An Elephant's Illegal "White Gold" – Stopping the Sale of Ivory

In early September, the Houston Zoo Wildlife Conservation Program began two months of programming focused on the African Elephant and the Ivory Crisis. In a world of constant communication, and distractions, we felt the best way to get our message across and gain people’s attention was to do so as often as we could. In this way, we would bring your attention to the plight of the African Elephant, one of Africa’s most iconic species.


And we would do so with positive messages about our partners in the field who have dedicated their lives to the elephant and many other very special animals. On occasion we would promote a current story which may not have been as positive – people need to hear these stories as elephants continue to be illegally hunted for their ivory which finds its way from Africa across to Asia where it is turned into personal and religious ornamental carvings and sold at prices higher than the value of gold. It is today’s “white” gold and until the governments of China and other up and coming Asian countries decide to put a stop to the trade and sale of ivory, elephants will continue to die so people can own their tusks. The illegal ivory trade may be driven by China but it is an international issue. The US is sitting on a stockpile of 6 tonnes, possibly more, of ivory confiscated in our own country.

Today, there could be as many as a half a million elephants left on the continent of Africa. Just 30 years ago, that number was more than double but today the goal is not to increase the population back to historical numbers – if only 30 years can be considered historical. There is simply not enough space left for 1.2 million elephants to roam across the continent. Africa’s savannahs and forests are different now with people and communities spreading out across the landscape. Today, the goal should be to stop the killing of elephant for the ornamental ivory trade and stabilize their populations as well as continue to work to reduce the conflict between humans and elephants who compete for both water sources and space needed for food.


And living in the United States it is hard to understand that message. Africa is such a vast and varied continent, how could there be space issues between people and wildlife? The issues are as large as the continent itself. So the Houston Zoo set out to bring attention to these issues and what we, hopefully with the assistance of our friends, members and guests, could do to help protect Africa’s elephants.

It is really about the awareness needed to generate significant funding to put the right people and resources on the ground to protect elephants and people. To identify the sources of local conflict with elephants that raid peoples crops – many times their only source of food; to fund programs that will engage local governments to reduce illegal poaching; to support local communities with resources so they see value in elephants alive, not dead. Here is a great example of a group doing work on the ground in Africa to protect elephants and one of the Houston Zoo’s main partners in Africa this year – Save the Elephants

Elephants matter. To the role they play on the landscape, to the culture of Africa,  they simply belong. We would ask for you to help us support elephant conservation any way you can go. Be an advocate, write your local representatives to place a complete ban on the trade in Ivory in the US, support the effort through the Houston Zoo or attend a few of our upcoming events.

You can support the Elephant Crisis Campaign here

Join Us: November 14th Reception 6pm-8pm. Art for Conservation: Wildlife Photography, Original Watercolors and Giclees. Gremillion & Co. Fine Art Gallery, 2501 Sunset Blvd. Show is open until December 1st

Or just come out to the zoo and enjoy our elephants ( getting their morning bath daily around 10:00am – a bit like this young elephant in Africa, without the mud…



Sea Turtle With Eye Injury Gets 2nd Chance at Life in the Wild!

Yesterday, Houston Zoo staff assisted in NOAA’s weekly beach survey to find injured, sick or stranded sea turtles along the upper Texas coast. After the summer ends and before the sea turtle nesting season begins in April, things sea-turtle related are relatively quiet. Luckily we did not find any sick, injured or stranded turtles yesterday, and we were able to clean up a lot of fishing line from the Surfside Jetty.

NOAA biologist Lyndsey Howell shows students a large hook found on the beach attached to line. This marine debris is very dangerous for animals in the Gulf.
NOAA biologist Lyndsey Howell shows students a large hook found on the beach attached to line. This marine debris is very dangerous for animals in the Gulf.

Fishing line that is left on rocks or on the beach is extremely dangerous to sea turtles as well as other marine life because these animals can become entangled in this line when it floats in the ocean. This can either damage their body parts, or cause them to drown. By collecting and recycling old fishing line and other plastics, we can make a huge impact on protecting our local Texas species.

Fishing line that ends up in the ocean can entangle wildlife like this sea turtle.
Fishing line that ends up in the ocean can entangle wildlife like this sea turtle.

The highlight of our survey yesterday was being able to assist in the release of a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle who was injured in mid-September. The sea turtle was caught accidentally by a recreational fishermen off the Texas coast. Unfortunately, the hook was caught in the turtles’ eye, but the NOAA staff who responded to the 1-866-TURTLE-5 call were able to remove the hook. After the hook was removed, Houston Zoo veterinarian staff gave the turtle a check-up to make sure it was okay. After a few weeks of rehabilitation at NOAA’s facility in Galveston, the turtle was ready to be released back into the wild!

NOAA staff released the turtle in front of a school group at the Galveston Island State Park
NOAA staff released the turtle in front of a school group at the Galveston Island State Park

Two thumbs (or flippers?) up for protecting animals! The Houston Zoo is so fortunate to partner with organizations in order to save our local wildlife.

And, a special thanks to YOU, our guests & readers, for doing your part to save wildlife. Remember, every time you visit the Houston Zoo, you help save animals in the wild!

We're Expecting! Preparing for an Asian Elephant Birth

We are preparing for a big delivery next year!  Following the back to back births of Asian elephant calves Baylor and Tupelo in 2010, we are making preparations for Shanti, a 23 year old Asian elephant to give birth in January, 2014.

“The average gestation period for an Asian elephant is 22 months,” said Houston Zoo Director Rick Barongi.  “Our nine member elephant care staff along with our four Zoo veterinarians as well as research partners at Baylor College of Medicine have been monitoring Shanti throughout her pregnancy. We’re looking forward to a successful birth and the new addition to our multigenerational herd,” added Barongi.


Young elephants Baylor and Tupelo look forward to meeting the new addition to the elephant family.
Young elephants Baylor and Tupelo look forward to meeting the new addition to the elephant family.

The Houston Zoo’s elephant care staff along with veterinarians have been monitoring the progress of Shanti’s pregnancy with regular ultrasound procedures since the late spring of last year.  Keepers have also been monitoring Shanti’s weight and her diet and leading the expectant mother through a regular exercise program.

In mid-November, training of a night watch pregnancy monitoring team made up of volunteers and Zoo employees will commence.  The team will observe Shanti via closed circuit TV cameras in the barn at the Zoo’s McNair Asian Elephant Habitat, monitoring and recording her behavior and watching for signs of labor.  The night watch pregnancy monitoring will begin in late November and will continue until the calf’s birth.

In December, daily blood sample collection to monitor Shanti’s progesterone levels will begin. A steeply declining blood progesterone level typically occurs 3-5 days prior to delivery.

The Houston Zoo is home to 7 Asian elephants including 3 males and 4 females. Shanti’s last calf was Baylor, a male born May 4, 2010.  Weighing 348-pounds at birth, Baylor was named in recognition of the unprecedented and ongoing advances made by Baylor College of Medicine’s research team to significantly reduce the threat of a potentially lethal elephant herpes virus.

How Your Next Seafood Dinner Can Help the Ocean

Sometimes, I get a minute at my desk to read over the  highly informative and educational journals/magazines/publications that relate to protecting animals and their habitats. Today, I had the opportunity to read the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s 2nd Edition of Turning the Tide (The State of Seafood) publication. Many of you may not have access to this, so let me give you the gist:

Our oceans are in trouble. Why? Many species of fish have been over fished, and done so without considering how long it will take for these animals to get back to healthy populations.

Spotted eagle rays-Photo courtesy of Nat Geo
Spotted eagle rays-Photo courtesy of Nat Geo

Why else? Marine debris, plastic pollution…trash in our oceans! You have probably seen pictures of this on our Houston Zoo Facebook pages:

A green sea turtle in Surfside, Texas entangled in fishing line.
A green sea turtle in Surfside, Texas entangled in fishing line.

So what can we do? Well…a lot, actually. Making smart choices about what we eat and where we buy it is a huge step. We can also limit our use of plastics, and when we do use plastics-make sure they end up in recycling, not on our beaches or on the land in any way.

If you are wondering how to make smart seafood decisions (I don’t blame you…we live on the Gulf Coast and have easy access to seafood!), check out this list of top North American Sustainable Seafood Companies (go to them first to buy your seafood). This list is from the Turning the Tide, The State of Seafood publication:

Grocery Stores:


Kroger Company




Publix Super Markers

Ahold USA (Stop & Shop, Giant, Martin’s Food Market)

BJ’s Wholesale Club

Whole Foods Market (who also just helped us raise money for elephant conservation! Thanks Whole Foods!)

Giant Eagle

Trader Joe’s

A & P

Winn-Dixie Stores

Thank you to these stores for keeping our oceans healthy, and the animals who live in our oceans healthy!

Our Texas sea turtles are appreciative of your sustainable seafood choices!
Our Texas sea turtles are appreciative of your sustainable seafood choices!

These stores have public sustainable seafood sourcing policies and work in partnership with members of the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions.

If you’re interested in finding out more about specific types of seafood to eat, or avoid, check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch recommendations.

OR, check out this page for a list of seafood to eat and to avoid that is specific to those of us in Texas!

Thanks for doing your part to save wildlife. And remember, every time you visit the Houston Zoo, you help save animals in the wild!

Insects are Crawling Our Way – Insectarium in Spring 2014

Insectarium-Banner_1000px-2Currently underway at the Houston Zoo is construction on an exhibit premiering Memorial Day Weekend, 2014!  With help from architects of The Portico Group based in Seattle, we intend to create an exciting new adventure for kids of all ages.    We have recently broken ground on our newest attraction which will be a dual exhibit featuring Insects and Wombats.  We have plans to acquire two Wombats from Zoos Victoria in Melbourne and we are excited to welcome them to their new home in Houston, Texas.

Kevin Hodge, our Children’s Zoo Curator is currently in the process of establishing a diverse collection of incredible insects for 25 feature habitats in our Insectarium.  SOme of the noted species to be featured will be rainbow stag beetles, Peruvian walking sticks, katydids, a goliath bird-eating tarantula (arguably the largest spider in the world), and Texas giant centipedes, just to name a few!  We could not be more excited for this project as we continue to improve existing facilities at the Zoo as well as offering unique new experiences to our guests. Stay tuned for more updates.

Flamingo Eggs Hatched, Fluffy Chicks Hand Raised by Keepers

It was an exciting day when the first baby flamingo from the Houston Zoo flock hatched this year – the first baby to hatch in six years! Since that first baby, more eggs have been laid, and more adorable chicks have hatched. Right now, the chicks are located behind the scenes in the care of our very capable zoo keepers so they can be monitored closely and get a full health checkup before heading out to join the flock.

The Houston Zoo’s first baby flamingo born in 6 years!

If you watch the flamingo webcam or have visited the Zoo lately, you may have noticed that there are several flamingos sitting on eggs. These eggs, while realistic looking, are not actually real flamingo eggs. We affectionately refer to them as “dummy” eggs. The real eggs are behind the scenes, carefully kept at a steady temperature in incubators and monitored by our expert team of bird keepers.

A real flamingo egg!
A real flamingo egg!

We do this for a couple reasons. First, we want to be sure the hatching rate is as high as possible – we want the eggs to turn into chicks. Flamingos sit on their eggs to keep them warm and safe, but there is always a chance something could happen to them.

For example, The keepers sometimes have to ask the flamingos to get off their nests (called mounds) so that we can till the soil. This helps the flamingos have enough loose dirt to build up their mounds. When the flamingos hop off their nests during this process, the eggs get colder, which is not good for the developing chick inside the egg. Also, a flamingo hopping off a nest has the potential to break it, and we definitely don’t want that to happen.

The birds tend to the eggs on their nest mounds
The birds tend to the eggs on their nest mounds

Another thing that can happen is that flamingos, being highly social creatures, can tend to squabble over an egg or a chick if there are not enough to go around. As you can imagine, this has the potential to be bad for the egg and/or chick, so we prevent that from happening by keeping eggs and chicks behind the scenes.

“Dummy” eggs, as they are called, serve an important purpose. When a flamingo lays an egg and we replace it with a dummy egg, both parents will continue to sit on it until they believe it is time for it to hatch. This prevents the female flamingo from laying another egg. Once the incubation period has ended, we always remove the dummy egg.

A gorgeous Chilean flamingo
A gorgeous Chilean flamingo

It is very important for flamingos (and other birds) not to lay too many eggs too soon, because it could cause them to lose large amounts of calcium. This could cause their bones to weaken and possibly break. We use dummy eggs so eggs are not laid too frequently by the same bird. We want to keep mom healthy, and we want to make sure the egg shell has enough calcium to properly form.

Why do we breed flamingos? Having a large group is very important to flamingos, as the name of the game for them is safety in numbers. We also do not take birds from the wild. It is important that we grow a healthy population within the Zoo so guests can enjoy and learn about these incredible birds.

Thanks to Joshua Vandenberg, an awesome bird keeper at the Houston Zoo and lover of all things flamingo, for the fantastic information!

There's a Bat Out There! And it's Eating Mosquitoes, Not Your Blood

I’m a very lucky person because I get to be a zookeeper! The most rewarding thing about my career is waking up in the morning and knowing that I have an important job to do – a job that can make the world a better place. I get to spend time with animals, learn about them, and hopefully help others learn, too. Bats are one of my very favorite animals to talk about. In fact, you can come learn about bats every day at the zoo during our 10:30 Bat Chat! There are so many myths and so much fear and misinformation surrounding bats that I consider it a special honor to work with them and help people understand them better.


But even when you have the best job in the world you need a vacation sometimes. You would think that working day in and day out with the hundreds of animals in the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo I might want a break from fur, feathers, and talons, but nope!  When I take a trip I want to see lots of animals. So recently, my husband and I decided to visit Costa Rica.

Our first day there we got to our resort and starting exploring. We happened upon a quiet, dark building were a young couple was playing a game of pool. We asked them what else was in the building. They said, not much, but…

“Don’t go in the women’s bathroom!” the young woman warned me. “There’s a BAT in there!”


Needless to say my husband and I ran…but not in the direction the woman expected. When we reached the empty bathroom we slowed down and walked quietly inside. Sure enough, hanging from the ceiling was a small, brown bat, looking down at me with a very familiar face!

“It’s a Carollia!” I said. “A Seba’s short-tailed fruit bat like I take care of at the zoo!”

I had traveled over a thousand miles and the first animal that I saw was one that I spend hours with every week at the zoo – I take care of around 70 of them actually – and it was magical. I appreciated its warm, alert brown eyes, its constantly wiggling little ears, and its turned-up, leaf-shaped nose like I was seeing it all for the first time.


I inched closer until the bat finally got frightened and flew over our heads and out the door of the bathroom. We heard the woman outside start screaming. She screamed and screamed and screamed! When she finished she stuck her head in the bathroom, embarrassed.

“You guys didn’t scream,” she said.


As we walked away my husband said, “It’s so weird that she would react that way to such a tiny animal. It didn’t want anything to do with us. It wouldn’t let us get anywhere near it! And that woman screamed like she was being chased by a tiger!”

“Yeah,” I replied, “And the funny thing is, the bat was just trying to get away, so really, she wasn’t even being chased by a bat!”


Now, there are probably some of you out there who completely understand the woman’s reaction. It’s easy to let the big, scary idea of an animal that we learn from TV and movies and countless images get in the way of seeing something for what it is – in this case a very small, very shy animal. It can be hard for those of us who work with animals to understand how something we regard with so much excitement and awe could possibly be a source of fear, or worse, disgust for others.

A lot of people believe that every single bat has rabies, and it’s true that rabies is a scary, scary disease. If you see a bat that’s on the ground or out during the daytime, there is definitely something wrong. Bats are wonderful to watch but you should never touch a bat under any circumstances! You can check out this website for more information about wildlife and rabies and how to stay safe!

Bats and Rabies information from Bat Conservation International


All that being said, if you see a bat flying around at night doing normal bat things there is almost no chance that animal is sick, and even less chance it’s going to get anywhere near you!


For some reason, people also have the crazy idea that bats want to get in your hair. That’s an odd one. I’ve had the occasional bat accidentally land on me while I was cleaning their exhibit, but they never stay long and they don’t seem to have any interest in re-styling my ponytail. Some people even believe that bats will turn into vampires. It goes to show you how silly we can be when we let ourselves be afraid of something unknown. In reality, unless you’re an insect or a piece of fruit, there’s nothing frightening about bats.

When you take the time to learn about bats you start to see only the cool things, the ways in which bats are both incredibly strange and remarkably similar to us at the same time. The skeletal structure of a bat looks surprisingly like ours with hand and fingers bones stretched out into the amazing wings that make them the only flying mammal. Bats do so many of the same things we do! They eat food and try to stay safe, they have live birth and nurse their young. But they do it all upside down!


They have all these special adaptations because they have important jobs to do, too.  Whether it’s pollinating flowers so that plants can reproduce, eating mosquitoes and crop pests like they do in our own backyard here in Houston, spreading seeds around like the Seba’s short-tailed fruit bat, or helping researchers find ways to treat heart attack victims like the much maligned vampire bats, bats all have an important job to do – a job that makes the world better. A job we can’t afford for them to take a vacation from.

I really am a very lucky person. I get to take cool trips. I have a husband who will run into the lady’s room to look at a bat with me. In Costa Rica I got to see bats swirling around a waterfall deep in the jungle. I got to see bats catching fish in the ocean. And when I came home I got to go back to my important job where every day I get to watch bats lick nectar with a tongue that’s as long as their bodies and hang from the ceiling to take a bath just like a tiny, upside-down kitty cat.


I hope the next time you see a bat, whether it’s the first bat you’ve ever come across or your millionth, that you’ll think about the important job it’s busy doing and you’ll look at it like you’re seeing it for the first time. I hope you’ll think about how lucky you are – how lucky we all are! – to share the world with such strange and special creatures. And most of all I hope you’ll realize that understanding bats is an important job that YOU could do.

Bats emerging from the Waugh Drive bridge.

Thank You Spider, for Killing the Bugs That Bug Us

Image courtesy of Runt of the Web

Poor spiders! They seem to be at or near the top of most folks’ list of creepy crawly icky things that they don’t want anywhere near them. They usually make the sides of pest control vans too, even though they’re practically the opposite of a pest. Spiders never infest your food supplies, but they eat some of the things that do, they don’t bite you without a good reason, and some of them construct super cool webs.

Argiope aurantia, Black and Yellow Garden Spider

According to National Geographic, the average spider eats about 2,000 insects a year, so spiders are good to have around the home.

Of the more than nine hundred species of spider in Texas, only two are potentially dangerous (barring an allergic reaction similar to how some people react to bee stings); the black widow and brown recluse. Both of these are quite shy, choosing to stay hidden and let food come to them.

The red spot is on the belly of the black widow. Image courtesy of wikipedia
Brown recluses aren’t much bigger than a penny. Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Spiders are an incredibly diverse and fascinating group of animals. There are small ones, big ones, fuzzy ones; some burrow, some make huge webs way up high, some use silk as a lasso, some take care of their babies for a time, some dive under water taking along a bubble of air. There is even one that spits a combination of glue and venom at its prey-how cool is that? Some are just downright cute.

Phidippus regius female jumping spider. Photo by Thomas Shahan via flickr
Phidippus regius female jumping spider. Photo by Thomas Shahan via flickr

As with other venomous creatures, many people tend to be overly concerned about them. Bites do happen on occasion, though almost always from accidental contact. We come close to many more spiders than we will ever know because of their usual small size and reclusive habits. This Halloween, let’s give spiders some credit and think of them as natural pest control instead of pests themselves!

Comb-clawed spider chomping down on some pesky ants
Comb-clawed spider chomping down on some pesky ants

Find out more cool stuff about spiders – check out Spider Facts on the Discovery Channel website

Wolf spider mom carrying dozens of babies on her back.
Wolf spider mom carrying dozens of babies on her back.




Why You Should Not Be Afraid of Snakes

It’s October, Halloween is approaching, and you know what that means: Monsters! Ghosts! Goblins! Zombies! Snakes!!

Wait a minute, snakes? Why are snakes associated with Halloween and all these other scary things? Halloween comes in autumn, which is associated with cooler weather in many areas of the country, which means that snakes probably won’t even be out.

Cottonmouth snake
Cottonmouth snake

Snakes are some of the least understood, most feared, and most persecuted group of animals. It is estimated that over 50% of people are nervous or anxious in the presence of snakes while another 20% are absolutely terrified. Many people think that all snakes should be killed on sight, despite the fact that snakes play an important role in controlling rodent populations and only bite if they feel threatened. In fact, snakes will go to great lengths to be left alone! Have you ever thought about the rattles on a rattlesnake? Many people think the sound of the rattles is a sign of aggression from the snake when actually the opposite is true; this is the snake’s method of saying “I’m letting you know that I’m over here; please leave me alone.”

Coral snake

There are around 117 varieties of snakes in Texas and they range in size from less than 12 inches to almost 10 feet. The Houston area is home to 34 different types of snakes. Of these, only six are venomous. Of these six species, three (Western diamondback rattlesnake, pygmy rattlesnake, and the canebrake rattlesnake) have been pretty much exterminated in Houston and are almost never seen. The other three venomous snake species in Houston are the copperhead, the cottonmouth (a.k.a. water moccasin) and the Texas coral snake.

Southern Copperhead snake
Southern Copperhead snake

How can you tell these snakes from other snakes? The absolute best way is just to memorize what these three species look like, and then stay away from any snake that looks like them! When you think about the different things that people memorize every day (computer passwords, stats for all the Texan football players, etc.) it isn’t so difficult. Another general rule is to just leave any snake you see alone and let it go about its business; the snake will return the favor and leave you alone, also. And remember; statistics show that a person is over seven times more likely to die as a result of a lightning strike than from a venomous snake bite.

So, the next time you see a snake, don’t be afraid! Just leave it alone. However, as you walk away, you may want to say “thank you for helping to get rid of the rats and mice around here.”

Carolyn Jess Helps Novia the Ocelot Celebrate

We have invited Carolyn Jess back to help us out as guest blogger in 2013 with a focus on native wildlife. Jess is a 12 year old student who has agreed to be our special guest blogger about wildlife conservation. We first met Carolyn in October 2011 when she came out to the Zoo to meet our special guest Jack Hannah. If you would like to contact Carolyn or have comments, you may send them to

Happy Birthday Novia!  Novia, the ocelot, just celebrated her 5th birthday at the Houston Zoo.  She had a really nice party with delicious presents and lots of people to help her celebrate.  Novia’s birthday is definitely worth celebrating since she was not expected to live past two years old. Novia – which means girlfriend in Spanish- was brought to the zoo to breed with the ocelot that was already there.  The keepers discovered that Novia had some health problems and she had to be spayed.  Her boyfriend was brought to another zoo and was able to have babies there, but Novia was not expected to survive much longer.  Her health issues were pretty bad.  The zoo staff did not give up on her though.  The carnivore keepers gave her lots of love and attention along with antibiotics and vitamins to make her stronger.  Through the care of the keepers and their support, Novia pulled through.  She is truly a survivor, so turning five years old was a big reason to celebrate!

I was able to help get Novia’s party prepared.     I went in with her keeper to Novia’s enclosure.  Novia was waiting quietly and watching as we walked through her home.  I helped stuff some of her favorite things in the colorful boxes and bags that she would soon open.  Some of the items were: fish, a bone,  dead mice, squid, shrimp and a lobster.   While the keepers and I stuffed the bags and boxes with treats, a crowd was starting to gather to help this girl celebrate her birthday.  Novia was curious to see what was going on. As soon as she walked in, she went straight for her presents.  I am glad to say she went to my present first and quickly devoured the dead mouse I set out for her.  She dug further in to get the rest of the treats.  After a while, she found her biggest present, the lobster, and disappeared in the bushes with it.  We could not see her, but we could hear the crunch as she enjoyed her birthday gift.   The celebration was enjoyed by everyone who came to see it – especially Novia.

There were other events going on Saturday as well.  The Houston Zoo held an Enrichment Day which was a great way to see how animals have fun in their habitats.  Throughout the enclosures were lots of decorations and enrichment toys that the animals love to play with, smell, or even eat.    Animal enrichment happens daily here at the zoo.  Enrichment helps strengthen the animals physically and mentally.  It keeps their minds sharp and keeps their bodies healthy.  The zoo staff was very busy teaching guests about the importance of enrichment.  Enrichment Day was a great way to see up close what happens every day behind the scenes.  To the animals that live here, it was just another fun day, but to the parents and kids who came out, it was a great way to see what really happens here at the zoo.

Search Blog & Website
[jetpack_subscription_form title="Subscribe to the Blog" subscribe_text="Enter your email address to subscribe and receive new blog posts by email."]
Houston Zoo Facebook Page
Animals In Action

Recent Videos