Researchers' Field Work Confirms EEHV is Present in Wild Asian and African Elephants

On January 28 and 29, more than 70 participants from 6 countries gathered in Houston for the 9th Annual International EEHV workshop sponsored by The International Elephant Foundation and the Houston Zoo.  Research findings presented at the workshop confirmed that EEHV is present among the wild population of Asian and African elephants and that the virus did not ‘cross’ recently from African elephant hosts to Asian elephants.

Elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus (EEHV) is the leading cause of death in Asian elephants under the age of 8 in the care of humans.  Since 1978, 60 cases of EEHV in North America and Europe, as well as 20 EEHV deaths in Asian among wild and managed elephants, have been confirmed.  This devastating disease is a significant threat to self-sustaining populations of managed and free ranging Asian elephants worldwide.

At the Houston workshop, veterinarians, virologists, epidemiologists, immunologists, elephant care specialists, and administrators presented 16 research papers reporting advances in EEHV research, epidemiology and clinical management.

Among the advancements reported at the two day conference, Dr. Paul Ling of Baylor College of Medicine’s (BCM) Department of Molecular Virology and Microbiology, and the lead researcher for the 3 year old Houston Zoo/BCM EEHV research collaboration, presented findings of field studies that detected EEHV presence among healthy wild Asian elephants in India.

Dr. Ling’s data and additional research presented at the conference by Dr. Simon Long at Johns Hopkins University demonstrated that EEHV is widespread in Asian range countries and that Asian elephants appear to be ancient natural hosts of EEHV.

Dr. Ramiro Isaza of the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine reported preliminary findings of a multiyear molecular screening and epidemiological investigation that found no significant association between EEHV occurrence in Asian elephants and exposure to African elephants.

Both findings argue strongly against the previously suggested notion that EEHV is only a disease of elephants in the care of humans and that the virus crossed recently from African elephant hosts to Asian elephants.

Other advances reported at the 9th annual workshop included establishment of highly sensitive diagnostic tests permitting routine monitoring of domestic and wild elephant populations that allow earlier treatment of elephants demonstrating EEHV symptoms, and establishment of treatment protocols that combine antiviral drug therapy with intensive supportive care.

“In the past three years, since the creation of the Houston Zoo/Baylor College of Medicine research collaboration, we have made more progress in EEHV research than at any other time since the elephant herpes virus was identified 17 years ago,” said Houston Zoo Director Rick Barongi.

Going forward, goals for the workshop researchers include securing long-term funding for the Smithsonian National Elephant Herpesvirus Laboratory, greater collaboration and communication among researchers internationally, development of more sensitive testing to identify when baby elephants are most vulnerable to EEHV, and expanded treatment and supportive care options.

Mole Rats Coming Soon! New Home Under Construction

The maze of small tunnels and chambers built into the wall near the rear of the Natural Encounters building has been home to two species, Damara and naked mole-rats. Lately these burrows have been empty, as the mole-rats tunnel behind the scenes while their exhibit is being renovated. If you’ve missed seeing them, you don’t have to wait until they’re back; they come out regularly for Meet the Keeper Talks. Check our Daily Schedule on the morning of your visit to see if they might be featured that day.



Kamryn Suttinger, the keeper who has worked with the mole-rats the longest, treated me with a few cool facts about them while she introduced me to them behind the scenes. Both Damara and naked mole-rats hail from the southern regions of Africa in the wild, though our colonies were born and raised in zoos. Mole-rats are rodents, and those two enormous front teeth grow constantly. Thus the need to constantly be chewing to wear the teeth down, a trait that’s most helpful in the wild. Here at the zoo keepers provide them with plenty of enrichment items to chew on, and sometimes block their tunnels with a sweet potato to give them a sweet reward for their digging efforts.

It is nearly impossible to tell male and female Damara mole-rats apart, says Suttinger, and not long ago we were met with a big surprise as a result. One of the “males” was quarreling with the queen of the colony, and to keep the peace keepers separated “him” out with a few other males into a bachelor colony. To their surprise this colony produced a litter of pups!

After renovations are complete, the naked mole-rats will have an exhibit area near the bat cave in Natural Encounters, and the Damara mole-rats will return to a new and improved exhibit in their current area. One problem with the old exhibit was that only the chambers were visible; the tunnels were behind the scenes where much of the great digging, tunneling and social interactions were happening. The new exhibits will have the tunnels and chambers visible to the public.

We will make an announcement when the renovations are complete and the mole-rats are back out on exhibit. Subscribe to our e-newsletter and get the news in your inbox!

5% Day Gives Back to Local Species

As some of our blog readers and Facebook followers know, we braved the high winds on Wednesday, December 19th 2012 to provide information on the Zoo’s conservation efforts at the Whole Foods location on Bellaire Blvd. Thanks to Whole Foods, the Zoo was chosen as the recipient of 5% of their entire day’s profits! We were so happy to be chosen, and even happier to report that the final 5% total came in at just over $5,000! We can’t say THANK YOU enough to Whole Foods for supporting our efforts to save Texas species.

We had a great turnout at the event with live animals from the ZooMobile program, biofacts and information on local sea turtle conservation, and staff members from several departments providing information on all the Zoo has to offer! We chose to highlight sea turtle conservation at this event because Whole Foods is a wonderful advocate of using less plastic (as you can see by their lack of plastic bags at the checkout line!). We saw so many people entering the store carrying their reusable canvas bags, and they didn’t even know that such a small action was helping to save one of our most endangered local species. By reducing our use of plastic (from water bottles to plastic grocery bags and even dry cleaning bags!) we play an important role in saving wildlife.

An amazing sea turtle informational banner created by the Houston Zoo’s graphics team for use at the Whole Foods Day of Giving!

Bravo and thank you to everyone who chose to shop at Whole Foods on that day in December and to those of you that remember your canvas bags on trips to the grocery store, as you are all part of saving sea turtles on the Texas coast. We are so thankful to have the support of organizations like Whole Foods and we hope to see you all out at another 5% day of community giving! To learn more about the Zoo and our conservation efforts please visit our website.

These sea turtles say thank you for helping Texas conservation efforts! Photo courtesy of National Geographic.


Jack Hanna – Live in Houston this Friday

Are you and your family ready to take an adventure through the eyes of Jack Hanna? On Friday, January 25 at 7:00 pm, Jack Hanna will be at the Bayou Music Center as Into the Wild-Live! provides insight into the world of conservation and protecting endangered species while having some fun along the way!  Houston Zoo members can purchase 4 tickets for the price of 3 and $2.00 of each ticket sold will be donated to the Gorilla Doctors-Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project. Just use the code ‘GORILLA’ at the end of your ticket purchase.

Buy Your Tickets Here through Live Nation

The Houston Zoo will be on hand in the vendor area helping to raise money for the Gorilla Doctors project. We will have gorilla carvings from Rwanda and Gorilla Doctors t-shirts for sale. If you cannot make it out the event, you can still get your t-shirt here in support of the project.

Gorilla Doctors: Saving a Species One Gorilla at a Time The Gorilla Doctors are dedicated to saving the lives of critically-endangered mountain and Grauer’s gorillas through health care. Our international team of veterinarians is the only group providing these animals with direct, hands-on care in the wild.

With approximately 800 mountain gorillas left in the world today, it is critical to ensure the health and well-being of every individual gorilla. The distribution of gorillas includes the Virunga Volcanoes Massif, which spans Rwanda’s Volcanoes National Park, DR Congo’s Virunga National Park, Uganda’s Mgahinga National Park, and Bwindi Impenetrable National Park in Uganda.

Gorilla Doctors also focus on human health in one of the most densely populated regions in Africa. Recognizing that the health of the gorillas is inextricably linked to that of the entire ecosystem, in addition to providing life-saving care, our veterinary team further protects gorillas by supporting health programs for people and their animals living and working in and around gorilla habitat.

So come on out Friday night January 25th – you never know what Jack Hanna might have planned for the evening and you will be supporting gorilla conservation.

Houston Zoo Attwater's Prairie Chickens Thriving in the Wild!

Last week, staff from the Houston Zoo conservation, veterinary and bird departments assisted in Attwater’s prairie chicken field work at the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge.  US Fish and Wildlife staff drove us out into the refuge in the dark of the night.  We stopped and parked the vehicles at the precise location they had tracked birds to earlier in the day.  Never having seen an Attwater’s prairie chicken in the wild before, I was very excited to trek off into the dark prairie with the US Fish and Wildlife staff member, Mike Morrow. He carried his radio telemetry equipment, I carried the net and another Houston Zoo staff member followed ready to carry the captured bird back to the vehicles to be processed.   

Each captive bird that is released into the wild is fitted with a radio collar that is used to track the birds movements.  Radio telemetry equipment is then used to track and capture specific individuals.  Each bird that was captured was examined and blood and fecal samples were taken in an effort to monitor their health.   The birds were then re-released where they were captured in the refuge.

Houston Zoo staff holding wild Attwater’s prairie chicken for examination.

It is beautiful on the prairie at night.  No city lights means a clear starry night sky and the only sounds were our feet making contact with the prairie vegetation, the birds’ wings pounding the air as we flushed them from their roosting spots and the eerie coyote calls in the distance.    We captured the first several birds relatively quickly, but the 5th bird proved to be a bit more of a challenge.   This particular bird would not let Mike get within 6 feet of her, and we made 6 attempts before deciding to give up on her.  As we began to reorient ourselves to get back to the vans, Mike revealed his feeling of defeat over the failed mission to capture this bird.  I told him I felt this was a great example of the will of this species to survive.   This animal has a fighting chance with the many predators it will face if we can’t even sneak up on it.  He whole heartedly agreed with this perspective and enthusiastically carried on with this essential species-saving work.

We assisted with the capture of 15 birds and to our delight 2 of them were raised at the Houston Zoo.  The Houston Zoo has been working with the Attwater’s prairie chicken recovery effort since 2004, so seeing an animal that has been raised at the Houston Zoo, thriving in the wild is a magnificent experience.  This is another wonderful reminder of the important role the Houston Zoo plays in the race to save species.  For more about this awesome local recovery program and others at the Houston Zoo click here.


Ride 'em Hans!

The maintenance and expansion of the Houston Zoo in the early 1920s has been characterized by one former Zoo facilities director as requiring an effort equivalent to the 12 tasks of Hercules.  Fred Maier wasn’t exaggerating when he wrote those words for a Houston Chronicle feature article on the occasion of the Houston Zoo’s 75th anniversary.

Hans Nagel, the Zoo’s first ‘head keeper’ all but slept with his animals.  The Zoo’s budget in the mid 1920s was barely $2,000 a year.  Acquiring animals required a combination of begging, borrowing and mounting expeditions, occasionally with borrowed equipment, to ‘bring ’em back alive’ from the wild.

But the day famed animal dealer and adventurer Ellis Joseph showed up in Hermann Park with a wild zebra for the Zoo was a decidedly different occasion.

By the mid 1920s, Joseph had built a reputation providing animals for zoos around the world. He’d embarked on his career at the age of 18.  By the 1920s his roster of clients included Carl Hagenbeck’s Hamburg Zoo.  You may remember from earlier posts that the ship captain who fished Hans out of Hamburg harbor after he went AWOL from the German navy was headed to Africa on a Hagenbeck safari.

Whether there was an ‘old boy’ connection between Nagel and Joseph related to Hans’ first Africa trip is admittedly speculation. What we do know is that Joseph felt comfortable enough that day in Hermann Park to make a friendly wager with the Zoo’s head keeper.

The bet? That Nagel could not saddle and ride the zebra.  Unaware of Hans’ past experience as a bronco buster, Joseph watched in disbelief as Nagel rode the pitching zebra across the Park and a film camera captured the moment.  The prize for Nagle was the saddle seen on the zebra’s back in the photo below. As we’ve said before, the era of the 1920s was a different age and a demonstration such as this would never be considered by a modern zoological institution.

From left to right, Hans Nagel, the recently saddled zebra and an unidentified man (Ellis Joseph?) in Hermann Park. From the collection of Gale Rendon to whom we owe a deep debt of gratitude. We’ll examine other vintage photos from the Rendon family collection in future posts.

Thanks to a Houston gallery owner and a nonprofit dedicated to preserving Texas’ film history, this film can be seen today. Story Sloane, owner of Sloane Gallery at 1570 South Dairy Ashford in Houston recently added the vintage nitrate film taken that day in Hermann Park to the online collection of the Texas Archive of the Moving Image (TAMI).  See the film here, find out more about TAMI and their growing collection here, and how you can support their work.

A post script. We don’t know the exact date of Hans’ zebra bet and ride. But the April 25, 1925 issue of the Rice University student newspaper carried a brief story headlined ‘Hans to Mount Zebra’ on its front page and set the date of the ride as Monday, April 27.



Guest blogger: Sandy Bumpus, reports on her trip with the Houston Zoo to see Polar bears

My trip to Churchill, Manitoba, Canada with the Houston Zoo was wonderful.  We had two days in Winnipeg, then three days on the tundra, with only twelve of us in each of two tundra buggies.  On our excursions we saw five polar bears, arctic fox, snowy owls, ptarmigan, arctic hares and sundry other wildlife which was a wonderful count for one of these tours. 

Success always depends on the weather, the time of year, as well as the animals and it all seemed to work in our favour.  With no snow, the animals whose coats had already turned white were far easier to spot and a group of bears had taken up an area easily accessible by the vehicles while they waited for the ice to form.  The scenery was phenomenal and I hadn’t realized how colourful it would be with the lichen in its fall colours on the rocks and therocks themselves in different muted colours showing above the ground. 

 The buggies travel over all terrain and through shallow, very broad ponds to get to the vantage points so we had some really interesting rides and the Natural Habitat driver and guide were both excellent.  There was a large viewing platform with a telescope outside the vehicle to watch and photograph the bears “boxing” with each other or wandering around the buggy and sometimes under the open viewing floor mesh.


Our accommodation was very comfortable with pleasant people always ready to assist us and excellent food especially brought in with good chefs to prepare it.  One of the experiences that stands out in my mind was the talk given by Myrtle de Meulles about her life as the daughter of a native Metis trapper living off the land.  Sharing the area with these large predators which we’d come to see had certainly been a major factor in her life.  Then, the dogsled ride on the last day truly gave us a great finish to a very enjoyable experience.

For more details and information on how to book the next trip to see Polar bears in Chruchill, November 4-9, 2013  click here.

Awareness Leads to Action: Reduce, Recycle, Reduce Some More

Here is a simple fact: If you tell me to do something, I am more than likely not going to do it, even if I wanted to before you told me to. It is not that I am stubborn (I am but will not admit it) but we are constantly bombarded with messages about what we should do. What to buy, what to eat, which mattress to purchase, which car to drive, not to make your chicken wear pants. The list goes on and on.

So, I am not going to tell you what to do (that is an outright lie, you have been warned) but we do want you to see that being Aware leads to Action, good actions that we can do everyday and in doing so, can make a world of difference no matter how small.

Fisherman and Fisherwomen! Please do not cut your fishing line when you get hooked and leave it to float in the ocean because at some point – this will absolutely happen and not only to turtles but to dolphins and birds as well:

Sea Turtle trapped in abandoned monofilament line and debris in Galveston

Instead, look for monofilament recycling bins on the jetties or at least take it home and dispose of properly. More Awareness = More Action.

I am not sure in my lifetime the reduction of plastic waste will ever occur but do you really need to get all your water from these 12 once bottles which are also made from petroleum and do not break down in the landfills? We hope you will at least recycle every bottle you use. We understand it is inevitable in todays society to use plastics but we can all make a small difference by reducing our use of plastic bottles. Our Sea Lions can do it – so can you. More Awareness = More Action.

We all know Styrofoam is bad for the environment but I am not going to tell you it is because then you will think it is not. But someone just told me that it is hazardous for wildlife and even bad for humans so it must be true. Styrene,  which is what Styrofoam is made from, is a known carcinogenic and is made from petroleum – enjoy that Milkshake or cup of coffee! How easy is it to not use Styrofoam? Ridiculously easy, just reach for something else at the store and only go to restaurants, diners, drive-throughs that no longer use Styrofoam cups for your drinks. Did I mention it does not break down in the landfill – ever, and at some point ends up in our waterways? Styrofoam products are the number one source of Marine Debris. More Awareness = More Action.

Each year Americans throw away 25,000,000,000 ‘Styrofoam’ cups. That is equal to how many times I am told to do something, and I ignore it. Do not even think about ignoring me on this one.

I know you are hit with a million messages a day, and at least 12 texts, and you cannot absorb all of them, but we all know right from wrong. I do not want to sound like I am telling you what to do or making an issue bigger than it really is. That is actually the job of the Drama Llama.

We are just asking that you help us pay a little more attention to the products we all use and the waste we are leaving behind as it affects our communities and our wildlife. If you recall I noted earlier I would not be telling you what to do. I lied – I am telling you not to leave your Guinea Pig outside without sunblock no matter how cool he looks in sunglasses. More Awareness = Healthy Guinea Pigs.

A National Geographic Photographer Visits the Houston Zoo

All of the photos in this blog post were taken here at the Houston Zoo.

National Geographic Photographer, Joel Sartore is no stranger to wildlife. He has traveled to every continent in the world and has photo documented over 30 stories on conservation issues for the world renowned National Geographic magazine.  Many of these stories continuously remind him of the great need to keep public engaged and involved in the race to save species.  Even though he loves to see animals in the wild, Joel is a strong advocate for zoos and believes they are required to inspire people to care about the natural world. 


Joel has been a good friend of the Houston Zoo for many years now and visited early January 2013 with a mission to photograph specific birds, mammals and reptiles for a special project he created called, The Photo Ark.   Over the past seven years he has visited 80 zoos and captured photographs of 2600 different species.  His goal is to photo document at least one of each of the 6000 species in zoos over the next 20 years.  His inspiration for this project came from Martha the passenger pigeon. 

When Joel was a child his mother gave him a book with Martha the passenger pigeon in it.  He remembers reading about how Martha was the last of her species and that had a big impact on him.  The passenger pigeon was hunted to extinction in the early 1900’s, but he couldn’t help but think if the public had been given the chance to look her in the eye and admire her unique beauty, would they have let her go extinct?  Unfortunately, several of the animals Joel has photographed for The Photo Ark have fallen to the same fate as the passenger pigeon. This threat of extinction fuels Joel’s passion to complete this archive of animal life as fast as possible.

The animal portraits are done on black and white backgrounds so that the viewer can look them directly in the eye and quickly see that these creatures contain beauty, grace and intelligence. The backgrounds also emphasize the individual’s details and equalize the sizes of the different animals so that a tiger beetle looks to be the same size as a tiger, stressing the equal value of all living things.  These photos are designed to evoke emotion for animals great and small.  Joel has seen first-hand that people save things they love and he knows they definitely won’t save what they don’t know exists.  Essentially, the Photo Ark is a unique kind of zoo where the world’s biodiversity looks you in the eye to ask for help.  Click here to see more of the Photo Ark.

It wasn't always a Rice owl

As we’ve noted in previous posts and mentioned in last year’s special historical issue of the Houston Zoo’s member magazine Wildlife, the Zoo’s first director, Hans Nagel was a bit of a showman.  And that’s a colossal understatement.

We recently had the good fortune to meet Lee Pecht, University Archivist and Director of Special Collections at the Woodson Research Center at Rice University’s Fondren Library.

Lee wrote us seeking a history of the Houston Zoo and information about the early animals on the property.  “Rice had ties with Nellie the elephant in the 1920s and we would like to explore the story,” said Lee.

As it turns out, Rice had very close ties to Nellie. In fact, Nellie became the unofficial mascot of the Rice student body for a time in the 1920s, appearing with Hans at several football games in the 1924 and 1925 seasons.

You can read more about it here at the Rice History Corner.

Doing our own digging through past issues of The Thresher, we’ve found a story indicating that one of the first (if not the first) owl mascots arrived at Rice University by way of a train crew, some compassionate Rice students and Hans Nagel.

According to the December 9, 1927 issue of The Thresher, it all started the day before the Thanksgiving football game between Rice and Baylor when a train crew rescued an owl that had been caught between the tender and the baggage car of a Missouri Pacific train that ran the route between Dallas and Houston.

As the paper recounts the tale in a story headlined “Thresher Obtains Lucky Bird; Name Wanted” (see the front page below) a Missouri Pacific vice president contacted The Thresher editor and offered to donate the owl to the school.  The students took the owl to Hans so that “he might receive the best of care and be in tip-top condition for football games in the future.”



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