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.



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


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, 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. ^_^

probably a tree hugger thing

Saving Songbirds

This happened two weeks ago, but I didn’t have time to write about it then, so I will write about it now.

Two Friday nights ago I was spending the afternoon with friends who dropped me off at home after having nicely let me carpool with them. I got out of the car and discovered two baby birds on the ground beneath the tree in my front yard. The parents were right there, feeding or encouraging them, so I left them alone, assuming they were simply learning to fly. I then noticed a bulbul, which tends to be a bullying bird, in the area of their little nest and I realized they’d been pushed out too early. Lifting them* gently, I set both babies on the highest part of the tree I could reach and then went inside. One of them fluttered a little so I could tell it was on the cusp of flight, but the other simply hopped and didn’t even try to move its wings.

Two hours later, I went outside to water the plants; I try to wait until just as the sun sets so the water doesn’t evaporate before the plants can absorb it. As I reached for my hose, I found the non-flighted baby bird sitting on it! I put him back in the tree again, but it was starting to drizzle and growing dark all too quickly. Songbirds** take shelter as soon as it’s dark and I didn’t see any sign of its parents.

So I scooped the baby back out of the tree and cuddled him in my palm, where he promptly fluffed himself, tucked his head under his wing and went to sleep.

I carried the bird baby inside and looked up the local bird rescue place to ask for advice. I was given a website with instructions on how to create a nest for the baby overnight with a heating pad and a towel, so I set him up with a little bunk in the downstairs bathroom (the door closed to keep him safe from kitties). My instructions said to return him to the exact place where I found him at dawn the next day, so I made sure he was asleep and then I went to bed.

First thing in the morning, I got up and found that he’d hopped out of his little bed and across the bathroom floor, but was otherwise perfectly okay. I took him outside and placed him on the tree and waited.

Baby white eye

And waited.

And waited.

And finally after about 20 minutes, the two parents appeared in the tree. They were singing and calling out to him and it only took them a few minutes to find him on his branch. They brought him some breakfast and then the pair of them took turns encouraging him to scramble and then flutter all the way up the tree, and back into his nest.

Baby and parent white eye

I haven’t seen the birds since, but that’s not a bad sign. Chances are he learned to fly within a day or two and they simply haven’t been on the ground since.

So that is my latest animal rescue story. And if you ever find a baby bird, the best thing for it is to return it to its nest! The next best thing is to find a rescue that can take it. ^_^


*Contrary to popular belief, a parent bird will not reject a baby if a human touches it. Birds cannot “smell” if the babies have been touched because most of them have no sense of smell (vultures being an example of an exception). ((Further poking into this topic shows that scientists are now unsure, but that some may have a better developed sense of smell than others. Baby birds will not be “rejected” regardless of this, however.)) The main problem in picking up baby birds is in removing them from the place their parents left them– if the parents cannot find the babies, they cannot feed the babies. The other issue can be if you don’t know how to pick up a bird, or if you frighten it too much (so that its heart races) it can have a heart attack. Slow and gentle is the key.

**This particular species of songbird is called the Japanese white-eye. ^_^

geek life, probably a tree hugger thing, wildlife watching

A pirate’s life for me..?

Let’s play a game… Sing along if you know it!

“One of these things is not like the others, one of these things just doesn’t belong!”

One of these things...

See it?

Black Pearl 1

There you go. The Black Pearl.

More photos are found in my photo blog, once they’re uploaded. [update: You can find them starting here, but there aren’t captions yet. Of course, the whole album is new, so you might want to begin at the beginning…] Some of them I overexposed to show you the detail that was hard to see in the shadows.

These were taken at Ko’Olina, where the ship is parked when they’re not filming. It’s here for the fourth movie, of course. I didn’t go to see it the whole time it was in Kaneohe last spring, so I decided to make a point to go this time. It worked out nicely because I went to the beach at Ko’Olina (which is the fancy time-share area and where Disney’s putting in a resort) with a friend on Friday and she knew where to find the ship.

Ko’Olina is absolutely gorgeous. Definitely now on my favorite-beaches-list. See?


I know it’s man-made over here, but it’s still beautiful. The lagoon keeps the waves (and sharks) out of the water so it’s safe for kids and during the week it isn’t crowded.

Anyway, it was a fun way to spend the day on Friday, and I got to see the Black Pearl, so it was a winning situation.

Today (Saturday) was the February whale count for NOAA and we saw a lot of whales. This time I took some photos of the group as we counted to better explain how it works.

This is how things look in the morning; the glare is awful but otherwise everything is pretty and still cool.

morning whale count

Around mid-morning it gets clear and the glare goes away.

whale count midday

Our view of the whales is about like this:

whale long distance

We record the behaviors on this chart, so that it’s broken down by how many we saw in a given time frame and what behaviors we saw. This is to account for the sites on either side of us seeing the same whales.

whale chart

Anyway, that at least gives you an idea. This happens three times a year, on the last Saturday of January, February, and March.

And now I’m going to stop writing because I’m tired and have been sitting here trying to upload photos for about an hour. Hope you enjoy them when they’re finally online!

conservation, probably a tree hugger thing, Slight sarcasm, zoo stuff

Learn a new animal day! Siamang edition.

I’m going to give you a leg up on the average zoo visitor today and teach you about this animal:


Well, on a typical day while cleaning/feeding around this animal, I hear the following on a regular basis:

“Look at the monkey!”
“I love it when that howler monkey yells!”
“(Name of small child), what does the monkey say?” “Ooh ooh aah aahh!”
“Oooh, it’s a baby gorilla! I didn’t know they had gorillas!”
“Look at the chimpanzee!”

There are others, but that’s the usual. If I have time, I’ll tell people what those animals really are (there are two of them), but I don’t usually have time. I wish there was a good sign, but this zoo is (in my opinion) seriously lacking in the sign department; signs are either tiny and faded (like the one on this exhibit– it has one, but people don’t notice it and so don’t read it), or they’re entirely too wordy and most people (especially with kids) don’t have time to read tiny font.

Anyway, let’s look at this animal and what people say about it.

“Look at that monkey!”
First of all, look closely at these animals’ bodies. Do you see a tail? No. This is not a monkey. Just because it’s a primate, doesn’t make it a monkey. It’s sort of like you’re calling a lion a wolf because they’re furry and have four legs and eat meat. Sound silly? Well, primates are in the order Primate (surprise surprise) but after that, they’re subdivided into different families before we even get to genus and species. Lions and wolves also share an order (Carnivora) but are, like apes and monkeys, not in the same family. See? Not as silly as you think. A more obvious example? Moths and butterflies are in the same order, but clearly not the same animal. People don’t usually get those confused, so why do most people call all primates monkeys? I blame Curious George (but I’ll get back to that).

“I love it when that howler monkey yells!”
Okay, we’ve already established that it’s not a monkey, so I won’t say it again. (I’ll admit that in my head is a voice yelling NOTAMONKEYNOTAMONKEYNOTAMONKEY!!! quite a bit, though.) This one bothers me for two reasons. The first is the assumption that because this animal is very vocal (and they do have a loud, distinct call) that it’s a howler monkey. I know howlers are on Animal Planet all the time for being extremely loud, but there are a lot of other primates that are very loud, too. An example would be the family (again with classification) that includes all of the gibbons (and hey! these animals are a type of gibbon!). Here’s an example of a gibbon calling in the wild. Here’s an actual howler monkey sound. And here’s a video of the same type of animal pictured above. See? Lots of noisy primates. Second point: when an animal is making a loud noise, it’s not because it’s excited to see you, or is showing off, or is “putting on a show” (I hear that one all the time, too). Usually these animals get worked up when there’s a huge crowd of children all yelling at them and they feel territorial (their exhibit has viewing on all sides so they can be “surrounded,” which is poor exhibit design, but just the way it is), so they yell. They also yell when it’s close to food-time (which is twice a day) and first thing in the morning. It’s a territorial display, not a “show” for you.

“(Name of small child), what does the monkey say?” “Ooh ooh aah aahh!”
(NOTAMONKEYNOTAMONKEYNOTAMONKEY!!!) Okay, I get that you’re trying to get your child engaged and interact with you at the zoo, but teaching the kids to roar at the lion or make monkey calls at the primates isn’t teaching good behavior. The sounds people teach kids at zoos are usually the animals’ loudest sounds that, guess what, are the aggressive sounds. Are you sure you want to teach your kid to make aggressive noises at animals? Maybe not such a good survival strategy. On top of that, monkeys don’t make that noise anyway. That’s a chimp sound.

“Oooh, it’s a baby gorilla! I didn’t know they had gorillas!”
Well, the zoo doesn’t have gorillas. They’re not anywhere on the map. Of course, these guys aren’t either, which brings me back to this whole signage issue (someone should really do something about that), but they absolutely don’t have gorillas at the zoo. Besides that, other than it having black hair, do those animals seriously look like gorillas??

That’s a gorilla. If you’ve ever seen one, you know it’s HUGE and doesn’t look like the animal I’m showing at the top, except for the color. Again, similar to looking at a rhinoceros and saying “Look at the elephant!” because they’re both large and have gray skin. And baby gorillas? Baby gorillas look like babies. Not like another primate that has black hair and happens to be smaller than a gorilla. There are LOTS of primates that fit this description. Points for not calling it a monkey, though; gorillas are apes, though they are great apes and these are lesser apes, it’s at least a little better.

“Look at the chimpanzee!”
Almost there! The ones that say this (I’m assuming) realize that they’re looking at an ape and not a monkey (unless they think a chimp is a monkey, which is very likely since most people on TV call chimps “monkeys” NOTAMONKEYNOTAMONKEYNOTAMONKEY!!!), and that it’s too small to be a gorilla. The thing is, if you’ve ever seen a photo of a chimp, then you know it also looks nothing like this animal. There’s also the fact that the zoo does have chimps (nine of them!) and they’re in a totally different section of the zoo AND clearly marked on the map (being popular animals).

On a slightly separate note, if you know anything about chimps or gorillas, do you really think we’d have them in a smallish, WIDE OPEN exhibit like that? Does that make any sense to YOU at all? Didn’t think so.

So what is that animal?
Glad you asked. It’s a siamang! There are two of them at the zoo, and they’re loud and can be very active. They’re lesser apes (a type of gibbon to be specific), and are found in Asia. They have these big throat pouches that they fill with air to make the loud call I showed you in the video, and they love to swing and flip around in the trees. Not monkeys, gorillas or chimps, but especially not monkeys. No tails. Plus, they walk more upright than on all fours and have a relatively large head compared to their bodies, which are all hallmarks of apes. Monkeys have tails, walk more using all four limbs equally, and have relatively smaller heads compared to their bodies.

Knowing all of that, what is Curious George? The books, TV shows, etc, call him a monkey, but he is, in fact, an ape. Oh, George, you silly primate.

conservation, probably a tree hugger thing, wildlife watching

Why I love manatees


Who has noticed my little button over on the right that says “I love manatees” yet? Anyone?

I do love manatees. I saw my first manatees (that I remember) when I was nine and we moved to Florida. They look like big gray pillows with tails just floating beneath the surface of the green water, sometimes rolling to swim on their backs, but mostly just drifting along, eating. Supposedly they were the source of the mermaid myths, but I’m not seeing that.

No, what I love about them is that even though they are large they are so gentle. They have sweet faces. And a lot of people don’t pay attention to them. It’s a shame because it means they may not be around for much longer.

Manatee swimming

For several years now I’ve asked for a manatee adoption in my name for Christmas, my birthday, etc, but I don’t think anyone has ever taken me seriously about it. I’ve never gotten one, anyway. I think this year I’ll just have to get one for myself. ^_^

conservation, probably a tree hugger thing, zoo stuff

Thoughts on Captive Carnivores

I want to start by saying I have been to SeaWorld twice in my life, once as a child and once as an adult (last spring). I have seen the show and the environment but am by no means an expert on whale behavior so please keep that in mind.

That being said, for years now (since 2003, in fact) I have volunteered with and worked for a number of organizations who deal with animals and large carnivores in particular, so I do have some experience in that department.

By now the whole world knows that a trainer was killed at SeaWorld Orlando. It’s tragic, yes, but not entirely unexpected. I have heard it said on the news that the whale had a “violent history” (quoted from an AP article) and people keep repeating how “violent” this animal is and talking about how he is a “12,000 pound carnivore” who “has killed before.” This bothers me because it makes it sound like this whole thing was the whale’s fault. On the flip side, you have the contingency of (mostly unspecified) “animal rights activists” who are already using this as reasons why animals, in particular large animals and especially carnivores, should never be kept in captivity.

Both of these are knee-jerk reactions to a tragedy, which is understandable, but we need to look at the bigger picture here. The main question is “Should Orcas be kept in captivity?

Answers to this question I have heard today on the news:
1. Yes! Biologists study their behavior so they can learn more about them.
2. No! Animals shouldn’t be kept in cages. (And we should turn them all back into the wild!)
3. Yes! People learn more about them and care more about them when they see them.
4. No! Orcas are intelligent and forcing them to do tricks is demeaning and frustrating to them.
5. It was just an accident, so what’s the big deal?

Okay, so all of these might seem like valid points, but I want to offer you a few scenarios to think about.

As someone who has worked with conservation groups (non-profits mostly) and for two zoos, I often find I have to defend myself to each group against the others. Zoos and aquariums are often the target of backlash when anything happens to an animal anywhere in the world, and often in an unfair light. Sometimes things just happen. Animals get old and they die. Animals also get sick and sometimes die. They’re less likely to die in captivity if they receive veterinary care, but it still happens. And then there are accidents, where an animal falls and can’t get itself upright again (think hoofstock like giraffe and zebra) or when natural behaviors take over and a mother kills her offspring. This is nature. It happens. Should it happen all the time? No. And should animals be in a situation where they can’t receive veterinary care or be in an unsafe environment? No. This is where the AZA comes into the picture (and I will point out here that I only support AZA accredited zoos and aquariums). SeaWorld Orlando is listed on the AZA website as being accredited. The AZA is supposed to make sure that animals in accredited facilities are treated correctly. This includes things like as natural an exhibit as possible (notice I didn’t say “cage”– if you’re at an AZA facility, you’re almost guaranteed to see open spaces and room for the animals to move and behave in a natural way); encouraging natural behaviors like foraging, climbing, grooming, etc; proper veterinary care; and proper genetic maintenance. I’ll come back to this last one, but the other three are tied together in this whole SeaWorld incident.

Let’s compare the 12,000 pound carnivore with a “violent history” to your average captive elephant. Similarities are more than you might think: each weigh about 8,000 to 14,000 pounds, each is considered to be highly intelligent, and each likes to live in social groups. Furthermore, each has been used for entertainment, doing tricks with trainers in front of an audience. Elephants are a usual species at AZA zoos. Why? Well, the AZA has strict guidelines about keeping elephants, including everything from how much contact they have with keepers to the amount of space they are provided. The main thing about elephants, however, is that you are supposed to have at least three of them. This is because elephants form very strong social bonds and will even mourn their dead. If you only have two elephants and one dies, the other will be at risk for depression and may die as well. If you have a third elephant, the two remaining will comfort one another and then continue. Zoos with elephants do many things to help the elephants use their natural behaviors, from providing hidden food for foraging, to hay and other browse that they can reach for to get out of “trees” to watering holes for them to make mud to put on their backs; this is called “enrichment.” Most importantly, elephants in AZA zoos do not do tricks. They are taught certain behaviors that help with veterinary care (such as putting a foot forward for a keeper to examine) but they aren’t doing tricks– there is no repetition and it is not being done for entertainment value.

Now let’s look at the orcas at SeaWorld and at other, similar theme parks. Orcas also live in large family groups in the wild, are intelligent (hence, why they are able to be trained), and take up a lot of space. While the training done with the whales probably does give them mental stimulation (or “enrichment”), they are not exhibiting natural behaviors when they have humans riding around on them. They do the same tricks over and over. This whale in particular was isolated from the other whales (again, see the AP article), so had no other orca interaction.

Can you see the differences?

“But he’s a carnivore! Elephants aren’t!” Okay, then let’s look at another large carnivore in captivity. Let’s talk about tigers, shall we?

Tigers, relatively speaking, weigh much less than any orca, ranging from about 200 to 600 pounds. They are, however, the largest species of cat on the planet. They aren’t exactly social, and they’re not too high up on the known intelligence scale, but they are big and can be deadly. They are also highly endangered. There are so few tigers left in the wild that the estimates range from only 10 to 20 years’ time for them to exist outside of captivity. So why do we keep them in captivity? For the same reasons AZA zoos keep many other animals in captivity– to preserve the species. When you have an endangered animal, not just one that is endangered in a specific region, but genuinely almost completely gone from the wild (think of elephants again), zoos provide a safe haven for the animal to continue even when the wild population stops existing. There is even a registry called the SSP (Species Survival Plan) that monitors this to make sure there aren’t too many of them in captivity and that the species stays strong genetically. The SSP has allowed species to even be returned to the wild, which is the eventual goal of the program. Many animals from elephants and rhinoceroses to bats and even pink pigeons are included.

What does this have to do with orcas? Orcas are not about to disappear from the planet. While their populations aren’t as large in some places due to overfishing, they are found in all of the world’s oceans and can be observed and studied there. They are not commonly found in aquariums looking to help sustain a population. Besides that, it is almost impossible to provide a large enough enclosure for an animal that must constantly swim. Large animals like elephants can wander, or stand still, or wade in ponds, but orcas must keep moving. A facility like SeaWorld, while providing a 36 foot deep pool for them, can still only allow them to do laps for their whole lives.

All of that being said, I think the important thing to keep in mind here is the message being sent. SeaWorld’s orca show sends a message that these animals can be treated almost like pets, and that they are here for our entertainment and to do tricks. AZA facilities are supposed to send a message of conservation (in the true sense– preserving the animals and their habitats for the future) and respect.

So let’s look at the answers to my original question, “Should Orcas be kept in captivity?”

1. Yes! Biologists study their behavior so they can learn more about them. Well, kind of. There isn’t as much studying going on of orcas as there is of, say, chimpanzees and elephants.
2. No! Animals shouldn’t be kept in cages. (And we should turn them all back into the wild!) Animals shouldn’t be kept in cages, but AZA animals are not supposed to be. They (should) have large enclosures and be exhibiting natural behavior. You also run into a problem with animals who have to learn survival behavior from their parents– they won’t know how to take care of themselves in the wild. It wouldn’t be fair to suddenly cut them off from all human care when they don’t know how to survive without.
3. Yes! People learn more about them and care more about them when they see them. This is true, if what people are learning is actual information about the animal and its behavior. The more people understand something, the more they care about that thing and the more passionate they will be about it. My long winded-ness here should be evidence of that.
4. No! Orcas are intelligent and forcing them to do tricks is demeaning and frustrating to them. This is also true; again, it’s the message being sent that matters here. While they need some stimulation, doing “tricks” for an audience isn’t anywhere near the best way to accomplish this.
5. It was just an accident, so what’s the big deal? It’s a big deal because it wasn’t the first and won’t be the last incident. No one should have to die for a show.

Two things to think about at the end of this very, VERY long soapbox of mine. One, wild animals do not, not ever make good pets. Any show that encourages cuddling or playing with a large carnivore, even while stressing how much training the people do it have, isn’t sending a good message. Two, SeaWorld sends entirely mixed messages and it needs to decide which way it’s going to go.

SeaWorld itself supports conservation of animals and their habitats. They aren’t the pure evil corporation they will be made out to be in the media. They have a program (which J and I toured when we visited the Orlando park last year) where they take injured sea turtles and manatees, rehabilitate them, and return them to the wild. This is a very good thing! I mean, look at all the things they are able to fund through their profits. The problem on their hands is that they are sending two messages. On the one hand, they are promoting orcas simply for their entertainment value in a situation in which the animals are agitated (just read all the accounts of what happened yesterday and the one consistent thing is that something was bothering them). On the other hand, SeaWorld does a lot to help other species that really need it.

It is time to choose your message, SeaWorld. Choose wisely.