Give the Gift of Grub: The Houston Zoo Commissary

 All of the Houston Zoo residents have favorite meals, and having over 6,000 hungry animals to feed every day can make our grocery bill a bit expensive. 

As the year comes to a close, the Houston Zoo is kicking off a holiday-time fundraising campaign – the Gift of Grub — to help defray the costs of caring for our animals and provide everything we need to keep them healthy and happy in 2011! This is the first in a fun new blog series that will tell the story of exactly what it takes just to feed our furry, finned and fanged friends here at the Houston Zoo. 

The Food Starts Here!

From apples to zucchinis and lot of produce in-between, meals for the Houston Zoo’s over 6,000 animals are being prepped in our zoo kitchen, which we call the Commissary. We dice, we slice, we steam, shred, and peel, essentially doing whatever else it takes to prepare food for our zoo animals.

Before dawn, the Zoo commissary is buzzing with food prep for all the animals

Starting at 5:00 AM, while most are still enjoying that last couple hours of sleep, we are at our tables furiously working to get our chores down so when the animal keepers come in at 7:00 AM, they have all the foods needed for the day.

Some of the diets such as our bird salad is chopped on food processors, other diets by hand.

A nutritious breakfast for our sloth, ready to be weighed to insure they get the proper amount

The first four hours of our day is working with fruits and vegetables… okay, there might be a few other things being weighed, like fish and carnivore meat… but the majority is fresh, Grade A produce. I bet you didn’t know we buy 80,000 pounds of fresh produce a year!  That sure can make for one super duper sized salad.

Just a sample of the fresh produce the Houston Zoo commissary processes each morning!

We get fresh produce in from our suppliers three times a week, using seasonal produce whenever we can to reduce cost. I will list some of the fruits/vegetables we use but the list can go on and on: apples, bananas, carrots, mangos, yams, corn, strawberries, watermelons, green beans, papayas (okay I better stop while I can!).  Add in the 79,180 heads of assorted lettuces such as endive, romaine, cabbage, kale, red and green leaf, salad savoy and others when in season.

We not only work with produce but there many more food items we weigh or process — and this just the beginning of what we do! I’ll tell you more about that in the next post, so please check back!

Written by Phyllis Piertrucha-Mays, Commissary Supervisor

We’re reaching out to all Zoo lovers to give the Gift of Grub to our animal ambassadors by making a year-end, tax-deductible donation at

Or email for more information

Jonathan thanks you from the bottom of his stomach!

Give the Gift of RHINO Conservation

Now, you can Text keyword RHINO to 20222 and donate $5 to African Rhino Conservation. Supporting Wildlife has never been easier! The Rhino is truly a species on the edge. Zoos, conservation organizations, and field researchers have worked together for many years to help fight for their survival. Your support will assist the Houston Zoo protect Rhinos in Africa.

A one-time donation of $5 will be added to your mobile phone bill or deducted from your prepaid balance. You can Text RHINO up to six times in support of this program.Messaging & Data Rates May Apply.  Donations are collected for the benefit of the Houston Zoo by the Mobile Giving Foundation and subject to the terms found at or txt HELP.STOP to cancel

Text keyword RHINO to 20222 and protect a rhino today!

At the beginning of the 20th Century, the white rhino was perhaps the most endangered of the five rhino species, having been reduced to only a handful of animals, but its numbers have rebounded incredibly to a population of more than 11,000, thanks to successful conservation efforts both in captivity and in the wild, and the species is no longer considered threatened. The black rhino, by comparison, has been seriously reduced in numbers to only a few thousand individuals in Africa’s Miombo-Mopane Wilderness region and is listed as Critically Endangered by IUCN-The World Conservation Union.

Black Bear Field Work in the Big Thicket National Preserve By Sam Junker Carnivore Keeper

Treking through the Big Thicket National Preserve

I admit I did not know what to expect. I am not the first in my department to brave the Big Thicket with our conservation staff. Others before me have returned with stories of ticks, mosquitoes, chiggers, thorny vines, and one of the best experiences they have had in a long time. I packed everything I thought I would need (and probably more) in a backpack and made my way to the Zoo where I met up with the other three staff who would be going with me. All three had been there before, so I found myself relieved everybody knew where they were going!

I observed a good omen in the guise of a Bald Eagle flying over our car as we left the city.  The buildings grew sparse and the highway lanes decreased as we neared our destination.  As we turned onto a dirt road, I knew we were almost there.  Every time I thought, “This has to be the place,” we would round another bend until we finally stopped at the edge of a river.

Our goals were 4 array locations (see explanation below) where we would collect caught animal hairs for analysis and then completely take them down.  The first one was about 1/2 miles away.  I have hiked the Grand Canyon (top to bottom and back up) and thought, “No problem!” 1/2 miles through bramble, briar, and every other sharp cutting plant known to man turns out to be a lot farther than one might think.  By the first array, I was convinced I was bleeding from every inch of skin and I swear
there were at least 500 ticks crawling all over me (although honestly I did not see a single one).

Sam and other staff at array

We waited until after the second array was processed and taken down to eat lunch.  It was peaceful sitting on the riverbank watching the vultures land in a tree on the other side.  Rachel impressed me as she managed to eat her entire lunch without touching a single item with her hands!  We discovered that although I packed an insane number of things in my bag, I neglected to bring anything to wash our hands with.

The real adventure began with the last two arrays.  At the third one, we discovered some scat that was very unlike the specimens we had seen before.  We made sure to photograph it for later identification!  The last one proved the most difficult to find.  It was surrounded on three sides
by the most impenetrable part of the thicket we had seen yet.  Clouds were moving in as we discovered a very narrow entrance to the area.

Sam coiling array wire

Once the last array was processed and taken down, we gleefully packed our bags and began discussing dinner possibilities as we made our way back to the car.  With thoughts of chips and salsa floating through my head, I felt the first tiny rain drops.  The sky opened up and rain began pouring down as we found that we did not know where the narrow opening was.  We must have walked a mile in that rain back and forth before we decided to just head directly through the thickest brambles.

The good thing about the rain is that it cleans your wounds!  It took us the greater part of the afternoon, but we finally made it back to the car just before it got dark.  It’s amazing how the trek did not seem so far once we were sitting in a dry warm car… and I did not find a single tick!

Did you know the black bear is returning to east Texas? Gone for well over 60 years, they are making a comeback in neighboring states and are looking for new territories as populations increase. The Houston Zoo is involved in this hair snare research project to detect black bear presence and
also with education initiatives in support of the black bear recovery. Learn more.

How an array works:
We are now using a modern twist on mark recapture.
We “capture” bears without every actually laying hands on them.
We string barbed wire tight in a square along 4 corner trees about 15 ft apart with a bait hung in the center A bear is attracted to the scent And if we’ve done it right the only way he can get to the bait… Is going under the wire, leaving some hair snagged in the barbs The bear claims his reward…
And leaves the enclosure, offering us another chance of getting a hair sample left behind No bears so far!

New Siamang Baby Born

“Leela” – Siamang Gibbon, born October 11, 2010


Leela, just a few days old


Siamangs (Symphalangus syndactylus) are an endangered species of lesser ape found in the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra.  The newest addition to our siamang family, Leela, was born overnight on October 11, 2010, in the nighthouse at Wortham World of Primates.  When first discovered, she was clinging strongly to her mother, Jambi, and was being watched over by her father, Boomer.

Leela's mom, Jambi
Leela's dad, Boomer

The family was kept inside to give the infant the best chance to nurse during the first critical days.  Nursing was seen throughout the next few days, and Leela continued to look strong and alert, so they were allowed on exhibit.

A baby's eye view of the world from the safety of her mother's arm

Keepers are very observant of the infant’s condition, and may bring the group inside if they see any signs that she is not clinging to her mom well.

Siamangs usually live in family groups of a male and female pair with one or more offspring.  The infant usually clings to the belly of the mother during the first several weeks of life, but the father begins to carry it after a few months, and may spend time playing with the infant.

Jambi is a rather unusual siamang mom, and chooses to carry her babies on her leg as often as on her belly (Jambi’s own mother carried her in this fashion).  Jambi’s first born, Raya, spent quite a lot of time riding on her foot when she was only a few weeks old, making the zoo staff very nervous.  But Raya survived this odd form of maternal care, and became a strong and healthy female.  In Leela’s case, Jambi started to carry her on her leg when she was just over 2 weeks old.  Jambi is careful not to hurt the infant, despite the awkwardness of the position.

At over one month old, Leela is doing very well and has grown considerably.  She is beginning to take more interest in what is going on in the world around her, and has started touching objects that her mom is sitting next to.

Infant care is a long-term commitment in lesser apes, and the young will stay with their parents until they mature.  Leela will have many years to grow and learn all there is to know about how to be a siamang.

Leela during her first week

Photos:  Ron Santos, Cheka Kazen, HZI

References: Eastridge, A. 1999. “Symphalangus syndactylus” (On-line), Animal Diversity Web.

Nowak, R. 1999. Walker’s Primates of the World, Sixth Edition. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

The Making of the African Forest

For all you Houstonians out there, tune into KHOU Channel 11 on Saturday night (November 27th) at 7pm for the premier of “The African Forest: Your Journey Begins at the Houston Zoo”.

On Friday, December 10, the Houston Zoo officially opens The African Forest, taking the wraps off the most ambitious project in the Zoo’s 88 year history.

But on Saturday, November 27 at 7 p.m. KHOU-TV Channel 11 will give Houston a sneak preview of The African Forest when it premiers The African Forest: Your Journey Begins at the Houston Zoo,’  a one-hour special presented by Great Day Houston host Deborah Duncan.

‘The African Forest: Your Journey Begins at the Houston Zoo’ gives KHOU-TV Channel 11 viewers a rare behind the scenes look into the creation of the Zoo’s new 6.5 acre addition including:

  •  One-on-one interview with famed primatologist Dr. Jane Goodall as she tours The African Forest and meets a family of 10 chimpanzees
  • The delivery of 3 white rhinos to their new home after a 54 hour flight from South Africa
  • Moving day for the Zoo’s giraffe family to their new home in The African Forest
  • The ‘Rock Lords’ who created the animal habitats
  • Interviews with the Houston Zoo curators and keepers who care for the amazing animals of The African Forest

Travel to Tanzania and The Chimpanzees of Gombe

Tanzania: Chimpanzees of Gombe abd the Wildlife of Selous Nature Reserve. July 2-9, 2011 with the Houston Zoo and Terra Incognita Ecotours

This trip has it all!  In just ten days we will spend time in Gombe National Park watching the exact same Chimpanzees that Jane Goodall has studied for over 50 years. We will see Africa as David Livingstone first experienced Africa, with a few days in the incredible and remote Selous – home to African Wild Dogs, Leopards, Lions and so much more.  We end with a few days of relaxation on the private Chapwani Island, just a short distance offshore of Stone Town on the magical spice island of Zanzibar.

This trip is certain to exceed your expectations!  After gathering in Dar es Salaam we immediately depart for the little-known, but incredible Selous, a short one-hour domestic flight from Dar es Salaam but a world apart.  This park, the oldest and largest in all of Africa, is larger than the country of Belgium – indeed there are still areas in the Park where a westerner has never set foot!  This is Africa as David Livingstone first found Africa, raw and wild.  The Selous is home to the elusive African Wild Dog, the only park in eastern Africa where sightings are virtually guaranteed!  Plus our remote wilderness camp has Elephants wandering through the grounds, Lions roaring at night and Leopard sightings are common! 

After a few days in the Selous we move to Gombe National Park where Jane Goodall has studied the Chimp population for an unbroken period of 50 years, by far the longest continuous study of any primate population on Earth. 


African Forest: Conservation

We hope you have visited our new African Forest website as we count down the days to the grand opening of this spectacular exhibit. The Houston Zoo Wildlife Conservation Program also has a few new pages on this microsite highlighting some of the issues facing wildlife conservation in the region as well as a number of programs we support.

The Future of Ape Conservation highlights projects from Chimpanzees in Senegal to Mountain Gorillas and even the Jane Goodall Institute.

It’s been 50 years since Jane Goodall stepped on the beach at Gombe, Tanzania to begin her study of wild chimpanzees. With that first step, the chimpanzee would become profoundly more than just a beast in a children’s book or a character in a Tarzan movie. Chimpanzees exhibited individual personalities and a wide range of emotions. They showed both empathy and aggression towards each other, a complex social structure, and cognitive thought. They were found to be both foragers and hunters – utilizing primitive “tools”.

In the past 50 years, we began to follow the lives of Mountain Gorillas, Lowland Gorillas and Bonobos across Equatorial Africa. How great apes live, think and interact has been part of our evolving consciousness about wildlife for the last fifty years. Realizing how similar they are to humans inspires us to want to protect them. Fifty years should have been enough time to safeguard an iconic species of the African forests and ensure their survival; unfortunately, it has not. What we have learned is that simply labeling a species as “Endangered” is not enough to protect it.
Since 2004, the Houston Zoo Wildlife Conservation Program has supported Great Ape Conservation in Africa. From field research initiatives to community education and health programs, the Houston Zoo is proud of our commitment to the wildlife, and communities, of Africa. To learn more about our conservation efforts or help support these programs, please visit the African Forest website and join us in protecting the Great Apes.

Conservation Holiday Gifts

Consider this your start of holiday shopping and there is no need to get in line at 4 am for our doorbuster specials. Our doors open at 9am by the way. If you have ever visited the zoo’s gift shop, there is a small corner behind the register which we call our conservation marketplace. By marketing these unique lines of quality crafts in our gift shop the Houston zoo enables local artisans to make a living outside wildlife parks, strengthen their communities and help preserve fragile endangered specie’s habitats. 

Much of the product here is made by local communities in Rwanda, Zimbabwe, Colombia, Mongolia and other countries. For example Iganyana Art Center was created by Painted Dog Conservation (PDC) in Zimbabwe. Fewer then 3000 African wild dogs remain in Africa due to various human pressures.   Poaching with snares (wire traps) continues to be one of the leading threats to the survival of this species. The wire collected by the anti-poaching units is sent to PDC’s Iganyana arts center, where local artisans from rural villages use it to create beautiful intricate art.  Production of this artwork provides skills and financial security for the artists. 

Virunga Artisan Products “The Art of People & Gorillas Living in Harmony ” is staffed by locals from the communities surrounding Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda/DR Congo and the Impenetrable National Park in Uganda. 
The women of the Nkuringo Basket Weavers Association live on the southwest edge of Bwindi National Park in an area seldom visited by tourists.  The people of Nkuringo traditionally have made their living from subsistence agriculture. Earnings from basket sales have made a tremendous difference in the lives of the women of Nkuringo and their families, including the ability to send their children to school and access to health care.

So you see, it is not about making a sale for sale’s sake with these products but it is another way the zoo conservation department works with programs to develop economic incentives for local people living with some of the world’s most threatened species.

African Forest: Bushmeat

What is Bushmeat?

In Africa, forest is often referred to as ‘the bush’, thus wildlife and the meat derived from it is referred to as ‘bushmeat’.

The term bushmeat is now commonly used for illegally harvested and marketed wildlife in Africa, Asia and Latin America. “Bushmeat” applies to all wildlife species, including threatened and endangered species, used for meat including: elephant; gorilla; chimpanzee and other primates; forest antelope (duikers); crocodile; porcupine; bush pig; cane rat; pangolin; monitor lizard; guinea fowl and many others.
Unsustainable commercial take, many times illegally, is one of the primary causes in the decline of wildlife species in Africa. Though habitat loss is often cited as the primary threat to wildlife, commercial hunting for the meat of wild animals has become the most significant immediate threat to the future of wildlife in Africa and around the world; it has already resulted in widespread local extinctions in Asia and West Africa.
This threat to wildlife is a crisis because it is rapidly expanding to countries and species which were previously not at risk, largely due to an increase in commercial logging, with an infrastructure of roads and trucks that links forests and hunters to cities and consumers.
Rural communities have always hunted as a protein source for their diets. Sustainably managed, wildlife populations could survive under these circumstances. Today, wildlife is taken in large quantities not solely for personal consumption but for profit and commercial resale. Wildlife populations simply cannot rebound fast enough to maintain viable populations in these areas and are quickly becoming extirpated from many regions of Africa.
For more information and what you can do to slow the trade – link here to our African Forest microsite

Meet the Staff: Dena Strange

Dena takes a moment away from work at the Houston Zoo

Name: Dena Strange

Section: Primates Supervisor

Hometown: Houston, TX

Total years of animal care experience: 27 years total, but I’ve been at the Houston Zoo since October of 1990.

It is not the strongest of the species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the one most responsive to change. –Charles Darwin  This one helps me get through changes in my life!

And: Laughter is the shortest distance between two people –Victor Borge

Favorite Animals: Penguins! Although baby flamingo chicks come in a close second! In my own section, I love all of the animals, but for all different reasons, mostly based on the individuals rather than the species.

Special Interests: Handy crafts – I like making handmade jewelry, candles, and baskets. I love any festival and always go to Greek and International festivals as well. In my spare time, I like watching sci-fi TV shows like Stargate, Star Trek, Battlestar Gallactica, and Stargate Universe. I also love reading classical literature.

Do you have any animals at home?
I have four cats: Drusilla (Dru), Agrippena (Aggie), Clytemnestra (Clyde), and Euripides (Rip). The first three names are characters in Roman or Greek literature Euripides is a Greek author of classical literature!

Education/Training: I attended Southwest Texas State University and graduated in 1990 with a Bachelor of Science in Wildlife Biology. In high school, I volunteered at the Houston Zoo in the Children’s Zoo section as well as in college I volunteered for the Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, VA which is an off-exhibit breeding facility for the National Zoo. While there, I had the opportunity to work with endangered species and get some true zoo keeping experience! I also volunteered in two other national parks during my college summers as an interpreter.

What would you recommend for someone attending college who wants to be a zookeeper?
Take any classes dealing with science. If you’re interested in primates, take anthropology as well. Any primate class will help. General biology courses will also cut it…do a lot of reading on your own! Just take any classes in science or behavior.

Jobs: I was a Park Ranger for Padre Island National Seashore as an interpreter (seasonal). My job was to do nature walks, work in the gift shop, and do programs for school groups.

What made you want to be a zookeeper?
Well, it’s actually an interesting story! When I was younger, I went to an Occupational Therapist. After taking a few tests, the results told me what I should and should not do for a career. I was told never to be an interior decorator, along with several other interesting professions. I learned, though, that I should work outdoors and would do well working with animals. So my mother signed me up to volunteer at the Houston Zoo. After working in the Children’s Zoo and the Conservation and Research Center. I found out that I really enjoyed the job!

Dena is the Zoo's studbook keeper for patas monkeys such as this one.

What advice would you give to anyone wanting to be a zookeeper?
Volunteering is my best advice. It’s all on-the-job learning. We get thirty or more applications for every job posting, so if you have animal cleaning experience, it helps! If you have primate experience, it helps even more! We’ve hired a lot of our interns, so becoming an intern is a great stepping stone to getting a job in the Houston Zoo. A lot of college students are surprised that when they graduate, they can’t just become a curator. You can’t just walk into a curator position right out of school; you have to work your way up.

What’s your favorite animal story?
We used to have a Black and White Colobus Monkey named Zoe…she now lives at the Portland Zoo raising her first child, so you know this end well…

I’ve know Zoe since birth and when she was a young adult she started to develop cataracts in both her eyes. She adapted really well and was able to move around her cage, with lots of caution, she didn’t jump, but would climb or walk where ever she need to go, she interacted with her cage mates just fine and was able to find food by patting her hand around on the ground or in feeder baskets. Since the zoo didn’t have the resources back then and she was doing ok, we just monitored the progress of the cataracts, but one day a veterinary ophthalmologist from Texas A&M was interested in looking at animal eyes and was very interested and confident that he could do cataract surgery on Zoe. So one day, we loaded her up in a crate and drove her up to College Station where the surgery was performed. The surgery was long, but very successful. Even before we got her home, she was looking around her crate with renewed interest.

Once we released her back into her cage, it was amazing; she was looking around like she had never been there before. A few minutes’ later tears came to my eyes as she looked at her reflection for the first time in a shallow water tub and she touched the water to break the reflection as if to say “is that really me?”

Written by Candace VanScyoc

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