Posts Tagged ‘ZooKeeper’

Oakland Zoo ZooKeepers to Madagascar!

by | February 18th, 2015

Madagascar

Madagascar.

When you see that word, what do you think? I will guess most of you will say “that DreamWorks cartoon!” King Julian!” or “I like to move it, move it!”

As a keeper at Oakland Zoo, I care for two species of lemur; Ring-tailed lemurs (Lemur catta) and Sclater’s lemurs (Eulemur flavifrons) and I think of the word “Madagascar” a little different than most. I immediately think of lemurs as well as orchids, chameleons, rainforests, fossa and many, many other unique and endangered species.1

There’s no place in the world like Madagascar. Formed over 88 million years ago, it is the world’s 4th largest island and 90% of its animals are found nowhere else on the planet! Not in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be able to visit such an amazing destination, but, indeed I did!

In November of 2014 my supervisor Margaret Rousser and I were invited by the director and founder of Centre ValBio, Dr. Patricia Wright, to visit her research center in Ranomafana National Park and assist in the capture and data collection of the park’s Milne-Edward sifaka’s (Propithecus edwardsi).

After a 27 hour flight from San Francisco and a 10 hour drive from Antananarivo, the country’s capitol, we finally reached the rainforest and Centre ValBio. Beautiful. Breathtaking. Mysterious. Downright awesome. These are the words that went through my mind as we arrived.

After resting up overnight after our long flight and equally exhaustive drive we were ready to see the park.

Elizabeth holding a recovering adult

Elizabeth holding a recovering adult

Along the length of the eastern Madagascan coast runs a narrow and steep escarpment containing much of the island’s remaining tropical lowland forest. Ranomafana National Park is located on this escarpment. The terrain is extremely hilly and trekking through the forest is challenging as the majority of the time you are ascending or descending these hills. My favorite areas were the ridge trails. Once you reach the ridges, you get a break from the extreme climbing and get to enjoy the views on either side of the hills.

On our first visit into Ranomafana Park with Dr. Wright, Margaret and I were able to see 5 different species of lemurs! To say we were lucky is not enough. Dr. Wright has been studying lemurs in this location for 30 years and was pleased and surprised at seeing so many lemur species on a single visit. We capped our perfect lemur day with an interesting evening, observing students collect data on the world’s smallest primate, a mouse lemur.3

After a few days waiting for the government to finally approve the permits required to capture the Milne-Edwards sifaka’s, we were on our way back into the forest! After a grueling 5 hour hike to one of the park’s most remote sites we arrived to find the lemurs, ready for their exams and new collars. The trackers, who spend much of their time in the forest observing the whereabouts of the different lemur groups and know the individuals intimately, had anesthetized a group of three adults, one male, two females and two infants!

Putting on new ID collar (Photo Joan de la Malla)

Putting on new ID collar (Photo Joan de la Malla)

Margaret and I jumped into our roles immediately! Margaret led a group of graduate students, instructing them on obtaining body measurements along with hair, ectoparasite and fecal collection. I helped the vet with physical exams, blood collection and removal and replacement of new ID collars. This was a most amazing experience. The adult lemurs are given anesthesia to avoid undo stress as they are wild animals unused to being handled by humans. This ensures their safety as well as the humans’ handling them. The infant lemurs are not anesthetized and stay on their moms until the physical exam is performed. The babies are then held by a human until their mother is done with her exam and they are quickly returned to her. It may seem this is too stressful for the animal but the babies seem to feel secure as long as they have an adult primate to cling too. They contentedly sat in our arms, looking at all the things happening around them with no struggling our stressful vocalizations.

We stayed that night camping in the rainforest, which was an adventure in itself, with the lovely pit toilet and cute little leeches!  The next morning we awoke to the sounds of black and white ruffed lemur groups vocalizing around us. The Milne-Edwards sifakas were checked by the vet to ensure they all had recovered fully from the previous day and then the trackers returned them to the same location they had been captured so the lemurs could resume their normal daily life.

The rest of us returned to Centre ValBio’s laboratory where we began processing samples taken from the animals.

The second group we helped with a few days later was just as exciting but luckily only a 30 minute hike to the site instead of 5 hours! We had one adult male, two adult females and one infant. Again, all went well, and once recovered, the animals were returned to their original location.

Once done with our Ranomafana animal captures Margaret and I had a few days to see a little more of Madagascar when we traveled 4 hours by car to visit a village which ran their own lemur sanctuary. This was very exciting for us because at this location they only had one species- ring tailed lemurs!

Anja Community Reserve covers about 75 acres and nearly 300 RT lemurs call it home. It is completely operated by the villagers, who protect the forest, serve as guides and perform administrative tasks.

Mama and baby ring tailed lemur at Anja Community Reserve

Mama and baby ring tailed lemur at Anja Community Reserve

We arrived at dusk and could hear the lemurs calling to each other in the forest below our hotel, I got goose bumps as I immediately recognized the calls as they are the same vocalization I hear from my lemurs at Oakland Zoo! Early the next morning Margaret and I along with a guide and a tracker, headed into the reserve. I was soon choked up with joy as we encountered our first wild lemur group! These lemurs have all been desensitized to the proximity of humans and Margaret and I were able to get quite close. It was amazing to sit in the forest as 100s of lemurs meandered, scampered, jumped, vocalized and foraged all around us. Our guides had a vast knowledge of the area’s flora and fauna as this was their own backyard. They could spot a tiny chameleon who looked like a little twig to me, or another one that was the same green as the leaf he was sitting on!

November was the perfect time to visit Madagascar as there were many babies to be seen. So many cute little guys were riding their moms, daring to be brave and jumping to the ground only to be surprised by a blowing leaf and running back to the safety of momma’s back! It was interesting to see the large troupes of lemurs of all different ages combing the forest together. The older animals were much more interested in foraging for tasty fruit while the youngsters played tag through the trees!

Margaret and Elizabeth with Veterinarian Hajanirina Rakotondrainibe at Centre ValBio

Margaret and Elizabeth with Veterinarian Hajanirina Rakotondrainibe at Centre ValBio

Overall, the trip to Madagascar was an unforgettable journey. Seeing the country, its animals and people was a life changing event. I can’t wait to return to the beautiful Island and continue to see more of the amazing and unique things it has to offer!

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper “Lola ya Bonobo” Paradise of the Bonobos

by | February 4th, 2015
One of the many beautiful Congolese plants.

One of the many beautiful Congolese plants.

A fledgling we found water-logged in the water filtration pool, he was unable to get out. He sat very calmly on my finger, until he had preened his feathers dry.

A fledgling we found water-logged in the water filtration pool, he was unable to get out. He sat very calmly on my finger, until he had preened his feathers dry.

I’ve been here almost two weeks now and still have not really established a daily routine. The nursery bonobos are always in need of some socializing and that’s pretty much my favorite thing I’ve done in my life thus far, so I always make time for that. However, seeing how the keepers manage the adult bonobo groups is also a great learning opportunity. Bonobo society is so complicated, the behavioral signals they send to each other are so subtle. From a glance, you are just watching a group of bonobos lounging after a feeding and it looks like they’re lazily hanging out together. Watch them more closely and you will notice a male is several feet outside the inner group and that he looks up quickly whenever someone approaches him. He is low-ranking and is never sure when someone will come to remind him of this. Towards the center of the group, young bonobos play wrestle with each other, but all of a sudden it gets too rough for the little one and she cries out in protest. An adult female picks her up and they have sex. It is still weird for me to see bonobos use sex in this manner, regardless of gender or age, to calm tension. Next one young bonobo picks up a plastic bottle (used by the keepers to hand the bonobos water through the fence when they want to draw them in for closer observation). The bonobo leans on the plastic bottle and runs right by the group, pushing it against the ground like a child pushing a toy car. This is a display to show-off and it makes a really loud noise. Some of the bonobos look, but none react. They’re all taking note though.

A species of egret found all over the sanctuary

A species of egret found all over the sanctuary

The path surrounding the perimeter of the sanctuary.

The path surrounding the perimeter of the sanctuary.

Another perk of walking the 1.5 miles around the sanctuary to observe the adult bonobos is seeing the other wildlife that lives on the grounds. Lizards, bugs, birds and amphibians are everywhere. One of my favorite species of snakes, the Gabon viper, can also be found here. They are very shy and usually hide under forest brush, camouflaging perfectly. In ecology, the usual rule of thumb is that the larger the individuals in a species are, the fewer there are and the more spread out they are. Another reason seeing a Gabon viper is unlikely, as they are a large snake and therefore more rare. They only get up to around 3 feet in length, but have a very thick girth, as do other terrestrial snakes.

One species that I would say is as socially complicated as the bonobos, just in a different manner, are the army ants. When I spent three months in Uganda, they were there as well and I honestly didn’t care for them much.

One of the many butterfly species found here.

One of the many butterfly species found here.

Some mushrooms growing through the crack in a bench.

Some mushrooms growing through the crack in a bench.

We would usually find a place to sit and watch the chimpanzees, but if you didn’t notice the army ants marching through, they would be climbing up your legs and before you knew it, you were getting bit everywhere! Here at the sanctuary, the grounds have well-kept paths and so the ants’ presence is much more obvious. When on the move, the ants form a long line and the workers stream by. To protect them, guards are posted all along both sides of the line, with huge pinchers poised and ready. It’s easy enough to jump over the line, but even walking within a couple feet of it will cause the guards to break away from the line and fan out to charge the intruder.

An African millipede.

An African millipede.

A small frog, the size of a dime.

A small frog, the size of a dime.

A skink, hiding in the leaf litter.

A skink, hiding in the leaf litter.

Besides critters, you also see some crazy looking plants in DRC. I would never describe myself as a “plant person” per se, my repeated disastrous attempts at my balcony garden back home confirm this.Here though, some of the flowers look like they are straight out of a Dr. Seuss book and should have names like “Snarfalamdoodle.” They’re bright, beautiful and crazy! Competing with the flowers are the caterpillars. They come in every neon color, with insane hair designs, signaling to predators that they are toxic to eat. Seeing a neon orange caterpillar with a black mohawk, you think, “I get it: No touchy.”

Depending on the time of day, walking the perimeter can mean seeing many bonobos or none at all. In the afternoon, they usually go into the forest to rest where it is a bit cooler. I have yet to consider the walk a waste of time though, as the local wildlife never disappoints.

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper Day 7

by | February 2nd, 2015

The past two days have been national holidays and so the staff at the sanctuary is at a minimum. For the initial week, the sanctuary had many people: Board members from the U.S. based Friends of Bonobos, a Belgian woman working with homeless children and of course Fanny, Raphael and Claudine. After the bonobos go to sleep, there has been so much to do in the evenings, quite the party. Now it is just Gaspard and I and the sanctuary seems very quiet. We make plans to do a couple day trips outside the sanctuary, as we’ve pretty much just been in our own little world here.

Lac de Ma Valle

Lac de Ma Valle

Claudine had suggested we go see the Lac De Ma Ville, a nearby lake with a walking path around it and a small restaurant. Papa Jean, who is in charge of the kitchen, is going into the nearby village to shop at the market, we tag along with him so he can show us the way.

I’m really excited and a little nervous. Everything I read about the DRC before coming here was largely negative. When I spoke to people who had already been here, they reassured me current conflict was in the eastern part of this huge country. It would be like worrying about going to California because of conflict in New York. However, if you look at travel warnings posted by the United States’ government, it basically tells you not to go to DRC. Everywhere you look in the Kinshasa area, you see armed guards, who are well-known for making up “fees” to pass certain places. I feel like I have no sense of what it is
really going to be like, with so much conflicting information. We have Papa Jean with us for the beginning part, so that’s good enough for me.

The First Black President of The United States of America

There is a fee to enter the lake area, 1,000 Congolese Francs, which is a little over one U.S. dollar. Gaspard and I take a $20 bill to exchange at the market, as that is the only size currency either of us have. Papa Jean goes to his usual market stand and after a lot of discussion, the woman exchanges the money for us. We also buy 5 mangostains from her (a tasty Congolese fruit) and she puts them in a plastic bag for us. I look at the picture on the bag and am surprised to see a familiar face: President Barack Obama. Underneath his picture and title, it reads, “The First Black USA President!!! Priemier Naicra USA President!!” I recall when I was in Uganda a few years back, there was also Obama merchandise everywhere. The woman selling us the fruit sees my reaction and laughs, saying, “Oui, Obama.”

There is a road that leads to the entry of the park, Papa Jean is going to walk that part with us as well. I’m really glad he does, as I look over under a tree and meet eyes with an armed guard who says sternly to me, “Vous-allez vous?” He wants to know where we are going. When Papa Jean intercedes and explains, the guard says in English, “It’s okay.” We continue to the entrance to the lake area and say goodbye to Papa Jean.

Vital’o, a Soda Bottled

Vital’o, a Soda Bottled

After walking another long, winding road, we come to the lake. It is beautiful and twisted, with lots of break-off points. We learn later it is an artificial lake, created by missionaries for whatever reason. We’ve already walked quite a long ways by the time we get down to the lake and we come to the restaurant. A woman appears and quickly ushers us to sit down. We weren’t planning on it, but decide to anyways and each order a Vital’o, a soda bottled in Kinshasa. It’s neon pink and tastes like artificial strawberry with a lot of sugar. In the scorching heat and after such a long walk, it’s delicious.

We’ve already walked a decent amount and it is 6km to walk around the entire lake. Not that bad, except it is so hot and muggy. Along the shoreline at the restaurant, there are some of the ricketiest looking pedal boats I’ve ever seen. They appear to be completely made of metal. They float? After some quick discussion, we opt to rent a boat instead of doing the walk. With each turn of the foot pedals, the boat makes a rusty metal noise that sounds like a dying animal, begging to be put out of its misery. It’s a blast and also somewhat cooler to be out on the water.

After the lake, we walk back down the road to the village. Instead of walking the rest of the way back to the sanctuary, we decide to buy a ride on a motorbike. I have reservations about this. I took a couple in Uganda and I know how fast the drivers can go. The roads here are so bad, I’m amazed anyone drives a motorbike on them at all. We face huge puddles and potholes, as well as broken debris on a muddy, slick road for the whole route. I decide to view it as an adventure and go for it. Also, I don’t feel like walking anymore that day.

We make it back safely to the sanctuary and the ride is actually quite pleasant, as the driver goes slow. Maybe it’s because of the dangerous condition of the road. Or maybe it is because my fingernails are digging into his side the whole way.

The pastors.

The pastors.

Inside the church. The men in the lighter green tops are the altar boys.

Inside the church. The men in the lighter green tops are the altar boys.

The next day, Gaspard and I attend church with Didier’s daughters. His job is assistant cook and commissary manager, so he gets in early everyday to get a head start. He walks us to his home, which is probably about two miles away. When little kids see us, they shout, “Mndele!” This is Lingala for “white person.” There is a different Lingala word for a person of Chinese descent and that is because there is a large Chinese presence in the Congo.

 

When we reach his home, it is sort of crazy. A woman is raking their dirt yard, while two little kids run around. One of them is only wearing a pink reflective vest, like something you would wear in America to be seen at night. Many adults come out of Didier’s home to see us, then disappear back inside. The home is cement and the same size as my studio apartment back home. How many people live there?

Two young women, teenagers, come out. Like most Congolese, they are dressed very well. One girl is all in white and is spotless. How on Earth does she do that? It is very humid here, but still. Everywhere you walk is a reddish clay-like dirt. I step outside and I’m instantly dirty and sweaty, but personal appearance is highly valued in the Congo. Everywhere you go, in the poorest areas (which is most areas), people are still wearing clean, well-fitted clothing. The women have the most colorful garments, either traditional or Western-style.

Didier had assured us his daughters go to church every Sunday, but that is not the vibe I am getting from them. Gaspard tries to converse with them in French, but they give short answers and seem a little annoyed. He translates to me only that they said, “It’s a really long walk.”

An hour and a half later, we have covered a lot of distance, all uphill. I feel like I am going to pass-out. It definitely was worth it though. The whole walk was well away from the main road, we follow small footpaths through many rural villages. Chickens and cats run freely everywhere, every so often someone has a stand out with goods to sell. Everything is so busy and alive, I wonder where everyone is going. A couple people ask Gaspard who we are and what we are doing. When they ask me, I just look to Gaspard as a way to ask for help. We later joke that people probably assumed we are a couple and come from a country where the woman isn’t allowed to talk to strangers.

along the walk to the church. The green hills in DRC remind me of the hills in Rwanda.

along the walk to the church. The green hills in DRC remind me of the hills in Rwanda.

By the time we are nearing the top of the hill, I feel so miserable that I’m no longer paying attention to saying “M’bote!” to those we pass. Gaspard nudges me and points up. A giant church steeple is coming out from the trees ahead. Thank.. Goodness.

On the way, we had passed several churches with people singing. They were all built like Didier’s home, looking more like a  cement shack than anything else. I had secretly yearned to just attend that church. Why did we have to walk so far?? Now I see why. The church is huge and beautiful, clearly coming from missionary funding. It is a Christian Catholic church. Being from Minnesota, I was raised Lutheran, but I have attended a few Catholic masses before and this one is very similar to those. The big difference is the dancing and color, a definite African flare on a Western tradition. Multiple pastors an altar boys come down the aisle at the start of the ceremony. A huge choir sings and sways in place, while the altar boys dance in a way that reminds me of my favorite 90’s boy bands. Any misery I was feeling is swept away in awe.

Another difference is audience participation in the songs. In the West, the congregation all firmly  clutches their hymnals and follows along with the song. Here, everyone knows the words to all the songs and they clap along. I try to follow along, but it is more complicated than clapping on the beat.

One of Didier’s daughters taps me and makes a motion  that says I can take pictures. Cool! We had been warned not to take pictures of anyone we saw in the village. I think the majority of Westerners that come to Congo are journalists, seeking a story that is probably too elaborate or complicated to make a 3 minute news clip. Probably because of this, most of the locals think foreigners who take their picture will sell them for thousands of dollars back home and so they get really mad if they see someone taking their picture. Apparently, that rule doesn’t apply to the church. When I glance around and see other congregation members taking pictures, I go for it.

The church we attended.

The church we attended.

When the service ends two hours later, we head back home. I can really tell the girls are eager to be rid of us. They walk in front of us and gossip in quiet Lingala. The journey back is much more pleasant, as it is all downhill. It only takes us about an hour to get back to the sanctuary. The girls walk in with us, looking to say hello to their father. Gaspard and I sit down and guzzle water. He offers them some and they take it, but neither drink . Hoooow are they not dying of thirst?

All in all, it is a trip that is definitely worth the effort, but maybe just one time. I in fake seriousness ask Gaspard if he wants to go again next Sunday and his smile freezes, but then we both break into laughter.

sk Gaspard if he wants to go again next Sunday and his smile freezes, but then we both break into laughter.

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper Day 5

by | January 30th, 2015

During my first tour of Lola ya Bonobo, I met the bonobos in Group 1 and Group 3, but it was getting too dark to walk out to Group 2’s enclosure. I was in such a daze from my arduous journey and in shock from actually being with the bonobos, I think I just happily trailed behind Fanny (the manager) and Raphael (the veterinarian) with a doofy smile on my face. Gaspard, the Belgian student staying at the sanctuary, was telling me about the sanctuary’s history, why different husbandry decisions had been made, etc. I tried to take in as much as I could, but I was far from my full-functioning mental capacity.

From left to right, Mama Yvonne (in charge of the nursery and a soon-to-be head keeper), me and Susie, ethologist on staff.

From left to right, Mama Yvonne (in charge of the nursery and a soon-to-be head keeper), me and Susie, ethologist on staff.

I thought we were headed back to the veranda of the kitchen area for dinner, but instead we went into the night house of the Group 1 bonobos. During the day, each group of bonobos has acres and acres of land to wander, but at night the bonobos are called into indoor quarters with hammocks. This is partially a safety issue, since there is only one keeper at night to keep an eye on all the bonobos and the night house is more secure. It also provides a good opportunity for the staff to get a closer look at the bonobos for medical reasons. While bonobos are known for being much more laidback and less aggressive than chimpanzees, they are still wild animals and still sometimes settle disputes with physical aggression. Females are the dominant sex and if an up-and-coming male gets a bit too big for his britches, the females will join together to correct the situation. It isn’t unheard of for a bonobo to get a serious bite wound or lose the tip of a finger in such an altercation. It is an important lesson for keepers to know, not to forget what an adult bonobo is capable of if they get frightened or upset by something.

However, we did not enter to the night house to see Group 1, as they had not been called inside yet. We were stopping by to check on Kisantu. This 16 year old female had recently fallen very ill. The keepers first noticed on December 22nd that she was walking in an odd fashion- she swayed, almost as if she was drunk. This caused some panic, as when a bonobo contracts EMCV (described in a previous post), she will show this exact symptom and the virus has historically been fatal within hours for bonobos at the sanctuary. Kisantu was brought inside with her daughter, Liyaka, and separated from the rest of the group so Raphael could get a closer look. She did not die, but her symptoms worsened and having her daughter present became too complicated. Although Liyaka would have “aunties” to look after her in Group 1 (other females in the group, who form very close bonds), the staff was hesitant to put a young juvenile back in the group without her mother keeping an eye on her. It was decided the daughter would be placed in the juvenile group of orphans while Kistantu was being treated.

As the days passed, Kisantu continued to worsen, eventually being too weak to get out of her hammock. There were suspicions that she had contracted a parasite that attacks the brain, which would explain her neurological symptoms. She was given the medicine for this, but still, nothing was for certain. Raphael decided he needed to get a sample of her blood to send to a company with the proper equipment to analyze, but to do so safely, Kisantu would need to be anesthetized. She was darted and the procedure was quick, but two hours then passed and she was not waking up, an unfortunate risk of anesthesia. Suddenly, she stopped breathing. Raphael had to physically breathe for her by standing behind her, placing his fingers under her ribs and moving the rib cage to work her diaphragm and lungs while someone ran to grab an oxygen tank and mask to give her very high levels of oxygen. Miraculously, it was successful and she recovered from the anesthesia. For several days, it seemed as though she was even improving.

This was about the time I arrived at the sanctuary. Kisantu had just begun to go down-hill again. The first time I saw her in her night house, she was laying in a hammock and was clearly very restless. She did not have the strength to get up and walk, but continually tossed and turned in her hammock, reminding me of a human who could not fall asleep. Every once in a while, she would involuntarily twitch. When her name was called gently by Fanny, her eyes followed the voice, but then she would look straight up, not really focusing on anything. Everyone was very worried and frustrated. There is no place in the Democratic Republic of Congo to send bonobo blood for medical testing. Bonobos share 98.7% of our DNA, so they do not receive medicine used on cats or dogs and blood tests are not analyzed in the same manner as domesticated animals. They are analyzed the same way as humans, illnesses are treated with human medicine. However, labs in Kinshasa that analyze human blood refuse to analyze non-human blood, as they feel it is a contamination risk. Kisantu’s blood samples have to be sent all the way to Europe and it takes weeks to get the results back. There is very little the staff can do, but wait and hope. Kisantu is so weak, she is unable to feed herself, so the staff risk going in her enclosure with her to hand her food directly. Sometimes, she finds the energy to attempt to aggressively grab at Raphael’s hand. Being the veterinarian is not an easy job. Raphael is responsible for treating the bonobos’ ailments, but they typically just remember him as the man who does awful things to them. He has to not take it personally, despite his obvious love for them.

We leave Kisantu to rest, but the thought of her stays with me. The next day, I visit her again when Fanny goes down. She is even worse today, laying on the floor in a twisted manner and rolling over repeatedly in frustration. It is heart-breaking. I cautiously ask Raphael if he has ever had to euthanize a bonobo. He hasn’t, but Kisantu has come back once already from a bad state. He wants to give her more time.

The next day at lunch, Claudine is at the sanctuary and she asks me if I have visited Kisantu yet that day. I say I haven’t, I wasn’t sure if it was okay for me to go in that area, I didn’t want to step on toes while she is being treated. “My dear, you are a zookeeper! You can go anywhere that you like,” she replies in that alluring French accent.  “Besides,” she adds, “she is bored. It will be nice for her.” My empty chair wobbles in its place, as I am already on my way.

Today she is a bit better, back in the hammock with food remains underneath her. She’s eating! I gently call her name and she looks at me, making a single bonobo squeak. It is heartbreaking. The expression on her face is one of exhaustion and frustration. Raphael comes in and I optimistically state the obvious, that she is doing better. He tells me she hasn’t drank anything, she is refusing the bottle from anyone who offers. This isn’t really surprising, as she has been darted frequently and also given food and water with bad tasting pills inside. These are attempts to treat her and ease her suffering with pain medication, but to Kisantu, it is more misery. She’s done.

“I want to try something,” Raphael says.  He brings back a bottle of water and a bottle of milk and hands them to me, then asks me to try to get her to drink and he leaves. Being the vet, Kisantu is clearly agitated whenever he is near, suspecting he is going to try some new shenanigan. But I’m a new person, Kisantu has no affiliations of me and medical procedures. I sit quietly, gently calling her name. Most of the time, she ignores me. Every once in a while, she squeaks a reply or glances over at me. I switch between offering milk and offering water. Nothing.

Kisantu (on the far right) in the juvenile yard, eating sugarcane.

Kisantu (on the far right) in the juvenile yard, eating sugarcane.

All of a sudden, she grabs the side of her hammock and with every ounce of strength she can muster, slowly pulls herself up. She reaches for a bar on her enclosure, her hand is shaky. Once she manages to hold herself in place, she awkwardly leans forward to the bars and places her lips on the mouth of the bottle that I am holding between the bars. Then she drinks. And drinks. And drinks. I dare not move a muscle, I just keep holding the bottle up. Finally she fills her mouth with milk and collapses back into the hammock. She holds the milk in her mouth and some of it streams out the sides. It looks like she is savoring it. “Rafi! She drank!” I shout down the hall to the lab, where he is working. He pops his head out and is clearly stoked, but does not come down to see. Kisantu is back for water this time and he doesn’t want to distract her.

It’s almost as if she has just realized how thirsty she was. She continually makes the strenuous effort to pull herself up and have another go, each time completely filling her mouth before she collapses back into the hammock. I stay with her all afternoon and she drinks 3.75 bottles of water and 1 bottle of milk. She starts to climb from her lower hammock she has been in, to the upper hammock and back down again. Being hydrated is making her feel a lot better. I try to lure her to the adjoining enclosure, where she can have a clean hammock and not have to sit in her food remains. Very slowly, she finds her feet and though wobbly, she purposefully marches to the clean hammock and collapses into it. From the outside, I push the door between the two rooms shut, so Kisantu’s old room can be cleaned and giddily hurry to tell Raphael. Soon Fanny arrives from Kinshasa with Gatorade (very expensive to get here) and Kisantu drinks 2 bottles of that. Everyone is celebrating, Kisantu is recovering.

 

I know I’ve mentioned this previously, but the people at Lola ya Bonobo are the kindest ever. Everyone compliments me and gives me far more credit than I deserve. Even Claudine says, “I heard you saved my Kisantu. Thank-you.” Basically, I got to swoop in and be the good guy, I wasn’t here for the arduous treatments that have been occurring for weeks. Poor Rafael has slept overnight in the night house on Kisantu’s worst nights, checking on her hourly. However, I would be a liar if I didn’t say it felt really, really good to be a small part of Kisantu’s recovery.

Kisantu (looking at the camera) relaxing outside in the juvenile enclosure, with Liyaka playing to the left.

Kisantu (looking at the camera) relaxing outside in the juvenile enclosure, with Liyaka playing to the left.

The next couple of days, Kisantu gets better and better. Susie, the ethologist, makes the call that it is time for Liyaka to be reunited with her mother, but just for one night. When that goes well, Kisantu gets to go outside for a few hours in the juvenile group, along with Liyaka. She is still very weak and only walks when necessary. The rambunctious juveniles are not very sympathetic to her condition and Kisantu is separated to give her a chance to eat in peace. As of yesterday, Kisantu is now living with the juveniles 24 hours a day. Every day she gets a bit stronger, but it will probably be a while before she can be reintroduced to Group 1. Currently, there are a few coming-of-age males in that group who are eager to show-off their strength. The females keep them in-line, but it is better for Kisantu if she has her strength back before she has to deal with all the drama. Seeing her lounge in the sun, munching on some sugarcane with her daughter playing nearby is pretty special. With so little money and resources, Raphael and the staff have truly accomplished a miracle in Kisantu’s recovery.

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper Day 3

by | January 20th, 2015

An infant bonobo laughing while getting towel-dried after her morning bath.

Mama Esperance giving the infant bonobos a bath.

At present time, there are five infant bonobos in the nursery. They range from 2 years to just over 4 years. During the night, they are kept together in an indoor enclosure. In the morning, the Mamas come and let them into their outdoor enclosure, where they will supervise them the entire day. Before this can happen, each bonobo receives a bath from a Mama. Sometimes, the babies get colds (just like us) and receive some vapor rub after their baths to help with the symptoms. They additionally get an oil rubbed all over them to help keep their skin healthy.

After each bonobo receives a post-bath bottle of milk, they are brought outside. The enclosure has a very nice set-up, with a jungle gym, a small pool and many tire swings. There is also a trampoline and this is where the bonobos are given three feedings a day, the same food the adults are receiving. The reasoning behind the feeding location is to help (somewhat) contain the food mess, so it can be cleaned up very thoroughly each night and rodents are not attracted to the area. This is a pretty common concern for keepers worldwide, but it is especially important at Lola ya Bonobo. Rats here carry a virus called Encephalomyocarditis virus, more commonly referred to as EMCV. This dreadful virus is found worldwide, although it comes in different strains which have different symptoms and levels of severity.  When apes in sanctuaries contract this virus, it is fatal and there is no known cure. Here at Lola alone, two bonobos have died from EMCV. From the first sign of symptoms (off-balance, unable to walk straight), it takes only two hours until an individual dies. It is constantly on the mind of the staff here.

Infant bonobo enclosure.

Socialization is crucial for the young bonobos to be psychologically healthy and well-developed.

Surrounding this play area is an electric fence, but the trees on both sides of the fence are plentiful and tall. The bonobos can easily climb up and onto other trees outside the fence. For the past few days, this has been very common, as there is a mango tree just on the other side of the fence and they are in season now. The first time I saw the babies going on one of these adventures, I urgently tried to tell the Mamas. They reassured me it wasn’t a problem. At this age, the young bonobos are still very dependent on the Mamas and may venture for a bit, but always return. This is proven any time a loud, unexpected noise occurs. The babies will rush to the nearest Mama and into her arms.

 

Practicing nest building.

The babies’ energy often seems endless, but there are slower times when things quiet down and the babies rest by the Mamas. Like any species of infant, they are curious about the world around them and sit and observe bugs crawling, make a game with a stick or just sometimes randomly break into somersaulting.

An offered kiss, a common sign of affection amongst bonobos.

Being here reminds me of the old African proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” This is absolutely true of bonobos as well. I spoke with Susie, the ethologist (animal behavior researcher) on staff, about why it is so important for many people to interact with bonobos during this young stage. She explains that the bonobos are so social, that they need constant interaction during these crucial first years. Is it as good as having a real bonobo mother and community to interact with? No, of course not. In this awful situation so many orphaned bonobos find themselves in, it is the best replacement possible. Around the age of 3-4 years, the bonobos are slowly introduced into the juvenile group and weaned off the Mamas. They learn to shift into night houses (where they will now have visual access to adult bonobos) and become more dependent on each other. By the time they are ready to enter the adult groups, they are well-adjusted adolescents. Each of these steps is a very important piece of fulfilling Lola’s ultimate goal: Returning bonobos to the wild.

Susie, ethologist on staff.

Susie, ethologist on staff.

Of course, not all of these bonobos will be brought to Ekolo ya Bonobo, the release site in northern Democratic Republic of Congo. Part of Susie’s job is to have a strict list of requirements a bonobo must fulfill, such as does not seek interaction with humans over bonobos, socially confident in their community, can form alliances well with others. While the vet, the sanctuary manager and the keepers will have an input, ultimately Susie is the one to make the call if a release will be attempted for an individual. At this time, 15 bonobos have been released at Ekolo and three infants have been born to females in this group. The Ekolo community is followed daily by rangers to guard them, similar to what is done with the famous mountain gorillas in Rwanda and Uganda. When Ekolo was originally chosen as the release site, not only had the bonobos been wiped out, but most of the wildlife as well. It was an empty forest. Now, with the presence of the bonobos, other wildlife is returning to the forest.

One thing you will notice about the bonobos currently in the nursery: They have all of their fingers and toes. As I’ve mentioned in a previous blog entry, there is a common belief in DRC that giving a human infant a bath in water with a bonobo bone will help them grow-up strong and healthy. Meat is also very expensive. Congolese poachers will therefore kill an entire community of bonobos, except for the infants. Big money can be made selling the infants to rich families as pets or into zoos and circuses in Asia. However, every bit of bone you can get is also worth a lot of money, so infants have come in missing fingers. Lola ya Bonobo and Ekolo ya Bonobo has worked very hard to educate the public and it is clearly paying-off, as less and less bonobo infants are coming in with missing digits. While foreign tourists must pay money to come to the sanctuary, national Congolese are given a big discount and school groups pay nothing. This is Claudine Andre’s philosophy, as she knows education (in particular to children) is the best thing that can be done to protect the future of the bonobo.

 

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper Day 2

by | January 16th, 2015

“Lola ya Bonobo” means Paradise of the Bonobos and this sanctuary for orphaned bonobos truly lives up to its name. The only country in the world that bonobos exist in is the Democratic Republic of Congo. DRC is also the poorest country in the world. Bonobos are hunted for bushmeat, traditional medicinal practices and the babies are taken into the pet trade. One traditional belief is if you bathe a human newborn in water with a piece of bonobo bone, they will grow-up strong and healthy. Many of the infants that have found their way to Lola are missing digits because of this belief.

Oakland ZooKeeper Natasha Tworoski with infant bonobos

Oakland ZooKeeper Natasha Tworoski with infant bonobo

The objective of Lola ya Bonobo is to Rescue, Rehabilitate and Release. Confiscated infants caught in transit on the black market pet trade are brought to the sanctuary and placed with a human substitute mother, called a Mama. Each infant has to be handled in a different manner, depending on the infant’s experiences. Some infants are healthy and have been living with humans for a while, so they are trusting. Others are sick and traumatized, once bonded to a Mama, they do not want to be with anyone else. The more severe cases require someone to be with the infant 24/7.

Group 2 bonobos.A young Group 2 bonobo.

 

The Mama will come in every day and at night, the infant stays with the veterinarian who lives on ground, until the infant has the confidence to be separated and with other Mamas. Besides psychological health, the physical health of the infant must also be taken into consideration. A new infant will be quarantined for one month and blood tests will be run to check for rabies, tuberculosis, papillomavirus and SIV (the bonobo equivalent of HIV). Once this has been accomplished, the infant is introduced to the “petit nursery.” Here, the Mamas spend the entire day observing and caring for the infants as they gain confidence and independence, interacting with everyone, not just their Mama. Once they reach a certain level of independence, they are moved to the juvenile nursery. They still are under close supervision, but now only by one Mama or zookeeper. They begin to depend more on their fellow bonobos for social interaction. Finally, the adolescents will be integrated into one of the three adult group enclosures.

My first morning at the sanctuary, I walked the 1.5 mile path around the perimeter with Gaspard. Gaspard is a young Belgian man who is en route to a school in South Africa for wildlife management. At 19, he is one of the most well-traveled people I’ve met, as well as easy-going and passionate about animals. He is also fluent in English and very willing to translate questions I have to the French-speaking staff. As you walk the path, you pass the enclosure for Group 1, then Group 3 and finally Group 2. We arrived at Group 2 just in time to see the morning feeding. Papa Jean-Claude is the head zookeeper for Group 2 and one of the happiest men I’ve ever met, he has worked for other zoos throughout the Congo, but had a very strong desire to be a bonobo keeper. He explains the first feeding is primarily vegetables, the second feeding is mostly fruit and the last feeding of the day is sugar cane. This is the same for all the adult groups.

Jean-Claude and Gaspard.

This past year, the sanctuary had to deal with a growing problem. Local farmers knew just how dependent Lola was on produce, they needed to buy it no matter what. So the price was continually growing at exponential rates. Fanny, the manager, came up with a great idea. Now Lola gives out the seeds of the produce they need to local farmers for free, including lessons on how to grow each type. They then ask the farmers to sell back the produce and have a contract to an agreed upon price that is fair. The program has been successful for the most part, although some of the farmers have discovered they can get a better price in Kinshasa and are opting to do that. The sanctuary is still receiving enough produce from the farmers who are interested and it is likely others will return since they are not guaranteed to sell all their produce in town and the cost of transporting it there is very high as well.

 

Jean-Claude feeding the Group 2 bonobos.

As I eagerly try to photograph every moment of the feeding, I zoom in on two bonobos having sex. Jean-Claude, who speaks a little English, says, “Sex. Make love, not war,” and bursts into laughter. He’s right, this the phrase the media loves to use when talking about bonobos. While they look nearly identical to chimpanzees, their behavior could not be more different. Bonobos are a female-dominated society and while aggression does exist, it does not escalate anywhere near the levels seen in chimpanzees and most other primates. There is no record of a bonobo, wild or captive, killing another bonobo. Their secret? Sex. It is used to strengthen bonds, build new alliances and resolve conflict. Whom a bonobo has sex with is independent of age and sex, because a huge majority of the time, it has nothing to do with procreation. This has not been seen in another species in the animal kingdom…except for humans, of course.

Donations to Lola ya Bonobo.

We finish our looparound the perimeter and head back to the veranda of the main house, where the offices and kitchen are also located. Fanny is there, working hard to get in touch with a media organization running a story on Lola ya Bonobo. When she is done, I ask to show her the donations I brought from Oakland. From Oakland Zoo, this includes 11 brand new long-sleeved shirts, 5 pairs of boots, suture materials and flea treatment for the dogs and cats the sanctuary has also taken in. Oakland Zoo volunteers and staff have also given sheets, small blankets and a rain jacket. I brought scented soaps and perfumes for the Mamas, vitamins for the bonobos and candy and stickers for the children visitors. All of it is received with the greatest appreciation, as these things are either very difficult to get in DRC or very expensive. I immediately regret not bringing more! My favorite story from the donations is Allain. Allain is a small man and when the sanctuary has bulk ordered boots in the past, even the smallest size has been too big for him. One of the pairs of boots that Oakland Zoo donated was quite small and so they were offered to him. When he put them on, Fanny asked if they fit and he said, “Yes. I can run in these.”

We soon sit to have lunch and I can feel the jet lag sitting in. I feel like a little kid who missed her nap, that I might soon be asleep with my face in my meal, but I am fighting it with everything ounce of strength I have. I don’t want to miss a thing. Next, I am going to go meet the infant bonobos in the nursery- now is not the time to fall asleep.