Posts Tagged ‘zoos’

Fifteen Years of Celebrating Elephants

by | July 19th, 2011

Elephant Keepers Gina and Jeff explain the difference between free contact and protected contact management styles on a barn tour. Photo by Tana Montgomery.

Once again it was a successful year for our Annual Celebrating Elephants fundraiser. The event was split into two days; one full day at the Zoo where families came out to see fun enrichment for the elephants on exhibit, and also got the

Donna and Lisa enjoy twenty-five foot long tree trunks planted in the ground by their keepers. Photo by Tana Montgomery.

opportunity for an exclusive behind-the-scenes tour of our barn set-up, including a training and foot care demo with one of our elephants. Kids also had the opportunity to create fun enrichment boxes and bags for the elephants to eat, enjoy the animal-free Circus Finelli, and eat popcorn and cotton candy! The second part of the event was the evening lecture and silent auction where guests enjoyed wine and delicious appetizers while they bid on beautiful animal themed gift baskets, art work and photos. Most importantly, we had a guest speaker, the wonderful Winnie Kiiru, one of Amboseli’s top PhD students who studies and works to help with human-elephant conflict.   Winnie was a captivating and enthusiastic speaker, offering insight into the lives of the Maasai people and how they work to live with the elephants.

Jessica demostrates target training with Osh during a barn tour. Photo by Tana Montgomery.

This event is very important to the Oakland Zoo for two reasons. The first reason is that all the proceeds go to Cynthia Moss’s  Amboseli Trust for Elephants (www.elephanttrust.org ). Cynthia has been working on elephant conservation in Kenya for almost forty years; the longest running research study on African Elephants in the world. Mostly everything we know about these majestic creatures is due to Cynthia and her team’s effort and passion for the conservation and well-being of these animals.

The second reason for this event is to raise awareness of the cruelty to animals in circuses. During the behind-the-scenes barn tour, guests spend about thirty minutes learning how elephants should be managed in captivity through positive reinforcement and protective barriers. They are shown a training demo on how keepers can safely work with elephants in a gentle and positive way (See my Let Elephants Be Elephants blog for more details on this management style).

We are proud to say that this year we raised over 18,000 dollars for Amboseli.  All of the proceeds from the day and

Crowds of people watch Elephant Keeper John demostrating safe foot care during the barn tour. Photo by Tana Montgomery.

the evening events go directly to support Cynthia’s research to protect the elephants. Over the past fifteen years, we have donated more than $200,000 for Amboseli. Thank you to everybody who was able to make it to the day or the lecture. We hope you had lots of fun! If you didn’t join us this year make sure to come out next year (May 19 and 26, 2012) to help us celebrate how truly wonderful elephants are and to learn more about the Amboseli elephants by Cynthia herself. See you then!

Also, if you love to watch elephants. Don’t miss Feast for the Beasts on July 23. During this fun event, the public is invited to donate produce to the animals. The first 250 guests through the door will receive a special ticket that allows them to place produce inside of the elephant exhibit. Once all the produce in place, Zoo visitors get to watch our four elephants devour watermelons, apples, carrots, lettuce, tomatoes, and much more. It is fun for the whole family. The doors open at 9:00am for Feast for the Beasts, so arrive early!

Packing for Africa

by | July 1st, 2011

I am excitedly packing for Africa, the lush fertile countries of Uganda and Rwanda to be specific. I have a headlamp and hiking shoes, camera and sunscreen. In goes malaria pills and bug spray, wildlife guides and a sunhat. It is a true honor to co-lead this Oakland Zoo Conservation Expedition to visit the conservation projects that the Oakland Zoo Conservation Fund supports. We have been planning and learning through monthly meetings and workshops since January, and are now ready to go.

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Next, I am packing the important things: Thirteen adult participants, full of adventure, compassion and a genuine reverence for wildlife and conservation, and one Oakland Zoo veterinarian co-leader, Dr. Andrea Goodnight. On the packing list are three laptops, two cameras, children’s books, and hats and t-shirts for our guides and friends. The items will be donated to Pearl Eco-Safaris (www.ugandaecosafaris.net), The Kibale Fuel Wood Project (www.newnaturefoundation.org) and the Budongo Snare Removal Project (www.budongo.org).

A primate net will somehow be hauled on board for the Uganda Conservation Wildlife Education Center so they can ensure a safe capture for their rescued wildlife. Three veterinary medicinal formula books will join us as a gift to the Mountain Gorilla Vet Project (www.gorilladoctors.org), as well as an immobilization unit for darting gorillas in need of medical care.

Packed in our bags will be letters of appreciation for the Budongo Snare Removal Team. Thank you notes will also be given to the Women’s Community Action Project who creates the gorgeous Kibale Bead jewelry sold at the Oakland Zoo gift shop, and the Virunga Artisans (www.virungaart.com) artists, whose weavings and carvings are also featured at our gift shop.

To the pastoral community near Queen Elizabeth Park who saved a female leopard from poisoning and assisted lion expert Dr. Ludwig Siefert in the rescue operation, we bring a framed certificate of recognition and appreciation.

Last goes in some stories and songs, and the willingness to share all of ourselves. With full bags, we depart on July 1. We will report back upon return, with much more received than we could ever pack in our bags and offer.

The Oakland Zoo Conservation Expedition is in partnership with Intrepid Travel. Contact amy@oaklandzoo.org for future Conservation Expedition information, such as Borneo in 2012!

Turtle University

by | June 28th, 2011

Newly hatched western pond turtle

Its turtling season at the Oakland Zoo again! Each summer our zookeepers team up with biologists and students from Sonoma State University to study the western pond turtle. Turtle nesting season is in full swing and California’s only native aquatic freshwater turtle has been an enigma to researchers for years. This is the fourth consecutive year that zookeepers have spent in Lake County and our knowledge of this species of special concern has increased exponentially. Here is just a short run down of a few of the things we have learned about western pond turtles through our collaborative research:
First, we were surprised to discover just how dry the nests were. Aquatic turtles are usually expected to have very moist nests, but not our western pond turtles. Based on our observations at the site, we created a very dry vermiculite mixture in which to incubate the eggs we collected. Several experts expressed concern about the lack of moisture in the mixture, but our guess was correct and we had a 90% hatch rate the first year.
One little known fact about many reptile species, western pond turtles included, is that the sex of the hatchling is determined by the temperature at which the egg is incubated. Along with our dry vermiculite mixture, we also set up five separate incubators at five different temperatures. The hatchlings were carefully marked with numbered dots so we knew exactly which clutch and incubator they came from. The hatchlings were then raised here at the zoo for about ten months, until they were big enough for a small endoscopic surgery to determine their sex. This data was then correlated with the incubation data and we now know the exact temperatures that produce male turtles versus female turtles.

Dr. Andrea Goodnight uses an endoscope to identify a turtle's sex.

As time went on, our project expanded and we also began to incubate nests in the field. This requires careful placement of high tech temperature and humidity sensors inside the nests and then covering the nests to secure them against predators. The wide range of temperatures in even a single day took us by surprise. Who would have guessed a difference of up to fifty degrees in one twenty-four hour period.
This is a project that is near and dear to our hearts, not only because it is a native species, but also because it is a project that zookeepers can be directly involved in. Just days ago, two keepers went to the lake to use telemetry equipment to track nesting females while other keepers were here at the zoo caring for last year’s hatchlings, who will be released at the end of this month. As we continue to progress in this conservation project, we hope to learn even more about this special animal.

Let Elephants Be Elephants

by | June 20th, 2011

Here at the Oakland Zoo we have strong beliefs and views on animal welfare. We do everything we can to provide our animals with what they need, including space with the appropriate substrates, social dynamics, as well as enrichment and training for both physical and mental stimuli. Everything we do takes into consideration the health and well-being of the animal as well as the safety of the keeper. Wild animals can be dangerous and in no way should be treated like a pet. We work with them in a protected contact type of management to ensure our safety and theirs. You might be thinking why does the animal need to be safe? Aren’t you the one in

danger? The answer is yes. I am in danger should I walk into an enclosure and right up to an animal, but for me to be able to do that involves punishment on the animals part. If you have been to a circus before you have seen all the different animals they work with up-close and personal. This is not because the animals enjoy being in the circus and close to their handlers; this is because the animals are forced and beaten to behave.

Since I am an elephant keeper, let’s talk about elephants specifically. Working with the largest land mammal on earth is definitely intimidating. People think they are gentle giants but more often they are extremely dangerous. For decades these intelligent creatures have had to put up with being in the circus where their handlers have abused them into submission, beating them with what is called an “ankus” or “bullhook”. When you see the handlers inside the enclosure working directly with the elephant, this is called a free contact type of management.

Most often these elephants are beaten and abused, screamed at, and chained up for hours on end. There are hours of caught on tape footage from animal welfare groups of elephants being beaten for just standing and minding its own business. This is so the handler can keep the elephant in check, so that it never knows when it’s going to get hit. The reason for this abuse is so the handler can be dominant over the elephant so the handler doesn’t get killed. There is no reason for this type of management. If you have to abuse an animal just to get what you want it to do then you shouldn’t be doing it at all. Unfortunately this type of management system is still used in zoos today. Although not all of these facilities may be heavy handed, there is still always a danger of working with a 10,000 pound animal directly, which is why a keeper or circus handler is killed every year.

John Briggs, Elephant Keeper, demonstrates the use of target training with positive reinforcement. Osh presents his foot to the target and he gets a treat.

At Oakland we use a management system called Protected Contact. This style means that we only use positive reinforcement, and are always protected by a barrier whether it be spatial or with fencing. When we ask our elephants to do something they are always reinforced with treats. This keeps us and the elephants safe. When we are training we stand outside the fence line and use target poles, which are a long piece of bamboo or rake handle with a soft tip, to target a part of the body that we need. Most of our training is for husbandry and health purposes, but we do fun stuff as well such as catching a stick in the trunk or picking up an object when thrown. Fun stuff is okay as long as it is not strenuous on the elephants. A lot of the behaviors you might see in the circus such as legs stands are taxing on the joints and in the long term can cause arthritis and all other types of health issues.

Oakland Zoo elephants grazing on two acres of grass. This is what you would see in the wild.

So if this protected contact management style is so much better why doesn’t everyone use it? I don’t have a good answer for this other than selfishness. Free contact handlers think since they are in the same space they have a better relationship with the elephant, and that they can accomplish more with the animal behavior wise. There’s no reason to work in the same space as an elephant if it means that I have to abuse it and it might someday snap and kill me. At our facility we can accomplish anything we train, such as foot care, blood draws, ultrasounds, etc. I would rather see an elephant out on 6.5 acres grazing and browsing and interacting freely with one another, than standing next to me in fear, wearing some silly outfit, chained up for hours on end, performing unnatural tricks for profit. So, please support the Oakland Zoo and let elephants be elephants! Don’t go to the circus, the cruelest show on earth! Support your local non-animal circus’ such as Teatro Zinzanni and Cirque de Soleil. A huge thank you to those of you that attended our Annual Celebrating Elephants Fundraiser. We have raised more than 200,000 dollars over the past fifteen years and all of the proceeds go toward world renowned elephant researcher Cynthia Moss’ Amboeseli Elephant Trust, protecting African Elephants through conservation and research.

On July 23, bring the family to the Oakland Zoo for Feast for the Beasts. The public is invited to donate produce to the animals. The first 250 through the door (door opens at 9:00am) will receive a ticket to place produce in the elephant exhibit! Once all the produce is in place, guests can watch the elephants goggle down grapes, watermelon, apples, lettuce, carrots, and treats. The elephant feeding is so much fun. Be sure to get to the Zoo by 9:00am to be a part of the produce spreading at the elephant exhibit.

21st Century Zoo Keeper

by | January 21st, 2011

Zoo keepers from all over the world studying training and enrichment at the Oakland Zoo.

Zoos sure have changed since the 19th and even 20th centuries. The most obvious changes have been in the housing of animals. Sterile concrete floors surrounded by metal bars have been replaced by natural substrates, rockwork, water features and climbing structures. What is not always as obvious is the difference in the zoo keepers! Unskilled laborers who merely raked, hosed and delivered food have been replaced with knowledgeable professionals who provide for the animals’ psychological needs in addition to their physical needs. 21st century Zoo keepers are compassionate, aware, and educated. How does this change take place? Where does an enthusiastic new zookeeper go to learn how to address an animal’s psychological needs? Where do experienced keepers go to hone their skills and learn the newest techniques? To the Oakland Zoo of course!
This is the second year in a row that the Oakland Zoo has hosted the Training and Enrichment Workshop for Zoo Animals (TEWZA) put together in conjunction with Active Environments and The Shape of Enrichment. Zoo keepers from all over the US and even as far away as Africa spent a week at the Oakland Zoo learning positive reinforcement training and effective enrichment strategies. In addition to classroom work and lectures, workshop participants were able to practice their hands on skills with some of the Zoo’s animals.
Training classroom work included lectures on operant conditioning terminology, socialization training, desensitization and acclimation, problem solving and shaping plans. Many of our own Oakland Zoo animals and keepers demonstrated training techniques for the workshop delegates. The participants were then broken up into smaller groups to write shaping plans for new behaviors before going out into the zoo to practice what they learned!

An anaconda explores novel substrate enrichment provided by the participants.

A gibbon enjoys a rope ladder provided by the particpants.

Another aspect of the workshop focused on enrichment. Lectures included the effect on animal welfare, setting goals, planning enrichment appropriate to the species, observation strategies, data collection, and safety. The participants separated out into small groups once again and planned enrichment for their designated species, including going through an approval process, building the devices and observing and evaluating the effectiveness of the devices. Several of the Zoo’s animals benefited from these enrichment projects!

Workshop participants observe an Aldabra tortoise participating in a voluntary blood draw using positive reinforcement.

Workshop Participants collect data on the effect their enrichment has on the animal's behavior.

More and more we are seeing zoo keeping as a holistic experience. By incorporating the psychological aspects of training and enrichment into our daily routines we are truly entering a time of renaissance for our profession. In the 21st century we are not merely keeping zoo animals, we are enriching their minds and their lives.

Who’s the Oldest in the Zoo?

by | December 8th, 2010

Quick – how many dinosaurs can you name?

I bet you came up with at least three: Tyrannosaurus Rex, Stegosaurus, and Triceratops.  Maybe you are better at this than me, so you got Pterodactyl and Velociraptor too.  Good job!

Now quick – how many other prehistoric animals can you name?

In my experience, most people can come up with just one, the Woolly Mammoth.  But the truth is that many creatures inhabited the Earth along with the dinosaurs and were related to animals we know today.  Three fossil replicas live in the Wayne and Gladys Valley Children’s Zoo, right alongside their modern descendants.

Protostega gigas lives next to the underwater alligator windows.  It is pretty easy to recognize it as a turtle.  In fact, Protostega was a sea turtle that lived 97-66 million years ago.  Its preserved remains are found from South Dakota to Texas, from Colorado to Kansas, since 97 million years ago the Great Plains of today were underwater!  This turtles wide, flat ribs were probably connected by a leathery covering, similar to the shell of modern Leatherback Sea Turtles.

Now this fossil is pretty easy to recognize as a turtle, but some prehistoric animals are much harder to identify.

Check out Eroyps and imagine a salamander that was 5-6 feet long!  This was no gentle giant, Eroyps was a fierce predator that hunted both in water and on land, similar to crocodiles today.  It lived roughly 280 million years ago, which pre-dates the dinosaurs.

Our last Children’s Zoo resident fossil is much younger, a mere 144-65 million years old.  This coincides with the peak of dinosaur populations, which makes sense because Sarcosuchus imperator* ate dinosaurs!  This ancient crocodilian grew up to 40 feet long and weighed about 17,500 pounds.  Notice how the eyes and nostrils are on top of the skull, which is very similar to modern alligators.  Scientists think Sarcosuchus was a “sit and wait” predator like our American alligators.  They would float motionless in the water, able to breathe and watch the shore because their nostrils and eyes are on top of their head.  When an unsuspecting dinosaur (or deer today) came to the water’s edge to drink – BAM!  Sarcosuchus would launch itself forward with tremendous speed and power and grab it’s prey.

So we have three fossil replicas in the Children’s Zoo, none of which are dinosaurs, but all of which are related to animals alive today in our exhibits.  To find turtles like Protostega gigas, head to the RAD Room pond exhibit and look for our spotted turtles or three-toed box turtles.  While you are there, check out all the different frogs; they are amphibians like Eroyps.  And don’t miss the American alligators, a modern day (and much smaller) Sarcosuchus!

*Sarcosuchus imperator holds a special place in my heart because that’s the nickname I use during our ZooCamp program.  It’s not unusual for children in the grocery store to call out “Hi Sarco!” when I walk by!