Meet the Keeper

Each day at the Houston Zoo our guests can enjoy more than 20 Meet the Keeper Talks. The presentations are a wonderful opportunity for guests of all ages to learn about our animals and to ask questions of the keepers who work every day with them.

The Brown Education Center at the Houston Zoo as it looked shortly after it opened in 1988, complete with neon lighting!

Meet the Keeper Talks have been a regular feature of the Zoo since 2005. Before then, there were the informal ‘Keeper Chats.’  But the evolution these types of presentations at the Zoo go back to the 1940s and beyond. 

In the 1990s, Meet the Keeper Talks designed for children between the ages of 6 and 12 years of age were presented 4 times a year, usually on Saturday mornings in the spring in the Brown Education Center (BEC).  Produced by the Zoological Society, the Talks would begin at 9 a.m. and  featured a formal presentation by a zoo keeper, a slide show and a question and answer period at the end. 

Those Saturday morning Meet the Keeper Talks in the BEC have a historical connection to the Houston Zoo’s second Zoo Manager Tom Baylor.  Tom started at the Zoo in the mid 1920s as assistant to the Zoo’s first ‘head zookeeper’ Hans Nagel.  Tom was promoted to Zoo Manager following Nagel’s untimely death (more about that in blogs to follow) in 1941.  By the summer of 1945, Tom launched a series of Saturday afternoon lectures.

The clipping here, from the Houston Chronicle’s Sunday June 3 issue is notable for the species Tom planned to feature and the City agency credited with sponsoring the presentations – the natural science section of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department. 

In November 1943 Dr. Victor Greulach at the University of Houston outlined an ambitious 12 point natural history program to be sponsored by the Parks and Recreation Department.  In addition to publishing Zoo and Museum of Natural History guide books (the Museum was located in the Zoo then), constructing nature trails in City parks, and organizing traveling museum specimens for schools, the program called for Department sponsored annual Nature Fairs.  The first was held in 1943 in Hermann Park.  The second annual Nature Fair drew more than 40,000 people to the Park and the Zoo was prominently featured in both.

Of course, we can’t close this post with out mentioning Hans Nagel’s  hand in establishing the first keeper presentations at the Houston Zoo.  When  the photo below was taken, Hans was well on the way to building his reputation as showman and wowing Zoo guests with intriguing training demonstrations. We’ll dig deeper into that legacy in future posts.  But in the meantime, we encourage you to share your Houston Zoo memories and photos with us.  We’d like to hear from you at



The Bee's Knees

One of the most important aspects of the Houston Zoo is the commitment its employees have to conserving wildlife and connecting people to these efforts. This passion for wildlife extends far beyond the impressive Zoo exhibits and day-to-day programming our guests typically see. The Zoo has found a creative way to foster our employees’ passion for the Zoo’s mission: the Houston Zoo Staff Conservation Fund (SCF).

The SCF offers unique opportunities for staff to participate in a variety of conservation efforts. The Fund builds exclusively upon donations from Houston Zoo staff, and these funds contribute directly to the projects that staff members propose and execute. By providing employees with an excellent opportunity to build capacity for conservation, the Houston Zoo accomplishes an integral part of its core mission.

One of the recent recipients of a staff funded grant is Karen Sprague, a Senior Keeper in the Zoo’s Herpetology Department. Karen had the following to say about her successful SCF pollinator project:

One of the new bee houses on grounds!

“My project started mainly because I have a fascination with native bees… while looking for bee ID resources for the Houston area, I was surprised to learn that not much bee diversity research had been done in southeast Texas, and that nobody really knows what species are present here.  Most of the funding for bee research is funneled into European honeybees since we rely on them heavily to pollinate the majority of our crops (excluding wind-pollinated crops of course).  In talking to friends and family, I realized that most people are familiar with the honeybee and MAYBE the bumblebee and are completely unaware that native bees even exist.

A new pollinator sign at the Zoo!

There are about 4,500 species of bee in North America alone (including around 50 species of bumblebee, not just one). Not only do native bees pollinate many of our crops (tomatoes, blueberry and alfalfa for dairy cattle… to name a few) but have evolved with and are responsible for the pollination of the vast majority of our native flowering plants, shrubs and trees.  Even though all these interactions may go unnoticed by us humans, the plant-pollinator relationship makes the world go round… if either were to disappear, our ecosystems would come crashing down and we would all perish in short order.

Can you find this sign and bee house the next time you visit the Zoo?

I started this project not only because I wanted to photo-document the bees of the Houston area, but because the distressing fact is that people don’t know how important our native bees (and all other pollinators) are.  We developed 4 graphic panels (coupled with wooden bee nest boxes) on Zoo grounds to teach people how to help pollinators through gardening, providing nesting areas, supporting organic farms and by simply not using pesticides.  You can start a native bee conservation project in your own back yard – they rarely interact with humans (meaning its near impossible to get them to sting) and it is incredibly entertaining to watch them work.  You get an extra-bountiful garden out of the deal, and you’re helping some very important species, many of which are in serious decline due to extensive habitat loss and rampant pesticide use.  Bees give us so much: 30% of the food we eat every day, spices, coffee, vanilla, cotton for clothing, the list goes on and on… It’s time we give something back.”

Look at that clever hiding spot for our pollinator friends!

You can visit our pollinator webpage created by Karen and our web team to learn more about these fascinating animals.

Another wonderful spot for pollinators at the Zoo.

Critically Endangered Turtles Hatched at the Houston Zoo!

Adult Basking on a Rock
Herpetology keeper, Chris Bednarski, holding the first hatchlings

Madagascar Big-headed Turtles (Erymnochelys madagascariensis) are facing extinction due to drastic deforestation and illegal hunting. They are ranked at number 16 in the world’s most endangered turtles and tortoises list .  We are proud to announce that we have had five hatch at the Houston Zoo, in our Madagascar lemur exhibit!. The hatchlings are very small, averaging 6.8g each. They are just a little larger than a US quarter, averaging only 28.7mm wide and 32.3mm long. This is the first hatching at a zoo in the United States, and we are one of the only zoos in the world that is currently breeding them.
This unique species can only be found in seven protected areas in western Madagascar: Ankarafantsika, Baly Bay, and Bemaraha National Parks, and the new protected reserves of Manambolamaty, Ambondrobe, Menabe-Antimena, and Mahavavy-Kinkony. They can lay up to 2 clutches of 10-20 eggs a year. The larger the turtle, the more eggs it can lay. The eggs will usually incubate at 86-87.8 degrees Fahrenheit (30-31 degrees Celsius) for around 60-90 days.

Little size, big deal

Often, the females will lay their eggs in the dry season, and the hatchlings will emerge in the rainy season. Ours were seen this past May engaging in preliminary nesting behavior, so we prepared the soil by adding sand to make it more “nest friendly” for the digging females.
Madagascar Big-headed turtles are fairly omnivorous, feeding on the fruits, flowers, leaves and consuming small vertebrates and fish. Here at the Houston Zoo, the turtles eat the vegetation in the exhibit along with a rotating diet consisting of specialized turtle pellets, shrimp, and smelt. Since they can be very aggressive towards each other, especially during breeding season, we took special care to add underwater hiding areas. You can see our seven adults in the water moat of our lemur exhibit, often enjoying the sun on the rocks and along the bank. The hatchlings have been removed from the moat to a safe location behind the scenes at the Reptile House. There they will be sheltered from predators and monitored closely to ensure a healthy life until they are bigger.

Here’s looking at you

There have been successful conservation programs in Madagascar working with the local communities to help reestablish and protect populations in the wild. Organizations such as The Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust take local cultures and traditions into account in their conservation efforts. This is a critical step in making programs such as this a success.

For more information about the world’s most endangered turtles and tortoises, click here.

Look out world!

History you can see

The Houston Zoo is fortunate to have two surviving exhibits from the mid 1920s.

One is The Arena.  Today, The Arena is better known as the home of our two cinereous vultures. But from the mid 1920s to the mid 1930s The Arena was one of the most popular destinations for Zoo guests.  Most afternoons the Zoo’s first head zookeeper Hans Nagel could be found inside The Arena with a cougar, leopard, or lion presenting an awe inspiring training demonstration. 

Zoo guests surround The Arena in the mid 1920s anxiously awaiting another training demonstration.

Before entering The Arena, Nagel would warn his audience, “Don’t make any noise, no matter what happens.”  Equipped with a buggy whip and a long wooden pole, Nagel would train the big cats to play dead, jump hurdles, play leap frog at sit at a table.  Yes, it was a different age and, no you wouldn’t see that kind of display today.

More than once, Nagel’s training demonstrations sent him or his assistant Tom Baylor to nearby Hermann Hospital. The exhibition was once captured by newsreel cameras. 

Yes, that’s a one cent stamp on this post card featuring the Zoo’s aviary. The card was sent September 12, 1930

The second surviving Zoo exhibit from the mid 1920s is the Flamingo Pool.  The exhibit features some of the first ‘rockwork” ever constructed – faux concrete trees and a waterfall created by renowned faux bois artisan Dionicio Rodriguez.  Originally, the work, seen in the vintage postcard on this page was contained inside an aviary that housed not only birds but tortoises as well.  The aviary was heavily damaged by Hurricane Carla in 1961, but a portion of the original hurricane fencing may still be seen on the east end of the Flamingo Pool. 

Recently, we identified a third relic from the Zoo’s earliest days thanks to David Baylor, grandson of former Zoo Manager Tom Baylor who shared vintage newspaper clippings from his grandfather’s scrapbook.  Among the collection is this clipping showing Mr. Baylor with the Zoo’s first elephants, Hans and Nellie.

It’s a bit hard to see, but on the left side of the clipping you can see a portion of a plaque on a metal gate.  The plaque commemorates  the now defunct Houston Post-Dispatch for its efforts to raise the funds to bring the Hans to the Zoo. The brass plaque can been seen today at the McNair Asian Elephant Habitat near a fiberglass sculpture of an elephant – a story we’ll examine in future posts. 

And we encourage you to become a part of the Zoo History blog.  We invite you to e-mail and share your family photos and Zoo memories with us.


A Day in the Life of a Rhino Keeper

Cleaning up after 3 rhinos is no small chore!

This post written by Ashley Roth

The three white rhinos housed at the Houston Zoo are not alone in their exhibit. They share their home with antelope called Greater Kudu. It takes the keepers on average one hour to clean the exhibit. The kudu defecate wherever they please while the rhinos like to defecate in the same spot, making it slightly easier to clean. However, it still takes 4-6 wheelbarrow loads with each one weighing over 200 lbs. to clean the entire exhibit.  New hay is then placed on exhibit. The three rhinos will eat a combined 2-3 bales of hay everyday with each bale weighing 65-70 pounds.


Sibindi enjoys his baths!

Bath time for our rhinos comes several times a week. To get the rhinos clean, they are hosed down. Annie Kamariah, our 6 year old female rhino loves her bath more than the other two. When she is on exhibit or in the holding yard, she will run through the stream of water then roll around in the puddle that forms underneath her. She also positions herself in front of the hose for whatever part of her body she wants to have cleaned.  Our rhinos love to roll around in their mud wallow to cool down and protect their skin from getting sunburned.


Once the barns are clean the Kudu’s dinner is placed in their overnight holding. They receive herbivore pellets, alfalfa, and produce. Several days a week they receive freshly cut vegetation provided by the Houston Zoo’s horticulture staff. If there is extra time, keepers work on projects which includes anything from exhibit maintenance, providing enrichment, keeper chats, and/or animal training.

Sibindi also enjoys practicing for his next bath.

The rhino and kudu here at the Houston Zoo require many hours of care to meet their basic needs. The keepers are passionate about providing the best possible animal husbandry for their animals. To find out what it takes to be a rhino keeper, head out to the Houston Zoo on September 22 & 23. We are celebrating World Rhino Day with a Rhino Spotlight on Species event. Meet some of the keepers to learn why rhinos are so important to their ecosystems as well as to the keepers and zoo guests here in Houston.

How to Train Your Rhino

This post written by Tim Junker & Jessica Sigle

A rhino opens his mouth for keepers to take a look inside.

The Houston Zoo’s three rhinos came to us straight out of Africa without knowing any trained behaviors or even their own names.  It became critically important to get these animals to at least come over to us when called, otherwise no training could proceed.  It didn’t take long for us to find that alfalfa was their favorite treat.  Many other captive rhinos enjoy more trainer-friendly chopped produce items such as apples, carrots, or sweet potatoes, but ours just wanted the hay.  Once they associated us with alfalfa, we quickly made friends.

Some of the most important behaviors that these animals needed to learn were simple body positions.  I’m not talking “downward facing dog” or the “lotus pose,” but instead “come here,” “lean in,” and “back up.”  These uncomplicated maneuvers offer keepers the ability to examine the rhinos from any angle upon request and treat any potential wounds.  This is very important for animals that spend some of their free time sparring with each other using their sharp horns.

A keeper engaging in target training.

A behavior that we find to be of great use is to “target.”  This is used by many animals all over the zoo to bring them to a certain location on cue.  Often a target is a ball on a stick or some variation of that, which the animal is trained to touch a part of their body to (usually their nose) in exchange for a reward.  With this behavior trained, the rhinos can be moved anywhere in the exhibit or holding area that the keepers can reach a target to.

Keepers drawing blood from a rhino’s ear.

With the basics now trained, we are able to move on with other, more complex behaviors; such as blood draws.  For many people this is the moment they dread most in a doctor’s visit.  For the rhinos, a slight ear twitch is usually the only reaction that they have.  Twice a week, we collect blood from the two female rhinos and twice a month for the male.  Our rhinos are still young, so we collect the blood to monitor the progesterone levels of the females so we will know when they begin to cycle and become receptive to breeding.  Blood is collected from their large ear veins into glass viles and examined in the zoo’s vet clinic or sent off to an outside lab for more specialized tests.  If any of the rhinos appear to be ill, we can easily collect blood to check for infection.

Another behavior currently in training is to get the rhinos to accept a toenail trim.  In general, rhinos need little in the way of foot work, but there may be occasions down the road which will require us to address an immediate concern.  We hope that once trained, the rhinos will lift up each of their feet and place them on a block so that the nails can be filed and the bottom of the foot can be examined.  With some of the basic  behaviors already trained, the rhinos will likely be very accepting of these more complex behaviors.

The relationships that we build during  these  many training sessions makes day-to-day care of the animals far simpler. The benefits gained from cooperative animals makes for a virtually stress free environment.  On September 22 and 23, the Houston Zoo is celebrating World Rhino Days.  We invite you to come join us to learn more about how we train and care for these amazing animals and what you can do to help these endangered species.

Turtle Tuesday Strikes Again!

I’m back from another turtle survey, and a much quieter one at that! We did not have any turtle calls to respond to yesterday, and thankfully we did not come across any dead or injured sea turtles while driving along our Texas coast.

We did happen to see an array of other wildlife on the beaches and nearby habitats, which made both of us very happy! Whether it was the recent rain or cooler temperatures, our Texas wildlife was out in large numbers yesterday. We saw lots of these:

A Roseate Spoonbill! Or what I like to call, a Texas Flamingo.

We also saw some of these (white ibis):

I also got a terrible photo of a Crested Caracara-a very cool Texas bird of prey!


So, how does any of this relate to sea turtles? Well, one more photo and then I’ll explain.

Awesome habitat protection graphic by the Galveston Parks Board. Bravo!

 Sea turtles happen to spend time on land (while nesting and some species like to sun themselves on the beach), near animals like birds. SO, if we protect a beach area, say…for piping plovers, well then all animals in the same habitat benefit from this protection. Sounds like a win-win for wildlife!

This type of all-inclusive habitat protection doesn’t stop here in Texas. This idea may remind you of our partners at the Niassa Lion Project in Mozambique. Yes, they are protecting lions, but more importantly, by protecting one flagship species and its’ habitat, you protect all other animals that reside there as well!

No, this form of conservation doesn’t stop in Africa either.  Our partners in Borneo protect a plethora of species all residing in a very precious piece of tropical rainforest. Clouded leopards, sun bears, elephants and orangutans are just some of the well-known species found on this large island.

When we shift our focus from saving one particular species to saving an ecosystem or habitat we can protect much more-plants, natural resources, and of course, animals!

To find out more about our local sea turtles, visit our website.

Baby Lemur Explores His World

This post written by Lynn Killam

Our new baby Ring-tailed lemur (recently christened “Howie”) is now 8 weeks old and growing up fast! He began life as a tiny replica of his mother Cairrean, clinging tightly to her belly, and has transformed into a pint-sized rodeo rider who sticks to his mama’s back like a pro as she navigates the exhibit. In the past couple of weeks, he has been getting off mom and delighting guests and keepers alike with his antics: bounding across vertical vines and branches and hopping into tree limbs, with the occasional fall into the grass as he misjudges his landing spot. He will pop back up unhurt and bounce back onto the safety of his mother’s fur, or occasionally, his papa’s back.


As you observe our lemur family, look for grooming behavior. Grooming is a bonding technique that all primates engage in, and it is quite pleasurable for the groomer and the “groomee”. Little Howie grooms his mother’s furry ears with gusto, and she will reciprocate by combing him thoroughly with her grooming teeth.


Little Howie seems curious about everything: from the wild grackles and doves that light on branches near him, to the Hottentot teals and Madagascar big-headed turtles who inhabit the exhibit with him. Travis the Crowned lemur and Beet the Red-fronted lemur also share their home with the Ring-tails, and they have surveyed each other with great interest. Howie’s father Tango is extremely protective of his new son, and has been seen scent-marking vigorously when Travis or Beet come too near.


Howie is starting to sample solid foods, although is still nursing. Come to the zoo to watch him grow and develop over the next few months!









Double Points in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop

 How can you get DOUBLE points in the Swap Shop?  Any time an animal section has a Spotlight on the Species or other program focused on an animal or plant – bring in a Nature Journal on that topic! 

Komodo Dragon

Nature Journals can be as simple as information on sheets of notebook paper.  They can be as detailed and elaborate as you like – your only limit is your imagination. But remember, the more work you do, the more points you get!   So do some research and get ready for double points!

Need more information on the Naturally Wild Swap Shop and how it works?  Click here

Some of the species that will be in the Spotlight the remainder of 2012 include:


Red Panda

September 22 Spotlight on the Species – Rhinos

October 6 Spotlight on the Species – Komodo Dragon

November 7 Climbing for Cloudeds (Clouded Leopards)

November 10 Spotlight on the Species – Vultures

December 1 Spotlight on the Species – Red Panda

The Zoo History Series Begins!

This year the Houston Zoo observes its 90th anniversary.

We marked the occasion this summer with a special historical issue of the Houston Zoo’s Members magazine Wildlife. In 21 pages of wonderful stories and equally wonderful vintage photographs we did our best to describe the Zoo’s 90 years of continuous operation.

But we only scratched the surface. Now, with the Houston Zoo’s history blog we have an opportunity to dig a little deeper and share more stories and more images from the Zoo’s archives. There’s certainly no shortage of material – the amazing animals that have touched the lives of Zoo guests over the last 90 years; how the Zoo’s mission has embraced conservation and education; the way exhibits and habitats have evolved.

And, of course there are the colorful and unique personalities that have shaped the Zoo’s history, such as our first ‘head zookeeper’ Hans Nagel.

Hans Nagel wows the crowd in the mid 1920s with one of his afternoon training demonstrations

We invite you to be a part of the experience. As the special historical issue of Wildlife took shape, Zoo guests contributed their personal stories and photographs and we welcome future submissions for display in the Zoo’s history blog.

Zoo guests get a ride on the tram circa 1950

And we’ll also do our best with the blog to answer your questions about Zoo history. We invite your questions and submissions to

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