Zookeepers

Bird fostering: How zoos pull out all the stops to save animals from extinction

Dallas Zoo Assistant Supervisor Marcie Herry gives San Antonio Zoo Senior Keeper Serenity Hyland one of two kori bustard eggs to be raised by the San Antonio Zoo.

What does it take to ensure the survival of a genetically valuable bird? Sometimes it means flying halfway across the country to pick up an egg and bring it back to Dallas to be fostered by a different set of parents.

This temperature controlled container was used to safely transfer the egg to the San Antonio Zoo

That was the case this spring bird season when a lappet-faced vulture egg was laid by a mom at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida. The mom, unfortunately, didn’t have the best track record caring for her young. Luckily, the Dallas Zoo has a great set of lappet-faced vulture parents that could act as foster parents—yes, there are foster parents even in the animal kingdom!

Fostering like this and even hand-rearing are options that Association of Zoos & Aquariums institutions have to consider for new births or hatchings to conserve and save wildlife.

The lappet-faced vulture hatching is just one example of the decisions the Dallas Zoo deals with every spring with 700-plus birds on grounds, spanning more than 100 different species—many of which are endangered, declining, or near threatened.

When the parents aren’t available, sometimes zookeepers step in as the foster parents, like with a new kori bustard hatchling this spring. We’re hand-rearing one of these, and another two kori bustard eggs were picked up by the San Antonio Zoo, where they have the space and manpower to raise these chicks.

Eggs sit in an incubator at the Dallas Zoo

In other instances, zoos even cross-foster between similar species if the same species is not an option. For example, a lappet-faced vulture chick may be reared by a white-backed vulture and vice versa. This is done very carefully, and only in the right circumstances.

Regardless of what it takes to ensure a chick’s survival, the Dallas Zoo and other AZA-accredited zoos are doing everything it takes—from hand-rearing to fostering internally or even delivering eggs and chicks to zoos hundreds of miles away—to save animals from extinction.

The next time you peer out into the flamingo pond and see a unique species of bird, remember—it might have been raised by mom and dad, or it may have taken a different path, like being raised by humans, foster parents, or even a different species altogether.

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

Happy first birthday, Ajabu: Looking back on a year of milestones for our baby elephant

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Ajabu enjoys a mud wallow session./Chandra Brooks

It was 7 a.m. on Saturday, May 15, 2016 – the Zoo was just waking up and keepers were filing in, when two elephant keepers shook the barn with squeals of joy as they discovered a little grey bouncing baby boy. Just hours before, elephant Mlilo had delivered a 175-pound, 3-foot-tall calf to our somewhat surprise.

The baby, already standing, nursing and totally unfazed, would be the first African elephant calf born in a U.S. AZA-accredited Zoo in more than two years.

The keepers quickly executed their, “Surprise! A baby’s been born!” procedures to ensure the vet and animal care teams were immediately aware of the newborn.

Baby Ajabu at just three days old.

Baby Ajabu at just three days old.

But, the one who knew exactly what she was doing, Mlilo, took it all in stride. She’d been growing this baby for nearly two years, and her maternal instincts were alive and kicked in right on cue. She was born for this.

Two months prior, Mlilo arrived aboard a chartered 747 jet from drought-stricken Swaziland, Africa, as part of an intricate airlift to save her and 16 other elephants from being culled. This, in turn, saved her AND her beautiful baby boy.

Our animal experts suspected Mlilo was pregnant, but all hormone testing came back inconclusive. Regardless, we were very careful with Mlilo’s day-to-day care, and were able to create the positive conditions surrounding Ajabu’s successful birth.

Estimated to be 15 years old, Mlilo arrived here thin and underweight, but better nutrition in just the few weeks leading up to her delivery helped her gain 300 crucial pounds. And over the course of the next five months, we allowed mom and baby much time to bond privately, and grow together, while we worked to “baby-proof” the Giants of the Savanna habitat.

As we celebrate this precious baby’s first birthday, we look back on the moments that truly take our breath away. And if you weren’t a fan already, we’re certain that over the past year, this rambunctious boy has made you fall in love with his vulnerable species.

We insist you binge watch:

  1. Captured on the barn cameras, Ajabu’s birth; mom’s gentle nudge encouraging baby to stand; his first steps; his first time nursing, will forever remain one of those “pinch us, we’re dreaming” moments. (And yes, utter disbelief caused much pinching.)
  2. That time newborn Ajabu wouldn’t let mom sleep, and Mlilo obliged with his antics Every. Single. Time. #MomGoals
  3. When baby Ajabu took his first dip in a kiddie pool and we thought there was nothing cuter. (We were quickly proven wrong. See No. 4.)
  4. Baby boy received his first ball and played so hard that food and water were the only things that could tear him away. Priorities.
  5. Another major first, the day Mlilo and Ajabu explored their “baby-proofed” habitat This was an unforgettable moment.
  6. Then seeing it all come full circle as baby Ajabu and Mlilo ventured into our largest habitat with other herd members.

Hmm, can you still call a 4-foot-tall, 800-pound, one-year-old elephant a “baby”? Actually, don’t answer. He’s our baby and always will be.

Ajabu, whose African name means “wonder,” “amazing” and “extraordinary” is a remarkable ambassador for his troubled species, inspiring guests daily to help find answers to the grave crisis elephants face in Africa. He represents so much.

He’s here because we took a chance, a major one. And the way children light up when they see his tiny trunk, his perfect ears, and hear his little trumpets – it’s unexplainable. Ajabu plays such a key role in inspiring our next generation of wildlife warriors to save species from extinction and ensure we never know a world without the majestic, powerful African elephant.

Happy first birthday to our baby boy Ajabu. You mean more to us than you will ever know.

And a thank you to Mlilo. You’re the kind of protective, playful, and present mother all moms wish they could be. Here’s to a very Happy Mother’s Day, mama Mlilo.

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Elephant, Zookeepers | Tags: , , , | 4 Comments

Nests 101: Building a home out of ANYTHING

IMG_2819 Wattled Crane on nest CS

Bird keeper Eric Lutomski guest blogs on ZooHoo!

IMG_8272-GoldenTaveta Weaver-CBEveryone knows birds build nests, but not everyone realizes just how many different kinds of nests there are! Nests can be as small as a teacup or as large as a dinner table and can be plainly out in the open or carefully hidden away.

Nests are constructed from all sorts of materials like carefully woven fibers or large tree limbs. Sometimes birds use even unusual materials, like saliva for glue or spider webs for camouflage. Many birds don’t make nests out of anything at all—their eggs are instead laid in burrows underground, inside a hollow tree or log, or even on a well-shaped ledge of rock.

Here at the Dallas Zoo, letting birds build their nests is a very enriching and stimulating experience. It lets the birds perform their natural behaviors like location selection, material gathering, and nest construction.

_MG_1200-Spoonbill chick and mom-CBIn many species, building the nest is part of courtship between males and females and is important for breeding success. Ideally, all birds at the Zoo would be able to build their own nest, but sometimes they get a bit of help from the zookeepers.  It can be anything from extra grass or sticks to mesh platforms for support structures.  We want to ensure that eggs or chicks don’t fall out of the nests.

Large birds like vultures, eagles and storks don’t like to nest on the ground, so keepers provide them with elevated platforms and lots of sticks of many shapes and sizes that the birds can weave together to form their nests.

Songbirds and other small birds, like jays and pigeons, prefer their nests to be bowl shaped.

Many birds like hornbills, lorikeets and cranes nest in tree cavities or other secluded locations like burrows or tall grasses, so keepers provide boxes for them so they can nest in privacy.

So next time you visit the Zoo, take a careful look! Is there a nest hiding in any of the exhibits? Where are they? What birds might be using them? Remember that you can take this knowledge home with you and build your own nest box for the birds in your neighborhood. (Bird Houses are nest boxes, too!)

Categories: Birds, Zookeepers | Tags: , | 1 Comment

A hugely successful year with AAZK

Russell Pharr, elephant keeper and president of the American Association of Zookeepers Dallas chapter, guest blogs on ZooHoo!

IMG_6203 SFRTwenty-sixteen was a very successful year for the Dallas American Association of Zookeepers Chapter!  We hosted a huge range of great events and, while having an amazing time, helped make the world a better place for animals.

Join us as we take a look back at 2016:

Bowling and Sailing for Rhinos

IMG_6113 SFRThis was our 25th year participating in the 26-year-old Bowling for Rhinos program, and our fifth year partnering with Alley Cats in Arlington.  In addition to bowling, arcade games, miniature golf, and laser tag, we debuted a BFR photo booth, had a bowling pin decorating contest for the second consecutive year, and hosted our first-ever takeover on Dallas Zoo’s Facebook to help promote the event!

Most importantly, Bowling for Rhinos in Dallas raised $18,000 – 100% of which goes directly to save rhinos, cheetahs, and other animals in Kenya and Indonesia. Nationally, AAZK chapters in the U.S. and Canada raised over $600,000 – an all-time record!

Our one-of-a-kind Sailing for Rhinos event raised $6,000 to help AAZK causes. We continued our partnership with Corinthian Sailing Club and had great weather once again for one of our favorite events.

Labor Day Book Sale

Our annual book sale broke records this year, raising more than $2,000 over three days of selling used books, DVDs, and other items donated by the Dallas Zoo community. Profits were split between the Okapi Conservation Project (the okapi was our 2016 “featured animal,” decided by a staff vote in our second annual AAZK March Madness contest) and the Bat World Sanctuary in Weatherford, Texas. Our book sale continued a partnership between Dallas AAZK and the Zoo’s Enrichment Committee as we sold animal-painted magnets and bookmarks, and allowed us the perfect platform to introduce tote bags with our chapter logo printed on them!

Painting with a TwistOther Conservation Events

Our first-ever painting event, the Painting With a Twist for World Giraffe Day in June, not only raised $1,300 for the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, but also provided a fun way to honor the memory of Dallas Zoo’s own, late Kipenzi.

Our first-ever Salamander Saturday event in May helped raise funds and awareness for some of nature’s less-appreciated creatures. Our contributed funds also helped the Foundation for Conservation of Salamanders to offer a Texas-specific grant for researchers working on salamanders (and we have some amazing endemic species here)! Read more »

Categories: Conservation, Events, Zookeepers | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

What’s it take to be a zookeeper? An inside view on the best job in the world

_MG_8806-4x6-Stacey Lapori

Being a zookeeper at the Dallas Zoo is a dream career for many, but it’s more involved than you may think. To give you the inside scoop, we’ve debunked eight myths about zookeepers.

Myth No. 1: They don’t need higher education.

Truth: Actually, zookeepers at AZA-accredited institutions need a college degree, extensive internships and volunteer hours. The most _MG_9878common bachelor’s degrees are in Biology or Zoology, but comes paired with specialization in specific animals, conservation research, and tons of hands-on time that isn’t usually paid. Some zookeepers go on to earn their masters and doctorate degrees, too.

Myth No. 2: It’s easy to snag a job as a zookeeper.

Truth: Nope. Zookeeper jobs are highly competitive because, let’s face it, it’s a dream job. You definitely need a degree. And even if you’re well-educated, you certainly need a ton of experience – think volunteer and intern hours. You need to be prepared, passionate, and willing to work long hours. Most zoos offer internship and volunteer opportunities because it’s the best way to give students a stepping stone to securing a zookeeper job later on. You’ll need a night job, too, because many of these internships are unpaid.

Myth No. 3: Zookeepers are only responsible for the immediate care of their animals.

Truth: Zookeepers do much more than swoon over their cute critters. They must keep up with the latest information on conservation, training techniques, behavioral studies, education and more. And they definitely have to track what’s going on with animal populations in the wild. Zookeepers often talk to guests about animals, teaching the public about them. Add all of that to feeding, cleaning, and training, and it’s quite a lot to keep up with. Being a zookeeper is like having 10 different jobs in one, and every day is uniquely different.

IMG_0506 TX Horned Lizard - Bradley Lawrence CSMyth No. 4: Zookeepers don’t help animals in the wild.

Truth: Zookeepers and accredited zoos have some of the best resources to help wild populations. We like to call our animals at the Zoo “ambassadors” for their species. When we educate guests and get them excited about the animals they see at the Dallas Zoo, they often choose to take action on behalf of wildlife and wild places. In fact, a portion of every Dallas Zoo ticket you purchase goes directly to our Wild Earth Conservation Fund, helping troubled animals in the wild.

Myth No. 5: Zookeepers don’t scoop poop.

Truth: Zookeepers are the caretakers for their animals. Just like you have to pick up your dog’s poop when you go on a walk, zookeepers clean up after their animals, keeping their habitats clean. This kind of job isn’t for people who are afraid to get dirty. But we promise zookeeping entails a lot more than just scooping poop. It’s one of the most rewarding careers there is.

Myth No. 6: Zookeepers can take vacation whenever they want.

Truth: Most zoo residents need care every single day. That means Thanksgiving, Christmas, when it’s 3 degrees and snowing, and when it’s 112 degrees under a blazing Texas sun. Of course, there’s never only one keeper per animal or group of animals, so schedules are organized accordingly, but holidays are definitely tricky at the zoo. When you’re just beginning your career as a zookeeper, you can expect to be scheduled on unusual days to step in for more experienced keepers who’ve earned their Christmas day off at home.

IMG_0998-4x6Myth No. 7: The breeding process is left up to veterinarians and the animals themselves.

Truth: Zookeepers play a large role in the breeding process of their animals. A great deal has to do with carefully monitoring the behavior of each animal and tracking their responses toward each other, to make sure they’re even interested in breeding. Additionally, zookeepers must keep up with introductions between animals, and follow the Zoo’s guidelines on which animals should breed. Here at the Dallas Zoo, we follow the guidelines established by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA), including the many Species Survival Plans that build self-sustaining populations of specific species, ensuring those animals remain on earth.

Myth No. 8: Zookeepers eventually get tired of the job and leave.

Truth: The turnover rate for zookeepers is exceptionally low. Keepers are likely to stay in their chosen profession for the rest of their life. They’re a passionate bunch and love the work they do, despite how difficult it can be with education, cleaning, training, feeding and providing medical care. They love our animals so much that no words can truly describe that kind of affection.

We hope these insights help you understand just what makes zookeepers so special. We’re very thankful for our team and all of the hard work they do for our residents at the Dallas Zoo!

Categories: Zookeepers | Tags: , , , , | 6 Comments

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