Posts Tagged ‘Zoo Ambassador Training’

Stepping Through ZAM: Day 7, Savannah Module

by | April 5th, 2012

Franette Armstrong is taking us with her on her adventures in Zoo Ambassador Training.




Elephantasia…. The condition of being delirious with love for Elephants after tonight’s two-hour lecture on the world’s largest land mammals. Colleen Kinzley, Director of Animal Care, Conservation, and Research has been working with Elephants for over 25 years and played a major role in changing the way zoos take care of them today…and in the near future. We’ll be seeing the results of that on Saturday.

Colleen Kinzley, a recognized expert in humane Elephant care.

But first, let me introduce you to some things you might not know about these massive walking wonders and see if I can make you fall under their spell the way Colleen did for us.



Major Bigness

Elephants have huge heads, as we can see, but their skulls are light because they are honeycombed with open sinuses. The lower jaw is very dense, however, to support their heavy trunks.

Inside that skull is the largest brain of all mammals. It weighs about eleven pounds but is only about one-third developed at birth, so it has enormous learning potential, like humans do. Most animals are born with all the brain connections they will have their entire lives, while Elephants and humans learn as they go, create memories, and act on those memories. It might not be true that an Elephant never forgets, but we know for sure they are capable of creating vast memory banks over their 60-70 year lifespan.

An Elephant head is a major marvel. Photo credit Steve Goodall

The heart of an Elephant weighs up to 40 pounds. Their huge kidneys make about 13 gallons of urine daily! One hundred feet of intestines only absorb 40-60% of the nutrients they eat, which is one reason they eat constantly. In the wild, Elephants forage up to 17 hours a day. Here at the Zoo our Keepers feed them hourly from dawn ‘til nearly midnight and then put them to bed with snacks.

Major Specialization

We have already learned that Elephants are Keystone animals in their environments: If they disappear, the entire ecosystem around them is likely to collapse. One reason for this is that they bulldoze everything in sight, clearing young trees from the Savannah so that grasses can grow and grazing hoofstock will have food.

But eating branches all day long requires special chewing molars and Elephants get six sets of four over a lifetime. A single tooth can weigh about five pounds. Go lift a 5-lb barbell and imagine having a bunch of those in your head. Each oblong tooth starts in the back of the mouth and gradually moves forward until it breaks off and gets pushed out by another. This “teething” goes on for about 50 years!

This Elephant lower jawbone shows two molars. Photo credit Honolulu Zoo


Elephants also have huge ivory tusks, as we know. The tusks are extended incisor teeth made up of calcium phosphate soft enough to be carved, and that is the root of all their troubles. As useful as they are for breaking branches, fighting and digging, these tusks have led to more elephant deaths from poaching than any natural cause.

We only see 2/3 of the tusks as the rest is embedded in the skull. They can grow about 7 inches a year and weigh 130 pounds each, but if they break, the broken end doesn’t grow back and a break can lead to a jaw infection because the tusk is full of nerves and veins like our teeth.

Since Elephants don’t have chainsaws or shovels, their highly evolved trunks take the place of tools for reaching, digging, and clever manipulation of anything they want to turn into food, or tools. Their trunks are an extension of their nose and upper lip and contain over 150,000 muscle parts.

Elephants are either right- or left-tusked the way most people have a dominant hand. You can tell which is the dominant tusk because it will be shorter and smoother from the extra use. Photo credit Steve Goodall




Elephants can breathe underwater, using their trunks as a snorkel, and the trunks become showers, shovels and gentle hands to care for their calves, themselves and each other.

African Elephants have a “two-fingered” trunk unlike Asian Elephants which only have one finger. Photo credit Steve Goodall






These giants tred lightly on feet that walk like cats and dogs—on the balls of their toes—which are protected by a spongey pad and thick nails. When they step down their feet expand and when they lift them they get smaller, so this is why, as heavy as they are, they don’t get stuck in their mudbaths. Those feet, capable of holding up a 9000-pound animal, are very  important and our Keepers take foot care very seriously, giving each of our Elephants a pedicure every single day.

Elephants can stand up all day long without getting tired because they can lock their leg joints so their muscles stay relaxed. Though they can’t run, hop, or gallop, they can move nearly 25 miles mph in a gait that takes three of their feet off the ground at one time.


Elephant feet, capable of holding up a 9000-pound animal, are very important. Our Keepers give each of our Elephants a complete pedicure every single day. Photo credit Steve Goodall


Elephants communicate with infrasound— calls and rumbles that are so low in  frequency we can only “hear” them with electronics. These calls can travel several miles and Elephants use them to warn each other of danger (like bees and lions) and let each other know where they are.


Major Mating

Musth. That’s Hindu for “intoxication” and a male Elephant in musth is pretty much out of his mind with a sudden testosterone surge that can last two months or more. He’ll stop eating, rip through forests yanking out trees, fight any male that crosses his path, and concentrate only on getting every female to himself. He can lose 2000 pounds from all this excess energy.

And females actually consider these crazed musth males desirable—as mates, and as protection from the other suitors who would just as soon bug them night and day. All this works out because only the most fit males go into musth and the healthiest females get them for their mates, producing calves with the best chance of survival.

Elephant herds are nearly always made up of females and their young because males are pushed out to fend for themselves when they hit puberty and start playing too roughly with younger calves. While the females are cooperatively caring for the kids, the males battle each other for dominance and the rights to mate females from other herds. What else is new?

Major Problems

African and Asian Elephants are all that are left of their 600 now-extinct ancestors, including the Wooly Mammoth which actually lived right here in the Oakland Hills an Ice Age or two ago. Asian Elephants are highly threatened at this time and, if we don’t watch out, we could someday lose our African Elephants too.

These Elephants can live free without fear of culling in the Amboseli National Reserve in Kenya.

Ivory poachers continue to take more Elephants than any natural or accidental causes of death: Even the strongest Elephant is no match for automatic weapons, high-speed vehicles and new laws that allow much more killing.

On top of this, culling (killing) has become the solution of choice in areas where Elephants and people have different ideas about how the land is to be used.

Traditionally, Africans were nomadic people who lived harmoniously with their wild animals, but ranching and farming changed all that. Now you have a situation where 800 million people are trying to survive on land that is not that hospitable to start with. In fifty years that population will more than double and what will become of Elephants then?

This situation is similar to the near-extinction of millions of American Bison in the 1800s when barbed wire cut up their territories and gunpowder did the rest of the work. Human/animal conflicts occur everywhere, so no society can point fingers of blame. What we can do is help find alternatives before it’s too late. Projects like beehive fences are proving it doesn’t have to be an us/them proposition.

Major Efforts

Colleen, and our Zoo’s President & CEO, Dr. Joel Parrott, have led efforts here to raise over $100,000 since 1988 for the Amboseli Elephant Research Project in Kenya. Next time you are at the Zoo, you can use your Conservation Quarter to “vote” for this research project that is helping to protect the amazing wild Elephants of Africa.

On Saturday our class is getting an incredible treat: a visit to the Elephant barns to see our groundbreaking methods of getting Elephants to participate in their own care. More about this later.

Stepping Through ZAM: Day Five, Savannah Module

by | March 22nd, 2012

Franette Armstrong is taking us on her journey through Zoo Ambassador Training.


Ruminating on ruminants…that was a large part of tonight’s lecture, and this was timely because our baby Giraffe, Maggie, will be introduced to the world tomorrow. Tonight we get the inside story.

Maggie stepped right out to meet the media. What a star! Photo credit Steve Goodall







Giraffes are hoofstock, a category that also includes our  Zebra, Camels, Elands, Warthogs, Elk and Bison all of which are Ungulates (literally translated as “hoofed animals”) and some of which are Ruminants. Amy Phelps. their Keeper, came to class to explain.


Amy Phelps, Primary Keeper and passionate advocate for hoofstock.


What is a hoof? Surprisingly, it is like a shoe that fits over the animals’ toe bones. Think of it as a ballerina’s toe shoe. Hoofed animals actually walk on the tips of their toes, but we don’t see that because of their hooves.

Hooves are made of the same material as horns—keratin—which is a fibrous protein also found in our hair and nails. It’s pretty tough, but no match for rocky trails and paved roads, so that’s why Horses get horseshoes: the extra soles help their built-in shoes wear better.

Animals with hooves are divided into two categories: those with an odd number of toes (Zebras, Horses, Rhinos and Tapirs) and those with an even number (everyone else including Goats and Sheep).

Camels are two-toed Ungulates like Giraffes, Elands and Goats. Photo credit Steve Goodall



Even-toed hoofstock feast on branches and leaves and ruminate— chew their cud. That’s why we call cows, goats, camels, giraffes and others like them ruminants.

Horses and Zebra are one-toed ungulates. They are not ruminants.

What is a cud? It’s basically undigested food that keeps coming up for more chewing until it can finally be digested and go the way of most food. Since we don’t eat such fibrous food, we don’t have a cud to chew, though if we started eating branches, we’d wish we did!

This cud-chewing process has another advantage: it lets herd animals eat a lot of food when they’re on the run and then digest it later when they have time to stand around and rechew it. It also squeezes out every single drop of water in the food. Judging by their contented look when they are doing this, I’d say its about as pleasureable for them as gum-chewing is to some humans.



Giraffic Park

Our 8-Giraffe herd is here for life and they greatly enjoy every new birth that adds to their number. Our little Maggie will eventually go to another AZA-accredited Zoo so she can carry on her very rare Reticulated Giraffe genes. If she stayed here, there would be a danger of inbreeding which is very bad for all species. We will love getting to know her while we have her.

On our African Savannah we boast the largest (Elephants) and tallest (Girafffes) mammals on earth. Our largest male Giraffe touches the treetops at nearly 20 feet. Females get to about 14 feet tall and give birth standing up, so when Maggie made her entrance, she had to drop nearly six feet to the ground— it sounds harsh but the jolt triggers the baby to start breathing. She picked herself right up and staggered around to find her mom and breakfast.

Baby Giraffes have no choice but to quickly join the herd, which in nature is usually on the move. They surround their little ones to keep them safe. Photo credit Steve Goodall

Hoofed animals are independent from the get-go so if the herd has to move, they can too. We saw how her dad and mom both kept her from lying down too long at any one time. They’d nudge her, and the dad would even kick her, to get her back on her feet. Staying awake is a survival skill on the Veldt and Giraffes rarely sleep more than a few minutes at a time. When it’s time to rest and sleep, they will like down, though.

Despite their very long necks, Giraffes have the same number of cervical (neck) vertebra that we do: seven. The difference is theirs are ball-and-socket joints so they can swivel their necks nearly in a circle. Don’t try this at home! Male Giraffes spar with each other by slamming their necks and heads together…one more thing to avoid at home.

Valves in their necks keep blood from rushing to their heads when they make the long trip from tree top to grass. Without these, Giraffes would surely faint everytime they bent over.

With their long necks, Giraffes can see for a mile or more and act as lookouts for everyone around them. Since the males are taller, they eat the top branches of trees and the females eat the middle tier. The shorter Antelope, Elands and other hoofstock get the lower branches and shrubs. It’s all organized by height so everyone gets fed.

Giraffe heads are topped with horns, called ossicones that start out as soft cartilage flattened to their heads and then over the first few weeks gradually “pop up” and harden into bone. Males use these as part of their sparring and fighting, so usually the tops are bald from wear and it’s one way you can tell the guys from the gals on our veldt.

Maggie's mom is never far from her side these days. Giraffes don't have upper teeth...just a bony ridge. Photo credit Steve Goodall

Prehensile tongues come in handy for grabbing those branches and they even eat thorns. Their tongues can be 20inches long, so they find their way into birds nests, too.

When Maggie was first let into our Veldt enclosure, Amy kept back the Elands who share that space, because she was worried they might accidentally hurt our little gal with their long horns. A couple of days of cautious introduction went by and before you knew it, Maggie was chasing them, trying to play with them and leaving no doubt that Giraffes rule the hoofstock on the veldt.

Sadly, African Lions prefer to dine on large male Giraffes more than just about anything, so Giraffes are prey for them, particularly when they are drinking at watering holes.  And their land is being broken up into cattle ranches leaving them less room to roam: even a small Giraffe herd needs about 45 acres for feeding.

To add to Giraffic Woes, there seems to be a market for Giraffe fur to make little tourist bracelets, so add poaching to their problems and you see why the Giraffe population is rapidly dwindling.

Giraffes normally fear water, perhaps because they have to do the splits to get a drink, as Maggie is practicing here. Photo credit Steve Goodall


Putting Poachers Out of Business

Next time you go to Africa, please do not buy a Giraffe-hair bracelet—or anything else made from the bodies of wild animals. Did I say Africa? I meant anywhere! Instead, help the locals by buying crafts that don’t rely on killing animals.


Amy’s lecture on of the rest of our African plains animals was equally fascinating but would take too much time to tell you about tonight and I still have my homework to do. We’re going to visit all of them on Saturday, so I’ll fill you in then.



Stepping Through ZAM: Day 4 Savannah Module

by | March 22nd, 2012

Franette Armstrong's diary on her Zoo Ambassador training is part of an ongoing series.


Sarah Cramer, our teacher, is back with us after an intensive week of training up in Yosemite, so this is the first time the returning and new ZAMs were all together with her and introductions were in order. Once again I was struck by the diversity and vastness of experience ZAMs bring with them to training.

Next it was on to Ecosystem Dynamics so we could see how all the information we are gathering fits together.


Sarah Cramer, Education Specialist and ZAM Instructor.




The Big Picture

Ecosystem Dynamics is a fancy way of saying “all life is interconnected, ” and today Sarah helped us see that with a little game:  each of us was a part of the Savannah ecosystem— from a Dung Beetle to the sun and everything in between. We used one ball of yarn to show how, for example, an Eland is connected to grass (they eat it) and grass is connected to the soil which is connected to the Dung Beetle, etc. It’s all about the transfer of energy from the sun.

By the time we were done we were all woven together through our dependencies and vulnerabilities. Then, dramatically, Sarah had a few of us “disappear” from the system. What happened? You can guess: the entire Web of Life fell apart. In the real world, this is called ecosystem collapse.

We experienced how everything in an ecosystem is connected through this Web of Life exercise.















Functions are Different than Food Chains

The lecture that followed was pretty intense as we discovered the difference between habitats and range, niches and trophic levels and…well, you had to be there. Let me just say that I discovered something really major about ecology that I had never thought about before: there is a difference between where an animal is on the food chain and the functional role he might play in his ecosystem.

For example, Meerkats, by digging in the soil to make tunnels, loosen the soil so seeds can take root—that is one of their functions. But, they are also part of the food chain because while they are eating, say, a scorpion, they sometimes get eaten by a snake which in turn might get eaten by a bird and so it goes: the Circle of Life.


Keystone Animals

Another concept that was new to me was that some animals play such an important role in their ecosystems that the entire system will collapse if that single species disappears. One example is the African Elephant, which knocks down trees so that the savannahs, which support untold thousands of life forms, can survive. Without them, trees would take over and all the animals adapted to grassland living would suddenly find themselves homeless.

Elephants in Africa are Keystones, just like Grizzly Bears, Sea Otters and Prairie Dogs are here. Take them away and an entire ecosystem will collapse. Photo credit Steve Goodall


It all gets back to consequences and how we really have to understand ecosystem dynamics before we go trotting off into a rainforest and start cutting down trees for our hardwood floors. Ask the Easter Islanders about this! (Oh, I forgot…cutting down all their trees led to their own extinction.)

You can learn more about Keystone species here:







Out to the Zoo

After an hour in the classroom we were all ready to go out to the African Village so experienced docents could show us how to “interpret” the animals to the public. They used skulls and drawings and physical props to help children and adults see how the animals are unique and what we need to do to protect them and their cousins here.

Mary Ann McCleary showed us how to set up a docent station and demo'd a Vervet Monkey skull which has the teeth of an omnivore.


More Taxonomy

I must be a geek because I really enjoy the taxonomy lectures: it is so interesting to see how animals can be grouped by features we don’t even think about. And some of these groupings make for strange bedfellows.

For example, members of the Order Carnivora, which includes Lions, Meerkats and Hyenas, have whiskers, binocular color vision, 4-5 toes on each foot, a raised bone on the skull to anchor their powerful jaws (called a “sagital crest”), and scissorlike molars (called “carnassial teeth”).


This tiny Meerkat skull has the same elements as a full-scale Carnivore like a Lion.


Not all members of the class Carnivora are carnivores, however. Pandas only eat plants, but since they meet all the criterion of Carnivora, that’s where they get placed.


Vision is Destiny

The last subject today was comparing the vision of animals who have eyes that face forward (like Lions and Monkeys) to those whose eyes are on the side of their heads (like Horses and Zebra). It can all be summed up in this little ditty:





The reason is that the side-facing eyes of a cow have a blind spot in front of their noses so it would be pretty hard for them to keep their eyes on prey long enough to stalk and catch it, but they have a wide field of vision for keeping track of their herd, and finding grasses and branches to nibble as they amble along the plains. Here’s a sketch that illustrates the two types of vision:











Forward-facing eyes like ours, have binocular vision which gives us great  depth perception, but less peripheral vision, so these animals are all about what’s out front.

Our camel illustrates the problem with eyes on the side: you have to turn your head to see in front of your nose. Photo credit Steve Goodall











All this is to prepare us for Wednesday when our Keepers will discuss the Hoofstock on our African Veldt.

Until then,








Stepping Through ZAM: Day 3, Savannah Module

by | March 8th, 2012

Franette Armstrong is reporting on her progress through Zoo Ambassador Training.



You think you know Lions? Well, so did I until tonight. This is the first class of the Savannah Module for those of us who have already taken either the Children’s Zoo or Rainforest Module, or both.

If you’ve been following along, you know I just finished with the Children’s Zoo training. Brand-new Zoo Ambassadors started this module last week and you can read about what they learned in my Day One and Day Two blogs for the Children’s Zoo under the Volunteering tab on this website.


We have two lions here at the Oakland Zoo, brother and sister, rescued from a bad situation in Texas when they were just cubs. Here’s a quiz to test your knowledge about African Lions:

1.    Are Lions the largest cat on the planet? A) Yes  B) No

2.    Do Lions chew their food? A) Yes  B) No

3.    Does the color of a male Lion’s mane tell his age? A) Yes  B) No

4.    Are Lions loners? A) Yes B) No

5.    Are male Lions the hunters in their pride? A) Yes  B) No

If you answered A to all of the above, Stacy Smith, one of our Keepers, has news for you: None of those statements is true.

Lions are the second largest cats with Siberian Tigers being first. They live in grasslands or woodlands, not jungles, so I don’t know where they got the King of the Jungle rep. If anything, Tigers are the Kings, but that’s another story.

Lions, like all cats, have scissor-like  teeth that cut food so they can swallow it without chewing.  The color and size of the male lions’ manes are determined by their genes, not their age, and help protect their necks and make them look bigger and more threatening to other Lions.


Docent Carol Kerbel shows us that cats have pointed teeth for cutting and tearing instead of the flat molars for chewing that we have.

Unlike most other cats, Lions live in social groups, and the females are usually the hunters. They bring home the bacon, assisted by the males, but the males dine first. Cubs last. Go figure.

How can you tell a Lion is upset? Tail twitches, roaring and growling are hints that this is a Lion is not to be messed with. If you come across one lying on its back, with its ears flat and making puffing sounds…that one is mellow. A lion’s roar can travel five miles, which comes in handy when moms are calling their cubs home for dinner.

There are only about 20,000 Lions left in the wild because of hunting, poaching, and habitat loss. Keeper Stacy recommended we all go to to learn more about how to help African Lions.

Mountain Lions here, like their African Cousins, hunt at the beginning and ends of the day, so we can protect them by staying off hiking trails at those times and keeping our pets protected to minimize human/Lion conflict.

The African Village

Next Lorraine Peters, one of our Primary Keepers, introduced us to the animals in our African Village.

Lorraine Peters, Primary ZooKeeper

Spotted Hyenas are fascinating and unique among the African species. Let’s see how much you already know about them:

1. Spotted Hyenas are scavenger animals because they have weak jaws.
A) Yes   B) No

2.  It’s easy to tell the males from the females by looking at them.
A) Yes  B) No

3.  Males dominate Hyena packs. A) Yes   B) No

4.  Hyenas laugh when they are: A) Amused  B) Anxious

If you answered A for all of the above, you and I have a lot in common! But Lorraine set us straight. Hyenas are fearsome, fast hunters who can take down animals as large as wildebeests. Their jaws are more powerful than the Lions’, exerting up to 1200 pounds of pressure.  And they are crafty: sometimes when they catch a large animal, they will hide it in water to cover up its smell so they can feast off it over a few days without losing it to others.

Lorraine engages our Hyena in a training exercise. Photo credit Steve Goodall

Hyenas get their reputation as scavengers because they eat the bones that other animals leave behind, but they are not like vultures: they prefer live prey and eat mostly meat.

It’s hard to tell the males from female hyenas by looking at them because both have similar-looking external sexual parts. Females dominate the males.

If you hear one of our hyenas laughing it is probably because a visitor is being too noisy: they make a laughing sound when they are worried agitated or upset, so keeping quiet is definitely the rule for visitors to our Hyena territory.

If you want to see our Hyena, look in one of the round plastic barrels, because that’s where they like to sleep in the daytime.

Hyenas always face out when they are in their dens so they can be the lookout for predators. Photo credit Steve Goodall


A Merry Mob of Meerkats

When Life Magazine first printed a photo of Meerkats I thought “Moon Mice,” they looked so strange. But Meerkat Manor brought them home to all of us so we feel we know all about them. Do you? Test yourself:

1.The black around Meerkat eyes is most like:

a) a raccoon’s   b) a panda’s   c) a football player’s

2. Meerkats are:

a) carnivores  b) herbivores  c) omnivores

3. Meerkats are conservation role models because:

a) they purify their own water   b) they recycle their food   c) they use solar energy for heat

4. Meerkats are most closely related to the:

a) Prairie Dog  b) domestic cat  c) mongoose

Meerkats are very social. You seldom see one alone.

If you answered C to all of the above, you’ve been watching too much Animal Planet!


Living in large groups we call “mobs,” Meerkats have a social structure that could make ants stand up and take notice. Each one has a vital role to play. The Sentries watch the sky and ground—if they see a hawk or snake, one call from them sends all the others underground. There are Babysitters and Wet Nurses and they work in shifts so that pups are protected while everyone gets a chance to loll around in the sun. Meerkats use their sharp claws to dig for insects and their favorite is scorpions. By eating those, they do all the other mammals a favor.

This Meerkat is Acting Sentry, alerting all the others to any danger. Photo Credit: Steve Goodall


The black circles around their eyes protect them from glare, like the smudges football players wear. In the morning and late afternoon they stretch out on their backs in the sun to collect heat, because after dark when they are in their burrow, their body temperatures drop and they need this solar energy.

Did you know that most of the Meerkat collections in U.S. Zoos started with pups from one female who lived in our exhibit?

Dark eye circles are built-in sunglasses. Photo credit Steve Goodall

Verdant Vervets

Vervets, or Green Monkeys, mostly live in Africa although there’s a large population in the West Indies that started when some were brought there on slave ships. The ones in our Zoo came from St. Kitts via a research lab, but now they are safe with us. Ours are yellow, white and black but when the sun hits them just right they do have a bit of a greenish cast.

I’m not going to give you a quiz because these monkeys were new to me and might be to you.

Vervets are Old World Monkeys which use their tails for balance, not gripping, and have long faces like baboons. Photo credit Steve Goodall


Vervets eat insects—although ours are afraid of mealworms—birds, eggs and tropical fruit, but we also give them some veggies for the nutrients. Though they sleep in trees, they spend most of their time on the ground gathering food and hanging out with each other.

In Vervet society, the females rule their large troops (this is getting to be a theme among African animals, isn’t it?) and you can tell who’s dominant and who’s at the lower level of the society by how they hold their tails. Over their backs? Give them space. Dragging on the ground? They’ll be eating last. In our exhibit, the ones closest to the fence are on the lowest-rung of the Vervet ladder while the leaders get seats in the back where it is quieter and more private.

Vervets, like most monkeys, use social grooming as a bonding activity. Photo credit, Steve Goodall


Monkey Talk

Lorraine told us that Vervets, like all primates, have a complex language of calls, body positions and behaviors that speak volumes to them, but mean nothing to most of us. For example, if one Vervet turns her back on another, that means trouble, so if we turn our back on one of them, that can seem very threatening, as can emulating the sounds they make.

Vervets have over 60 different calls. For example, their Leopard warning call will send the troop scurrying to the ends of branches where heavier  Leopards can’t go. If one issues an Eagle call, they all run into the bushes. And a Snake warning? They stand their ground and get ready to fight it.

When we visit monkeys and apes in a Zoo we have to be careful that  we don’t send out signals with our voices or body language that could upset the animals.  It’s best to stand back a little, try not to make eye contact, and just be quiet so we can see them as they really are, and they can live calmly in their home here.

Homework tonight was an essay question on how pets are different from wild animals and what makes a good pet. Since I wrote on this during my last module, I decided to write about how to stop the pet trade in wild animals which is responsible for the death and abuse of thousands of animals every year. The heartbreaking events in Zanesville, Ohio in October, 2011, where nearly 50 beautiful wild animals had to be shot, was a vivid example of why we need laws preventing the sale and ownership of nondomesticated animals to private parties.

Saturday, we’re going out to the African Village to learn about these animals from experienced docents. What a treat.

See you then,
































Stepping Through Zam: Day 9, Children’s Zoo Module

by | January 25th, 2012

Franette Armstrong is sharing her journey through Zoo Ambassador Training.

Tonight we continue with invertebrates—those spineless creatures without which no horror movie would be complete—and I am already expecting chills instead of thrills. Maybe to know them is to love them, so I’m going to give them a chance to win me over.

Keeper Margaret Rousser was back tonight to give us a proper introduction to the many-legged residents of our Bug House. Margaret supervises the invertebrate Keepers and is responsible for keeping the exhibits filled with interesting animals, so who best to promote this part of the Children’s Zoo?

Margaret Rousser, Zoological Manager of the Children’s Zoo



All Insects are Invertebrates…

but not all invertebrates are insects. In fact, 40% of invertebrates are animals like spiders, scorpions and centipedes. Margaret said that invertebrates are the most popular exhibits in zoos today. Does that surprise you?

We covered our scorpions and millipedes in the lecture on Arthropods, so tonight our focus is on insects, which are also Arthropods. They lay eggs, might have wings, and some can metamorphose from one shape to another, like frogs. Butterflies have all these traits.

To be an insect, a bug has to have 3 body segments, 6 jointed legs, a pair of antennae, and a tough exoskeleton instead of skin.


Keeping Bugs in the Bug House

One of the challenges in keeping insects in a zoo is actually keeping them. Since all are pretty short-lived, constant replacements are needed and since they can fly and are small enough to get out through tiny openings,  the exhibits have to be, well, bug-proof.

In our Bug House the walls have windowed cut-outs that show different naturalistic settings similar to the insects’ home turf. Behind the scenes, though, these little dioramas are more like aquarium tanks sitting on wheeled carts. When the insects are fed, or need other care, the tanks are wheeled backwards where they can be [very carefully] opened.

So….off we trotted with our flashlights to seek out the Bug House and its occupants. I can’t say I let myself look at the cockroaches very long, but the branch-like Walking Sticks were fascinating—especially their molted exoskeletons (their hard outer “skin” which looked exactly like them.

Several of our New Guinea Walking Sticks

Our Honey Pot Ants use some of their colony members as food storage depots: the workers collect nectar and store it in the bellies of fat little repletes who hang from the ceiling of the nest all the time, taking food in and regurgitating it back up when needed to feed the others in times of food shortage. These ants are also predators: they kill and eat other insects like fruit flies.

And while we are on the subject of ants, there are the Leaf Cutter Ants. These are the most fascinating insects to watch as they literally turn trees and forest floors into moving green rivers. The “Forager” ants go off and cut leaves into pieces many times larger than they are, which they carry back to the nest. “Gardener” ants then grow fungus on the leaves which is later broken off and fed to the queen and others. Here’s a wonderful video showing it all in action:

Here's a single Leafcutter Ant making off with his bounty.


The Cobalt-Blue Tarantulas are absolutely gorgeous and absolutely venomous. These bugs are very aggressive and can live 20 years.

Sometimes in nature, beauty is deadly—at least for predators who get too close to Cobalt Blue Tarantulas

Chilean Rose Tarantulas, on the other hand, take a passive approach to defense: they have hairs on their bellies that are very irritating to predators who happen to get close enough.







Presentations are Next

We just got our final instructions for the presentations we each will be giving on Saturday. I’m going to talk about how our Black Tree Monitors, who only live in New Guinea (and zoos)  teach us how the adaptations of animals and their environments are inseparable. That’s why we have to preserve rain forests and rivers and deserts and oceans: animals that are adapted to live one place can’t pick up and move somewhere else. And if their climate changes, their adaptations might not help them at all. Ask the polar the bears about this.

Wish me luck!

Stepping Through ZAM: Days 10-12, Children’s Zoo Module

by | January 23rd, 2012

This is Franette Armstrong's last post of her Zoo Ambassador Training to become a docent in the Children's Zoo.



Day Ten found twenty-some very nervous ZAMs in search of an exit…because today is Presentation Day and none of us wants to go first.

But it wasn’t so bad. We each gave our 3-minute presentation of an assigned animal, then a class member was chosen to offer some comments, followed by constructive suggestions from Sarah Cramer, our teacher, or by an experienced docent. We all escaped with egos intact.

Sarah Cramer, ZAM Trainer extraordinaire.

To celebrate, we had a wonderful potluck lunch where visible relief was as plentiful as the food. Many of the keepers and docents came to take part in this festive occasion: We are getting to know one another and becoming part of the “Zoo family.”

Unfortunately, we were also given our final exams to take home and answer using our notes and printed handouts (but no phone calls to each other). We have until next Friday morning to go to a website and post our answers on line before Sarah gets to work that day. Snooze, you lose.


Day Eleven: Stay Home and Work on Our Exams

I can’t share the test with you because Sarah might stop speaking to me, but it was only 3-4 pages of multiple-choice questions. Not too hard and actually kind of fun because it’s forcing me to re-read my notes and all the “Blue Sheets.” It’s a great chance to reacquaint myself with the many animals we have studied in the past five weeks and I needed this brush-up.

If you’d like to see some of the Blue Sheets, which provide comprehensive information written by our Zookeepers about the animals in the Zoo, go to and click on the tab that says “Animals.” They are there by taxonomic groups: Mammals, Reptiles, etc.


Day Twelve: Zoo Trivia and Graduation

Part of of our final exam was to study all the information about the Zoo itself so we can answer any question a visitor might ask. Where are restrooms? The strollers? When are the otters fed? Where can I get a band-aid? Where’s my child????

We formed small groups and competed against each other for Trivia points with Sarah awarding bonus points as the mood struck her and competition becoming more intense and more hilarious as the morning went on.

A group shows its stuff in ZAM Trivia.


When Good Visitors Act Badly

The next activity: role playing what to do (and not do) if a visitor ever misbehaves, not that any ever will :-)

The docents and Sarah got together and performed skits of potential situations we might encounter and our groups had to show different ways we would get the situation under control. We were falling down laughing at how good the docents were at deflecting everything we did so they could continue acting out. I certainly hope I never encounter visitors like them!

The whole point was to review all the ancillary aspects of being a docent: radio operation, lost-child procedures, controlling visitor behavior that’s unsafe or upsets the animals, plus Zoo rules and how to enforce them.


Graduation Isn’t the End

Finally, it was graduation time. We got our certificates and were each assigned a docent mentor to meet with several times over the next few weeks so we can prove we are ready to be turned loose in the Children’s Zoo. They will help us with behind-the-scenes mechanics, such as where to find the biofacts and puppets, and how to do a radio check, and they have a long list they have to go through to make sure every base is covered.

These are a few items on the checklist we have to pass:

~Demonstrate a working knowledge of animal facts for the majority animals in the Children’s Zoo.

~Provide appropriate answers to sensitive or difficult questions.

~Present information that is educational, entertaining, comprehensible and age-appropriate.

~Demonstrate working knowledge of radio protocols (such as lost child and emergency procedures).

And 16 more!

When they sign us off, we get our t-shirts and name badges and are free to move about the Children’s Zoo. Whew.


Will we be Docents after all this?

Not quite! Once we have graduated from all three modules and passed the Docent mentoring in each part of the Zoo, we then can take a test on all of it and if we pass, we enter the elite corps called Docent Council—currently 77 members strong. What does this get us? Well, the chance to do even more for the Zoo such as learn to drive the electric carts and do cart tours, perform in the Wildlife Theater, take positions on the Docent Board, and go on all kinds of interesting field trips to animal research projects in the Bay Area.

Becoming a Docent is a Very Big Deal. This one module required 39 hours of classroom and in-zoo instruction plus homework, plus docent mentoring. Some of our Docents have been with the Zoo over 20 years and volunteer their expertise several days a week—not to mention all that they do to help train us ZAMs. When you see a Docent or ZAM walking around the Zoo, tip your hat and realize that they are highly trained by the best, and highly committed to helping you appreciate everything our Zoo has to offer.

Do our animals deserve anything less?


More ZAM Training Coming Up

In January the Savannah Module will begin and I am already signed up. Stay tuned as we learn about zebra and elk, giraffes and lions…all the charismatic animals of the African plains. Can’t wait!

Until then, hope to see you in the Children’s Zoo.




Read about previous ZAM Training here: