Enrichment Day is for Humans Too!

In my short time here at the Houston Zoo, I’ve been amazed at the energy and enthusiasm that goes into every single project we take on. The pride taken by the staff and volunteers at the Houston Zoo is something that you don’t see in just any work environment, and it shows in every facet of the zoo. Enrichment Day at the zoo is no exception. 

Not only will guests be able to learn about the enrichment we do with animals here at the zoo, but children will be able to participate in some enrichment activities of their own!  Yes, humans need enrichment, too!  (Haven’t you ever heard that “variety is the spice of life”?) 

The volunteer team, along with our fall teen volunteer program, Zoo Crew, will be offering games and activities for children at “Enrichment Central” on the Werler lawn near the Meerkat exhibit.  Activities will include the “Cheetah Relay” to simulate carnivores chasing prey, a “Human Dig Box” to simulate foraging for food, and “Fishing like a Bird” which simulates how storks and pelicans catch fish. 

At Enrichment Day, kids acn simulate how animals forage for food with games like this

There will also be draft tables where kids will have the opportunity to make an enrichment item for their pet at home!  These activities, among others, will enhance the zoo experience for all of our younger guests.

Kids can do crafts zoo-wide, including making enrichment items for their pets at home

So, bring the kids and “spice up your life” on Saturday, October 2nd at Enrichment Day at the Houston Zoo!  See you there!

Written by Paul Bishop, Volunteer Programs Supervisor

Chimp Profile: Charlie

As the opening of African Forest draws closer, we’ll be featuring a short bio of each of our chimpanzees.

Charlie: The Patriarch

It seems only fair to start with the Charlie, he’s the oldest, he’s in charge and well, I have a soft spot for him. Charlie was born in Africa and kept as a pet by some Americans living there in the 1970s. When he was a couple years old, they brought him back to the United States (this was before the passage of the Endangered Species Act, which now regulates the importation of wild-caught animals). It did not take long before baby Charlie was tearing up the house – most people that get baby primates have no idea what the commitment will be, and like many other exotic pet owners, they had to find another home for him.

Fast forward 30 years and find Charlie living the good life at the Houston Zoo. Charlie is the patriarch of our group of 10 chimps, which is not an easy job. Charlie has the perfect personality for it though, he is calm and gentle, yet radiates the confidence of a good chimp leader. He doesn’t get too excited about anything and he’s not unecessarily forceful if someone gets out of line.

Nicknames: The Patriarch, The Boss, Charles in Charge

Favorite snacks: Lettuce

Favorite Activities: Hanging out with guys (chimp guys, that is – Riley, Mac, Abe and Willie)

Charlie’s former owners say he seems the happiest to be here of all the chimps. When Charlie is not happy about something he tends to let me know by throwing a handful of whatever is handy in my  direction so I’ll be busy keeping the boss happy so he can focus on making sure everyone else is having as much fun as he is.

Okapi Conservation: Democratic Republic of Congo

On one of our animal department blog sites there was recently a post about Okapi enrichment at the Houston Zoo. But what is an Okapi?

Okapi are the only living relative to the Giraffe yet has stripes on its legs like a Zebra. Scientists did not know about the Okapi until around 1900. Okapi are only found in one place, the Democratic Republic of Congo in central Africa.

The Okapi Conservation Project is located within the Ituri Forest, in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The Ituri Forest covers 175,000 square kilometers of lowland tropical forest and contains some of the most important closed canopy rainforest and species diversity in the world. This program was initiated by Gilman International Conservation with the objective of eliciting support for the conservation of the wild okapi from zoological institutions managing okapi in zoos around the world.  Okapi ambassadors in zoos help instill awareness of the rapid destruction of rainforests and generate financial support for the preservation of okapi habitat in the Ituri Forest of the Congo River basin. 

The Houston Zoo is a supporter of the Okapi Conservation Project and you can visit our resident Okapi across from the Elephant exhibit. For more information on the zoo’s wildlife conservation program you can link here.

The Houston Zoo Wins Top Honors For Amphibian Conservation at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Conference

The Houston Zoo, with assistance from several other zoos and institutions, has built an amphibian oasis, called the El Valle Amphibian Conservation Center (EVACC), in Panama. At EVACC, we rescue and treat wild amphibians affected by a fungal disease known as chytrid. We are ensuring the survival of their species by safely breeding them in captivity with the ultimate goal to release their offspring back to the cloud forests and streams of Panama once scientists can figure out how to protect them from the fungus.

At EVACC, we have also constructed an exhibit area where the people of Panama can observe the unique amphibians of their country. Sadly, many of these amphibians have already gone extinct in the wild and are the last of their kind in the country.

Last week the Houston Zoo won Top Honors in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums International Conservation Award category for our amphibian conservation efforts in Panama.

 For more information, or to support our efforts in Panama, go to https://www.houstonzoo.org/amphibians/

AZA 2010 Wrapped up with a Day at the Houston Zoo

Last week, the Houston Zoo had the privilege of hosting the AZA 2010 Conference. The final day of the conference ended with Zoo Day,  featuring special backstage tours of exhibits from Red Panda to Orangutans to Lions and Tigers and Bears!

A Carnivore Keeper gives AZA guests a peek behind the scenes in lions

 (If you’d like to go on one of these tours yourself, you can! Just visit our website under Aminal Experiences or click this link: https://www.houstonzoo.org/events/tours/behind/)

Zoo Day is a special opportunity for us to share our zoo with the almost 2,000 AZA attendees – our colleagues and friends from around the country and the world. We exchange ideas and thoughts and our passion for conservation and education as we enjoy a relaxed day and have fun.

It started with a scrumptious Tex-Mex lunch under the tent at Karamou. Then everyone set out with a map to wander or pick from a plethora of special keeper chats, animal presentations and Behind-The-Scenes tours. 

Late afternoon, AZA attendees also got an extra special sneak-peak tour of the new African Forest exhibit opening December 2010 – including the new giraffe barn and the expansive chimpanzee exhibit.  Below is an illustration of the latter.

African Forest Chimpanzee exhibit

The day ended with a sunset party around the reflection pond. Attendees were treated to a bona-fide Houston cloud burst — but it didn’t dampen the merriment.  As the sun went down and shimmered on the water everyone ate and sipped and smiled.

Thanks to all who came out for a fantastic conference. To check out more from AZA 2010:

Written by Caitlin Kaluza and Rochelle Joseph

Photo by Caitlin Kaluza

Bear Awareness Day

Are you Bear Aware? If not, then come out to the zoo and attend Bear Awareness Day on Saturday September 25th from 10am-3pm. The goal of the event is to make people more aware of bear behavior, biology, and ecology. Although few Houstonians will ever encounter a bear in the Greater Houston region, the Louisiana Black Bear is slowly making a comeback in the east part of the state after being hunted out in the 1950’s.

Regardless of a potential bear encounter here in Texas or vacationing in bear country, a fun-filled day of bear related activities will help you learn more about Bear species.

AZA 2010 Conference, Second Day Keynote Speaker: Joel Sartore

Because we love animals and we love pictures of animals, it is safe to say that we adored today’s AZA convention keynote, Joel Sartore. Known for his award-winning photography of wildlife and endangered species, Joel continues to move his audience through his National Geographic cover stories and more recently, through his book Rare: Portraits of America’s Endangered Species.

Joel Sartore
Joel Sartore

Joel’s photography was simply breathtaking. He explained that he attempts to capture the story of each animal, as if they are talking to you personally.

“If I can make it seem like a clam has eyes, then I am going to do it so you will listen.”

National Geographic - Joel Sartore
National Geographic - Joel Sartore

Recently, Joel traveled to the Gulf Coast to capture the animals that were affected by the BP oil spill. He shared some of the powerful images he shot and while devastating, they brought to life the experience that the Gulf Coast wildlife unwillingly endured. This is such a great example of his passion and dedication to educate people about what is happening to the world’s natural homes and the life that inhabits them.

The Houston Zoo and the AZA is truly honored to call him a friend. Thank you for all of your wonderful work Joel!

Written by Courtney Pemberton

White-nose Syndrome affecting bat populations

Something is killing whole wintering populations of bats in North America as they hibernate in caves and mines. Bats are losing their fat reserves long before the winter is over and are dying of starvation.

This affliction has been given the name white–nose syndrome (WNS) because of the telltale white fungus growing on the noses of some infected bats. Only recently described as a new species, White-nose syndrome may appear on the wings, ears, and/or tail membranes of afflicted bats, but may also be absent

White–nose syndrome is not well understood and scientists are investigating all potential aspects of this mysterious disease. One popular hypothesis focuses on the fungus itself, a cold–habitat obligate that thrives from 5 to15ºC—the same range of temperatures typical of bat hibernacula. White–nose syndrome infects hibernating bats as their bodies are cold and amenable to its growth. Infected bats may arouse from hibernation to attempt to deal with the fungal infection and in doing so prematurely burn up their fat stores and starve to death in midwinter.

Bats are an essential and beneficial part of the ecosystem. Bats play critical roles in insect control, plant pollination, seed dissemination, cave ecosystems, and provide food for other animals.

In the eastern United States, mortality typically exceeds 90% in hibernating colonies affected by WNS.  While WNS has not been reported in the western United States, the general consensus is that it will eventually spread to many regions of North America.

To view bats locally, try the Waugh Drive Bridge Bat Colony near downtown Houston http://www.buffalobayou.org/WaughBatColony.htm

For more information on White-nose Syndrome you may go to http://www.fws.gov/WhiteNoseSyndrome/

AZA 2010 Keynote: Jim Collins on “Good to Great”

The Houston Zoo is honored to host the annual conference for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (better known as AZA) this year. We wre thrilled that the keynote speaker for the conference was Jim Collins, author, whose books include “Built to Last” and “Good to Great.”

Jim Collins addressing the AZA 2010 crowd

The keynote focused around the challenge every organization faces: “Don’t just do good work, do great work.”

“Greatness is not a function of circumstance – it is a function of conscious choices and discipline” – Jim Collins

So… how does an organization make the leap from Good to Great?

Jim outlined a few specific factors in making an organization GREAT:

1. Create a culture of discipline

True greatness is a cumulative effect – it happens every single day

2. Have great leadership

  • Great leaders know “it’s not about them”
  • Great leaders are willing to face brutal truths and will to do whatever it takes for the good of the organization
  • Leadership only exists when people follow when they have the freedom to not follow
  • Common pitfall: because intentions are good, all decisions are good

3. Study those who have succeeded and failed

“You learn just as much studying failure as you do studying success”

4. Get the right people on the bus

Great people make a great organization, and only when the right people are in the right seats does greatness happen!

  • FIRST and foremost – get the right people on the bus and the right people in the key seats
  • Then figure out where to drive the bus

5. Adhere to the core ideology, AND be willing to stimulate healthy change and progress

  • Figure out what you do – and what you don’t do
  • Have the discipline to adhere to those values under intense pressure
  • Don’t be afraid to constantly make yourself better in the context of your ideology

How can you tell if a zoo is GREAT?

Jim Collins moderating AZA 2010 panel

In the follow up session after the keynote, Jim played moderator to Zoo directors, including Houston Zoo Director Rick Barongi. The key question was “How can you tell if a zoo is great?”

While in business success is measured in dollars and cents, this panel discussed factors like great facilities, great experiences, great word of mouth in the community, and great staff that show success.


Thanks to all the attendees and sponsors of this year’s conference! We can’t wait to see more of you this week! For more action from the conference, check out our AZA 2010 photos on flickr!

AZA 2010 Houston Panel: Science and Storytelling

In the second panel of today’s afternoon AZA Conference, hosted by the Houston Zoo, attendees were treated to an inside look at the conflict between science and communication.

Storytelling and Scientists
One creative, interesting way to tell conservation stories

Zoo’s are constantly communicating messages about conservation that fall on deaf ears. In some cases the message may be killed by the messenger.  According to Christopher Kuhar of the Cleveland Zoo, scientists are:

  1. Critical
  2. Driven by details and data
  3. Conservative in their conclusion
  4. Driven to the theoretical

Typically, great storytelling skills are not on the list. Christopher indicates that sometimes “we can make fun things boring.”

Animals need both scientists and storytellers to help convert non-believers to conservationists. According to Jackie Ogden (Disney’s Animal Kingdom) and Kyle Burks (Denver Zoo), “Story can help create the bridge between entertainment, conservation and action.”

Rich Block of Santa Barbara Zoo surmised that many times the people that have the wrong data are the loudest. He places extra emphasis on the need for scientists to improve their presentation of data. More exciting presentations encourage people to become more excited about the message. Both Kyle and Rich recognize that the normal zoo patron has a much lower tolerance to data presentations than your average scientist. Photos, video, media and the story behind conservation efforts can make the difference between success or failure.

AZA Conference Panel on Storytelling and Science
The AZA Conference Panel on Science and Storytelling

Ana Bowie of Denver Zoo adds that people are also interested in the human quality of the science, meaning that they would like to experience the human behind the science.  Ana says, “The story is about the scientist too.  It is about human beings doing what they love –that is also very important.”

So there is an opportunity for people to be more involved in conservation and improving the quality of animal life. And that opportunity can be maximized through communication. In this case the communication starts with scientists.

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