Sea Lion Keeper Reflects on Her Inspiration

By: Heather Crane

The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever. – Jacques Yves Cousteau

It was August and I was approaching my 13th birthday. I had never seen or experienced the ocean before. As I sat in the back of my mother’s blue Toyota Camry sedan, I wondered what it might feel like to see, smell, and hear— to experience the ocean for my first time. As we drove from Oklahoma on a two-week road trip, I passed the time looking at a National Geographic map. As we neared the Oregon coast, I followed the routes of the highway with my finger. This activity didn’t seem significant at the time, but a pinpoint on the map was about to change my life forever. I remember the text being so small I could barely read it. As I looked a little closer I read aloud “Sea Lion Caves.” I hardly knew what a sea lion was, hardly knew what to expect, but I knew I had to go. My mom and my stepfather, Lee, told me that if I could help navigate using the map, we could take the detour to visit. So, I figured it out and we were on our way!

I remember walking down the long sidewalk, hoping I might catch sight of a whale like the signs indicated. I didn’t see one, but the anticipation as I walked to the elevator entrance was exciting enough. I took the ride down the elevator, and as I meandered through the cave, I felt my excitement building. There, at the end of the path, I could see sunlight shining through and could hear the sound of waves crashing into a rocky wall. And then I heard it: the sound of a colony of sea lions. All that separated me from these giant and curious creatures was some old chain link to protect them from us and us from falling. As I watched, it felt like time stopped. All that mattered to me was taking in every precious moment. Even as a kid, I knew this experience was special. I found treasure in the Sea Lion Caves that day. I watched the sea lions exhibit their natural behavior and as I did, I was overcome with true and pure joy. I could think of nothing that made me any happier in all of my 13 years. Eventually, I had to leave, but that experience made its way deep into my heart and forever changed who I was and who I would become. It cast an eternal spell of wonder. At the time, I already wanted to be a veterinarian. But after seeing sea lions, I knew they were important to me so I thought I might grow up to be a sea lion veterinarian.

When it came time for college I studied pre-veterinary medicine. Just 20 days before I graduated, I realized maybe that wasn’t for me after all. I had lunch with E.O. Wilson, a prominent biologist, a hero that further inspired my interest in conservation. After listening to my story he suggested that perhaps veterinary medicine was not my destiny. He told me the world needed me to help conserve, and I believed him. Lucky for me, paths are not set in stone and when I applied I was not accepted into vet school. Unsure of where my life would lead me next, the one thing I knew for sure was my passion for sea lions was unwavering. But where does one find sea lions in Oklahoma? I looked to my community zoo, the Oklahoma City Zoo and Botanical Gardens, for volunteer opportunities. Not long after, I was hired to work with the training department. I had proximity to sea lions, but I was still missing the conservation piece. Within the year, I got married and moved to Houston, where I was hired as a full time sea lion keeper at the Houston Zoo.

A primary goal of the Houston Zoo is to connect communities to inspire action to save animals in the wild. Experiencing the Sea Lion Caves inspired me to work with sea lions in human care so that I could further spread the importance of conserving wild animals. I continued to graduate school to receive my master’s degree in wildlife science so that I could further contribute to wildlife conservation. As I have watched my career develop over the years, I am always brought back to my memory of the day I experienced the Sea Lion Caves and how I felt so moved from awareness to action from that single experience. My hope is to share this passion that was inspired all those years ago for this magnificent species. I find the most rewarding part of working for the Houston Zoo (outside of working directly with the sea lions) is inspiring others to take simple actions that contribute to saving animals in the wild. People find connections in their experiences at the zoo and I am humbled to know that my work can play even a small part in changing someone’s life, as the Sea Lion Caves visit did for me. Working with and caring for California sea lions brings me much joy. This year, the Houston Zoo welcomed a female pup. TJ was born to Jonah and Kamia and is a pleasure to watch as she masters new milestones. TJ is the first sea lion pup born at the Houston Zoo in 22 years and it is my great fortune to watch her grow and contribute to the education and awareness of many to come. I am thankful to our sea lions: Cali, Kamia, Jonah, Rockie, and TJ for making my dream possible.

I credit my single experience at the Oregon Sea Lion Caves for inspiring me to actively participate in conservation actions. It shaped my life and career. Our California sea lions at the zoo are ambassadors for the Houston Zoo’s plastic pollution and ocean-friendly seafood Take Action initiatives. As a sea lion keeper, I am able to live this mission of saving animals in the wild and use the zoo’s platform to influence and inspire others. I feel forever grateful that fate would have it for me to discover the Sea Lion Caves as a tiny spec on the map that day. Many thanks go to all involved in operating the Caves and sharing its beauty so others may have experiences similar to my own.

Originally written for Oregon Sea Lion Caves.

You are Saving a New Species of Lemur in the Wild

Ring-tailed Lemurs at the Houston Zoo

If you have been to the Houston Zoo lately, you may have seen our ring-tailed lemurs. These are the lemurs most people picture when they think of lemurs. But did you know there are over 100 known species of lemurs in Madagascar?
Houston Zoo conservation partner GERP protects lemurs and other animals in Madagascar through empowering local communities to conserve and protect their forests that house lemurs.

GERP works to improve not just the lives of lemurs, but of the human populations living in or around protected primate habitat. They are also saving the newly discovered species of lemur, the Sheth’s dwarf lemur, one of the smallest of the dwarf lemurs. This discovery helps show the importance of Madagascar as home to a great variety of unique animals.



Sheth’s Dwarf Lemur, Image credit: Richard Randriamampionona

To give you an idea of how big, or should I say how small, the Sheth’s dwarf lemur is, let’s compare it to a ring-tailed lemur, which is about the size of a house cat. A ring-tailed lemur can be up to 17 inches long, not including its tail. That is almost a foot and a half! The Sheth’s dwarf lemur can be up to 7 inches long, not including its tail. That is almost a foot smaller than the ring-tailed lemur and smaller than some people’s hands!

The next time you visit the Houston Zoo be sure to stop and see the lemurs. When you do, try and picture how small the newly discovered Sheth’s dwarf lemur is and know that by visiting the Houston Zoo you are saving lemurs in the wild!

New Year, New Chickens

Written by Stephanie Turner

January 28, 2017 marked the beginning of the Year of the Rooster in the Chinese animal zodiac! To celebrate, the Houston Zoo would like to introduce two of our newest animals, the chickens Chanticleer and Marilyn! Both were hatched here at the zoo on October 24, 2016 and have since taken on their roles as ambassador animals.

Chickens were first domesticated over 7,000 years ago in eastern Asia from a bird called the red junglefowl, which is still found in the wild today. The chicken has since spread around the world and is now the most numerous species of bird on the planet. There are over 100 chicken breeds recognized by the American Poultry Association, and they are kept by people as a source of food as well as for companionship.

Meet Chanticleer

Chanticleer is a salmon Faverolles rooster. This breed originated in the city of Faverolles, France and is known for their feathered legs and fluffy “mutton chops” or cheek feathers.

Meet Marilyn

Marilyn is a blue Andalusian hen. This breed comes from the Andalusia region of Spain and gets its name from the typical bluish grey color of the feathers. Not all blue Andalusians are blue though; about half are either black or white.

Look for Chanticleer and Marilyn on your next visit to the Houston Zoo!

Life in the Dunes

Written by Kali Tindell

My name is Kali Tindell and I’m currently a junior in high school. This past summer I had the opportunity to visit Namibia, an ecologically and culturally diverse country on the south-western coast of Africa, and study both wildlife conservation and photography with National Geographic Student Expeditions. I was introduced to the many ways nonprofits conserve Namibia’s habitats and felt inspired to share my experience. I hope these blogs encourage you to learn about how conservation can be fun and to take a closer look at what makes your environment unique.

If I were to show you a picture of a Namibian sand dune, would you believe it is home to any life? Sure, a thorny bush may be rooted at its base and a few blades of brittle grass may grow beside it, but is that enough to convince you that a thriving ecosystem is captured in that photo?

As we piled into the trucks, I wasn’t completely convinced that we would see much on our living desert tour. However, I was excited nonetheless. The three tour trucks followed the same gravel path that they follow on every other tour and that’s not because they’re not adventurous. On the gravel plains hugging the coast of Namibia in the Dorob National Park, right outside the city of Swakopmund, tracks made by both humans and animals can last a lifetime. There isn’t enough water to wash the tracks away (rain is a rare event in this desert) and the wind isn’t strong enough to erase marks in the gravel. Our guides stressed the importance of stepping in the tracks of those before us so that we would reduce our impact on the plain.

Barely a few minutes after entering the park, our caravan of trucks came to a halt. One of the guides had spotted a small rivet in an otherwise flat and sandy area. We looked out the window curiously, wondering what animal was hidden beneath the sand, before filing out of the trucks and around the spot in question. Sure enough, a pale, spotted Palmato gecko was hidden beneath a layer of sand. Its little body blended in the orange-yellow surroundings perfectly. Without the help of our guide, I doubt we would have discovered the little reptile. We also spotted a Namaqua chameleon, a Peringuey’s adder, a shovel-snouted lizard, numerous beetles, and Tractrac chats that afternoon.

You might be thinking, how in the world do these animals survive? The key is fog. Both the plants and the animals rely on fog. Beetles, for instance, harvest water from the fog by using their own bodies. Grooves in the body of the beetle direct the condensation collected on abdomen and thorax toward its mouth. Just like the beetles, the dollar bush uses its glossy leaves to direct water toward its roots. If you were to squeeze one of its round leaves, you would find that the plant holds a lot of moisture. Thus, it’s not surprising that many animals in the park use the dollar bush for hydration.


It’s hard to believe that an area as dry and stark as Dorob National Park is home to so many different species (some of which are found nowhere else on the planet). In an area this harsh, animals need numerous adaptations to survive. Visiting the dunes and gravel plains of Namibia has really made me appreciate the complexity and awesomeness of nature even more.

The Birthstone for February is Amethyst

Amethyst is the birthstone for February and is also the gemstone for the 6th and the 17th anniversary of marriage.  While my birthday isnt in February, I do love the rich purple color of amethyst and my birthstone, citrine, is even in the same family as amethyst

Who has a February birthday? Rosa Parks, Babe Ruth, Jennifer Anniston, Abraham Lincoln and more.

Amethyst Geode on display in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop
Amethyst Geode on display in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop
It is a purple variety of quartz but, the color can range from a light pinkish violet to a deep royal purple.  It is a durable and lasting stone with a rating of 7 on the Moh’s hardness scale.  This makes it an excellent option for jewelry.  Amethyst can be found worldwide.

There is plenty of history and lore around this beautiful stone. While it is considered a semi-precious stone today, it was a “Gem of Fire” and considered a precious stone in ancient times – at times in history worth as much as a diamond.  During the middle ages, amethyst stood for piety and celibacy and was therefore worn by members of the clergy.  It was believed that wearing an amethyst ring would keep them well grounded in spiritual thought.   In a similar story, during the renaissance, amethyst stood for humility and modesty.

Polished Amethyst

Through history amethyst has also been worn by travelersto protect them from treachery and surprise attacks and it was also believed that it would keep soldiers from harm and gave them victory over their enemies.

Amethyst has been included in royal collections all over the world from ancient Egypt to the British Crown Jewels.   Ancient Egyptians believed the stone would guard them against guilty and fearful feelings.  Rumor also has it that amethyst was a personal favorite of Queen Catherine the Great of Russia.

The Smithsonian Institution in Washington D.C. even has an amethyst that weighs 400 pounds!

Cut Amethyst Gemstone

While the Naturally Wild Swap Shop doesn’t have amethyst as large as the Smithsonian has, we do have amethyst for trade. You can get polished stones, amethyst geodes and even cut gemstones ranging from 150 points to 8,000 points.  There is also a beautiful amethyst geode cathedral on display.

Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop? Click here for more information.

Tasty New Food Options at the Houston Zoo

The Houston Zoo is thrilled to announce a new food service partnership with Service System Associates (SSA). These fine people will be serving up new and improved, tasty food options all around the Zoo – starting now! From hand-battered chicken tenders to hand-stretched pizza, and from Dole Whip to cold-pressed juices, quality is key in the new food options at the Houston Zoo.
The new menu items will feature some stand-outs including:

  • Crispy, hand-battered chicken tenders
  • Fresh and juicy 1/3-pound black Angus burgers on a locally baked, artisan bun
  • Hand-tossed fresh pizza dough, topped with house-made pizza sauce. The pizza is then fired in a 650-degree stone pizza oven at Twiga Cafe
  • Hand-carved deli sandwiches with freshly baked bread
  • Brand-new BBQ restaurant with great smoked meats and awesome sides like creamed jalapeno corn

Look for the new food items the next time you visit the Houston Zoo at Macaw Café, Twiga Café, or Cypress Circle.

Behind the Scenes – Efforts of the Volunteer Office

Written by Heidi Garbe, Houston Zoo Volunteer Coordinator

When you visit the Houston Zoo, you see the animals, you see the animal keepers, you see the grounds team, you see restaurant staff. You also see volunteers, and if not, you should know there are volunteers helping behind the scenes daily. There are so many people and departments that allow a zoo to function; a team that you may not see is the staff of the Volunteer Office.

With a team of over 1,000 volunteers each year, it takes some staff to coordinate those efforts, matching interests and skills with the needs of the zoo. One facet of our volunteer program is engaging community and corporate groups in single-event projects. Zoo Boo, for example, requires over 600 volunteers during the fall season, which is a perfect opportunity for groups to come out and support the zoo. As you may imagine, getting that many people in place requires much planning. Think how often your plans can change; the Volunteer Office must constantly be ready for a significant shift in volunteer coverage, requiring flexibility and constant communication.

Zoo Boo is likely the most common place you may encounter a group volunteer, but they also help year-round in other projects. Our animal teams regularly depend on small groups to accomplish beautification and up-keep projects. Volunteers may assist in mulching, raking, weeding, or replacing sand substrate in some of our animal exhibits. Although these opportunities do not allow for interaction with animals, the hard work pays off and volunteers can see the difference – as can all of the guests. The animals surely appreciate it, too!

Besides our one-time group volunteers, we have hundreds of year-round volunteers doing all sorts of shifts each week. It is thanks to their independence and drive that just three people can manage such a large volunteer program, yet there is always plenty to do. We quite often spend time at our computers organizing people and associated activities. We use a computer program that allows volunteers to self-schedule but with so many people involved, much communication with zoo staff and our volunteers is still necessary to facilitate and trouble-shoot. We also work to create new programs and training to enhance the volunteer experience and create more informed, engaging volunteers. It takes three of us working very diligently to keep up with all the requests from both staff and volunteers for activities happening day and night.

So what’s normal in a day as Volunteer Coordinator at the Houston Zoo? There is no “normal!” We operate in a non-stop, fast-paced atmosphere enriched with a lot of incredible people donating their time. It is an honor and a privilege to connect the community with unique opportunities at the Houston Zoo, all with the end goal of saving animals in the wild.

Home Schoolers Go Above and Beyond for Wildlife

Written by Kate Unger

Every time someone visits the Houston Zoo, they are helping to save animals in the wild! Our guests learn a lot on a Zoo visit, from animal stories to conservation projects. One audience that is going above and beyond to learn how they can make a difference is our Home Schoolers! This group took part in three programs last fall, all created just for them with animal experiences and a wildlife focus. They worked out their brain muscles during Eco-Experiments, became a field researcher at the Texas City Prairie Preserve, and searched the Zoo for clues at Scavenger Hunt Safari. These days all focused on animals and tied into many of our six wildlife saving initiatives, including plastics pollution and pollinators.

Students were able to think outside the box and come up with ways to help wildlife, both locally and worldwide. They learned about an endangered local habitat, the Texas coastal prairie, and discovered ways to learn about ecosystems in new and meaningful ways. This spring, we will be learning even with new classes focusing on hands-on learning and exploration in nature. Thank you to the families that participated this fall and we look forward to new and exciting programs with you in the spring!

Volunteers Giving More than Just Their Hearts

Written by Heidi Garbe, Houston Zoo Volunteer Coordinator

Volunteers help at the zoo in so many ways, but recently, they truly went above and beyond. Every two years, our Volunteer Fundraising Committee runs a unique auction to raise funds for conservation. Over several months, volunteers are asked to collect new t-shirts from conservation-related places they visit (from zoos to national parks, and everything in between) for an end-of-year auction.

Our Volunteer Fundraising Committee organizes volunteer-based financial support, offering funding for staff working on conservation programs as well as directly to our zoo field partners. Late in 2016, volunteers voted in advance where t-shirt auction funds should go and settled on Ecology Project International based in the Galapagos, which empowers youth to advance their education and take active roles in conservation.

At the Volunteer’s holiday gathering in December, over 60 t-shirts had been collected and put on display. These shirts, along with a few other small auction items, raised $1,255! This amount is remarkable in itself, but even more impressive is that it was driven completely by Volunteers, from individuals purchasing t-shirts to donate, to voting on the organization to support, and from the Volunteers organizing the auction, to those that participated by buying items.

Karen Hinson, the chair for the Volunteer Fundraising Committee, notes “Year after year, the generosity of our volunteers never ceases to amaze me. Not only did they purchase the t-shirts to donate for the auction but in many instances they turned around and bought at the auction. A special thank you to one volunteer who purchased the ten remaining t-shirts at minimum bid. This is just another example how dedicated the volunteers are to supporting the zoo’s conservation partners in the wild.”

In addition, many volunteers purchased gifts for our zoo animals through wish lists created by our animal teams. Our animals brought in 2017 with a variety of new enrichment items thanks to our caring volunteers! This “Giving Tree” of wish list items was facilitated by Volunteer Enrichment Committee chair Heather Simm.

This is a truly passionate group of individuals and we’re so glad they have joined our efforts to conserve the animals we all care so deeply about saving. Way to go Houston Zoo Volunteers! Making a difference here at the zoo and around the world.

Record Zoo Attendance for Ninth Consecutive Year

The Houston Zoo has broken its attendance record yet again, reporting 2,550,453 million visitors for 2016 maintaining its elite position as the second-most-attended US zoo with a paid admission. This banner year of visitation surpasses the organization’s 2015 attendance record of 2.46 million visitors.

Animal births held the spotlight in 2016, and guests were introduced to babies like giant anteater, Rio, and TJ, the zoo’s first California sea lion pup in 22 years. Baby fever seemed to spread through nearly every animal department and the successful births of endangered turtles, aquatic species, hoofed stock, primates, and more than 40 species of birds were only a fraction of the flourishing young animals born during the past year.

The zoo also said goodbye to one of its most iconic residents, Jonathan the lion. The 18-year-old male lion died in September after veterinarians discovered he had a serious blood clotting issue and low white blood cell count – findings that are not uncommon in geriatric patients, who often develop the more complex medical conditions. His absence continues to be felt by all who cared for the elderly lion.

The Houston Zoo maintains its devotion to world-class veterinary care and finished construction on a state-of-the-art veterinary hospital. The new facility enhances the capabilities of veterinarians and clinic staff as they safeguard the health of the animal residents ranging from growing babies to older “retirees.” This was the second phase of a multi-phase construction project to expand and improve the veterinary services complex. The zoo’s former clinic is currently under complete refurbishment and will reopen later this year as a new support and veterinary science facility.

Throughout the year, the zoo demonstrated its dedication to connecting communities to inspire action to save animals in the wild by engaging in conservation projects locally and abroad. The Houston Zoo is exceedingly proud of its wildlife conservation partners that work across 20 countries on projects like the reintroduction of endangered crowned cranes in Rwanda, scientific efforts to rescue and release rare terrapins in Sumatra, and community education across several countries in Africa to ensure a future for lions.

Zoo staff and passionate volunteers echoed the organization’s commitment to save animals in the wild, contributing countless (and often unpaid) hours to protect wildlife. For example, efforts begun by the Houston Zoo sea lion team resulted in the removal of 545 pounds of trash, 302 pounds of recyclables, and 92 pounds of monofilament from the Surfside jetty on the Texas coast, a significant stride in preventing local sea turtles from becoming entangled in discarded fishing line and trash. This initiative was presented a 2016 Proud Partner Award from Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

The organization was humbled by the generosity and passion of its donors who provided more than $9,000,000 in gifts to support the zoo. In 2016, two of the zoo’s largest annual fundraising events, Zoo Ball and Feed Your Wildlife Conservation Gala, topped donation records, and for the first time both events raised more than one million dollars each.

This year promises to be another exceptional one. In late spring, the zoo will open a massive expansion of the McNair Asian Elephant Habitat. To complement a spacious new barn, a brand-new habitat is currently under construction that features a boardwalk with an unobstructed view of the elephants’ 130,000-gallon pool and expanded yard. The expansion will highlight the zoo’s commitment and ongoing work to save elephants in the wild.

Additional 2016 Successes

  • Wrapping up its fifth year of winter wonder, TXU Energy Presents Zoo Lights helped over 300,000 Houstonians create memorable moments with family and friends with holiday music and millions of energy-saving LED lights.
  • Through its robust collection of educational programs from summer camps to in-school ZooMobile classes, the Houston Zoo’s conservation education department worked to bring nearly 34,000 children and adults closer to the animal kingdom.
  • Hundreds of volunteers generously donated upwards of 34,500 hours of their time assisting zoo keepers, educating the public, and supporting zoo operations.
  • Zoo staff encouraged one another to advance professionally through the pursuit of wildlife conservation work, awarding project grants from their own Houston Zoo Staff Conservation Fund.
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We might be biased, but we're thinking #TapirTuesday should be a thing... ... See MoreSee Less


We might be biased, but were thinking #TapirTuesday should be a thing...

Comment on Facebook

No, not biased! It should totally be a thing.

Is he out for public viewing yet?

Alex here's the baby we saw Sunday!😍

we saw him on sunday and he was pretty cute!

We saw him Saturday and he was adorable!

Saw this baby yesterday. What a cutie!!

awe. such a cutie

Oh my goodness cuteness alert


Literally the reason I went the other day

Terminal cuteness!

Jessie Kate we saw him!!!!!

O. M. G. Daniel Head 😍😍😍

Gessica Grape Hannah Grape Angela Grape Victoria Lynn Polasek 😍😍😍😍

Baleigh Hildebrandt Audree needs to see this!

Nelson Tassin

Rachel Annalise Huygen What's his name?

Katie Plaeger I NEED HIM

Jessica Cheng omg

Megan Pounds!!

Jackie Walker

Michelle Salido

Sam Kendrick

Tan Ngu

Hilda Montano

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