Posts Tagged ‘ZooKeeper’

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper

by | January 15th, 2015

A common approach to see in many modern movies is the protagonist country-hopping. It’s so exciting, so romantic. One moment our hero is in Japan, following a corrupt business man about to complete a huge transaction. The next, she is in the Colombian jungle looking for a rare artifact. A quick caption at the bottom is our only hint that we have now shifted location thousands of miles. As I boarded my first of three flights to Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo, it was this globe-trotting theme that was surging through me.

My first flight from San Francisco to Toronto was delayed by over four hours, due to*two* planes having mechanical issues and each having to be switched out. I had a 5.5 hour layover in Canada, so it wasn’t that big of a deal- I spent the time in SFO instead of YZZ. Additional boarding delays did make me have to run to my next flight to Addis Ababa, but there was a problem with most passengers’ tickets and so we were delayed boarding as they went through each ticket, one-by-one. Then the plane had to be de-iced. Our 12.5 hour flight was delayed by 2 hours and it left me 10 minutes to get from one gate to the second in a non-Western airport. Three African business men and I were lead very quickly through the crowded airport. When we reached the gate, could see our smaller plane still waiting…and were told the flight was closed. The businessmen exploded with anger, the airline staff snidely told us they had called our names, but we hadn’t answered. While I wasn’t feeling sleepy at this point, my body was so exhausted and the thought of spending 24 hours in the crowded airport until the next flight to Kinshasa made me want to push past the attendants and run onto the plane in a hysterical manner. If this were a movie, surely the villain would have fed my love interest to a pit of crocodiles by this point, tired of waiting for me to show-up.

Hotel Room in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

View from my hotel room in Addis Ababa. The city is developing quickly, so huge buildings are going up right next to slums like this one.

After another two hours standing in a customer service line (with the dozens of people who had also missed Ethiopian Airlines’ flights), one of the businessmen was next in line to be helped. He told us to give him our passports and tickets, then went up to the counter. A young seminary student traveling to Kinshasa to visit her sister had also had a delayed flight to Addis Ababa, so she got in on our group approach as well. Thirty more minutes passed. Finally, he returned with a voucher for a hotel room, meals, transport and one free 3-minute phone call. Everyone in our groupseemed much calmer at this point, but I was more than that. I was completely elated. I had forgotten I had any other purpose in life other than to be alone in a quiet room where I could sleep in a bed, so I was feeling quite accomplished.


My Christmas meal in Ethiopia. Orange liquid is an Ethiopian honey wine that is very sweet and tasty.

Following a 3 minute phone call to Kinshasa which consisted of, “Stuck in Addis Ababa, be there tomorrow, sorry, bye!” I slept for several hours and then the missionary student, Miriana, and I decided to go out on the town. We asked the front desk for recommendations and they sent a woman with us to a restaurant with live performers. Ethiopia is a very old Christian country and they celebrate Christmas on January 7th, which just happened to be that day! Everyone was out in beautiful garb, the restaurant was packed and full of life.

Ethiopian dancing consists of a lot of short, small movements. A series of different dance groups came out, each with a different style and some with singers. Our hostess helped us to order food and explained the history of different dances and songs. There was so much color and beauty, I really fell in love with Ethiopia that night.

After a restless sleep (my body had no idea what time it was or what it was supposed to be doing), I packed up the few things from my carry-on (luggage was unaccounted for at this point) and went to breakfast. I had begun to suspect the reason they hadn’t  let us on the flight the day before was because there were too many people booked for it. Well over 20 people were staying at our hotel, all of them missed connecting Ethiopian Airlines flights due to the fault of the company. If this happened daily, they were bound to get backed up. Also, now knowing it had been a national holiday explained why it was just so crowded in Addis Ababa’s airport.

This realization made me very nervous that morning, as all of us delayed flyers needed to get to the airport, preferably long before boarding time so we were assured a seat. At breakfast, people were talking and in no hurry. But I’m an American: I’m antsy, nervous and overzealous about being on time. I decided I was just going to go sit on the van, a couple of the businessmen I had befriended the day before had the same idea. My fears were realized when the van left several flyers behind, assuring them that another van would be along soon. Our van raced along, swerving precariously between other vehicles (including oncoming traffic). I was in the back along with two Congolese men who worked for a wildlife conservation organization in Kinshasa. We had to move our seat forward to fit luggage behind us, but the seat was not secure on the track now. When we stopped quickly, our seat would squish us forward. When the driver gunned it to cut someone off, we should quickly slam backwards. One of the men proclaimed, “Our seat is not serious. We will soon be in the street.”

We made our flight and the plane was huge, not the typical two-and-two-seat rows for most flights between African countries. This plane was the type used to fly across continents and oceans, so I again suspected they had overbooked yesterday’s flight and were trying to get back on track today.

Welcome banner and sign made for me by Pasha, the head groundskeeper. Also, one of the lucky dogs taken in by the sanctuary.

The four-hour flight was uneventful. When leaving the plane and getting on the tarmac, I was greeted by a man with a sign, “TWOROSKI, NATASHA-MARIE BONOBOS,” who had been hired by the sanctuary to get me. He took my baggage-claim tickets and I went through customs. After a nightmare of trying to locate my bags, I was on my way!

French is the main language of DRC and I had attempted to listen to “Learn French in Your Car” CDs before I left. This has turned out to have been well worth the effort and I regret not investing more time into it. My driver drove me through traffic for an hour through very crowded Kinshasa to get to a point where I would be passed along to a driver who worked directly for Lola ya Bonobo. It was not that far, but the traffic made it a nightmare. This is the fourth major African city I have seen (including Kigali, Kampala and Addis Ababa), but the poverty level is clearly the highest in Kinshasa. So many buildings that were probably once hotels or businesses are now rubble, with collapsed walls and no roof, homes to those who have none. The other big cities I have been to have varied in their approach to cleaning-up roads (Kigali was spotless), but Kinshasa is different than all of those. Trash upon trash builds up on the roads, with homeless children, feral dogs and general poverty everywhere.

At this point, the traveling and lack of any solid sleep was catching up to me. I didn’t have any water, I had a headache, I was almost in a fatal car accident approximately a dozen times. It was one of the moments where you start to think, “Why? Why did I want this so badly?” The driver and an escort from Lola ya Bonobo were in the car and speaking very fast French, mostly like gossiping from the few words I caught. Then the escort leaned forward and said, “Madame Natasha, Welcome to Lola!”

Instant change of emotions. I cannot properly describe how quickly the habitat changed from traditional rural African roads to entering a jungle oasis. Lola ya Bonobo truly lives up to its name, “Paradise of the Bonobos.” The center of the sanctuary, which hosts the offices and living quarters, is built on a large, green hill that is beautifully maintained by the staff. A large archway made of vines and decorated with flowers had been constructed for my arrival, it included a welcome sign in English (which I was later to learn required some effort by Pasha, the head groundskeeper).

My home during my stay at Lola ya Bonobo.

I was brought to my room, which was considerably nicer than any place I’ve stayed at in Africa, and given a quick lunch. The rooms are spacious, well-decorated and each even has a wall air-conditioning unit for when there is electricity (although mine has yet to work).

Soon, I was greeted by the manager of the sanctuary, Fanny. Fanny’s mom is Claudine Andre, the brave woman who started the sanctuary in 1994 in the midst of a violent civil war. Like her mother, Fanny is kind, beautiful and gracious. As I spoke with Fanny, every frustration and annoyance I had felt left me. It was finally time for me to meet the bonobos.

Check back here tomorrow for another journal entry on my adventures in Africa!






Bay Area Zookeepers Host Art Gallery Fundraiser

by | October 16th, 2014
Bay Area AAZK members have a good time while raising money for animals in the wild.

Bay Area AAZK members have a good time while raising money for animals in the wild.

Oakland Zoo is not only an advocate for conservation, but also for quality captive animal care and zookeeper professional development. With major assistance from Oakland Zoo every year, the Bay Area Chapter of the American Association of Zookeepers (AAZK) has had great success fundraising money for conservation. One of the most successful fundraisers is a part of AAZK’s national fundraiser, Bowling for Rhinos (BFR).  This event is celebrated by various AAZK chapters across the country to raise money for the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, the International Rhino Foundation, and Action for Cheetahs in Kenya.  In addition to BFR, the Bay Area Chapter fund raises to help support local and international conservation organizations such as the California Condor Recovery Program and the Giraffe Conservation Foundation. This year, Bay Area AAZK set out to raise a minimum of $15,000 for conservation and professional development and today’s total stands at just over $14,000.  The chapter has one more fundraiser this year to exceed this goal.

paintings for DTPC fundraiser

Animal Painting that will be available for auction at Bay Area AAZK event.

Bay Area AAZK will be holding its first ever Art Gallery Fundraiser to raise funds for the Desert Tortoise Preserve Committee (DTPC).  DTPC is dedicated to establishing preserves for California and Nevada’s state reptile, researching the species, and educating the public.  The Art Gallery Fundraiser will display various types of art, from paintings created by animals to beautiful animal and nature-inspired photographs.  Donations will be raised via silent auction.  The event will be held at the Oakland Zoo in the Marian Zimmer Auditorium beginning at 7:00pm on Saturday, October 25 and will end at 10:00pm. The cost is $10.00 at the door.  All ages are encouraged to attend and help BAAAZK support the deserving Desert Tortoise Preservation Committee and college paper writing service. Monies raised at this event will help DTPC purchase additional land, which will be turned into preserves for the tortoises. Funding also helps DTPC with their education program and guided tours, which provides tours through the Desert Tortoise Research Natural Area (DTRNA).  This is a 39.5 square mile tortoise preserve.

For additional information about this event or Bay Area AAZA, go to

Learning how to train animals…

by | March 10th, 2014
Me training a Scarlet Macaw to present its foot on the cage for a nail trim

Me training a Scarlet Macaw to present its foot on the cage for a nail trim

I recently had the privilege of attending a workshop on Contemporary Animal Training and Management hosted by

Me and my team leader training a Pied Crow to step on my hand

Me and my team leader training a Pied Crow to step on my hand

Me training a Blue-throated Macaw to land on my hand

Me training a Blue-throated Macaw to land on my hand

Natural Encounters, Inc. in Florida.  It was an amazing educational experience, and I honestly can’t stop thinking about it.

Me target training a Red-fronted Macaw

Me target training a Red-fronted Macaw

Just a beautiful photo of a Blue and Gold Macaw in-flight

Just a beautiful photo of a Blue and Gold Macaw in-flight

The 5 day workshop followed a format that balanced both theoretical presentations and practical hands-on training sessions. Experienced animal trainers and animal behavior scientists were on hand to share their expertise and answer our endless list of questions.  I got the opportunity to network with dozens of other zoo professionals, dog trainers, and companion parrot owners.  The challenge after any workshop, conference, or seminar that I participate in is applying my new or improved skills with the animals that I work with at the Oakland Zoo.  Fortunately, this challenge is the reason I love my job!

You may be wondering why we bother with animal training, who we train, or how we train.  Training has been described as the ultimate form of enrichment.  The application of enrichment seeks to stimulate our animals both physically and mentally while also empowering them to make their own choices and control their environments.  Perhaps that’s a bit of a “wordy” description of the concept.  Bottom line is the animal gets to exercise their brain and often their body by doing something…anything really.  At the Oakland Zoo, we do all kinds of training with all kinds of animals.  Leonard, our male African lion, is trained to place his paw on an x-ray plate and hold still for x-rays.  Tiki, one of our Reticulated giraffe, is trained to present her feet for hoof trimmings and acupuncture treatments. Torako, one of our tigers, is trained to position her tail through a hatch so that Zookeepers can safely draw blood from a vein in her tail.  The flock of Red-bellied Parrots in our Savannah Aviary exhibit are trained to perch on particular stations so that Zookeepers can examine them daily.

You may be noticing a theme.  Many of our training goals seek to empower the animal to willingly and eagerly participate in their own husbandry and medical care.  All of these animals have the choice to walk away in the middle of a training session if they want.  Ultimately, this allows the animal AND the Zookeeper to function in a low-stress, highly reinforcing tandem.  The animal is having fun, and the Zookeeper is having fun!

Thanks for reading!  I’ll leave you with some of my favorite pictures from the Contemporary Animal Training and Management workshop.

The Lions of Oakland Zoo…Sandy & Leonard

by | February 7th, 2014
Sandy and Leonard as cubs in 2000

Sandy and Leonard as cubs in 2000


If you’ve been to the Zoo, you’ve likely seen Sandy & Leonard, lounging around in their expansive exhibit, soaking up the sun or enjoying some animal enrichment their loving ZooKeepers so carefully laid out for them earlier that morning. Their presence is awe inspiring, to say the least. It’s hard to believe it has been almost one and a half decades since they arrived here as cubs at Oakland Zoo.  Many people don’t know the history of these two- siblings, actually- so we’d like to share their story with you.

They were the first rescued lions to be placed in a zoo by the Houston SPCA. It was July, 2000 in Crockett, Texas.  Police entered a suspect’s property on an unrelated warrant and found 14 exotic cats and a wolf. Houston SPCA seized all the animals and was given custody of them after the owner had been found to have cruelly treated the animals: depriving them of necessary food, care, and shelter. Two of the cats were 4-month old lion cubs; they were starving, dehydrated, flea ridden, and their coats were patchy and dry.  The Houston SPCA provided them with housing and veterinary care and a month later, they arrived to us, via Continental Airlines, here at Oakland Zoo.

Leonard in 2013 (Photo Courtesy of Colleen Renshaw)

Leonard in 2013 (Photo Courtesy of Colleen Renshaw)

Thus named “Sandy” and “Leonard” the two resided in our Veterinary Care Center while they gained weight and strength. At the time, the Zoo already had an established lion pride, so a separate outdoor holding area was constructed adjacent to the existing lion exhibit, called ‘Simba Pori’.

As the cubs grew, ZooKeepers began plans to introduce Sandy and Leonard to our four resident mature lions, Victor, Marika, Sophie and Maddie. In January 2001, Sandy and Leonard moved up to the lion night house. The introduction and integration of the lions had moderate success. The youngsters did well with our adult male, Victor, and one adult female, Marika, but the other two females did not appreciate their presence.  As with domestic cats, you never know how felines will get along! We took our cues from the lions’

Sandy and Leonard, 2013. Photo Courtesy of Colleen Renshaw

Sandy and Leonard, 2013. Photo Courtesy of Colleen Renshaw

behaviors and decided to manage the lions as separate groups. Over the years, in 2010, the older lions succumbed to age-related illnesses (2 from kidney disease and 2 from cancer). So, today, Sandy and Leonard have taken ownership of the lion exhibit, the night house, and the hearts of staff, ZooKeepers and guests alike.

While their beginnings in the exotic animal trade surely could have destined them to a life of cruelty, we were fortunate to have been able to provide them with a safe and forever home here at the zoo.

Holiday Gifts for the Animals

by | November 14th, 2013


And our sun bears love Kongs. Sometimes, we even fill them with peanut butter, which is the sun bears’ favorite thing to eat.

And our sun bears love Kongs. Sometimes, we even fill them with peanut butter, which is the sun bears’ favorite thing to eat.

Hey Kids! Zena the Zookeeper here.  It’s holiday time at Oakland Zoo, and I have a question for you: Name something you love getting during the holidays. If you said, PRESENTS! then you and our animals here at the Zoo have something in common.  Our animals love presents too.  And I’m here to tell you, we just love giving presents to them.  The presents we give our animals are called enrichments.  Those are special toys and games that help our animals live like they are back in the wild.  (If you want to learn more about animal enrichments, check out my blog from September called Animal Enrichment is Important to Chimpanzees!)

So, what kinds of presents do our animals like to receive? All kinds! Our chimps love lots of different toys. For example, one of our female chimps just adores plush-toy snakes. She wears them around her neck like a scarf. The ferrets and chinchillas love hanging beds, and the zebras go nuts for Jolly-Ranger balls.  We zookeepers put treats in the balls and watch the zebras happily work to get them out! Check out the picture here of my fellow 20131002_143235zookeeper prepping the balls with molasses and alfalfa for the Zebras to enjoy.20131002_144428


Luigi the ferret, can spend hours playing hide-and-seek in his alligator bed.










And, just last week we asked people to send presents for some of our Zoo staff headed to Borneo to help out some rescued sun bears over there.   And boy, did everyone help out! We got so many new toys for them – we even have some pictures of the Bornean bears playing with their new presents from Oakland Zoo.

If you’d like to give a present to one of our Zoo animals this holiday season, be sure to check out the wishlist we zookeepers put up on .  It lists all the great toys and enrichment we know our animals love to receive.


The goats in the Children’s Contact Yard love butting around big, inflatable balls.  I suspect they may be playing some kind of top-secret goat soccer!

The goats in the Children’s Contact Yard love butting around big, inflatable balls. I suspect they may be playing some kind of top-secret goat soccer!

There’s lots to choose from, so I’m sure you’ll find something that will make one of our animals feel wild and wonderful.(Don’t forget to check with an adult before you purchase anything.)

So, until next time, remember – we only have one planet, so let’s all be conservation heroes and take good care of everything on it!

Our Beautiful Macaws and Why They Need Enrichment

by | September 6th, 2013

IMG_4963Oakland Zoo’s Animal Care, Conservation, and Research team has the privilege and challenge of providing our animal residents with an enriching, well-balanced life and advocating for the conservation of their wild counterparts.

The zoo’s flock of Blue and Gold Macaws recently got a healthy dose of extra enrichment.  The ACCR team combed through a handful of creative ideas to give the Macaw Exhibit a new, fresh look.  In addition to replacing some of the wood perching that had suffered significant wear-and-tear from years of the Macaws using them to keep their beaks sharp and strong, the team also added two twenty foot sections of rope.  The rope is a novel perching surface in this exhibit.  It will not only give our Blue and Gold Macaws something new and fun to play with, but it will also help keep their little feet healthy.  With some resourceful alterations to the ends of the rope, the Keepers are able to move the ropes to different angles whenever they please.  This way the birds get a bit of a “different look” with their perching without the keepers having to make any permanent rearrangements.


The fun doesn’t stop there though!  The team recycled some cargo netting and stretched it out between some perching to support brand new bird baths.  Just like the native songbirds that like to bathe in the little puddles in your yard, Macaws and other Parrots love to keep themselves clean too.

But one may wonder…why?  Why do our Blue and Gold Macaws deserve this special treatment?

Macaws are smart.  Macaws are REALLY smart and curious.  It is this very characteristic that makes them coveted as pets.  Ironically, it is also what makes them inappropriate as a pet.  Meeting the behavioral and enrichment needs of these incredibly smart birds is difficult. 2013_0831 P B on new perches 2 A behaviorally unhealthy bird may become aggressive, destructive, or even sick.

Add to this the fact that Blue and Gold Macaws can live for over 60 years, and the bird often becomes an unbearable burden even for well-intentioned owners.  In fact, the four Blue and Gold Macaws in the Zoo’s collection came from such circumstances.  The Keepers responsible for the daily care of our Macaws are tasked with keeping them behaviorally and medically sound.  Having flexible and varied perching options will help immensely with this goal.

Next time you visit the zoo, be sure to swing by our Macaw Exhibit.  Check out the innovative rope perching and bird baths and see if you can spot all the other enrichment that may be hanging around the exhibit.  But most importantly, make sure you walk away with a better appreciation for our conservation message – while Blue and Gold Macaws are a breathtaking, charismatic bird, the needs of the individual birds and the sustainability of the entire species are best accomplished by discouraging their role in the pet trade.