To merge with another tribe, male Lemurs have to move in on another male’s turf and they do this by conducting Stink Wars—an amusing but peaceful way of establishing dominance. They have musty scent glands on their wrists that they rub against their tails and then they flash their tails at each other to see who has the strongest smell. The winner gets the females and a chance to breed. I’m guessing the loser is grossed out and takes a hike.
It’s 8:30am Saturday morning. I’m a half-hour early and sitting here on a bench taking in the incredible quiet of our Oakland Zoo on this beautiful morning. There’s a “don’t bother me I’m eating” feeling in the air—a sense of animal energy—but all I hear are birds chirping. Zookeepers and volunteers are no-doubt busy behind the scenes, but I can’t see them, either.
Suddenly I realize that as a volunteer I’ll have many chances to feel this uniquely companionable quiet. Breathing space.
Today we are going to be divided into groups to tour the zoo all morning so I’ll get back to you after we do that.
How not to get lost in the Zoo
Our instructor, Sarah Cramer, started us with a “Wayfinding in the Zoo” chalk talk that began to made sense of what has seemed a maze to me on prior visits.
The Zoo is a circle: walk up and you find the elephants, walk down and you get to the Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo and Education Center. There’s a central cross-path and the same rules apply. The Children’s Zoo is in its own circle. Sounds easy enough.
As docents we’ll be expected to give directions from anywhere to anywhere: to all the restrooms and amenities, strollers and entries, rides and parking lots, so it’ll be map-study time for me.
Where else can you hear directions like ‘go up past the gibbons and hang a right at the macaws’?
Appreciating how far we’ve come…
After nearly three hours of touring the exhibits we returned to the Education Center for our bag lunches and an Oakland Zoo history slideshow.
Did you know that every single exhibit and enclosure has been renovated or rebuilt since 1985, when Dr. Joel Parrott became executive director here? Dr. Parrott had been the Zoo’s vet with a unique understanding of what animals need to thrive and a vision for what the Zoo could become.
Now, all the animals live in size-appropriate areas that give them vertical as well as horizontal mobility on all the surfaces they love. Elephants get to swim, gibbons get to zoom through tree tops, meerkats live in a rock village while reptiles bake in sunny terrariums. Except for those in controlled environments, our animals get to move between indoor and outdoor quarters—so they can decide when they need a little privacy or extra warmth.
Here’s a wonderful BBC video of an elephant and her calf swimming in the wild.
Another big change has been away from “free contact” to “protected contact” in our management of large or potentially aggressive animals. Our zookeepers now always keep a wall or fence between themselves and animals like the lions and chimps—for their own safety as well as the animals’. With this method no animal will ever have to be punished for harmful behavior.
And speaking of zookeepers, unlike the old days when some zoos promoted janitors into zookeeping roles, our Zoo today hires only the best and brightest of the highly-trained animal management experts out there. There are very few spots open nationally each year and only the most qualified get hired.
An exciting future we’ll be part of
In addition to adding new animals and enclosures, the Zoo is working on plans for a 20-acre California Trails Exhibit to feature animals that have been extirpated from our state through habitat destruction and hunting. Visitors will step back to a time when wolves, grizzlies, elk and others roamed the East Bay hills. This exhibit will be reached by gondolas large enough to hold families and strollers.
The new Veterinary Medical Hospital, slated to open in 2012 will have an immediate impact on animal health. We’ll have a quarantine area big enough even for bison, something we lack right now. With new state-of-the-art equipment right here, we won’t have to transport animals out of the zoo for diagnosis anymore, saving time and reducing stress on a sick or injured animal.
Volunteers and Docents make a difference
Docents contribute well over 5500 hours per year interacting with zoo visitors and many more hours behind the scenes, we learned from Loretta McRae who’s president of the board of the 78-member Docent Council.
The 50,000 hours a year volunteers contribute to all aspects of the Zoo equates to over $600,000 annually in salaries that would have to be paid without their help.
In getting to know some of my fellow ZAMs today, I learned that we have among us a champion bread baker, two actors, a nurse, a biology teacher…our backgrounds are as different as our reasons for being in the class.
No homework tonight. Next stop, reptiles and amphibians.
Quick – how many dinosaurs can you name?
I bet you came up with at least three: Tyrannosaurus Rex, Stegosaurus, and Triceratops. Maybe you are better at this than me, so you got Pterodactyl and Velociraptor too. Good job!
Now quick – how many other prehistoric animals can you name?
In my experience, most people can come up with just one, the Woolly Mammoth. But the truth is that many creatures inhabited the Earth along with the dinosaurs and were related to animals we know today. Three fossil replicas live in the Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo, right alongside their modern descendants.
Protostega gigas lives next to the underwater alligator windows. It is pretty easy to recognize it as a turtle. In fact, Protostega was a sea turtle that lived 97-66 million years ago. Its preserved remains are found from South Dakota to Texas, from Colorado to Kansas, since 97 million years ago the Great Plains of today were underwater! This turtles wide, flat ribs were probably connected by a leathery covering, similar to the shell of modern Leatherback Sea Turtles.
Now this fossil is pretty easy to recognize as a turtle, but some prehistoric animals are much harder to identify.
Check out Eroyps and imagine a salamander that was 5-6 feet long! This was no gentle giant, Eroyps was a fierce predator that hunted both in water and on land, similar to crocodiles today. It lived roughly 280 million years ago, which pre-dates the dinosaurs.
Our last Children’s Zoo resident fossil is much younger, a mere 144-65 million years old. This coincides with the peak of dinosaur populations, which makes sense because Sarcosuchus imperator* ate dinosaurs! This ancient crocodilian grew up to 40 feet long and weighed about 17,500 pounds. Notice how the eyes and nostrils are on top of the skull, which is very similar to modern alligators. Scientists think Sarcosuchus was a “sit and wait” predator like our American alligators. They would float motionless in the water, able to breathe and watch the shore because their nostrils and eyes are on top of their head. When an unsuspecting dinosaur (or deer today) came to the water’s edge to drink – BAM! Sarcosuchus would launch itself forward with tremendous speed and power and grab it’s prey.
So we have three fossil replicas in the Children’s Zoo, none of which are dinosaurs, but all of which are related to animals alive today in our exhibits. To find turtles like Protostega gigas, head to the RAD Room pond exhibit and look for our spotted turtles or three-toed box turtles. While you are there, check out all the different frogs; they are amphibians like Eroyps. And don’t miss the American alligators, a modern day (and much smaller) Sarcosuchus!
*Sarcosuchus imperator holds a special place in my heart because that’s the nickname I use during our ZooCamp program. It’s not unusual for children in the grocery store to call out “Hi Sarco!” when I walk by!
I received a call on Friday, October 8th that went something like this, “Hi Nicky, we just came back from the airport. The frogs are here.” I thought to myself, well, that’s pretty cool. I’ve never seen frogs get unpacked. This would be a chance to get away from my desk and see something rare. So, I grabbed a camera and headed down to the Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo to check out our new Panamanian Golden frogs.
As I walked in behind-the-scenes of the RAD Room (Reptile and Amphibian Discovery Room), I was delighted to see Keeper Adam Fink eager to unpack TWENTY brightly colored little frogs.
The yellow and black amphibians reminded me of those little plastic frogs you see in gum ball machines, except these were very jumpy. There were ten containers that resembled something you would see at a deli counter. Each container held two frogs…and yes, each container had breathing holes. As soon as I arrived, Adam jumped into action to unpack each frog carefully, weigh it, photograph it, and place it into a special aquarium. These tasks took patience and persistence because the frogs are fast and slippery!
The twenty Panamanian Golden Frogs were born at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, MD. The frogs are extinct in the wild and several zoos in the US are breeding them for release into the wild in the future. The Oakland Zoo does not breed them, but instead we are holding individuals for the breeding program and to help educate the public about the Panamanian Golden Frogs. They are the national symbol of Panama. So, to Panamanians, this would equate to the Bald Eagle being gone in the US. They are one of the poster-frogs for the global amphibian crisis, which is being caused by climate change, the chytrid fungus, pollution, and other things that has caused one-third of the amphibian species in the world to decline and become endangered or extinct.
The frogs were packed into the cargo area of a Delta flight bound for Oakland and arrived the morning of October 8, 2010. This frog shipment was the second shipment the Oakland Zoo has received in the past six years. They were born in December, 2009, so they are almost one year old. They are now off exhibit for a thirty day quarantine, which is part of the Oakland Zoo’s regulations with acquiring new animals. We monitor new animals and test them for diseases to ensure they do not have anything that can spread to our animal collection. Currently, we have nine Panamanian Golden frogs on exhibit in the RAD room, so when the new ones are added, we’ll have a total of twenty-nine.
I asked Adam if they make any ribbit sounds and I was told no, but they do make little wheezing sounds. I tried to listen closely while they were being unpacked, but didn’t hear a peep. Adam also mentioned that these frogs are not big swimmers; they are more of a waters edge species, meaning they like to be around water but not necessarily in it. The black and gold patterns on their backs also change each year, so it’s hard to name and distinguish each frog. But, the Oakland Zoo weighs and photographs each frog every three months. As for food, these frogs feast on tiny crickets and fruit flies.
So, the next time you are at the Oakland Zoo, stop by the RAD Room and see if you can spot a Panamanian Golden Frog.
By Rebecca Stern, aka Vella
As a recent graduate from an elementary teaching credential program I can say Iʼve
seen my fair share of good and great schools and good and great programs. The Oaklandʼs ZooCamp is run like a great school with an exceptional amount of fun thrown into itʼs agenda. The strategy for camp is simple. Learn about animals, conservation, and our role in the environment, and have tons of fun.
As a third year returning teacher to the Oakland Zooʼs summer program I can say that working at the zoo has itʼs perks for even us teachers. Seeing the same animals so often provides opportunities to see the animals grow and change. From 2009 to 2010 alone the zoo has seen many fascinating changes. Among my favorites are the baboons fondness of their new exhibit, watching new animal introductions (such as the sunbear and chimpanzees) and oh, the babies! The most notable are the hornbill mother nesting in her exhibit while her mate brings her food and the baby squirrel monkey who rides on its motherʼs back. Itʼs no wonder our zoo members visit time andtime again throughout the year. If only Zoocamp was year-round!
What makes Oaklandʼs Zoocamp significantly different from other camps? Oaklandʼs Zoocamp is notable for many reasons. First, the focus isnʼt on “time-fillers” to keep the kids busy during the summer months. Each year we focus on a conservation project and teach the campers what they can do to help. We play games, sing songs, and create crafts that you can actually use. We explore and we work on developing a childʼs natural curiosity of the environment. Often itʼs as simple as letting a child pick a leaf or flower at the creek and letting them crush and smell it or lifting a rock to see what bugs are underneath. I am in awe of campers who listen intently about watershed problems and decide theyʼd like to spend time picking up trash around the zoo. Campers also go behind-the-scenes to learn how keepers care for the animals and much more.
What are some other things that make working the entire summer at the zoo so much fun? For one, I enjoy seeing my campers grow, sometimes several inches from one year to the next. I take pleasure in truly getting to know parents who love camp as much as I do. I also love meeting new campers who have not been to our camp before. They are enthralled by the activities and animal encounters that are unique to the program. I am fortunate to work for a Camp Director who fully supports my curriculum and craft ideas, among other things. In addition, I benefit from working with many different types of people with biology, zoology and education backgrounds. Ultimately, I love seeing
kids really enjoy learning without knowing thatʼs what theyʼre doing.
All together, ZooCamp is so much fun kids can’t wait to come back each summer…and neither can I!