Zookeepers

 
 

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: , , | 1 Comment

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

An inside look into hatching Caribbean flamingo chicks

Hatched just before Dollar Day in 2011, chick Buster was our first Caribbean flamingo baby in more than two years.

Bird keeper Marnie Bacon guest-blogs on Zoohoo! 

Dallas Zoo’s summer Dollar Day in 2011 was a hot and crowded one — and one our bird department will never forget. Spotted in the ZooNorth flamingo pond was a hours-old Caribbean flamingo chick. The little one hatched that day, making it the second Caribbean flamingo chick to hatch at the Dallas Zoo in more than 20 years. We named the first chick Buster, and our Dollar Day girl Georgia (after George Washington on the dollar bill, of course). We were so proud to have hatched these chicks, and today, they’ve come a long way.

Today, Buster is fostering his own chick.

This year’s Caribbean flamingo breeding season started the same as previous years — with a lot of hard work by the keepers to get the birds’ nesting area ready. Our close observations of the flamingo flock’s behavior year after year resulted in the knowledge of the ideal conditions needed for a successful season: building a moat, tilling the soil, and keeping the area desirable for flamingos to nest build.

This year, the birds built 30 nests and laid more than 20 eggs. To safeguard the eggs, we carefully collected all of them to be artificially incubated and provided the adults “dummy” or artificial eggs to incubate.

With colonial nesters, like flamingos, we have the opportunity to allow pairs that may otherwise lay infertile eggs, the chance to foster rear chicks. This year with our flamingo flock, there were four fertile eggs produced, two of which came from the same biological pair. Flamingos will only rear one chick at a time, so one pair that laid infertile

eggs was selected and provided the opportunity to raise a chick. But there are more than 60 flamingos in our habitat — so how do we choose?

Dallas Zoo’s successful breeding season has brought four new chicks to the Caribbean flamingo pond!

There are various factors that go into the decision process. Whether or not the pair is incubating a dummy egg, the timeframe in which the egg is hatching, and the behavior of the adults are all the main factors. It always makes us a bit nervous providing the opportunity to new parents, as we don’t know how they will do — but careful monitoring and proper surveillance by keepers ensures that the process goes smoothly!

This year, after weeks of relentlessly defending their nest mound, Georgia and her mate welcomed a very special chick who, coincidentally, hatched on Dollar Day. Buster and his mate were also carefully selected as a foster pair and are also now the proud foster parents to a chick that hatched on July 6.

Six years after that fateful Dollar Day, things have come full circle and these two birds now have chicks of their own! Come out to the Dallas Zoo and see these babies, and our two other chicks, grow up in the Zoo North flamingo pond.

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

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

2017_Mar_18_DallasZoo_0722_Ajabu_mud_better

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: , , , | 5 Comments

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