Featured Members: The Wegman Family

We love our Members. Their incredible support allows us to make a difference to animals both locally and all over the world. This month, we’re spotlighting a family that deserves recognition. We’re thrilled to introduce you to July’s Featured Members: The Wegman Family.

wegman family

We reached out to The Wegman Family (John & Brandyne) to share a few words about being Zoo Members their first year.

Brandyne says, “We are member at the Houston Zoo because my daughter loves to go and look at the animals! She also has to ride the carousel every time we go. She rides it at least three to four times.

This is our first year to have a membership. Each time we go we bring along friends and family to join in on the fun. We recently brought my nephew who is from New York to the zoo and he was amazed when he went into the reptile house!

We enjoy the extra activities there is to do at the Zoo. We can’t wait to go to the Zoo Lights during Christmas time. It is so magical and is something the whole family can do together! We also go to Zoo Boo in October. My daughter likes to get the candy and play the games in the pumpkin patch at the Zoo.

When we go to the Zoo, we pack some snacks for the kids and watch as everyone has a great time. We go to the zoo about once every couple of months during the school year. Since I’m a teacher, I have summers off and we make the Zoo a weekly trip.  There is so much to do and see at the Zoo it is definitely worth going frequently!”

From all of us here at the Houston Zoo, we want to say thank you to John and all of our Zoo Members. As a Houston Zoo Member, your support truly makes an impact on the growth of our zoo and our conservation efforts. THANKS!

Recognizing the Dedication of the Houston Zoo Volunteer Team

heidi blog imageGreat zoos require great ambition across multiple departments, however, it is the community support which contributes to so many grand accomplishments. The enthusiasm of over 400 year-round adult volunteers and approximately 1,400 other seasonal volunteers help make it happen. While a dedicated staff is essential, our volunteers bridge the gap daily in making conservation efforts possible by educating over two million guests each year and by helping our staff meet countless demands. We are proud to know so many individuals willing to donate their time and their talents. Many of these volunteers are people with full time jobs, many are retired. All of them have other activities they could choose to do, yet they choose to be here at the Houston Zoo. Whether rain or shine, hot or cold, complex or simple tasks, our volunteer team rises to every request for help.

The Volunteer Programs staff is pleased to welcome our newest adult volunteers that joined us in May. Already, these volunteers have donated well over 285 hours of their time to the Zoo. This outstanding group of individuals brings a variety of backgrounds and interests to our team but all come ready to enrich the lives of both animals and guests, making your visit more enjoyable.  Volunteers may assist with filing paperwork behind the scenes, directing guests on grounds, designing enrichment for our animals, or aiding in exhibit upkeep. Whatever the challenge, we are grateful to know we have the support of a team motivated by ambition rather than a paycheck. Their efforts allow us to maximize our conservation efforts around the world.

“We often take for granted the very things that most deserve our gratitude” (author Cynthia Ozick). Next time you visit the Houston Zoo, take notice of our blue-shirt Volunteers. May we all draw inspiration from their hearts and minds in making our community and our planet a better place! Our thanks could never be enough to credit these folks for all they do.

For more information, please visit www.houstonzoo.org/volunteer.

What is Browse and Why Do Our Primates Like It?

will blog browse canWhat is browse? Is it looking at a magazine while you’re at the doctor’s office? Or trying to find something on the internet? Well, no, when we talk about browse in the zoo we’re talking about plants and vegetation.  The definition of browse at the zoo is: fresh plants that are given to an animal for food and enrichment as a replacement for some of their wild food sources.

There is a wide range of browse that we can use here in Houston. Due to our semi-tropical climate we are able to grow all kinds of browse. Even some that may grow amongst our animal’s natural homes in Africa, Asia, or South America!

There are some great advantages and a few disadvantages in giving primates browse. But with proper inspection, and dedicated keepers to make sure their animals are safe, the disadvantages basically disappear. Browse is used mainly to promote behavioral enrichment. This just means that the animal is exhibiting behavior that they would in the wild. It can also add to the animals’ nutrition, providing fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals. Sometimes you may even see some of our young primates just playing with leftover browse that mom and dad have left behind.

will blog orangutan browse


Some disadvantages may be potential toxins that are in the plant. This is where zookeepers and horticulturists work hand in hand. Our horticulture staff will bring zookeepers browse that they know is non-toxic. They know what part of the plants the animals can and cannot have. Some of our browse has to be cut a certain way to make sure the animals don’t get part of the plants that they shouldn’t. It is very important not to feed animals’ random plants because unless you are an expert like out horticulture staff, as it may be deadly for our animals.  Zookeepers always check with them before we feed it to our animals.

There are thousands upon thousands of plants out there in this world. Some are edible and some are not. Some are sweet and some are bitter. Our animals all have their favorite types of browse, and of course least favorite. For instance, our gorillas love to eat willow branches. Our mandrills do not like to eat ginger, but occasionally one will tear into it. Our sifaka love to eat rose petals.

Sifaka and rose petals
Sifaka and rose petals

Overall, browse is an important part of an animal’s life at the zoo. It has so many uses, and there are so many types for our animals to choose from. None of this would go as smoothly as it does if it weren’t for the horticulture team here. So, whenever you see one of them out and about planting more browse for our animals, give them a big thank you!

Boomer, Beloved Grizzly Bear, Passes Peacefully

Grizzly-Brown Bears

Boomer, one of the Houston Zoo’s two elderly grizzly bears, was humanely euthanized today after a long life. The decision was made by the bear’s keepers and veterinary team after the nearly 40-year-old bear began to become uninterested in food, less active, and less responsive to his pain medications. After reviewing all options, our veterinary and bear experts decided that the most humane option was to peacefully euthanize him.

The geriatric bear came to the zoo with another grizzly bear, Bailey, in 2007 from the Houston SPCA where they had lived for a year after the organization confiscated them from a private individual who was not taking good care of them. The pair had lived in tiny cages and were found to be in very poor health, with severe dental disease, and obesity from lack of exercise. Since moving to the Houston Zoo, Boomer underwent extensive dental care including five root canals and seven tooth extractions performed by veterinary dental specialist Dr. Bob Boyd. Boomer was diagnosed with lymphoma in both eyes in 2010 by a veterinary ophthalmologist Dr. Nick Millichamp and underwent oral chemotherapy later that year. His right eye was removed 2012 when it became ulcerated and painful. The lymphoma in the left eye caused complete blindness but Boomer was able to navigate his enclosure well.  In recent years, Boomer began receiving treatment for chronic arthritis and a non-resolving infection that unfortunately had become debilitating, regardless of medication and care. Boomer was beloved by the zoo staff, who have fond memories of his love for his pool.

Whenever an animal dies, no matter what the reason, it is a tragic event and our staff morns the loss of a member of their family. The health and wellness of our animals is a great priority to our team and with four incredible veterinarians and a complete veterinary clinic and world-class animal keepers, our animals receive the best care possible.  While it’s always exciting to celebrate births at the zoo, we also mourn heavily when one of our animals dies.

Saving Sea Turtles in the Gulf – Part 1

Greetings from Panama City! The Houston Zoo recently visited Florida with our partners at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to test turtle excluder devices (TEDs) for fisheries across the globe to incorporate into their shrimp nets. These TEDs are critical – and required by federal law – to ensure the safety of sea turtles while fishermen work to provide some of our favorite seafood, like shrimp!

Turtle excluder devices help protect sea turtles, like this guy, from shrimp nets!
Turtle excluder devices help protect sea turtles, like this guy, from shrimp nets!

Every summer NOAA staff spends three weeks in Panama City testing newly-constructed or tweaked TED designs that will, if approved, later be used by fishermen. Turtle excluder devices are used to allow fishermen to catch animals like shrimp, while excluding animals like sea turtles that may accidentally be caught in their nets.

Each year, about 200 sea turtles are driven to Florida from Galveston to test each TED, and about 25 turtles will attempt to swim through each TED. That’s a lot of turtles and swim time! The sea turtles are then released back into the wild after the weeks of TED testing.

Our partners at NOAA Galveston spend all year getting the sea turtles in their care ready for this critical work! This year, they allowed Houston Zoo staff to come along and observe the process of ensuring shrimp nets around the world are safe for sea turtles.

The Zoo’s vet team provides veterinary care to sea turtles brought in from Galveston.

In addition to field work assistance in Panama City this summer, the Houston Zoo helps save sea turtles in a number of ways. One way the Zoo helps is by providing veterinary care to sea turtles brought in from Galveston, sometimes also housing rehabilitating sea turtles at the Zoo in the Kipp Aquarium. The Zoo also hosts sea turtle events at the Zoo to increase awareness, participates in weekly beach surveys to look for stranded or nesting sea turtles, and serves only ocean-friendly seafood to Zoo animals and guests!

Be sure to check back soon for more information on TED testing in Panama City!

Working with Pacific Bird Conservation (Conclusion)

Steve Howard is in the Northern Mariana Islands, working with Pacific Bird Conservation to protect birds and blogging about his experience.

This post was written by Steve Howard

Transport boxes that will be used when the birds are translocated.
Transport boxes that will be used when the birds are translocated.

The adventure ends.

Today I left Tinian for Saipan, where I’ll spend the night before heading home. As of this morning, the goal of catching 50 Bridled White Eyes was met, and we were close to 50 Tinian Monarchs. In the coming days they’ll close up the nets and load the birds they have on a boat (one, frankly, which doesn’t look all that seaworthy) and take them to Guguan, an island which is a 14 hour boat ride north. Once there, the transport boxes will be strapped to backpack frames and hauled up the hill in the center of the island on people’s backs. Once in the appropriate habitat the boxes will be opened, and new populations of two threatened species will be founded.

From habitat loss to the introduction of the brown tree snake, humans have done a lot to affect the animals of the Mariana Islands. This time, the affect was positive. I’m grateful to have played my part.

One last thought. I fly tomorrow to Guam, then Tokyo, then Houston. I leave Tokyo at 4:45 Saturday afternoon, and get to Houston at 2:30 Saturday afternoon. I just can’t wrap my head around that!!

Working with Pacific Bird Conservation (Part 6)

Steve Howard is in the Northern Mariana Islands, working with Pacific Bird Conservation to protect birds and blogging about his experience.

This post was written by Steve Howard

Before I came to Tinian, I read about using mist nets to trap birds. I imagined a small net put in a quiet corner forest while we watched to see if birds went in. Not so much. It turns out there is a LOT of work involved.

This is a good spot for a lane
This is a good spot for a lane

The nets are large – 18 to 36 feet long and 8 feet high, and if the forest is at all dense, which this forest is, a space must be cleared for the net. First, you have to cut a path through the forest, all the time looking for a good spot to put up a net. The undergrowth has to be cleared and fallen braches removed in order to make a trail. When an open spot can be found where a net can be put up with a minimum of clearing, you cut a “lane” to make room for the net. Once the lane is cleared, the net is strung on two poles, usually fly fishing poles that telescope together, and the poles are secured with cord tied to tress or roots

The lane has been cleared and the net put up
The lane has been cleared and the net put up

Then you continue to cut the path and look for another spot to make a lane. It’s hot and humid in the forest, and there is very little breeze. In there, hacking with a machete and cutting things out of the way with a saw is hot, hard and tiring work. I have blisters on my feet, and my arms and legs are scratched up and sore. And I love it!!!

The birds that we catch will start a new population on another island. This will help to protect a vulnerable animal from extinction. All my life I have been sad to think of the extinction an animal as beautiful as these birds. Now, I have the chance to do something about it, directly. So, for all the hard work and blisters, I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything!!

Working with Pacific Bird Conservation (Part 5)

Steve Howard is in the Northern Mariana Islands, working with Pacific Bird Conservation to protect birds and blogging about his experience.

This post was written by Steve Howard

Two of the species we have trapped are the Rufous Fantail and the Tinian Monarch. The thing is, they both like flies. It’s very important to give the birds a diet as close to what they ate in the wild as possible. So where do you get the flies? Well, you start with tuna.

fly trap 2Here’s how it goes: you take a large metal tray about 4 inches deep and put two whole tuna in it. You take a 10 gallon bucket and cut the bottom off, turning it into a tube. Then set it over the tray. You take some window screen and make a large cone out of it, as big across as the 10 gallon bucket, then cut a small hole in in the point. You now have a fly funnel. Tape the funnel to the top of another bucket and push it inward so that it points to the bottom. Then put the bucket with the funnel upside down on top of the “tube bucket” that’s over the tuna. Wait. Flies will gather, and fly up into the tube and onto the screen and get trapped in the bucket.

fly dish fillingNow, here’s the trick. How do you get them into the cage with the bird? Take a small plastic petri dish with a lid on it, and drill a small hole on the bottom. Pull the funnel so that it is now pointing at the sky, and put the hole in the petri dish over the hole in the funnel and wait. Soon the dish will be full of flies. Place the dish in the cage, pull off the lid and quickly shut the door. Voila, that’s all it takes!!

That and a strong stomach for the smell!

Houston Zoo is Ditching Plastic Bags

Take-Action-Logo-300pxOn July 1, we will begin asking shoppers to find alternate ways to take their merchandise home from the Zoo’s Gift Shop. Why you ask? Plastic pollution is harmful to wildlife such as sea turtles and pelicans. Known to many as “the world’s most preventable problem,” plastic pollution has grown exponentially over the last 50 years suffocating our oceans. While that sentence is full of disheartening truth the reality is that all hope is not lost!

Plastic most definitely enters oceans via activity on land. The miracle polymer that has provided humans with engineering and medical advances certainly has a place in the world. Can you imagine a hospital without a sterile IV? However, the single-use, throw away items could be used less. Drink lids, straws, and single-use plastic bags are some of the most prevalent items found floating in the open ocean. The good news is they all have reusable options! So what happens to the plastic when its time on land is done and it makes its way out to sea?t It will eventually, though it may take years, make its way to one of the five gyres. These gyres are located in the North and South Pacific Oceans, the North and South Atlantic Oceans, and the Indian Ocean. Think of a gyre as a huge tornado of currents that pulls in the plastic aimlessly floating around. Plastics in our oceans harm wildlife and are susceptible to removal by animal consumption. Laysan albatross are attracted to colorful plastic pieces that look like small fish and sea turtles may confuse a plastic bag with a tasty jellyfish. Not only do marine animals have to watch out for plastics they can see, but an even more substantial issue is the plastic they can’t see. Plastic never REALLY goes away. It’s so efficient in its construction that it only breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces, but never actually biodegrades. Instead, it becomes microplastic. Small enough to integrate into schools of phytoplankton and krill, microplastics then become a part of one of the largest part of the ocean’s food chain and are ingested by whales and other marine wildlife.

Buy this reusable canvas bag in the Houston Zoo Gift Shop on your next visit!

Such a huge problem seems like it can never be solved, but that is not the case. By taking action and making small choices in your everyday life YOU can be a part of the solution! Use a reusable shopping bag and water bottle, politely decline straws and drink lids, and buying products that don’t contain microbeads are easy, everyday choices all of us can make that add up to big solution.

The Houston Zoo wants to be a part of the solution. Next time you visit the Zoo gift shop bring your own resuable bag, buy one of the reusable options if you don’t already have one, or decline the use of a bag completely. Thank you for taking action and helping save wildlife.

Working with Pacific Bird Conservation (Part 4)

Steve Howard is in the Northern Mariana Islands, working with Pacific Bird Conservation to protect birds and blogging about his experience.

This post was written by Steve Howard

We started netting birds on Thursday afternoon, which means my education on how to extract birds from the net began as well. Mist nets are made of very small nylon thread, which makes them almost invisible, especially in low light levels. When a bird flies into it, they become tangled in the mesh, and removing them takes some skill. The bird must be removed from the same direction from which it entered the net, as the net is designed to not let the bird fly through it. Attempting to pull the bird through the net will injure it. The mesh should be removed from the feet first, then the wings, then the head – basically in the opposite order that it entered the net. I wasn’t great at it at first, but I think I’m getting the hang of it! I removed several birds today by myself.

3 Honey extractedAll the birds here are beautiful, but by far the most beautiful (to my mind) is the Micronesian Honey Eater. The feathers on the back and head are flame red and they shine in the sun as it flies by. To see one of these up close is a great privilege. We have collected a pair that will go to the Guam Zoo. This species lived on Guam before the Brown Tree Snake showed up, and to have it back, even if it is just a pair in the zoo, is very exciting for the staff of the zoo. Who knows, someone may see them there, learn the story, and decided to take action!

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