Posts Tagged ‘Michelle Jeffries’

Stepping Through ZAM: Day 9, Savannah Module

by | May 11th, 2012

This is Franette Armstrong's last post in her diary of Zoo Ambassador training for the Savannah area of our Zoo.






Outrageous nests, forked tongues and pancakes were the topic tonight. Keeper Jason Loy and Zoological Manager, Michelle Jeffries, came to class to introduce us to the Reptiles and Birds of the Savannah.

Down in the Children’s Zoo we have dainty Black Tree Monitors but up here on the Savannah we have a 7-foot-long, 60-pound Black Throated Monitor. Monitors are the only species of Lizard that have forked tongues.

Forked tongues let the Black Throated Monitor capture scents and literally fork them into tiny holes leading to their nasal cavity. Photo Credit Steve Goodall

What is the purpose of a forked tongue? You might know, if you’ve been reading my ZAM blogs, that Snakes and Monitors have something called a Jacobsen’s Organ—a patch of sensory cells on the roof of their mouths. When they stick out their tongues, the forks catch moisture beads that have scent particles in them. Then the tongue brings them into the mouth where they are deposited into two little pits in this group of cells. From there they get processed as smells. Put in simple terms, Snakes and Monitors don’t breathe in odors—they taste them instead, and from two directions at once, a help in finding warm-blooded prey.

Our guy is related to Komodo Dragons and, like them, is nothing to be messed with out in the wild. He’ll give his opponents a tail whipping, a nasty bite, and carve them up with his claws for good measure. All these capabilities keep them from making ideal pets.

But that hasn’t saved them from the leather trade and sometimes they are killed just out of fear. All this plus habitat loss makes Monitors very threatened in the wild.

Flat and Happy

The opposite in size to our Black-Throated Monitor are our little Pancake Tortoises…the only turtles that can actually climb walls! These 7-inchers actually brace their shells against one side of a crevice and use their feet on the other side to propel themselves upward. And on flat ground they really move quickly, zipping under rocks and into crevices before a predator can say “what’s for dinner?”

Pancake Tortoises fill their lungs with air and their flat, slightly flexible shells expand to let them wedge tightly under rocks.

Because they are small and cute, Pancake Tortoises and their eggs are captured for the pet trade and they are also losing their turf to the lumber industry, so they too are a threatened species.


Flower Child

The opposite in size to our Pancake Tortoises is our African Spur Thigh Tortoise…the third largest Tortoise in the world, after the Galapagos and our Aldabras. These start out little (4-5” in diameter) so people buy them as pets not realizing that pretty soon they will weigh 100-200 pounds. As they can live 100 years or more, most owners get tired of them before the Tortoises get tired of living and then problem becomes, what do with old Torty? Sadly, the solution usually isn’t a happy one for Torty.

Tortoises love red and yellow fruits and flowers, so a favorite dessert is carrots and tomatoes. Ours is only 14 years old so she has a lot of eating ahead of her. Photo credit Steve Goodall



Because they are the most popular pet Tortoise in North America, Spur Thighs are nearly extinct in Africa. The best way to help them is never to purchase a wild-caught Tortoise, if you have to purchase one at all. You can always come visit ours!


Savannah Architects

We have two aviaries in the Savannah section of the Zoo and in them are some fascinating nest builders. I’ll just tell you about two and leave the rest for you to discover on your next trip.

Hammerkops are smallish brown crane-like birds who build such huge nests, and so many of them, that their nests become home not only to other birds, but to mammals, reptiles and insects— like snakes, owls, honey bees, mongooses and the cat-like Genets. Luckily for all these househunters, Hammerkops build nests constantly whether they need them or not.

Hammerkops got their name from the anvil shape of their heads

In the wild Hammerkop nests can be 6 feet wide by 6 feet tall and 45 feet up in trees.

Opposite in size are the fortress-like nests that Red-billed Hornbills construct. These hopping little ground birds create a nest and then the female goes inside and lets the male cement her in with clay he makes out of food, feathers  and dung, leaving only a tiny hole to feed her through.

The female sits in there, waiting to be fed, waiting for her eggs to hatch, and losing all her feathers (probably tearing them out from boredom!) until the babies are big enough to be left alone. Then she breaks out of the nest and she and her mate cement the babies in—again, leaving only a small hole to feed them through. Eventually the chicks get big enough to rebel and they start pecking their way out from the inside while the parents help them from the outside and the family is finally united.

In Africa, Hornbill feathers are highly prized for ceremonial headdresses and this is endangering the Hornbills. To help, a college professor has partnered with zoos to gather feathers that are dropped off these and other birds and give them to the Africans for their ceremonies. A small idea with a big impact!

You can see how Red-Billed Hornbills got their name. Photo credit Steve Goodall



And that is a central theme of so many conservation projects now going on to save African animals. One or a few people notice a problem (like snares capturing Chimps by accident) and come up with a solution (like training poachers to become snare removal troops and teaching them to raise goats so they don’t have to snare wild animals for food). From beehive fencing for protecting Elephants, to fuel-wood projects for protecting forest habitats, creative solutions that also help people are making a difference for animals.

Here at the Zoo we are supporting projects like this through our Quarters for Conservation program ((link)) and many fundraisers. If you’re looking for a chance to help all these animals, you can start right here.


Tonight was the last lecture in the Savannah module. On Saturday we give our final presentations and then we have a week to study for our final exam. After that, if we pass, we will be mentored by an experienced docent to make sure we are ready to roam the Savannah on our own.


Next stop? The Rainforest Module. Monkeys, Apes, Tropical Birds and….Tigers! As Tigers are my favorite animals, it is fitting that they should be saved for last.


See you in the Rainforest,

Michelle Jeffries: Zoological Manager Extraordinaire

by | September 23rd, 2011

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

It's not all office work!


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