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.

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.

Nature Journals Made Easy

Have you ever been out in nature and found something you thought was amazing?  Ever wish you had a way to get your kids more engaged with nature?  The Houston Zoo has a way to help!

Nature journals are a great way to explore and learn about nature.  Kids (and adults too!) can write about, sketch, or paint things seen in nature.  It is a great way to document what you have seen and you can even go back later to research if you want to learn more about a particular item.

Journal pages from Scratchmadejournal.com
Journal pages from Scratchmadejournal.com.

There is a wonderful website and blog at scratchmadejournal.com  with a lot of great information on nature journaling.  The author  even has some printable pages to get you started!  Click here to check out her awesome blog and get some amazing ideas about nature journals.  She includes examples, recommendations on supplies, and a list of places to find more help and examples.  Included on her blog are posts geared towards nature journaling specifically for kids.  You don’t have to be a award winning artist or write like a novelist – just record what you see and add sketches as you see fit.  And the more you journal, the better they get!

Even a simple drawing can enhance your Nature Journal
Even a simple drawing can enhance your Nature Journal

Do you know the best benefit to nature journals?  Kids 18 and younger can bring their nature journals to the Naturally Wild Swap Shop to earn points!  The points can be used in the shop to get some amazing things like bones, shells, minerals or even a re-usable bag that kids can take home and enjoy.  Need more information on the Naturally Wild Swap Shop?  Click here to learn more.

Texas Pollinator BioBlitz

The first ever Texas Pollinator BioBlitz will be taking place from October 7th to October 16th.  This is a statewide effort to observe and identify as many pollinators, and pollinator habitats as possible and the Houston Zoo will be participating!

How can you participate at the zoo?

Monarch Butterfly
Monarch Butterfly

First, take pictures of any pollinators you see and the plants you see them on around the zoo. Some of the pollinators you might see are butterflies, honey bees, and bumblebees.  Then, take those pictures to the Naturally Wild Swap Shop and you will be registered as a Pollinator Pal and will receive 50 points to spend in the shop.  Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop?  Click here for more information.

Second, you can share your photos or videos of the pollinators on Instagam or iNaturalist. On Instagram, posts should include #SaveThePollinators.

Why are pollinators so important to us? They make our daily lives better in so many ways!  Without pollinators we would lose much of the fruit and vegtables we eat every day.  We would also lose chocolate,

Cotton
Cotton

coffee, tequila even cotton.  Our meat would be effected too because we would lose the plants that the cattle and other animals eat.

 

Come out to explorer your Houston Zoo and help us save pollinators.

Can you count toad eggs?

There are multiple animal exhibits in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop. One of them is home to two Houston Toads: Tina Toad and her friend, Mr. Toad.

The Houston Toad is one of Texas’ most imperiled species. Its range was formerly known to include 12 counties in Texas, but it is now only in a few counties in east-central Texas.  The largest remaining populations are found in the Lost Pines region of Bastrop County.

The Houston Zoo has a 1200 square foot Houston Toad quarantine facility, managed by two full-time

Tina Toad's egg strand
Tina Toad’s egg strand

Houston Toad specialists, that serves as a location for the captive breeding and head-starting of wild Houston toad egg strands for release. Part of the Houston Toad specialist’s job is to count the eggs in each egg strand!

The egg strand after it has been counted
The egg strand after it has been counted

Look at the pictures in this post. What you are seeing is a picture of one of Tina the Houston Toad’s egg strands.   The version with the white dots is an example of how the eggs are counted and marked as they go through the photo of the egg strand.

We recently had a contest in the Swap Shop to guess how many eggs were in the strand. The total in the strand, according to the toad keepers, was 8,533.  Our closest guess was from Isabel S. who guessed 8,600.  For her expertise in counting toad eggs, she received 100 points to spend in the Swap Shop!

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

Help Save Elephants in the Wild and Wear Gray for World Elephant Day!

tupelo-tess-elephant-slider

Calling all elephant enthusiasts! Did you know elephant population numbers are rapidly declining in the wild? Do you know there are ways YOU can help protect these magnificent animals in the wild? You can start by joining the more than one hundred zoos and thousands of individuals across the country on Friday, August 12 in celebrating World Elephant Day! Guests that wear gray to the zoo will have a chance to win fun door prizes.

Elephants are the largest land mammals in the world and among the most intelligent animals on earth. Unfortunately, Asian elephants are also among the world’s most endangered species. At the turn of the 20th century, more than 100,000 Asian elephants roamed their native habitat. Today, approximately 40,000 Asian elephants remain in the wild. And this number continues to decline due to habitat loss, human-elephant conflict and poaching for their ivory tusks.

Here at the Houston Zoo, we are committed to protecting animals outside of our Zoo gates, and elephants are in serious need of our support. In the past five years, the Houston Zoo has worked closely with partners in both Africa and Asia, funding over $500,000 in field conservation programs.

YOU can help, too! Simply by visiting the Houston Zoo, you help protect animals in the wild – a portion of your admission ticket goes directly to conservation efforts around the world. You can also attend special events throughout the year, such as our Elephant Open House that will be held September 17, 2016 from 8 am – 10:30 am, where registration fees are also donated to conservation efforts.

elephants-outside-playing

A great time to visit the Houston Zoo is World Elephant Day on Friday, August 12, 2016.

World Elephant Day Activities Include:

11 a.m. – 2 p.m.

Find out more about the Houston Zoo’s Asian elephant herd: Thai, Methai, Shanti, Tess, Tucker, Tupelo, Baylor & Duncan

Help keepers decorate enrichment items to give to the elephants throughout the day.

See and have a chance to purchase artwork done by our Pachyderm Picassos!

Learn all about elephant conservation and what YOU can do to help save them in the wild.

Wear gray on your Zoo visit to show your support plus talk with our Zookeepers, while the elephants are outside playing in the yard.

Penny Makes Her Move

Well, my plan worked! I have moved into a beautiful new room in the Ambassador Animal Building!   I have directed

Look at this awesome cat tree!
Look at this awesome cat tree!

my staff…..I mean the zookeepers, on what to put in my room and how to arrange it.

I have cat trees, boxes, kennels, and lots of toys. So many things to keep me happy and busy.  And, the keepers talk to me and keep me company all the time. I feel so regal in this new spot that I am considering wearing my tiara.

Perhaps I will wear my tiara
Perhaps I will wear my tiara

My next door neighbor is Peanut, the Aardvark. She is a very pleasant neighbor.  In fact, she sleeps most of the day so she is no bother at all.  Denver the Macaw gets a little loud sometimes, but that’s ok too.  I can handle it – even though I might have to have a talk with him at some point.  There are chinchillas, rabbits, birds, and reptiles here too.  I have some amazing neighbors.

I still get to go out in the zoo.  My handlers bring me out on my leash to visit and see zoo guests. I also get to go to presentations and classrooms.   I still go to the Naturally Wild Swap Shop from time to time too.

I will miss getting to say hello to the regular traders at the Swap Shop, but this new room is amazing!

The beautiful Penny in her new room.
The beautiful Penny in her new room.

Don’t forget about me.   I sure won’t forget about you.  I still love all my pals that come to the Swap Shop.  When you are at the zoo, keep your eyes open.  You never know where or when you will see me.

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

Penny checks out the building

Penny looks around the Animal Ambassador Building

Well.  This looks pretty nice in here.  I wonder who will be living in this room?  I have heard it is called the Ambassador Animal Building.

Look! Some of  the animals have started moving in!  Ernie the North American Porcupine is here.  So is Fiona the  Flemish Giant rabbit.  These guys are getting some really nice spaces to live in.  The building has room for all the Ambassador mammals and a whole separate room for the Ambassador reptiles.  There are going to be some amazing birds in here too.  A Kookaburra, some parrots and even a roadrunner.  Staff and volunteers can take these animals to classrooms, presentations and special events.

pennyaab2
Checking out the corner room

Just look at this corner room.  No one has moved in yet.  I could totally live here.  I could turn that space into a kitty paradise.  Oh, I am envisioning cat trees, toys, my own furniture.  Yes, I can see it now.

And look outside!  Is that our own exercise yard?  With a pool?  This building is amazing!

The Exercise Yard
The Exercise Yard

That settles it!  I am finding a way to move in.

BBQ at the Zoo!

Today, Friday, July 8, a brand-new barbecue quick service restaurant opened at the Houston Zoo. Under the direction of executive chef Larry Arguello, Cypress Circle Grill features a variety of house-made barbecue favorites. From smoked sausage and pulled pork, to tender ribs and brisket, there is something to satisfy every barbecue craving. The culinary craftsmen of the Zoo make everything from scratch on Zoo grounds including the sides like the crunchy apple coleslaw, creamy mac-and-cheese, house-made kettle chips, Cajun spicy rice, and this taster’s personal favorite – garlic pickles!

So next time you visit the Houston Zoo, save some room for a savory pulled pork sandwich or fall-off-the bone ribs at the all-new Cypress Circle Grill!

 

Spotlight on Species – Otters!

On July 16th, from 10AM – 3PM, the Houston Zoo will be celebrating a Spotlight on Species (SOS) all about otters!

Did you know that there are 13 different species of otters and that several of the species are endangered?

Did you know we have otters right here in Texas?

Come and learn about Texas otters and otters around the world.  Meet our North American River Otter and

Asian Small-clawed Otter
Asian Small-clawed Otter

Asian Small Clawed Otters that call the Houston Zoo home.

The SOS will take place in both the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo and the Natural Encounters building.  There will be lots to learn along with activities and fun for the whole family.    There will be tables with information and education materials along with special Meet

the Keeper chats at both locations.  It is also going to be Snow Day at the Zoo, and our North American River Otter, Belle, will be

North American River Otter

getting snow to play in!

The Naturally Wild Swap Shop will be participating too!  Any nature reports or nature journals on otters brought in on the day of the SOS will receive DOUBLE points!  Also, if you take the electronic pledge that day to go plastic bag free and come tell us in the Swap Shop, you will earn you 25 points.  If you take the pledge you will also be entered in to a drawing for one of two special otter experiences.

Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop?  Click here to learn more.

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Houston Zoo shared Galveston Bay Foundation's photo.
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Don't miss this great event!Spring is coming, and so is Houston’s rainy season! This year you could save $$$ and protect the health our Bay by using a rain barrel! Go to galvbay.org/hzrbw and sign up to attend our Houston Zoo Rain Barrel Workshop (sponsored by LyondellBasell) on Saturday, April 8th! ... See MoreSee Less

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Dont miss this great event!

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Donna Allgood Clopton I want to do this!

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