Mammals

A day in the life of a zookeeper in North Savanna

Witten and his mom enjoy a January day in the North Savanna habitat.

It’s 7 a.m. on a chilly January morning. Lisa Fitzgerald and her team are huddled around a table for their daily status meeting. There were no stops for coffee on their way into work this morning. No hitting the snooze button. No late starts. They can’t. That’s because they have ten hungry giraffe, five kudu, four ostriches and 14 guinea fowl depending on them, regardless of the weather or time of year. But they’re not complaining – they love these animals and are some of the most passionate, dedicated people you’ll ever encounter.

This is an inside look at how just one of our many teams of zookeepers provide the highest level of care to the 2,000-plus animals of the Dallas Zoo – 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Get eyes on the animals
The first item on their to-do list in the morning is to get a visual on each and every animal. The team of 12 keepers splits up into two groups – one team handles the giraffe herd, the other takes care of the hoofstock and birds. As they walk their respective barns, the keepers take note of anything that seems off or may have changed overnight. On a chilly night, all the animals remain indoors in their cozy, heated barns.

Keepers preparing morning meals for our giraffe herd.

Breakfast time
Next step is morning meals for everyone. Each species (and in some cases, each individual animal) receives specialized diets according to their needs. Keepers lug huge bowls full of spinach and pellets in for the ostriches at one barn. Simultaneously, another keeper prepares fresh produce for the giraffe in the other barn.

Prep the habitat
The habitats then need to be prepared for the animals to go out for the day, if weather allows. In case of freezing temperatures or inclement weather, most animals will remain in the comfort of their barns. Since the North Savanna is home to several different species, the whole team helps with this step. They walk the entire expansive habitat to check for hazards like fallen trees or litter that may have made its way in. Once that’s done and any hazards have been cleared, they scatter food and enrichment items for the animals to enjoy throughout the day.

Keepers getting the habitat ready for the animals to go out for the day.

Shifting – what is that?
In the world of zookeepers, moving the animals from one place to another is referred to as “shifting.” But this doesn’t happen unless the animals are willing participants. You can’t make a 17-foot tall, 2,500-pound giraffe do anything he doesn’t want to do. Getting animals comfortable with shifting takes time, patience and relationship-building. They’re given tons of positive reinforcement and treats each time they choose to participate.

Shifting four different species is no easy feat, but the keepers have it down to a science. Ostriches are the first out, and they go right to their stations where fresh spinach treats await them. Next are the kudu, who follow suit and wait patiently at their designated station as keepers feed them romaine lettuce. Then come the giraffe who are split into two groups – one goes out to the feeding habitat, and one to the larger Savanna habitat. Both groups are greeted with romaine and carrots to keep them at their stations until all is done. Finally, the guinea fowl follow suit. Once every animal has left the barns, the gates are closed and the animals are free to roam the expansive Savanna and enjoy their day. Keepers then will clean up the barns and prepare for the animals to come back inside at the end of the day.

Beau the kudu receives a lettuce treat (aka positive reinforcement) for choosing to go to his station during shifting.

Wrapping Up
The team may also hold a few animals back to work on training behaviors for routine health checks and more. Training is an essential part of their daily routine and helps reinforce their relationship with the animals they care for. In addition, our keepers contribute to animal research and help develop best practices for accredited zoos around the country. Their days are long but rewarding in every sense.

Once the Zoo is closed to the public, it’s time to bring everyone back inside. Before they know it, the keepers’ ten-hour day is over and they leave “the office” knowing their work has made an impact caring for some of the most majestic animals on earth. They’re excited to wake up and do it all again tomorrow.

Categories: Africa, Giraffe, Zookeepers | 3 Comments

Remembering Honeydew

Princess Honeydew enjoys a special birthday treat made by her keepers.

When some of our animals reach retirement age and are no longer comfortable shifting in and out of their habitats, we move them to a special home designed for their comfort, where dedicated keepers care for their every need away from the public eye. Our beloved South American tapir Honeydew lived her golden years behind the scenes where she was pampered daily. She recently passed away due to age-related health issues – and impressively, she lived to be the nation’s oldest tapir in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Honeydew would have celebrated her 38th birthday this month. Lovingly referred to as “Princess” Honeydew, she received the royal treatment from her keepers, who went above and beyond to ensure she had the best possible care throughout her geriatric years. And her birthday is one they’d never forget. Her care team was diligent about making her indulgent birthday cakes each year to show her just how much she was loved. Honeydew was also constantly pampered with brushes, baths, special foot care, leisurely swims in her personal pool, and of course tons of love and attention.

Another fun birthday moment. Just look at that snoot!

Her keepers have shared some of their favorite Honeydew moments as we say farewell to this sweet girl:

  • She would dramatically flop over for belly rubs, which were her favorite.
  • You could tell when she was really happy when she would close her eyes and wrinkle up her snout.
  • She would get wild and excited when it was bath time.
  • Her snoot. It was always moving, smelling, exploring and seeing what trouble she could get into.
  • She LOVED visitors and thrived off of attention. The more we doted on her, the happier Princess Honeydew was.
  • Animals like her define zookeepers. It didn’t matter if you had been her keeper for years or you just met her, she made an impression.

Our keepers were always willing to give her their hearts and do whatever she needed, and we couldn’t be more proud of that! Honeydew will be dearly missed by all of us at the Dallas Zoo.

Categories: Mammals, Zookeepers | 1 Comment

Heeding the call: Earthwatch expedition to save chimpanzees

Cristina P. in Uganda on her Earthwatch expedition to BCFS.

Primate keeper Cristina P. guest blogs on ZooHoo!

In August of 2016 I received an unexpected call from the Dallas Zoo’s HR director. She informed me that I had been selected as one of the finalists for an Earthwatch Fellowship, and 9 months later I was on my way to an adventure I will never forget.

Our group met up at a hotel in Entebbe, a city on the Northern Shores of Lake Victoria, 23 miles from the national capital Kampala, Uganda. We had only 5 participants in our team – 3 from Australia, one from Switzerland, and myself. Being in a small group allowed us to really form personal connections, and I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to meet people from around the world, including the great people of Uganda.

Chimps gathered near our cabin in the forest.

We left for the Budongo Conservation Field Station (BCFS), and 6 hours later we arrived to the most remote location I had ever been. The nearest town was 45 minutes away, I was not going to be in communication with anyone via phone or internet for the next 10 days, and primates were my new neighbors. I could not have been more excited.

We were surrounded by groups of blue monkeys, red-tailed monkeys (also called guenons), baboons and black and white colobus. We saw many bushbucks (a brownish-red hoofed stock) as well as a few genets and civets at night. We heard the nightly calls of the tree hyrax.  Birds were abundant in the area making it a great spot for bird watchers. The butterflies were the prettiest I had ever seen.

BCFS has been around since 1990, and over the years, researchers have noticed that some of the fruit trees (which provide the chimps’ natural food source) have been producing drastically fewer amounts of fruit. The local villagers also believe that chimps and baboons have been raiding their crops more frequently. Could the decline of fruit availability be causing the increase in crop raiding? Could the fruit decrease be caused by global warming? Is this simply part of a natural cycle of the forest? The area had been exploited for many decades by the British for mahogany, so there’s also a theory that maybe as the forest regenerates and trees get taller, there is less sun getting through to the shorter fruit trees, thus affecting their development.

BCFS tries to look at every piece of the puzzle, so many of the tasks we performed were for the purpose of furthering this research. One day we set up mist nets in the forest to catch birds and catalog them, since they are important in spreading seeds (they were released after we were done with measurements, banding and pictures). BCFS field assistants monitor types of leaves and fruit levels on around 1,400 fruit trees in the area, so we assisted in data collection for that project as well.  But most importantly, we observed 2 troops of chimpanzees, which was an experience like no other.

We observed this chimp enjoying a snack.

Some days, we’d start walking before dawn so we could find the chimps as they were waking up. One of the groups, called Sonso has been studied since the beginning of the project and is fully habituated, which means they see the people as part of their environment and do not mind human presence. The second group, Waibira, has been studied since 2011 and are still in the process of habituation. For the purposes of minimizing disease transmission and our safety we were told to keep a distance of approximately 23 feet to the chimps. The only problem with that was the animals don’t know that rule and at times came pretty close to us. It was fascinating to be so close to an animal that is so strong and powerful, yet they seemed to just go about their day as if we weren’t even there.

A chimp is observed with injuries from being caught in a snare.

We also had the chance to assist the snare removal team. In this particular area, chimps are not hunted for bush meat. Instead the targets are bush pigs, blue and red duikers, and bushbucks. Unfortunately though, chimps inadvertently get caught in those, and about 25% of the animals in this area have a snare-related injury. One particular female had gotten caught by a snare 3 different times! They have even been observed trying to free one another from the snares. It was also noted that there was no difference in how the injured chimps were treated by their troop and they seem to eventually adapt to their new reality of missing fingers, toes, etc. Unfortunately some are not so lucky and do end up dying from their injuries. Occasionally the BCFS veterinary team will sedate an injured chimp and remove a snare if the animal is left behind by its troop.

On one of our last days we visited a nearby village to interview the local farmers and learn about the impact that chimps, baboons, and small monkeys have on their crops. Years ago, BCFS helped them identify what kinds of foods would be least appealing to the animals and provided them with seeds, which were then planted near the forest edge. They do this in the hopes that the animals might keep walking further out to search for foods they like better. The farmers depend on these crops, not only for income, but also to feed their families.

Leaving BCFS was bittersweet. I still miss seeing the chimps and all the people I met! But since I’ve returned from Uganda, I have a renewed hope that there are people out there doing amazing things every day to save these animals from extinction.

Categories: Africa, Chimpanzee, Conservation, Zookeepers | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

Boipelo update: a Q&A with mammal supervisor Megan L.

Boipelo has been adjusting well after the loss of her companion, Adhama.

We are so grateful for the outpouring of support we’ve received in the past two weeks since Adhama’s sudden passing. Many of you have reached out with questions about how Boipelo has been adjusting, so we sat down with Megan L. (Dallas Zoo mammal supervisor, and one of our primary hippo keepers) to give you an update.

In general, how has Boipelo been feeling and behaving since Adhama’s passing?

She is an incredibly strong and resilient animal. But she has just been a little bit slower to do things that she would’ve done faster in Adhama’s company. Boipelo is a shy individual as it is, so she is just taking a little longer to feel confident in certain situations. With Adhama, she would pretty much encourage him to do everything before her. It was always: “You go check out that enrichment device/toy/new snack first.” And that goes back to hippos’ group mentality. The dominant animals will typically have other members of the group check things out first, to be sure they’re safe.

She’s doing great at interacting with us during training sessions and keeper chats. We train for husbandry behaviors – like ultrasounds and other routine medical procedures – that allow our animals to voluntarily participate in their own healthcare.

We’ve also seen her on the monitors at night playing with her favorite giant ball. She’ll push it back and forth in her pool behind the scenes. And she’s maintained a consistent appetite and normal feeding schedule throughout this time. These behaviors indicate to us that she’s adjusting and doing well.

How have keeper interactions with her changed?

She has a team of at least four people that work with her regularly, and she interacts extremely well with all of us. Relationship-building takes time, especially with her since she is naturally shy. That makes it really rewarding when you get those positive reactions from her though. And she’s getting a lot of extra attention. Yesterday, she was laying down, and we got down next to her and she was vocalizing and seemed excited to have that interaction and connection with us in that moment. She is getting lots of treats and attention from all of her keepers.

What kinds of things did you do to make sure Boipelo was doing well in those first days after Adhama’s death?

We wanted her routine to be as normal as possible. We did go out to her behind-the-scenes habitat and interact with her a bit more in those first few days, just to try to make her feel comfortable. She didn’t engage with the offer of interaction with us every time. But we wanted to give her plenty of opportunity for attention if she wanted it.

How are you and Adhama’s other keepers dealing with his loss personally?  

We’re animal professionals. Loss is a part of our job, because that’s part of the circle of life. It’s always hard. He was very charming and one of those animals that was such a joy to be around. We’ll never be able to forget him, and of course we wouldn’t want to. But the focus is now on caring for our other animals, including Boipelo, which makes it easier to keep going.

One thing that has helped us is seeing the public sharing pictures and memories of him – it reminds us how much he meant to people. He used to go to the glass and just hang out with guests. That was so “him” – giving a part of himself to the public, and it was a really magical thing. Think about all the zoo animals…which ones respond and seem to interact with guests like that? They don’t have to do that. But Adhama did.

We also SO appreciate everyone’s kind words of support during this time. It means so much to us to read all of the comments on social media – they have really touched us and made us feel so supported.

Will the Dallas Zoo bring in another hippo as a companion for Boipelo?

That’s the plan, but the time frame is still to be determined. We’re in no rush. In time, we’ll work with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Hippo Species Survival Plan team to try to identify a potential companion for our Boipelo.

Categories: Africa, Hippo, Simmons Hippo Outpost, Zookeepers | Tags: , , , , | Leave a comment

Dallas Zoo devastated by sudden loss of male hippo Adhama

Adhama’s sudden passing has shaken the Dallas Zoo family.

Dallas Zoo is saddened to announce that 7-year-old male hippo Adhama passed away suddenly on Tuesday evening.

The hippo keepers and our veterinary team had been monitoring Adhama’s health since late last week, after observing some lethargy and a diminished appetite. Adhama spent Monday and Tuesday behind the scenes under observation and resting, but there was nothing to indicate a serious issue. After hours on Tuesday evening, keepers observed via closed-circuit video that Adhama seemed to be non-responsive, and our animal care team responded immediately. Unfortunately, the team found that he had passed away suddenly with no external signs of stress or trauma.

Preliminary findings from the veterinary team indicate severe enteritis, which is an acute inflammation of the intestine. According to the veterinary team, given the condition of Adhama’s organs and his fat reserves, this does not appear to have been a long-term illness. The team is continuing to study the situation to learn more, but given the lack of significant symptoms, the team is confident there’s nothing they would have done differently.

Adhama arrived at the Dallas Zoo in 2017, when we opened the Simmons Hippo Outpost.

“From the time he arrived here at the Dallas Zoo, Adhama captivated us all with his curious nature and larger-than-life personality. He was a wonderful ambassador as we opened our Simmons Hippo Outpost and reintroduced hippos to Dallas last year,” said Gregg Hudson, President and CEO of the Dallas Zoo. “Our entire team is understandably shaken, given the suddenness of Adhama’s passing. Please keep our entire staff in your thoughts during this difficult time.”

Adhama and Boipelo came to the Dallas Zoo in March 2017 (from the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens and Albuquerque Zoo, respectively), ahead of the opening of the Zoo’s Simmons Hippo Outpost in April. These two hippos were matched on a breeding recommendation through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan.

The two quickly bonded and became an adorable pair, enjoying lounging together on the habitat’s sand beach or taking naps in the 120,000-gallon pool.

“We know so many people in our extended Zoo family share in our sadness since we have enjoyed watching Adhama and Boipelo as their personalities and relationship developed over these last 18-plus months,” said Hudson.

Boipelo gave birth to a calf in February 2018, but the calf did not survive. The hippo keepers report that Boipelo is subdued in the initial hours since Adhama’s passing. The team is focused on ensuring she is maintaining as much of a routine as possible in spite of the loss of her mate. She will be given access to the habitat starting today, but the Zoo staff will follow her lead on her day-to-day availability.

The Zoo will continue to provide updates as more information is available.

Categories: Africa, Hippo, Simmons Hippo Outpost | 24 Comments

Brought to you by the Dallas Zoo