The Impact of Ambassador Animals: A Tribute to Jenny, The Sulphur-Crested Cockatoo

Sarah Lynn Bowser
November 26, 2023

Over her 35 years, Jenny impacted so many who visited Oakland Zoo -- whether they realized it or not!

As an ambassador animal working with our Education department, this cheerful sulphur-crested cockatoo didn’t live in a habitat visible to the public, like most of the animals who live at the Zoo. Instead, she would make grand entrances into our education programs, greeting her audience with a cheerful call and a fluff of her feathers. However, just because you didn’t see her during your zoo visit doesn’t mean you didn’t hear her. Her calls could be heard from the Children’s Zoo, all the way to the African Savanna (where her call was often mistaken for a spotted hyena).

Jenny, the Sulphur-crested cockatoo

Ambassador animals play an invaluable role here at Oakland Zoo. These animals can be powerful catalysts for learning and amplify the educational programs they are featured in. Over her 35 years with us, Jenny interacted with thousands of our guests, students, and ZooCampers. Our educators were not only able to share the natural history of sulphur-crested cockatoos, but also Jenny’s personal story and her experiences in surviving the illegal wildlife trade.

An Oakland Zoo newsletter from 1998, featured Jenny in her role as an ambassador animal

Working with Jenny was truly an honor. All who worked with her knew that her trust had to be earned, through her favorite snacks, reading children’s stories, or even singing songs with her. This level of trust allowed her trainers to create new opportunities to enrich Jenny's life here at the Zoo.

Jenny in a session with two of her trainers, Sarah (left) and Eunice (right)

One of those enrichment opportunities was painting. Thanks to the help of her diligent animal care team, Jenny had her own modified paintbrush, a board to select her colors, and all the canvases she could ever need. She learned the process quickly, and our staff was able to help her create her masterpieces. Like all our training activities, this process prioritized her ability to make her own choices and control her level of participation.

Jenny painting with a brush created by her animal care team members

While Jenny was an artist, she was also incredibly clever. Sulphur-crested cockatoos are a highly social, cognitively complex species that successfully adapt to urban life (they're even giving the white ibis a run for its title as “bin chicken” in their home range of Australia, where they frequently cause neighborhood chaos by breaking into trash bins). At Oakland Zoo, Jenny would help illustrate this craftiness by sorting out various puzzles to get to one of her favorite snacks: mealworms. And should the answer to a puzzle ever elude her, she was always quick to make her solutions -- like breaking the feeder entirely to get her reward!

Jenny with her trainer, Sarah, during a presentation in the Wildlife Theater

Jenny passed away in September of this year. Thank you so much to the guests, staff, and volunteers alike who have loved Jenny. I am honored to have spent these last few years with Jenny, and her absence will be felt for years to come.