Animals visit brave patients at Children’s Health


The Dallas Zoo’s wonderful partnership with Children’s Health, one of the top pediatric health care providers in the nation, allows us to take patients’ minds off of the treatment they’re undergoing. Through the Simmons Animal Safari program, we’ve traveled to the hospital _MG_8354since 2014 for magical up-close animal encounters.

The Zoo recently paid a visit to Children’s Health with animal ambassadors who brought the smiles, including an opossum, a tamandua (also known as a lesser anteater), and an African crested porcupine with giant quills. Patients and their families sat eagerly, waving animal-themed masks as they waited to meet each new creature. As the Zoo’s Animal Adventures outreach team shared trivia and engaged with the kids, even hospital staff paused to see the show.

Engrossed in the moment, the kids animatedly shouted answers and shifted in their seats to see who they would meet next. The room came alive with excitement, spreading smiles from face to face as each animal ambassador said hello.

As penguin duo Sid and Jazz waddled into the spotlight, the room collectively gasped in delight, thrilled to meet two of our most beloved _MG_8383ambassadors. The kids enthusiastically asked questions as they learned about the Zoo’s African penguins. At the end of the presentation, patients and their families had the opportunity to take a photo with Sid or Jazz, capturing this moment forever.

As these brave families said their goodbyes to the animal ambassadors, we gifted them with one more surprise – each family was given tickets to the Zoo, including the patients who couldn’t make it down to meet us. We look forward to many future visits to Children’s Health, bringing enjoyment to these extraordinary kids and their families with each animal encounter.

Categories: Education, Penguins | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Saving penguins: A nesting nightmare in South Africa

Kevin Graham, Wilds of Africa bird supervisor, guest-blogs on ZooHoo!

Over the past 100 years, the population of African penguins has declined from more than two million breeding pairs to slightly more than 20,000 breeding pairs left. This dramatic decline has resulted from many factors, unfortunately all of which are human-related.

I’ve recently returned from a workshop and time studying the various remaining colonies of African penguins in the Cape Town area of South Africa. Along with our VP of Education and Conservation, Dr. Patty McGill, I had the privilege of meeting the people who work in the field with these native penguins. For quite some time, I will continue to work with them to develop a crucial nesting plan to help the birds and begin their recovery.

In the first half of the 20th Century, egg collection from the breeding range decimated the hatch rates, with estimates of more than 1.5 million eggs per year being destroyed or collected for food and other uses.

Around this same time, it was found that guano (bird feces) had accumulated to a depth of many feet on the breeding islands. The guano served as a perfect substrate for the penguins to dig their nest burrows, but it also was a valuable crop fertilizer. So humans scraped the guano from the islands, leaving the birds with few options for nesting burrows.

African penguins are now nesting in the open in some South African locations.

Penguins are now nesting in the open in some South African beach locations./Kevin Graham

These two events, in conjunction with catastrophic oil spills; and the impact of unrestricted commercial fishing; human encroachment into breeding ranges; and global climate change have compounded the challenges faced by the African penguin population.

Recently, organizations and colony managers in South Africa have tried to develop an artificial nest that African penguins could use to supplement the little remaining nesting habitat.

These attempts have seen limited success. In many cases, the penguins chose not to use the nesting structures, either due to overall design, excessive heat accumulation, ectoparasite buildup in the structure, and other potentially unknown factors.

In some locations, this has led penguins to nest on the surface, exposing their eggs and chicks to additional risks that weren’t as significant in the burrow nests. Predation from land mammals such as mongoose, aerial predators of eggs/chicks such as kelp gulls, and even pet and feral dogs pose dramatic risks to nesting penguins in exposed areas.

In addition, those exposed surface nests face the challenge of temperature extremes not found in the burrow nests, where temperatures are regulated by the surrounding substrate. This leads to a higher rate of nest abandonment when the climate is unsuitable for the adults to continue their nesting attempt.

Association of Zoos and Aquarium (AZA) member institutions, including the Dallas Zoo, have been strong partners in the protection and attempted recovery of African penguins for more than two decades. Recently, a new initiative to focus efforts was implemented: AZA’s Saving Animals From Extinction (SAFE) program.

I’m honored to have been given the opportunity to work with this program as the North American coordinator for the Artificial Nesting Project. I’ll be working collaboratively with organizations, researchers, and colony managers, all focused exclusively on creating a nesting system to help this highly endangered species recover.

While we can’t recreate the guano fields that disappeared more than 60 years ago, we will use our combined knowledge and skills in the zoological and research fields to develop a suitable option for the recovery of African penguins in South Africa and Namibia. I look forward to sharing these exciting options on ZooHoo! as they develop. (Visit our more than a dozen waddling, splashing and sunbathing African penguins at Zoo and discover the beauty of these remarkable birds we’re saving.)

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Penguins | Leave a comment

Conservation spotlight: A journey to Peru to count penguins

Dallas Zoo’s VP of Conservation and Education, Dr. Patty McGill, guest blogs on ZooHoo!

Humboldt penguins along the Peruvian coast. Photo credit: Austin McKahan, Kansas City Zoo digital marketing manager

Humboldt penguins along the Peruvian coast. Photo credit: Austin McKahan, Kansas City Zoo digital marketing manager

For 18 long days this past January, I joined more than 20 biologists from across the world to conduct a critical population census on Humboldt penguins along the Peruvian coasts. Our work started outside of Lima, and we made our way south to a site close to the border of Chile.

For 15 years, I’ve traveled to Peru in search of these vulnerable birds. I was part of an international team that designed the census methods in 1998, and I have worked to keep the census going almost every January since.

Nearly half of the Humboldt penguin population was wiped out during the 1997-98 El Niño. With 20,558 penguins tallied in January 2014, the small population is slowly rebounding, but still faces many climate and human-related threats.

Dr. Patty McGill pictured second from left, front row, with team of researchers from institutions including Kansas City Zoo and Saint Louis Zoo.

Dr. Patty McGill pictured second from left, front row, with team of researchers from institutions including Kansas City Zoo and Saint Louis Zoo./Austin McKahan

Our first expedition this year focused on two separate island groups. We began with Isla Asia. The fisherman we hired to take us to this island kept his 20-foot-long open wooden boat on a sandy beach. With no dock, we waded into the surf and as the fisherman watched the waves, we scrambled into the boat on his command. The journey to the island took nearly an hour, but we were entertained along the way by several groups of dolphins and hundreds of seabirds.

After finishing the counts around Isla Asia and all of the little rocky islets in the area, we went back to shore and drove a little farther north to another set of islands, the largest of which is Isla Pachacamac. The really unusual thing about this island is that there is a very large cave, open to the ocean, where penguins nest and also take shelter at other times of year. When the seas are calm, we can approach the point where the cave opens into the ocean; being very careful of submerged rocks, the fisherman steered his boat to the perfect place to peer into the dim light of the cave with our binoculars. We spotted 490 penguins!

Spotting the Humboldt penguins isn't easy on the rocky coasts.

Spotting the Humboldt penguins isn’t easy on the rocky coasts./Austin McKahan

Humboldt penguins are the BEST penguins – or at least that’s my opinion! They’re found on the coasts of Peru and Chile. You may wonder why they’re found well within the tropics, and perhaps you wonder even more why they nest along the coast edge of one of the driest deserts on Earth. In fact, it is so extremely dry that it almost never rains, leaving very few plants.

So how do penguins survive here? The ocean is extremely cold because the Humboldt Current flows across the Sub-Antarctic, then turns north and sweeps up the west coast of South America, providing cold and highly productive water. The fish there are very abundant. So penguins may not need frigid air and ice, but they always need cold water for finding food.

Binoculars were essential during the census./Austin McKahan

Binoculars were essential during the census./Austin McKahan


While in the field, we use a variety of boats to find these birds. In two locations, we charter small tourist boats that accommodate up to 20 people, even though our team is usually only about five at a time. But by chartering the whole boat, we can do two things: visit penguin sites, not tourist sites on the coast, and invite local colleagues and park rangers to participate.

At most locations, however, we hire local fishermen to take us to islands. Their boats are typically wooden and range in size from room for eight, down to tiny boats that will hold only three. It’s a big ocean for these small boats, even when we are usually within sight of the coast. These fishermen do not have compasses or GPS, but they know these islands and rocky peninsulas like the backs of their hands. The biggest challenge is dense fog – sometimes we have to stop and just sit until the fog lifts. That’s especially strange when we’re near an island and the cries of invisible sea lions and birds surround us in the fog!

Penguins in Peru

Photo by Austin McKahan

Sadly, like their Galápagos and African penguin relatives, Humboldt penguins have declined significantly. These penguins face a few serious challenges – declining food supply (fish); climate change and warming oceans which cause changes in ocean currents and productivity of the ocean; and human-related disturbances where penguins nest.

But the Dallas Zoo is working to help our guests discover penguins, and make pledges to help save these birds at home through simple actions, such as, eating sustainable seafood and reducing unnecessary use of electricity.

Our census work is very important in tracking what’s happening with penguins all along the Peruvian coast. I’m proud that we have maintained a consistent effort to monitor the fortunes of these birds for so many years. However, this year our results are concerning – at various sites, we’ve seen 15 to 50 percent fewer birds than in recent years. We think the numbers are still affected by El Niño, which causes warming of the coastal waters. We hope these magnificent penguins are finding ways to cope and that their numbers recover quickly. I look forward to reporting more in 2017.

Categories: Birds, Conservation, Penguins | 1 Comment

An amazing spring for our Bird Team

Dallas Zoo's Bird Curator, Sprina Liu

Dallas Zoo’s Bird Curator, Sprina Liu

While giraffe and ocelot babies have gotten a lot of attention at the Dallas Zoo this spring, our world-class bird department quietly has been notching success after success in breeding remarkable, threatened animals. The births are very carefully planned under recommendations from the Species Survival Plans, coordinated through the Association of Zoos & Aquariums to help ensure the survival of endangered species.

Here are just a few of the new hatchings, and why they matter so much:

White-backed vultures: One chick, hatched May 25. This is a remarkable achievement; we’re just the fourth North American zoo to hatch these African birds, and the first in 16 years to do so. There are only 13 white-backed vultures, including our chick, in U.S. zoos.

_MG_1871-White-backed Vulture chick 6-9-15-CB (427x640)

Kori bustards: Two chicks. These threatened African birds are among the heaviest flighted birds in the world; the males can weigh more than 40 pounds when full-grown. They’re being raised off-exhibit, so you can’t see them just yet. These new additions give us seven!

_MG_1002-Kori Bustard Chicks Barn 8-CB (640x640)

African spoonbill: Six chicks, making us home to 22, more than any other U.S. zoo. (And we expect to have a few more soon, too!) The chicks are being raised off-exhibit so they continue to thrive, but you can see our adult African spoonbills in the A.D. Martin Forest Aviary in the Wilds of Africa.

_MG_1060-African Spoonbill chicks-Barn 8-CB (640x427)

Yellow-billed storks: Three chicks, giving us 14.These hatchings are hugely significant, because they’re genetically important key players in the Species Survival Plan. There are only about 50 in U.S. zoos, and 14 of them are at the Dallas Zoo.

_MG_9986-Yellow-billed stork-Barn 9-CB (640x427)

Southern ground hornbill: One chick. Only a handful of these threatened African birds hatched out within the last year in the United States. These are the “wolves of the bird world,” living in family groups. You can see them along the monorail habitats when it reopens this fall.

African Ground Hornbill chick-KG (640x427)

Marabou storks: Four chicks. These African birds are being raised off-exhibit, but one is being raised by its parents in an outdoor nest among the Bush Overlook in the Wilds of Africa. You’ll need a sharp eye to spot the nest! These baby birds look a lot like pterodactyls, but we promise they have nothing to do with the Giants of the Jurassic exhibit. These new babies are significant because husbandry of this species is challenging.

_MG_9835-Marabou stork chicks-CB (640x447)

Waldrapp ibis: One chick. This little one is extremely significant because Waldrapp ibis are the most critically endangered bird at the Dallas Zoo. They’re native to Morocco and one or two other places in the world, but only a few hundred remain in the wild. About 150 live in U.S. zoos, including our 12. (Harrison Edell, our senior director of Living Collections, is the coordinator of the Species Survival Plan for this species.) Meet the Waldrapp ibis in the Forest Aviary, along the Gorilla Trail in the Wilds of Africa.

IMG_0609-Waldrapp Chick-KG (469x640)

Hadada ibis: Two chicks, both hatched in the past three weeks. These African birds, easily distinguishable by their long, thin beaks and iridescent feathers, aren’t easy to breed. They’re being raised off-exhibit, but you can see adult Hadada ibis in the Forest Aviary. (Edell is also the SSP coordinator for these.)

_MG_1066-Hadada chick in Barn 8-CB (640x427)

African black-footed penguin: One chick. As previously noted here on ZooHoo!, this April 15 hatching is the first penguin chick ever at the Dallas Zoo, making it the tenth member of our exhibit flock. The chick now weighs about 6 pounds, and is beginning to grow feathers to replace its soft gray down. Once those feathers grow in, the chick can begin to practice swimming in Don Glendenning Penguin Cove.

_MG_1922-Penguin Chick 6-9-15-CB (427x640)

King vulture: One chick, our newest, hatched June 6. The strikingly unique birds have beautifully colored orange-and-purple heads, hairless as is typical of vultures. (It keeps them cleaner, since they are carrion eaters.) They’re native to Central and South America, but you’ll find ours on Wings of Wonder in ZooNorth.

DSC02401-King Vulture-SL (640x427)

“A combination of factors contributed to our success this spring,” said Sprina Liu, the Dallas Zoo’s bird curator. “First and foremost, our bird keepers have a total of over 300 years of experience, and many came here with experience from other institutions. So we have a strong team that keeps a close eye on the birds to ensure they have the environment they need to breed successfully.

“We give the adults what they need to breed and they do the rest,” Liu said. “If not, having the observational and technical skills to identify problems and decide what to do is vital. If we encounter problems, we methodically review each step of our management (both historical and current), how the birds or chicks reacted to it and what we need to do to make it better. We did that many times this year, and depending on the situation, we modified our approach every few hours.

“In addition, we have strong animal nutrition and veterinary staffs that react immediately to changes that needed to be made.

“And lastly, while much has to do with skill, in some situations I think just plain dumb luck helped us out,” she added with a smile.

The Dallas Zoo’s bird experts will continue to work with SSP coordinators for these birds to determine where they will be placed.

Categories: Birds, Conservation, Penguins, Zookeepers | Leave a comment

Uniting to Save Animals From Extinction (SAFE)

Three days, six endangered species stations, 30 volunteers and 4,074 people who pledged to help save endangered animals — it IMG_9092 SAFE Endangered Species Penguin CS (800x533)was an extraordinary weekend for wildlife.

On the 10th anniversary of Endangered Species Day, we joined the Association of Zoos & IMG_9106 SAFE Endangered Species Penguin CS (533x800)Aquariums (AZA) for the launch of SAFE: Saving Animals From Extinction. SAFE is an incredible nationwide effort uniting 228 AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums to raise awareness for species that desperately need our help.

We invited guests to discover how they could help save elephants, cheetahs, penguins, and gorillas in Africa, as well as the monarch butterfly here in Texas. And their response blew us away.

“We saw that people wanted to be more personally involved,” said Ben Jones, dean of Dallas Zoo’s Wild Earth Academy. “They were inspired by our animals, and they wanted to be invited to help. They just needed a little guidance.”IMG_9101 SAFE Endangered Species Penguin CS (533x800)

But we also learned that while many people know in a general sense that wildlife’s in trouble, they don’t know how severe the threat of extinction is that these animals face. So we’d like to share these green actions that start right at home. We hope to inspire more conversations, ignite a light to investigate, and become conservationists to help protect what we have now before it’s too late.

My Pledge to Protect Penguins:

  • I’ll buy sustainable seafood.
  • I’ll save energy. When not in use, I’ll turn off the juice.

My Pledge to Protect Elephants:

  • I’ll spread the word about ivory & never buy it.
  • I’ll respect & protect native wildlife.

My Pledge to Protect Gorillas:

  • I’ll extend the life of my mobile phone & recycle it.
  • I’ll buy sustainable forest products.

My Pledge to Protect Cheetahs:

  • I’ll respect & protect native wildlife.
  • I’ll restore wildlife habitat.

My Pledge to Protect Monarch Butterflys:

  • I’ll plant milkweed.
  • I’ll reduce or eliminate yard pesticides.

My Pledge to Protect Wildlife:

  • I’ll use reusable grocery bags.
  • I’ll pick up 10 pieces of litter pollution every week.

IMG_9169 SAFE Endangered Species Penguin CS (800x533)To view all of the photos from our Endangered Species Weekend, click HERE. And to see photos of how other AZA-accredited zoos/aquariums participated to inspire change, click HERE.

Categories: Cheetah, Conservation, Elephant, Events, Gorilla, Penguins | Leave a comment

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