Former Dallas Zoo camper turns passion for marine life into ‘ReefLove’

Mary Katherine Futrell shows what a healthy coral reef looks like (left jar) opposed to coral bleaching (right jar).

We feel like we’ve won Olympic gold when we learn about kids who grew up going to the Dallas Zoo and turned their passion for animals and nature into conservation projects and careers. Bishop Lynch High School sophomore Mary Katherine Futrell is doing just that.

When Mary Katherine was six years old as a camper in Dallas Zoo’s summer camp, she met Mango, an African penguin she still remembers today. Interacting with Mango helped shape what kind of work she wanted to do as she got older. Now, she’s teaching our community to protect marine life.

“All of the animal encounters we got to do during camp were just so crazy awesome,” said Futrell. “We got to see what’s in the wild and what we need to help protect. The staff was so passionate and engaging. We got to do so much hands-on stuff that I was like, ‘Wow, I really want to work with animals when I grow up.’”

When our famous Texas heat rolls in, most people will put on sunscreen before heading out to enjoy the sun. But did you know you could actually help the environment by avoiding sunscreens that contain certain chemicals? We recently invited Mary Katherine out to our affiliated Children’s Aquarium at Fair Park to teach guests about her ReefLove project, something she created for her Girl Scout Gold Award. ReefLove is an initiative that spreads awareness about coral bleaching. One way coral bleaching happens is when sunscreen chemicals wash off of people, land on coral reefs, and kills them.

“It’s a huge problem, but we can actively do something about sunscreen coral bleaching,” said Futrell. “The fact that you can cover yourself up with special sun-protective clothing, or use reef-safe sunscreens and help protect coral reefs is amazing. We can easily make a difference.”

Her website,, shares more about the solutions to coral bleaching, and about how we can protect the reefs at the same time we protect ourselves.

Zoo Education Supervisor Tonya McDaniel said she’s proud of seeing a former Zoo camper grow up and make a platform to help protect species. Tonya believes any camp member can become inspired and help evoke change.

“From our Zoo Corps teens initiating a cell phone recycling program to save gorillas, families recording frog sightings and calls for citizen science projects, to an educational activity like what Mary Katherine developed, the possibilities are endless to inspire change with everyone we interact with in education,” said McDaniel.

To meet Futrell, hear more of her story and learn about ReefLove, come out to our Safari Nights concert series this spring and summer. She’ll be there to present her project and answer your questions. Check out for more information about the 2018 Safari Nights concert series coming soon.


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Wild Earth Action Team: Protecting a tiny bird’s big habitat

What’s black, white and red all over? No, not a penguin with a sunburn. Try again. It’s the red-cockaded woodpecker! (The red part is actually just a small stripe on its head). Sadly, though, these little guys are nearly extinct.

But our Wild Earth Action Team (WEAT) is ensuring these birds keep pecking away for a long time. The team just wrapped their third annual trip to the Big Thicket National Preserve where they planted longleaf pines to help restore habitat for this endangered bird and other species.

For the red-cockaded woodpeckers to survive, they need to be able to safely nest – and they rely on longleaf pine forests to do that. So we’ve gotten to work, and over the past few years, the Dallas Zoo and a team of volunteers have planted more than 30,000 longleaf pines to reforest 300 acres for habitat.

“We’re thankful to all our volunteers, including the Dallas Zoo, who have played a vital role in the reforestation efforts in the Preserve,” said Jason Ginder, Park Ranger at Big Thicket National Preserve. “Re-establishing an ecosystem based on native plant communities is vital to a healthy forest. Longleaf pine trees thrive in the Southeast Texas climate, and make it ideal habitat for the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker.”

We couldn’t make these expeditions happen without our rock star community joining us to protect Texas wildlife.

“Getting the chance to go on this expedition was probably one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been able to do,” said Jon V., Dallas Zoo Conservation Guide. “It felt so amazing to participate in the active conservation process and to help restore the habitat of the endangered woodpecker, so that hopefully one day, it will be taken off the endangered species list.”

We rely on people like you to help us reach our conservation goals. One of our most ambitious goals this year is to remove ten tons of litter pollution from wildlife habitats. Help us reach this by pledging to pick up just ten pieces of litter every Tuesday. It’s that simple! Learn about the Ten on Tuesday campaign here. You can also join us on one of our Wild Earth Action Team expeditions! We head to Corpus Christi March 2-4 to restore habitat for the endangered whooping crane, plus, we’re doing a ton of cool activities. Learn more about the trip!

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Save the vaquita: Near extinct porpoise needs help fast

Dallas Zoo’s conservation intern Heaven Tharp guest-blogs on ZooHoo!

The vaquita porpoise is the world’s most endangered marine mammal — there’s fewer than 30 left. But I bet you didn’t know that.

The Dallas Zoo, along with AZA SAFE (Saving Animals From Extinction), is supporting a heroic $1 million emergency rescue plan to save the vaquita. This weekend, July 14-16, we’re raising awareness and money with a Save the Vaquita Weekend Beach Party.

The vaquita is the ocean’s smallest cetacean, only reaching up to 5 feet in length and weighing about 120 pounds. That’s about as big as an average 13-year-old boy. They’re best known for the unique black ring around each eye, and black curved lips that are often described as a smile. Vaquitas have the most restricted range of any marine mammal — they’re only found in the northern Gulf of California, also known as the Sea of Cortez.

Photo of a vaquita caught in a gillnet by NOAA Fisheries West Coast

This small porpoise wasn’t discovered until 1958, and sadly, a half century later, it’s on the verge of extinction. Vaquitas are continuously caught in the cross fires of fishermen fishing for totoaba; it’s a critically endangered fish that’s in high demand across China because their swim bladder is considered a delicacy. For vaquitas, the biggest problem is the fishing gear itself. Gillnets cause accidental trapping, and it’s leading to their demise. Just last month, Mexico placed a permanent ban on the use of gillnets in the northern Gulf of California. Unfortunately, illegal fishing with these nets is still a huge problem.

This weekend, we invite you to join us in taking immediate action to save the remaining 30 vaquitas. Spearheaded by a committee of interns and volunteers passionate about this species, Dallas Zoo’s Save the Vaquita Beach Party kicks off Friday, July 14, on Cat Green. From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. each day (with extended hours until 8 p.m. during Saturday’s final Safari Nights concert) we’ll have children’s beach games, a bounce house, and face-painting on Cat Green in ZooNorth. The party and games are free with Zoo admission (bounce house and face painting are $5 each). And donations to Vaquita SAFE are appreciated!

Also, visit the Lacerte Family Children’s Zoo Discovery House and write a note of encouragement to the vaquita conservation heroes on the front lines. We’ll be sure to mail it to them!

You can also purchase a specially designed “Save the Vaquita” t-shirt ($15), stickers ($2), or a limited-edition wristband ($5). A $20 donation gets you all three! There will also be unique handmade vaquita-themed merchandise for sale, and we’ll all have a lot of beach party fun.

You can also help the vaquita by:

  • Choosing to buy sustainable seafood.
  • Spreading the word: tell five people about why the vaquita needs our help!
  • Donating to the Dallas Zoo’s “Save the Vaquita” effort. We’ll send all money raised directly to Vaquita SAFE to save this marine mammal from extinction.

We look forward to seeing you — let’s party #4aPorpoise!

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Zoo Corps electronics recycling initiative is here to stay

We’ve just wrapped up our second year of Zoo Corps, and I couldn’t be prouder of this year’s group of amazing high schoolers. Our youth-led conservation team meets twice a month throughout the school year and selects an important conservation issue to address. While I provide guidance along the way and connect the team with knowledgeable Zoo staff, these teens do it all – from conducting research to making key decisions.

This year’s group selected deforestation as their issue to tackle. Although a multi-faceted and daunting issue, the teens came up with a creative and effective way to make a positive impact.

During Endangered Species Weekend, Zoo Corps launched a new initiative to help save gorilla habitats and encourage Zoo guests to reforest their own backyards. As you may have read in their earlier blog post, gorillas, chimps, okapi and many other animals who call African rainforests their home are losing this critical habitat. Much of this habitat loss is due to mining coltan, a mineral used to manufacture electronics such as cell phones and tablets. By recycling or extending the life of these devices, you can help reduce the demand for coltan, and ultimately help save gorilla habitat!

While the potential for storms seemed to keep some people away on Saturday, May 20, we had a great turnout on Sunday, May 21, and overall, the weekend was a success! We collected a total of 56 devices, including phones, tablets and MP3 players. Each will be recycled with ECO-CELL, a handheld electronics recycling company founded in 2003.

Though team members were initially concerned about saving habitat in Africa, they also wanted to save wildlife in their own backyards. To help local wildlife, the teens gave out Texas native tree saplings to Zoo guests who brought a device to recycle. They also engaged visitors in conversations about gorillas, giving out saplings to guests who could answer trivia questions about the great apes. In total, Zoo Corps gave out 100 tree saplings from Texas Trees Foundation that were ready for guests to take home and plant in their yards!

In addition to the Zoo Corps cell phone recycling drive, Endangered Species Weekend featured 7 stations around the Zoo where visitors took specific pledges to help protect wildlife. Pledges were simple tasks that anyone can do, but they can make a big difference in small ways! In total, there were 3,200 pledges to save wildlife, with 250 specifically for gorillas.

I could not be more proud of these students who have so much passion and drive to save endangered species, and I look forward to welcoming the 2017-2018 Zoo Corps group who will make their own difference in the world. Applications will be live this August for students who will be in grades 9-12 for the upcoming school year.

If you didn’t make it to Endangered Species Weekend, you can still recycle your small electronics any time you visit the Zoo.

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Animal Adventures outreach programs provide fun for all ages

flamingos and elderly

Animal Adventures outreach specialist Hayley Perryman guest blogs on ZooHoo!

The Dallas Zoo has an impressive array of ambassador animals from penguins to porcupines, tortoises to tegus, cockroaches to a cheetah, and pretty much everything else in between. These animals travel all over the DFW metroplex, and they have a very important job – inspiring a passion for nature and educating the public about conservation.

However, these creatures have another job, as well. It’s one that we don’t always think of, but it might be the most important job of all – that job is to inspire childlike joy and happiness in every guest they meet. Most people believe that programs like ours are only reserved for children or young adults, but my favorite types of programs are those specifically for retirement homes and the elderly.

Now don’t get me wrong, I love spending my time going to pre-schools, middle schools, high schools, and all other schools to teach kids about wildlife, but there is something very special about visiting the elderly.IMG_0595

When we arrive, we often times hear comments like “this is one of the only programs that we can get all our residents out of bed for!” and “I hope it’s okay if my grandkids join us. They were just as excited as we were to hear that the Zoo was coming!”

We get our animals situated and ready to go for our 45-minute presentation and watch as older ladies come walking or wheeling in, sitting together and talking as though they were teenage girls in a high school cafeteria. We’ll giggle as we see someone arguing that this seat is saved for Susan or Tom, and how they’re hoping their kids or grandkids hurry up and get there so they don’t miss the program. Once we have everyone there, we begin.

Our programming, although usually booked for children, does find itself in front of adult audiences from time to time. Oddly enough, the adult groups are often more excited than all of our youth programs put together. I think we tend to forget about the simple things in life every now and then. These are things that, as children, caused our hearts to race, our minds to dream, and our smiles to spread across our faces; things like coming face-to-face with a flamingo, watching an opossum munch happily on a piece of banana, or seeing a tortoise stand up and start to dance from side to side as they get shell scratches from someone in the audience (fun fact – radiated tortoises are known as “rain dancers” because they do this in real life due to the nerve endings found throughout their shells!).

As our program comes to an end, our audience is suddenly transformed into one entirely of children, regardless of actual age. Smiles are seen on every face, laughs are heard throughout the room, and that wonderful look of happiness and joy is found in both young and old alike. That amazement and wonder is something that all of us need more of in our lives, and I find it so incredible that creatures of any kind are able to inspire that in people of all ages.

We visit several different retirement communities throughout the Dallas area, ranging from hospice care to elderly happy hour at a library – and trust me, it is as awesome as it sounds. These types of programming are a testament to the fact that there is no age limit on loving wildlife and wanting to help save the animals that are so important to our ecosystems.

Sponsored by AT&T, this past year, the Dallas Zoo Animal Adventures outreach team completed 623 outreach programs, reaching more than 86,400 people through educational appearances. We hope to reach even more people, both young and old, in this coming year, and we will continue to strive to make 2017 a year for learning about conservation and making a difference to save the planet.

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