You are Supporting a Wildlife Hero in the Galapagos!

As a supporter of the Houston Zoo, your entry ticket and/or membership allows us to partner with and support organizations around the world that are committed to saving wildlife. One such partner, Ecology Project International (EPI), works on the Galapagos Islands, educating local kids about the wildlife that lives in their area, while engaging them in hands-on activities to protect species (beach cleanups, monitoring sea turtle nests, etc.).

EPI participants collecting information on sea turtle hatchlings in the Galapagos

Through your visits to the Zoo, we have been able to support one of EPI’s staff, Juan Sebastian Torres, in his pursuit of a Master’s degree! JuanSe is the Galapagos Program Coordinator for EPI, and he is currently enrolled in Miami University of Ohio’s Master’s program, the Global Field Program.

We asked JuanSe a little bit about his work with youth and wildlife in the Galapagos, and how Zoo support of his degree is helping him improve the work he does.

Can you write your full name, your job title, and what you do for your job day-to-day?

My name is Juan Sebastián Torres Cevallos but my friends call me JuanSe. I work for EPI, a non-profit organization dedicated to develop environmental education programs/courses through science and conservation efforts with scientists and local leaders. I started leading Ecology courses for high school students and now I coordinate the field program in the Galápagos Islands. Every day I work on many aspects of the program in order to provide the best educative experience to our students. I work on itineraries, activities, doing coordination work with our science partners, supervising/supporting our instructor team, improving curricular components of the program among many other tasks.

What made you interested in the environment/nature/wildlife/education?

When I was a naturalist guide in the Amazon rainforest I saw for the first time the potential of environmental education when I took tourists and students into the forest and explained/taught about its unique complexity. Being there in the forest was the best “classroom” to explain how it functioned because the students were able to directly see with their eyes and other senses. I was very happy to reach out people sharing the beauty of an ecosystem I had always been in love and the conservation concerns/challenges it faced. When I had the opportunity to work in Galápagos with EPI I receive unique tools/strategies/structure to develop environmental educational programs and to create unique experiences that will change the perspective of our students working on their knowledge of nature, dispositions to take action and skills to solve problems.

JuanSe (far right) with students and staff from the Galapagos National Park, monitoring sea turtle nests.

What is your favorite part of your job?

When I have the opportunity to be in the field with students.

JuanSe (far left) with students participating in field work to save wildlife.

What is the most difficult part of your job?

Spending lots of time at the office when I have always been an outdoors person… but this challenge is worth it when I know the impact that our programs and my work has on the students.

Why is it so important for an organization like EPI to exist in the Galapagos?

We are the only organization that does environmental education on the islands. We are teaching the new generations why Galapagos is so important and the importance of conserving it. We want to get rid of the existing gap between people and nature.

What made you interested in pursuing your Master’s degree through the Global Field Program?

This is a unique opportunity to improve my work and knowledge in many aspects. My professional skills and duties overlap with many of the skills that can be learned with the Global Field Program. The inquiry component and community work are key to promote conservation worldwide and is totally linked with the work I do in Galápagos and with my personal goals.

You have been in the Master’s program for almost 1 year, what have you learned so far?

I had learn many new things, but specially how research takes place, to find background data through peer reviewed papers, dive into passionate conservation topics and the power of involving community are part of the projects I had done so far.  I have also learned the importance of sharing any idea/project/information with anyone, to receive and provide feedback is a unique skills that had increased my knowledge on several topics.

A Galapagos Tortoise takes in his beautiful surroundings.

How is this program helping you with the work you do to educate kids in the Galapagos?

I have already developed a project to research on the bird mortality on the highway of Santa Cruz Island with support of 12 high school students. I´m also adding more scientific background to the ecology program I coordinate and I’m improving aspects of our curriculum.

Every time you visit the Houston Zoo, you help projects like Ecology Project International, and ensure people like JuanSe can continue to do the important work they do to save wildlife.

Recycling Electronics = Saving Animals

Thank you for saving animals in the wild! On Saturday, January 21, Houstonians rallied at the Zoo to recycle their old and unused electronics. Sponsored by Verizon, this event directly helped wildlife by reducing the need to obtain new materials from mines in Central Africa, home to animals like chimpanzees, gorillas, okapis, and mandrills.

A total of 24 pallets of electronics were recycled, weighing in at nearly 12,000 pounds! Families that brought electronic items to be recycled received a tote bag and a voucher for half-price admission to the Zoo.

As Houston prepares to host Super Bowl LI, a partnership between the NFL, Houston Super Bowl Host Committee, Verizon and Trees for Houston, and the Houston Zoo is working to promote green initiatives and encourage environmentally friendly behaviors. For more ways you can take action and protect wildlife, visit our website!


Pen Pals to Save Okapis

Written by Mary Fields


The Houston Zoo would like to introduce you to Jean Paul M’monga from the Okapi Conservation Project! Our Hoofstock keepers have recently become pen pals with Jean Paul to help each other with education and conservation!

So who is Jean Paul? Jean Paul is the Education Assistant Coordinator at the Okapi Conservation Project, or OCP. He educates local communities on okapis and other species, such as forest elephants and chimpanzees in the Ituri forest. He grew up in the Ituri region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and received his Master’s degree in Environment and Sustainable Development at the Bukavu Technical College of Rural Development.

The Houston Zoo partners with many great conservation groups around the globe. The Zoo has been able to help Jean Paul by providing a grant, allowing the OCP to hire Jean Paul fulltime and continue his work at the Okapi Wildlife Reserve.

Jean Paul hopes to share his experiences with the Houston Zoo and improve upon his ways of educating the local communities in his country. As a return, we will be sharing information about how we educate people at the Houston Zoo and what the Hoofstock department does every day!

Houston Zoo Hoofstock keeper with Tulia, one of the okapis at the Houston Zoo

How can you help okapis in the wild? By recycling your cell phones and tablets! You can do this at the Houston Zoo’s main entrance. Make sure to follow our blog to continue learning about okapi conservation and about what Jean Paul does!

Behind the Scenes – Efforts of the Volunteer Office

Written by Heidi Garbe, Houston Zoo Volunteer Coordinator

When you visit the Houston Zoo, you see the animals, you see the animal keepers, you see the grounds team, you see restaurant staff. You also see volunteers, and if not, you should know there are volunteers helping behind the scenes daily. There are so many people and departments that allow a zoo to function; a team that you may not see is the staff of the Volunteer Office.

With a team of over 1,000 volunteers each year, it takes some staff to coordinate those efforts, matching interests and skills with the needs of the zoo. One facet of our volunteer program is engaging community and corporate groups in single-event projects. Zoo Boo, for example, requires over 600 volunteers during the fall season, which is a perfect opportunity for groups to come out and support the zoo. As you may imagine, getting that many people in place requires much planning. Think how often your plans can change; the Volunteer Office must constantly be ready for a significant shift in volunteer coverage, requiring flexibility and constant communication.

Zoo Boo is likely the most common place you may encounter a group volunteer, but they also help year-round in other projects. Our animal teams regularly depend on small groups to accomplish beautification and up-keep projects. Volunteers may assist in mulching, raking, weeding, or replacing sand substrate in some of our animal exhibits. Although these opportunities do not allow for interaction with animals, the hard work pays off and volunteers can see the difference – as can all of the guests. The animals surely appreciate it, too!

Besides our one-time group volunteers, we have hundreds of year-round volunteers doing all sorts of shifts each week. It is thanks to their independence and drive that just three people can manage such a large volunteer program, yet there is always plenty to do. We quite often spend time at our computers organizing people and associated activities. We use a computer program that allows volunteers to self-schedule but with so many people involved, much communication with zoo staff and our volunteers is still necessary to facilitate and trouble-shoot. We also work to create new programs and training to enhance the volunteer experience and create more informed, engaging volunteers. It takes three of us working very diligently to keep up with all the requests from both staff and volunteers for activities happening day and night.

So what’s normal in a day as Volunteer Coordinator at the Houston Zoo? There is no “normal!” We operate in a non-stop, fast-paced atmosphere enriched with a lot of incredible people donating their time. It is an honor and a privilege to connect the community with unique opportunities at the Houston Zoo, all with the end goal of saving animals in the wild.

Houston Zoo Hosts Urban Pollinator Planting Project

In partnership with the NFL, Houston Super Bowl Host Committee, Verizon and Trees for Houston, the Houston Zoo celebrated the opening of a new pollinator garden at the zoo on Monday, Jan. 16. As Houston prepares to host Super Bowl LI, this group of organizations is working to promote green initiatives and encourage environmentally friendly behaviors like planting backyard gardens that help pollinators and native wildlife. A brief opening ceremony included speakers Jack Groh – Director, NFL Environmental Program; John Dorn – Verizon; LaMecia Butler – Houston Super Bowl Host Committee; Barry Ward – Trees for Houston; and Lee Ehmke – President & CEO, Houston Zoo.

Texans Cheerleaders, team mascot TORO, and representatives from the partnering organizations created a buzz around the newly established garden as visitors enjoyed educational activities and met pollinating animals like a macaw and Hercules beetle. Bees, birds, bats, and many other animals are all pollinators that play a critical role in the production of the fruits and vegetables eaten across the world.

Houston provides a key resting stop for pollinators as they journey from Canada to Mexico, making this project an important step in protecting numerous species. Houstonians can make a difference for these imperative animals by planting native plants in their backyards and reducing the use of pesticides.

Home Schoolers Go Above and Beyond for Wildlife

Written by Kate Unger

Every time someone visits the Houston Zoo, they are helping to save animals in the wild! Our guests learn a lot on a Zoo visit, from animal stories to conservation projects. One audience that is going above and beyond to learn how they can make a difference is our Home Schoolers! This group took part in three programs last fall, all created just for them with animal experiences and a wildlife focus. They worked out their brain muscles during Eco-Experiments, became a field researcher at the Texas City Prairie Preserve, and searched the Zoo for clues at Scavenger Hunt Safari. These days all focused on animals and tied into many of our six wildlife saving initiatives, including plastics pollution and pollinators.

Students were able to think outside the box and come up with ways to help wildlife, both locally and worldwide. They learned about an endangered local habitat, the Texas coastal prairie, and discovered ways to learn about ecosystems in new and meaningful ways. This spring, we will be learning even with new classes focusing on hands-on learning and exploration in nature. Thank you to the families that participated this fall and we look forward to new and exciting programs with you in the spring!

Volunteers Giving More than Just Their Hearts

Written by Heidi Garbe, Houston Zoo Volunteer Coordinator

Volunteers help at the zoo in so many ways, but recently, they truly went above and beyond. Every two years, our Volunteer Fundraising Committee runs a unique auction to raise funds for conservation. Over several months, volunteers are asked to collect new t-shirts from conservation-related places they visit (from zoos to national parks, and everything in between) for an end-of-year auction.

Our Volunteer Fundraising Committee organizes volunteer-based financial support, offering funding for staff working on conservation programs as well as directly to our zoo field partners. Late in 2016, volunteers voted in advance where t-shirt auction funds should go and settled on Ecology Project International based in the Galapagos, which empowers youth to advance their education and take active roles in conservation.

At the Volunteer’s holiday gathering in December, over 60 t-shirts had been collected and put on display. These shirts, along with a few other small auction items, raised $1,255! This amount is remarkable in itself, but even more impressive is that it was driven completely by Volunteers, from individuals purchasing t-shirts to donate, to voting on the organization to support, and from the Volunteers organizing the auction, to those that participated by buying items.

Karen Hinson, the chair for the Volunteer Fundraising Committee, notes “Year after year, the generosity of our volunteers never ceases to amaze me. Not only did they purchase the t-shirts to donate for the auction but in many instances they turned around and bought at the auction. A special thank you to one volunteer who purchased the ten remaining t-shirts at minimum bid. This is just another example how dedicated the volunteers are to supporting the zoo’s conservation partners in the wild.”

In addition, many volunteers purchased gifts for our zoo animals through wish lists created by our animal teams. Our animals brought in 2017 with a variety of new enrichment items thanks to our caring volunteers! This “Giving Tree” of wish list items was facilitated by Volunteer Enrichment Committee chair Heather Simm.

This is a truly passionate group of individuals and we’re so glad they have joined our efforts to conserve the animals we all care so deeply about saving. Way to go Houston Zoo Volunteers! Making a difference here at the zoo and around the world.

“So You Play with Animals All Day?”

This blog was written by Houston Zoo employee: Leia Cook, Early Childhood Programs Coordinator.


My name is Leia Cook and I get this question a lot. I am not sure what surprises people most, the fact they’ve met someone who works at a zoo or that I don’t really play with the animals all day. I am actually part of a team called the Conservation Education department and have recently (and proudly) reached my one-year anniversary at Houston Zoo this past summer. When I first came aboard, I was assigned the Home School section of the education department. I was responsible for coordinating the program which included four, fun, yet educational, days on zoo grounds and one field day out at Texas City Prairie Reserve. It was my first foot into the door and it was pretty cool. But soon after I came on board, our department received a makeover and we shook some things up.


You see, during the summer the Houston Zoo hosts a children’s camp. The ages ranged from four years old to the age of 12. For the entire summer, I worked with the “littles” as we called them. Our four and five age groups were by far, the most entertaining ones to me! Once you got past the “I miss my mommy” tears during the morning drop off, these kids were ready and raring to go! They are always so full of life and some are extremely knowledgeable about the animals at that age! I had a blast with the “littles” and it showed. When Melanie, our Senior Director of Conservation Education, was hired, she decided to chat with us about our positions. In this meeting, we asked her suggestions on where she saw each of our team members excelling. It was then, I was officially given my niche of Early Childhood.

My full title is a bit of a mouthful. I am the Early Childhood Programs Coordinator. While the name is big, the program has some catching up to do! I am currently coordinating the only program under this umbrella, Wild Wheels. Wild Wheels is geared towards zero to three years olds and their adults. It offers them a front of scenes tour and classroom time where they have an array of nature items like smooth river rocks, pine cones and tree cookies for manipulation. One of the highlights is the sensory bin which is filled with a unique substance each time they come to class. They also have a chance to meet and maybe even touch an animal friend.

rainbow-bubbles-binIn the coming months, it will be my job to build as well as expand upon the early childhood programs. Using the zoos mission, I intend to create a number of opportunities for children and their adults to begin their connection to nature.

2016 Saving Wildlife Successes

The Houston Zoo had amazing Saving Wildlife Successes in 2016. Each success and action works toward fulfilling the Zoo’s mission to connect communities with animals, inspiring action to save wildlife.

The Houston Zoo provided support and training for 180 local students in the Galapagos to participate in wildlife saving field-courses.

The Houston Zoo released 90 Attwater’s prairie chickens into the wild this year. This native Texas species would be extinct without this reintroduction project.

The Houston Zoo released more than 775,000 Houston Toad eggs into the wild. This native Texas species of toad would be extinct without this reintroduction project.

The Houston Zoo and conservation partners protected 20% of Africa’s remaining wild lions. By working as one team, projects around Africa working to save lions can collaborate and share ideas and knowledge, providing more protection to lions.

Houston Zoo staff tagged 23 Monarch butterflies for tracking and protection. By learning more about Monarch migration patterns, plans can be created to help save them in the wild.

The Houston Zoo provided medical care for 70 sea turtles and 1,963 guests pledged to use reusable bags to save sea turtles in the wild. Reusable bags protect sea turtles from harm by keeping plastic bags out of the ocean. Use a reusable bag on your next trip to the grocery store to protect sea turtles.

The Houston Zoo has saved 1,604.8 fully-grown trees by using 100% recycled content paper in our everyday operations. When you go shopping for paper save bears in the wild by purchasing recycled content paper. Using recycled content paper saves trees that bears need to survive.

The Houston Zoo with the help of guests recycled 4,081 pounds of holiday lights to date, saving bobcats in the wild. Recycling holiday lights keeps them out of landfills, which means more space for animals like bobcats, deer and armadillos.

All these successes were made possible by the over 2.5 million people who helped save wildlife by visiting the Houston Zoo. This is because a portion of all memberships and admissions goes straight to protecting animals in the wild.

Record Zoo Attendance for Ninth Consecutive Year

The Houston Zoo has broken its attendance record yet again, reporting 2,550,453 million visitors for 2016 maintaining its elite position as the second-most-attended US zoo with a paid admission. This banner year of visitation surpasses the organization’s 2015 attendance record of 2.46 million visitors.

Animal births held the spotlight in 2016, and guests were introduced to babies like giant anteater, Rio, and TJ, the zoo’s first California sea lion pup in 22 years. Baby fever seemed to spread through nearly every animal department and the successful births of endangered turtles, aquatic species, hoofed stock, primates, and more than 40 species of birds were only a fraction of the flourishing young animals born during the past year.

The zoo also said goodbye to one of its most iconic residents, Jonathan the lion. The 18-year-old male lion died in September after veterinarians discovered he had a serious blood clotting issue and low white blood cell count – findings that are not uncommon in geriatric patients, who often develop the more complex medical conditions. His absence continues to be felt by all who cared for the elderly lion.

The Houston Zoo maintains its devotion to world-class veterinary care and finished construction on a state-of-the-art veterinary hospital. The new facility enhances the capabilities of veterinarians and clinic staff as they safeguard the health of the animal residents ranging from growing babies to older “retirees.” This was the second phase of a multi-phase construction project to expand and improve the veterinary services complex. The zoo’s former clinic is currently under complete refurbishment and will reopen later this year as a new support and veterinary science facility.

Throughout the year, the zoo demonstrated its dedication to connecting communities to inspire action to save animals in the wild by engaging in conservation projects locally and abroad. The Houston Zoo is exceedingly proud of its wildlife conservation partners that work across 20 countries on projects like the reintroduction of endangered crowned cranes in Rwanda, scientific efforts to rescue and release rare terrapins in Sumatra, and community education across several countries in Africa to ensure a future for lions.

Zoo staff and passionate volunteers echoed the organization’s commitment to save animals in the wild, contributing countless (and often unpaid) hours to protect wildlife. For example, efforts begun by the Houston Zoo sea lion team resulted in the removal of 545 pounds of trash, 302 pounds of recyclables, and 92 pounds of monofilament from the Surfside jetty on the Texas coast, a significant stride in preventing local sea turtles from becoming entangled in discarded fishing line and trash. This initiative was presented a 2016 Proud Partner Award from Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

The organization was humbled by the generosity and passion of its donors who provided more than $9,000,000 in gifts to support the zoo. In 2016, two of the zoo’s largest annual fundraising events, Zoo Ball and Feed Your Wildlife Conservation Gala, topped donation records, and for the first time both events raised more than one million dollars each.

This year promises to be another exceptional one. In late spring, the zoo will open a massive expansion of the McNair Asian Elephant Habitat. To complement a spacious new barn, a brand-new habitat is currently under construction that features a boardwalk with an unobstructed view of the elephants’ 130,000-gallon pool and expanded yard. The expansion will highlight the zoo’s commitment and ongoing work to save elephants in the wild.

Additional 2016 Successes

  • Wrapping up its fifth year of winter wonder, TXU Energy Presents Zoo Lights helped over 300,000 Houstonians create memorable moments with family and friends with holiday music and millions of energy-saving LED lights.
  • Through its robust collection of educational programs from summer camps to in-school ZooMobile classes, the Houston Zoo’s conservation education department worked to bring nearly 34,000 children and adults closer to the animal kingdom.
  • Hundreds of volunteers generously donated upwards of 34,500 hours of their time assisting zoo keepers, educating the public, and supporting zoo operations.
  • Zoo staff encouraged one another to advance professionally through the pursuit of wildlife conservation work, awarding project grants from their own Houston Zoo Staff Conservation Fund.
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