How you can help wild giraffe in Kenya
by | May 19th, 2016

When I ask people what they think a giraffe keeper does every day, a wide variety of tasks often come to mind. Harvesting branches, training, and of course, cleaning poop, are typically the top answers. The one thing that most people do not consider however, is being an advocate for wild giraffe in Africa. As our society has begun to move away from the notion that animals in the care of humans are meant to be entertainment, we have started understanding and utilizing our roles to help fight against the devastating loss of natural environments and their inhabitants. I recently returned from the International Giraffid Conference in Chicago, Illinois, and was fortune enough to meet some of the leading individuals who are speaking out for the wild giraffe population and doing ground breaking work in Africa.

John Doherty, keynote speaker at the 2016 International Giraffid Conference, and head of the Reticulated Giraffe Project in Kenya

John Doherty, keynote speaker at the 2016 International Giraffid Conference, and head of the Reticulated Giraffe Project in Kenya

Most people do not know but there are actually 9 subspecies of giraffe in Africa spread across 14 different countries. All subspecies are declining at different rates. This is mainly due to the variety of causes for each group. The most studied subspecies of giraffe are those that live in developed areas. Some areas where giraffe live are far too dangerous for humans to go, and most of them do not even have roads to get to the population themselves. The reticulated giraffe, the subspecies that Oakland Zoo and over 100 other AZA institutions hold, has seen a dramatic 77% decline in 17 years. Issues facing these giraffe in particular are predation by lions, livestock occupying land, human access to automatic weapons, and drought.

Me with Jacob and John of the Reticulated Giraffe Project

Me with Jacob and John of the Reticulated Giraffe Project

John Doherty and Jacob Leaidura of the Reticulated Giraffe Project in Kenya are working to combat many of the issues facing this subspecies. By providing their rangers with solar powered chargers, they are able to keep their devices up and running when they are out in the bush. This way they can transmit in real time giraffe sightings or emergency situations. They work closely with the children in surrounding villages to educate and build pride for these special animals, helping to create the next generation of conservationists who will keep a watchful eye over their country’s’ natural inhabitant. The most notable work John and Jacob have done is create a way to track populations of giraffe using telemetry that will not require the animal to be anesthetized in any way, avoiding unnecessary stress. To this day, adhering a tracking device to wild giraffe can be incredibly dangerous and terrifying for the animal, so the advancement in the RGP’s development is essential for the future of giraffe research.

Oakland Zoo is celebrating World Giraffe Day this year on Tuesday, June 21, 2016. All the proceeds from this event will go to support the Reticulated Giraffe Projects work in Kenya. Guests can get a chance to meet and feed our giraffes, up close and personal. Tickets for feeding the giraffes can be purchased online at Eventbrite. A limited amount of tickets will also be available day-of at the giraffe exhibit in the zoo. Activity tables, face painting, and informational stations will be set up around the exhibit for guests to enjoy. Please come out and support the wild giraffe in Kenya! I hope to see you there!

Feeding at World Giraffe Day 2015

Feeding at World Giraffe Day 2015

Oakland Zoo’s 20th Annual Celebrating Elephants Event is Coming Soon . . . . Help Celebrate twenty years of Action for Elephants- fundraising for conservation, champions of welfare, and campaigning for protective legislation.
by | May 3rd, 2016
Cynthia Moss, ATE Founder and Director, in the field with Echo.

Cynthia Moss, ATE Founder and Director, in the field with Echo.

May is one of my favorite times of the year. Why? Because we have two full days of celebrating elephants! Not that I don’t celebrate elephants everyday that I work with them, but these two days are unique because we get to meet thousands of visitors and teach them about elephants from how we care for them, where they sleep, what they eat, and the perils they face in the wild. The elephant barn staff spends weeks prepping for this event, cleaning every square inch of the barn and surrounding facility, as well as the 6.5 acres of elephant habitat. We also assist in the zoo wide set-up, helping set up interactive stations allover the zoo, making this a fun and exciting day for our guests. And of course, we are your super stars (besides the elephants!), and will be giving special tours explaining everything elephant. This year you’ll see Jeff, Ashley, Jessica, and Zach and they’ll answer any questions you may have. I am especially excited this year for our evening gala, featuring Cynthia Moss, founder of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants. The evening gala team is composed of a small group who are very dedicated and work hard to secure donations and set-up every tiny detail in the Zimmer Auditorium from the tables, to the lights, to the food! We work hard because we know it’s our job as conservationists to help educate our visitors, and to raise funds to directly help our conservation partners. Please, we hope you will join us for the day or the evening, or maybe both, and remember that all proceeds go to protecting the elephants that live in Amboseli National Park.

Here’s what you need to know for the two events:

Saturday, May 21st from 6 – 9 p.m., the evening gala will feature special guest speaker, Cynthia Moss; she is a world renowned elephant expert, and director and founder of the Amboseli Trust for Elephants (ATE) and Amboseli Elephant Research Project (AERP).  She will amaze and Inspire with images and stories from over 40 years of studying the

elephants of Amboseli. This gala event is from 6 – 9 p.m. (presentation beginning at 7 p.m.) in the Zimmer Auditorium; tickets are available at the door and at  Ticket prices are

Come wine and dine while bidding on lovely silent auction items! All to help save elephants!

Come wine and dine while bidding on lovely silent auction items! All to help save elephants!

based on a sliding scale from $40 to $100 which, in addition to Cynthia Moss’s presentation, includes heavy hors d’oeuvres, a hosted beer/wine bar, and the silent auction comprised of fabulous items, gift baskets, and gift certificates donated by Bay Area businesses.


Saturday, May 28th, all day family fun, elephant activities at the Zoo and are included with Zoo

On Celebrating Elephants Day, you'll get to make fun food filled treat boxes for our elephants and watch them eat it!

On Celebrating Elephants Day, you’ll get to make fun food filled treat boxes for our elephants and watch them eat it!

Admission!  Activities will include hands on experiences such as touching giant pachyderm bones and teeth, stepping on an elephant-sized footprint, participating in a mock research camp where observers watch and record elephant behaviors, and learn to identify Oakland Zoo’s African Elephants, Donna, Lisa, and M’Dunda. Elephant information and interactive stations will abound but be sure to visit the Tembo Preserve station to see drawings of the elephant facilities and learn more about our exciting plans ( In the Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo, visitors are invited to watch

Experience a special behind the scenes and see how the elephants are trained!

Circus Finelli, an animal free circus performance with comedy, acrobatics, juggling, dance and live music with performances at 12 p.m. and 2 pm.  In addition to these events, Celebrating Elephant Day offers the once-a-year chance to go behind the scenes and tour the elephant barn, and see an elephant up close!  Elephant keepers will tour you around the facility to see where the elephants sleep, how they are trained, and explain why they get a pedicure every day! The tours are scheduled every hour beginning at 10:30 a.m., concluding the final tour at 3:30 p.m. and require an additional charge of $10 for adults and $5 for kids under 16; tickets are available at the Flamingo Plaza and the Elephant Exhibit. We also feature an enrichment station where kids can create food filled treat boxes that will be fed out to the

Keepers giving a tour of the barn and explaining training techniques.

Keepers giving a tour of the barn and explaining training techniques.

elephants throughout the day.

All the proceeds from the Celebrating Elephants Events are donated to the Amboseli Trust for Elephants to continue their work and leadership in the research and conservation of African elephants. To date, Oakland Zoo has raised over $300,000 for ATE. To learn more visit Thanks for helping Oakland Zoo take action for elephants!

African Elephant Romance (or in scientific terms “Reproductive Strategy”)
by | February 16th, 2016

Colleen Kinzley, Founding Member Tembo Preserve & Director of Animal Care, Conservation and Research Oakland Zoo

Territorial and courtship displays occur in a wide array of species. In some species, individual males have been observed to selectively favor particular behaviors and/or vocalizations, making them unique to that individual male. Male chimpanzees, for example, are known to have particular components of aggressive or territorial displays that they favor and perform more often or even to the exclusion of other display behaviors. Some have even been documented creating their own display behaviors or incorporating some unique part of their surroundings. Many song bird males create unique variations on their songs differentiating them from neighbors of the same species.

African elephants live in matriarchal societies where young males leave their family group in their early to mid-teens. During their late teens and twenties, they spend their social time in loosely formed bachelor groups. Elephants continue growing throughout their lives; males in their teens and twenties are considerably smaller than bulls in their thirties and above, so these younger males typically have little opportunity to breed. Males over 25 years of age engage in periods of sexual activity and sexual inactivity. Periods of sexual activity are simply defined as time spent with females groups. During these periods, males may or may not be found in the company of other males but are consistently seen with female family groups.

African elephants spend much of their time on the move, sometimes walking many kilometers between resources such as food, water, and shade over the course of a day or two. They are also a migratory species, sometimes moving hundreds of kilometers seasonally to take advantage of rain or other resources. For sexually active males, estrous females represent a scarce and mobile resource. Musth is a unique strategy developed by male elephants to increase their reproductive success.

S. Elliott Samburu National Reserve

S. Elliott Samburu National Reserve

Musth and Male Elephants

A bull is considered to be in a state of sexual inactivity when he is not keeping company with females.  In this case, he may be solitary or in the company of other bulls. Alternatively, sexually active males may or may not be in a state of musth. During musth, some individual bulls display unique behavior or behavior patterns just as males of other species are found to exhibit unique behavioral displays.


Characteristics of Musth

Musth is a physiological and behavioral state resulting from highly elevated testosterone levels compared to non-musth sexually inactive bulls. Musth has two outward defining characteristics: urine dribbling and the secretion of glands located in the temporal region of the head. The rate of urine dribbling, characterized by constant seepage from the retracted penis, can be variable but any amount of urine dribbling indicates that a bull is in a state of musth . From a distance, bulls in heavy musth can most easily be identified by the shiny, dark appearance to the inside of their legs, caused by the constant urine spray on their legs,

The constant seepage of urine can result in a whitish to greenish film around the opening of the penis sheath. This urine build up on the legs and sheath results in a distinct pungent odor. Musth temporal gland secretions are thick, sticky, dark in color, and have a strong odor. A bull in heavy musth may have a wide, wet, stain running from the temporal gland down to the lower jaw. Older bulls may develop very swollen temporal glands filling in the normal indentation of the skull above the temporal gland and behind the eye. These swellings increase the size of the forehead making the bull look even larger.

Elephants mating in Amboseli National Park

Elephants mating in Amboseli National Park

Who Exhibits Musth?

The period of time in which males spend in musth lengthens as he ages and continues to grow in size age. Males may begin to show signs of musth in their mid-teens, but in these early years it may last only hours or days and the presence of a dominant male will likely inhibit musth in these younger bulls. The median age for the onset of musth is 29 years old. As males age they typically experience a longer musth period ranging from a median of 2 days for bulls 16-25years to 81 days for males 46-50 years old then declining to 54 days for males 51-60 years old. The consistency of musth periods also increases with age; for young males, their musth period is erratic, and opportunistic. They may be stimulated into musth by the presence of an estrous female then driven out of musth by the arrival of a musth male or other dominant males. As males mature, and depending on their ranking in the population, they will eventually establish a relatively predictable period of musth each year. The most dominant males in the population get the most optimal musth periods, typically during and immediately after the rainy seasons when the largest number of females come into estrous.

An older musth bull will out compete not only non-musth bulls but also younger musth bulls. In most observed matings, the bulls were over the age of 35 years and in musth. Recent genetic paternity analysis of a well –studied population confirms these observations with 74% (88/119) of the calves sired by musth bulls.

Musth is an energetically expensive condition and even the most dominant males in a population typically can only maintain musth for a few months. Musth bulls spend less time feeding, more time on the move, and more time chasing, or fighting with other males resulting in a loss of condition.


Female Elephants Choose Mates

Females demonstrate choice through their participation or lack thereof with a potential mate. Courtship begins with urine and genital testing; an attractive female is first followed then chased by a male suitor. Smaller and faster than most males, the female is able to out run the male if she does not chose to stand for breeding.

For females, it is advantageous to consort with musth males and they demonstrate a preference for musth males. For example, during the period of consortship with a musth male, the female is not harassed by multiple, often young, males who are also perusing her. In addition, a musth bull represents a fit male, as only older, healthy males come into musth. The increased levels of testosterone that are characteristic of the musth condition also increase the bull’s fertility by increasing his sperm count, increasing the probability of successful fertilization of the females eggs.

So for both males and females the phenomenon of musth represents an effective reproductive strategy… even if it is not suitable materials for a Hallmark Valentine’s card!


Learn about Birds and Save their Habitat with Golden Gate Audubon Society!
by | February 2nd, 2016

Q: What did the baby Burrowing Owl’s parents say when he wanted to go to a party in Oakland?

A: You’re not “owl’d” enough.

Seriously! Did you know Burrowing Owls (BUOW) are the only North American raptor that nests underground and may brood 4–12 eggs at a time? Mom BUOW incubates the eggs for three to four weeks while dad brings her food. After the eggs hatch, both parents feed the chicks. The owlets fledge four weeks later and can make short flights (to Oakland, if allowed!).

My Little Cutie

Dad BUOW is also pretty smart. Instead of flying around looking for insects to feed his babies, he lays cow dung around the nest’s “front door”, which attracts insects. Dad hides just inside the front door and pops out to grab an unsuspecting insect.

Are you curious about the Burrowing Owls as well as other Bay Area imperiled birds? Oakland Zoo and Golden Gate Audubon Society are offering a special opportunity to learn more about these Bay Area birds.

DSCN2692 Black-Crowned Night Heron in Oakland in coy pose by Cindy Margulis
On Saturday, February 20, Oakland Zoo Staff, Interns, and Volunteers will partner with Golden Gate Audubon for an hour of habitat restoration. Afterwards, attendees will be treated to a bird walk with an opportunity to view some imperiled birds, including Burrowing Owls. This FREE event will take place in the morning at Martin Luther King Regional Shoreline, Oakland (time to be determined). Contact Kyla Balfour at to register.

Just say Let Me Think Critically for a Moment to Palm Oil – In Preparation for Valentines Day
by | January 28th, 2016

The issue with palm oil is complex and evolving. It is true, forests have been devastated by the clearing of habitat in order to plant the oil palm plant, a plant grown commercially in rain-forests primarily in Borneo and Sumatra. These forests were home to tigers, sun bears, elephants and orangutans. Tragically, the industry poses a threat to these and other species, as much of it uses deforestation practices that are destructive to these animals’ delicate habitat. Ten years ago, biologists and environmentalistzoo grounds green signs 029ts were all encouraging a complete ban of the plant. It would be nice if it were that simple.

Endangered Sun Bear

Endangered Sun Bear

Palm oil is now in over 50 % of packaged goods like food, cosmetics and soap. According to most of the same biologists and environmentalists, it is here to stay, and is now best to use your purchasing choices as power to drive sustainable and responsible practices.

Responsible palm oil is produced without contributing to rain forest or peat land destruction, species extinction, greenhouse gas emissions or human rights abuses. Food manufacturing companies need transparent and traceable supply chains from the plantation where the palm oil was sourced to the final product on your grocery store shelf. There should also be requirements around what palm oil is called on the label, as there are currently dozens of acceptable names that lead to further confusion.

lableOn a bright note, there has also been much progress in awareness and positive action. Many organizations are doing their share to encourage industry change and increase public outreach. The Round-table for Sustainable Palm Oil is a start on the road to doing right, but it is our hope that the standards are increased for companies that produce, trade and use palm oil.

Individual actions truly matter when it comes to helping those sun bears, tigers and orangutans. You can help by reading labels when you shop. Choose products that don’t use palm oil (Palmitic acid, Palm kernel oil, Palm kernel) or that opt to use sustainable “orangutan friendly” palm oil. Explore companies that are part of the Round-table on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), and learn all you can about this complicated conservation issue.






This Valentine’s Day season and every day, use the following lists and smart phone apps to help you be sweet to the beautiful animals that will survive only if humans stop, learn and think critically.

  • Purchase items that do not use palm oil or that use sustainable palm oil only
  • Support companies that have joined the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) by downloading the Palm Oil Shopping Guide for iPhones and Android smartphones. You can also download this cool Palm Oil Fact Sheet for kids too
  • Use your power as a consumer: Write to your favorite restaurants and companies. Let them know that you care about orangutans, sun bears, gibbons and their rainforest home, and that your concern is reflected in products you are willing to buy. Ask them to join the RSPO if they haven’t done so already. We have a sample letter you can use for your convenience
  • Go see wild orangutans, sun bears, gibbons. Your tourist dollars make the rainforests worth more standing than cut down for plantations. Check out Hutan Project and the Bornean Sun Bear Conservation Centre
  • Write to your local legislators and the President. Ask them not to explore palm oil as a biofuel option. Cutting down rainforests to grow palm oil is not a “green” substitute for gasoline
  • Write to Indonesian and Malaysian government officials. Ask them to preserve their precious natural resources. They are the only countries in the world that have wild orangutans!
  • Get involved in organizations that are purchasing land for conservation in affected areas
  • Learn more at
Docent Training: Cultivating the Face of the Zoo
by | December 29th, 2015

docent with skeletal footBack in the 1980s when I was trying to get my first Zoo job, I dreamed up a clever, surefire plan: I was going to offer to work for the Zoo for FREE! I was sure I’d blow them away with my unheard-of generosity and be hired on the spot. Guess what? I didn’t realize that an organization like a zoo has hundreds of volunteers, and in fact couldn’t exist without them. Here at Oakland Zoo these volunteers work in a wide variety of capacities. One of the larger of these groups are the docents. These are the folks you see roaming the zoo, answering questions and giving directions. But their most important function is to teach the public about animals and conservation. Whether they’re leading a tour, staffing an interpretive station, or roaming about at large, the docents have a lot of ground to cover. And that goes double when it comes to the sheer amount of information they need to keep in their heads. Indeed, learning about each of the 145 animal species here at Oakland Zoo takes some doing.
This is where the Docent Training Class comes in. This annual fourteen week course wouldn’t be docents at tablepossible without a team of dedicated teachers and guest speakers. The majority of these speakers are Oakland Zoo animal keepers, whose years of experience and passion for their work make them ideal for the job. Despite their busy schedules, they’re always happy to take time out from their day to address the members of the docent class. They consider this time an investment, since docents make their jobs easier by working with the visiting public, ensuring understanding and respect for wildlife and the natural world.
The core curriculum of the class is taught by docents and instructors from the Zoo’s Education Department, and provides a foundation with basics such as physiology, reproduction, adaptations and taxonomy. The zookeepers serve to augment this curriculum. They typically do a Powerpoint presentation that deals with the specific animals under their care: how old they are and where they’re from; how many males and females in each exhibit, in addition to information about family trees, male-female pairings, and group behavioral dynamics. This biographical information “tells their story” and helps these prospective docents make a more personal connection with our animals, and by extension, helps the public do the same.
docents with feed bucketThese guest speakers also bring a wealth of outside experience to their jobs here at the Zoo, and their stories are a perennial source of inspiration for all our docents. They include people like Zoological Manager Margaret Rousser, a nine year Oakland Zoo veteran who traveled to Madagascar to work with lemurs, assisting local veterinarians in the field. Adam Fink, one of our resident reptile and amphibian keepers, worked as an environmental monitor with endangered toads in Arizona and in the San Diego area. Education Specialist Carol Wiegel works as a wildlife biologist for an environmental consulting company. She also volunteered in Northern Mexico where she studied desert tortoises. Bird keeper Leslie Storer has volunteered at animal re-hab centers as well as the Golden Gate Raptor Observatory. And Colleen Kinzley, our Director of Animal Care, Conservation and Research, spent eight summers in East Africa, docent at QFC kioskworking with the Mushara Elephant Project of Namibia.
These dedicated individuals are just a small part of the team here at Oakland Zoo. If you or anyone you know has a passion for animals and enjoys working with the public, you might want to consider joining that team by volunteering as a docent at Oakland Zoo. In doing so, you’ll become part of a longstanding tradition of wildlife education and conservation. For more information on our docent training, please contact: Lisa O’Dwyer at or Chantal Burnett at