Cleaning up crab traps to save animals in the wild

aaDSCF1936One of the biggest threats to marine animals is being entangled or trapped in garbage.  The Houston Zoo houses many marine animals and is committed to doing everything we can to protect their counter parts in the wild.

Houston Zoo staff participates in keeping our upper Texas Coast clean by joining in garbage removal efforts.  Every year we assist the Galveston Bay Foundation and others in the removal of abandoned wire crab traps. Crabbing is closed for almost two weeks each year in February and during that time all traps are assumed abandoned and considered litter.

Crab traps, when used responsibly, can harvest the crabs you see in markets and at restaurants. But, when forgotten about, they invite all sorts of marine wildlife to work their ways into the traps to try to get at the bait. All sorts of marine animals like turtles, or even otters, can find themselves stuck in a crap trap and unfortunately perish due to lack of air (yes, even marine turtles need air!)

photo3This year, we recovered over 200 traps at the Crab Trap Clean up!  Many people volunteered their air boats and man power to pull out as many abandoned traps as possible. Each trap is scanned for wildlife remains to document and report the devastating effects of these forgotten “ghost traps”.  This year an otter skeleton was found in one of the traps and helped remind us of the importance of these removals.

How the Houston Zoo Helps save animals in wild:

  • We help with weekly beach surveys to find stranded and injured sea turtles on Galveston Island and Bolivar Peninsula (~80 miles of beach)
  • We provide medical attention for stranded and injured sea turtle found on the Texas coast.
  • We hold some injured sea turtles at our Kipp Aquarium until they are healthy enough to be released.

The Houston Zoo is committed to protecting animals in the wild, and you can be too!

You can help save animals in the wild by reducing your use of materials that end up in beautiful areas like the oceans. 

By reducing your use of plastic you can ensure that you are having a direct impact on what sea animals are ingesting and getting tangled in, and you can know you are saving animals in the wild. The more you recycle the plastic you do have to use, and the more alert you are toward what an impact you can have, then the less garbage there will be out there for our wildlife to come in contact with.

Kemps Ridley Sea Turtle
Kemps Ridley Sea Turtle

How You save animals in the wild:

  • Use biodegradable garbage bags(found at most grocery stores) and pet waste bags! They break down naturally, and don’t leave harmful chemicals behind.
  • Avoid using plastic! Buy a reusable water bottle and reusable canvas grocery bags instead of the plastic alternatives. By Using a canvas bag you can eliminate the use of 1,000 plastic bags!
  • Visit the Houston Zoo-a portion of every ticket purchased goes towards saving animals in the wild!

Remember that wildlife may see a direct impact with garbage like plastics, but it is us who also have to deal with the consequences of the quality of our environment that we live, breath, and drink in daily!


Rattlesnakes: the World’s Most Polite Animal?

When you hear the word “rattlesnake,” what’s the emotion that first comes to mind? Is it fear, perhaps, or maybe a bit of apprehension? We’re here to tell you that actually, there’s nothing to be worried about. And hopefully, you’ll come to think of them like we do: as the world’s most polite animal.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Around Houston, there are 34 total varieties of snakes that can be found. Of these, only 6 are venomous. Of these 6, there are 3 kinds of rattlesnakes, 2 of which really aren’t found in this area much anymore. The venomous snakes include:

  • Copperhead
  • Cottonmouth
  • Coral snake
  • Western diamondback rattlesnake (can be found, but mostly west of Houston and in the Bolivar peninsula area)
  • Canebrake rattlesnake (protected by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department; not really found much anymore)
  • Western pygmy rattlesnake (not found so much anymore)

You can learn more about these animals and how to identify them in this blog.

So chances are, you won’t see a rattlesnake in your yard. If you do, you probably are providing them one or more of the three things they need to survive: food, shelter, and water. At the risk of sounding like your friendly neighborhood homeowner’s association, we recommend that to keep rattlesnakes (and other snakes) at bay, you keep your yard trimmed and mowed, and also remove any piles of brush. They will keep rodents under control, though, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing to keep these guys around!

Canebrake Rattlesnake, Protected by Texas Parks and Wildlife
Canebrake Rattlesnake, Protected by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

At the Zoo, we love our rattlesnakes. We have 14 total species, most of which are visible to guests. Our Curator of Herpetology, Stan, will tell you “that’s not near enough!” There are 37 species and subspecies of rattlesnake, so there’s always something new to see and learn. Stan comes from a long line of rattlesnake loving curators. In fact, former Zoo Director John Werler had a particular appreciation for these animals.

Former Zoo Director John Werler - and no, that's not a rattlesnake around his neck - it's a bull snake!
Former Zoo Director John Werler – and no, that’s not a rattlesnake around his neck – it’s a bull snake!

Why are they so special? Well, we think they are pretty darn polite. They let you know when you’re too close or when they want to be left alone by rattling their tail. What other animal gives you that much advanced notice (and loud notice, at that) to stay away? Plus, they eat rats. There are studies that show that the presence of the timber rattlesnake, found in the Northeastern United States, actually reduces the incidence of Lyme disease because it eats the rodents provide the meal for the ticks that bite the humans. Not bad for a “scary” snake, right?

Hear rattling? You're either really close to a baby human or you're too close to a rattlesnake.
Hear rattling? You’re either really close to a baby human or you’re too close to a rattlesnake.

One of the coolest rattlesnakes in our collection is the Aruba Island rattlesnake. There are only 200-300 left in the wild, and it is a protected species that only lives on the island of Aruba. The government has given this animal special protection, and the population in the wild is now stable. We are in charge of managing this population in zoos, and we do this to help the species survive in case the worst happens and the snakes disappear from Aruba one day.

The Aruba Island Rattlesnake - there are only 200-300 left of these animals in the wild.
The Aruba Island Rattlesnake – there are only 200-300 left of these animals in the wild.

Still worried about getting bitten? There’s one rule that will help you avoid it: if you aren’t bothering the snake, it won’t bother you. If for some reason an accidental bite does occur, it is because either you didn’t see the snake and were way too close to it, or it didn’t see you. If a rattlesnake notices you, it will more than likely warn you or go on its merry way.

We hope we’ve shed some light on rattlesnakes, and we hope you come to the Zoo soon to see them firsthand. We also hope that if you had worries about rattlesnakes, we’ve helped alleviate some of them. If you’re still not a fan, just follow Curator Stan’s good advice: “you don’t have to like ‘em, just leave ‘em alone.” And if you are a fan, spread the word!

Houston Zoo Facilities Staff Saving Sea Turtles!

Conservation…it’s a loaded word. What does it mean? Who does it? Isn’t it all just research and science-y stuff? Actually, no. Conservation is really about working with people, in an effort to make sure animals and habitats are safe, and that there is a healthy future for humans as well!

Our Zoo is involved in lots of conservation efforts. These efforts can range from our website team helping a gorilla project in Central Africa improve their website to our Facilities department installing sea turtle signs on our Texas Coast to increase awareness of these endangered animals. After all, conservation is about working with people-to improve awareness, increase education, improve health, you name it-saving animals revolves around us!

In the last week, our zoo’s Facilities Department has been working to install sea turtle awareness signs on Galveston Island, Surfside Beach and Bolivar Peninsula. The team has installed approximately 47 signs in one week!

Sea turtle awareness sign designed by the Zoo's Graphics Department
Sea turtle awareness sign designed by the Zoo’s Graphics Department

There are 2 different signs, the one above which is a general sign letting the public know what number to call (1-866-TURTLE-5) if you see a turtle on the beach. The 2nd type of sign is more specific and was placed in fishing areas as it outlines what to do if you accidentally catch a turtle on your line.

What to do if you accidentally catch a sea turtle!
What to do if you accidentally catch a sea turtle!

Not only did our Facilities team participate in installing these signs, but it was truly a Houston Zoo collaborative effort as our Graphics Department designed these 2 awesome signs! Through the direction of NOAA, one of the federal agencies who oversees sea turtle conservation in our area, we were able to design and install these signs so that beach-goers can play a more active role in saving sea turtles in the wild!

Houston Zoo Facilities Staff install a sea turtle sign at the Stingaree Marina!
Houston Zoo Facilities Staff install a sea turtle sign at the Stingaree Marina!

You can help save sea turtles in the wild just by:

  • Visiting the zoo (a portion of the proceeds from your ticket goes to conservation)!
  • Reducing your use of plastic (balloons, bags, water bottles, etc.) as these items can end up in the ocean and turtles think they are food!
  • Donating to the zoo’s sea turtle conservation efforts.
  • Adopt a sea turtle from the Houston Zoo!
Conservation is all about collaboration and teamwork! Our Facilities team installs sea turtle signs on Bolivar Peninsula.
Conservation is all about collaboration and teamwork! Our Facilities team installs sea turtle signs on Bolivar Peninsula.

New Zoo Baby: Fantastic Leaf Tailed Gecko

Leaf tailed geckos are a group of super cool lizards who are masters of camouflage.  They mimic dead leaves and twigs.  Their little legs look like tiny branches and their tails look just like dead leaves, all the way down to having veins and raggedy edges.  We are often hard pressed to find them in their enclosure.  Sometimes, you’re looking right at them and don’t even know it.

This species is called the Fantastic, or alternately, the Satanic leaf tailed gecko due to its pointy raised “brow ridges”.

Leaf-tailed geckos are found only on Madagascar.  They really should have had a leaf-tailed gecko as a character in the movie, that would have been awesome.  Populations are decreasing due mainly to habitat loss (sound familiar?) caused by logging, agriculture, and cattle grazing.  They are active at night and eat mostly insects.  Females lay 2 eggs at a time and the hatchlings look like this!

Baby fantastic leaf-tailed gecko
Baby fantastic leaf-tailed gecko

How adorable is that?  No offense to other geckos but I think this one is my favorite.  This little cutie hatched here at the zoo on February 17.

How Does Your Bracket Compare to a Sea Lion's?


Here are Jonah’s picks! How does your bracket compare?

Yes, you read that correctly. This year, Jonah the sea lion is creating his own bracket. He’s been practicing in our own Houston Zoo basketball camp just for sea lions (Not actually a real thing and totally just for fun) and we feel pretty confident that he will have some pretty strong picks.

Take a look at some basketball camp highlights to see how Jonah has become familiar with the game.

So here’s how it will work: Two different color basketballs will be placed in the sea lion pool, with each ball representing one team in a matchup. Jonah will select a ball and put it through the hoop to indicate who he believes will win that game. He will repeat this for his entire bracket. We’ll post his picks on our blog so you can follow along with how he’s doing and compare brackets.

So now the big question: Why are we doing this?
If you take it at face value, the whole thing might just appear to be a sea lion playing with a basketball. However, if you look a little closer, you can see an incredible relationship between  Jonah and our sea lion keepers. Actually, you can see these types of relationships all over the Houston Zoo. Our keepers work very hard to develop connections with the animals and to make their lives as enriching as possible. Learning new behaviors such as Jonah making baskets provides the opportunity to develop the keeper & animal relationship further and enriches the lives of not only the animals, but the keepers as well!

Stay tuned to see Jonah’s picks!

Come with the Zoo to Yellowstone in the winter


Have you ever seen the air sparkle?  Well, that happens in Yellowstone during the winter. During February 2014, 6 Houstonians ventured to Yellowstone for a special winter adventure with the Houston Zoo. All of our Yellowstone adventures are made possible by our partners at Teton Science School’s Wildlife Expeditions. The Teton Science School is an incredible educational non-profit organization that provides us with leading Yellowstone wildlife biologists to guide our trips.

DSC_1666Our trips are always full of unforgettable wildlife sightings, and this winter trip was no exception.  We found ourselves eye-to-eye with several herds of bighorn sheep foraging for food on the side of the road.



DSCN0684We spotted several moose and witnessed an exciting, aggressive display between two adults.   We had some great photo opportunities as the large mammals reared up and kicked each other with their sharp front hooves.





We joined thousands of elk in a horse drawn cart in the National Elk Refuge. The herds remained calm with the horses allowing us to be in very close proximity of huge bull elk.




Bobcat photoWe saw many bison trudging through deep snow, foraging for food with snow balls on their beards.  Birds of prey like the ruffed-legged hawk sat on high vantage points to wait for rodent movement in the snow.  One of our guides even spotted some tracks that lead us to a very rare, exciting site, a bob cat!  He was quietly sitting beside a river waiting for unsuspecting ducks to pass by.







Old Faithful and the thermal features were outstanding!  They spewed liquid that evaporated in midair.  We stayed the night at a lodge near old faithful and had an early morning walk that allowed us to see some Old Faithful eruptions without anyone else around.




One of the highlights of this winter Yellowstone experience was rides in a special vehicle called a snow coach.  The heavy snow is not conducive to regular traffic at the high elevations of the park so snow coaches (cars with ski thingies on the bottom) and snow mobiles become a necessary mode of transportation.  We got to spend two days riding around in these cool vehicles.

We enjoyed some thrilling wolf watching.  The wolves love the cold weather and were very active.  We spied on a pack of five bounding through the snow for a half hour one day.

DSC_2290Yellowstone is magical in the winter.  This was a fun filled adventure and it was the first time we have been in Yellowstone in the winter.  We lead wildlife focused Yellowstone tours regularly in the Spring and Fall, so you can join us to see baby animals in the Spring or hear the impressive elk bugle in the Fall.  Visit HERE  for more on how to join us on these exciting adventures.

The Houston Zoo houses several North American animals that are found in Yellowstone, like our newest bear cubs and bobcat kitten, and we are very proud to do what we can to support that beautiful National Park.   We provide funding to the Teton Science School for their wildlife research and educational programming to ensure long-term protection for wildlife in North America’s first National Park.

Remember, every time you visit the Zoo or come on a trip into the wild with us, you help us protect animals in the wild.  A portion of your admission, membership or trip price goes directly to saving animals in the wild.

All of the photos in this post are courtesy of Winter Yellowstone traveler, Bill Fisher.  Thank you, Bill!

Marathon Oil: Going the Distance for the Houston Zoo

The Houston Zoo has been a vibrant center for learning about the wonders of wildlife for over 90 years. By providing free admission to more than 88,000 public school students annually, the Zoo gives students and teachers the opportunity to become immersed in an engaging environment that inspires care for the natural world. However, some schools in the Houston area are unable to afford the transportation costs of a field trip to the Zoo. Thanks to the generous support of Marathon Oil, we are able to bring the Zoo fun to students throughout Houston and beyond with our Online Interactive Distance Learning program.


Marathon Oil kick-started the Zoo’s Distance Learning program in 2010 with a $50,000 gift, and their continued support has ensured its growth. Since the program’s inception, thousands of students have participated in classes that are grade-appropriate and aligned with Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards. “In the first year, we taught one class to a little over 9,000 students, and in the second year, we reached well over 10,000 students with a message about protecting wildlife and wild places in your own backyard,” says Dr. Chance Sanford, Vice President of Education at the Zoo. These distance learning classes are live and interactive, allowing students to view real-time animal behavior, feeding, training, enrichment activities, and conservation messaging.

We are grateful for Marathon Oil’s commitment to providing so many students with the knowledge to create a brighter future for wildlife.

Guest Blogger Carolyn Jess Saves Ocelots

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

It has been six years  since I started asking my friends and family to donate money for ocelot research instead of giving me birthday gifts.  My 13th birthday is almost here and I will again ask my friends and family to help the endangered ocelot.   If you have not heard of the ocelot, they live in the scrub lands of south Texas, have a home range of about 4 square miles and are very close to extinction.  The loss of their habitat and new highways are the biggest reasons this cat is disappearing.  As more land is cleared for agriculture and development, more ocelots are being killed on the roads.    Basically, the ocelot is trapped.  It has developments or highways on all sides.  Sometimes the ocelots make it across busy highways to private ranches, but they don’t always make it past the cars.    Due to the isolation of our small Texas population of ocelots, they may be gone in the next 50 years.   Dr. Mike Tewes, who works at the Caesar Kleberg Wildlife Research Institute at Texas A&M in Kingsville, is studying and monitoring the cats’ population on ranches and the dense shrub areas where they make their homes.  For the past six years, I’ve sent my birthday money to Dr. Tewes to help with his research.  He uses the money I send to buy and set up remote cameras which help him and other scientists record the number of ocelots found in an area.  Dr. Tewes and his team manage to capture ocelots to vaccinate and radio collar them.  He has gotten ranchers to set aside land for the cats and to restore brush lands.  Dr. Tewes is also working on possibly relocating ocelots from the Mexican state of Tamaulipas for breeding in Texas.

If you would like to take action and help the ocelot, there are a lot of different things you can do. I talked with my student council members at school and we decided to have a bake sale to benefit ocelot research.   Our goal was to not only make money for the remote cameras, but to raise awareness. Talk to your clubs and organizations at school to come up with an idea to help this cat.   If you would like to donate to ocelot research, you can visit my website,, and there is a link that takes you directly to Caesar Kleberg.

Why wait for Easter for an “egg-travaganza?!”

The Houston toad team at the Houston Zoo has been working up a storm this spring – a storm of Houston toad eggs! As of this writing, the team has bred 23 groups of adult Houston toads (the groups consist of either one female and one male or one female and two male) since the middle of February using assisted breeding methodologies. In total, we have produced ~80,000 Houston toad eggs!! This is more than twice as many as we produced last year and is a tremendous success for our program!! However, I’m sure you are all wondering just what in the world are we doing with all of those eggs??


Each and every one of the Houston toad egg strands produced at the Zoo going back to the wild to help augment the wild population.  Researchers from Texas State University (TSU) are strategically placing the egg strands in two counties, Austin County and Bastrop County, which are in the historic range of the Houston toad. Both of these counties still harbor small, wild populations of Houston toads that are being monitored by TSU and USFWS.

Researchers from TSU and Houston toad staff and interns are placing the eggs inside protective, wire cages as the strands are placed into the release ponds. Cages? What are those for? One of the biggest complications for the Houston toad recovery effort is that everything LOVES to eat Houston toads – especially their eggs! Birds, fish, aquatic invertebrates, raccoons, you name it; they all love to snack on tasty toad eggs. The cages prevent these hungry critters from feasting on these precious, endangered egg strands, helping to ensure that many of these eggs will survive to make tiny toadlets!

TSU researchers are monitoring each of the release sites and are on the lookout for Houston toad tadpoles and metamorphs. Are the cages working? Are the eggs going to hatch? Stay tuned to find out!

Turtle: Success!

Thank you to everyone who joined us at the Zoo this past Saturday, March 1st for our Save a Turtle Saturday event! We had such a great turnout for the Member Morning at the Aquarium and throughout the day. We can’t wait to celebrate turtles with you again next year!

Some highlights from the day:

Did you know we have turtles living in exhibits with our primates? At the orangutan exhibit staff told guests about the turtles who live in the moat!
Did you know we have turtles living in exhibits with our primates? At the orangutan exhibit staff told guests about the turtles who live in the moat!
Everyone was excited to help save turtles!
Everyone was excited to help save turtles!
Kids recycled paper grocery bags and made their very own turtle shells!
Kids recycled paper grocery bags and made their very own turtle shells!
Guests learned about turtles through biofacts and saw signs that the Zoo made for public beaches in Galveston to create more awareness of our local sea turtles!
Guests learned about turtles through biofacts and saw signs that the Zoo made for public beaches in Galveston to create more awareness of our local sea turtles!
The Vet Clinic joined us to show guests how they assist wild sea turtles who visit the zoo when they need extensive medical care.
The Vet Clinic joined us to show guests how they assist wild sea turtles who visit the zoo when they need extensive medical care.
Guests stopped by the Reptile House to learn about exotic turtle species and how they could help save these animals in the wild!
Guests stopped by the Reptile House to learn about exotic turtle species and how they could help save these animals in the wild!
Visitors made different pledges of actions they could take to help save our local sea turtles!
Visitors made different pledges of actions they could take to help save our local sea turtles!

If you would like to help us save turtles in the wild, please click here to learn more and donate!

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