Author Archives: Christina Eastwood and Christine Stephan

Getting submerged in new training

Our hippos, Boipelo and Adhama, love to show off their skills during keeper chats!

Dallas Zoo Hippo Keepers Christina E. and Christine S. guest blog on ZooHoo!

We train almost every animal that calls the Zoo home. Training lets animals participate in their own care and enables staff to provide excellent animal husbandry. It can be something as simple as teaching the animal to shift from one space to another. Or as complex as training the animal to allow ultrasounds. Animals, like the hippos, can be asked to present certain body parts to keepers to facilitate routine checkups, or to open their mouths for teeth examinations and x-rays. To do this we use operant conditioning, focusing on positive reinforcement techniques. This means if the animal does the behavior we ask, they are rewarded. A reinforcement or reward can be anything the animal enjoys. Food is the most common reinforcer, but some animals prefer attention, tactile reinforcement, or their favorite enrichment item.

Keeper Christina E.
and Adhama during a recent training session.

At the Simmons Hippo Outpost, our hippos LOVE to show off trained behaviors that they have learned over the last year. During our keeper interactions, you may have seen Adhama and Boipelo opening their mouths to present their teeth, swimming across the pool, or targeting. Targeting is one of the first behaviors most animals learn because it is a good starting tool that leads to more complex behaviors. Adhama and Boipelo are asked to touch their noses to the end of the target. Their target stick is a long bamboo pole with a buoy on the end that’s lightweight and floats, making it ideal for our hippos. This behavior is typically easy to teach.  Most animals are curious by nature, so when the target is first presented they want to examine it and come closer. After they take that first step towards it, they’re rewarded. They continue to be rewarded the closer they get until finally touching the target. Once the animal learns that touching this target gets them a reward, it becomes one of their favorite behaviors.

Keeper Christine S. works with Boipelo on target training.

We recently started training some behaviors at our underwater viewing area, which brings Adhama and Boipelo so close that you just might think you’re in the water with them.  Boipelo is a pro at targeting underwater, while Adhama prefers to stay above the surface at the moment. Boipelo tends to be shyer in front of crowds and lets her boyfriend shine. Adhama definitely likes to monopolize the spotlight and will do some targeting, opening his mouth, and moving back and forth across the window.

 

In Greek, Hippopotamus means “river horse,” and they do look like graceful horses trotting in slow motion underwater. However, don’t let this fool you! Hippos are actually closest related to whales and dolphins. With this up-close view you can really examine them to see some of the similarities they have with their relatives.

The training at the underwater viewing area is still in the early stages, but the hippos and trainers are enjoying this new level of interaction. Come by Simmons Hippo Outpost to see Adhama and Boipelo in action!

Categories: Africa, Simmons Hippo Outpost, Zookeepers | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Mischievous meerkats master their training

The five members of our meerkat mob!

Our five meerkats (males Orbee and Widget; and females Poppet, Huxley, and Twig) are working hard on their crate and station training, which will make it easier for our vets and keepers to perform routine health care and check-ups. These cute little predators are officially able to enter crates to receive their monthly vaccines, which keeper Amberlee B. tells us wasn’t always smooth sailing:

“It required two keepers and was usually chaotic, with the meerkats popping in and out of the crates constantly. It made it difficult to keep track of who had actually received their medication, and who had not.”

Meerkats are vocal animals and operate in a matriarchal group, also known as a “mob.” Poppet acts as our mob’s alpha female. She’s known to be very smart, and picks up on new things during training sessions quickly. Poppet, Orbee, and Widget are known to keepers as the “trouble makers.” Sometimes the trio will even climb on top of one of their tortoise neighbors.

As you might imagine, training these quirky ‘kats can be tricky. To get them used to entering crates, the meerkats were presented with a high-value reward (keepers discovered they loved ground meat, similar to what we feed our big cats) each time they entered the crates. Animal staff then worked get them to stay in the crates for longer periods of time, until finally they were able to comfortably and quietly remain in the crates long enough for keepers to apply their monthly flea/tick treatments.

A meerkat waits patiently for his reward during a recent station training session.

Keepers are also currently using a similar training approach to work on station training. For this behavior, each meerkat has their own colored spot marker to sit on. This has proven essential to the meerkat care team! By putting the markers on top of a small scale, they have successfully recorded weights on all five meerkats. “This was something we have only been able to do during the check-ups, which happen about twice a year,” Amberlee says. “By having more up-to-date weights, we can adjust their diet as needed to keep them at a healthy weight.”

Visit our meerkat mob on the Gorilla Trail in the Wilds of Africa, and stay a few minutes to observe their frisky antics!

Categories: Mammals | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Dallas Zoo animal staff remain committed to our animals throughout their golden years

We love all of our animals at the Dallas Zoo, but our geriatric animals are some of the most special. When some of our animals reach retirement age and are no longer comfortable shifting in and out of their habitats, we move them to an area behind the scenes designed for their comfort, where dedicated keepers care for their every need.

Dara, the yellow-backed duiker

For Dara, the yellow-backed duiker, that time came about six years ago. Dara was one of our oldest and most beloved residents, and sadly, she passed away recently from age-related health issues. At age 26, she lived to be the oldest duiker in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, and she had a wonderful and gentle personality.

Duikers are a type of African antelope. Their name means “diver” in Afrikaans, because they dive into vegetation and brush when spooked. Native to Central and Western Africa, adult duikers have a bold yellow stripe down their back, which becomes more visible when they’re on alert and their hair stands up.

Duikers are very intelligent – their brains are proportionally larger than other hoofstock, such as some antelope and gazelles. Most are hesitant of new things before they learn more about them, but Dara was very curious and loved to explore her surroundings. She absolutely loved pumpkins! She would roll them up and down the length of her habitat before finally eating them.

Although it was tough to say goodbye, we are proud to have provided Dara with the best possible care during her golden years. Her keepers made sure she had mats covering the floor of her stall so that she had better traction and a softer surface for her joints. Her keepers also performed routine hoof care, gave her hoof and joint supplements, and of course, lots of love and attention. Zoo staff say that it was such a privilege to care for Dara. She will be missed!

Honeydew, the tapir, enjoyed a special “cake” for her 35th birthday (January 2016)

Our other senior resident is 37-year-old Honeydew, a South American tapir. She is currently living out her “retirement” away from public view, where she is pampered with brushes, baths, special foot care, and leisurely swims in her personal pool. Honeydew’s sweet demeanor makes her a joy to care for and a keeper-favorite!

Categories: Africa, Uncategorized, Veterinary Care | Tags: , , , | 1 Comment

Texans come together to save our state reptile

Although Texas horned lizard populations are increasing thanks to community efforts, there is still work to be done.

Head west on I-20, and in no time, you’ll notice large, red formations of sedimentary rock standing like mountains amid the mostly flat, arid earth and rolling plains. This is Rotan, Texas  – far from the impressive view of Downtown Dallas’ protruding skyscrapers. Here you’ll find many creatures that dominated these parts in the days of the Wild West still making their homes. However, the thousands of snakes, lizards and insects that are all well adapted to survive these harsh conditions, are no longer thriving as in those days not long ago.

Recently, a group of Dallas Zoo staff members, interns and volunteers took the drive to the Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch to study one reptile who has made the ranch its home – the native and beloved Texas horned lizard. The facility was established in 2007 for the purpose of enhancing the abundance of the northern bobwhite, a ground-dwelling quail native to the United States, Mexico and the Caribbean. Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch preserves 4,720 acres of land to maintain the natural brush cover necessary for quail conservation efforts. This undeveloped land is the ideal setting for the scaly Texas horned lizard. The brush cover provides shelter from predators, which is essential, as their toad-like bodies tend to slow them down.

Rolling Plains Quail Research Ranch in Rotan, Texas

“The area is managed for quail, with shortgrass and tallgrass prairie land, which is also vital to horned lizards and their prey, harvester ants. Horned lizards live in a similar niche as quail and benefit from the preservation of this land, as do many other animals,” Dallas Zoo reptile keeper, Shana Fredlake observes. “This is native habitat for these animals, so keeping it pristine helps this population stay stable and helps us observe their natural behaviors and monitor growth rates.”

Although the horned lizard was their primary focus, the group was also delighted by the company of a few tarantulas and snakes, even stumbling across a rattlesnake; a real treat for Dallas Zoo reptile supervisor, Bradley Lawrence who has a special fondness for the noisy, venomous reptile. Lawrence believes the conservation work being done today has also benefitted other reptile species native to Texas.

“Most folks in Texas will do anything they can to protect, donate and manage land for horned lizards. They don’t know it, but this helps conserve other species that are not looked on as favorably,” Lawrence shares.

Our research team studied Texas horned lizards in hopes of restoring their population.

The community’s willingness to pitch in and help the conservation of the Texas horned lizard is promising, but much work still needs to be done. Despite conservation efforts to reverse the decline of the species, the horned lizard remains state-threatened.

“The Texas horned lizard has disappeared from about 60% of its former range here in Texas due to invasive fire ants, over-collection, and habitat destruction,” Lawrence adds. Despite the numbers, he remains hopeful for the species: “They are charismatic, gentle reptiles, and everyone that sees them falls in love.”

“It makes me happy to see Texas have a state reptile and that people love this reptile,” Fredlake says. “If we can coexist without destroying every part of their habitat, there is a chance to bring them back to all parts of their former range.”

By studying population density, habitat preference, diet, sex ratios, and activity patterns, we’ve developed a greater scientific understanding of our state reptile and how to best contribute to its conservation. For more information about our Texas horned lizard conservation efforts, click here.

Categories: Conservation, Reptiles and Amphibians | Leave a comment

Celebrating one year with our Somali wild ass foals

Middle Wilds of Africa keeper Laura Burleson guest-blogs on ZooHoo!

All babies grow up – and entirely too quickly! It’s hard to believe that our two critically endangered Somali Wild Ass foals, Kalila and Naima, are now a year old. In that time, they have grown, experienced, and learned so much.

From the day the foals were born (really from about five minutes after birth) they were spunky, energetic, and so full of life and personality. Their moms, Liberty and Hani, and their Aunt Qamar were born and raised in zoos, but they are still a bit wary of keepers and spook easily in new situations. We, at the Dallas Zoo, have never had the opportunity to work with Somali Wild Ass from birth, so we were really excited to have the opportunity to build a strong connection with them. This relationship building is so important since we work with our animals very closely every day – it forms the foundation for us to be able to provide enrichment to them in multiple ways throughout their lifetimes.

The first step was working on socialization with the keepers, and as with myself, the key to their hearts was through their stomachs. Once they started eating solid food, we were able to hand feed them treats through the fence, building a trust that approaching their keepers meant yummy treats were on the way! After that, we started doing small bits of work getting the foals used to being physically touched by keepers. They were very tolerant of touches on their noses, but nervous of it on any other part of their bodies. Our real challenge came this spring, when the foals were due for their annual vaccinations. We had an ambitious goal in mind: voluntary hand injections. This meant that we wanted to get the foals to a point that we could have them lined up at the fence with their hip presented, and be given their vaccinations by the vets in a way that was minimally painful and stressful for them. The most nerve-wracking part was scratching their rears to see how they would react to that touch — and we were all a bit surprised when they loved it! With a lot of hard work and patience, we successfully reached our goal and were able to give the foals all of their vaccines with zero stress and pain for them.

Our Somali Wild Ass foal enjoying an ice treat in honor of her first birthday!

When the foals were about 7 months old, we decided it was time for them to meet the other species that call the Desert exhibits home. At the Dallas Zoo, we take a lot of pride in our mixed-species exhibits. One of the best parts about having multiple species living together is that this provides a lot of mental stimulation and social enrichment. Imagine spending all your time with one group of friends…definitely not as fun as having lots of different people to interact with!

The foals met our male Ostrich, Newman, first, then the Gemsbok, and lastly the Addax herd. The Asses are, to put it nicely, giant troublemakers. The Addax also like to mess with the Asses a lot. The combination of those two personalities and some very over-protective mothers creates the potential for some major antics. Luckily, everyone very quickly learned to give each other space, and all is well in the Semi-arid world.

While the foals have quadrupled in size from birth, when I was able hold them both in my arms for their checkups, their sassy little personalities have not changed a bit. I grow more and more attached to them every day and cannot wait to continue watching them grow, learn, and develop. And maybe one day they will have foals of their own that will steal the hearts of the world, and inspire people to want to make a change for conservation in their native habitat.

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Monorail Safari | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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