Rescued Beluga Calf Has a Chance Thanks to Zoos

Estimated to be no more than four weeks old, a beluga calf was found stranded in Alaska’s Cook Inlet alone on September 30th. With no adult whales in sight, after an unsuccessful attempt to encourage the little male into deeper water and an assessment from Alaska SeaLife Center’s Director of Animal Health, Dr. Carrie Goertz DVM, the decision was made to move him to Alaska’s only permitted marine mammal rescue center: the Alaska SeaLife Center.

Currently also caring for two rescued sea otters, two harbor seals, and an orphaned walrus calf, Alaska SeaLife Center’s animal care staff is experienced in rehabilitating marine animals. They literally work around the clock, regardless of the conditions. Whether late into the night, in freezing temperatures, throughout the day, or stretching over holiday weekends, the veterinarians and care staff have an important job: do everything they can to give their patients a second chance.

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(Image from Alaska SeaLife Center’s Facebook Page)

For the recently rescued beluga calf who is already swimming on his own, that means keeping watch and recording his behavior 24-hours a day, hydrating him with an electrolyte solution every two hours, and just as regularly feeding him formula that replicates the nutrition he should be receiving from his mother’s milk. It also means calling in other professionals from around the continent to ensure the best possible chance that the little whale recovers. In just a few short days, experts from SeaWorld, Vancouver Aquarium, Shedd Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium, and Georgia Aquarium flew to Alaska to assist.

The update provided by the Alaska SeaLife Center on their Facebook page on October 6th also mentioned that the beluga is strong enough now for veterinarians to begin to look for underlying health problems. Blood samples, various images, several cultures, and more diagnostic tests will be ordered, collected, and analyzed in the coming days and weeks in an attempt to understand why the calf was orphaned and stranded in the first place.

The Alaska SeaLife Center, a zoological facility accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, will continue to be important in this little one’s treatment and rehabilitation. But, even before he stranded, zoos were already playing a major role in his rescue and recovery.

Resident animals in zoos and aquariums help animal care specialists and veterinarians understand the behavior and physiology of their species. It is no coincidence that the individuals invited to Alaska to contribute to the care of the rescued beluga at the SeaLife Center are members of teams that have worked extensively with belugas within their care.

Beluga whales at SeaWorld, Georgia Aquarium, Mystic Aquarium, Vancouver Aquarium, and Shedd Aquarium have been taught to voluntarily participate in healthcare sessions, also known as husbandry sessions, through positive reinforcement.

Animal care specialists from the facilities listed above have trained belugas to offer behaviors that allow veterinarians to collect blood samples, gastric samples, blow/breath cultures, ultrasound images, fecal samples, urine samples, and more. This data collected from several animals across multiple facilities allows researchers and veterinarians to create a ‘baseline’ which depicts the normal levels of white and red blood cell count, cholesterol, bacteria, stomach acids, hormones, etc. for healthy beluga whales.

When a rescued animal is brought in, like in the case of this Alaskan calf, veterinarians are only able to properly diagnose him because of the information previously collected and studied. After analyzing his blow cultures, the radiographs and sonogram images of his intestines, lungs, and bones, and running a full blood panel, they will compare and contrast his results with the baseline data collected over many years in order to accurately understand what ailment he has and how to treat him successfully.

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(Image from Alaska SeaLife Center’s Facebook Page)

During his rehabilitation, he will continue to need the electrolyte solution and specialized formula as a milk substitute until he is old enough to eat fish on his own. Mind you, the perfect formula for a barely-month-old beluga calf is not found in a convenient powder on the shelf of a grocery store. Instead, the recipe had to be produced and shared among zoological facilities.

In order to create said recipe, veterinarians studied the milk of pregnant and nursing female belugas in zoos and aquariums, noting fat content, proteins, antibodies, and immunoglobulins.

When new calves are born, their animal care staff members tirelessly begin recording how often they breathe, how many times the calves nurse from their mothers each hour, and for how long they latch on during the periods of nursing. They take daily, or weekly, or monthly measurements as the calves grow, keeping track of their lengths, girths, and overall weights, giving the scientific community an inside look at accurate beluga growth rates. They note when their teeth erupt from their gums, when they begin to eat fish for the first time, and then when they consume it consistently and are considered fully weaned, allowing scientists to understand the behavioral patterns of young animals.

It is all of this information combined along with the dedication of the zoological professionals currently caring for him that gives this little beluga that stranded in the Cook Inlet in Alaska the best chance at surviving.

And this example is just one of thousands. The same can be said for black bears and bobcats orphaned by hunters, for opossums and foxes hit by cars, for sea turtles and manatees maimed by boat propellers, and eagles and hawks sickened by lead poisoning. Through the commitment of veterinarians, researchers, and animal care professionals both past and present, rescued animals receive a second chance at life.

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(Image from Alaska SeaLife Center’s Facebook Page)

On his way toward his own second chance, this beluga calf still has many obstacles to overcome and so the public is reminded to remain cautiously hopeful as so much about his future is unclear.

But, this is certain: without the knowledge of the zoological professionals privileged to have worked with belugas elsewhere and the efforts of the Alaska SeaLife Center team members today, this little whale would already be gone.

Instead, he is in the hands of world-renowned rescuers. For this reason, he stands a chance. Good luck to the little whale and to all of those dedicated to his care. Best wishes for his future.

Vancouver Board Makes Irresponsible Decision for Whales and Dolphins

Two days ago, on March 9th, the Vancouver Aquarium’s role in conservation, rescue and rehabilitation, and research was forever altered after the Vancouver City Park’s board voted to prohibit the housing of cetacean species, which includes all whales, dolphins, and porpoises.

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums called the decision “troubling”. And, in a politically correct world they’re right. But, let’s not be politically correct for a second. Let’s be blunt. Let’s call a spade a spade. Let’s call this ultimatum what it really is: irresponsible.

The Vancouver Aquarium has been a major contributor to cetacean research and conservation for the last fifty years. Notable projects include data collection of killer whale vocalizations, the metabolic rates of pacific white-sided dolphins, communication patterns between beluga mothers and offspring, echolocation abilities of multiple species, and the rescue and rehabilitation of several whales, dolphins, and porpoises, three of which still call the Vancouver Aquarium home.

Currently, the Aquarium houses only three cetaceans, Helen (Pacific white-sided dolphin), Chester (false killer whale), and Daisy (harbor porpoise). ALL of which were RESCUED.

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Helen (foreground) and Chester interacting with members of their care team. (Image from vanaqua.org)

So, let’s walk through this step by step with Daisy as an example. Stranded for unknown reasons in 2008, Daisy was rescued as a one-month old calf suffering from severe dehydration, emaciation, and muscle loss. At first, she was so weak and malnourished, she did not have the ability to hold herself up in the water, let alone swim. After nearly a year of rehabilitation, during which time the Vancouver Aquarium’s animal care staff members gave her the best possible support through their knowledge and expertise, Daisy beat epically long odds and thrived. Deemed non-releasable due to the fact that she never learned to hunt and survive in the wild, the Vancouver Aquarium became her permanent home in 2009.

In the years that she’s lived at the Vancouver Aquarium since, Daisy’s story has touched hundreds of thousands of people. She’s helped educate the public about her species through presentations called “Porpoise Talks”, connected and interacted with guests as she displays her curious side, and participated in research studies that have helped reveal details about porpoises that are assisting researchers and conservationists in saving multiple cetacean species today.

Her journey also mattered when Levi, an adult male harbor porpoise stranded several years later in March of 2013. In the same way Daisy was not able to support herself in the water, neither was Levi, and in similar fashion to the previous situation, the experts at the Aquarium fashioned a custom-made raft and cared for him during his several months of rehabilitation. As he improved, Levi became a candidate for return to the wild. And, in September of 2013, six months after he was found stranded on the shore of Saanich Inlet, Levi was swimming in the ocean again.

But with the foolish decision made just two days ago, successful stories like Levi’s and Daisy’s, stories of survival and scientific progress, will become few and far between, if not completely nonexistent.

What happens next time? When an animal flounders, in need of help, who will be there to assist? Where will that animal go? Without the Vancouver Aquarium, which is one of Canada’s only teams with the expertise and availability  to save stranded cetaceans, the next time a porpoise, dolphin, or whale strands, that injured/ill animal will have to be transported several hours to the next rehabilitation center *IF* there is one available. And let’s hope there is, because the only other option is for the animal to be euthanized by drug or bolt gun.

There are repercussions for the actions set forth by this reckless decision. This vote, made for political reasons alone, in hopes to appease the, admittedly loud, but small, unqualified minority, is a setback in the scientific study of cetaceans and also jeopardizes the lives of future animals in distress.

Yet, while I am angry and distressed by those consequences, as all cetacean-lovers should be, I am not surprised that the board caved to aforementioned uninformed protestors.

We live in a blind society that values unscientific, short-sighted philosophies more than the wellbeing of individual animals and entire species.

We live in a society where documentary filmmakers attempt to damage and dismantle reputable zoological facilities with lies and twisted information without considering what that means for future distressed and stranded animals.

A society where the same soccer mom who condemns and vows to boycott world-renowned aquariums on Twitter also hypocritically demands “rescue the dolphin!”, not understanding how the same professional entities they choose to attack are needed in order to give that animal a future of any kind.

A society where PETA finds the money to brandish billboards with crass images and grossly tactless misinformation to slander the zoological community’s hard-working, well-educated animal care specialists who have dedicated their lives to reviving individual animals and researching whole species, and yet donates NOT A SINGLE DIME to cetacean rescue, research, or conservation.

Meanwhile, accredited organizations like the Vancouver Aquarium, are actively participating in research and conservation that directly benefits killer whales, belugas, harbor porpoises, and the most endangered marine mammal in the world: the vaquita.

In fact, some of the acoustic research conducted by researchers at the Vancouver Aquarium with the help of Daisy, is currently being used to help locate the remaining thirty individuals of the elusive vaquita species in hopes of bolstering the population and bringing them back from the very edge of extinction.

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Vancouver Aquarium’s rescue team at work. (Image from vanaqua.org)

Whales, dolphins, and porpoises are intriguing, charismatic animals, and as such, have garnered adoration and attention from many. Shutting down reputable zoos and aquariums, organizations that help research, conserve, and rescue animals is not helpful.

It’s harmful.

However, it is admirable to want to make a difference. Zoos and aquariums encourage and need your help, because when animals and species are in need, very rarely do the loudmouthed armchair-activists actually show up.

So, help.

Save the dolphins. Recycle discarded fishing line. Choose reusable bags instead of plastic when you go to the grocery store. Volunteer as part of a marine mammal rescue team.

Save the porpoises. Donate to VaquitaCPR. Refuse to participate in balloon releases. Organize a beach cleanup.

Save the whales. Eat sustainable seafood when you’re ordering fish at a restaurant. Visit a responsible zoo or aquarium involved in rescue, research, and conservation programs. And then, teach others how to care for them too.

We all have the power to make a difference for these animals, but it should be the right kind of difference. It should be one based on science. It should be one based on correct, factual information. It should be a responsible one full of action that benefits them now and in the future.

So, for the love of cetaceans, choose to make the right difference and pass it on.

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Daisy. (Image from vanaqua.org)

[Correction: This post originally identified the Vancouver Aquarium’s board as the entity that voted on the prohibition of cetaceans. This is incorrect as the decision was, in fact, made by the Vancouver City Park board which controls the property currently leased by the accredited aquarium and this post has been changed to reflect that fact.]

 

Make Conservation Your New Year’s Resolution

Conservation is at the core of the modern zoo and aquarium. They rehabilitate oiled penguins in South Africa, breed and release black-footed ferrets to the great plains of North America, and actively help researchers study wild populations of rhinoceroses in Southeast Asia, among SO MANY other amazing efforts that benefit wildlife.

Zoos also play an instrumental role in reminding those of us who are not avian, mustelid, or ungulate keepers that we still play a big part in conservation.

So, let’s start the New Year off right by making an impact at home!

Switch from Plastic Bags to Reusable Ones

According to the Earth Policy Institute, roughly two million single-use plastic bags are used per minute worldwide. Unfortunately, as many of these bags make their way to ocean shores and other waterways, animals ingest them or become entangled. Some estimate that nearly a million seabirds and one hundred thousand other marine animals like sea turtles, porpoises, and seals die every year from these discarded bags. In fact, members of more than 260 species have directly suffered as a result.

This year, when you’re asked at a grocery store, “Are plastic bags okay?” have reusable bags ready.

You can purchase these reusable bags fairly cheap and choose from a variety of styles from EcoBags or support small businesses and creativity by choosing Etsy. You can even create your own bags using photos of your kids, your favorite vacation spot, or, if you’re like me, your favorite animal using Walgreen’s Photo Center.

If the average American family consumes around sixty plastic bags after just four grocery trips, then in roughly one year, you’ll have saved nearly a thousand plastic bags!

Say “No” to Straws

Plastic straws are small enough to swallow and can become wedged in animals throats. Other times, they are fully ingested, but, once in the stomach, not digestible. And, as you can see in the video above, they can cause other injuries and discomfort by becoming lodged in other areas of an animal’s body.

An estimated five hundred million plastic straws are used in the United States every day. That means, every day, we could line up those straws end to end and circle earth two and a half times! That’s sixty two thousand two hundred fifty two and a half miles!

Because they’re a single-use plastic, each ends up being discarded at the end of the day. In fact, ninety percent of ocean pollution is made of plastic and straws rank in the top ten marine debris items.

So, while we expect straws to be delivered to us every time we order a drink, they’re not necessary. This year, politely tell your waiter or barista “No straw, please” when ordering. If you’re someone who really likes to have a straw while enjoying your peach smoothie (yum!), you can buy and use metal (my personal choice), bamboo, or paper straws. All of which are better for the environment than the plastic version.

Eat Sustainable Seafood

You know that phrase, “there are plenty of fish in the sea”? Well, it actually depends on the type of fish.

Nearly 70% of fish species are fully-fished or over-fished and some fish species struggle to repopulate in a way that keeps up with human demand. In other cases, humans consume the same fish that ocean predators like sea lions, sharks, or killer whales need in order to survive which leads to displaced and/or starving individuals.

Choosing to eat seafood from sustainable sources benefits the ocean ecosystem as a whole because sustainable fisheries provide fish from species that replenish their populations quickly and do their best to limit the impacts on wild species populations and ecosystems.

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Photo Credit: seafoodwatch.org

The best way to get in a habit of choosing sustainable seafood is by downloading the Monterey Bay Aquarium app called Seafood Watch which can give you easy access to information about good choices, best choices, and choices that you should avoid altogether.

As new information on the species’ populations become available, the app updates so that you’re always making decisions based on the most current information. When ordering at a restaurant or doing your own shopping, use the app to understand which choices are most beneficial for the oceans’ well-being.

Stick With It

Join zoos and aquariums in the fight to make the world a better place. There will be days that your impact will seem small, but it matter. Your commitment means one less bag floating on the sea, one less straw in a bird’s stomach, and one more chance to contribute to ocean health.

Don’t forget to share your success and dedication with others and encourage them to do the same because as Ryunosuke Satoro said, “Individually, we are one drop. Together, we are an ocean.”

 

St. Augustine Alligator Farm Makes History with Hatching of Indian Gharial

The Indian gharial is among one of the largest crocodilian species, with males able to reach lengths of just under twenty feet and weigh nearly four hundred pounds. Upon hatching, however, the reptile measures around twelve to fifteen inches long and weighs just one quarter of a pound. Indian gharials generally begin to display courtship behaviors in December, mate in January and February, and lay their eggs in March and April. In captive environments, these animals have proven difficult to breed in the past, the only successes coming from programs in the animals’ native homeland of India and Nepal.

That changed on June 12, 2016 with the hatching of an Indian gharial at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. Zoos Are Important is thrilled that director and general manager of the zoo, John Brueggen, agreed to this written interview to give us more insight into this milestone for the species.

 

Zoos Are Important: Thank you so much for agreeing to share your time and answer some questions about your conservation success!

Let’s get to know you first. What is your personal history with the zoological field and, specifically, the St. Augustine Alligator Farm?

John Brueggen: I told my parents I was going to be a zoo keeper at age 5.  I have worked at Lowry Park Zoo, Bush Gardens, Walt Disney World, and the St. Augustine Alligator Farm Zoological Park.  I came to the Alligator Farm over 16 years ago as the General Curator, and was promoted to Director about 10 years ago.

 

ZAI: What is the St Augustine Alligator Farm’s history with the Indian gharial species?

JB: In 1993, our zoo became the only zoo in the world to house every species of crocodilian in the world.  We opened an attraction called “Land of Crocodiles”, and the gharials display was one of the new exhibits.  Since that time we have been growing up our one male and two females in an attempt to reproduce them.  We worked with Purina’s zoo diet team to create a special diet for the gharial, whom normally only consume fish in the wild. In 2011, one of our female gharial laid eggs but she just dropped them in the water.  We didn’t even know she was pregnant and she was letting us know that there was not a suitable place to lay her eggs.   In 2012 we built a large sand bank in the exhibit, similar to the sandbanks in India where female gharial are known to lay their eggs.  In 2012 and 2014 one of our female gharial laid eggs in the sandbank, but only a few of the eggs were fertile and though one egg grew to a full term hatchling it did not survive to hatch out of the egg. In 2013 we traveled to India to meet with a the [sic] team at the Madras Crocodile Bank, as they have experience breeding gharial in India. We picked their brains about water temperatures, diet, and incubation techniques. When we returned home we invested more energy in heating water during the winter and making sure our sand mound was at the right height and angle.  Then this year, on April 7 we collected some fertile eggs from the nesting sandbank.  We carefully transferred them to our incubators because the sandbank was not warm enough for embryo development.  Finally, on June 12, 2016 a beautiful little snout poked its way out of one of the eggs.

 

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Indian gharial hatching at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm. (Photo from St. Augustine Alligator Farm’s Facebook page)

 

ZAI: Can you explain what a Species Survival Plan (SSP) is and how it helps with species conservation?

JB: The Species Survival Plan (SSP) is a program in which zoos can work together to help save a species.  No one zoo can do all the conservation work for a singe [sic] species.  By working together, we create a large breeding population of animals across North America.  For example, our zoo is not capable of housing and breeding all the Chinese Alligators that are in captivity, but by working with all the zoos that have Chinese Alligators, we can work together to have a large breeding group.  There is a computerized studbook that makes recommendations each year as to which individual should breed with which other to maintain the best genetic diversity for the next 100 years.  That may mean that a female from our facility has to be moved to breed with a male in Toledo, but by making these adjustments and pairings each year we create a genetically diverse population.  We have been so successful at this that we have even been able to take some of our Chinese Alligator offspring and release them into protected habitat in China.

 

ZAI: Can you explain the process your team has gone through in the recent weeks from the female Indian gharial laying the eggs to the first hatch?

JB: A few years ago we received a very generous donation of some very precise incubators.  When we found the eggs in our nesting beach, we very carefully transferred the eggs to these new incubators.  Crocodilian eggs have to be kept at the perfect temperature and humidity, and these incubators did it perfectly!  Just about 60 days later, out popped a baby gharial.

 

ZAI: Why is this hatchling in particular so important and what does this successful breeding mean for the species going forward?

JB: We are hoping that this is just the first of may [sic] breedings over the next ten years.  We are the first zoo in the western hemisphere to crack the code, but we hope that our zoo partners in other AZA zoos with adult gharial will soon follow suit.  Our little guy will need a girl to breed with in the future!  This breeding is just the first step in an ongoing conservation puzzle.  If we are able to breed enough gharial in the future to release them back into the wild, there needs to be a suitable place in the wild to release them.  Captive breeding is only a small piece of the overall conservation of this species.  What this little hatchling represents is hope.  More people now know about an animal called a gharial because of this one little hatchling.  Before reading this story, many people had never even heard of this animal.

 

ZAI: Being that the Indian gharial is critically endangered, is there hope of reintroducing some of these captive-bred individuals into their native habitat?

JB: These animals currently have some head start programs in their native countries.  Just like we do with sea turtles, there are groups that hatch gharial, raise them until they are a size that they might survive, and then release them into the wild.  The real issues have to do with whether or not there will continue to be enough pristine habitat left for them to survive.  Sand is a valuable commodity in India and people are literally stealing the gharials’ nesting sandbanks.

 

ZAI: Do guests have the ability to view your new addition?

JB: We will evaluate the hatchling over the next few weeks to determine how it is doing, make sure it is eating, etc.  Then we can make a decision about displaying him.

 

ZAI: What can we, as the general public, do to help the Indian gharial going forward?

Support your local zoo and all the great work they do!

There is a lot of information about gharial at: http://www.gharialconservationalliance.org/

Financial contributions can be made at: http://www.gharialconservationalliance.org/?page_id=22

 

ZAI: Thank you again for your time! Please extend our congratulations to your team!

JB: Thank you!

 

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Congratulations to the whole St. Augustine Alligator Farm team! (Photo from St. Augustine Alligator Farm’s Facebook page)

 

Learning Links:

St. Augustine Alligator Farm’s Research Blog

St. Augustine Alligator Farm’s participation in Species Survival Plans

Indian Gharial feeding time at Lowry Park Zoo

Indian Gharial training techniques at Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

Big Steps for African Elephants

So far, it has been a big year for African elephants.

Protecting Instead of Poaching

One of Africa’s most iconic species, the African elephant is the largest land animal in the world, with males sometimes standing at thirteen feet tall and weighing up to fourteen thousand pounds. Typically found traveling in herds and family groups, elephants are known for their dexterous trunks, remarkable intelligence, and their beautiful ivory tusks.

For centuries, their tusks have been prized for mounted trophies, jewelry, decorative carvings, musical instruments, and more. In fact, while several tusked species can be hunted and used for the ivory market, elephant ivory is considered the most desirable. The Wildlife Conservation Society estimates that nearly one hundred African elephants are killed every day in order to satisfy the ivory trade, a number publicized in their campaign entitled 96 Elephants.

On June 2, 2016, the United States Fish and Wildlife Service made a sweeping attempt to try to change that as they announced a near total ban of the African elephant ivory trade. Previous laws, while strict regarding the importation of new ivory, were rather lax in regards to ivory already in the United States. Many of those regulations were put in place in 1990 following a decade in which the African elephant population plummeted by nearly fifty percent. Today, this keystone species is listed as “vulnerable” on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) red list, with only an estimated 400,000 remaining in the wild.

The Swaziland Seventeen

The enhanced protective measure comes less than six months after the Fish and Wildlife Service approved the transport of seventeen African elephants to three United States zoos from Swaziland, a country in which previous elephant populations were completely wiped out by the late 1940s. Between the years of 1987 and 1994, elephants were reintroduced to Swaziland, a country about the size Connecticut, but were isolated from other elephant populations in Africa and restricted to fenced areas.

According to the information provided by the Fish and Wildlife Service earlier this year, by 2014, the almost forty elephants living in Hlane Royal National Park and Mkhaya Game Reserve had “grown beyond existing space limitations” and presented “a significant risk to maintaining biodiversity in the parks” especially to the parks’ black rhinoceroses.

As a result, over a dozen elephants were scheduled to be culled (in other words, put to death).

Instead, the Dallas Zoo, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, and the Sedgwick County Zoo in Witchita, intervened, partnering together to ensure a safe future for these elephants. While also pledging nearly a half million dollars to black rhino conservation, the zoos focused on the individual elephants’ futures, providing them with food and water while they remained in Swaziland and offering to transport them to the United States and take them in. Seventeen African elephants relocated to the three zoos this past March, completing what Gregg Hudson, the president of the Dallas Zoo, called “a rescue mission”.

A Sweet Surprise

About ten weeks later, the Dallas Zoo announced that one of the rescued elephants, Mlilo, gave birth to a male calf. Mlilo showed signs of a potential pregnancy before her relocation, but all of the tests were inconclusive. Despite the harsh conditions of her native Swaziland and the fact that breeding age male elephants of the area are vasectomized, Mlilo beat the odds as the 175 pound calf seems as though he was carried to term after a twenty-two month gestation period.

Mother and calf are not currently on exhibit, and may not be for several months, according to zoo officials, as they continue to receive veterinary and keeper care and bond with the other members of the herd. The little boy is said to be nursing, exploring, and vocalizing as normal.

“This really validates why it was so important we get them here,” Hudson said. Now at the Dallas Zoo, the rescued elephants and new calf, as well as the individuals that found homes at the Sedgwick County Zoo and Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, will be constantly cared for by a team of animal care specialists as part of the zoos’ lifetime commitment to these individuals.

Zoos, conservationists, and animal lovers around the world still have a long way to go to solidify a bright future for this iconic species. It is likely that they will still struggle with habitat destruction and poaching for some time to come, but strides have been made in the right direction. As Dan Ashe, director of the Fish and Wildlife Service, said in a recent statement, “We still have much to do to save this species, but today is a good day for the African elephant.”

We couldn’t agree more.

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Mlilo’s new calf. (Photo from Dallas Zoo’s website)

Learning Links

U.S. Adopts Near-Total Ivory Ban

Zoos Provide Homes for Elephants

Dallas Zoo Elephant Blog Updates

Zoo Atlanta’s Panda Twins Celebrate Milestone

Flocking Fans and Changing Times

The giant panda cubs at Zoo Atlanta celebrated their first birthday in July. Fans from around the country flocked to see them, staking out their spots near the exhibit more than an hour before the party began. Guests wearing bedazzled panda shirts chattered about how long they had driven for the occasion, some coming from the nation’s capital, some local members of the zoo, and others from as far away as California.

The two little girls they all gathered to see, Mei Lun and Mei Huan, are the first surviving set of giant panda twins ever born in the United States. Overall, they are the fourth and fifth cubs born to Zoo Atlanta’s seventeen year old Lun Lun, one of the most successful mothers of her species in the country.

Mei Lun

Mei Lun

Mei Huan

Mei Huan

Much has changed since Lun Lun had her first cub in 2006. At the time, the birth was a relative surprise, but as technology and our general understanding of this species has advanced through research carried out by facilities like Zoo Atlanta, so have the medical and husbandry (to be defined in a future article) practices. The zoo staff works to monitor progesterone levels using urinalysis, identifying when the female is accepting to the male. While normally solitary animals, when she shows physical and behavioral signs of being ready to mate, Lun Lun and Yang Yang, the largest male Giant Panda in the United States, are placed on exhibit together.

For just a few days, the two cohabitate, and during this time, the zoo staff may also artificially inseminate Lun Lun to ensure a pregnancy. For Giant Pandas, each pregnancy brings new hope for the species which is listed as endangered on the IUCN’s red list. With a decreasing population of only 1,600 individuals left in the wild, there are more visitors to Zoo Atlanta each day than there are pandas left in their natural environment.

The First Year

Just a couple of days before the twins’ birth, Lun Lun participated in an ultrasound, one of the voluntary behaviors that her keepers have trained often with sugar cane rewards, allowing staff members to confirm that the big day was approaching. On July 15, just after 6:20pm, Lun Lun gave birth to two hairless, deaf, and blind cubs that were each no larger than a human’s hand. In the wild, if twins are born, the mother panda generally chooses only one to raise, but, at Zoo Atlanta, the team sprang into action.

Newborn pandas are helpless at birth. In fact, not only are they unable to see, hear, or walk, but their bodies also lack the ability to regulate their own temperature and are around nine hundred times smaller than their mother! Therefore, during the first several months of life, the mother panda cannot take her attention away from her cub. About 80% of her time will be entirely dedicated to nursing, grooming, or just holding her cub. That’s some pretty intensive care!

In order to give Lun Lun the ability to focus on one daughter at a time, as well as increase the chances of survival for both cubs, Zoo Atlanta staff members took care of one newborn, keeping her warm in an incubator, while their mother took care of the other. Until they started walking on their own, the keepers switched cubs every couple of hours to make sure that Lun Lun bonded with both of her offspring.

During most of this time, the staff had not yet bestowed names on the cubs, simply referring to them as Cub A and Cub B. According to Chinese tradition, good luck is given to those named on their 100th day of life, and so the zoo held off on naming them until that time. Prior to Zoo Atlanta’s naming ceremony, thousands took part in a public online poll, voting on idioms that represented the two little bears. After the tallies were counted, the Chinese government approved the winning phrase, “Mei Lun Mei Huan”, which translates to “something indescribably beautiful and magnificent”. The twin girls share the phrase, each taking one half as their name.

Baby photos detail the twins’ milestones.

Baby photos detail the twins’ milestones.

Just as celebrators poured into the zoo that day, the same can be said of the festive day in July when Mei Lun and Mei Huan turned one year old. Their keepers took the time to share the panda girls’ first days with visitors via television screens and posters displaying baby photos from the past year. Inside the exhibit, they set out ‘birthday presents’ in the form of colorful cardboard boxes with treats inside, which mother Lun Lun promptly opened and ate. The twins eventually got the idea and played along.

The celebration has begun!

The celebration has begun!

Unaware of the pandamonium (sorry for the pun, but I had to do it) they have created, Mei Lun and Mei Huan spent their day sleeping, climbing, and playing as their mother kept a watchful eye while chowing down on bamboo. They will wean from their mother when they are around a year and a half old, as did their three siblings before them. And, like their siblings before them, they will eventually board an airplane and make the trip around the world to China’s Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding where they will, hopefully, become mothers and have cubs of their own.

Looking Forward

While Zoo Atlanta is one of only four zoos in the country that house and breed giant pandas in collaboration with the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, their efforts to preserve this species doesn’t end there.

One of the greatest threats that this species faces is habitat destruction and loss. Roughly forty percent of appropriate habitat for pandas lies in nature reserves in three provinces in China. The Chinese government has begun to add almost 70,000 planned square miles to the reserve system in an attempt to help their national treasure’s population, and funds from Zoo Atlanta support eight different nature reserves.

In fact, Zoo Atlanta has been working with the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding since the early 1990’s, assisting in research that focuses on mothers and cubs. The panda research and breeding program is Zoo Atlanta’s most expensive conservation project.

As this zoo in Georgia has demonstrated, regardless of the distance between you and the giant panda’s homeland, there are actions that you can take to help them. One of the ways to do that is by adopting a panda. Of course, this is a symbolic adoption. You wouldn’t want one of these bears in your own house- the estimated cost for caring for one of these animals totals at around $10,000 a year! Your donation contributes to conservation projects at Zoo Atlanta and across the world! For a limited time, you can actually sponsor Mei Lun and Mei Huan specifically! Another way to help pandas is by visiting Zoo Atlanta and other facilities that support or house this rare bear. Every time you visit a zoo, you support research and conservation efforts like the one you’ve read about today.

Zoo Atlanta continues to look forward to a bright future for giant pandas. The staff is currently preparing for Lun Lun’s next pregnancy and the celebrity twins’ next steps in life. Keep track of the panda family’s updates through the Zoo Atlanta Panda Blog, written by the keepers who work with these bears every day.

Congratulations to the team for all of their hard work over the past year. And, of course, happy birthday Mei Lun and Mei Huan! Here’s to many more!

Mei Huan eyes one of the birthday presents.

Mei Huan eyes one of the birthday presents.

We can’t say it enough- Thank you for visiting Zoos Are Important!

Learning Links:

 Chengdu Research Base for Giant Panda Breeding

Panda International

Highlights of the Twins’ First Year

The California Condor Clings to Survival with the Help of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park

From One Bird to the Whole Species

The first California condor to reside at the San Diego Safari Park was a rescued animal with a crippled wing. That particular individual lived out the rest of its days at the park starting in 1929. Over the years, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park has worked extensively to perfect its techniques in caring for these animals, becoming a leader in one of the most impressive conservation projects ever attempted in the United States.

In 1982, the California condor species was struggling to survive, and that is the mild way to put it. With just twenty-seven individuals left in the world, the species was in crisis. When the government of the United States of America gave the go-ahead to begin a propagation initiative to try to save the species, the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, being no stranger to these birds due to its history in caring for them and its location in the middle of their natural homeland, constructed six free-flight enclosures as part of this species’ recovery program.

The California Condor took the first step toward a second chance at the end of March in 1983 when Sisquoc, the first chick to hatch in a zoo, emerged from his shell, and by 1987, the last known wild condor was captured with the intention of breeding and reintroducing the species back into the wild.

With the entire population of California Condors distributed between the Los Angeles Zoo and the San Diego Zoo, the species was officially extinct in the wild.

A California Condor atop its perch at the San Diego Zoo.

A California Condor atop its perch at the San Diego Zoo.

Overcoming Obstacles

Even with the success of Sisquoc’s hatching, no one knew if the captive breeding program would work, making the decision to capture all of the remaining birds controversial. Slow to mature, California Condors do not reach breeding age until they are between six and seven years old. Even so, once they do breed, the females usually lay just a single egg at a time. And, on top of the low clutch count, they only lay that one egg every one to two years.

Progress was sure to be slow.

At the breeding facilities in California, where all of the condors were held, a new strategy was put into place. When a female laid an egg, personnel removed the egg from the nest, instinctively or hormonally causing the female to lay a second egg, and, sometimes, even a third. The “extra” eggs were incubated and raised by the staff members devoted to seeing this species’ survival. Overcoming this obstacle was just one challenge the staff faced.

Many species of birds, including California condors, have a cognitive ability called “imprinting” in which a young individual will bond with its caretakers. Naturally, a chick’s caretakers are most often its parents, and therefore, imprinting is a survival skill. But, in this environment, in which many of the chicks were raised by humans with the intention of someday being released into the wild, imprinting could become a detriment. After all, the someday-released animals could not be flocking to hiking humans in search of food or company. Therefore, traditional hand raising was not an option.

Instead, another technique was developed in order to prevent this from occurring. Hand puppets molded in the shape of mature condor heads were worn by the staff members as they fed and cared for the chicks. To learn important social skills, they were introduced to adult condors and played tapes of condors’ vocalizations in hopes that would aid in development.

 

A New Beginning. A Bright Future.

The true test of the entire program’s success came in early 1992, when the first captive-bred California condors were released into the January sky. The species had been extinct in the wild for roughly five years, and never before had a conservation project so large been undertaken.

Because individual condors tend to look similar, especially at a distance, each bird was fitted with a number attached to their wings for easy identification and a transmitter for tracking and monitoring. Over the next several years, more condors were released into different areas across California, with others released in Arizona and Mexico. Those individuals began to thrive, even breeding on their own in their natural environment.

In fact, as of May 2013, the total population of California Condors was up to four hundred thirty five individuals! That’s a long way from the twenty-seven birds counted just thirty years before. In fact, even Sisquoc continues to help his species recover as he has bonded with a female named Shatash, and the two birds have become a successful breeding pair, contributing to the one hundred sixty five chicks hatched at the San Diego Zoo.

Be a Part of the Success

Each year, more condors are bred and released by zoos and other facilities, and the population continues to increase, but this story of survival and conservation is far from over. The species is still labeled as critically endangered on the IUCN red list. While the recovery of the California Condor has begun through the efforts of professionals from the San Diego Zoo and other partner organizations, they need our help too.

One of the most dangerous threats these animals face is lead poisoning. Because condors feed on carrion, a term that refers to already-dead animals, they can sometimes ingest lead-tainted meat and even entire bullets, leading to the poisoning of their systems. Lead poisoning unfortunately causes paralysis in the digestive tract, killing the animal slowly through starvation. So, if you hunt, be sure to use non-lead ammunition to help prevent the risk of poisoning of scavengers like the California Condor.

Another simple and fun solution? Continue to visit places like the San Diego Zoo and San Diego Zoo Safari Park, as well as other facilities, dedicated to the future of this amazing animal. Your admission fee helps pay for education and conservation efforts!

Want to learn more about the California Condor? Check out these links below! And, thanks for visiting Zoos Are Important!

Learning Links:
San Diego Zoo’s California Condor Live Cam
San Diego California Condor Blog

As Guests Watch Whales, The New England Aquarium Catalogs

What’s In a Name

The New England Aquarium, nestled up against the Boston harbor, provides visitors with a unique opportunity to see the facility’s resident creatures like fur seals (including some that were rescued!), bonnethead sharks, and little blue penguins, and, with a separate ticket, some rather large animals that call the waters off Massachusetts home for just a few months each year.

Guests who step aboard one of the whale watching catamarans named Cetacea, Aurora, or Asteria, take a trip to the Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary where marine mammals abound. Finback whales, minke whales, and humpback whales are commonly sighted, and, while they are not considered the “main attraction”, it is also possible to see Atlantic white-sided dolphins, pilot whales, or harbor seals.

As you snap pictures in awe, the aquarium’s research team is on the third deck, pointing out where to look for the animals next and explaining the behavioral tendencies of that particular species to the spectators via a microphone. They also take the opportunity to record the behaviors the animals demonstrate on that particular day, like lunge feeding, tail lobbing, or breaching, as well as which individual animals are sighted.

Like a human’s fingerprint, or a zebra’s stripes, every whale has an identifying feature. For example, each humpback whale has a unique pattern on its fluke, or tail. Scientists around the world use these patterns to track the animals as their migration routes can cover thousands of miles. The same individuals that the New England Aquarium team logs in the summer may be sighted all the way down in the Caribbean Sea, where the females give birth during the winter.

Pleats' Flukes

Pleats’ Flukes

Milkweed's Flukes

Milkweed’s Flukes

Wizard's Flukes

Wizard’s Flukes

Each animal is labelled in the catalog with a number, but the researchers tend to call them by name. Among others, individual whales named Pleats, Milkweed, Echo, and Wizard made appearances on the day that we boarded. We also had the opportunity to see the months old calves that belong to the latter three.

Those calves are documented, just as their mothers are, and will eventually earn names too. According to the researchers introducing these animals to us that day, there are a variety of ways that a whale earns its name. Often times, it is because of a marking along its body. Echo, for example, has several lines on her fluke that look like illustrated sonar pings ‘echoing’ off of an object.

Every so often, the whale is named after a person. Right whale 1158 is referred to as ‘Bud’ in honor of the New England Aquarium’s CEO after nearly a decade’s worth of service in the position.

Benefits of Cataloging

Just as humpback whales do, right whales also migrate. One of the rarest species of marine mammal, with only about five hundred individuals left in the world, right whales have been the subject of extensive research conducted by the New England Aquarium. Rather than identify them by their flukes, naturalists look at the white patches that form on their heads. These ‘callosities’ (pronounced kah-laus’-uh-tees) give the appearance of being white because of parasites which highlight patches of the animal around their face, lips, and eyes. Each pattern is different, and, in general, stays relatively the same throughout the animal’s lifetime.

Scientists track the individuals from Maine down the east coast to Florida. Tracking their migration path could prove instrumental in preserving the species. Almost fifty percent of known right whale deaths are human related, the most prevalent being vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglement. By mapping where the whales go and the route they take to get there, the New England Aquarium works with the shipping industry to prevent fatal strikes to these animals.

The scarring on Pleats' back is from an encounter with a boat’s propeller.

The scarring on Pleats’ back is from an encounter with a boat’s propeller.

Given their research about the migratory and assembly patterns of right whales, the Aquarium has been able to make suggestions in the past as to the benefits of relocating shipping lanes that dissected important feeding grounds for these animals.

Based on information collected by research teams, like that connected to the New England Aquarium, scientists predicted that without restrictions to ocean-going vessels, the right whale species may never be able to recover from its low numbers. In 2008, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) implemented a temporary rule which imposed a speed limit on ships traveling within certain areas that coincided with the range of right whales along the east coast.

Initial estimations indicated that ship strikes to right whales by eighty to ninety percent. As time went on, the speed limit seemed to be effective, as evidenced by the fact that, since the rule went into place, there had been no right whale deaths caused by ship strikes in these designated locations.

This past December, NOAA issued a statement declaring that the rule protecting right whales from lethal ship strikes was no longer ‘temporary’. The New England Aquarium’s research team celebrated this victory, with research assistant Marianna H. writing, the “removal of these speed restrictions would have been taking several steps backwards. Fortunately, the rule now exists in perpetuity!!”

Continuing Conservation

(Above is a video of the New England Aquarium’s Research Team sampling right whales’ exhales. Please note that this is not a part of a whale watching tour and that, without specific permits, it is illegal to be this close to these animals.)

The New England Aquarium’s involvement with whales, right whales in particular, is their longest running conservation program. Whether their method of transportation is of the sky or sea, they continue to photograph and log identifying details as well as track these animals as they make their annual journey along the eastern coast of the United States.

You have a chance to assist them by sponsoring a right whale and supporting legislation that looks to protect whales’ futures. You can also try your hand as a research assistant by playing this ‘matching game’ on the New England Aquarium’s website.

Remember too that if you are out boating where any marine life may be present, you are sharing those waters. Keep a slow speed, an eye on the surface for any activity, and remember that the animal has the right of way.

Check out the most recent right whale news by reading the New England Aquarium’s right whale blog written by research assistants and full of pictures of these amazing animals. If you are curious about the whales that are sighted and what behaviors whale watchers are seeing, check out the New England Aquarium’s whale watching blog. And, if you are interested in taking a trip on one of the Aquarium’s catamarans and viewing these whales, visit their website for details.

Don’t forget to share your experiences and pictures with us on our Facebook page, that’s where we posted ours!

Thank you for visiting Zoos Are Important!

Learning Links:

New England Aquarium’s Right Whale Conservation

North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium

NOAA’s Humpback Whale Bio

NOAA’s Right Whale Bio