National Zookeeper Week: Why we love our careers

_MG_0019-Mshindi on Ramona's back-CB

Lower Wilds of Africa zookeeper Cristina Powers guest-blogs on ZooHoo!

Working with animals in zoos is not nearly as glamorous as you might think. Our days are not filled with baby animals crawling all over us; instead a lot of our time is actually spent cleaning up after them, among other not-so-clean tasks.

Something visitors may not know is how zookeepers develop very special relationships with the animals we work with. Our primates have amazing and unique personalities, making every day I work here different than the one before.

Some of our chimps are very playful with us and it doesn’t involve any physical contact. As a protected contact, AZA-accredited zoo, we don’t share the same space with some of our animals, including great apes.

In the mornings, our 26-year-old male chimp, Mookie, loves to engage us in a play session. He’ll look at me, bob his head up and down while bouncing his body, and he’ll run fast through his indoor rooms. I’ll chase him from the hallway and when he gets to the end, he’ll turn around and run the opposite direction.

Chimp Mookie is known for his playful antics with keepers.

Chimp Mookie is known for his playful antics with keepers.

Mookie will do this many times, then stop, signaling play time is over. Or I’ll just get tired and can’t do it any longer!

With 7-year-old chimp Kona, it’s a little different. I’ll start running along the hallway and he might decide to join in the fun. Even little Mshindi has started to catch on.

These animals are truly special to the people who work with them day in and day out. If they get sick, we worry. If we go on vacation, we miss them. When they move to another zoo, we are sent with them for a few days to help them adjust, and minimize stress after the move.

When keepers leave the zoo, it is certainly not the end of caring and wanting to know more about our animals’ lives. We’ll email their new keepers and ask for updates and pictures. Keepers and volunteers will even arrange personal trips to go see an animal at their new home. And you can bet they’re both happy to see each other.

A lot is said about an elephant’s memory, but don’t underestimate a primate’s. They can act very excited when a retired keeper comes to see them, or even someone they haven’t seen in a while. They’ll greet their old human friends with happy vocalizations; they’ll try to reach for them and sometimes won’t leave until the person is gone.

When chimps are happy they might show it in different ways, such as opening their mouths really big, making panting vocalizations, and bobbing their heads.

Keeper Cristina Powers shares a moment with chimp Missy.

Keeper Cristina Powers shares a moment with chimp Missy.

Being a zookeeper means sometimes we spend even more time around our animals and co-workers than our own families. During ice and snow storms, when the whole city (including the Zoo!) is shut down for business, we still have to spend many hours driving so we can get here to feed and clean their living quarters. If there’s still snow on the ground the next day, we do it all over again.

Same for holidays. Even though the zoo is closed to the public on Christmas Day, our animals still need to be cared for just the same. So we make sure to have enough staff around to get the job done.

Although not a common occurrence, if severe illness strikes in our animals, or one is still recovering from anesthesia or new situations arise, you bet we will be here overnight, taking turns keeping a watchful eye over them.

Unfortunately, there comes a time when we have to say goodbye forever. The death of a beloved animal is very hard on us. If time allows, the keepers at home on their days off are called in to say their final goodbye. Tears flow freely. Calls are made and texts are sent to the ones who no longer work at the zoo.

People from other departments, volunteers, old co-workers might send cards, emails, flowers, food – they know we are grieving. We miss them, we remember them, and we bring them up in conversations often. Even new keepers get to know so much about them, because we can’t stop talking about how special they were for years and years to come.

I hope this gives a small glimpse of how special these animals are to us. This is dedicated to all zookeepers and their endless love for animals. Happy National Zookeeper Week, friends.

Categories: Africa, Chimpanzee, Gorilla, Mandrill, Zookeepers | Tags: | 3 Comments

Mourning the loss, but celebrating the life, of our oldest resident, 57-year-old chimp Bon Bon

Bon Bon Chimp 1996

Our beloved Bon Bon in 1996.

With heavy hearts, we’re deeply saddened to share news of the loss of our oldest resident, 57-year-old chimpanzee Bon Bon, who passed away this past Sunday. The matriarch of our chimp troop, she vivaciously lived to be the oldest zoo-born chimp.

In recent weeks, Bon Bon’s health had begun to decline rapidly in her advanced age. With very little eyesight and mobility, our animal care team knew it was time to say goodbye.

“She was everybody’s favorite. Since she had been here so long, staff members from all over the zoo had formed a special relationship with her,” primate supervisor Sarah Villarreal said. “People would always stop by to say hi. And she didn’t forget them. Chimps always remember.”

“Bon Bon’s quirky and charming personality will be missed by all of us. This is a huge loss to our family here,” mammal curator Keith Zdrojewski said. “As the highest-ranking female in the troop, she still had an opinion in the group, and wasn’t afraid to voice it until the end.”

The remaining eight members of the troop respectfully said goodbye to Bon Bon with hand touches and soft vocalizations.

“This allowed them to see that their matriarch isn’t there anymore. It gave them a sense of closure, and now they can determine the new hierarchy from here,” Zdrojewski explained.

After their goodbyes, the troop walked away and allowed Bon Bon’s 30-year-old daughter, Koko, to have some alone time with her mother.

“The troop let her have that time. It was very unique. Afterward, chimp Ramona embraced Koko in a hug. It was a very special moment,” Villarreal said.

Bon Bon in recent years.

Bon Bon in recent years.

Born at the Dallas Zoo in 1958, Bon Bon was one of the first chimps to open the Primate Building in 1961 and again, our state-of-the-art Kimberly-Clark Chimpanzee Forest in 1997.

Bon Bon’s obsession with fashion items on her human companions never wavered, with nail polish and new shoes two of her favorite things. Zoo staff would take off their shoes to show her their toenails, and she would be fascinated. (For her 56th birthday last year, four of our keepers brought in different colors of nail polish, sat down near Bon Bon and painted their toes as she watched with joy.)

With four babies of her own, Bon Bon was known to be very affectionate towards all youngsters in the troop. Keeper Debbie Reid, who cared for Bon Bon for nearly 20 years, says her playful nature never ended.

“You’d see her light up when she played with the youngsters. She’d laugh with them by making a panting vocalization, and she’d tickle them nonstop,” Reid said. “With much patience, she’d allow them to climb all over her.”

And within the last few weeks, she still had these spirited moments with her adult daughter Koko.

We’ll miss you, Bon Bon. Thank you for touching our lives for so many years.

Categories: Chimpanzee, Mammals, Zookeepers | 8 Comments

It takes a village to raise a 2-year-old

Mshindi celebrated his 2nd birthday Jan. 26.

Mshindi celebrated his 2nd birthday Jan. 26.

Lower Wilds of Africa assistant supervisor Tami Jochem guest blogs on ZooHoo!

Our youngest member of the Dallas Zoo chimp troop is 2! The birthday boy, Mshindi, lives with his mom, Ramona; dad and alpha male, KC; 6-year-old brother Kona; and five other members of the troop.

At 2, Mshindi is becoming increasingly independent, but will stick close to mom for several more years. All of the individuals in the troop look out for Mshindi, and he often can be seen playing with or being carried by Kona, his aunt Koko, or the largest male in the group, Mookie.

Mshindi will remain close to mom Ramona for the next few years.

Mshindi will remain close to mom Ramona for the next few years.

Mshindi’s favorite activity is to play and wrestle with the big boys. He laughs as they roll and tug him around, roughhousing like human kids do. The larger chimps are careful not to be too rough, adjusting their tremendous strength to his little body. And if anyone gets a bit too rough, one of the females will correct them – by coughing! Mshindi only needs to make one tiny noise if he feels he needs rescuing, and mom or another troop member immediately will grab him up and comfort him by holding, hugging, or patting him on the back.

Six-year-old big brother Kona loves giving Mshindi rides.

Six-year-old big brother Kona loves giving Mshindi rides.

He enjoys exploring his habitat and is learning how to climb, swing, find food, and socialize. Baby chimps are born able to cling using both hands and feet. As they get older, they switch from riding on mom’s belly to her back. All infants have a white tuft of hair on their rumps, signaling their youngster status. By age 4 or 5, this tuft disappears and they begin to learn and act like adolescents. Chimps’ social structure is quite complex, and it takes many years to learn all its intricacies.

Mshindi now gets his own pieces of fruit at the rooftop tosses, which are daily at 11:30 a.m. Come check out our whole chimp family and wish little Mshindi a “Happy Birthday!”

Categories: Chimpanzee, Mammals | 1 Comment

Fission-Fusion: Giving chimps choices

Zookeeper Will Bookwalter guest-blogs on ZooHoo!

Keepers and animal management staff always look for ways to improve the welfare of the animals we care for — that’s our job! We work with zoos and animal experts from all over the world to stay ahead of the curve with our animal management programs.


Young Kona watches on while Mookie eats. Waiting for a bite perhaps?

Recently, the Dallas Zoo chimpanzee keepers have embarked on a new challenge to help enhance the lives of our chimps, keep a healthy social dynamic, and, most importantly, let the chimps make decisions.

“Fission-Fusion” is a fancy title for how chimpanzee troops function in the wild. Troops can range from 25-100 chimps, and throughout the course of the day they will split up (fission) and come back together (fusion). There are a few reasons why this happens, but the biggest one is simply this: resources.

Think of it like this: You made lunch for five of your friends, but 25 show up. You can’t feed everybody, so most of those friends will have to split up into smaller groups and go find their own food.

Chimps also will split up so males can protect the troop. They’ll patrol the perimeter of the territory, making sure the troop is safe and that no rivals are invading. Throughout the day, the whole troop will split into smaller factions and spend the day doing what chimps do best —eating, sleeping, grooming, and playing. The most important thing for chimpanzees is their social bond with one another. Spending time together grooming, sharing food, playing, and helping to raise the kids keeps relationships strong and peace in the troop.

Six-year-old Kona joins mom Ramona and little brother Mshindi on their favorite tree branch.

Six-year-old Kona joins mom Ramona and little brother Mshindi on their favorite tree branch.

With chimpanzees being so socially motivated, it can sometimes be tough to keep that peace. Chimps have a very complex social dynamic, and that often can lead to conflict. In recent years, some zoos in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (our accrediting organization) decided to try something different: letting the chimps decide where they want to go.

The normal morning routine is a gentle wakeup call from the keepers, and once we’ve checked on everyone, each receives a multi-vitamin and anything else they need. Then keepers clean the habitat, make sure everything is safe and in working order, and scatter their morning diet across the habitat. Then the chimps are sent out to eat, play, and relax with the troop.

This system has worked well, but when we heard about the success other zoos had with Fission-Fusion, we decided it was time to give it a try.

Mookie receives a kiss from Ramona.

Mookie receives a kiss from Ramona.

The way a Fission-Fusion system works in a zoo is similar to how it works in the wild, the only difference being that keepers need to help the chimps get where they want to go. Instead of sending all the chimps out together, some chimps may rather spend time with a different individual. Or perhaps they don’t feel like being around other individuals in the troop, so they can decide not to be.

The chimps tell us where they want to be by going to a certain area, or hanging back when the rest of the troop moves. For example, we know that if Mookie and Doyle, two of our adult males, don’t want to come in with the troop that evening, they’ll wait next to a different chute. Then they can come in to the other side of the building for some peace and quiet. In the morning, Mookie and Doyle will go back with the troop.

We decided to begin using this system is to help our eldest chimps, Bon Bon, Missy, and Doyle, get a break from our rambunctious youngster, Kona. At 6, Kona’s quite a handful, and while the older chimps spend lots of time playing with the youngsters, sometimes they need a break. So under Fission-Fusion, each morning we let the chimps decide if they want to stay in with a couple of others, or go out to the habitat.

50-year-old chimp Missy basks in the sun.

50-year-old chimp Missy basks in the sun.

The chimps who stay inside have access to our patio for some sunshine and plenty of activities to stay busy. And it lets keepers spend lots of time training. Training is one of the most important things we do with our chimps. We do simple things, such as asking the chimps to present different parts of their body, all the way up to really complicated behaviors, such as holding still for an ultrasound of their heart or belly.

Every training session helps keep these behaviors sharp, meaning we can always ensure the best care. The chimps who go out on habitat get plenty of perks, too. They can forage for food and browse, enjoy the sunshine (and the shade), and play, groom, and relax with the troop.

At nearly two-years-old, Mshindi will remain close to mom for the next few years.

At nearly two-years-old, Mshindi will remain close to mom for the next few years.

We’re so proud of how quickly our chimps caught on! Basing our expectations and our initial plans on what the other zoos had experienced, we expected it to take six months for our chimps to learn the system, and we expected a few hiccups along the way. The No. 1 rule with primates is adaptability, and we were ready for anything.

However, as primates always seem to do, they threw the one curveball we never thought we’d see: they learned to make their own choices on who they wanted to spend their time with in a little over two weeks! We weren’t sure how to react, so we decided to go with wild excitement.

This system is ever-changing. No two days are the same here at the zoo, and the animals are very good at keeping us on our toes. Being primates ourselves, we must always be ready to adapt, solve problems as they arise, and come up with the best solutions. One thing’s for sure: With help from our awesome chimps, the Dallas Zoo can continue to raise the bar and help other zoos all over the world create the best possible environments for the animals.

Categories: Africa, Chimpanzee, Zookeepers | Leave a comment

10 animals who wear fall well

Forget the flannel, cable-knit sweaters, and scarves – no one knows fall style better than the animal kingdom. We’re laying down some fall fashion with 10 animals who make this season look better than ever.

1. African crowned cranes rock autumn’s trendiest hairdo like fall royalty. They sport a golden crown of feathers atop their head, distinguishing them from other cranes. Their red neck wattle adds a nice splash of color, too.

African Crowned Crane2. A creature that resembles a large, ripe tomato deserves a major autumn accolade. Tomato frogs are brightly colored to warn predators that they’re not good to eat – but we think they’re juicily good-looking.

_MG_9734 Tomato Frog CB3. Giraffes’ spotted coats prove nature has a sense of style. Within all nine giraffe subspecies, each individual’s markings are as unique as our fingerprints. The reticulated giraffe subspecies, which you’ll find at our Zoo, sports a dark coat with a beautiful web of fine white lines.

4. Because no other animal can model a bed of fall leaves as adorably as our African pygmy hedgehog. These tiny guys use their coat of spines to escape predators – they’ll curl up into a tight ball and their spines will raise, forming a protective barrier.

Hedgehog-African Pygmy5. African red river hogs got it goin’ on. From their striking coloration and prominent tassels on their ears, to the hairy white Mohawk running along their spine, these hogs wear fall like no other.

Red River Hog Hank6. Yellow and black has never looked so good. Amiright? Tiger salamanders’ colors and markings vary throughout their wide North American range, but their most common marking resembles the striped pattern of their big cat namesake.

Tiger Salamander7. Golden lion tamarins rock nature’s fieriest coat. These small monkeys get their name from their vibrant reddish-orange fur and the long hair round their face that forms a perfect mane.

IMG_1599 Golden Lion Tamarin CS8. The chestnut-breasted malkoha manages to flaunt every fall color flawlessly. Males and females have near identical plumage, and wear those red eye patches like bosses.

ChestnutBreastedMalkohaMilkyEyelashes9. Tigers totally own fall. Their symbolic stripes act as camouflage in high grasses or dense forests. Sumatran tigers, like our boy Kipling, have the darkest orange coat of any tiger subspecies.

Kipling10. Thanks to our fall-loving chimps, playing in foliage has never looked so good.

Categories: Birds, Chimpanzee, Giraffe, Mammals, Monkey, Reptiles and Amphibians, Tigers | Leave a comment

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