Cheers to All of the Zookeepers

Cheers to the zookeepers among you.

To the people who wake up early, long before the sun rises to begin preparing the animals’ diets in the always-clean commissary. To the ones that rinse lettuce and kale for the sulcata tortoises, roll raw meatballs for the Sumatran tigers, and load bales of hay and alfalfa into wheelbarrows and trucks for the Grevy’s Zebras, white rhinoceroses, and Thomson’s gazelle that all share the same sprawling exhibit. Cheers to you who cut up squash and sweet potatoes just the way that the picky eleven-year-old three-toed sloth prefers. To those who hand feed the Magellanic penguins individual capelin to make sure each of the fourteen birds gets their fill.

 

Here’s to the keepers who scuba dive among sandbar sharks, cownose stingrays, lookdowns, and hogfish, scrubbing algae from rocks, and wiping down acrylic windows. In just a couple hours, little guests will press their hands against them and gaze upon animals that they may have never seen before, and may never get the chance to see anywhere else.

To the keepers who wipe sweat from their brows and shove hair out of their faces as they rake, shovel, and hose every inch of the animals’ exhibits, thank you. To those of you who do so every day in the searing summer heat of Arizona, in the unforgiving winters of South Dakota, the torrential downpours of Florida, and everywhere else, thank you.

Thanks to all of the keepers who crawl into small spaces and climb up onto wooden towers to implement enrichment opportunities, changes in the animals’ environment meant to mentally and physically stimulate them. Cheers to the keepers who stuff fruit chunks in nooks and crannies for the ring-tailed lemurs to encourage natural foraging. To those keepers who give the giant panda cubs boxes to tumble around with, and watch the serval rub his face in and curl his lips at the scent of cumin, and turn on the firehose for a curious herd of Asian elephants.

 

Thank you to all of the zookeepers who spend time between cleaning and feeding, logging behavioral observations of the animals you have come to know so well. Who notice if the aging western lowland silverback is favoring his left shoulder more today than yesterday, or if the female pygmy hippopotamus slept in a different spot than she usually does, or if the recently-introduced colobus monkey is on the outs from the rest of the group. Thanks to all of the keepers who record all of the nuances, looking for both usual patterns as well as the anomalies, never skipping over a single detail.

Thank you to the keepers who train animals to offer conditioned husbandry behaviors. To those who teach the African lionesses to lay quietly for their routine blood draws, who reward the bonobos with juice for allowing a veterinarian to sonogram them, and administer eye drops to a harbor seal that has been taught to tilt its head to the left, then the right, so that restraint is never required for its routine care. These behaviors are beneficial and potentially life-saving, but are not learned overnight. So, cheers to the keepers who spend months, sometimes years, training these behaviors through positive reinforcement, each time rewarding the animal with something they seem to enjoy like a special treat, a rub behind the ears, or their favorite toy.

 

If you’re not a zookeeper, say thank you to a one today. These people, who studied in universities and colleges for years, fought and clawed for competitive seasonal internships and even more competitive permanent positions, are actually paid very little for a job that is very important.

They show up hours late to dates with their significant others because they’re standing by for the birth of a pacific white-sided dolphin calf and the mom just went into labor.

They call their children over the phone at bedtime instead of sitting next to them, reading through a picture book because they’ve been asked to stay late to care for a tawny frogmouth that suffered a seizure earlier.

They wake up in the middle of the night when the phone rings and rush out to rescue a half dozen manatees that somehow ended up stuck in a drain pipe.

They spend the Fourth of July, not at neighborhood barbeques, but teaching children in neon shirts at summer camps how to help save sea turtles even if they live a thousand miles from the ocean.

They miss Christmas with their families because they’re dressed up as whooping cranes, hoping the chicks who are fooled by the costumes will eventually be released into the wild, helping to save their species.

They embrace the enormous responsibility of trying to save the California condor, the Scimitar-horned oryx, and the black-footed ferret. They’re trying to save the world, one animal, one species, one visitor at a time.

They teach the small children perched atop fathers’ shoulders why it is important to drink from reusable water bottles instead of plastic ones. They reveal to the middle schoolers on field trips what the continued farming for palm oil may mean for the plight of Bornean orangutans. They ask the adults to make the switch to sustainable seafood to benefit entire ocean ecosystems.

They try to teach people who saw a chimpanzee mother and baby lounging in the grass, or fed a giraffe a leaf a lettuce from their own hands, or watched two polar bears trying to sink a floating barrel to care for the wild counterparts of these beloved ambassadors.

They get dirty. They go home sore. They wake up tired and do it all over again.

They rescue. They teach. They care. And, they hope at the end of every day, that you to care too.

So, to all of the zookeepers out there: an enormous thank you for all you do and happy National Zookeeper Week! Hope it was a great one.

Georgia Aquarium Paves the Way in Understanding Whale Sharks

A Piece of Ocean in a Landlocked City

The Georgia Aquarium, the largest aquarium of its kind in the world, opened its doors in late 2005 as a gift to the people of Atlanta from the co-founder of Home Depot, Bernard “Bernie” Marcus. Determined to bring the ocean 300 miles inland to the metropolis capital of this southern state in which his company originated, Marcus donated 250 million dollars to the venture, declaring that this facility would educate visitors of all ages about the animal world, promoting “stewardship in conservation”.

Quickly becoming one of Atlanta’s most popular attractions, the Georgia Aquarium is the only facility in the western hemisphere to house whale sharks. The largest fish in the ocean, whale sharks can grow to be over thirty feet long and weigh roughly twenty tons, and the Georgia Aquarium’s Ocean Voyager exhibit boasts four of these animals.

Dinner Is Served

While imposing in size, this animal is a filter feeder, meaning that it scoops small fish and plankton, but not much else is on the menu. In fact, though these animals’ mouths can be up to four feet wide, the size and shape of their esophagus inhibits them from swallowing anything larger than a quarter.

Open Wide!

Open Wide!

These feeding restrictions and habits have forced the aquarists at the aquarium to implement some rather unique techniques when lunchtime rolls around. The sharks’ caretakers cannot simply toss buckets of food into the water and cross their fingers that each individual gets its share. Every ounce of food for each animal is calculated every day and is prepared with the same accuracy in cleanliness that your food is in a restaurant. The USDA even evaluates and inspects the kitchen, which, in the zoological world, is called a commissary.

The sharks also lack the ability to sit in front of the aquarists with its head tilted upwards waiting for an afternoon snack. Whale sharks must constantly be on the move as it is this movement that forces water into their mouths and over their gills, giving them the ability to breathe.

Being that the sharks cannot be stationary, at feeding time, the aquarists climb into inflatable boats and use what could be described as shark-sized spoons to deliver a mixture of krill, shrimp, and nutrient-rich gel to each shark as it swims alongside. The hardworking aquarists use a cable or line system to pull themselves, the food mixture, the very large utensil, and, of course, the boat across the exhibit (which is about as long as a football field). Alice, Trixie, Yushan, and Taroko, the four whale sharks at the aquarium have been trained to follow their own boats, each only being fed from a specific “lane”. This activity occurs several times a day and, in total, the whale sharks are offered nearly twenty thousand pounds of food each year!

View from above the Ocean Voyager exhibit.  Look closely to see the feeding boats and cables.

View from above the Ocean Voyager exhibit.
Look closely to see the feeding boats and cables.

Researching Further

Not only does each shark get a specific diet, tailored just for them, but for each animal in its care, the Georgia Aquarium develops a healthcare plan to ensure their residents’ wellbeing. For the whale sharks, that means a variety of data collections, including behavior analysis, body measurements, and blood draws.

Because the Georgia Aquarium is in the unique position of being one of the only aquariums to care for and study these animals (the only one outside of Asia), it has the opportunity to research and discover many “firsts” that help us learn more about the specifics of this species.

For example, it was the first in the world to study and assess the biochemistry of whale sharks. By comparing the serums of healthy animals to those of unhealthy animals, researchers from the Georgia Aquarium were able to determine that certain markers in a whale shark’s blood could indicate its general health. Implementing a science known as metabolomics, which involves identifying substances necessary for metabolism, and using advanced technology such as a mass spectrometer, the researchers discovered that the metabolite homarine, as well as twenty-five more compounds, was a meaningful indicator in evaluating the health of a whale shark.

Now, that’s a lot of aquarist/biologist/shark-expert jargon (and, if you understood, feel free to read more about it here), but basically, what that means is that, not only does this information assist those who work with these animals every day, but it also has the ability to aid the scientific community in the field as they continue the attempt to conserve this species.

Listed as vulnerable on the IUCN’s red list, whale sharks are still hunted in some parts of the world. The Georgia Aquarium acquired its four sharks from Taiwan, a country that, at one time, killed sixty whale sharks in one year, but has now reduced that figure to zero. The government of Taiwan has since partnered with the Georgia Aquarium in hopes of leading as an example for other countries to follow suit in whale shark conservation.

A whale shark cruises near the surface of the water.

A whale shark cruises near the surface of the water.

Conducting research on whale sharks in the wild is no easy task. The whale shark population continues to trend downward and scientists still know very little about their ecology, including growth rates, longevity, and migration patterns. The Georgia Aquarium is not only doing research on property, where the Ocean Voyager exhibit provides the opportunity to observe these animals as researchers learn about their growth rates, age at maturity, and behavioral tendencies, but also in the field, as they have become official partners with Project Domino, an organization that uses satellite tags to track individual sharks. Early studies have shown that one individual traveled over eight thousand miles, a journey that took more than three years to complete.

Let’s Do Our Part!

If you are interested in the Georgia Aquarium and their research projects revolving around whale sharks, there are a couple ways you can help. The Georgia Aquarium, which is a 501c3 nonprofit organization, relies on the public’s support through donations and attendance. So, one way to help is to go and witness these animals up close. You can even learn about these animals from a diver while he/she is inside the exhibit!

A diver utilizes a specially designed mask to communicate with the audience from inside the Ocean Voyager exhibit as a whale shark swims overhead.

A diver utilizes a specially designed mask to communicate
with the audience from inside the Ocean Voyager exhibit as a whale
shark swims overhead.

But, there are even more immersive ways to learn! If standing outside the habitat still feels too far away, you can get even closer by snorkeling or scuba diving inside the exhibit.

Thank you for being interested in whale shark research, of which so much could not have been conducted without the help and expertise of the Georgia Aquarium.

And, of course, thank you for visiting Zoos Are Important!

Learning Links:

Georgia Aquarium’s Whale Shark Research

Whale Shark Guide

Georgia Aquarium’s Research Team Studying in Mexico