Has the Swap Shop gone to the dogs?

Look who came to visit the Naturally Wild Swap Shop!

Taji is an Anatolian Shepherd.  The Anatolian Shepherd is a 6,000 year old breed that originated in Turkey and Asia Minor.  They are large working dogs that have a superior ability to protect livestock.  Wildlife conservationists in Southern Africa have a livestock guarding program working with local farmers and their livestock.  This program has been of special interest to Cheetah conservation.  Cheetahs are losing habitat to farms and ranch lands.  Local landowners are likely to kill cheetahs that they believe may be preying on their livestock.

Taji and her trainer Michelle

When the Anatolian Shepherds are used by these farmers and ranchers, their livestock is protected from cheetahs and other predators and the ranchers stop killing the cheetahs.

Here at the Houston Zoo, Taji was raised together with our cheetahs Kito and Kiburi to be lifelong companions.

Taji and her trainers occasionally walk through the Zoo  have visited the Swap Shop.  You never know who you might see in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop.

Don’t know about trading in the Swap Shop?  Click here to find out more.

Gift of Grub Series: Behind the Scenes -The Houston Zoo Animal Nutrition Team

From apples to zucchinis and lots of produce in between, meals for the Houston Zoo’s 6,000 animals are prepped in our Zoo kitchen (at the Commissary building) by our Animal Nutrition department. Our Animal Nutrition team is a group of six dedicated, hard-working individuals who play an important role in the health of our animal family.

Each of our animals receives uncompromising excellence in animal care including basic husbandry, training and enrichment, veterinary care, and of course, the best in nutrition. The dietary needs of our animals are almost as varied as the animals themselves. All animal diets are developed in consultation with a specialist in exotic animal nutrition and are regularly analyzed for nutrient composition in order to ensure the optimal health and welfare of our animals.

Each day, the Zoo’s Animal Nutrition staff begins work at 5 a.m. so they can have meals prepared and bulk food items delivered to the various animal sections in time for breakfast. There is a whirlwind of activity in their building including thawing meats, fish and rodents, chopping produce, sorting insects, loading bales of hay and bags of grain for delivery, and preparing specialty diets. They are quick to respond to last-minute requests for specialty food items that might be needed for medical reasons. They will go to whatever lengths are required to ensure that every animal’s nutritional needs are being met each and every day.

The Commissary building boasts a state of the art kitchen that includes commercial-grade appliances and equipment, 540 square feet of freezer space, three walk-in coolers, 2,000 square feet of dry storage, and a 4,000-square-foot hay barn. Despite all the activity, at the end of every day the kitchen is left clean and sparkling.

You can help provide the tasty treats and nutritious meals prepared by our Animal Nutrition department by giving the Gift of Grub. TXU Energy has generously offered to match any donation made to our Gift of Grub holiday campaign, up to $50,000 total! That means your contribution will go twice as far to help supply breakfast, lunch and dinner for our wild bunch all year long.

Spotlight On Species Featuring the Red Panda This Weekend!

Please join us at the front of Carruth Natural Encounters and the Red Panda Exhibit for Red Panda Spotlight on Species


Saturday and Sunday, December 1-2
10 a.m. – 3 p.m.

Join Houston Zoo in assisting the Red Panda Network’s mission to build awareness for the beautiful endangered red panda (aka firefox) and its habitat – both are disappearing due to human pressures: road building, tree cutting, cattle grazing and many other factors.

 Events and Activities:

  • Games
  • Meet the Keeper Talks
  • Enrichment & Training Demos
  • Face painting & temporary tattoos
  • Red Panda merchandise for sale

Funds Raised Donated to The Red Panda Network

The Red Panda Network is committed to the conservation of wild red pandas and their habitat through the education and empowerment of local communities by adaptive community-based research, education, and carbon mitigation. Their efforts currently extend to 4 of the red panda home ranges in Nepal, India, Burma and China.

The Red Panda Network is the only conservation organization solely dedicated to the red panda.  Currently they are fundraising in order to train additional ‘forest guardians”, conduct awareness-building programs in schools and continue to expand the protected red panda habitat.

Many species that are found within red panda habitat, including the clouded leopard, takins and rare assamese macaques langurs, will benefit from Red Panda Network’s ongoing habitat protection program.

**All proceeds raised during our Red Panda Spotlight on Species Weekend will go towards Red Panda Network’s mission.  



Thanksgiving Day Football – Conservation Style

If you have had paid any attention to recent posts – we can just about tie any conservation subject to random happenings in daily life and this holiday, it is way too easy.

Thanksgiving Day Tradition since 1934: Detroit Lions Football. And their opponent, our very own Houston TEXANS. Now rarely do I like to see a Lion take a lickin, but I will be on the side of the Houston Texans and African Lions for this one.

One quick Lion comparison – the Thanksgiving Day tradition started in 1934 and at that time there were potentially over 200,000 African Lions on the continent of Africa and a small population of the Asiatic Lion in India. Today the numbers have dropped into the mid 30,000 range and they continue to face pressures from both habitat loss and human-wildlife conflict.

Did you know the Detroit Lions have not won a Division Championship since 1957 and have never been to a Super Bowl? Anyway, back to real Lions.

You have heard us discuss our partnership with the Niassa Lion Project in Mozambique a number of times this year and we continue to support the development of their Environmental Education Center, anti-poaching teams, community development programs and Lion Fun Day activities. The conservation “world” is a small place and below we have placed links to a number of other projects focused on lion conservation. The zoo will have a website dedicated to some of these programs going live in the next few weeks so check back with us or pop over to the links below.

This is Fabio. He hates the Detroit Lions, says they do not have street cred out here in Africa.

On a separate note – you may have read a recent blog about the passing of the Houston Zoo’s 22 year old female lion Celesto who was born here on June 1st, 1990. 22 years is an amazing life for a lion either here or in the wild and she amazed her fans and the staff who cared for her during that time equally. The conservation world is small, and our zoo family is even smaller. So in honor of Celesto and all her wild counterparts that we strive so hard to protect with our friends and colleagues in Africa, enjoy your holidays and enjoy watching the Texans stomp the stuffing out of the Detroit Lions.


Now you must have some links to click on during the never-ending parade of commercials while trying to watch Thanksgiving Day football. There are a number of lion projects operating throughout Africa so this is just a short list with a few weblinks.

Niassa Lion Project, Mozambique: http://www.niassalion.org

Panthera Lion Conservation Program: http://www.panthera.org/species/lion

Ewaso Lion Project, Kenya http://ewasolions.org/

Lion Guardians Program, Tanzania http://lionguardians.org/

Ruaha Carnivore Project, Tanzania http://ruahacarnivoreproject.com/

Gorongosa Lion Project, Mozambique http://www.lions.gorongosa.net/#!

African People and Wildlife Fund http://afrpw.org/

Living With Lions http://livingwithlions.org/

Kafue Lion Project, Zambia http://www.kafuelionproject.org/

Wildlife Conservation Society http://www.wcs.org/saving-wildlife/big-cats/lion.aspx


This Holiday Season, Give the Gift of Grub

This holiday season, while you are enjoying a lovely dinner with your family, take a moment to consider the massive amounts of food that is required to feed the animals at the Houston Zoo. Think you have a pretty good idea on the what it takes? Here are just a few interesting facts about feeding the our wild gang:

– Feeding the entire bird collection can take a team of 10 keepers over 3 hours!


– Darwin, our cassowary, is fed several times a day and can easily eat up to 10 lbs of greens, fruit, and pellets. He is even known to eat large pieces of fruit in one gulp!


– Our male tiger, Pandu, eats more than 2,000 lbs of meat each year, nearly the equivalent of a Volkswagen beetle filled with meat!

– Jonathon, our male lion, is offered 3,500 lbs of meat every year. He is also a bit spoiled…in addition to his normal diet, he also receives ice water in a squirt bottle and 1/4 of a chicken every day.

You can help provide nutritious meals and tasty treats to the Houston Zoo animal family by giving the Gift of Grub this holiday season. To learn more, or to donate today, check out our Gift of Grub webpage! Thanks to a generous matching gift from TXU Energy, your contribution will immediately be doubled, up to $50,000 total!




A Lion Legacy Draws to a Close


We are deeply saddened to report the passing of a revered long-time resident.  Celesto, a female African lion was 22 years old.

Celesto was the last of a lion legacy that began in June of 1989 with the arrival at the Zoo of Bruno and Kili, Celesto’s mother and father, and Lindi.  The three lions had been seized by sheriff’s deputies and federal authorities executing a search warrant for illegal drugs on a Kansas farm on October 31, 1988.

Bruno, Kili, and Lindi arrived at the Houston Zoo in June, 1989 on loan from the Franklin County, Kansas sheriff’s department by way of Topeka Zoological Park.  Celesto was born at the Houston Zoo on June 1, 1990.


Every keeper that has worked with Celesto over the years agrees she was feisty, stubborn, strong willed, tenacious and a fascinating personality.

The dynamics of the social structure of the Zoo’s lion pride was important to her and she made it clear to everyone who cared for her that her presence was going to be respected if they were going to work with her in that group of lions.

Over the past two years, the Zoo’s carnivore keepers and Zoo veterinarians monitoring Celesto’s health had recorded a marked decline in her kidney function; a condition that is not uncommon in African lions of Celesto’s advanced age.

Lions in zoos generally live into their late teens but have a much shorter life expectancy in the wild.Despite a continuing veterinary regimen and the compassionate care and attention of her keepers Celesto’s quality of life continued to decline and the grande dame of the Houston Zoo’s lion pride was humanely euthanized late this morning.

Celesto with her Playmates, Patti and Boris, as Cubs



Cold Weather – Then and Now

Houston winters rarely approach the category of water-pipe-busting hard freezes.  Yes, it’s happened but thankfully not that often.

Still, when you’re caring for 6,000 exotic animals, some of whom find 50 degrees uncomfortable, winter preparations are essential.

The Houston Zoo begins winter weather preparations early. Tropical birds are particularly sensitive to cold weather so some bird habitats are wrapped in heavy plastic and others get  wind breaks and keepers make sure gas heaters and heat lamps are all in working order.

But in the Houston Zoo’s early days, keeping animals warm and comfortable during the winter involved rather low tech  methodology – lots of hay for some animals, wood burning stoves for others – as this Houston Press clipping from November 1936 indicates.


Yes, that is a monkey sitting on a box in front of a pot bellied stove.  The raccoons seen at the top of the photo are being housed in the warm second floor of the Museum of Natural History which was on Zoo grounds at that time.   The Galapagos tortoise in the photo bottom left is nestled in a bed of hay having been removed from his outdoor exhibit at the first hint of cold weather and held over the winter indoors.  Although tropical birds were not included in the Houston Press’ photo montage, zookeepers in the mid 1930s employed a similar tactic to today’s Zoo to keep the macaws warm, wrapping heavy fabric curtains around the bird’s containment fencing instead of the thick fiber reinforced plastic tarps we use today.

The  photo montage was accompanied by a bit of poetry, written by Houston Press photographer Francis Miller. He had been working for the Press for 9 years when this article was published, filling mutiple roles as photographer, reporter, and even layout artist.  Miller went on to garner no small amount of fame as a LIFE magazine photographer, working in LIFE’s Washington, D. C. and Atlanta bureaus.  It was Miller who photographed President Lyndon Johnson’s beagles on the White House lawn in 1964, employing rubber bones, dog treats and a harmonica to capture their expressive faces. Miller retired from LIFE magazine in 1968 and passed away on November 5, 1973 at the age of 67, leaving behind a body of work that is still revered and sought after today.



Look Who is Trading in The Naturally Wild Swap Shop

Meet Hailey Wolfe, self proclaimed Naturalist and Budding Zoologist.  Hailey recently brought in an excellent nature journal to trade titled “The Pros and Cons of Being a Giraffe”.

Hailey’s Giraffe Journal

Hailey is quite the gifted writer and created a journal that reads like a storyteller’s tale.  She begins with a description of feeding the giraffes here at the Houston Zoo that includes beautiful and artistic detail about the giraffe’s long tongue and big, calm eyes.  She invites all to come along with her to learn more about these sweet giants.

She then moves on to giraffes in the wild and completes her journal with information and pictures of the giraffe herd here at the zoo.

Hailey has been trading with us since early this year and has brought in a variety of items including bones, shells and journals.  At 11 years old, she already has quite a knowledge of animals and a talent for writing about them.

Nature Journals are one of many things that can be brought in for trade.  The more time and effort put in to them, the more points a journal will receive.  To see Hailey’s journal and many others, come by the Naturally Wild Swap Shop at the front of the Children’s Zoo.

Don’t know about trading at the Swap Shop?  Click here to find out more.




Of Monarch Butterflies and MacGyver

Before it gets confusing, a bit of background:

MacGyver was a TV series from 1985-1992 in which the star of the show – MacGyver – was an undercover agent who was able to make use of any mundane materials around him to create unorthodox solutions to any problem he faces. The enemies of world peace and justice continually learn that underestimating this man is a fatal mistake for their plans.

Monarch Butterflies on the other hand are the most famous of our local butterflies and make a 3-4 generation yearly migration. In North America, they make massive southward migrations starting in August until the first frost. A northward migration takes place in the spring. The monarch is the only butterfly that migrates both north and south as the birds do on a regular basis, but no single individual makes the entire round trip. Female monarchs deposit eggs for the next generation during these migrations. The length of these journeys exceeds the normal lifespan of most monarchs, which is less than two months for butterflies born in early summer.

And you would think they had nothing in common, until Monday.

Typically we see Monarchs flying through our area in March-May, laying eggs, turning into caterpillars, then chrysalids, then butterflies and continuing on their way north. Then in August-October here they come again heading south-same scenario. But possibly due to last years drought (remember that?) there were very few flying north past our home in Brazoria County in spring. Clearly the Monarch Butterfly’s calendars were all askew, and then they were late heading south, not landing in our yard until last week.

Monarch caterpillars late to the migration party

Bad timing for caterpillars as the Houston area weather took a mild turn from hot and humid to cooler overnights. The last monarch generation of the summer enters into a nonreproductive phase known as diapause, which may last seven months or more.During diapause, butterflies fly to one of many overwintering sites. The overwintering generation generally does not reproduce until it leaves the overwintering site sometime in February and March. And there is nothing worse for a caterpillar turning into a chrysalid on their way south than a cold front as many cannot survive overnight temperatures of 40f while the caterpillar transforms itself from chrysalid to butterfly over a few days.When this exact thing happened Monday – we MacGyvered oursevles a chrysalid rescue.

First, we stationed them on an iPhone, purchased specifically for this purpose, and hoped nobody called or texted during these critical moments. We then thought – “now what?”

You see, MacGyver could deactive a nuclear bomb with Double Yum Bubble Gum, a tweezer and the creamy filling from a Suzy Q – and I am sure we will be sued by all those companies for using their product names out of context. So with a piece of styrofoam, a broken bird feeder, masking tape, 5 sewing needles and a paper towel – we swooped in an built an overnight Chrysalidiary (I just made that up) – bringing them in at night and putting them back out in the morning to warm up in the sun.

WARNING: Do not try this at home! The last thing you want is butterflies eclosing in your home, attacking you like some whimsical bird of prey because you made a mistake in timing – and they leave little poop stains on your floor.

Next – broken bird feeder, sewing needles to ‘pin” them, tape, styrofoam…Pinning is done through the thread they use to attach themselves to plants or our fenceposts.

The moral to the story? I really do not have one.

Final Product – 5th one was tricky, no thread to pin through – but here is the nearly end product. now fingers crossed as we bring them in every night after work to the garage which is about 10 degrees warmer than outdoors

The climate is shifting a bit and every once in a while wildlife gets caught early or late to the migration. Here is an amazing fact: Monarch butterflies are one of the few insects capable of making trans-Atlantic crossings. You have seen them fly – they surely cannot have a sense of direction and the lightest breeze throws them off course – they are beyond amazing.

It is easy to attract butterflies to your yard or patio with some simple Milkweed (Asclepia species) plants. You can enjoy native wildlife – even if it is an insect that flies around like it has no idea where it is going – most of the year with a few simple gardening tips and some knowledge of 1980’s TV shows.

Turtle Tuesday

When you hear the term “conservation”, what do you imagine? Do you see a scientist in the wilderness tracking exotic animals? Or, do you see a graphic designer sitting behind a computer working on a poster design? Maybe you visualize a construction worker putting together a project? What about an agriculturalist and their livestock? All of these people are conservationists, and all of their work is important to save species.

I bring up this point because last week a few members of our Facilities Department at the Zoo assisted local sea turtle conservation by creating and installing a monofilament recycling bin. With their creativity and ingenuity, these guys used leftover materials from other Zoo projects to create a recycling bin made from recycling! The bin was installed on a jetty where it will be used to collect discarded monofilament (fishing) line. This line is then collected and recycled by NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) staff.

The wonderful new monofilament recycling bin created by the HZI Facilities Department!

The construction and installment of this bin has a direct impact on the conservation of sea turtles. It is important for all Zoo staff to know that their work contributes to conservation efforts, no matter what department they are in. Saving animals and habitats is no longer about field biologists tracking the movements of animals, it is about people from diverse backgrounds with a variety of skills coming together to solve complex problems.

Mike and Parker standing next to their completed bin!

A big thank you goes out to our Facilities staff for taking time during their lunch breaks to create this great addition to local sea turtle conservation!


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