The Curious Case of the Banded Mongooses

Banded Mongoose-0014-1282“Hey look over there, it’s a meerkat!” You might hear something like this when you first visit the banded mongoose exhibit within the children’s zoo. Guests from all over come to this exhibit thinking they are observing the meerkats, so why is it that our mongoose family has a mistaken identity? Throughout the zoo we have an array of animals that guests love to see. Between the giraffes, elephants, and gorillas, sometimes the little guy goes by unnoticed. In the spirit of rooting for the underdogs of the zoo let’s take a look at who the mongooses really are and what makes them so special.

From the plains of sub-Sahara Africa, our carnivorous little mongooses are in fact part of the same family as meerkats. This is the simple reason many guests get the two confused due to the similar size and appearance. Ranging from four to four months old, the zoo is home to fifteen mongooses that on a daily basis do absolutely everything together.  Banded mongooses in general are colony dwellers; living in big groups, hunting in groups and even raising babies in a group. To keep our mongooses well fed and eating things they would naturally encounter in the wild, the keepers provide a wide variety of meals for them ranging from insects, meat, mice, fruits and vegetables. Courtney Ligon, mongoose keeper, said the mongooses’ favorite thing to eat is the mice whereas the fruits and vegetables are not so popular among them.  The keepers typically feed the mongooses before the zoo opens to the public but guests can sometimes see them chowing down on worms or mice during enrichment periods. Although they receive a wide variety of food every day, Courtney said the banded mongooses don’t start eating like that from birth. Banded mongooses don’t open their eyes until about two weeks of age and can’t consume solid food until a month after birth. Then again mongooses grow very fast and a month’s time is nothing compared to the growth rate of humans.mongoosecombo

Aside from their mistaken identity, mongooses bare another common misconception in the form of snake fighting. Just about every depiction of a mongoose in popular culture represents a fearsome battle with a cobra, but the truth is not all types of mongooses do that. Banded mongooses are just one of over thirty types of mongooses across fourteen specie classifications and are quite different from their snake fighting counterparts. Indian gray mongooses, who live in solitary, are the ones typically known for their ability to fight snakes due to their thick coats and receptors that render them resistant to snake venom. However, banded mongooses are much smaller in nature and do not possess the qualities to take on a venomous snake. Banded mongooses may not intentionally engage in conflict with snakes but that does not mean they don’t encounter them. The mongoose keepers have been known to lay out snake sheds within the exhibit, being one of the many ways the keepers bring out natural characteristics of the wild and from our mongooses.

IMG_6160Enrichment is very important for all our animals at the zoo and due to the curiosity of the mongooses, the keepers like to keep things unique and playful. Ranging from puzzle feeders to putting worms in containers, the keepers engage the mongooses in enrichment every day while constantly keeping an enrichment chart on hand in order to keep track of what the mongooses get on any given day. The banded mongooses have a different keeper every few days, switching up the routine and keeping things fresh due to the various training styles among the keepers. One of the coolest things our keepers do for the mongooses is give them hard boiled eggs to play with. Now you may be wondering what is so cool about an egg, but in fact this activity brings out one of the most natural sides to our little friends. In the wild, banded mongooses will take hard shell food, such as eggs and snails, and throw them with their legs against a hard surface in order to crack it open. The keepers encourage this by not only giving the mongooses eggs, but also rocks, nuts, and coconuts. Aside from the enrichment activities done by the keepers, our mongooses also receive enrichment from their exhibit. The mongoose exhibit is home to two different types of tunnels, the mongoose tunnels and the guest tunnels, both of which provide an enriching experience. The six mongoose tunnels that run through the exhibit are made of PVC pipe and provide the mongooses a place to hide, sleep, and take food if necessary. The guest tunnels are meant for kids to have a fun and engaging experience but it not only excites the kids but also keeps the mongooses playful and curious as they gather around the tubes just about every time a kid pops their head up in one.

Next time you visit the zoo make sure to check out our playful mongooses as they enjoy their natural exhibit and when someone yells “hey it’s a meerkat!” you can make sure to tell them about all the things you learned here.

Have Yourself a Hairy Little Christmas!

fireplace blogBy Lacey Penning

Is there anything more exciting than Christmas morning? Yummy treats, special presents just for you and being surrounded by the people you love…Here at the Houston Zoo primate department, we strive to make the animal’s Christmas morning just as memorable. Christmas day is one of the two days a year when the Houston Zoo is closed to the public; the other day being Thanksgiving. But as they say, the show must go on. There are homes to clean, mouths to feed, and in this case…stockings to be filled with pine shavings? Let me explain.

It all starts with something animal care staff calls “enrichment”. David Shepherdson describes enrichment as something that enhances the quality of captive animal care by identifying and providing the environmental stimuli necessary for optimal psychological and physiological well-being. Basically, in a nutshell roasting on an open fire, enrichment is something that keeps life exciting and always stimulating, encouraging natural behaviors in the process. Enrichment is a constant everyday occurrence for the animals here at the Houston Zoo. On a typical day, you will find things used throughout exhibits such as forage piles heaped of sand, puzzle feeders made of PVC and even various extracts sprayed about to entice scent-marking primates. But on Christmas, things get a whole lot more holly jolly.

Zookeepers spend weeks prepping, constructing and gathering all of those special details they know are their primate’s favorite things…similar to Santa’s elves. On Christmas morning, while most of Houston is still nestled snug in their beds with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, zookeepers can be found Santa-hats donned and Christmas music playing, filling animal exhibits to the brim with presents, streamers and wrapping paper with only the mere audience of the animals to please. The presents are simply any animal-safe box (tape and staples removed) wrapped and filled with a variety of things ranging from: new baskets, wiffle balls and frisbees if you’re an orangutan, new blankets and children’s books if you’re a chimpanzee, new Kong toys if you’re a De Brazza’s monkey and maybe some nice new hanging bells and mirrors if you’re a Goeldi’s monkey. But what good would presents be if you didn’t have delicious treats to go along with them? Although all the primates receive a variety of fruits and vegetables every day, on Christmas they may get supplemented with favored food items that they only receive sparingly such as dried fruits, honey-peanut butter smears and grape juice for everyone! While exhibits are being serviced by keepers in the morning, some apes may even be lucky enough to watch their favorite holiday flick such as Frozen or How the Grinch Stole Christmas, as keepers set up TVs and DVD players for them. Sure, there’s the typical tug of war over everyone’s favorite blanket or movie seat, but what household doesn’t have that? Once everything is said and done, the excitement and happiness felt is worth all the hard work. After all, it wouldn’t be Christmas if you weren’t spending it with primates you love.chimp snow

We know what you’re thinking, and no, zookeepers couldn’t do this alone, we are mere mortals after all. Without the help of our extraordinary and selfless volunteer staff and donors who thoughtfully purchase and donate animal-safe presents for the animals every year, those presents would be a little bit more bleak. If this all sounds like something too merry to miss out on, there are simple ways to get involved! You can give the gift of grub! By donating to the Houston Zoo this holiday season, your money can go specifically towards all those yummy treats and meals that make things like this so special. Even better, whatever you donate TXU Energy will match, up to $50,000! Click on the link below to check it out.

Happy holidays and foraging to you and yours!


Sea Lion Enrichment

Sea Lion-0317-4805Animals in the wild have to work for a living to ensure that they can find food and shelter. At the zoo our animals’ daily lives are more predictable than in nature, which is why our zookeepers provide a variety of enriching activities that will challenge the animals physically and mentally. The sea lion keepers are no exception as they provide some of the coolest enrichment activities for our favorite marine mammals here at the zoo.

The lives of our sea lions are constantly being filled with enrichment. Just about everything the sea lions do on a daily basis involves a form of enrichment. Sea lion keeper, Anastasia Kotara, said that the keepers cannot force anything upon the sea lions because they want them to voluntarily choose to play on their own. Due to this, the keepers are constantly shaking things up in terms of enrichment so they can keep the sea lions guessing, remaining curious about their daily schedule. A constant change of schedule sets the sea lions apart from most animal areas at the zoo and a large reason behind this is due to the different personalities and natural behavior of our sea lions; requiring the keepers to remain diligent in preparing activities. Keepers use many of their enrichment tools to encourage the sea lions to work for their food and show off natural instincts. Enrichment devices such as containers, balls, and hoops to swim through all serve a purpose in enriching our sea lions. Typically, fish are put in the containers or in the middle of toy balls where sea lions can work on cognitive skills as well as playing to bring out characteristics they would naturally have in the wild.sea lion blog

Training is a huge part of our sea lions’ lives. Considering that the keepers train them throughout the day, training is a form of enrichment. Every keeper has their own enrichment device that they have chosen to train with, making every training session unique and positive for the sea lions. A sea lion’s level of training solely depends on how long they have been training for. Some of the sea lions, such as Rocky, are new to the style of enrichment that our keepers provide, requiring the keepers to take a different approach. Anastasia said training Rocky is a refreshing experience because he is willing to participate in all enrichment activities. Some of the sea lions can be stubborn and lose interest in an activity if it becomes familiar. The female sea lions have been at the zoo since they were ten months old, requiring a form of training and conditioning that keeps them seeing new and exciting activities. A big part of their change in enrichment is through the sea lion show for the guests. Demonstrations such as having the sea lions distinguish between objects are just one of the many activities our guests can see and the show is constantly switching routines to not only keep the sea lions playful but to keep the guests guessing; enriching the experience for both.

Every year the sea lion keepers have an intern to whom they ask to come up with an enrichment project that will benefit the sea lions and other endeavors in animal enrichment.  This is one of the many ways the zoo keeps things fresh for our sea lions. This year Daniel Magid, sea lion intern, came up with a project involving the construction of a fire hose raft for our sea lions. Partnering with the Volunteer Enrichment Committee, Daniel oversaw the completion of the raft which is made up entirely of fire hose material and PVC pipe. No hardware was involved in making the raft which is important for the safety of the sea lions and the salt water environment. The PVC forms the outer rim of the raft while the fire hose material fits together through slits to make up the body of the raft. Daniel said that through the completion of the raft, they realized that there were potential safety hazards for the sea lions so the team went back and added weaving to tighten up the material. The raft is currently entered in a competition known as Hose2Habitat where it will go up against other enrichment building tools made from fire hose and other types of material. The winner receives a fire hose cutter which would be utilized for all the animal departments in the zoo. Regardless of what happens in the competition Daniel and his team are incredibly proud of the raft as it will not only provide the sea lions new and exciting enrichment building but also showcase an idea that others can use as well.

The point of enrichment building is to change up the animal’s environment with the hope of bringing out their natural characteristics. Through the constant creation of fresh ideas provided by our keepers, enrichment building has never been more exciting and successful for our sea lions.

What Makes Giraffe Feedings So Popular?

My name is Austin Williams and I am currently working as an intern at the Houston Zoo. Recently, I got a chance to experience a giraffe feeding that guests can participate in twice a day here. Read on to see what makes feeding giraffes so special.



The Houston Zoo has many exciting and fun activities to offer the people who come and visit our animals, but perhaps the most popular activity at the zoo is Giraffe feeding.  People line up on a daily basis just to get the chance to interact with our Masai giraffes, which begs the question: why is giraffe feeding so popular?

To answer this question myself, I headed over to the giraffe platform to observe and participate in feeding our lovable giraffe family. Approaching the platform I immediately realized that this experience was unpredictable. Why you may ask?  You never know which member of the giraffe family you will interact with, and with each one displaying their own habits, every experience is excitingly unique.  I had the pleasure to feed the head of the giraffe family, Mtembei, father of our newly-born baby Gigi. Similar to the rest of the family, Mtembei is a very gentle natured and curious giraffe. When guests are given romaine lettuce for the feeding, the giraffes are curious as to who will be fed next and they will move in your direction to make sure they are the lucky winner. During my experience Baridi, son of Mtembei, approached the platform, giving me the opportunity to observe the different habits between father and son. From the start it was very clear that Mtembei was a persistent and eager eater who would not stray from the platform until feeding time was over. Baridi on the other hand only stuck around for a few pieces of lettuce before going back to the yard. During my time at the platform I learned that the giraffes respond to their names; something you might not know unless you experience giraffe feeding firsthand. The rangers who supervise the feedings will call the giraffes by name to come over when guests are waiting to feed them. However, witnessing this first hand also showed me that the giraffes can be like children in the sense that they don’t always respond to their names being called. I realized that one of the biggest draws to giraffe feeding is the educational experience.Giraffe_Feeding_Platform_Medium2

Aside from learning about the giraffes, what I believe to be the key to giraffe feeding popularity is the engaging family experience. From elderly couples to toddlers, the giraffe feeding platform welcomes all ages offering the opportunity for the zoo and our giraffes to make a lasting impression on the guests. Kids become ecstatic the first moment they are handed a piece of lettuce to give to our giraffes. The fact that they get the chance to interact with an animal rather than watching behind glass makes their day. Parents love the experience because their child is happy and they get to capture a special moment that will last forever through pictures. There’s also nothing like seeing a parent carrying their toddler right up to a giraffe for it to eat the lettuce right out of their little hands. Each experience is special, creating a memory that will last a lifetime.giraffe

Giraffe feeding runs two-fold, not only impacting our guests but also impacting our giraffes in a positive way. Guests provide enrichment for our giraffes through the activity because it keeps the giraffes active and they also like the romaine lettuce. The giraffes receive a nutritionally balanced diet every day and since the lettuce is 97% water, it does not impact their diet making it fun for us and enjoyable for the giraffes.

The fact that giraffe feeding not only excites our guests but also keeps the giraffes healthy and active is a testament to why this experience is so popular. Sharon Joseph, VP of Animal Operations, said “the primary reason we started doing the giraffe feedings is because it provides such an impactful, personal animal experience for our guests,” and after my experience, I truly believe that is the case.

Students Saving Wildlife!

Each year, the Houston Zoo hosts our Action for Apes cell phone recycling contest. From January-April, local schools and other community organizations collect cell phones and other small electronics to be recycled and reused. Small electronics contain a material called tantalum, which is mined in Central Africa where animals like gorillas, okapis and mandrills live. By recycling electronics we can reduce the demand for tantalum, helping to protect wildlife habitat.


This year, the winner of Action for Apes was Incarnate Word Academy in Corpus Christi. In addition to recycling more than 530 electronic devices to save wildlife, one of the 6th grade classes did a special English unit on the book, “The One and Only Ivan” by Katherine Applegate. This book is inspired by a true story of a gorilla that lived most of its’ life alone in a circus-themed mall. Students at Incarnate Word Academy read the book and researched wildlife conservation. They focused on gorillas and elephants and created reports about what they learned. Here are a few of the reports from these young conservation heroes!


This project was created by James Edge, Charlie Flood, and Alex Alonso-Bauer:

“We have all learned a lot about the importance of gorillas, a now endangered species.  During the course of this project, we had fun learning and even learned the importance of teamwork. This project taught us to be mindful and not to just look out for ourselves in this world.  Gorillas need our help.  We need to raise awareness about poaching, animal cruelty, and the decline of gorillas, elephants, rhinos, and other critically endangered species. In the future, we will help by raising awareness and donating to organizations that will help gorillas and other animals alike. We have to stop the abuse and the decline of these innocent animals.”

This project was created by Adriana Wilde, Amanda Montgomery, and Andrea Reyes:

“This project has been an amazing experience to learn from.  We learned that gorillas are magnificent, interesting, and fascinating creatures.  However, there are people that kill animals for profit and do not think twice about it.  We also learned that working as a group is very important because you tend to look at things differently.  It taught us that by taking even the smallest of steps, you can still change the world. This project impacted us in a unique way, especially Ivan’s inspiring story.  He inspired many people across the country with this story.  It never stops amazing us how all that’s needed to save gorillas is to start a simple conversation about them.  We hope other students all over the world could learn the same lessons we have learned in the course of this project.  There is no doubt they will become inspired and want to make a change as well. In the future, we will really do our best to raise awareness about poaching elephants for their ivory.  We will also tell everyone, from our friends to our next door neighbors, about gorillas and their crisis.  Gorillas are very important to our ecosystem, so please, let’s work together to help get these animals  off the endangered species list.”

This project was created by Patrick Ficenec and Demitri Lopez:

“From this project, we’ve learned many things about gorillas, such as their habitat, diet, socialization, behavior, and many other interesting facts.  It was really cool to research and see how gorillas behave, and how similar they are to humans. We didn’t’ realize how close gorillas are to extinction until we started this project.  There are only about 100,000 gorillas left in the world.  The mountain gorillas are critically endangered, with less than 900 left in the world. From this point, and in the future, we will continue to educate people about the plight of gorillas and other apes. We want to work to save these animals before they are extinct.”

The Houston Zoo would like to thank the students and teachers at Incarnate Word Academy in Corpus Christi for their tremendous work to save gorillas and other animals in the wild. You too can take action to save wildlife by recycling your small electronics at the front entrance of the Zoo and holding off on buying new electronics until it is absolutely necessary!


Meet Madison Nicole, Creator of FishFlops

Visit the Houston Zoo this Saturday, December 19 from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. and meet the 17 year old entrepreneur, Madison Nicole Robinson, the founder and creator of FishFlops.Madison with FishFlops Slippers - Copy

At the age of eight after a day at the beach on Galveston Island, Madison Nicole came up with the idea for FishFlops.  She has grown her business over the past few years while supporting many positive causes. Madison is teaming up with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to donate a portion of each sale toward helping protect endangered animals.

Now, more than ever, we have the ability to truly make a difference in the lives of countless species of animals. Not only do we have the scientific resources, immense knowledge base, and the corporate partners to help fuel our mission, we have you.

Madison Nicole attends Cy-Fair High School in Cypress, Texas and has been featured on numerous national media outlets like, The Today Show, Inside Edition, Fox News, Nightly Business Report, Seventeen Magazine, Forbes, Yahoo, and many others.


Saving Wildlife with Robotics!

The Houston Zoo cares about animals in the wild and is working within our global community to help wildlife. There are many ways to affect wildlife, and we work with all types of groups that are using innovative and effective ways to keep our world healthy for all of its inhabitants.seaturtle_DK

Something that all of our friends, groups, partners, and even visitors have in common is trash, plastics in particular…but what does that have to do with saving wildlife? Our wild animals come into contact with a lot of our trash; our friends in Africa have seen giant elephants grab plastic bags that are tangled in grasses thinking that it’s food, and our local friends in Galveston have seen our Texas sea turtles eat plastic bags floating in the ocean because they look like a tasty jellyfish.

This league is connecting two areas that don’t seem like they’d work together, robotics and waste, to make a beautiful solution to help save wildlife! There are some innovative ways that robots can help us to protect wildlife, from using drones to gauge poaching areas to creating robotic fish that measure ocean health, and this league is a group of students that is putting their brains together to come up with more ways that robotics can help our animals and our Earth. This is the first installation of a blog series that will track what the league is doing, why they are doing it, and how you can help out too!

Please welcome our guest bloggers for this series, the Jersey Voltage Purple FIRST Lego League Robotics Team:


JV Lego Team 1

Hi there! We are the Jersey Voltage Purple FIRST Lego League (FLL) robotics team. We are a team of 10 students who live in Jersey Village, Texas and we are here to not only talk about trash (plastics in particular); but we are here to clean it up or at the least create excitement and awareness of the world’s plastics. We’re working on a project now, so photos are to come, but below you can check out why we chose to focus on plastics and see some great pictures of us while in the brainstorming stage!

Did you know that the very first plastic was developed in Britain way back in 1862, and plastics were exhibited at the Great Exhibition in London?! Plastics are used in many important ways that help humans and animals stay healthy, like in the medical field, and use of plastics exploded in the first decade after World War II. Just in the past 30 years, the plastic industry has gotten huge and includes many plastic products that could potentially be replaced by reusable items, like reusable water bottles or plastic bags.


This explosion of the use of plastics greatly impacts our eco-system and affects our wildlife. All of us have used many water bottles in our lifetime, but how many of those bottles have been made of plastic? Last year, the average American used 167 disposable plastic water bottles, but only recycled 38. Do you know how many get into our eco-system? Of the millions of water bottles used every day, most of them will eventually end up in an animal’s environment. So we’re here to help. Many people are trying to limit the amount of plastic they use, and some have come up with some pretty creative solutions to this somewhat overwhelming problem!


Take Action Now: You can save wildlife today by using a reusable tote for your groceries instead of single-use plastic bags. You can also exchange your single-use plastic bottles for a long-term refillable bottle. Visit the Houston Zoo’s Take Action page and find out what else you can do!


In our next blog we will tell you about a few ideas that we uncovered in our research and what we’ve been working on with our robotics to help save wildlife! So stay tuned, more to come and plenty to do!


Founded in 1989 and based in Manchester, NH, FIRST is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit public charity designed to inspire young people’s interest and participation in science and technology, and to motivate them to pursue education and career opportunities in STEM fields.


This is a sustainability reference document. 

Year of the Goat- Featuring Jingle and Belle

In honor of the Chinese animal zodiac, we’re celebrating the Year of the Goat! We have over 20 different goats representing 5 different breeds. In addition to their different colors, shapes, and sizes, all of our goats also express individual preferences and personalities!

To highlight our goats individual ‘flair’, we’ve decided to feature a different goat each month and share what makes each one so unique and lovable!


As we enter into December, it seems that the year has flown by. The chill in the air brings the anticipation of hot chocolate with gingerbread cookies, and Christmas carols can be heard wherever you go. December’s goats of the month are Jingle and Belle, and they get their names from a popular Christmas carol. The twins were born on December 15th, 2013, and have been keeper favorites from the very instant they arrived here at the Houston Zoo.
jingle goat2

Even though Jingle and Belle are almost two years old, many people still think they are babies. They are African pygmy goats, which tend to remain shorter (and stouter!) than many of the other goat breeds. They’re popular with many of the younger children at the Zoo because they’re the perfect height for them to pet!jingle goat

When you visit the Zoo this holiday season, be sure to look beneath the taller goats so you can wish Jingle and Belle happy holidays! If you like to sing, the keepers in the Children’s Zoo will be throwing an early birthday party for Jingle and Belle in the Swap Shop on December 12th.  So come on by and watch them enjoy some tasty treats while dressed in their holiday finest.


Elephant Keeper Kim Klein Travels to Laos

By: Kim Klein

A-E3After three long flights totaling 23 hours and a 12 hour layover, the enrichment supplies and I arrived in Laos! Biologist Anabel and Marketing director Jozef, eagerly awaiting my arrival, picked me up at the airport in Vientiane. Our first stop was for pizza. From there, we had a 6 hour van ride and a short boat ride to the Elephant Conservation Center located along the Nam Tien Lake in Sayaboury. Of course, we spent most of the ride talking about ELEPHANTS!

When we arrived at the center, it was afternoon and the resident elephants were bathing in the river. I met and observed several of the rescued elephants, watched them participate in target training, and visited the on-site hospital. Anabel introduced me to the Mahouts and other staff; we visited the enrichment yard and the new 1.5 acre socialization area. Diving into the purpose of my trip, Anabel and I discussed what types of enrichment the center uses and what supplies we had collectively gathered to make new enrichment items including barrels, fire hose, rope, tires, and balls. I was also informed about the individual elephant’s personalities and with this information we devised a plan of action!A-E1

Each day, I had several people assist me in creating and dispersing enrichment items. The Center’s staff and volunteers would gather together and get to work building puzzle feeders out of recycled barrels, elephant sized balls using fire hose and recycled tires, chimes made of bamboo, and rattle bags. Once the enrichment was ready to go, the Center’s guests would trek with us to the enrichment yard to help us fill up the feeders and spread out the new toys. From the enrichment workshop to the elephant yard, we had to climb through the forest and over hills. Carrying the new toys, this sometimes took us more than 20 minutes! Over the course of my two week trip, with the help of staff and several volunteers, we created 15 novel enrichment items for the center’s 7 elephants!

A-E2In our next blog, we will talk about how excited the elephants were when they encountered their new enrichment items!

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