Houston Zoo Bird Staff Saving Wildlife

This blog was written by Kasey Clarke, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Bird Department. Kasey received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from her coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Kasey documents her work overseas.  

Houston Zoo bird staff is currently assisting the MAC (Mariana Avifauna Conservation) plan. This year I am helping out in Saipan where we will be focusing on two species, the Mariana fruit dove and the rufous fantail.

Mariana fruit dove at the Houston Zoo. The Zoo works to protect all the wild counterparts of the species we have here. Houston Zoo bird staff are currently overseas, ensuring this species is protected in its’ natural habitat.

For those who don’t know, the MAC plan’s goal is to establish self-sustaining populations of Mariana forest bird species on uninhabited northern islands. Due to the invasive brown tree snake damaging the local bird population, it is important to create other healthy populations of local birds where brown tree snakes are not a threat. The work done here is an insurance policy for local birds.

After 3 flights and 24 hours of travel I made it to Saipan. They didn’t waste any time putting me to work either. I spent half of my first day in the field finding fruit doves, more on that later. The second half of the day I helped with community outreach by manning a booth at the Flame Tree Festival.

The Flame Tree Festival is a celebration of the Saipan community and culture of the Chamorro people. The local children perform their musical talents on stage. Local dances are also performed. There are art booths and food stands. The festival seems is very popular and we had a successful night discussing bird conservation.

The photo below is of the booth we had set up. The wheel on the right was popular with the kids. They could spin it and win a trading card with one of 15 local Mariana forest species on it. We had two little boys who kept coming back and spinning it for a new card. It was a lot of fun interacting and educating the public about bird conservation. It’s important to let them know that there are things they can do to participate and help!

Discussing local birds at the Flame Tree Festival.

Next blog l will talk about how a field day runs. In the coming entries we will follow a bird through the whole process of moving to another island!

Second Giraffe Born in Two Weeks!

Monday morning brought the welcome arrival of a second baby giraffe in two weeks for the Houston Zoo herd. The female Masai giraffe was born at 8:30 a.m. on Monday, April 24 to second-time mom, Asali in the McGovern Giraffe Barn at the African Forest. As with her first-born, Gigi, Asali has been a cautious mother and the keeper and veterinary teams are closely watching over the pair to ensure the calf is nursing well and the mother-calf bond is strong. After a few days behind-the-scenes with her mother, along with Tyra and two-week-old Zindzhi, the new calf will make her public debut.


On average, giraffe pregnancies last from 14 to 15 months. A newborn Masai giraffe calf typically weighs between 125 and 150 pounds at birth and measures approximately six feet tall.  Giraffes are the tallest living terrestrial animals, with the average male standing at 17 feet tall and weighing 2,500 pounds. Females average more than 14 feet tall. The new calf weighs 148 pounds and is estimated to be 6 feet 6 inches tall.

Over the last decade, the number of giraffes in the wild has dropped by 40%, with less than 80,000 giraffes remaining. The Houston Zoo is now home to seven Masai giraffes, one of the nine subspecies of giraffes.

Proceeds from every zoo admission ticket and membership help protect giraffes in the wild. The Houston Zoo provides funds and training for local people in Africa to protect wild giraffes from poaching and harm. These dedicated locals walk long distances in areas of Africa where giraffes live to arrest illegal hunters and collect harmful wire traps set for wildlife in the trees and bushes. For the past six years, the Houston Zoo has provided training and funds for Enock Zulu, an anti-poaching unit manager leading a local community anti-poaching unit in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. In his years of leadership, Zulu’s teams have collected more than 12,784 wire traps, rescuing 14 animals from snares, and have arrested nearly 90 poachers.




Celebrate Tapirs with Baby Antonio!

Written by Mary Fields

Join baby Antonio and the Houston Zoo in celebrating World Tapir Day! We will be holding our third annual Tapir Spotlight on Species this weekend, April 29th and 30th, from 10:00 am until 3:00 pm.

Last year, Moli was new to our Tapir SOS as our new breeding female. But guess what? Moli had a baby named Antonio! Antonio was only about 20 pounds when he was born, but will reach around 550 pounds when he is full size! Antonio is typically exploring or sleeping on exhibit from 9:00 am until 2:15 pm, weather dependent.

There are four species of tapir, including three Latin American species, Baird’s, Lowland, and Mountain. The Malayan tapir is the fourth species and the only Asian species of tapir.

Along with celebrating tapirs, we will also be celebrating Día del Niño, or Children’s Day! So, come out this weekend to the Houston Zoo and learn about tapirs, play fun tapir-related games and of course to see baby Antonio!

Reflection Pool Gets an Update

This is part one of a three-part series on the history and current updates of the Houston Zoo Reflection Pool.

If you’ve visited the Houston Zoo recently, you’ve noticed the Reflection Pool is closed to the public. That’s because the Reflection Pool is undergoing routine maintenance for cleaning and water quality control.

So what does it take to clean it up?

Zoo staff clear the pool of dirt and leaves

First things first: Take out the koi. Aquarium staff removes all the fish and transports them to quarantine pools located behind the scenes. Once the fish have been safely relocated, zoo maintenance staff completely drains the pool, clears all leaves, and pressure washes the emptied pool. Leaves aren’t the only items found when cleaning out the pool – zoo staff collected toys, sunglasses, conservation bracelets, and more! (Psst, let’s try to keep those things out of the pool when it reopens.)

Anyone missing a lizard stuffed animal, sunglasses or a toy car?

Then, they inspect the area for any repairs needed, remove all the current sculptures and prepare the pool for a brand-new sculpture which will be installed in May. Lastly, zoo horticulture staff will update plants along the pool, water gets poured back in, and fish are returned to their pool.

Ideally this routine maintenance takes place once every year; though, if water chemistry and conditions are A-Okay, the process takes place every other year.

Be sure to check back on more updates of the Reflection Pool construction. And don’t miss the unveiling of the newly-donated sculpture next month!

Large base built to hold the new statue

Carnivore Training – Animal School

Written by Stephanie Mantilla

“Do your lions go to school too?” was the question an elementary school child asked after the lion keeper mentioned that our lion sisters are eight years-old, just like them.

“Actually, they do go to school in the sense that the lions have to learn things like you do at school.” the keeper said.


The most important part of a zookeeper’s day is animal care. These are things such as feeding and cleaning but also equally important is making sure the animals are mentally stimulated. One way that zookeepers do this is through training. Believe it or not, you can train a cat! The carnivore keepers work on training sessions with all of the carnivores daily, and often multiple times per day. Many times when people hear the word “training” they think of dogs doing tricks. Instead of tricks, we focus on behaviors related to animal care in our training sessions.

The carnivore department uses positive reinforcement based training. For anyone who has a pet cat at home, you are well aware that if your cat doesn’t want to do something you ask, they won’t, and there isn’t much you can do about it. The same can usually be said for the large and small cats at the zoo. During training, keepers are safely outside of the habitats and will sound a whistle whenever the cat completes an action asked by the keeper. Think of it like a game where the whistle means “correct” but no whistle means “incorrect.” During training, if the cats hear the whistle, they know that a tasty treat is on the way. And if an animal decides they don’t want to train that day, they still receive their daily diet. It’s important to note that we don’t force our animals to do anything, and their participation is totally optional. The treats received during training are yummy extras to their meals, making the sessions even more rewarding for the cats.

Each carnivore has a favorite treat that the trainers will save for a training session. The lions are partial to goat’s milk, while the jaguars really like whole prey items, such as mice and chicks (previously frozen then thawed). Unsurprisingly, our bears’ favorite training treats are honey and fruit. Our cougars think all food is delicious but capelin (fish) is one of their favorites. All of these special food items mean that the animals in the carnivore department look forward to training time.

Training not only stimulates the carnivores’ minds, it also allows the animals to participate in their own medical care. Many of the trained behaviors are husbandry behaviors. Having a cheetah show you their paws, open their mouth, receive a vaccine injection, or allow blood to be drawn voluntarily from their tail allows the keeper to keep a close eye on the cat’s health and helps to strengthen the relationship between the animal and the veterinarians. During these training sessions, the animals could decide to leave at any time, so it is the goal of the trainer to make sure the sessions stay positive so the animal wants to participate.

A few of the carnivores could be considered to be on the Advanced Placement route, since they learned the standard list of behaviors so quickly. Kan Balam, our elderly male jaguar, knows over 20 different behaviors and his trainers are constantly working to teach him more. Some of his fun behaviors are to climb, dig, and hop onto a table. Our female cougar, Haley, will leap around her habitat, showing off her acrobatic abilities. Hansel, the male fossa, proves that even the little carnivores love training. When cued, he will climb to the top of his habitat at such speeds it would make a lemur squirm. Now that you know about the training we do in the carnivore department, come and see our carnivores put their training to use at our keeper chats!

Saving a Species One Chick at a Time

Chris with a blue-billed curassow

Chris Holmes, Houston Zoo Assistant Curator of Birds, recently received two prestigious awards from the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the organization responsible for accrediting zoos) for his conservation work with critically endangered blue-billed curassows. He is featured as a conservation hero for his work with these birds in National Geographic photographer, Joel Sartore’s new book, The Photo Ark: One Man’s Quest to Document the World’s Animals.

Unique to Colombia there are only a few hundred left in the wild due to habitat destruction and hunting. One way to make sure blue-billed curassows don’t go extinct is to make sure this species and its’ genetic diversity is represented in zoos. This ensures that if the wild population decreases, there is a genetically diverse population that could possibly be released to bolster wild populations.

©Joel Sartore/joelsartore.com

Zoos work together to determine which individuals have the most genetic diversity and then pair them together so they can ensure the long-term survival of the species. This is called a Species Survival Plan or SSP. Chris Holmes, manages the SSP for blue-billed curassows.

Blue-billed curassows are difficult to breed for several reasons, including how they choose their mate and having just two eggs per breeding season. The Houston Zoo has been involved with the efforts to protect blue-billed curassows since the late 1970s, with more than 50 blue-billed curassows born here.

Blue-billed curassow chick

Chris and the Houston Zoo have partnered with the Colombian Zoo Association to save these birds in the wild through sharing knowledge gained from successful breeding efforts, providing the resources needed for a successful breeding program in-country, and collaborating in the creation of a five-year conservation plan.

Chris established 3 goals for his own work, “My first goal with working with the Blue-billed was to increase the AZA population. My second goal was to help with the Colombian population. My third goal became recording the international population so if needed captive bred birds could go back to Colombia.” All 3 goals work to increase the number of blue-billed curassow available for possible reintroduction to the wild.

In January 2014, the National Aviary of Colombia became the first Colombian zoo to breed the blue-billed curassow in its native Colombia.

What can you do to help? Visit the Houston Zoo and see the blue-billed curassow for yourself. The more you appreciate and understand this bird, the more knowledge you can share with others. You can purchase The Photo Ark: One Man’s Quest to Document the World’s Animals in the Zoo gift shop. And when you visit, a portion of your membership and ticket goes to saving animals in the wild.

ZooMobile a Hit at 10th Annual Family Day at Sylvester Turner Park

On Saturday, April 8, the Houston ZooMobile made a special appearance on behalf of Mayor Sylvester Turner with a few scaled, shelled, and feathered friends at the 10th Annual Family Day at Sylvester Turner Park.

At the annual event, thousands of people of all ages gather for fun and friendship, free food and entertainment. This year, the Houston Zoo’s mobile education team, ZooMobile, introduced some of the more than 15,000 guests to an alligator, pancake tortoise, prairie kingsnake, and a screech owl.

Mayor Turner happily posed with a few of our animal ambassadors, like Catori the screech owl here with mobile education
coordinator, Elizabeth.

Thank you for inviting us to this incredible event, Mayor Turner!

Saving Animals in the Wild at Hotel Armadillo

The Houston Zoo hosted our Brazilian Conservation Research Associate, Gabriel Massocato, in Houston for the month of March. The Zoo has funded Gabriel’s work to save giant armadillos and giant anteaters in the Brazil for the past 5 years.

He was awarded our Wildlife Warrior award last year and requested to put the awarded funds towards English and conservation/education courses and training. You may have enjoyed his blog describing his experience from last month, if not you can read it here.

While here Gabriel experienced many different roles at the Houston Zoo. He participated in several Zoo events and was a part of 2 Facebook Live events, one of which was hosted on Animal Planet’s Facebook page. Gabriel also contributed to Texas endangered species field work by going on a Houston Toad tadpole release with members of our herpetology team and learned from our sea turtle conservation efforts and partners in Galveston. He learned about an adhesive they use to attached satellite tracking tags on sea turtle’s shells that may also work to attached satellite tracking tags on giant armadillo’s armor.

As Houston Zoo team members shared their wildlife saving roles and work with Gabriel, he shared his efforts to save giant armadillos in the wild. This week a documentary called Hotel Armadillo that features Gabriel and the Giant Armadillo Project’s work in Brazil’s Pantanal will air on PBS. The documentary, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, focuses on the important role that giant armadillos play in their environment and highlights the Outstanding conservation work Gabriel and his team are doing to save them from extinction.
Don’t miss Hotel Armadillo premiering Wednesday, April 19 at 7 p.m. (CT) on PBS.

Gabriel will be back to be a visiting instructor for the Houston Zoo’s college aged education program at the end of June. A portion of your admission and membership helps us fund Gabriel’s position to save giant armadillos and giant anteaters in the wild. Learn more and share in the successes of the Giant Armadillo Project by friending them on Facebook!

Pen Pals to Save Okapis: Environmental Education

Written by Mary Fields

In the last pen pals blog, Jean Paul told us about some of the conservation work that the Okapi Wildlife Reserve does. In this blog, we will hear about the key to conservation, education!

Just like our wonderful staff and volunteers at the Houston Zoo, the OWR staff educates people in and around the reserve. They are able to reach out to the general public, schools, the government and army officials.

So how do they reach out to the general public? First of all, conservation groups do not just tell people to completely change their ways. They help out the local communities and inspire them to help save species and their habitat. The OWR holds public meetings with villages for various conservation issues. Focus groups are provided for the women in the area to help provide access to sustainable resources, such as water and fire wood. Sustainable practices are also encouraged for the farmers in the communities. Environmental issues are also broadcasted on radio stations in and around the reserve. Basically, the key is that the OWR is very involved in and care about their community!

How do they reach out to schools? The OWR realizes that getting kids started early in helping out the environment has major benefits! The OWR has provided environmental curriculum for primary schools. Conferences are also held at secondary schools and universities for students to discuss things such as the protection of the forest. And just like local schools going on field trips to the zoo, students around the OWR get to go to the Epulu station for field trips.

Now that you know how the OWR helps out okapis in the wild, you probably want to know how you can help. Simple, you can help by recycling your cell phones and electronics! You can recycle these at the Houston Zoo’s entrance and the African Forest. Make sure to follow our blog to continue learning about okapi conservation and hear more from Jean Paul!

April Showers Bring Masai Flowers – Baby Giraffe at the Zoo!

The Houston Zoo is proud to announce the birth of a female Masai giraffe, born at 9:04 a.m. on Monday, April 10 in the McGovern Giraffe Barn at the African Forest. After a 2-hour labor both mom, Tyra, and the yet-to-be-named calf are doing well and are currently bonding behind the scenes with keeper and veterinary teams watching over the pair. After a few days alone with her mother, the new calf will make her public debut.

On average, giraffe pregnancies last from 14 to 15 months. A new born Masai giraffe calf typically weighs between 125 and 150 pounds at birth and measures approximately six feet tall.  Giraffes are the tallest living terrestrial animals, with the average male standing at 17 feet tall and weighing 2,500 pounds. Females average more than 14 feet tall. The new calf weighs 139 pounds and is estimated to be 6 feet 3 inches tall.

Over the last decade, the number of giraffes in the wild has dropped by 40%, with less than 80,000 giraffes remaining. Of the nine subspecies of giraffes, the Houston Zoo is now home to six Masai giraffes.

Saving Giraffes in the Wild 

You help save giraffes in the wild every day! Proceeds from every zoo admission ticket and membership help protect giraffes in the wild.

The Houston Zoo provides funds and training for local people in Africa to protect wild giraffes from poaching and harm. They walk long distances in areas of Africa where giraffe live to arrest illegal hunters and collect harmful wire traps set for wildlife in the trees and bushes.

The Houston Zoo provided training and funds for Enock Zulu, an Anti-Poaching Unit Manager leading a local community anti-poaching unit in Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe. In his six years of leadership, Zulu’s teams have collected over 12,784 wire traps, rescuing 11 animals from snares, and have arrested over 89 poachers.

Thank you for helping us save animals in the wild!

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