Meet the Staff: Samantha Junker

Name: Samantha Junker 

Samantha with our Anatolian Shepard dog

Department: Carnivore Keeper

Hometown: 29 Palms, California

Animals you train: Jaguar, Malayan Tiger, African Wild dogs, Anatolian Shepherd

Favorite Animal:  Hippos!  Here at the Houston Zoo, I love the African Wild Dogs.

Special Interests/Hobbies: My time is consumed by my baby!  When I’m not running around I like to read and swim.  I am also a closet comic junkie.  I love everything Marvel! 

Education/Training:  Bachelor of Science degree majoring in Zoology with a minor in History from UC Santa Barbara

Previous Institutions: One of my first jobs was a Zoo Camp counselor at the Santa Barbara Zoo.  I also worked there as a keeper in the bird department.  I was able to work with raptors (birds of prey) at the Alabama Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.

Length of time at Houston Zoo:  2 ½ years in hoofstock and 3 ½  years in carnivores. 

Quote:  “Animals are not our brothers; they are not our subordinates, either.  They are another nation, caught up just like us in the complex web of time and life.” – Henry Beston

Advice to anyone wanting to enter the zoo field: You need experience to get experience – so volunteer!  Be willing to work the jobs that not many other people want.  Get a degree, it will help you go further.  Zoos are starting to require a Bachelor’s degree.

Best animal story:  It was one of those very cold days and I was cleaning out Capybara enclosure.  It was so cold that I didn’t really want to make the trek out to the staff room to take my break.  I just hunkered down in the barn with a heater and took my break between the Capybaras.  That was the best break I’ve ever taken. 

Why I like this department:  I work with some of the best people there are.  We are a very close knit team and it is a very positive environment to work in.

How to Capture an Amphibian Call

Last Friday, Houston Zoo Conservation Staff accompanied an enthusiastic HZI volunteer and Rice graduate student, Cassidy Johnson, and her father, J. Johnson, to their families amazing 2,500 acre property to set up recording devices to capture the calls of amphibians, and hopefully, the elusive and rare Houston toad!

The Johnsons and Amphibian Conservation Manager, Paul Crump, look over maps of the property to decide the best ponds to install the frog recording devices

Cassidy’s father came up with this impressive contraption himself. When an animal makes a noise (in this case, hopefully a frog) the recording device turns on and records the sound.

Cassidy and her father hike a “froglogger” up into a tree near a pond.

He can later download the files and hear what is hopping around his ponds! Bravo to the Johnsons for caring about amphibians on their property!

With a 2,500 acre property ATV’s are a must to get around from site to site. Did I mention it was 40 something degrees? It was freezing!

Time to ramble aimlessly…cute photo attached!

Yes, time to ramble aimlessly…

It does not happen often, but every once in awhile you get sent a random email with a random link to a random photo and it makes you think. I received one of those recently.

Staff here at the zoo and conservationists worldwide spend their entire careers trying to convince everyone else that wildlife and wildlife habitat have value. Maybe its economic, maybe it’s cultural, maybe it’s “just because” but they all have value and often we need to come up with reasons to prove why.

Intrinsic Value is one. Not in the business sense of true value and assets but in tangible and intangible factors. Intrinsic value is an ethical definition – wildlife should exist because they belong to something that makes them what they are. They have lives, emotions, communication, social interactions, family ties – not the same type we humans may understand, but they do have them nonetheless. Wildlife belongs on the landscape, as part of the landscape. They need to be supported for that reason alone.

And then there is this little Snub-nosed monkey. An endangered species from China. This and many other species are what we struggle to protect. Looking at him (or her) sitting there in a photo will cause us to have a thought or emotion – happy, sad, cute, funny. Does not matter which. Automatically we care. We need everyone to automatically care. He (or she) deserves to exist just because he (or she) does. It is just that simple.

Snub-nosed monkey

It Takes a Mess to Make a Nest!

If you subscribe to the common phrase, ‘you can’t make an omelet without cracking a few eggs’, you know that sometimes one must create some disorder and chaos to get a task done.  In the Tropical Bird House here at the Houston Zoo, we have some birds that are making an epic mess of their exhibit while nest-building, and their keepers are ‘egging’ them on.


A Taveta Golden Weaver

We have a group of Taveta Golden Weavers (Ploceus castaneiceps) in an enclosure that currently resembles the aftermath of a Cat-5 hurricane, and these birds have been weaving some amazing nests as a result!

Typically, bird keepers take great pride in the cleanliness of the exhibits and we clean them daily to keep the birds healthy and the habitats looking great.  While the Taveta’s exhibit is still cleaned every morning and cleared of old food and other waste, we have been purposely leaving behind bamboo leaves, shredded palm fronds, sisal rope fibers and Spanish moss.  

Keepers have found that if these birds have access to an immense amount of fresh nesting material, the weavers significantly increase their nest-building efforts. 










So we’ve been overloading the exhibit with bamboo cuttings and what we have dubbed, ‘sacrificial palms’, which the birds love to shred into thin, long fibers for weaving their impressively intricate nests. 

stripped palm fronds

These palms inevitably die after being stripped of all the fronds, and the entire mess requires a surprising amount of maintenance and upkeep, as the bamboo and palms need to be replaced regularly and the old nesting bits and pieces removed since the weavers prefer their material fresh and green.  The exhibit is carpeted with plant remnants, and while we do not know why the birds may choose one bamboo leaf over another, we do know that the more choices they have, the better.

The results are absolutely worth the trouble, and it makes for a great opportunity to observe the natural nesting behaviors of these beautiful African birds.  Creating an environment in which birds feel comfortable enough to construct their own nests is just the first step though, and keepers are hoping for breeding soon. In the meantime, stop by the Tropical Bird House to see these messy little nesters in action!

Written by Megan Neal, Bird Keeper
Photography by Ben King, Bird Keeper

Art of Conservation Video: Rwanda

We are proud to partner with an inspirational organization called Art of Conservation.  The Art of Conservation project commenced in 2007 and works in poor rural communities bordering Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.  Kids are given the opportunity to connect with nature and endangered species through various forms of art.  The focus of the program is to empower the kids and instill a sense of pride and respect for the environment and for each other.

Here is a 3 minute video you should watch – come on, it’s only 3 minutes:Rwanda Schoolchildren speak about Art of Conservation

Rushubi Primary School, Rwanda

The new school year has just begun this month for both the Art of Conservation and schoolchildren in Rwanda. The Art of Conservation is not part of the regional curriculum but teaches one additional class every afternoon to two selected group of 50 students studying at Rushubi Primary School (5th grade) and one group of 50 students at Nyabistinde Primary School.

Innocent from AoC teaching students at Rushubi Primary School
There is much more than schoolwork happening with Art of Conservation. The program is involved with a community briquettes and rocket stoves program as an alternative sourve of heating and cooking over charcoal and wood, a local tennis club to get the kids involved in team sport activites, a mini-marathon “gorilla fun run” to promote exercise and staying healthy, rainwater tanks for access to clean water and a number of other initiatives we will fill you in on throughout the year.
Rushubi Primary School, Rwanda

Avian Enrichment: Foraging Fun with an Eclectus Parrot

Everyday Enrichment: Making Life More Interesting for our Avian Residents – Part I

Many Houston Zoo visitors often ask us what we do to ensure the health and mental well-being of our birds. Our keepers work daily to prepare varied and nutritionally-fortified diets, clean and maintain a variety of enclosures and take steps to ensure the best possible health of our animals. However, this doesn’t address every aspect of caring for our animals: this is where enrichment comes into play.

Enrichment may sound fancy or difficult, but in essence it simply entails giving our animals the opportunity to exhibit natural behaviors and reactions that they would demonstrate in the wild. Here at the Houston Zoo, our keepers work to provide a wide array of enrichment opportunities to keep our animals mentally stimulated (and we try our best to make sure our guests will be able to see these interactions as well).

Here we have an Eclectus Parrot (Eclectus roratus) working to get some mixed nuts and seed that have been placed in a tall can. Parrots in particular are known for spending large parts of their day in the wild seeking out new food sources, so giving a parrot something like this enforces a notion of working to get their food. This bird clearly employs a wide variety of problem-solving skills before she eventually wins the prize of a few peanuts and sunflower seeds.

Ever wonder what you can do to help enrich the animals at the Houston Zoo? There are many items that are highly desirable in our pursuit of providing an ever-changing life of variety for our animals, which you can view here. Of course, you can also feel free to come to the zoo to observe the variety of natural behaviors encouraged through these simple interactions. Many guests can spend hours enraptured by the most basic of natural behaviors, including simple foraging for food!

Hanging around with Swamp Monkeys and Red Tailed Guenons

Recently I had the pleasure of filming our families of red-tailed guenons and swamp monkeys and interviewing one of their caring and dedicated keepers. Alissa Fuhrman told me all about this swinging crew, everything from the veggies they love (tomatoes, but just the flesh, not the skin!) to the mischief they get into and the extended games of tag they play across their habitat.

It’s far too easy to walk right past these guys’ habitat in Wortham World of Primates, especially on a visit when the siamangs are calling you to come and see them at jet engine volume just around the bend. Now that I know a bit more about who they are, I can appreciate them so much more, and I look forward to the next time I can stop by and see what they’re up to.

I hope you enjoy this video as much as I enjoyed putting it together for you!

The Last Lions: National Geographic

Coming to a theatre near you? Maybe not just yet as National Geographic is running the premier of The Last Lions in limited theatres with a scheduled date for Houston of March 11th. 

The Last Lions was filmed by Dereck and Beverly Joubert, world-renowned wildlife photographers and cinematographers with narration by Jeremy Irons who  was the voice of “scar” in Disney’s The Lion King.

From the lush wetlands of Botswana’s Okavango Delta comes the suspense-filled tale of a determined lioness ready to try anything—and willing to risk everything—to keep her family alive. In the new wildlife adventure, The Last Lions, filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert follow the epic journey of a lioness named Ma di Tau (“Mother of Lions”) as she battles to protect her cubs against a daunting onslaught of enemies in order to ensure their survival.

From National Geographic’s storyline: The gripping real-life saga of Ma di Tau, her cubs, the buffalo, and the rival pride unfolds inside a stark reality: Lions are vanishing from the wild. In the last 50 years, lion populations have plummeted from 450,000 to as few as 20,000. Dereck and Beverly Joubert weave their dramatic storytelling and breathtaking, up-close footage around a resonating question: Are Ma di Tau and her young to be among the last lions? Or will we as humans, having seen how tough, courageous and poignant their lives in the wild are, be moved to make a difference?

Watch the trailer at:

Can’t catch the film? Then come out to the Houston Zoo and visit our pride of African Lions 364 days a year.

Male Lion Jonathan at the Houston Zoo

Lion Conservation: Mozambique

The Niassa Lion Project in Mozambique was founded in 2003 by Dr. Colleen and Keith Begg. Their mission is to secure lions in the Niassa National Reserve by reducing human-induced threats and promoting co-existence between lions and people. Acknowledging the costs to communities who live with lions, the program recognizes the potential for lions to provide ecological, economic and cultural benefits to the Niassa National Reserve and Mozambique.

Niassa National Reserve is located in northern Mozambique on the border with Tanzania. It is one of the largest protected areas in Africa (42,000 km²) and is considered to be one of the “Last of the Wild” and most undeveloped places in Africa. Time is running out to sustainably conserve the Niassa lions, as well as the Reserve’s significant populations of leopard, spotted hyena and African wild dog.

The conservation of lions in particular touches on many of the major ecological and social challenges facing Niassa National Reserve at present. The Reserve is home to a growing human population of 30,000 residents in forty villages on the verge of modern development. The costs to communities living with lions and large carnivores are significant through the loss of life, livelihoods and livestock.

The Niassa Lion Project  views community participation as an essential element of long-term protection for the African lion and the many other imperiled species within its critical habitat. NLP is deeply engaged with local residents, the management authority of the Niassa National Reserve, schools, tourism operators, and the bordering nation of Tanzania in its spectrum of conservation, scientific, and educational activities.

A number of  the programs efforts include: education and outreach, wildlife research, Human-Lion conflict mitigation, community programming and international coordination of Lion conservation efforts across Africa.

For more information visit their website 

Join them on Facebook at!/pages/Niassa-Lion-Project/151483654889759?v=wall

Houston Zoo Foto Friday Caption Winner of the Week

Welcome to the first Foto Friday Caption Challenge results post!

Last Friday, we posted a photo on Facebook and asked you to leave your best shot at a caption in the comment section. Then readers could “like” each caption comment. Their votes, combined with our own panel, determined the caption to appear under the picture right here on the Official Houston Zoo Blog this week.

Without further ado, here is Picture #1 that was posted on Facebook last Friday, with the winning caption by Milissa Erdelt Allen(and the crowd goes wild)


Very close second was a caption from Greg Davis:

“I can has cheezburger but I prefer whole cow”

An honorable mention goes to this one from Holli Young:

“I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and people like me”

Check out our Facebook page to see the rest of the entires.  We hope this brought a smile to your face. And stay tuned for next Friday’s photo!

Tell your friends, share this on Facebook, Twitter or your own blogs, and start your office pools to see who can come up with the best lines.  (To show the picture and link on your social media, just click the little icons under the title SHARE THIS on the lower left of this post).

To find us on Facebook, type in Houston Zoo Inc. in the search field or go to and become a fan.

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