Posts Tagged ‘ZooKeepers’

From Oakland to Africa – Diary of a ZooKeeper Day 8

by | February 3rd, 2015

It was another quiet day at the sanctuary. I went down to the daily morning meeting with all the staff, as a sign of respect mostly. The meeting is in French, so I don’t get much out of it. I sort of notice the director, Pierrot, has a lot to say this morning, but I don’t catch any of it and today no one offers to translate. Not that big of a deal.

From left to right: Claudine Andre (founder), Fanny Minesi (manager), me and below: Raphael Belais (veterinarian). The poster is in Lingala and is stating that being convicted of killing a bonobo is punishable by 10 years in prison and a $8,500 fine (a new law instated two months ago).

From left to right: Claudine Andre (founder), Fanny Minesi (manager), me and below: Raphael Belais (veterinarian). The poster is in Lingala and is stating that being convicted of killing a bonobo is punishable by 10 years in prison and a $8,500 fine (a new law instated two months ago).

I head to the nursery for a little bit, but then decide to be present for the Group 1 feeding. I sit on the bank of the large pond that runs alongside one perimeter of the enclosure and watch the bonobos interact. They’re all hanging out and waiting to be fed, but no keepers come. I’m not entirely sure what is going on, but it probably is not note-worthy. Nothing really happens at a set time in Congo. Pasha, the head groundskeeper, comes up and says hello. He knows about as much English as I do French (aka basic phrases), but he always comes to talk to me anyways. With the help of hand signals, we exchange a little back and forth about the bonobos. He then asks when I am going back to America, I tell him in one week. He’s quiet and then says, “Congo, Congo, Congo.” I reply, “J’adore Congo!” (“I love Congo!”). His face is very serious when he says, “Problems. Congo est difficile.” Congo is difficult. I nod empathetically, but I’m not sure what to say. It seems like he wants to discuss something, but we have no way to do it. It’s frustrating, because I’m dying to know what’s on his mind. Is he just referring to the turbulent history of the country? We’re both quiet for a minute or two and watch the bonobos, then he tells me he is leaving and we say goodbye.

Later that night, Gaspard and I are talking before dinner and I ask if he knows if Fanny is coming back from Kinshasa that night still. He says no, she decided to stay in town with her daughter and keep her home from school, because of the demonstrations. “Huh?” I ask, feeling like a ditz. Then Gaspard tells me what Pierrot had been telling all the staff that morning.

As mentioned in a previous blog, President Kabila is under strong international pressure to step-down at the end of his current term, which ends in December 2016. He’s not happy about this. On Sunday, there was supposed to be a vote in Congress on a new law that states a nation-wide census must be completed before the next presidential election. The Democratic Republic of Congo is huge, the second largest country in Africa, and a census has not been completed since the 80’s. To organize and complete a census will take years and only then would the campaigning for the presidency be able to start. Students in Kinshasa were planning to protest during the vote, but the government quickly did the vote on Saturday instead of Sunday and it passed. Today was Monday and people are angry, there have been protests. So far, it hasn’t escalated too badly. Several protesters were shot with rubber bullets and sent to the hospital, one police officer was stoned to death and one grocery store was looted. Traffic in the city is at an all-time high, most public transportation isn’t running (the reason why there was so few staff in the morning). All in all, it sounds pretty similar to protests that were happening all across the U.S. when I left, but being in a country that I haven’t lived in and having it happen somehow makes it seem worse. However, the sanctuary is far from Kinshasa and in a rural area. It’s safe here.

After dinner, Gaspard and I decide to walk around the perimeter of the sanctuary to look for wildlife that comes out at night. In particular, I really want to see a snake. We head off with head lamps and flashlights, but the night guard stops us. They speak in French for a long time, I don’t have any idea what’s happening. Finally, I learn that because of the tensions in the city, the military that are in the area are on high alert. The sanctuary’s guard doesn’t want us to walk along the perimeter, he’s worried we will run into one of them. He’s referring to the same military that we passed on our way to the lake a few days before. Apparently, they haven’t actually been in this area for very long and no one knows why they are here. Most of them come from eastern DRC, where a lot of people speak Swahili, not French.  These guards also don’t speak Lingala, which is the local language in this area that all the Congolese use to converse. I suddenly feel pretty stupid for saying, “M’bote!” to all the guards the day before, the Lingala word for “hello.”

We head back to the cabin and decide to ask the director about it the next day. I’ve learned that no matter how many people you ask about the conflict, you always get a different variation of the answer. Some are very nervous and full of warning, while others shrug it off and say it isn’t a big deal. I’m not sure if the situation is being blown out of proportion or if people are desensitized to the violence, because this happens every time there is any type of vote. I think it at least in part comes from no one knowing what will happen. Things can change so quickly or it can all blow over just as fast as it started. In some small way, I’m grateful to be exposed to the uncertainty, as I think I will be a better person for it. That being said, if my mom is reading this, I’m playing it on the safe side and staying in my room tonight.

Oakland Zoo ZooKeepers in the Field in Madagascar!

by | November 20th, 2014


Awesome is really the only way to describe Centre ValBio. The Brain Child of Dr. Patricia Wright, it is a state of the art research center located steps away from Ranomafana National Park. The raw beauty of the native flora and fauna of Madagascar surrounds you from every angle. At the same, time, the Centre has two floors of dorm rooms and several state of the art laboratories for researchers and study abroad students from all over the world. The sheer amount of research that is possible here is staggering, and the hard working staff atCentre ValBio make the most of it! There are also several satellite camps out in the forest where researchers and students can stay while doing observations. The Centre, however is home base, with electricity, Wifi, and hot showers right on the edge of the Park. One of the few places where primary forest still survives, you can easily run into several species of lemurs on one morning hike.

We were fortunate enough to have Dr. Wright give us a personal tour of a small section of the forest on our first day here.. She showed us her first campsite in the forest some 28 years ago, when she first discovered a new species of lemur. That lemur, the golden bamboo lemur, just happened to be the first one we saw in the wild in the forest – and we saw it with her! On the first trek, we also saw sifakas, red bellied lemurs and red fronted lemurs. We even saw black and white ruffed lemurs, which are not often found in that particular part of the forest.

Slash and BurnBamboo lemur

Centre Val Bio

One of the most striking things I saw on the trek, however, was not the lemurs, but the interactions between Dr. Wright and the locals. Ranomafana National Park is becoming more and more an eco-tourist site, similar to the model used in Rwanda with mountain gorillas. Most recently a French Colony, French is the most common language spoken outside of the native Malagasy which makes it a Mecca for French tourists. We must have run into at least 10 tour groups that day. My French is rusty, but I am able to speak enough to converse and understand most of what was said. Dr. Wright knew every single guide by name! She stopped to speak with each of them and they all made a point to introduce her to their tour groups as the founder of the park and the discoverer of the golden bamboo lemur. They were undeniably proud of her and their forest and cared deeply about the animals that inhabited it. One group had never heard of her, but after the guide explained who she was and how important she was to the park, they lined up to take their pictures with her.

Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world. Most people survive on less than $2/day. That poverty was evident on the 10 hour drive we took from the capital city of Antanarivo (simply called Tana by the locals) to the Centre. However, Dr. Wright has done everything in her power to transform this area. Conservation is not just about research, it is also about the people.   The construction of Centre ValBio has brought jobs, education, and even electricity and clean water to the local town of Ranomafana. Logging has all but stopped in the area and though the slash and burn agriculture is apparent all around, more and more locals are finding employment not just at the Centre, but at local luxury hotels that are popping up in the area, bringing even more money into the local economy. Dr. Wright brought us to her Women’s Weaving Centre where the women make their own money by weaving the most beautiful scarves and bags out of cotton and a locally produced silk. In the center of Ranomafana, you can buy perfectly crafted baskets, woven placemats, and carvings made from sustainable wood.

Women Weaver signWeaver

While it may have been the lemurs that brought her here, Dr. Wright has improved life for all of the local inhabitants – human, animal, and plant. She is an inspiration. Earlier this year, she became the first woman ever to win the Indianapolis Prize for Conservation. She jokes that it is fitting that someone who studies matriarchal primates be the first woman to win that prize, but the truth is she deserves it either way! Dr. Wright’s work is the epitome of a well-rounded conservation program and Oakland Zoo is proud and honored to be a part of it.

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.

Pachyderm Podiatry

by | April 13th, 2013

I recently attended the 2013 Elephant Care Workshop at the Phoenix Zoo. The Workshop is put on by the zoo’s highly

Indu, one of the three beautiful Asian female elephants of the Phoenix Zoo.

Indu, one of the three beautiful Asian female elephants of the Phoenix Zoo.

dedicated and compassionate elephant staff, as well as their partner Alan Roocroft who operates Elephant Business, a small elephant management consulting company. There were several keynote speakers, besides Alan, who covered topics from tusk and oral care to elephant diseases and radiographs. The focus of the workshop was foot care, which involves several issues, such as disease and abscesses, tool care and use, foot anatomy, habitat complexity and interaction, and exercise. When talking elephants, there are a multitude of things that are important when it comes to their health and well-being, but the care of their feet is at the top of the list. Foot disease and related issues are the number one reason for death in captive elephants. As Alan says, “foot care should be a culture at your facility”. I took away several important key facts from this workshop and I’d like to share them.

To provide elephants in captivity with everything they need is providing them with health and well-being physiologically, physically, and psychologically. If one of those three is off than the others don’t work as well, or at all. What I learned during our

Jessica, one of the five dedicated Elephant Keepers, giving the daily pedicure at the Oakland Zoo.

Jessica, one of the five dedicated Elephant Keepers, giving the daily pedicure at the Oakland Zoo.

lectures and discussions in the workshop is that a healthy mind equals healthy feet and vice versa. But what does it take to create a healthy mind and in turn healthy feet? Three basic things: firstly, the philosophy of the institution. We are fortunate that our management prioritizes elephant care and understands that foot care is a priority during the daily routine. Each day the keepers spend up to four hours working with the elephants on daily husbandry and training. If there is not trained competent staff as well as elephants along with sufficient time, then the elephant’s needs cannot be met.

Secondly, a basic understanding of an elephant’s natural history and biological needs is required. This seems so simple when thinking about it . . . spacious facilities, dirt, mud, browse, grass, varied terrain, social groups . . . the list goes on and on.  We need to create complex environments and interactive habitats or else the elephants mind is not stimulated. If the mind is not stimulated then we end up with inactive, overweight, and arthritic elephants. Our goal should be to get the elephants moving, which means exercise is key. Elephants need space to move, but they also need a reason. Encouraging movement through spreading food ten times a day, hanging browse far and wide, providing acres of grass to graze from, are a few of the reasons our elephants at Oakland Zoo get their exercise. Besides exercise, we need to provide them with stimulation through reaching, digging, mudding, climbing different terrains, stepping over mounds of sand, stripping bark off of logs, etc. These are all ways they use their feet and stimulate healthy blood flow.

M'Dundamella atop the hillside grazing.

M’Dundamella atop the hillside grazing.

Lastly, imagination is the third factor that ties everything together. If a facility has the right philosophy and vision then they can create facility design that meets the elephant’s needs through the right imagination. When Oakland Zoo expanded the elephant exhibit in 2004, we did it with little funding because that’s all it took. We expanded the space by four acres, three of which were irrigated and seeded creating the opportunity for grazing, again a basic biological need of an elephant. Besides having the proper facility design, the keepers work on daily enrichment such a cutting fresh grass and weeds, but also on weekly enrichment such as hanging puzzle feeders on a pulley system, or stacking large tires and planting thirty foot logs for pushing over. As their caretakers, we need to provide them with the basics and more, and also provide them with the opportunity to create behavior chains. A behavior chain is a series of behaviors that occur simultaneously and instinctively. Time after time, I have observed Lisa elephant go for a swim, get out of the pool and dust with a dirt pile to dry and protect her skin, and then scratch on a large planted log (typically after elephants get wet and muddy, they get itchy, so they prefer to scratch). This would be an example of a behavior chain, but would not be possible if Lisa was not provided with any of these things. Enriching elephants is a huge challenge and I’ve always thought, how define enrichment for elephants when so many of these things are basic needs.  Browse and dirt and grass shouldn’t be enrichment, it should be standard.

Donna dusting to keep her skin protected.

Donna dusting to keep her skin protected.

Unfortunately many facilities, particularly circuses, cannot meet the physical and psychological demands of elephants. Being confined to small spaces, inactive and stagnant for hours standing on concrete equals inactive feet. Inactive feet means devascularization of important tissue that would normally be flowing with circulation. When tissue dies it becomes necrotic and infected, which causes an abscess in the foot. If infection reaches the bones in the feet, which are very close to the toenails, and causes osteitis, then the chances of survival are slim. Besides abscesses, arthritis is also another highly common ailment in elephants. Arthritis has many causes such as inactivity, stereotypic behavior such as swaying, obesity, and injury. Inactivity caused by sterile environments, can in turn cause abscesses and arthritis which can therefore cause altered body conformation which is very important in elephants. Elephants have pillars for legs which they need to support their weight. These legs stand almost directly underneath them, and their body weight is distributed by the midline sixty percent in the front, and forty percent in the back. If one thing is wrong, this whole system may be compromised. Depending on which leg or foot is injured, the whole weight distribution will be shifted to compensate for the issue, which in turn will have long term consequences and further health issues.

One of the most important lessons I have learned from my mentors in being an elephant keeper is to know what your elephants are doing and know what they’re going to do. We need to continually expand our knowledge about the elephants that are in our care and we can do that through learning and witnessing their natural behavior in the wild, as well as observing their behavior in captivity. As an elephant keeper, our responsibility does not turn off when we go

Osh browsing.

Osh browsing.

home. The elephants’ behaviors don’t just come to a halt when we leave them for the day. Therefore, we should know what they do during the entire twenty-four hours of the day. At Oakland Zoo, our elephants are observed during the day by a team of ten volunteer observers; they are recorded at night during the winter time in the barn, and are watched for two full nights a month when they sleep outside during summer months. Through these observations we have been able to alter our management to best suit their needs. We also have collected hundreds of hours of data to help us define the elephants’ behavioral activity budget as well as how far they travel in a day, which is very valuable information that determines important decisions about their care.

I was fortunate to attend this workshop and have the opportunity to absorb as much knowledge as I could; moreover, I came home and share that knowledge with my fellow keepers. I was also fortunate to meet a group of fantastic elephant keepers from around the country, and even the world! Thanks to the Phoenix Elephant Crew for putting on such a wonderful workshop.

Come join us for our 17th annual Celebrating Elephants Day in memory of Pat Derby, co-founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society. On May 17, you can listen to a lecture by keynote speaker, Ed Stewart, co-founder of Performing Welfare Society. While dining on wine and h’orderves, you will have the opportunity to bid on lovely auction items to help support the Amboseli Trust for Elephants in Kenya; a forty year research project led by world-renowned elephant researcher Cynthia Moss. For the family event, come out to Oakland Zoo for daytime fun on May 25, to see the elephants get their daily pedicure, watch Circus Finelli an animal free circus, get your face painted, and create special enrichment just for the elephants. For more details please visit our Celebrating Elephants page on

PBI Leadership Camp: Blog 2

by | October 5th, 2011

Absolute Necessity — A Group Blog

Victor Alm — Zoological Manager, Oakland Zoo

Patty Young -Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Philip Fensterer — Oregon Zoo

Jennifer Funk — Pittsburgh Zoo

We had an opportunity to Skype with  Dr. Stephen Amstrup, senior scientist for Polar Bears International, this morning.   WOW!!! What a personable, professional, and knowledgeable man.   Thank you again Dr. Amstrup for your time today and thank you for reminding us how important the ice is to the polar bear.

Polar Bear off the Ice

Opening a discussion about climate change with the fact that sea ice is an absolute necessity to polar bears is a great tool.   The wild polar bear must eat seals and the seal cannot be caught except by ambush from an ice platform.   Despite the evidence that sea ice is disappearing for the polar bear the argument of  uncertainty versus reliability continues to be a hot data topic in the climate change debate.  Although our climate clearly has been warming, we are still seeing natural variation in our weather causing times of both warm and cold weather patterns.   This unfortunately has instilled a certain amount of doubt  about the reality of climate change.  However,  the laws of physics require that as the amounts of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere rise, heat trapping gas will cause the earth to warm.  Without the mitigation of greenhouse gases polar bears will be part of our history and not our future.   Alternatively, by reducing  greenhouse gases we can make a difference with the sea ice levels needed for polar bears as well as make a difference to the many other species tied to climate change.

Arctic Fox -- One of many that could be affected by Climate Change

This is a powerful message that needs a powerful and effective approach when being delivered.   One method we discussed today was using personal connection to our own lives and with those whom we speak with to convey the importance of this message.  We experienced this method first hand today when we had a no cameras allowed polar bear moment.  After seeing the bear on the tundra outside of the buggy, we were asked to safely stick our heads out the windows, close our eyes, feel the wind on our face, smell the air, and know that this is what the bear is also experiencing.  Then, we were asked to think about that bear being gone forever, not just this bear today but all polar bears forever.   This was a very moving and emotional for all of us.  As leaders, it is an absolute necessity for us to leave this camp and take steps to create change in our communities

Stay tuned for more Blogs from Climate Change Leadership Camp.


What Is PBI And Why Should We Know About It?

by | September 23rd, 2011

Victor Alm — Zoological Manager

Whether you agree that it is occurring or not, you have most likely have heard about global warming or the changes in our planet’s climate. But, what many of us associated with the Oakland Zoo may not have heard of, especially since we do not have polar bears in our collection, is an organization called PBI. PBI stands for Polar Bears International, a non-profit organization dedicated to the conservation of the polar bear and polar bear habitat through research, stewardship, and education around the world.

Polar bear on ice sheet

Now why would I bring up the terms of global warming/climate change and polar bears together? Well since some of the most convincing and evident examples of a warming climate are seen in the arctic and the arctic sea ice, one of the main habitat components for the polar bear. The two are linked and are running headlong towards each other very quickly and with some potentially devastating results.  Polar bears rely heavily on the arctic sea ice for movement, breeding, hunting, and to a smaller degree denning for the birth of their cubs.   When you combine this with a rapid decline of this sea ice (since the 1980s), due to a warming climate, you start to see the problem and why the polar bear is now listed as a threatened species under the endangered species act.

So, why am I telling you all about this and why should those of us associated with the Oakland Zoo care about climate change, polar bears, and PBI? Polar bears, despite being on the front lines of the climate change debate and often the poster child of the environmental climate change movement are not the only species that could be affected by climate change. A changing climate has implications for numerous species in many habitat types all over the world.

The Lesser Flamingo

For example, the Lesser Flamingo, a species we exhibit here at the Oakland Zoo, are being or will be affected by climate change through loss of or alterations in the size and quality of their wetland habitats.  Flamingos, not unlike the polar bear, are dependent on their preferred environment for food, breeding, and raising their young. Similar stories can be heard about salmon, penguins, sea turtles, and numerous migratory birds. So despite being focused on climate change matters related to polar bears, PBI and the strategies and tips they endorse to help mitigate climate change, make sense and can have lasting effects for a lot of other animals.

To help reach their goal of having a measurable impact in the preservation of the polar bears artic habitat by 2015, Polar Bear International is sponsoring PBI leadership camps.   These camps are reaching out to those individuals who want to advocate personally or through their employer for conservation and sustainable lifestyles that help combat the effects of climate change.  Campers will gain knowledge about climate change and its impacts first hand from scientists, educators, and community members that will transform them into climate change/Arctic ambassadors that are inspired and empowered to make a difference for polar bears and all species that face our changing world.

Victor Alm -- Zoological Manager/Arctic Ambassador

I am lucky enough to be one of those campers and will be attending climate change leadership camp in early October.  I hope to return with the knowledge and drive to get the Oakland Zoo involved in the campaign to educate and make measurable impacts for the preservation of  polar bears and the numerous other species that are grappling with the issue of climate change.   I feel that our world continues to struggle and grapple with the numerous issues that affect wildlife around the globe such as invasive species, climate change, pollution, habitat change/destruction, and exploitation. However, I strongly feel that you do not need to look far and wide to grapple these global problems. Through local efforts and local involvement in these issues we can address and tackle them one small step at a time. I hope that through my own efforts in local wildlife rehabilitation, head starting, and conservation along with recycling and reusing I can lead by example and take one small personal step. I hope through my continuing education on climate change and the messages and action plans that come from my time at PBI camp that I can take another step and bring many others with me.

To learn more about Polar Bears International, Climate Change, Climate Change Leadership camp, and some things you can do to help in this issue please visit   Also please follow me and my experiences at camp by checking the Oakland Zoo Blog ( as well as the camp blog found at the Polar Bears International website listed above.