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Posts Tagged ‘nature’

copenhagen giraffeSo I’m sure by now you’ve heard about Copenhagen Zoo euthanizing one of its giraffes for “educational purposes” and feeding it to the zoo’s carnivores. If not, here’s the story.

I was struck by a particular response to this today in which someone I respect a lot (a natural history scientist and educator) pointed out that this was simply a business decision and actually very interesting from an educational standpoint. You can read the original post here. (WARNING: images of said giraffe-being-fed-to-lions.) While I can see the value of teaching the so-called “circle of life,” I disagreed with the statement on several points. Here is my response, slightly edited from the open letter form I used to reply. I may be a very small voice with a very small audience, but I come from the perspective of close association (and employment) with zoos and other animal organizations, so I feel that I can provide some further insight into the situation.

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Hi,

I’m really glad you took the time to respond to this situation as it has created so much controversy in the last 24 hours. It brings to light a different perspective than the knee-jerk reaction people are largely having, fueled by the media.

That being said, I think this response over-simplifies zoos in general and makes sweeping generalizations about them. I have worked and volunteered for multiple organizations that house and exhibit animals, so while I can only speak from first-hand experience and from an American zoo perspective (so, AZA and not EAZA), I fear that some of these simplified statements can harm the overall debate surrounding animals in captivity.

“Zoos are not in the business of saving wildlife, they are in the business of business.”
This is one of the statements that misrepresents zoos when made about all institutions. According to a 2012 survey, over half (54%) of zoos accredited by the AZA are non-profit organizations. Money they make goes to the care of the animals, paying staff, research and education. In fact, the AZA is actively working with other educational institutions like the Ocean Project to improve conservation education in zoos and aquariums around the world. Their most recent study results are here.

“Could the Copenhagen Zoo have sent the giraffe to another zoo? Maybe, but then that zoo would also be faced with the business problem of investing resources into sustaining this animal knowing full well it was not suitable for breeding.”
Not all zoos exhibit animals that have the purpose of breeding. In almost any zoo you visit, there are animals that were injured in the wild and rehabilitated (often re-relased into the wild if at all possible), or that are geriatric and will never breed, or are rescued from illegal private breeders. For examples, check the North Carolina Zoo’s Wildlife Rehab Center, Chattanooga Zoo’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, and the Texas State Aquarium’s Wildlife Rehabilitation Program. The San Diego Zoo is also well known for its herd of geriatric elephants, also not used for breeding.

“…but I encourage someone who is truly upset about this issue to take their problem up with the nature of zoo breeding programs worldwide. Marius’ fate was quite possibly determined for him before he was born.”
“The nature of zoo breeding programs worldwide” is a vast and varied thing. Most AZA Zoos participate in the Species Survival Plan Program, or SSP. This program monitors how many of each species are in captivity, and strives for a rate of 95% genetic diversity. Animals are paired for breeding only when they are a healthy genetic match. The purpose of the SSP isn’t just for zoos to have animals without taking them from the wild; the goal of the SSP is to preserve these species in order to repatriate them to their native habitats. A good case study of this is the African Bongo. This antelope is being successfully reintroduced to Kenya, with the herd growing from captive-bred animals. Closer to home, the California condor’s success is directly because of the AZA and SSP. The red wolf has also survived because of the SSP and would be completely extinct if not for the intervention of the Point Defiance Zoo in Tacoma, Washington. Red wolves are now being reintroduced to part of their native range in North Carolina.

“If this has to be the way in which zoos function – the continuous breeding, inbreeding and culling of their stock…”
This—“inbreeding and culling”— isn’t how all zoos function. It isn’t how they should function. This is why the Copenhagen Zoo is under fire, because the overall situation at that individual zoo is a problem. It may be a problem at large with the EAZA, but I am not as familiar with that organization and cannot speak to that. The AZA, however, has a contraception program in place specifically to avoid this type of situation.

Zoos worldwide do have problems. They are not perfect, and it is fair to criticize the way individual zoos are operated, and the way they treat their animals. We should also be critical of standards as they are now in terms of space and enrichment and diets for animals in captivity. It’s fair to question many aspects of zoos. But is it fair to make these generalizations about all zoos being for profit only, and serving no purpose for conservation, research, education? No. Should a young and healthy individual be put down simply for education? I also say no.

All of that being said, your perspective is an interesting one that I had no considered. Zoos lose geriatric animals as the population ages, and it could be highly educational if they allowed such things to be public. If this situation was different, if the giraffe was old or unhealthy (but not sick where he would harm the other animals), would I view this differently? I think I might.

What I am trying to say is that this is a very complex issue with more involved than the immediate knee-jerk reaction.

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So those are my thoughts. I do think the Copenhagen Zoo’s decision should be questioned. For instance, should this giraffe have been born in the first place if he wasn’t going to be in a healthy population? Why did they breed their giraffes if too-close-genetics was a problem? What can we do to change the situation for a better outcome in the future? What can the EAZA do to make it easier to transfer animals between facilities in these cases?

On a wider scale, how can we better regulate zoos with breeding programs not part of the SSP? To me, that’s a huge issue. There are so many institutions worldwide not part of the carefully monitored SSP, so how do we ensure that animals are genetically viable and healthy individuals, and that populations aren’t too large for the places housing them?

The Executive Director of the EAZA has issued a statement about the reasons behind the giraffe’s culling, which you can read for yourself here. He expresses that neutering the giraffe would create “side effects” and that it takes the place and resources of a more genetically viable individual. I still question how this giraffe was allowed to be bred in the first place if they knew he was going to be surplus for them. And then how did he reach the age of two?

I hope this helps put things into a little perspective. The situation at Copenhagen Zoo definitely shines a light on a broader problem with zoos worldwide, and I hope the zoo community can move toward a better future.

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Me_Ajani

Because I am asked all the time about my profile picture, I thought I’d take some time today to tell you the story of how that photo came to exist.

This photo was taken in summer of 2009. At the time I worked and volunteered for an AZA-accredited institution, working in the education department and volunteering (through the city) to assist with animal care. I volunteered in the section that included large carnivores, and in 2009, four lion cubs were born; this is one of them. He was the largest of the cubs, which included three males and one female, and it took a whole group of us to get them through their weekly veterinary assessments, especially when they got big enough to run around the room.

These lion cubs are now 4 years old and at other institutions as part of the SSP– Species Survival Program. Many zoo animals are part of the program, which includes extensive genetic documentation and husbandry information, all for the sake of maintaining a genetically healthy and diverse captive population with the intention of one day returning these species to the wild. The goal is to have 95% diversity, which means any given individual can only be related to 5% of the total captive population. This is why big cat births like this are so rare: they are managed so as to not be over-populated in captivity, and to keep diversity high. A more genetically diverse population is better equipped to survive diseases and less likely to have birth defects.

Important things to know about this specific situation: it happened under very strict supervision, and was for an extremely brief period of time. The cubs were separated from their mom for less than 30 minutes while she ate. Once the cubs reached about 3 months old, contact like this ceased, in part because they were getting too big to handle and in part because they were simply done with their “kitten” vaccines. The purpose of handling them was not only to help the veterinary exams go more smoothly, but also to help the cubs feel comfortable around humans, since they will spend their entire lives in captivity. Socialization reduces stress.

And that brings me to another important point. While I do have this photo posted, I do not encourage people to seek out photo opportunities with big cats or other wildlife. Paying for photos with cubs creates a market for breeding and exploiting big cats, and the cubs are the ones who suffer being taken from their mothers far too early (remember at 3 months they were too big to handle, but still not weaned) and often don’t survive. Even lions “raised” by people maintain all of their wild instincts, and should be respected as wild animals. My situation was in the course of work I was doing and not as part of a profit-making scheme.

That being said, I wouldn’t trade the experience I had working with and around the cubs for anything, and it’s one I might never have again. They were adorable and amazing and really a joy to watch as they grew, especially knowing they were doing their part to save their species, not only by simply being alive but by being ambassadors. These cubs allowed people a chance to get a glimpse into the wild, and hopefully to care just a bit more about saving their relatives still out there.

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ground squirrel, face

The squirrels are different here.

This is a California ground squirrel, and I am fascinated by these little creatures. Growing up on the east coast, I was accustomed to Eastern gray squirrels (which are everywhere) and the occasional chipmunk (which is very small and stripey) but I’d never seen one of these before. The first time I encountered any kind of ground squirrel was in Canada in 2007. It was the oddest looking little fat rodent, and I took a bunch of photos of it as it ran along the sidewalk and into the grass. (Side note: the funny thing about zoo people, even just people who spend lots of time in zoos, is that we get VERY EXCITED over things like this, ignoring the zebra or whatever in the exhibit. After all, the zebra will still be there later, this is WILD NATURE HAPPENING.) Anyway, that introduced me to the idea of ground squirrels. Needless to say, my upper-midwest relatives thought I was hilarious.

ground squirrel, chewing

These squirrels range all over California, all the way to central Oregon and Washington, and can be a foot and half long when full grown. This particular ground squirrel is a juvenile, so very small compared to what it will be. It was having a snack and I enjoyed watching it forage in the plants. The ones I’ve observed have been in groups, with burrows in the ground that they hide in when people (or predators) get too close.

ground squirrel, side

You can see the almost spotted pattern of the squirrel’s fur here. There is another type of ground squirrel in the state, the golden mantled ground squirrel, but it is more in the mountains and has distinct black and white markings that make it look much more like a chipmunk. At any rate, I find these little guys very interesting. Keep an eye out for them if you’re ever out walking.

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SD Zoo Safari Park, natural scenery

One of the interesting things to me about California is the sheer size and scope of it. I mean, Texas is huge and all, but California is SO LONG that you’d have to drive from north Florida to just about the New York state line to get a similar trip. It’s about a thirteen or fourteen hour drive  from north to south, and there are so many different types of landscape that it’s hard to picture in some ways.

According to the Nature Conservancy, San Diego County is the most biodiverse county in the continental US. That’s easy for me to believe. Not only is San Diego County extremely large, it covers a wide span of landscapes. You have the coastal salt marshes and the bay marine life, the cliffs, the river valleys more inland, you have chaparral and desert and mountains and pine forests, all in one county. And because of development, many of them are becoming endangered.

The habitat in the photo is of native coastal sage scrub habitat, protected within the property of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. There are species that only live in this type of environment, and the Safari Park has dedicated about half of their property to remain untouched in order to preserve it. The amazing thing is really how little of this habitat exists: only about 10-15% of it is left from what was originally here. It’s hard to imagine a place that looks (at first glance) so brown and empty having so many things living in it, but it actually sits at a sweet spot in relation to the other more extreme local environs. The coastal sage scrub almost never freezes, and yet almost never goes about 90*F (or 32*C) and so is a perfect place for animals and plants to thrive. That’s why the hillside in the photo is so important to this area. (You can read more about what the Safari Park is doing here… it’s a .pdf, so you know.)

Anyway, I thought I’d share a little local knowledge I’ve gained. If you’re ever hiking in the area, take a minute to appreciate being in such an amazing, wildlife filled place, especially because it only exists in such small pockets of the country.

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Living Coast, burrowing owl

Ever since I read Hoot by Carl Hiaasen, I’ve been kind of fascinated by these little birds of prey. This burrowing owl is from the Living Coast Discovery Center and is part of a colony they have on exhibit there. They eat insects and small mammals, or small reptiles and amphibians they find. One interesting thing I learned about them is that they actually nest in burrows made by other animals, such as ground squirrels, which are very common here. They hunt by running along the ground (which I would SO love to see, with those little legs scooting along) or by swooping and grabbing things (like insects) from the air.

Burrowing owls are locally (in Orange and San Diego Counties) almost extinct, other than a tiny population on a Navy base. The Orange County base recently started bolstering protection for the owls, which are the only nesting owls in this part of the state that anyone has found, and they are very close to another endangered species (least terns) right on the base. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out, as the terns are naturally snack food for burrowing owls.

There are over twenty subspecies of burrowing owls, including the Floridian one made famous by Hoot. They used to be common all over the US but since their territory is also prime land for development (wide open areas with sparse vegetation), they are running out of places to breed in localized areas. You can read more about them at the Burrowing Owl Conservation Network site.

Personally I think they are ridiculously cute, with their fluffy bodies and long, skinny legs and I’d love to see one in the wild. I’ll add it to by California bucket list. ^_^

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Living Coast Discovery Center, insid

Last week I discovered a nature center type place that’s south of me, right on San Diego Bay, called the Living Coast Discovery Center. It’s connected to the National Wildlife Refuge and sounded really interesting, so my friend and I drove down to see what it had.

Living Coast, docent presentation

We found out that this place has been there since the 80s but that most people don’t even know it exists, even though it’s got a great little animal collection (including a lot of native species, especially birds of prey!) and their emphasis is on education. They have a couple of full size classrooms, which makes them perfect for summer camps and school field trips, which I really liked, and a very knowledgeable team of docents.

Living Coast Discovery Center, sea stars

Some of the larger exhibits included sea turtles and a shark tank, where we got to see the sharks getting fed. They also had some smaller tanks with native species (including snakes, lizards, and these California sea stars), as well as some exhibits that seemed to be on a rotational basis. It was very interesting.

Living Coast, owl exhibit

My favorite part of the whole place was the walk along the back of the building, where you’re looking out over the salt marsh and walking through the bird of prey exhibits. They even have a big exhibit full of burrowing owls! I liked it so much I bought a membership and plan on heading back soon.

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DSC_6529

So, it’s been a couple of weeks since I got back from the Philippines and a lot has happened since then, but I still want to do the last couple of entries about the trip. This one is from Friday, June 6, and is from our trip to the Underground River, one of the Natural Wonders of the World. Our tour was early in the morning and the light coming over the islands was beautiful.

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We took another outrigger boat from the dock around to a side of the island not easily accessible by foot. It was a short ride, but we passed some really cool rock formations before arriving at the landing beach.

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Once there, we got checked in and saw some of the native wildlife…

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We boarded canoes to take us into the river, which is inside a long cave full of bats and swallows. The only light came from the spotlights we carried on the boats. Because of that, I don’t have very many photos. Plus it was just about the same as last time.

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I did get to see more monitor lizards, though! They were even bigger than I remembered, and I made a point of getting better photos. ^_^

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It was fun for the group, especially after a long week.

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We got back on the outriggers, and returned us to the dock where we started, which also had a lot of shops and a restaurant, where we ate lunch in a treehouse. It was huge, and had enough tables for all of us, and the food was really good.

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We hung out at the beach for a little while after lunch, with some people playing in the water and some of us walking the length of the sand. I also got to take a nap in the shade, which was SO nice. I was pretty worn out by that point.

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That night we had our farewell dinner, hosted at the pastor’s house. It was pouring rain (hello, beginning of monsoon season!) and the power was out, so we squeezed into the main room in the dark, with plenty of candles to light the meal. We were even treated to some traditional Filipino dancing! Then, as we were starting our “formal” goodbyes (where we give each other little gifts and such, before the huge group hugs and crying later) the lights came back on. Yay!

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Here’s the whole group, except for me (since I’m taking the photo). ^_^ Our hosts had made the party “Hawaii” themed and even gave us leis! ^_^ Mine is now hanging by my front door.

We still had one more planned morning in the Philippines before heading back to Hawaii on Saturday night… but I’ll save that for the next entry because it entails an ADVENTURE.

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Monterey Bay Aquarium Open Sea

Last weekend, J and I took a roadtrip north to Monterey and San Francisco. You can see all of the photos here. The main destination on Saturday was the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Housed in an old cannery, the Aquarium is now home to a huge collection of California’s native marine species, from fish and turtles to sharks and sea otters, and even shorebirds. They research and resource sustainable seafood and rehabilitate and release injured wildlife from up and down the coast. The exhibit above is their Open Sea exhibit, during their scheduled feeding time. The swarm is a school of sardines, but there are also other large and small fish, sharks and sea turtles in the exhibit, as well as native invertebrates.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Kelp Bed

The Aquarium began as a project to allow non-scuba-divers a chance to see what the Bay looks like beneath the surface. This Kelp Bed exhibit is modeled on the Bay; it contains live kelp and many species of fish, sharks and invertebrates that call the California coast home. We got to see a diver feeding some of the fish in this exhibit, too. One of the cool things about it is that the water in about 95% of the exhibits is actual bay water: they pump it and filter it and then cycle it back into the bay unaltered. This is a window into the ocean.

Monterey Bay Aquarium behind the scenes

J and I did a behind the scenes tour to learn about how the aquarium operates, and to see some of the exhibits a little closer. This is actually the top of the Kelp Bed exhibit. Tides and waves are recreated mechanically so the kelp stays healthy, and the strings keep birds from eating the exhibit fish. The buildings in the background are part of the sea otter rescue program, housing nurseries and surrogate moms for the pups; pups raised by otters do much better in the wild and learn to stay away from people.

Monterey Bay Aquarium wild sea otter

Speaking of otters, we saw a ton of them in the bay itself! They were hanging out in rafts, or drifting on their own, catching crabs and eating on their backs in the water. We even saw a mom and pup a little farther up the coast as we walked to Fisherman’s Wharf.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Cannery Row

We walked down Cannery Row on the way to the Wharf, past all of the old canneries that have been turned into shops and restaurants. It’s interesting to see the old buildings, and to walk inside of them and see the skeletons of the industry. The Wharf had several offering whale watching and stands with samples of clam chowder in sourdough bread bowls. We also saw a pile of sea lions on one of the floating docks.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Fisherman's Wharf

We ended the day with a dinner at the Fishwife restaurant on the recommendation of a friend. It was a really fun day and I learned a lot about local California (coastal) wildlife, plus ate some amazing clam chowder and then fish for dinner. I’d definitely go to Monterey again.

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Balboa Eucalyptus sunshine

This is one of the first Earth Days in a while that I haven’t been working or volunteering at an event of some sort, which is a little weird. I hope I can get outside and enjoy the sunshine today at least.

Balboa pink roses

In the meantime, here are some photos I took in Balboa park last week. The rose garden we visited at Easter is now exploding with roses, and I added two new birds to my list of sightings.

Balboa white roses

I really liked these white roses, but my favorite new blooms were called Rock and Roll; they were red and white stripes, like the blooms had been painted, and I kept singing the Alice in Wonderland song “Painting the Roses Red.”

Balboa rock and roll rose

I also saw a western bluebird, which is similar to the eastern bluebirds I grew up seeing, but just different enough that I had to look it up in my bird book.

Balboa western bluebird

And then I saw one I couldn’t identify at all, until I thumbed through my guide to north american birds twice and finally realized it was a hooded oriole. Not an uncommon bird around here, I guess, but it looked a lot different from the Baltimore variety I’ve seen on the east coast.

Balboa hooded oriole

So there you have it. Flowers and birds to brighten up your Earth Day.

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Sunset Cliffs, yellow flower path
Last week J and I spent an afternoon at Sunset Cliffs. Our friends had recently gotten portraits done there, and the photos were beautiful, so we decided to go exploring.

Sunset Cliffs, beach

Sunset Cliffs Natural Park is adjacent to Point Loma Nazarene University, and consists of meandering cliff-side trails, wide spans of open space, and a long strip of beach at the foot of the cliffs.

Sunset Cliffs, purple flowers

This time of year, the wildflowers are popping up everywhere, and the ones at Sunset Cliffs are no exception. The ground is blanketed in yellow, or pink, or purple depending on where you look, and the birds and other wildlife are active, taking full advantage of the springtime opportunity.

Sunset Cliffs, cove

We saw surfers and people walking dogs and beautiful vistas, but unfortunately had somewhere else to be at sunset that night so didn’t get to see the colors on the cliff faces. We will definitely be going back for that soon.

Sunset Cliffs, J and J

More photos from Sunset Cliffs are here. ^_^

 

 

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