Farewell to Aries, African Painted Dog

As the New Year dawned, the Houston Zoo bid a sad but fond farewell to Aries, one of our three African painted dogs.  Twelve year old Aries had lived at the Houston Zoo with pack mates Mikita, his nephew, and Blaze, his brother since their arrival from the Bronx Zoo in 2009.

African Painted Dog Aries
Farewell to Aries, the African Painted Dog

Painted dogs are incredibly social creatures, and they are known to mourn. As Aries’s health declined due to his advanced years, his nephew Mikita, the alpha male of the pack, took care of Aries by making sure that Aries received his share of the food. Mikita also slept next to Aries during this time, a behavior that is common within painted dog packs.

Aries was the most vocal member of his pack, often growling a few short “barks” at his keepers while he was eating. One of the most communicative social carnivores, vocalizing is very important in painted dog packs. The number of vocalizations they produce is thought to be second only to dolphins.

Aries - African Painted Dog
Aries, the African Painted Dog

Aries was a distinguished ambassador for his  counterparts in the wild. He represented all the African painted dogs the Houston Zoo works to save. The Zoo partners with an organization called Painted Dog Conservation, which rehabilitates sick and injured painted dogs in Zimbabwe and reintroduces them back into the wild.

Learn more about how the Houston Zoo helps African painted dogs in the wild

Beloved Wildlife Carousel Staff Member Retires – Saying Bye to Melvin Francis

We’re so sad to say goodbye to Melvin Francis, our Wildlife Carousel Lead Operator who retired this week. “I just want to say thank you for all the waves, smiles, blow kisses, hi-fives and hugs I’ve received over the years,” smiles Melvin, “My goal was always to go beyond the borders to make someone’s day extra special when they visited the zoo, and I feel I’ve done that with so many people.”

Melvin & Carousel Kids

Melvin was at his post for nearly ten years, joining us when we built the carousel in May 2004. When he began, he effortlessly carried out the routine of the job. “But it felt incomplete to just stand there and watch it go around,” commented Melvin, and he added his signature wave to the children as they passed. “I also wanted to add something special as the ride ended, so I came up with ‘Top of the day to you!’ as they departed,” and he stuck with it as a crowd favorite over the years along with his smile-inducing “Bye!”

Working at the carousel has left Melvin with countless amusing memories. “One time a young kid brought me a candy bar, and I said ‘you have a free ride – no charge for you today.’ I ended up giving her two free rides. Then she got off, came up and asked for the candy bar back! I couldn’t say no, it was so funny.”

Over the years Melvin has seen toddlers grow into teens who keep coming back to ride their favorite animals. He was able to say hello to a number of after-school regulars and get to know many familiar faces. “It’s beautiful to see the joy the carousel ride brings to all these kids. What’s even better is to see them sharing that with the parents – to win the confidence and love of the parents through the happiness of the kids.”

And not just children can be carousel addicts. “One older couple had a goal of riding every single animal on the carousel – there are 64 animals. I saw them every single Saturday for months! They didn’t take any notes, just remembered which they’d ridden on and which they hadn’t, and kept coming back to ride a few times each week until they’d done them all.”


In addition to entertaining the carousel’s daytime visitors, the carousel also runs during a number of evening events. One of Melvin’s favorites was Dream Night, an annual event the zoo hosts for chronically ill and disabled children and their families. “Of all the nights of the year, that was one of the best to be able to participate in, to give something to those kids and their families.”

Melvin plans to spend more of his new free time with his three-year-old granddaughter. “The nickname I gave her is ‘cheetah girl.’ I’ll be bringing her to the zoo and to the carousel!”

Thank you Melvin for all the precious memories you’ve given to so many zoo visitors over the years.

Zoo Refugees: Stump-tailed Dwarf Chameleons and Animal Confiscations

When you visit the Zoo, you get to see lots of animals – from elephants to meerkats to jellyfish to Komodo dragons – and each of them has a story. Some of them are facing extinction and are among the last representatives of their species, while others are there because they were injured or orphaned out in the wild and needed a home. Still others, as you will learn here, were confiscated.

So goes the story of several of the Zoo’s most recent arrivals, the stump-tailed dwarf chameleons. These little reptiles were making a journey into the US to become a part of the pet trade. When the chameleons arrived, many had perished and the others were in poor health and severely dehydrated-there were a lot of them, but only a small percentage survived, as they are very delicate animals.

One of the recently confiscated stump-tailed dwarf chameleons
One of the recently confiscated stump-tailed dwarf chameleons

A number of zoos were asked to take in these confiscated chameleons, because no single zoo had the facilities house all of them. That’s one of the great things about zoos – we work together very well, because our mission is the same: to help animals whenever and wherever we can.

We were able to take in 15 chameleons from this confiscation, but by the time we were able to nurse them back to health, only 6 made it. You can visit those 6 animals, now thriving and healthy, in the Reptiles & Amphibians Building.

You can see these chameleons in their habitat inside the Reptiles & Amphibians Building
You can see these chameleons in their habitat inside the Reptiles & Amphibians Building

With reptiles, a lot of the reason why they are coming into the country in the first place is to become pets. Many times they are captured out of the wild and kept in very poor conditions until they can be shipped (often also in very poor conditions). By the time they get to the US, the odds aren’t good that most will survive.

It’s not a bad thing at all to have a reptile as a pet, but it is important to know a few things first before you get started. Here are a few tips if you’re considering it:

  1. Do your research. What does the animal eat? What is its life span? Where does it live, and how will you make a home for it? How does it get water? Stump-tailed dwarf chameleons, like many lizards and some snakes, don’t drink from a water bowl. They actually need to be “rained on” with a mister or else they won’t get the water they need.
  2. Choose an animal at your skill level. Some animals are way harder to take care of than others, so know what you can handle and how much time and energy it will take to care for them. These little chameleons take a lot of work – only try this at home if you’re sure you can handle it!
  3. Find a good breeder that is responsible. You may find a good quality pet store, or you may visit an expo like the one the East Texas Herpetological Society holds each fall.
  4. Ask the right questions. Ask questions of your breeder like “has this animal been captive bred?” If the answer is yes, that’s a good thing. There is no need to take animals out of the wild. Some breeders may say “this animal has been captive born” – that doesn’t count. They may have taken the parents out of the wild, and that is no good at all. Find another breeder.
  5. Be prepared. Purchase all the “gear” you will need for your animal, like caging, lighting, food, water, and more. Go back to your research and be sure to read the instructions on how to set everything up properly too.

The more people that take the steps to help pick out the right pet, the less confiscations and “bad guys” there will be, and the better off the animals in the wild will be too. And while there are only 6 left, those little stump-tailed dwarf chameleons are not only adorable, but they are also important ambassadors to help tell the story of how we can help out animals by being responsible with our choices.

A stump-tailed dwarf chameleon is not even as big as your finger!
A stump-tailed dwarf chameleon is not even as big as your finger!
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