Zookeepers

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: , , | Leave a 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 mourns the loss of beloved red river hog, Hank

With heavy hearts, we announce that 15-year-old red river hog Hank passed away due to T-cell lymphoma. Hank was loved by our animal care staff and guests alike, and will be greatly missed.

Hank was loved by many, and will be missed.

In January of 2017, routine bloodwork showed that Hank’s white blood cell count was extremely elevated. After further testing, he was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoma – a type of cancer that begins in immune system cells and affects the lymph nodes. Hank was moved to a special area behind the scenes where he could be more comfortable during his oral chemotherapy treatment.

Chemotherapy can cause some negative side effects, but Hank thankfully displayed none and continued to be a happy and active hog during his nearly two years of treatment. He even enjoyed going out into the exhibit with his friend, Zena, at least once a week for a few hours, before returning to his enclosure behind the scenes for an afternoon nap.

Our dedicated animal care staff worked very closely with Hank during his illness. In addition to his treatment, keepers saw to it that he had plenty of enrichment and training activities to encourage his natural behaviors and keep him mentally stimulated. Mulberry logs were his favorite. Keepers say that he would spend hours chewing all of the bark off of them. Animal care staff members spend a lot of their day behind the scenes, so Hank received lots of love and attention. He particularly enjoyed getting belly scratches, which keepers were always happy to give.

Prior to Hank’s treatment, there was very little information available about using chemotherapy to treat hogs with lymphoma. Our veterinary staff were unsure what to expect, but because they chose to proceed with Hank’s treatment, we were able to give him nearly two more years of happy and enriched life following his diagnosis. Veterinary staff gathered significant information during Hank’s treatment that could potentially help other animals in the future, here at the Dallas Zoo and elsewhere.

Since Hank was with us for 8 years (he came to us from San Diego Zoo), many of our keepers got to care for and love him. Here are some of their fondest memories:

“I worked with Hank at my last zoo. Every time he heard a tractor come by, he would run and vocalize with excitement. And, when approached would immediately lay down for scratches. He greeted me with that same excitement, every single time!“ – Tanya B.

“If you just lightly touched his belly while he was standing, Hank would tip over like a tree falling and lay there waiting for belly rubs. I also loved to push his pine shavings into a giant pile and watch him bury himself completely in them when he went to bed. “– Jessi V.

“Hank used to run laps around his habitat. When he finally completed the behavior you’d see him sprint around the corner to the ‘finish line’ with his ear tassels just flying in the wind. In that moment, he seemed like the happiest hog on earth.” –Christina E.

Categories: Africa, Veterinary Care, Zookeepers | 1 Comment

Getting submerged in new training

Our hippos, Boipelo and Adhama, love to show off their skills during keeper chats!

Dallas Zoo Hippo Keepers Christina E. and Christine S. guest blog on ZooHoo!

We train almost every animal that calls the Zoo home. Training lets animals participate in their own care and enables staff to provide excellent animal husbandry. It can be something as simple as teaching the animal to shift from one space to another. Or as complex as training the animal to allow ultrasounds. Animals, like the hippos, can be asked to present certain body parts to keepers to facilitate routine checkups, or to open their mouths for teeth examinations and x-rays. To do this we use operant conditioning, focusing on positive reinforcement techniques. This means if the animal does the behavior we ask, they are rewarded. A reinforcement or reward can be anything the animal enjoys. Food is the most common reinforcer, but some animals prefer attention, tactile reinforcement, or their favorite enrichment item.

Keeper Christina E.
and Adhama during a recent training session.

At the Simmons Hippo Outpost, our hippos LOVE to show off trained behaviors that they have learned over the last year. During our keeper interactions, you may have seen Adhama and Boipelo opening their mouths to present their teeth, swimming across the pool, or targeting. Targeting is one of the first behaviors most animals learn because it is a good starting tool that leads to more complex behaviors. Adhama and Boipelo are asked to touch their noses to the end of the target. Their target stick is a long bamboo pole with a buoy on the end that’s lightweight and floats, making it ideal for our hippos. This behavior is typically easy to teach.  Most animals are curious by nature, so when the target is first presented they want to examine it and come closer. After they take that first step towards it, they’re rewarded. They continue to be rewarded the closer they get until finally touching the target. Once the animal learns that touching this target gets them a reward, it becomes one of their favorite behaviors.

Keeper Christine S. works with Boipelo on target training.

We recently started training some behaviors at our underwater viewing area, which brings Adhama and Boipelo so close that you just might think you’re in the water with them.  Boipelo is a pro at targeting underwater, while Adhama prefers to stay above the surface at the moment. Boipelo tends to be shyer in front of crowds and lets her boyfriend shine. Adhama definitely likes to monopolize the spotlight and will do some targeting, opening his mouth, and moving back and forth across the window.

 

In Greek, Hippopotamus means “river horse,” and they do look like graceful horses trotting in slow motion underwater. However, don’t let this fool you! Hippos are actually closest related to whales and dolphins. With this up-close view you can really examine them to see some of the similarities they have with their relatives.

The training at the underwater viewing area is still in the early stages, but the hippos and trainers are enjoying this new level of interaction. Come by Simmons Hippo Outpost to see Adhama and Boipelo in action!

Categories: Africa, Simmons Hippo Outpost, Zookeepers | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

Saving endangered gorillas takes all of us

What do you think they’re talking out?

Lower Wilds of Africa zookeeper, Will Bookwalter, guest-blogs on ZooHoo! 

Gorillas have an otherworldly presence, there is just something incredibly special about them – size, majesty, silence that speaks volumes.

The deep chorus of rumbles through a happy troop breaks the hush of an otherwise ominously quiet setting. I sometimes describe it like the moments before a thunderstorm rolls in – there’s a certain force around you that you can’t quite identify and your stomach sinks with anticipation.

Subira is our incredible silver back over our family troop.

Sharing a moment with them is immensely humbling; just a brief second of eye contact is enough to lock you into their world for life and it’s an honor to be there.

The story of gorillas cannot be told without the story of humans. Our lives are intertwined in both the best and worst of ways, but we have the opportunity to effect change and a movement is taking shape across the globe.

A small part of the force that once destroyed habitats and populations has now pivoted to try and save what’s left, those people hope to protect the global treasures that live within the forests of Africa. Many have now learned that the crack of a rifle in the forest is far less valuable than the shutter of a camera. And in that regard, many former poachers have joined the elite corps of rangers who risk their lives everyday to protect the gorillas we have left.

While these brave men and women keep their boots-on-the-ground, standing across the battlefield from poachers, militias, and warlords, each one of us can have our own positive impact on gorilla populations right here at home. We all have the power to create a better world for gorillas.

Staggering numbers 

There are actually four types of gorillas, two species that each have two subspecies. The gorillas we care for

in AZA-accredited zoos are all Western lowland gorillas. In the wild, their population has dropped to 125,000 individuals; they’re classified by the IUCN as critically endangered. The other three subspecies aren’t as lucky. It’s believed there are only 3,800 Grauer’s gorillas left (our partner GRACE is working to save them); Eastern mountain gorillas are struggling with just 880 individuals remaining; and the Cross River gorillas are barely holding on with as few as 100 animals left.

Amani is an orphaned Guarer’s gorilla, living with our partner, the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center (GRACE), in the Congo.

But, wait! There’s good news on the horizon. Not only can we help, we ARE helping!

According to our conservation partner, the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund, mountain gorilla populations in Bwindi National Forest, Uganda, have actually increased from 302 individuals to no less than 400 between 2006 and 2012. Five years after the last census, we’re still trending upwards.

Gorillas don’t have any true natural predators. From time-to-time they may encounter a leopard interested in a youngster, but the silverback will protect the troop with his 500-pound frame and two-in-a-half inch canine teeth. Unfortunately, the remaining threats to gorillas are all human. In a way, that can be viewed as a positive. You can’t explain conservation to a leopard, but human behavior can be changed, and beliefs and opinions can be swayed with new information.

Gorillas are poached for many reasons, for example, bushmeat is an issue we often encounter. People kill and eat lots of endangered animals, gorillas are certainly included. And while their meat is valuable, bio-facts like hands, feet, and skulls can fetch much more on the black market.

The wildlife trade is a problem born purely out of greed and corruption, and we’re watching animals go extinct before our eyes in the name of trophies and pseudo-science. At the lowest levels of these operations, human lives are destroyed, as well, in order to feed and protect families, while war lords and corrupt politicians enjoy the luxuries that come along with exploitation.

With issues like these, simple conversations go a long way in changing minds. Consumers can sometimes be persuaded to stop purchasing items, like rhino horn and elephant ivory. There are a million different ways we can use our purchasing power to protect these precious habitats. Everyday electronics that we use contain minerals, like gold and coltan, mined in the areas where our gorillas live, and the vicious cycle begins there.

The trade of conflict minerals destroys the lives of humans and animals alike, and most of us have no idea the pain, struggle, and loss that goes into the obtaining the components of a new laptop.

We have proven before the power of the consumer, we are rapidly taking steps to convince companies to use sustainably sourced products across the entire spectrum of
manufacturing. As I mentioned above, each one of us truly does have the power to change the world.

On this historic World Gorilla Day, we hope you will join us at the Dallas Zoo, today through Sept. 26, to support our initiatives to raise $10,000 to protect these incredible gentle giants of the forest. Looking into a gorilla’s eyes, we can all see a reflection of ourselves. We share so much with these amazing animals, it’s time we share some of ourselves with our hallowed cousins. Together, we truly can create a better world for gorillas.

BREAKING NEWS: The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is considering rolling back a rule that helps protect wildlife, like critically endangered Grauer’s gorillas, from the effects of illegal mining operations. Tell them NO on conflict mineral amendment in #HR3354. Add your voice HERE. 

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

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