’s the Oakland Zoo Docent Council. And on April 27th, they’ll be celebrating a whopping forty years of serving the public here at the Zoo.

It was back in 1973 when Zoological Society Executive Director Flora Aasen suggested that the Zoo recruit volunteers to serve as docents to help educate and assist zoo visitors. From that idea, the first docent training class was established and held at the Zoo (which consisted of a mere ten people!) In the forty years since, as the Zoo has undergone tremendous growth, we’ve trained and graduated hundreds of passionate individuals into the program. During that same period, there’s been a wealth of noteworthy docent accomplishments, including the introduction of the Zoomobile, ZooSchool, and Wildlife Theater programs; the leading of untold thousands of guided cart tours, walking tours, and Animal Encounters; the creation of talking storybook boxes and docent bio-fact stations; the initiation of numerous events such as the public lecture series, Animal Fund Boutique, Animal Amore tours, Celebrating Elephants Day, and many others as well as the hosting of Jane Goodall’s National ChimpanZoo Conference . In addition, the docents have sold thousands of Oakland Zoo memberships, increasing the number from 600 to an impressive 26,000; supported and fundraised for causes like Quarters for Conservation, Budongo Snare Removal and Uganda lion conservation, and personally donated an astounding $200,000 to help in the construction of the Education Center, the Children’s Zoo and the new veterinary hospital. Through their tireless efforts, the docents have advocated for animal conservation by helping to improve animal care here, and helped elevate Oakland Zoo to compete with the best zoos in the world. Not bad for a bunch of volunteers. And in 2012, the Association of Zoo and Aquarium Docents listed the Oakland Zoo Docent Council in the top ten of the longest running programs of its kind in the US.

Doing What They Do Best

Doing What They Do Best

On Sunday April 27th, the docents will gather at the Zoo to celebrate these and many other accomplishments– and just as important, to look ahead to what is sure to be an even brighter future. Honored guests include a distinguished array of heavyweights including docent co-founders JoAnne Harley and Pam Raven Brett, former education directors Arlyn Christopherson and Anne Warner , as well as video participation by Oakland Zoo President and CEO Dr. Joel Parrott. This celebration comes at a time when Oakland Zoo stands poised to embark on its ambitious California Trail project, heralding a new era of wildlife education and conservation in the Bay Area. With forty years of momentum, the Oakland Zoo Docents are certainly ready to be a part of it. This anniversary celebrates a great future as well as a proud past, and promises to be a most momentous occasion!