Children’s Zoo (Lacerte Family)

Kunekune piglet siblings make us squeal

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Q. What’s fat and round, and has a name that means “fat and round?”

A. Kunekunes!

In June, the Lacerte Family Children’s Zoo welcomed two baby kunekune pigs to the big red barn. Adorable siblings Oliver and Penny quickly became a favorite of guests and employees alike.  (Jordan, the Children Zoo’s 17-year-old Vietnamese potbelly pig, is unimpressed with the youngsters next door. But she tolerates them, and all the extra visitors to the pig pens – very well.)

“Penny and Oliver have not only been one of the cutest additions to the Children’s Zoo, but they are one of the smartest as well,” zookeeper and lead trainer Jennifer Lim said.  “During short training sessions, using their favorite produce of grapes, apples, sweet potatoes, and carrots, these young piglets have already learned how to target, station, and crate on cue!”img_0279-kune-kune-piglets-cs

The only true “grazing pig,” kunekune (pronounced “koon-koon” or “kooney-kooney,” either is correct) are a breed of domesticated pigs that are native to New Zealand. The name does indeed mean “fat and round” in Maori. It wasn’t so long ago that they almost went extinct, with only 50 known purebred kunekunes in the 1970s. The breed came back from the brink thanks to the efforts of devoted wildlife preservationists, and today they are no longer considered endangered.

Penny and Oliver have the trademark kunekune short legs and short “smooshed” snouts, and are reddish brown with black markings. However, it’s easy to tell them apart – Oliver has one black ear, and Penny has wattles (also called “pire pire”) that hang down from her jaw.

Right now, at four months old, Penny and Oliver weigh about 30 pounds each. By the time they’re mature, however, they may weigh as much as 100 pounds.

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Quick-thinking mechanic saves koi pond

_MG_2864-Ruben Pacheco-Water FeaturesIf fish could talk, the 40 koi that call the Lacerte Family Children’s Zoo home would be singing the praises of water features mechanic Ruben Pacheco. His quick thinking kept them alive after a recent water filter break.

The 7,500-gallon koi pond is one of more than 30 different water features at the Zoo, but it’s the only one that is life-sustaining.

The koi pond’s multiport, an essential part of the sand filtration system, broke in early July and a shipping mishap left the Zoo without the correct replacement.

The previously crystal-clear pond was looking like a swamp without the correct multiport.

“The water was so green, you couldn’t see below the surface,” Pacheco said.

With time ticking and the ammonia levels rising, it quickly became a life-or-death situation for the beloved koi, until Pacheco took action on a sweltering Saturday.

He and assistant Danny Baker installed a working replacement multiport – one they built themselves! Using parts from non-working multiports and other random parts they found in our warehouse, they “frankensteined” a replacement.

The quick fix cleaned the pool, kept the koi swimming and gave the Zoo time to order the correct part.

“Ruben is fantastic. He’s a lifesaver,” zookeeper Stephanie Evola said.

For Pacheco, who’s been a Zoo employee for more than a decade, it’s all in a day’s work. It’s all about keeping the animals safe.

“I love the challenge,” he said.

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Arty for The Planet: Teens turn conservation into art

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Art met nature in a big way recently at the Lacerte Family Children’s Zoo’s “Arty for The Planet” event honoring Earth Day. Fifteen young “Arty-ists,” along with Dallas Zoo staff members Jamiee Golden and Sina Ogunleye, created a sidewalk chalk crazy-quilt of nature art throughout the Children’s Zoo.

The theme was simple: what inspires you about nature? The artists responded with intricate scenes of sea life and endangered species, as well as a colorful, powerful message about the importance of bees. There were parrots and lions, flamingos and giraffes, pandas, tigers, and more. Zoo visitors as well as Zoo staff were wowed by the quality of the work.

“I was not only amazed at the sheer talent of our volunteer artists, but the effect their work had on our visitors,” said Melody Alcazar, Children’s Zoo supervisor. “A sense of calm blanketed the Children’s Zoo as guests explored the work of our gifted artists and even tried their hand at creating their own nature chalk art.”

IMG_3680Volunteer artists included Maddie Olson, Alix Burn, Anna Czyzewski, Zen White, Lauryn Shaffer, Gabriela Noriega, Emily Henderson, Maya Endsley, Brennan Nichols, Robert Swofford, Leah Lara and Shelby Linker from Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing & Visual Arts. They were joined by Cameron Johnson, Seena Berryman and Katarra Smelley from the Dallas Zoo Youth Volunteer Program, who came in on their day off to participate.

“The art was a conversation piece for the entire day for our zoo guests, and for us, too,” zookeeper Stephanie Evola said. “My personal favorite was the fennec fox [drawn by Dallas Zoo member Emily Henderson, who attends Arts Magnet]. It was so gorgeous and detailed. She even included the scientific name, Vulpes zerda.”

For Shannon Linton, educational supervisor for the Zoo’s Youth Volunteer Program, the event was gratifying on two levels.

“Arty for The Planet” was a perfect example of the Zoo’s mission, actions and animals coming together for a greater cause,” Linton said. “And to see Cameron and Seena, both of whom started out as junior zookeepers, mature into these young women making such a powerful impact on so many people with their artwork… It was just incredible.”

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15 reasons why you should wish our Children’s Zoo a happy birthday

On its 15th birthday, our Lacerte Family Children’s Zoo is happily accepting presents in the form of laughter heard throughout The Stream; open arms for bird perching in the aviary; keen eyes for inspecting butterfly wings; gentle hands for petting; and children with open hearts ready to learn about our wild world. Here are 15 reasons why you should wish our Children’s Zoo a happy birthday:

1. Our goats give hugs. Really good hugs. (They take selfies, too.)

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2. We have a masterfully engineered, intricate tunnel system in The Underzone where you can get up-close to dwarf mongooses and hornbills. (Okay, if you’re 5, it’s pretty enthralling.)

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3. This wondrous lamb statue — donated to honor the memory of Michael David Devoss (1984-1987) —  never ceases captivating tiny humans who insist on having their photo taken on it.

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4. Because pigs like belly scratches, and we’re here to deliver.

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5. Our Youth Volunteers are some pretty darn fabulous curators of making conservation cool. Y’all rock. (Learn more about them here.)

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6. African grey parrot Murphy has been here since day one, sweet-talking guests with her puppy-dog eyes. She wins every day.

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7. The Stream. Texas. Enough said.

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8. Because baby pony Epona makes our hearts race THIS fast. WATCH!

9. Daily personal animal encounters mean you could meet the sweetest, softest bunny on planet Earth. Her name is “Fluffy Angel Claire.” (Kidding. It’s just Claire.)

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10. Your child will quite possibly leave our Nature Play courtyard with a desire to water plants. You’re welcome.

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11. Our birds in Travis & Zach’s Birds Landing like to get cozy on your head (preferably heads attached to bodies holding seed sticks).

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12. Because learning about different animal poops through the wildly popular “Poop Game” couldn’t make fecal matter education more entertaining. (Ask to play it in the JCPenney Discovery House!)

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13. The naked mole rats in The Underzone are so hideous, yet oddly fascinating, that you can’t stop staring.

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14. Where else can you find people who think the fossils, minerals, plants, rocks, and other natural items you find in your yard are as cool as we do? (Learn more on our “swap shop” in the Hillcrest Foundation Nature Exchange.)

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15. Because our Lacerte Family Children’s Zoo is full of passionate staffers who are always ready to show children just how special our planet and its animals are.

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How to train a mongoose 101

Dwarf mongoose Happy waits for his food reward for stationing on the scale.

Dwarf mongoose Happy waits for his food reward for stationing on the scale.

How in the world do you find out if a dwarf mongoose is pregnant?

You weigh her! And that’s also a great way to monitor an animal’s overall health.

But teaching these adorably sassy critters to sit on a scale isn’t for the impatient. Luckily, the Dallas Zoo has keeper Sara Bjerklie, who’s developed a special relationship with Happy, Sleepy, Sally and Jada.

Since last fall, she’s worked diligently five times a week with the small African carnivores. The key: cat food. It’s part of the mongooses’ daily diet and is a delicious, motivating snack.

“It’s been fun to see their individual personalities come out during training,” Bjerklie said. “Happy lives up to his name and loves to train, just not always on his station. I like to think he has an excess of energy and just can’t stop moving. Sleepy’s the opposite, he’s a little shy guy. But with a lot of time spent together, he’s warmed up and we’ve created a great bond.”

Keeper Sara Bjerklie gives Happy his cat food reward during positive reinforcement training.

Keeper Sara Bjerklie gives Happy his cat food reward during positive reinforcement training.

Mother and daughter duo Sally and Jada are typically the dominant pair in the pack. But they seem a little wary to train, and they took longer to grasp it.

The animals first trained on blue plates placed on the ground, and Bjerklie would ask them to “station” on their individual plate. As progress was made, she moved the plates on top of a small scale. And voila, we have weights! Kudos to Sara on her skill – and her persistence.

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