New male mandrill to unite family troop


Keeper Annie Birdsong guest-blogs on ZooHoo!


Jax shares an inquisitive moment with Saffron and her son Obi.

We’re loving our new male mandrill, Jax, who joins Saffron and her son, 2-and-a-half-year-old Obi! Jax’s timely arrival brings our family troop together once again.

During the short history of our mandrill troop since little Obi arrived, we’ve suffered two difficult losses. Born March 28, 2014, Obi was the first mandrill born at the Zoo in nearly 25 years. Sadly, three months later, Obi lost his father, 18-year-old Milo, to a form of lymphatic cancer.

Milo’s sudden death left Dallas Zoo staff at a loss. But that winter, after a long search, we welcomed Savuti, a geriatric 23-year-old male mandrill from the Buffalo Zoo. Savuti would become Obi’s father figure.

But more than a year later, Savuti passed away from age-related health issues, which wasn’t unexpected due to his advanced age. And again, our search was on to find a male who would bring our family troop together and teach Obi how to be a respectful adult, so he could one day take over the troop.

That’s where 9-year-old Jax comes in. He arrived in August from Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa, Fla. Jax lived with his father, and due to this, he hasn’t developed into his full male mandrill size. But that’s about to change, and all our visitors will be lucky enough to witness his transformation.

img_4093-jax-mandrill-csJuvenile male mandrills who live in close contact with a dominant male can be hormone-suppressed, and may stay skinny with drab colorations, as to not compete with the dominant male.

Dominant male mandrills have even more brightly colored faces and rumps than females and juvenile males, and an impressive mane and beard, too. They also have a stockier body, and you can see that our Jax is still rather skinny and lanky. We’re excited to see that since Jax has moved into our mandrill barn and met his new family, his colors already have begun to pop.

Here on an Association of Zoos and Aquariums Mandrill Species Survival Plan (SSP) breeding recommendation, Jax has been paired with Obi’s mom, Saffron, and we hope they will bring Obi a little brother or sister, as well as becoming a needed male role model in Obi’s life.

Jax sits in the window of the mandrill habitat and absolutely loves to smile at visitors. Mandrills are the only primate species, besides humans, who actually “smile” as a greeting; most other primates only show their teeth when they’re “fear grinning.” He also is very particular about his food, rinsing off produce in the habitat streams before he eats it.

Come watch Jax, Obi, and Saffron getting to know each other in our mandrill habitat at the entrance of the Wilds of Africa. We look forward to sharing more developments as our troop becomes more bonded.

Categories: Africa, Mandrill, Monkey | 1 Comment

National Zookeeper Week: Why we love our careers

_MG_0019-Mshindi on Ramona's back-CB

Lower Wilds of Africa zookeeper Cristina Powers guest-blogs on ZooHoo!

Working with animals in zoos is not nearly as glamorous as you might think. Our days are not filled with baby animals crawling all over us; instead a lot of our time is actually spent cleaning up after them, among other not-so-clean tasks.

Something visitors may not know is how zookeepers develop very special relationships with the animals we work with. Our primates have amazing and unique personalities, making every day I work here different than the one before.

Some of our chimps are very playful with us and it doesn’t involve any physical contact. As a protected contact, AZA-accredited zoo, we don’t share the same space with some of our animals, including great apes.

In the mornings, our 26-year-old male chimp, Mookie, loves to engage us in a play session. He’ll look at me, bob his head up and down while bouncing his body, and he’ll run fast through his indoor rooms. I’ll chase him from the hallway and when he gets to the end, he’ll turn around and run the opposite direction.

Chimp Mookie is known for his playful antics with keepers.

Chimp Mookie is known for his playful antics with keepers.

Mookie will do this many times, then stop, signaling play time is over. Or I’ll just get tired and can’t do it any longer!

With 7-year-old chimp Kona, it’s a little different. I’ll start running along the hallway and he might decide to join in the fun. Even little Mshindi has started to catch on.

These animals are truly special to the people who work with them day in and day out. If they get sick, we worry. If we go on vacation, we miss them. When they move to another zoo, we are sent with them for a few days to help them adjust, and minimize stress after the move.

When keepers leave the zoo, it is certainly not the end of caring and wanting to know more about our animals’ lives. We’ll email their new keepers and ask for updates and pictures. Keepers and volunteers will even arrange personal trips to go see an animal at their new home. And you can bet they’re both happy to see each other.

A lot is said about an elephant’s memory, but don’t underestimate a primate’s. They can act very excited when a retired keeper comes to see them, or even someone they haven’t seen in a while. They’ll greet their old human friends with happy vocalizations; they’ll try to reach for them and sometimes won’t leave until the person is gone.

When chimps are happy they might show it in different ways, such as opening their mouths really big, making panting vocalizations, and bobbing their heads.

Keeper Cristina Powers shares a moment with chimp Missy.

Keeper Cristina Powers shares a moment with chimp Missy.

Being a zookeeper means sometimes we spend even more time around our animals and co-workers than our own families. During ice and snow storms, when the whole city (including the Zoo!) is shut down for business, we still have to spend many hours driving so we can get here to feed and clean their living quarters. If there’s still snow on the ground the next day, we do it all over again.

Same for holidays. Even though the zoo is closed to the public on Christmas Day, our animals still need to be cared for just the same. So we make sure to have enough staff around to get the job done.

Although not a common occurrence, if severe illness strikes in our animals, or one is still recovering from anesthesia or new situations arise, you bet we will be here overnight, taking turns keeping a watchful eye over them.

Unfortunately, there comes a time when we have to say goodbye forever. The death of a beloved animal is very hard on us. If time allows, the keepers at home on their days off are called in to say their final goodbye. Tears flow freely. Calls are made and texts are sent to the ones who no longer work at the zoo.

People from other departments, volunteers, old co-workers might send cards, emails, flowers, food – they know we are grieving. We miss them, we remember them, and we bring them up in conversations often. Even new keepers get to know so much about them, because we can’t stop talking about how special they were for years and years to come.

I hope this gives a small glimpse of how special these animals are to us. This is dedicated to all zookeepers and their endless love for animals. Happy National Zookeeper Week, friends.

Categories: Africa, Chimpanzee, Gorilla, Mandrill, Zookeepers | Tags: | 3 Comments

At 2 years old, mandrill Obi continues to steal our hearts

Zookeeper Annie Birdsong guest-blogs on ZooHoo!

Now a juvenile, Obi's more comfortable venturing without mom Saffron.

Now a juvenile, Obi’s more comfortable venturing without mom Saffron.

It’s hard to believe it’s already been two years since little mandrill Obi was born to first-time mom Saffron! Obi was the first mandrill baby at the Zoo in 24 years. From day one, the precocious baby clung to Saffron, taking in his new environment.

As soon as he was comfortable, he took wobbly steps, exploring his big new world. At first, the pink fuzzy monkey would stay very close to mom, with one hand always on her. But avid fans of Obi know he has no fear anymore. He runs, jumps and explores, having a ball all day long.

Obi Mandrill with log square 4 CS

Obi with his trusty stick.

When Obi began exploring his exhibit, he found a stick that quickly became his favorite toy. That stick, nicknamed “Wilson” by keepers, has seen better days. After constantly being thrown about, “Wilson” ended up in the habitat’s water feature and has since been retired. Obi now has a bigger stick he plays with – you can often see him spinning it in circles and throwing it all around the exhibit. We thought this was a special quirk of Obi’s, but photos of other baby mandrills at zoos show them also playing with a favorite stick. (Here’s video proof of Obi’s obsession with his stick!)

Obi is still dependent on Saffron and will remain close to her until he’s 5 or 6. Mandrills don’t reach full maturity until about 9 years old. The largest species of monkey, Obi eventually will grow to about 60 pounds.

_MG_4049-Saffron & Obi

As a baby, Obi always remained close to Saffron.

His antics have earned him many admirers, and it’s easy to see why. When he takes a break from running around, he often sits in the window and interacts with visitors. He especially loves to look at small children, and loves bouncing off the glass, to onlookers’ delight. Come see Obi and mom Saffron in the mandrill habitat at the entrance of the Wilds of Africa.

(More from Annie Birdsong on Obi’s story: “A Mandrill Puzzle: How We Brought a Broken Troop Together”)


Categories: Africa, Mandrill, Monkey | 2 Comments

A mandrill puzzle: How we brought a broken troop together

Mom Saffron cuddles newborn baby Obi in March 2014.

Mom Saffron nurses newborn baby Obi March 31, 2014.

Keeper Annie Birdsong guest blogs on ZooHoo!

When nearly 18-year-old mandrill Milo, the beloved father to Obi, passed away suddenly from a form of lymphatic cancer in June 2014, Dallas Zoo staff were at a loss. Born to Saffron, a first-time mom, Obi was just a few months old. This left a mandrill troop of only mother and baby, along with Kumi, a geriatric female who recently had lost her sister.

Keepers were left with an unusual predicament. Obi needed an older male around to learn how to behave, and how to become a respectful member of the troop.

Leaving just Kumi and Saffron as Obi’s sole troop members wasn’t the best option. Kumi and Saffron have their differences — both had sisters with whom they closely bonded, but neither had any loyalty to each other. Saffron is an extremely dominant female, and Kumi is more reserved.

Mandrills typically live in troops, with one dominant male, his harem of females and their offspring. Even juvenile and subordinate males will live under the dominant male’s leadership, helping him protect the females. At 2.5 months old, little Obi was far too young to assume that role. We wondered how he would have any clue what to do when he reached that age, without a male figure paving the path for him?

Saffron holds baby Obi close.

Saffron holds baby Obi close.

Milo’s sudden loss was unexpected. Bringing in a new, seasoned male mandrill was the natural solution. However, this wasn’t that easy. In the wild, mandrills are threatened to endangered, and it is difficult to form mandrill troops in AZA-accredited U.S. zoos due to their complicated social structure and the number of suitable males available.

We were left with few options. Ideally, little Obi would one day inherit the troop, which even further limited our options, since he was so young. Male mandrills aren’t fully mature until 9 years old, so Obi had quite a while to go. Most males of the proper age at other AZA-accredited zoos already had established troops. And younger males that had been pushed out of their troops when they became a threat to the dominant male weren’t quite mature enough to join us.

It also concerned us that bringing in a spry, young mandrill eager to prove himself to Saffron (who is particularly sassy), could pose a threat to her new bouncing baby. Some primates won’t accept the offspring of another male and will kill an infant to ensure the success of their own genetics, similar to when male lions take over a new pride.

Savuti fits right in with his new mandrill troop.

Savuti fits right in with his new family troop.

Obi is the first mandrill born at the Dallas Zoo in almost 25 years. We wanted to make sure he grew up to be a healthy troop member. Our needs for a male role model for Obi were very specific. What were we to do?

Then Savuti comes in. Savuti, a 23-year-old male mandrill from the Buffalo Zoo, seemed to be the perfect male for the troop. He lived with two older females at the Buffalo Zoo, but they had both since passed away. Monkeys are very social animals, and have a better quality of life when living with others of their species.

It was just as important for Savuti to find another troop as it was for Obi to have a father figure. However, geriatric animals, like Savuti, need specialized care and modified exhibits and barns to accommodate their aging. Some zoos aren’t equipped to take on the challenge – but we were. Honestly, aging animals in accredited zoos really have it made! In the wild, if an animal is unable to climb and keep up with the group, they usually won’t survive very long. In zoos, we make every effort to keep the elderly comfortable, safe and happy.

Little old Kumi is the most reserved member of the mandrill troop.

Little old Kumi is the most reserved member of the mandrill troop.

We knew Savuti would be a beneficial troop member for several reasons. Baby mandrills are quite a handful! But they also need to be able to follow the troop as they travel through the forest, so they are naturally equipped to be tough and rather self-sufficient. As Obi was quickly becoming a typical precocious young mandrill, we knew he could get away easily during introductions if any aggression occurred. We also knew Savuti would be unable to catch him easily in his advanced age.

Also, since Saffron is a feisty lady with high-ranking status, we were confident she would protect baby Obi. And we can’t forget about little old Kumi! She and Saffron are not BFFs by any means, and a male presence was essential to keep order within the troop. We thought an older male with limited mobility would be perfect for Kumi and Obi, as introductions can be very active.

Savuti made the journey from Buffalo to Dallas and arrived just before the huge blizzard in the Northeast, narrowly avoiding feet of snow. After a standard 30 day quarantine period, he was introduced to the mandrill barn. A “howdy” door was placed between the two rooms so he could see and interact with our girls and Obi. “Howdys” are a great way to determine how the animals will take to each other.

Suavity and Saffron hang out together at their favorite spot.

Savuti and Saffron hang out at their favorite spot together.

Their interactions were uneventful, and it was time to put everybody together. All four mandrills were let outside, with keepers and curators standing by. The face-to-face introductions couldn’t have gone better.

Saffron, who is quite the flirt, was very interested in Savuti. They grinned at each other and shook their heads (a mandrill version of hello). Saffron approached him almost right away, with Obi bounding close behind. Savuti was, at first, leery of Obi. Obi was, and still is, fascinated by Savuti. Obi immediately wanted to touch him, but when he got too close Savuti slapped the ground and bobbed his head, a common mandrill motion for “get outta here!” Mama Saffron wasn’t having it. Nobody disciplines her baby but her! She grabbed a fistful of Savuti’s hair, and he conceded.

Obi today is a year and a half old.

Obi is now a year and a half old.

They spent the rest of the day smiling at each other. Since that first introduction, there haven’t been any altercations. Savuti and Saffron get along famously, and at night he gets to retire from the constant activity of Obi to his own room with Kumi. The two relax in peace together like an old couple in rocking chairs.

Now that Obi is getting older and more independent, he’s often seen playing with Savuti sitting close by. When Obi gets near Savuti, he sometimes puts his little foot out, and Savuti gently holds it.

When Saffron gets some valuable time to herself, as Obi throws his favorite sticks around or finds a bird to chase, she often sits next to Savuti in the viewing windows, casually ignoring onlookers. Obi eventually will bounce up and join them, trying to wrestle Saffron or see what Savuti is eating.

Savuti, Saffron and Obi eat Obi's 1st birthday cake

Savuti, Saffron and Obi eat Obi’s 1st birthday cake

They’ve become the perfect little mandrill family, and Savuti accepts Obi as his own. Their gentle and kind interactions are more than we could have hoped for. Obi is learning how to be a respectful adult male through his observations of Savuti’s behavior.

I always suggest coming to see the mandrills right when we open at 9 a.m. That’s when they’re eating breakfast and exploring the exhibit. Savuti inevitably will end up on the ledge by the window, and Saffron and Obi join him throughout the day. Obi also loves to interact with guests, and will bounce off the windows, do flips, and be silly for his adoring fans!

Categories: Africa, Mandrill, Zookeepers | 4 Comments

WRAP-UP: Our 2014 bundles of joy

The delivery stork had a direct flight path to the Dallas Zoo last year! With more than 2,000 animals, we often welcome little ones. From (really) long-legged babies to ones the size of your palm, here’s a roundup of some of our exciting and noteworthy births in 2014:

TASANEE: Born Jan. 25, Asian small-clawed otter Tasanee needed more than 100 days of devoted care from her keepers, because single otter pups usually don’t survive. Tasanee weighed just a little over 2 ounces at birth, about the size of a “C” battery. She’s now a healthy five pounds and is full of sass! She’s very close with her parents Jimmy and Daphane who can often be seen diving deep down into their pools together or snoozing away, cuddled up with each other.

Otter Tasanee gets the hang of swimming with mom Daphne.

Otter Tasanee gets the hang of swimming with mom Daphne.

MSHINDI: Look at that face! Still very much a baby, Mshindi turned one year old on Jan. 26. For another two years or so, he’ll remain completely dependent on his mother, Ramona, for care. He’s now eating small amounts of food (bananas are his favorite), but also will nurse for another few years. Mshindi is the ninth member of the troop, and the first baby born since his brother, Kona, arrived in 2009. He’s added a positive dynamic to the troop’s complex social structure, especially with Kona, who has proven to be a great big brother.

1-year-old Mshindi swings from the habitat ropes./Daniel Zappia

1-year-old Mshindi swings from the habitat ropes./Daniel Zappia

OBI: Born March 28, Obi is the first mandrill baby at the Zoo in 24 years. This little guy has a lot of energy and is often seen bouncing all over his habitat, throwing small branches in the air and playing peek-a-boo with guests. Monkeys develop much faster than great ape babies, like chimp Mshindi. Obi no longer nurses and is now completely independent from mom Saffron. But she’s still the little guy’s favorite playmate (she has incredible patience!). 

Little mandrill Obi will celebrate his 1st birthday March 28.

Little mandrill Obi will celebrate his 1st birthday March 28.

KOSOKO: This kori bustard chick still has some growing to do before he officially becomes the largest flying bird on Earth, weighing nearly 40 pounds. Born June 25 at just a half a pound, Kosoko is now a healthy 15 pounds. After multiple years of trying, Kosoko is the first surviving offspring for his parents — which is where he gets his name. From the African Yoruba language in Nigeria, “kosoko” means “child born after mother has had other children die.” It’s meant as a prayer for babies’ survival — and we couldn’t be more thankful for Kosoko’s health and well-being.

Kori bustard chick Kosoko will grow up to 40 pounds.

Kori bustard chick Kosoko will grow up to 40 pounds.

KOPANO: We welcomed this leggy, 6-foot-tall baby Oct. 26. Born weighing about 120 pounds, Kopano is now nearly 8 feet tall and over 300 pounds! He’s starting to munch on vegetation like mom, but will keep nursing until he’s about a year old. He’s doing great mixing with the other species in his habitat, including impala, ostriches and guineafowl. He’s also still meeting all 11 members of his herd. Guests can often see him running laps around his habitat while mom Chrystal eats.

Four-month old Kopano is already nearly 8 feet tall!

Four-month-old Kopano is already nearly 8 feet tall!


Categories: Africa, Birds, Chimpanzee, Conservation, Giraffe, Mammals, Mandrill, Otter | Leave a comment

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