conservation, national parking, probably a tree hugger thing, thinking deeper

Yellowstone bison calf put down after human interference, or let’s not touch the animals, okay?

Everything expressed below is my opinion only and doesn’t represent any position on behalf of the National Park Service or any other entity, cited or otherwise.

Let’s talk about that bison calf.

Don’t know what I’m talking about? From a press release out of Yellowstone National Park today:

In recent weeks, visitors in the park have been engaging in inappropriate, dangerous, and illegal behavior with wildlife. These actions endanger people and have now resulted in the death of a newborn bison calf.
Last week in Yellowstone National Park, visitors were cited for placing a newborn bison calf in their vehicle and transporting it to a park facility because of their misplaced concern for the animal’s welfare. In terms of human safety, this was a dangerous activity because adult animals are very protective of their young and will act aggressively to defend them. In addition, interference by people can cause mothers to reject their offspring. In this case, park rangers tried repeatedly to reunite the newborn bison calf with the herd. These efforts failed. The bison calf was later euthanized because it was abandoned and causing a dangerous situation by continually approaching people and cars along the roadway.

You can read the entire release here, and they cite other instances just in the last few weeks of humans getting way too close to these animals. From viral videos of people trying to touch bison to concern over an “abandoned and cold” calf, humans have gone way beyond crossing a proverbial line.

So what’s going on exactly?

Personally I think a combination of the desire for viral phenomena as well as a pure lack of real education about wildlife and our environment have created a hotbed for bad behavior. The strange thing about wanting to be a viral phenomenon is that almost nobody is going to remember your name afterward. Think about the last viral video or meme you saw: can you say the username of the person who made it? How about their actual name? No? That’s because it’s a flash in the pan situation. You’ll remember the blue and black dress (or is it white and gold??) but not the woman who wore it. That’s not a Thing that really needs to be Fixed so much as that people need to take a step back and ask why they’re really filming/photographing/recording something that may cost them (or an animal) their life.

And now we come to the bison calf.

One of the biggest reactions I saw when I started looking into this article is that people don’t understand why the calf had to be put down instead of being hand reared or even taken to a zoo. While I don’t know enough detail in this specific case, I can give you what my general impressions are from the press release and offer my best explanation based on my previous experience with zoos, wildlife sanctuaries, etc.

  • The bison calf wasn’t going back to its mother. This is a problem for many reasons. The main reason is that it is a young herd animal that needs its mother and the rest of the herd to feed it, protect it, and generally teach it how to be a bison. Without being part of the group, the calf was at risk for starvation, predation, injury or death simply from being alone. That’s the thing about herd animals– they need the herd to survive. That’s how they function.
  • The bison calf was approaching humans. This is very dangerous for the calf and for the humans. The calf was at risk of being hit by a car (and hitting a large animal with a car can be deadly for the humans involved, too!) as well as not getting the food and protection and other things provided by the herd. Humans just can’t do that. Not only that, but having a young bison near humans might A) attract other bison, including the mother, to be near humans (and bison are dangerous) and B) might contribute to disease being spread. Many many many of the weird strains of flu and other viruses come from humans being too close to wild animals. This calf was probably A-Okay, but it’s still not a good idea.
  • The bison calf was born in the wild to a specific wild herd. This is probably the number one reason the calf couldn’t go to a zoo or other sanctuary. As I said before, bison are herd animals and the calf needed a herd, but it wasn’t going back to its own. The calf would be hard pressed at best to join another herd in a zoo or sanctuary, and at worst would be outright rejected, leaving it in a yet more vulnerable situation.
  • The bison calf might pose a health risk to other bison. In addition, if the calf were carrying any diseases or pathogens, even ones that are normal and healthy in a wild herd, it could decimate a different population that has been bred and raised in a zoo. With bison considered “stable, but near threatened” according to the IUCN, populations in captivity shouldn’t be put at risk for a single individual.

So let’s get some wildlife watching education.

There are a few general guidelines to follow that will help keep wildlife watching safe for you and the animals. Here are some tips!

  • Do not approach wildlife for any reason. Think an animal is injured? Call a professional, be it a park ranger, a wildlife help hotline (really, those exist! I have a bird person and a small mammal person in my contact list), or even your local SPCA. They will ask you some questions to understand the situation and, if needed, come assess things. You aren’t an expert, even if you’ve seen a lot of Discovery Channel. Especially don’t approach large animals. Many parks have posted signs or regulations as well. In this case, there is a 25 yard minimum distance you must keep between yourself and the bison. Anything closer is breaking federal law and you could go to jail. Surely an instagram photo isn’t worth that. Oh, and bison? They have horns. That can gore you. That’s right, gore. Don’t believe me? Google “bison gore risk” and see what you find.
  • Do not feed wildlife. This means ducks and seagulls, too. I know it’s tempting to feed birds and other wildlife. I know how much it makes your kids happy. It is not healthy for the animals, no matter how “hungry” they seem. I could write a whole other post about this, but the biggest take away is that birds and other animals are not adapted to survive on human food. Bread and bread products are particularly bad for them, causing obesity and diabetes in animals that shouldn’t ever encounter it. Think about how unhealthy our modern diets are, and you want to give that stuff to a bird? Not to mention you’re changing natural behavior and disrupting a food chain, and possibly an entire ecosystem. Don’t be that disruption.
  • Do not move baby animals. Even if they look abandoned. Even if you think they might be injured. (See above.) Animal parents will often leave their young in a tucked away, camouflaged area while they go to look for food, or to try and lure larger potential predators away from the young. This doesn’t mean humans won’t occasionally stumble across this type of scenario. In every case, do not move the baby animal. Do not touch the baby animal. The parent is probably nearby, but moving the youngster may make it impossible for the parent to find it again, even if you’ve only moved it a few feet. Remember that the parent chose this location for its offspring and doesn’t think like a human would. Even touching the animal can cause harm, and not because the “scent of humans* scares away the parents.” This comes down to injury and disease again. You don’t know what germs you both might be carrying, or how to handle baby wildlife if you are not an expert. And here’s the thing– experts will only touch a baby animal as a last resort.**
  • Do take photos from a safe distance. Photos are a great way to remember what you saw, where you saw it, and share with others! They can also help you identify specific species you might not know. I photograph birds and reptiles all the time so I can take the pictures home and look them up online or in my wildlife guides. I can’t tell you the number of cool species I’ve seen, and only realized it because I had the foresight to photograph them for identification! Photos are also fun to share with rangers, who are usually interested in what animals are where in the park. It can even help build conservation knowledge about the animals to know where they are at certain times. The key is to stay at a safe distance. Don’t know what that is? Google is your friend, and park staff can give you good guidelines!
  • Do keep food in safe containers or locations when camping. And no your car is not a “safe” location– bears can break into cars like you bust into a can of baked beans. By keeping food where animals can’t get to it, you are not motivating them to come hang out where humans are. Not only does this preserve everyone’s safety, but it could save the animals’ lives: human food can make them sick and nuisance animals (i.e. animals that come too close, posing a health and safety risk to people) often have to be relocated or euthanized.
  • Do your research. This is huge, and relatively easy– if you’re going to be in an area with wildlife, just read up on what you might encounter. Look for official park websites, talk to park staff or rangers, even chat with someone at a zoo or aquarium who can tell you about animals in specific places. There is a huge amount of information out there, just waiting for you!
  • Do share this information with your friends! One of the biggest problems we face is that people lack education about wildlife, so become an animal advocate! Explain to your friends and family why it’s not a good idea to feed bread to ducks at the local park or why you aren’t going to move that baby deer at the edge of the woods. It will take time and a lot of effort, but the more we can spread the word about how to interact with wildlife, the more animal (and human!) lives can be saved. Don’t let this bison calf die in vain.

So there you have it. I hope this has been helpful for folks searching for answers about what happened to the little bison and why it “couldn’t just be put in a zoo.” It can be hard to see the bigger picture sometimes, but often taking a step back makes a big difference.

Got any other animals in the news you want to ask me about? I’ll give you my take!

[UPDATE: 5/16/16 1:20pm]

From Yellowstone National Park’s Facebook page:
Thanks to everyone who’s taken the time to read this post and share our safety messages. We’re reading through your comments and noticed many people asking why the calf had to be euthanized.

In order to ship the calf out of the park, it would have had to go through months of quarantine to be monitored for brucellosis. No approved quarantine facilities exist at this time, and we don’t have the capacity to care for a calf that’s too young to forage on its own. Nor is it the mission of the National Park Service to rescue animals: our goal is to maintain the ecological processes of Yellowstone. Even though humans were involved in this case, it is not uncommon for bison, especially young mothers, to lose or abandon their calves. Those animals typically die of starvation or predation.


*It’s a myth that birds won’t take care of their young if a human touches it, but use this knowledge with caution! If you know what nest the baby bird fell from, use a washcloth to touch it as little and as gently as possible, and put it back. If you do not know, there’s a better than good chance that baby is learning to fly and its parents are nearby watching. If the baby is still there a day later, call a local bird rescue and ask for advice.

**I think it’s important to note that sometimes experts do touch baby wildlife, or even adult animals, for scientific research and conservation purposes. This is usually a tagging situation, where they need to track an individual or population to help keep it healthy or to study its range in order to better understand and protect it. Think of California condors– many of them were tagged as chicks to help keep track– but the experts know the proper way to do this with the least stress and risk to the animals involved. You and I are not those experts.

conservation, probably a tree hugger thing

Thoughts on Copenhagen Zoo

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.

——————-

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.

—————————-

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.

conservation, probably a tree hugger thing, zoo stuff

The lion in my profile picture

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.

conservation, wildlife watching

Wildlife Wednesday: California ground squirrel

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.

conservation, zoo stuff

California Friday: native habitat at the SDZ Safari Park

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.

conservation, probably a tree hugger thing, zoo stuff

Wildlife Wednesday: burrowing owls!

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. ^_^

conservation, zoo stuff

Tuesday Zoosday! This baby okapi is pretty much adorable.

SD Zoo, baby okapi

So there’s a baby okapi at the San Diego Zoo. She’s a couple of months old at this point, but I got to see her last week for the first time and she is pretty cute.

Okapis are a giraffe relative (don’t let those stripey legs fool you into think they might be zebra cousins!) and live in a very small, dense rain forest area of central Africa. There are less than 100 in zoos around the US, and several of those are here in San Diego. They’re fascinating to watch and I always make a point of going by their exhibit.

SD Zoo, baby okapi with mom

I think the most giraffe-like quality an okapi has is the head. If you look at the shape of the face, and at they way the tongue is manipulated to get shoots of grass or leaves, you can definitely see the family resemblance,  I love the huge ears these animals have. I know the photo is super over-exposed, but they were moving quickly in and out of that bright patch of light; usually they hang out in the shadows near the front of the exhibit, but baby girl there wanted to run and explore. She was awfully cute. Have I said that yet? It’s cool though because you can see how their legs blend in with the trees in the foreground, and you can kind of imagine what it’s like when they blend into their native forests.

Okapis are part of the Species Survival Plans Program and are a perfect illustration of how zoos benefit and promote species conservation. These animals are SO elusive in the wild that there is almost no way to study them. By observing them in captivity and learning about their reproduction and husbandry, we can learn to manage their populations and hopefully supplement the wild population. There is also a movement to educate people about so-called “bushmeat” which is often okapi or other endangered hoofstock and the like.

I think these animals a pretty cool, though I’ve only seen them a handful of times. If you’re interested in reading more about them, the San Diego Zoo’s website has some good stuff, as does the Okapi Conservation Project. ^_^

conservation, zoo stuff

California Friday: at the Living Coast Discovery Center

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.

conservation, Travel

Monterey Bay Aquarium

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.

conservation, zoo stuff

An Afternoon at Birch Aquarium

Birch Aquarium reef exhibit

A couple of days ago I visited the Birch Aquarium with a friend. It was a very nice little aquarium with a focus on local (southern Californian) sealife. I learned a lot about local fish and a bit more about the tide pools (that I still need to re-visit).

Birch Aquarium sea dragon

My favorite exhibits were of the octopus (it was huge!) and the seahorses. Birch is connected to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and so is primarily connected with research and conservation. One of their big projects is breeding endangered seahorses and then releasing (or sharing with other zoos and aquariums).

Birch Aquarium red jellyfish

 

They had many many types of seahorses, including some very tiny ones (I didn’t get a good photo of them, sorry) that looked very familiar to me… and when I read the sign I discovered that species, called a dwarf seahorse, is from the Gulf of Mexico and is the type I caught as a kid. We used to find these big, fluffy pieces of seaweed lying on the beach after high tide and when you shook them, tiny seahorses (and other animals like baby fish and hermit crabs) fell out of it. We’d collect it all in buckets of water, play for a while, and then turn them loose.

Birch Aquarium spotted garden eel

Anyway, it was a fun trip and a beautiful location, perched above the La Jolla coastline.