Okapi Love Their Produce

They may look like zebras, but okapi are actually more closely related to giraffes. Surprising, isn’t it? One of the traits they share with giraffes is their 16-inch long tongue which they use to wrap around branches and gather leaves. Every day, our Horticulture department at the Houston Zoo provides our okapi with branches from their favorite trees. The Hoofed Stock Keepers will strategically place these branches in high locations to encourage the okapi to manipulate and use their incredibly long tongues.

Our three resident okapis, Kwame, Tulia and Mandazi, eat about one bale of alfalfa every week. Given that one bale of alfalfa weighs about 65 pounds, that means our okapi consume more than 3300 pounds of alfalfa every year! To supplement the nutrients found in alfalfa, we give our okapi different types of produce including romaine lettuce, kale, apples, carrots, sweet potatoes, and occasionally pears. Our okapi LOVE their produce! Often times they are in such a hurry to eat their produce, they will follow their keepers and use their long tongues to steal produce from the carrying bags before our staff can even put the food in their food buckets! Kwame, our 13-year-old male, has a bit of a sweet tooth and would rather eat the apples and sweet potatoes and completely ignore the kale. Tulia, our five-year-old female, will practically inhale her food and lick the food bucket so that she can get every last morsel.


Help give Rex a new name!

Meet Rex.  Rex is a Box Turtle who was born right here in the McGovern’s Children’s Zoo and lives in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop.  There is only one problem……Rex is a girl.  When we named her she had just hatched and we didn’t discover that she was a girl until later on. 


Rex, the Three-toed Box Turtle

We want to give our guests 18 years of age and younger in the Swap Shop an opportunity to help re-name Rex.  So, until January 15, 2013 you can stop by the Swap Shop and submit your suggestion for a new name. 

Here is some additional information to help you come up with name ideas.  Rex was hatched on August 11, 2010 so she is just over 2 years old.  She is a Three-toed Box Turtle and lives with her mom, Mindy, in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop.  Mindy and Rex are both part of the Zoo’s education collection and go out to classrooms and other presentations.

On January 16, the Children’s Zoo staff will review the names and choose one for Rex’s new name!  The lucky young person that submitted the name will win 50 points to spend in the Swap Shop. 

Dont know about the Swap Shop?  Click here for more information.

The Year in Blogs

I do not even know where to start to make sense of some of our blog posts in 2012, all written to try and bring your attention to both the successes and issues facing our environment. I really have no idea what may or may not have caught your attention. No matter how often our IT and web team send me graphs and charts showing reader algorithms, viral feeds (unrelated to a blog on emerging infectious diseases), hits and views – it is beyond my grasp of the new world we live in. Remember, I have a smart phone and do recall saying it was making us all a little dumber, me especially.

So a quick look back at MacGyver, Cheddar Bacon and Peppermint Shakes, Chicken Pants and the fact that  Groundhogs are not the Nostradamus of the rodent world as they can barely remember which drawer they left their pants in, let alone predict the changing of the seasons.

These were all very important topics, near and dear to my heart from pollinators to climate change and even Chicken Pants which I have no idea what I was thinking of at the time that spurred that thought process. But the point is simply this – the world is a messy place, our role in the zoo is to focus on wildlife and so most of what you see and read here is about the environment and the people who work tirelessly to protect wildlife and their habitats around the clock.

We can do more to help our partners and the environment and it is so simple it hurts my head to think about it.

Have 30 seconds to spare? Try this: Recycle a cell phone – protect wildlife in Africa. Lets make this a friendly disease called the Responsible Consumer Syndrome. You can catch this syndrome by also understanding where the Palm Oil in your products originates – and protect Orangutans in Southeast Asia

The great plastic debate? Not really a debate – we are addicted to plastic shopping bags and water bottles. Do you think Krogers, Randalls, HEB and others realizes how much money they could save by not providing its customers millions of plastic bags every year which in turn would protect the environment and wildlife? Probably equal to the economy of a small country. Interesting someone thought enough of the water bottle issue to ban them from Grand Canyon National Park – I guess they think it is prettier than the other parks since it is the only one that bans plastic water bottles.

Who would have thought the National Park System would be following the lead of these countries  (mild disclaimer – these countries have banned plastic bags but they still drink water): Papua New Guinea, Germany, Kenya, South Korea, Belgium, Sweden, Bhutan, Botswana and a handful of others. You may recall I ranted about this on my  bestselling blog Doggie Doo’s and Doggie Dont’s (another disclaimer, my blogs are not for sale but I found a quarter after posting that one).

So for 2013 – we can do better. Smartphones and Smart tablets can inform us but cannot lead us to action – that is a human trait that we need to figure out how to enhance if we are going to continue to protect the worlds wildlife in the face of growing human populations and habitat loss. We have to care more to do more.

One thing I really do not care to learn more about is Poutine which my Canadian colleague tried to poison me with this year. I like my french fries with ketchup thank you, not brown gravy and curd cheese. But what we want you to learn more about are all are wonderful partners which can be found on our website or at a few of the links below:

Niassa Lion Project Mozambique, Cheetah Conservation Botswana, Hutan-Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation, Danau Girang Elephant Conservation, Painted Dog Conservation Zimbabwe, Gorilla Doctors, Education for Nature VietnamFaleme Chimpanzee Conservation Senegal, Coastal Prairie Partnership, Lowland Tapir Project Brazil, El Valle Amphibian Conservation Panama, Jane Goodall Institute, International Rhino Foundation, Art of Conservation Rwanda, NOAA’s Sea Turtle Program, USFWS, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Texas State University, National Marine Fisheries Service, Human Wildlife Conflict Collaboration, Terra Incognita EcotoursWildlife Conservation Network, Galapagos Tortoise Program, Natural Habitat Adventures, and a Thank You to all of our zoo staff, zoo members and supporters including Land Rover UAE, Anadarko, Chevron, numerous private foundations, individuals and followers.

2,000,000 in 2012

The Houston Zoo welcomed guest number 2,000,000 shortly after Noon today, Friday November 21.

Lucky guests are Jill and David Thornton who were visiting the the Zoo with their grandchildren – Aidan, Jagger, and Jada from Corpus Christi.

And yes, they were surprised!

Jill and David will receive a Houston Zoo membership (grandparent level so the grandkids can join them at the Zoo when they’re visiting) and the honor of Zoo Director for a Day!

On a day of their choosing in 2013, Jill and David and the grand kids will be treated to a guided Zoo tour, a behind the scenes experience, 4D Experience tickets, Wildlife Carousel tickets and lunch.

Congratulations to Jill and David Thornton and Aidan, Jagger, and Jada! Thank you for helping us celebrate an attendance landmark – the 2,000,000th Houston Zoo guest in 2012.


Let's Talk Food!

We’re all about food around the holidays.  So, I thought we’d take a look at what Houstonians were eating in in the 1920s when the Houston Zoo first opened in Hermann Park and in the years that followed.

From what we know right now, there probably wasn’t much for food and beverage concessions at the Zoo in the mid-1920s.  Many Zoo guests packed a picnic lunch at home and found a shady spot in Hermann Park to enjoy home cooking outdoors.

A Henke & Pillot coupon issued shortly before the chain closed for good.

They found the makings for that picnic feast at Henke & Pillot grocery stores downtown on Milam, Louisiana, Congress or Travis or the ABC Stores on Main or West Alabama. The Cut Rate Store on Washington Avenue touted Rice Hotel Products (“recognized as the standard for quality everywhere”) and ample free parking.  Yes, Houston had a traffic problem even then.

What Houston shoppers were buying then wasn’t much different from the brands we see today – Del Monte, Armour, Maxwell House.  There were Hostess Cakes, Wonder Bread, Welch’s Grape Jelly, Wheaties and Jello.

In many Houston area homes the kitchens in the 1920s may not have been much different from what General Electric presented as a ‘before’ image in a 1933 booklet touting ‘modern’ electric kitchens.


Dining out had taken hold in America in the 1920s and Houston embraced the idea. Houstonians who didn’t want to cook at home had a wide variety of restaurants from which to choose.  There were restaurants and coffee shops in downtown hotels such as the Rice Hotel and the Bender.  The Ponchartrain Cafe at Fannin and McKinney touted fresh seafood shipped daily from New Orleans.

As Houston developed its ‘car culture’ in the 1920s, one restaurant advertised its “Auto Service.”  Boysen’s at 2120 McKinney served up homemade chili, chicken tamales, chop suey, and fried chicken to customers in their cars.

Fast forward to the war years, and Jello was still on Houston’s menu, this time promoted by the company’s wartime Victoriana cartoon character as homefront tool to make “food fight for freedom.”   

In the 1950s as air travel took off, Houstonians dined in style aloft. In closing, we offer an entre from the 1954 United Airlines booklet “Favorite Recipes of Mainliner Chefs.” United, now the official airline of the Houston Zoo, had opened its first airline kitchen 16 years earlier and by the time this booklet was published was operating 12 flight kitchens across the country.  United promoted it’s inflight food service with the tag line “For the finest in meals aloft fly United” and referred to its chefs whose recipes were featured in the book as “artists of the flight kitchen.”

The recipe offered in this post is for Mountain Trout Saute and the photo below the recipe is from the United booklet.  Conrad Kung at the time was Chef at United’s flight kitchen in  Denver.  The chefs and their menus were even featured  on postcards by United, a common airline promotional device at the time that was also used by other airlines including Northwest,  Eastern, and Pan Am.

Bon Appetit!







Turtle Tuesday

Yesterday was an eventful sea turtle survey day. We began our day by responding to a call about a deceased sea turtle on Bolivar Peninsula. When we arrived, we could tell that the turtle was a Kemp’s ridley and had passed away several days ago. We conducted a necropsy on the beach to find out why. Unfortunately, with a lot of turtles, it is difficult to tell why they died. It could be for any number of reasons from cold weather to an infection or parasite or even an interaction with a boat. We could tell that this turtle had been eating very well (she was full of crab legs!) but we could not conclude why she passed away.

Later on in the day we came across a live turtle looking very cold sitting on the water line! Unfortunately, this turtle was near the wrong body of water as it was a red-eared slider and not a marine turtle! We picked it up and put it in the warm truck to take back to the sea turtle barn for warmth, fresh water and food. We hope to be able to release the red-eared slider into a more appropriate habitat (pond) when it starts to show signs of improvement.

Dr. Joe checking out our freshwater friend!

As always, we ended our survey with a visit to the Surfside Jetty to empty the monofilament recycling bins. It was a crystal clear, beautiful day with extremely calm water for the Gulf. We thought we would be in for some serious sea turtle spotting along the jetty due to the calm conditions, but we did not see what we had hoped. Just as we reached the last monofilament bin, we saw a sea turtle just off the side of the jetty. Lyndsey, a federal biologist at NOAA Galveston did not hesitate in jumping in the freezing cold water to rescue the turtle. We knew by watching the turtles’ movements that it was entangled in fishing line because the water was not moving the turtle along the jetty. When Lyndsey reached the turtle in neck-high water, she cut the fishing line and almost became entangled herself! She brought the small green sea turtle onto the shore, but unfortunately we were too late. The turtle had passed away because of the fishing line wrapped around its neck and front flippers.

This green sea turtle was found entangled in fishing line and passed away from entanglement. A NOAA Federal Biologist rescued the animal from the water and performed a necropsy.

Seeing such a beautiful animal entangled in our trash is very difficult. However, the solution is VERY easy. We must (all of us) respect wild places and wildlife enough to use less, recycle more, and make small changes in our everyday lives to benefit other living things around us.

Lyndsey made a comment as we slowly walked down the jetty with the turtle in tow that really made me think. She expressed how amazed she was that sea turtles could survive the gauntlet that we have created for them in the ocean. And she is absolutely right. It really is quite amazing that marine animals (dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, fish, the list goes on and on) can survive despite the conditions we have created for them. It’s up to all of us to prioritize reducing our impacts on habitats around the world if we hope to conserve these amazing species!

Thankfully, we ended the day on a high note. Dr. Joe visited the sea turtle barn to check up on a few of his patients. One wild green sea turtle that he had performed surgery on several days ago to help a GI issue showed signs of trapped air in its’ body cavity. So, the extra air from the turtle’s body was released and he is now able to dive and swim better under the water! We hope this turtle will spend the winter in the rehab facility and be released this spring.

The Houston Zoo’s vet team helps release trapped air inside a green sea turtle’s body cavity. Thanks to this procedure, the sea turtle is able to dive and swim much better!

If you’d like to hear more about sea turtles and conservation efforts to save them (including how YOU can help), stop by the Whole Foods Market in Bellaire tomorrow (Wednesday, December 19th-ALL DAY!). The Houston Zoo’s conservation programs will be the proud recipient of the Whole Foods 5% Day of Giving and we hope to see you there. We will be at the store with live animals, conservation information, and fun items to take home for a small donation.

Cheetahs Run at Sam Houston Race Park

Last week, our cheetahs visited the Sam Houston Race Park to stretch their legs and chase a custom-made lure. Over the past few months, the cheetahs have made multiple trips to the race park, walking on leashes to become familiar with the park and its surroundings. Last week was the second time that Kito & Kiburi ran on the grass track off of their leashes.

In our special video, Beth Schaefer, the Houston Zoo’s curator of primates and carnivores, explains the importance of providing this exercise as a means of enrichment and benefit to the health of the animals.

Check out our flickr album with pictures of the cheetah run.

Got any questions about the run? Leave them in the comments section!

5% Day of Giving at Whole Foods-Bellaire Location

Conservation=Collaboration. Thankfully, we have some wonderful Houston organizations like Whole Foods who see the importance in working together towards conservation. Thanks to Whole Foods-the Bellaire Location, the Houston Zoo will be the proud recipient of their 5% day of community giving on Wednesday, December 19th. This means that five percent of that day’s net sales are donated to the Houston Zoo in support of our conservation programs.

Whole Foods and conservation go hand in hand. Because of their 2008 initiative to get rid of plastic bags at checkout it’s only natural that we focus on the conservation of local Texas species, like sea turtles, while promoting the 5% day. Plastic bags are a huge issue for our local species-birds, sea turtles, dolphins-they’re all affected! So, when you come to Whole Foods in Bellaire on December 19th, don’t forget to bring your reusable canvas bags! You can also purchase some wonderful reusable bags at the store if you forget.

Surely you will need some groceries to prep for the upcoming holidays, and why not shop on a day when the proceeds will benefit wildlife? If you’re not in need of groceries, stop by between 5 and 7pm and grab a drink or snack at the bar during their happy hour! We will be at the store all day with various touchable animals, information on our conservation programs, biological artifacts, conservation items to take home and more! We hope to see you there on December 19th!

Who: Whole Foods & The Houston Zoo

What: Whole Foods 5% day of giving in support of the Houston Zoo’s conservation programs!

When: Wednesday, December 19th-ALL DAY!

Where: 4004 Bellaire Blvd

Houston, Texas 77025

Why: Buy your holiday groceries & gifts while supporting the Houston Zoo’s work to save species all around the globe!


The Best Light Show Uptown, Downtown, All Around

By now, you’ve probably heard that we’re mixing it up for the holidays; and if you’ve heard that, then you’ve probably heard that we have a ton of lights; and if you’ve heard that then you’ve probably heard that the lights are all super energy efficient LED’s and that the whole thing is called TXU Energy Presents Zoo Lights; and if you’ve heard that, then you’re a great listener and I’m kind of impressed.

So in order to prevent your holiday blood pressure from being as high as your holiday credit card balance, I’ve drafted up a couple tips to make the Zoo Lights journey easier on you.

Official Tip: Buy your ticket online to save $1 and spend less time in line.
What this means to you: more money  + more time =  more time eating funnel cakes. Scientific studies have found that funnel cakes = happiness. (Source: stomach full of funnel cakes)
Official Tip: Zoo Lights is open 6pm – 10pm, with the last ticket sold at 9pm
What this means to you: You won’t miss anything if you show up at 7 or 8. Zoo Lights is busier right when the gates open at 6pm. Probably because everyone is so excited about the funnel cakes …errr…Zoo Lights.

Official tip: On Friday and Saturday nights, a free Zoo Lights trolley will run from Memorial Hermann Medical Plaza garage to the Zoo.
What this means to you: Can’t find a parking spot? Don’t waste time circling the parking lot like a Nascar track. Try the other garage.

Official tip: During Zoo Lights, all entry (and exit) will be directed through the main entrance at the front of the Zoo.
What this means to you: The Zoo is directing people just like an 80’s mullet haircut – business in the front, party in the back.

That’s all of the tips that I have for now. If you need further information, there is an entire webpage for TXU Energy Presents Zoo Lights .

Signing off from the Houston Zoo, your funnel cake expert,



Zoo Food – Then and Now

Frequent readers of Houston Zoo blogs are familiar with the Zoo’s annual Gift of Grub campaign.  Generously supported by TXU Energy, the campaign each year raises funds to support the Zoo’s animal nutrition.  You can find out more about this year’s Gift of Grub campaign, TXU Energy’s $50,000 dollar-for-dollar match, and what it takes to feed the Zoo’s 6,000 animals 365 days a year here.

For this Zoo History Blog post we’ll turn back the clock more than 50 years to an article from the Houston Post written by Clyde LaMotte with photos by Caroline Valenta.


Then the Zoo was home to approximately 800 animals and the the monthly ‘grocery bill’ was around $1,300.  The monthly menu as reported by the Post included 2600 loaves of bread, 500 pounds of carrots, 600 pounds of yams, 200 pounds of cabage, 100 pounds of onions, 14 boxes of apples, 6 boxes of oranges, 16 dozen heads of lettuce, 14 stalks of bananas, 8 dozen cans of milk, 5 tons of hay, and 6,500 pounds of meat.

While the Post didn’t present the complete menu (the Zoo had sea lions then but the story doesn’t mention fish or squid), the figures no doubt turned some heads in its day. Of course, the amounts and costs pale in comparison to today’s annual menu which includes 40,000 pounds of meat, 26,000 pounds of fish, and 6,950 cases of lettuce among many other items. The monthly cost now? In excess of $59,000.  No surprise, actually.  Fifty years ago Caroline Valenta and Clyde LaMotte could visit Minimax or Henke & Pillot and pick up a 2 pound roast for around $1.50 and a half-gallon of milk for $.44.  But the average weekly salary then was around $62 and the cost of food as a percent of weekly income was slightly under 16% by one estimation.

Before we close, a little bit of background about Clyde LaMotte and Caroline Valenta.  At the Post, LaMotte was sports editor and assistant city editor and worked for the Houston Chronicle before World War II.  LaMotte went on to specialize in energy and environmental reporting, was Washington bureau chief for the Oil & Gas Journal and president of the National Press Club in 1975.

Caroline Valenta was an award winning photographer at the Post. A blog post by the Houston Chronicle’s J. D. Gonzales tells her story better than anybody and recounts her experience covering the Texas City Disaster of 1947.

Next time, we’ll take a look at what Houstonians put on their dinner tables in the mid 1920s.  What was the big treat then?

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