The Zebras Move in with the Giraffes

Charlie the zebra and Mtembei the giraffe meet for the first time. Suddenly Charlie was presented with an unexpected shift in perspective.

The Houston Zoo has something new in the African Forest – zebra! Our two zebra, Charlie and Image, are joining the giraffe and ostriches in their yard. Monday morning Charlie was introduced to the ostrich and giraffe, and soon Image will join them.

These two zebra have been with the Houston Zoo for many years, and have resided in the West Hoofrun yard alongside several other species, including giant eland, nyala and warthogs. Just last week the nyala Ginger and Niles had a calf, a beautiful brown-haired boy the keepers have dubbed Cashew. He was born at almost exactly the same time as our latest giraffe addition, baby Ghubari, who was born to experienced mom Tyra. (Thanks to everone who participated in the vote to choose the name for this little guy!)

Baby Cashew is healthy and mom is doing a great job of caring for her calf. However, Charlie and Image have been a bit too curious about this new addition to their yard. Charlie in particular has been standing over the calf frequently, whether to offer it some additional protection & shade or out of curiosity, we can only guess. As a result it had become challenging for mom to nurse with a zebra in the way.

So Hoofed Stock Supervisor John Register worked with curator Daryl Hoffman, Vice President Sharon Joseph and Zoo Director Rick Barongi to determine a solution. They brainstormed and evaluated six different options, and concluded that the best solution would be to move the zebra over to join the giraffe.

On Sunday, John and his staff worked to complete the move.  Charlie and Image are senior zebra – Charlie is 29 and Image is 31 years old. Both were offered some special food treats inside the trailer to encourage them to walk in, but only Charlie would go. Image will make the trip soon.

Charlie was given the run of the giraffe yard early Monday morning while the giraffes waited in the barn.  John’s thinking was that Charlie would feel more comfortable with a gradual introduction. The ostrich were the first to meet Charlie.  She seemed curious about the big birds.

At approximately 9:30am John  opened the gate, and the giraffes and Charlie were allowed to meet for the first time. Mtembei, new father and head male of the giraffe herd, was first out to greet Charlie. She was immediately curious and even went into the barn to say hello to her other new yardmates.

Meet the Keeper- Becky Futch

Have you ever wanted to know what being a zoo keeper is like? Well here’s your chance! Today’s amazing keeper is Becky Futch who works as an animal keeper in our aquarium.  I was able to get a few minutes with Becky to ask her some questions so that we can get some deeper insight into the life of a zoo keeper.

Out of all the jobs in the world, why did you choose to become an aquarist?

I picked this profession for my fascination with chemistry. A body of water is much like the human body: each goes through a process to utilize materials while producing waste, and each requires specific minerals and nutrients to work at peak performance. Certain minerals are vitally important to both. Understanding one assists in better comprehension of the other. Aquariums keeping is an ever changing science. Even though fishkeeping can be dated back to ancient Sumerian, 2,500 BC, jellyfish keeping is only about 2 decades old. This profession allows the advantage of discovery and experimentation for the goal of better fish keeping.


What is your daily routine?

My daily routine begins before 7am, with a visual check of all the animals, pumps and chillers. The temperature of each exhibit is checked twice daily, along with other life support operation systems such as the air blowers. Early morning I spend skimming dust from the surface of the jellyfish exhibits, siphoning waste from the bottom, and cleaning off any algae from the glass. Then, my duties include care for the Live Food Room. This room contains variously sized shrimp and rotifers, which are an important food source for jellies, larval fishes and other finicky eaters. Each culture is maintained daily, with some nutrient enriched, so we can offer our animals the most nutritious food possible. Food items are then taken to needed areas, one of which is for the jellies. This begins a feeding routine of 1x per hour, to keep food in the water column at all times. Out in the wild, the jellies would have constant access to zooplankton and other foods, so I try to mimic this throughout the day.

I spend my afternoons working in a display aquarium, either for water changes, cleaning algae from the glass, aquascaping, or tending to any other need. Water quality testing is also essential to knowing the health of the exhibit.


Do you have a favorite part of all of that?

My favorite part of the routine includes the close working relationship I have with co-workers. Each keeper has experience and skills that I can learn from daily, and as a team we work efficiently to maintain healthy exhibits.


In your experience, what is the biggest misconception that the public has about what you do?

 One misconception I commonly hear is that an Aquariums Keeper simply tosses a handful of flakes in a tank, then ignores it until the next day. In reality, each exhibit receives considerable attention each day to make sure the health of the animal or population is superior and that the exhibit itself is in top running order.


What is your advice for people who aspire to become a zoo keeper?

 Anyone interested in becoming a keeper should start with hands-on experience as quickly as possible. Volunteer opportunities are everywhere.


A big THANK YOU to Becky for taking the time to answer my questions.

War in the Congo: Its impact on people and wildlife

Consider this my one tirade for the week:

We are a zoo and conservation organization and although we realize the terrible toll war and conflict take on human lives, this is not our expertise. So when we post stories on these regions, our focus is wildlfe but we never forget the human part of this tragedy. There are so many positive stories of conservation efforts that incorporate wildlife protection and the development of human communities which are mutually beneficial. But humans will be humans and conflict boils over in regions such as this whether it is over boundaries, mineral rights or long standing conflicts the western world (us) rarely hear about.

From June 24th to early July we spoke about the poaching conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the attack on the Okapi Conservation Project and rangers in the Ituri Forest which took the lives of 6 people and all 14 Okapi housed at the center. Media barely responded to this but our colleagues and members did and reached out in support of the people of the Ituri Forest, funding food supplies and medical aid for those displaced and injured. The attack was a retaliation for breaking up illegal elephant poaching and gold/mineral mining activities. It is not about food and water security, it is about making money by selling these products on the black market to buy better weapons to increase this illegal activity. This is my poorly disguised call for people to recycle their cell phones and pay attention to what we are saying about being a responsible consumer.


Mountain Gorilla, Sabinyo Group, Rwanda

In early April in the eastern sector of the Democratic Republic of Congo North Kivu province (there are two Congos, the other being the Republic of Congo), militia groups moved into an area of the Virunga Mountains, home to potentially 1/3rd of all the worlds 800+ Mountain Gorillas. This is not a new conflict, it is a cycle of fighting; rebels are being pushed back by the Congolese Army and then start fighting all over again. With it comes people fleeing their villages to escpe the conflict, reportedly some 250,000 people. And with all these people moving to protect their families, comes the depletion of natural resources for food and firewood, and the insecurity for wildlife in the park. The ongoing conflict also disrupts tourism, a large part of the park, and the areas financial sustainability as well as offering employment to the local population. For example, for the past two years, park authorities have contributed 30% of their gross revenues to projects in the impoverished surrounding villages from tourism revenue.

Young Mountain Gorilla, Rwanda

And for us, it is about wildlife and people. In Rwanda, the DRC and Uganda we support the work of the Gorilla Doctors. Gorilla Doctors is a veterinary team powered by the nonprofit Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project, Inc. and the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center that is dedicated to saving the lives of Central Africa’s endangered mountain and Grauer’s gorillas through health care. Gorilla Doctors treat wild human-habituated gorillas suffering from life-threatening injury and illness, conduct gorilla disease research, and facilitate preventive health care for the people who work in the national parks who come into close contact with the gorillas. The Virunga mountain gorilla population increased by 26.3% between 2003 and 2010: a 2011 study of the mountain gorilla population in the Virunga Massif showed that the Gorilla Doctors may be responsible for up to 40% of the growth of the habituated population.

Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project wih orphan. Photo by Molly Feltner/MGVP

It is important to understand that the health of mountain gorillas is inextricably linked to the health of the people with whom they share their forest habitat, as well as the health of the people living in the communities surrounding the parks. Our efforts are focused on the employee health program (EHP) where every mountain gorilla tracker, guide, porter, researcher, and veterinarian in Rwanda and DRC and his wife receives a comprehensive annual health evaluation: a physician’s examination, diagnostic blood work, HIV and TB testing, a vision test, and preventive vaccines. Any worker determined to have a health issue is sent to the local referral hospital for further diagnostics and treatment as necessary.

Children in a field in Musanze, Rwanda at the base of Volcanoes National Park, home to the Mountain Gorilla

It is also important to understand that this is an ongoing conflict, one that is based in not only political conflict but fighting over territories with natural resources that can be used for profit – from timber to gold and coltan. This conflict affects the human communities and the wildlife who live in some of the most diverse areas of the planet. Pressuring governments to make better use of these resources, and making people are aware of the ongoing conflicts, is the only way we can protect wildlife and develop long-term community based solutions for the local human populations. There is a balance to these ecosystems for which both wildlife and local people belong if managed sustainably.

For media reports on the current conflict go to MSNBC, The Guardian, CNN or

Lions: With a name like Fabio…

He is bound for stardom.

Last week I was writing that people are drawn to stories and personalities and sometimes, those wildlife personalities take on a following all their own. So if I want to tell a story about wildlife, make you want to follow that species, then why not let you identify with an individual that you could have an emotional attachment to and in turn care more about and want to act on it’s behalf?

Fabio, and a full belly, walking the riverbed

This week, it has to be the lion Fabio in the Niassa National Reserve in northern Mozambique. This ~18 month old male seems to be turning up everywhere over the past few weeks with his family: Mom Flavia, Aunt Fatima and younger cousin Fantine in tow.

Mom Flavia, courtesy of Colleen Begg. This photo is available as a print on archival paper from the Houston Zoo in support of the Niassa Lion Project

I first met Fabio on my visit to the Niassa Lion Project in very early June as we followed his collar signal through the tall grass. He looked up at us, curious as to why the Land Rover had 5 odd humans in it and then went about his business. A few days later we met him once again but this time with his family and our first sighting of Fatima’s new cub Fantine (pronuounced Fon-teen) as well as an unidentified female.

Fabio showing off his profile photo

Fabio is not the leader of the pride, there is a territorial male in the area that this group is related to, but he does seem to be around every corner of this part of the Reserve whether it is wandering across a dry riverbed or more recently literally showing up outside the Niassa Lion Project camp.

Fabio just doing what he does best, being photogenic.

It is good to have him be such a visual part of the project and even better to hear that Fabio and his family are moving around the reserve doing what lions do. If you would like to learn how you can help the Niassa Lion Project you can link to or or look for their Facebook Page. These animals make people care. Wildlife outside our doors do not have a chance if we do not care. It is just that simple.

Showing us how bored he is with all of us

We will continue updating you on Fabio as news and photos arrive. Just remember, now that you know Fabio, we need you to care about him and all the people and wildlife of Niassa National Reserve.


The Houston Zoo's response to the Okapi Conservation Project Tragedy, By Ashely Roth, Hoofstock Keeper

On 24 June 2012, the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, located near the Epulu station in the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Ituri Forest, was attacked by a group of poachers known as Simba rebels. They were seeking revenge on the Institute in the Congo for Conservation of Nature (ICCN); whose headquarters base at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve, for recently shutting down their illegal poaching and mining activities. The outcome of this attack was tragic leaving six people dead. Everything of value, from computers to vehicles were stolen or burned. All food and medical supplies were taken, leaving the village with nothing to eat. The 14 Okapis stationed at the reserve, serving as ambassadors for the country’s flagship species were killed. Over 30 villagers from Epulu were taken hostage to assist the poachers in transporting the stolen goods. Fortunately most of the Okapi Conservation Project’s (OCP) staff and locals were able to escape into the forest unharmed. Also, the villagers taken hostage were released and are beginning to return to the village.

In response to the crisis at OCP, Houston Zoo, Inc. with assistance from the Greater Houston Chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers (GHCAAZK) wanted to plan an emergency fundraiser. The Houston Zoo committed to assisting the OCP by any means necessary. Due to the urgent nature and time sensitivity of this crisis, it was dire to act as quickly as possible. The decision was made to plan and implement an Okapi Crisis Relief fundraiser to raise money to be sent as emergency aid to the project.


The goal of the Okapi Crisis Relief was to raise monetary support to be sent to the OCP. Additionally, the Houston Zoo wanted to increase community awareness and knowledge, not only about okapis but the true wildlife heroes that risk their lives on a daily basis to protect species and their habitats.

The Houston Zoo regularly supports a wide range of conservation efforts and organizations, but has not been faced with such an immense crisis with a short time frame for fundraising. Generally several months of planning would go into preparing for such events as the Okapi Crisis Relief, but due to the nature of this emergency, several months was not realistic to offer monetary aid.

The Houston Zoo is lucky enough to have a devoted conservation department that worked diligently alongside with hoofed stock and the marketing/graphics departments, with assistance from the rest of the zoo and GHCAAZK to make this event happen. From the initial planning meeting to organizing supplies, education, and promotional materials, the Okapi Crisis Relief was put together in three days.

The conservation department’s connections with the OCP initially sparked the idea to provide assistance to the project. A representative from the department organized a meeting with hoofed stock, special events, marketing, and graphics departments. The decision was made to host the conservation event on Sunday, 1 July 2012. A donation page was immediately set up on the zoo’s website; including information about the project and crisis updates from the Congo. The crisis and fundraising event was promoted via the internet using Facebook, Twitter, and an email campaign which included zoo members and donors. A painting done by one of our resident okapi’s was put on eBay to be auctioned off. Our marketing and graphics department quickly designed banners that were placed throughout the zoo with QR codes, bringing guests directly to the donation page. Local news papers ran a story about the zoo’s relief efforts and local news stations covered the event.

In preparation for the Okapi Crisis Relief event, the Greater Houston Chapter of the American Association of Zoo Keepers donated time and supplies. The day before the event, members gathered to make okapi buttons to be sold. Okapi masks were cut out for kids to color and wear the day of the event.



To raise money, several different tables were stationed throughout the zoo, with the main table set-up in front of the zoo’s okapi exhibits. Merchandise included: I love okapis and Okapi Crisis Relief buttons, conservation bracelets, paintings done by some of the zoo’s animals, magnets, finger puppets, stuffed animals, Wildlife Heroes books, and conservation snare art, to name a few. Raffle tickets were sold for a chance to win a behind the scenes tour to meet one of the zoo’s resident okapis. The okapi table highlighted the conservation efforts of the OCP and the risks the staff and locals take every day to protect the Okapi Wildlife Reserve. Volunteers set-up a biological facts table to allow guests a hands-on learning opportunity. Included on the table was an okapi skull and an animal pelt. To involve some of the younger guests, a crafts table was set-up for children to make okapi masks and decorate an okapi coloring page. Face painting was also offered at the main entrance.

Many staff and volunteers donated their time to work at one of the tables, educate the public about the situation in the Congo and the effort the Houston Zoo was putting forth to provide emergency relief. Though the day of the event was overcast and rainy, many guests came out to the zoo to show their support and take part in the day’s events. The public displayed a willingness to help however financially possible, whether it was $1 or $500. One very young man brought in his life savings to purchase an okapi painting.

Following the Okapi Crisis Relief event, donations continued to generate. Keepers were stopped by guests unable to attend the event, but who wanted to make a financial contribution. Online donations continued as well. The okapi painting placed on eBay raised a sizeable amount; more than was ever expected. In addition, the GHCAAZK held an all-staff bake sale with a percentage of the profits donated to support the okapi relief efforts.

We have raised $24,840 for the OCP to date. This relief fund could not have occurred without the help and teamwork from everyone at the zoo. Staff from animal keepers, grounds, and administration to marketing and conservation worked to make this event a success. All money raised will help the locals rebuild their lives, the reconstruction of the conservation station, and assist the ICCN to continue to protect the wildlife of the Ituri Forest. The OCP is a symbol for the livelihood of the local people. It provides stability for the locals for the long road instead of the fast money that could come from poaching animals instead of protecting them. Rebuilding the project and getting the community back on its feet shows the strength that comes from the project, outshining the will of illegal activity groups wanting to be free to do as they wish. Houston Zoo staff is very proud to work for an institution that cares so greatly about conservation and allows its staff to take part in conservation efforts like the Okapi Crisis Relief. Events like the Okapi Relief Fund truly define the work of zoos as they continue to work diligently to conserve the world’s species.

Freeze Frame

Last week we posted an image of a monkey, a long-tailed macaque, in Borneo using a camera trap of one our partners to check his teeth before going to his dentist. I am sure monkeys have dentists so just humour me. I then heard that this monkey had gone viral and immediately panicked thinking “oh great, another emergining zoonotic disease to plague humans” but later found out they just meant social media viral as this little photo was seen on ABC, London papers, across the US and NBC nightly news:

Macaque saying "hello to the ladies"

I think the word camera trap is confusing for some so basically it is a motion sensor camera used by researchers and hunters to gather data on wildlife. Our colleagues at Danau Girang Field Centre in Sabah, Borneo use them to look at both the types of and quantity of carnivores along the Kinabatangan River. Further south at the Tabin Wildlife Reserve, we support the same group looking at populations of Banteng, an endangered species of wild cow -yes – I said wild cow and endangered species in the same sentence.

Banteng cow with males in background
Normally wildife ignore these camers although the primates like to see their reflection in the small camera lens. Sometimes they pose for a photo whereas elephants may not be as happy with their profile and tear the camera off the tree, testing the patience (these are fairly expensive pieces of equipment) of researchers. Others, like this curious chimpanzee from the Faleme Chimpanzee Conservation Project in Senegal, well, I am just not sure what he was thinking:
There is so much more going on out in the world of animals then we ever realize. They go about their day to day business of eating, sleeping, eating some more, trying not to get eaten, and then sleeping again. But in between that busy schedule, these “not so hidden” cameras are catching wonderful photos of their personalities, even if the photo is not so clear like this Civet carrying her cub in her mouth courtesy of Danau Girang Field Centre.
Civet and baby - look in her mouth. No, she is not eating it, she is carrying it.
So next time you see a wacky animal photo, we may not know what they are thinking – ok maybe they are thinking “I will smash you camera and your glass eye!” like this elephant below, but they all have personalities and clearly they have appointments to keep just like the rest of us.

Rice University Interns Solve Giraffe Feeder Challenge

Written by Mike Tseng, a summer intern at the Rice Center for Engineering Leadership

When people think of giraffes, enrichment is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. But these adorable, tall animals need enrichment as much as any other animal!

Acacia Tree

In the wild, giraffes like to eat from tall acacia trees. These trees have thorns which make it difficult for the giraffes to feed from them, and sometimes there are ants living on the trees, which attack the giraffes when they try to feed! However, the giraffes are well equipped to meet these challenges, too! They have flexible, 18-inch long tongues they use to navigate around the thorns on the trees. These tongues also have thick skin to protect them from thorns and ants.


Thorn on acacia tree – ouch!


In the zoo, the giraffes are safe from threats when they are feeding, but they also don’t have many chances to use their wonderful tongues. Scientific research has shown that when giraffes don’t get to use their tongues often, they can become “bored” and may exhibit undesirable behaviors such as licking trees and fences. In order to avoid such behaviors, the zoo wanted to build a feeder that lets the giraffes exercise their tongues more often.


Interns at Rice University build a giraffe feeder


For the past six months, a team of freshman engineers from Rice University have been working on an enrichment feeder that challenges the giraffes by making them use their tongues for longer periods of time. This feeder also needs to look more natural in the giraffes’ exhibit. The current feeder is a plastic barrel covered with bamboo with holes drilled on the sides, and bamboo branches attached to it. The bamboo branches get into the way of the giraffes feeding, just like tree branches would in the real world. Also, holes in this device are just the right size–giraffes can put their tongues into the holes, but can’t put in their whole snouts, so they can’t eat the hay without using their tongues to grab it!

The giraffe feeder was created through a rigorous engineering design process by the Rice University freshmen, and no less than four prototypes were produced before the final feeder was made. Of course, we didn’t want the giraffes to get hurt using these feeders! The first prototypes went through safety tests before the giraffes used them. One was dropped from 12½ feet over 25 times just to prove that it was durable!

Even though the prototype is finished, we still don’t know if the giraffes will actually like it!

Will the giraffes like the new feeder?

Before the project can be completed, the puzzle feeder needs to prove that it indeed enriches the Houston Zoo giraffes. This means increasing feeding time and reducing negative stereotypical behavior in them. In order to prove these things, video clips of the giraffes interacting with the zoo’s cage feeder and our puzzle feeder are being recorded. By comparing the recordings, the Rice University students will be able to know if the giraffe are more enriched by the new feeder.

If you happen to pass by the giraffe exhibit this week, keep your eyes open–you may be able to see the feeder in action! If you’re not going to the zoo, don’t worry; the feeder may also be featured live on the zoo’s giraffe webcam at! You can also follow the Rice University freshmen’s progress on this and many other projects on their blog at

Giraffes eating from the new feeder

Society is broken and I blame bad TV

Adelie Penguin and Chick

We are all very busy these days, too busy to pay attention to anything for than a fleeting moment. Due to this, I am convinced that our attention spans are evolving to no longer pay attention, which in turn makes learning about wildlife very difficult. “See that butterfly?” “Yes – very nice!” “Hey, look at that funny billboard – wait, someone is texting me a video of a man in a bunny  costume eating a piece of grass.” Welcome to the world of 2012.

When I was growing up in the 60’s and 70’s with the 3 tv channels and walking to school uphill in both directions in the snow, and we drank water from the tap – I survived. But on those 3 channels once in a while would be a worthwhile show about wildlife: Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins where he would make Jim Fowler tackle animals he really did not want to while Marlin talked about them. Jacque Cousteau Ocean documentaries and the occasional show about Jane Goodall. Late night talk shows would feature Jack Hanna or Joan Emery from San Diego and we learned bits and pieces and every once in a while or ended up in a library where books were free to borrow.

40 years removed from the old days, I am convinced that we as a society of learning individuals are broken – and I am blaming cable TV for this. Only a few short years ago, you could happily flip on Animal Planet or Discovery Channel and either discover something or learn about wildlife but these networks have completely lost their minds. A one week review of what they are showing seems to prove my point. With all due respect to the individuals who they are highlighting and are now making a better living at what they do – this is entertainment – not education – and much if it detrimentally affects live animals. Maybe Animal Planet and Discovery Channel find it easier to sell these shows – remember our attention spans have made it such that we really want non-stop action no matter what the subject.

The first show I watched and they replayed a dozen times over the week – Call of the Wildman where Turtle man attempted to evict a raccoon from an old trading post. He did by the way. This was followed by Gator Boys, Swamp Brothers and Hillbilly Handfishin (yes I spelled that correctly). Mostly it is people running around grabbing animals.

Over on Discovery Channel, I discovered a Documentary (documentary means nonfictional and intending to represent some aspect of reality and yes, I looked the word up to make sure) called Mermaids: The Body Found that examined the speculation that the mythical sea creatures may be real and claim authorities are keeping it a secret. Shame on you Discovery Channel. Back to our friends at Animal Planet where Rattlesnake Republic notes: “In the heart of Texas is a little known world where men hunt and capture the continent’s most dangerous predator. The Rattlesnake Republic follows the lives and adventures of four teams of brave rattlesnake wranglers as they battle to make a living.” They basically make a living killing rattlesnakes. It is rated TV-Y, which means it is appropriate for children.

On the bright side, there is still National Geographic Wild who have been showing The Last Lions, Eye of the Leopard and a few other non-mermaid related documentaries. Tuesday they aired the first episode of Freeks and Creeps. Not enamored with the title, but it focuses on some of the lesser known animals around the world from Tasmanian Devils to Proboscis Monkeys and is really worth watching.

Proboscis Monkey, Borneo

For now – get your kids away from the tv – it is dragging us back to the stone age – and get them outside and force them to look at a butterfly or maybe a squirrel or two. Want to really confuse them?  Take them to a library.

Meet the Zoo Keeper: Josh Young

Today is the last day of Zoo Keeper Appreciation Week—Have you hugged a zoo keeper today? Today’s superstar zoo keeper is Josh Young. Josh works with our carnivores—the meat-eaters—which include all of our cats (tiger, lion, cheetah, leopard, and many others), bears (grizzly and Andean), and canids (maned wolf, African wild dog, and even a domestic dog: Anatolian shepherd dog).  Zoo volunteer Dale Martin talks with Josh about his experience as a zoo keeper at the Houston Zoo.

Carnivore Zoo keeper Josh Young talks to Camp Zoofari kids about Malayan Tigers at the Tiger Training Window. As a youngster, Josh attended Camp Zoofari where he became interested in becoming a zookeeper.

How long have you been here at the Houston Zoo and how did you become a zookeeper?

I’ve been here over eleven years now.  When I was younger, I attended a very primitive form of our current Camp Zoofari – at the time, it was a 1-day workshop focusing on a specific topic. I saw teens working alongside the teachers and later found that they were members of Zoo Crew. They got to volunteer at the Zoo!! I applied the next summer and was accepted as a volunteer into the Large Mammal Department. I volunteered there for 4 years. During that time, I had the opportunity to work with some awesome animals…and people. It was a profession that I knew I would love, so I applied for a job opening and was hired on in the Hoofed Stock Department.

What course of study did you pursue to prepare you to become a zookeeper?

I received my Bachelor’s degree from the University of St. Thomas in Philosophy & Art History. One thing that I learned is that no particular course of study, animal related or not, could have prepared me for everything in zoo keeping. Of course, it helps to have basic knowledge of animals & common sense—but we are all jacks-of-all-trades, and the majority of what we do is something that we just learn as we go along. One can read everything written about a particular species, but each individual animal is different in personality – predictable situations can easily change when working any living creature. I’ve seen many of our animals act contrary to what the textbooks say.

What is your favorite part of being a zoo keeper?

It’s not an office job! I get to work outdoors with incredible animals and a great bunch people. It’s such a unique profession.

What is your biggest challenge being a zoo keeper at Houston Zoo?

Houston summers!!! I have lived here my entire life but the heat drains the energy right out of me. The animals dread the summer, too. The job becomes twice as challenging when the animals are not motivated to do anything.

What is your daily routine like?

The Carnivore Team meets at 7:00am every day in a morning meeting where we discuss important issues and the day’s upcoming events. After the meeting, we report to our assigned area/animals. We check on and do head-counts of all of our animals. Then, it’s feeding animals, cleaning exhibits, training husbandry behaviors, administering any medications to animals undergoing veterinary treatment, enriching animals, and working on special department projects. Sometimes, it can be downright hectic!

What is your most rewarding aspect of the job?

Knowing that I help take care of animals that people love to come and see and learn about. We spend so much time with our animals that they are our extended family. These animals depend on us.

What animals have you worked with in the past and are working with currently?

I began working at the zoo in the Large Mammals (hoofed stock) Department which, at the time, had white rhinos, giraffe, pygmy hippos, tapirs, and numerous antelope species. After about 2 years, I transferred to the Carnivore Department. We have tigers, lions, bears, maned wolves, cheetahs, a number of other cat species, African wild dogs, and one domestic dog—an Anatolian shepherd dog.

Do you have any favorite animals that you either worked with or just in general?

My favorite is Celesto, our 22-year-old female African lion. She was the most ornery animal I had ever met when I first started. For several years, I took time every day to spend time with her and earning her trust – now we work great together. She has an extremely bold personality that I love.

What is your funniest/most outrageous experience/story as a zookeeper?

A few years ago, Carnivore Supervisor Kevin Hodge and I were assigned the task of driving to Baton Rouge (LA) Zoo to pick up and transport our new maned wolf to her new home here at Houston Zoo. We left Houston about 4:00am in a small van and picked Lucy up in Baton Rouge later that day. On our return to Houston—with Lucy in a kennel in the back seat, Kevin & I realized that neither of us had eaten all day. We stopped for a quick meal break at a Taco Bell just outside of Baton Rouge. With a maned wolf in the back seat, we knew that one of us would have to wait in the car with Lucy while the other went in to get food. On entering the restaurant, everyone stared at me with a slight look of disgust. I then realized that I smelled heavily of maned wolf—maned wolves exude an odor that smells like skunk. Nobody inside Taco Bell would stand anywhere near me!! I quickly got our food and returned to the van. The final scene still makes me laugh: Kevin & I, smelling like skunk, eating fast food in a van in the middle of the Atchafalaya Basin, with a maned wolf in the back seat….that had to be a first!!



Meet the Zoo Keeper: Mary Clarke

Have you ever wanted to know what being a zoo keeper is like? Well, here’s your chance! This week is Zoo Keeper Appreciation Week, so we’re featuring a zoo keeper each day to give you a behind-the-scenes look at what goes on at the Zoo. Today’s amazing keeper is Mary Clarke, who has been a zoo keeper here for nearly 2 years.

Primates keeper Mary Clarke offers a stick to Kindu, our youngest Red Tailed Guenon.

Growing up, Mary’s mom was a vet tech so it only makes sense that she has been an animal lover from the start. As she learned about the animal world, her interests evolved from domestic/medical to exotic/caretaking, thus starting her journey to become a zoo keeper!

One of Mary’s favorite aspects of the job is that nothing is predictable. Each day is different from the one before because no matter how hard you try, you cannot predict animal behavior. The Primate department is a large one with many different sections and different animals. The keepers in this section generally rotate through the various exhibits so they have to adjust their days based on which animals they are caring for. The job keeps Mary on her toes as she always has to think about enrichment, diet and behavior for each individual animal.

Even though her days are filled with a variety of activities, I asked Mary what a typical day was like and of course there is a lot of cleaning! She generally cleans for 5-6 hours a day, starting with the exhibits, then moving to the inside night houses once the animals are out for the public to view. Throughout the day, each species gets fed 3-4 times and we cannot forget about enrichment! Every day after feeding, the animals get some sort of enrichment. Then with what time is left, the keepers work on projects and training if possible.

Mary says that the biggest challenge about being a primate keeper is constantly trying to come up with new enrichment ideas. Primates are so smart, and each individual has different interests. So the keepers have to come up with new, novel ways to present some of the same things. If you have any enrichment ideas you can share them with the keepers here at the Houston Zoo. Or, if you have an interest in purchasing enrichment items for some of our animals, you can check out their wish list at

Mary works with a lot of different animals in the primates department including the babirusa, De Brazza’s monkey, siamangs, mangabeys, colobus, lemurs, and chimps…and it doesn’t stop there! When asked which are her favorite (a tough question for any keeper) Mary said that can depend on how they are behaving that day. But her current favorite is the baby siamang, Leela. She has started a lot of training with her and she is quite a rockstar!

Mary has been especially hard at work building a bond with Leela, the baby siamang. In order to build this bond, they spend a lot of time playing together through the wire mesh of the enclosure. This type of interaction is called “protected contact.”  Even though Leela is a baby, she will grow to be big and very strong, and the safety of the keepers and the animals is of utmost importance. By interacting with Leela, Mary has found that she is very ticklish under her chin and if she lets you tickle her there she makes a cute noise. To max out the adorable factor, when Leela gets excited she puts on a funny play face where she smiles really big, closes her eyes and tries to run around (with a tendency to run into things). After observing her mom, Jambi, the keepers noticed that she has the exact same play face!

The training and play time actually ties into what Mary said is one of the most rewarding aspect of the job: when an animal accepts you. They are wild animals, and you don’t want to push any boundaries. You need to work on their terms, and when they are willing to work with you it is pretty awesome.

Stay tuned all week for more keeper features!

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