Capturing the Photo Ark: A behind the scenes look at wildlife photography

Joel Sartore photographs Anita, Mara, and Nande, three Gemsbok (Oryx gazella) females at the Dallas Zoo.

Ever photographed a 12,000-pound African elephant or an Orinoco crocodile with 68 teeth? It’s not as easy as it sounds, if it sounds easy at all. These are just a few of the common problems faced by photographer Joel Sartore as he captured more than 6,000 images of wildlife for the National Geographic Photo Ark exhibition.

Assistant Supervisor of Reptiles and Amphibians Matt Vaughan helps set up a shoot with a red spitting cobra (Naja pallida).

Sartore’s goal is to photograph every species currently in human care — that’s more than 12,000 different species. For many of the animals featured in Sartore’s portraits, time is running out. An alarming number of these species are already classified as endangered and face the possibility of extinction. Through the captivating images of the Photo Ark, Sartore hopes to inspire people to help protect these animals and #SaveTogether before it’s too late.

The Dallas Zoo is presently one of only three zoos in the nation to showcase the Photo Ark. The exhibition, which can be found throughout the Zoo, boasts more than 80 images of Joel’s most compelling work — many of which feature our very own Dallas Zoo animals. But capturing these portraits involved much more than a couple of quick flashes of the camera. Cathy Burkey, Dallas Zoo’s staff photographer, served as Sartore’s production and photo assistant, as well as a Zoo ambassador during the project.

Burkey and Sartore first began working together in the winter of 2014. Yet, with more than 15 years of experience as the Zoo’s eyes, Burkey knew that no two shoots would likely be the same.

A herd of impala (Aepyceros melampus) stand together, leery of the black photo background used by Sartore.

“Being with Joel was a treat since he’s a National Geographic photographer. I watched and learned how he approached photographing Zoo animals—his techniques were foolproof. He respected the keepers’ direction and never went beyond what they were allowing him to do. I don’t think there’s such a thing as an ‘average’ shoot. Every animal has its own personality, therefore, each animal was approached as an individual and with the utmost respect,” said Burkey.

Burkey recalled a particularly interesting shoot involving Dara, an older female yellow-backed duiker. Duikers are a type of forest-dwelling antelope threatened by deforestation and hunting. The word duiker means “diver” in South African Dutch, referring to the species’ habit of plunging through bushes when pursued.

“We never dreamed that Dara would dive over Joel’s head as he was squatted with his camera taking photos, but she did!” said Burkey.

A Texas giant walkingstick (Megaphasma dentricus) crawls along a keeper’s arm.

It’s almost always guaranteed to be an interesting day at the office if you’re photographing wildlife. Burkey noted that animal cooperation during the project tended to vary by species, meaning that some shoots were more involved than others.

“The most cooperative animals were the birds. Joel had a wonderful light-weight box covered with sail cloth that the birds would sit inside. It worked like a charm! But the most difficult were the impala. They can jump 10 feet straight in the air if they’re startled, so we were very cautious about the number of people present while Joel photographed them. It was a tricky shoot,” Burkey explained.

Guests can enjoy the Photo Ark as part of their general admission ticket through Sept. 4, thanks to supporting sponsorship from the Dallas Tourism Public Improvement District and underwriting support from Karen and Phil Drayer and Ruth O Mutch.

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Meet our world renowned okapi herd

For the past 50 years, we’ve been working with the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) Okapi Species Survival Plan (SSP) to substantially increase the population of these endangered “African unicorns” in human care. Nearly 75 percent of all okapi in the SSP are related to Dallas Zoo offspring, and in our history we’ve welcomed 36 calves!

Though they’ve been off exhibit during the construction of the Simmons Hippo Outpost, you can now view these solitary creatures in two different yards. Learn about our six okapi and how to tell who’s who!

Kwanini

Kwanini is a dedicated and attentive mother who was born at the Dallas Zoo when the Wilds of Africa originally opened. Nearly 27 years old, she’s given birth to 7 calves, including Ikenge, a son who still lives here.

Although shy around other adult herd members, Kwanini is a caring, maternal figure. She enjoys interacting with calves and grooming them (and occasionally keepers) with her rough tongue.

You can recognize Kwanini by her deep chocolate coloring and very defined brows.

Kwanini (pictured left) with son Ikenge

Niko

Niko was born at White Oak Conservation Center in Florida and arrived in 2000 at the age of three as a breeding male. His father was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, making his genetics extremely valuable to the SSP. Since 2001, he’s fathered 7 calves.

Known as the friendliest okapi ever encountered by our keepers, he’ll seek out the company of keepers and happily approach strangers for a head rub, which is atypical for this solitary species. In fact, Niko’s developed an interesting habit of bobbing his head at other animals and staff to get their attention.

Niko is tall, dark, and handsome. He’s especially recognizable by his ossicones, which are only about 2 inches long because he likes rubbing them on trees and branches.

Niko

Desi

Desi was born at Dallas Zoo in 1999, and is now almost 18 years old. She is currently our primary breeding female, and has birthed two calves. As the herd’s dominant, leading lady, the other okapi will submit to her—even the males! She is very comfortable and confident around keepers, and enjoys a good neck or ear rub.

Desi learns very quickly and has been known to playfully test new staff members by not shifting (moving to a new space when asked) unless she is offered a treat. Though strong-willed, she’s a sweet girl.

Look for Desi’s mahogany face and fuzzy fringe around her ears.

Desi

Uche

Uche is 6 years old and will begin introductions with females this summer as an up-and-coming breeding male. Born at San Diego Safari Park, he came to Dallas 3 years ago as Desi’s mate. He is often shy around female okapi, though enjoys saying howdy to them through stall windows.

Upon first meeting, Uche appears aloof, but warms up quickly to familiar faces. When he first arrived, he was not fond of touching or direct feeding, but our keepers have earned his trust, and he now willfully approaches them to have his ears and ossicones scratched. He’s a quick learner with training, too.

You’ll notice Uche’s very light face and thick ossicones. Still a rather young okapi, he is smaller than the other males and females.

Uche

Ikenge

Ikenge was born at Dallas Zoo to mother Kwanini and father Niko. At only five years old, he’s still a little shy, but loving and playful nonetheless. When he isn’t visiting mom through the stalls, you’ll find him energetically running around the habitat.

This little calf is very trusting and will follow keepers into new areas without hesitation. He appreciates being groomed by other okapi and his keepers, and enjoys training sessions and time out on exhibit.

Although he is short, Ikenge is very muscular. Look for his dark face and long eyelashes.

Ikenge

Kilua

Kilua is the newest addition to our herd and our youngest. She was born in Cincinnati, but came to become a primary breeding female in the future. But don’t let her age fool you—Kilua is one of the largest okapi our keepers have ever seen.

A gentle giant, she is both brave and friendly. Kilua likes to interact with people, and happily tolerates hoofwork. Though calm, she is still playful at heart and enjoys enrichment items, like her bamboo curtain and puzzle feeder.

Kilua is huge, weighing in at nearly 800 lbs. With her massive frame, you’ll easily be able to identify her.

Kilua

Visit our okapi herd in person, and learn more about this unique species during an okapi keeper chat, occurring daily at 2:15 p.m.

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Okapi | Tags: , | Leave a comment

World Giraffe Day: When it comes to giraffe conservation, we take it personally

Auggie shows off his impressive height next to Katie

Dallas Zoo North Savanna Supervisor Lisa Fitzgerald, Assistant Supervisor Allison Dean, and Giraffe Keeper II Jessica Romano guest blog for ZooHoo!

Since 1998 the population of giraffes in Africa has dropped from 140,000 to less than 80,000 individuals. That’s only 80,000 wild giraffes left in the entire world! For comparison, there are more than 1.3 million people living in Dallas and over 200,000 people living in Oak Cliff alone.

Tebogo

As zookeepers at Dallas Zoo’s Giants of the Savanna habitat, we take giraffe conservation personally. We think giraffes are amazing and beautiful creatures. As keepers, we have the privilege of getting to know them as individuals and sharing in their daily lives. As wildlife conservationists, we want to ensure that the four species of giraffes not only survive, but thrive in the wild for eternity.

Why has the giraffe population dropped so dramatically? This is largely a situation created by us – humans. Prolonged civil wars in northeast Africa have created large populations of refugees, living in city sized refugee camps. Refugees seek protein sources and giraffes are large, easy targets.  Human population growth has also broken wildlife habitats into pieces, splitting giraffe populations into smaller groups that cannot recombine for breeding.

The Dallas Zoo partners with the Giraffe Conservation Foundation (GCF) to provide monitoring of giraffe populations, procure and protect giraffe habitat, and seek workable solutions that identify and relieve threats to wild giraffes. As members and visitors, you help us support GCF’s efforts!

Want to do more? 

  • Spread the word! Most people don’t know giraffes are a threatened species. Ask your friends which of these wild populations is the smallest, elephant or giraffe? The answer is giraffe – there are approximately 350,000 elephants in Africa vs. 80,000 giraffes
  • Support conservation groups like the Giraffe Conservation Foundation
  • Take that life changing trip to Africa and see giraffes in the wild – you will also be supporting local economies and communities
  • Consider a working vacation to Africa – volunteer for a non-profit organization, like Earthwatch

    Chrystal and Katie

  • Contribute to efforts to aid and relocate refugees

Meet Dallas Zoo’s herd:

Auggie – our oldest giraffe is 14 years old. Also known as “Uncle Auggie” for his gentle and protective approach with calves.

Tebogo – our breeder and greeter. Tebogo is the father of the calves born in the Giants of the Savanna. He is people oriented and can be easily identified by his dark brown spots.

Jesse – our tallest giraffe. Measuring in at more than 17 feet, Jesse is a total sweetheart and Jade’s BFF.

Ferrell – everyone’s buddy and one of our most curious giraffes. He is always keeping a watchful eye on what is going on.

Five – a shy guy, but one of our most handsome giraffes. Five has a beautiful brown coat with thin white stripes.

Katie – our most prolific mother. Katie is a beautiful giraffe with an even temperament and a slight sassy side.

Tsavo and Katie

Chrystal – “the diva.” Chrystal is our other mother and likes things her way.

Jade – “the princess.” Jade is very particular and sensitive; she likes compliments.

Betty – the “new girl in town.” Betty is our 2-year-old giraffe and has a warm personality when she isn’t getting into trouble.

Tsavo – “the baby.” Tsavo is Katie’s third calf here at Dallas Zoo and is the newest addition to our herd. While still growing into his personality, we can already tell he is going to be a lot of fun! He’s got his mama’s good looks and his dad’s rambunctious spirit. Tsavo is quite curious about his keepers and the rest of the herd. When he isn’t following mom around, Tsavo enjoys running and exploring. An affectionate little guy, he likes to nuzzle the other adults and will often give them good morning kisses through the stalls. Tsavo’s already nibbling on bits of browse, and bamboo, in particular, seems to be his favorite. Guests can now see Tsavo out in the giraffe feeding yard with mom and other herd members.

Happy World Giraffe Day from the Dallas Zoo giraffe herd and their keepers! Thank you for loving giraffes as much as we do.

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Giraffe | Tags: , , , | Leave a comment

Gorilla groovin’: Promoting play through enrichment

 

Dallas Zoo’s Primate Keeper II Ashley Orr guest blogs for ZooHoo!

You may have seen the original viral video of gorilla Zola dancing in a puddle when he was a youngster living at Calgary Zoo, and his passion for splashin’ has only continued with age! However, there’s a lot more to this behavior than a great ape groovin’ in the water.

Zola is a 14-year-old male Western lowland gorilla, and the youngest member of our bachelor troop. When he isn’t hanging out in the South gorilla habitat, Zola spends his hours inside our roomy gorilla building. The big, blue pool featured in this video is one of many enrichment items the gorilla keepers use to engage primates.

The Association of Zoos & Aquariums defines enrichment as a process to ensure that the behavioral and physical needs of an animal are being met by providing opportunities for species-appropriate actions and choices. Enrichment helps enhance the environment and lives of animals by providing them with mental and physical stimulation to increase natural and healthy behavior. This is an important component in caring for all zoo animals, but primate enrichment is among the most complex and varied.

Enrichment can take many forms; it can be an object such as a ball, a scent like an herb or perfume, visual stimulation such as a mirror, a change in an animal’s company or location, an activity like painting or training, introduction of a new food, or a challenging food presentation… the options are almost limitless! As keepers, we are constantly coming up with new and fresh ways to enrich our animals. And clearly the pool is a favorite for Zola!

Zola’s “dancing” is really just a play behavior (there was no breakdance music playing in the building, we promise). Play is a natural behavior present in a wide array of animals. In fact, the presence of play can signify an animal is content or comfortable, and it is recognized as an indicator for general welfare. It is easy for anyone to appreciate the good time that Zola is having in the pool because we recognize some of the same signs of play that we see in people.

Gorillas in the wild have been observed to willingly enter the water to feed or to cross to other areas. Some gorillas have even been documented using long sticks to probe beneath the water and gauge depth for safe passage (fun fact, gorillas are anatomically too dense to swim). This is an impressive example of great ape intelligence.

Visit Zola and the three other gorillas in our bachelor troop, or the four members of the family troop, to watch them engage with enrichment in their habitats. Proceeds from your visit help purchase enrichment items for our Zoo animals, and also support our conservation partners in the field, like the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund and the Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center (GRACE), that help gorillas in the wild.

Categories: Africa, Conservation, Enrichment, Gorilla | 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

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