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.

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