Hog Wild at the Zoo

Written by Memory Mays

Well, as cute as Gus the warthog is with his mutton chops, it is now time to introduce two new additions to a different kind of hog family. Say howdy to our two red river hog piglets that were born on June 27 to parents Luna and Neptune. Our red river hog family is very active and constantly putting smiles on everyone’s faces, but these two new piglets have everyone here at the Houston Zoo talking. Why? This is a pretty important event since these two piglets are the first ever red river hogs to be born in the Houston Zoo. That, and well… they’re super cute!

The Houston Zoo loves our newest addition of adorable red river hogs, and is protecting red river hog families in the wild. The Zoo is providing funding for wildlife saving education programs in areas where the hogs live in Africa. The education programs guide local people to protecting red river hogs and other local animals in the wild.

You may notice these piglets don’t look like their parents. Instead of having a solid red color on their entire body, they are a brownish color with white stripes along their bodies. This coloration is camouflage, and it helps them blend into their forested surroundings to hide from any lurking predators. These stripes will fade and turn into the vibrant red color when they are about six months old.

Another feature that raises the cuteness levels of these piglets are their ear tassels. Ear tassels on the adults help to make them appear larger and scarier to other hogs or predators. Luckily we don’t have any predators that share our red river hog exhibit. The only animals that share the habitat are the gorillas, who seem to be just as fascinated by the piglets as we are. Like any young hog, these piglets are probably going to be very active and adventurous. Maybe they will take up wild bird chasing like Gus the warthog, or maybe they’ll take up swimming in the stream to cool off in this Houston summer heat. Whatever the fun is, be sure to stop by and see our red river hog family in the African Forest at the Houston Zoo. Who knows what wild antics these two piglets might get into?!


Houston Zoo Hires Two New Executives

The Houston Zoo has announced that two new executives will join the organization this summer. In July, non-profit industry leaders Sheryl Kolasinski and Rauli Garcia will step into their roles on the zoo’s senior leadership team and focus on bringing the organization’s mission to life through a new strategic plan and accompanying master plan.

“I am pleased to welcome two seasoned non-profit executives to the leadership team of the Houston Zoo. Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Kolasinski and Chief Administrative Officer Rauli Garcia will spearhead efforts to advance our recently adopted strategic plan and ambitious master plan, adding to the zoo’s already strong core programmatic leadership and staff,” said Lee Ehmke, president and CEO of the Houston Zoo. “Both executives bring extensive experience in the Houston and national cultural institution communities, together with impressive track records of successfully managing change and growth. They join the zoo at a very exciting time in our development, as we approach our 100th anniversary in 2022 with a redoubled commitment to saving wildlife and serving the community.”

Rauli Garcia

Rauli Garcia will start his role in the newly created position of chief administrative officer on July 5 and will be responsible for finance, purchasing, communications, marketing, and technology. Garcia will also oversee the implementation of the zoo’s new multi-year strategic plan. Rauli was recently the senior vice president of administration and chief financial officer of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia. Prior to joining Curtis, Rauli was the CFO of the Houston Symphony (2013-2015) and the Houston Grand Opera (2008-2013).

Rauli earned his MBA from the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University, and his Bachelor of Science in Psychology from the University of Houston. Rauli continues to be actively involved with Rice University where he served as a member of the board for the Jones Partners at the Jesse H. Jones Graduate School of Business.  He has held a Certified Financial Planner certificate and is a Certified Nonprofit Professional with the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance.

Sheryl Kolasinski

Sheryl Kolasinski will become the zoo’s new chief operating officer leading the zoo’s business operations, which includes admissions, membership, sales and events, and oversight of the zoo’s facilities maintenance and capital projects. Kolasinski will begin her role at the Houston Zoo in mid-July. Kolasinski is joining the Houston Zoo from the Menil Collection where she served as the deputy director and chief operating officer and worked closely with the museum’s director on strategic planning as well as the implementation of the museum’s master site plan (2012-2017).  Prior to Menil, Kolasinski served as the deputy director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Office of Facilities Engineering and Operations where she managed the capital design and construction program, oversaw planning and preservation, operations and maintenance, and safety and security for 19 museums and galleries, nine research centers around the world, and the National Zoo (1995-2012).

Kolasinski received her bachelor’s degree in art history from Brown University and a master’s degree in architecture from Columbia University. She is a fellow of the American Institute of Architects and a LEED accredited professional.

Gus the Warthog

Written by Memory Mays

What’s the cutest four-legged animal with mutton chops? Our newest addition to our warthog family here at the Houston Zoo! We’d like to introduce to you little Gus. Born to parents Akoko and Lenny on May 6, Gus has designated himself as our official wild bird chaser of the warthog habitat at our zoo. He does a great job of it, too! Until he realizes that he’s wandered a little too far away from his mother; then it’s a mad dash back to mom’s side. Gus is the first warthog piglet that our zoo has seen in nearly 10 years.


Gus has the typical curiosity of a warthog piglet, but will actually leave his mom’s side more and more the older he gets. As he grows older, he will start to grow two protrusions from each side of his face. These are the namesake of the warthog. They are called warts. The warts on male warthogs are much larger and much more noticeable than those found on females. Even though warts may sound gross to us, they are actually very useful for the male warthogs. During breeding season, male warthogs will compete with one another by sparring. The males will charge one another and meet face to face with their tusks. The warts help protect their eyes from the damage that these tusks could do during these sparring sessions.

It won’t be too long before Gus starts growing these namesake warts, so be sure to stop by the Warthog habitat on your next visit. You might even see him chasing some of the wild birds away from his yard!


Are They Ostriches or Rheas?

Written by Memory Mays

Greater rhea

Often confused as mini ostriches or baby ostriches, greater rheas are actually a different species. Rheas and ostriches are close relatives of one another, but if you put them side by side, you may notice some pretty dramatic differences. Rheas are much smaller in size compared to the ostriches. Ostriches typically weigh over 300 pounds. The rheas however tip the scales at just over 70 pounds. These two very similar bird species are also from completely different continents! Rheas are found throughout South America, while ostriches are from Africa.

Common ostrich

They may have a lot of differences but they do have some similarities too. Despite having wings, both rheas and ostriches are unable to fly. Instead, they use their wings to help them while running. These wings are great at helping them keep their balance while running at super-fast speeds. Ostriches have been known to reach up to 45 miles per hour, whereas the greater rheas can run up to 40 miles per hour. On your next visit to the Houston Zoo, be sure to stop by our rhea and ostrich exhibits to see how many other differences and similarities you might see!


Houston Zoo Affiliates Honored for Saving Animals in the Wild

This past week, Houston Zoo conservation affiliates were awarded the 2017 National Geographic Society/Buffett Awards for Leadership in Conservation. This award was established by the Society and The Howard G. Buffett Foundation to recognize and celebrate unsung heroes working in the field. Two recipients are chosen each year – this year Dr. Olivier Nsengimana received the award for Leadership in African Conservation and Rosamira Guillen received the award for Leadership in Latin American Conservation.

Dr. Olivier with the Houston Zoo bird team

Dr. Olivier worked as a field veterinarian with Gorilla Doctors before founding his own project, the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association, working to protect the endangered grey crowned cranes from illegal wildlife trade. The Houston Zoo has been supporting Olivier’s project for the past two years. Through community engagement and education, Olivier works to rehabilitate and reintroduce cranes into the wild. So far, the project has reintroduced 127 grey crowned cranes back into the wild.

Rosamira and Chris Holmes, Assistant Curator of Birds, at the 2016 Saving Wildlife Expo at the Houston Zoo

Rosamira has worked tirelessly to protect Cotton-top tamarins, an endangered species of primate found only in Colombia. Rosamira cofounded Fundación Proyecto Tití to study cotton-top tamarins and educate the local community about the need to protect them. An important part of the project are the innovative strategies used to empower local people to get involved in protecting cotton-top tamarins. One strategy is the creation of Tití Posts – fence posts made from recycled plastic. These posts last longer and are more durable than wooden posts.



A huge congratulation to Dr. Olivier Nsengimana and Rosamira Guillen! You are supporting their work every time you visit the Houston Zoo, as a portion of all tickets and memberships goes toward saving these animals in the wild!


Cotton-top Tamarin
Grey Crowned Crane








Learn more about their amazing work by friending the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association and Fundación Proyecto Tití on Facebook

Tiny Animal Receives Massive Care

Written by: Ashley Hironimus, Zookeeper

At the Houston Zoo, we are dedicated to the care and welfare of our more than 6,000 animals, from two-ton elephants to two-pound meerkats. In May, one such tiny resident needed some extra love and attention.

On the afternoon of May 7 keepers at Carruth Natural Encounters noticed that Smoots, a meerkat, was limping while in his outside habitat. The team sprang to action, and quickly brought the 2.16-pound carnivore to the zoo’s on-site veterinary clinic and sedated him for x-rays to see if they could find the problem. The veterinary team discovered two clean breaks in his arm, likely from normal wrestling with his “mob” of fellow meerkats.

Smoots shortly after surgery with his bandage vest in his recovery crate

Smoots’ front left leg was wrapped in a splint by a veterinarian to keep the leg stable and a few days later, he was transported to Gulf Coast Veterinary Clinic to have a plate and screws put in his arm to stabilize and fix the bones. Surgery went well and for the next week he was housed in a large crate near the rest of the meerkats in their holding area. We worked to make him as comfortable as possible so he always had a nest of blankets to lay in, medication for pain control, and his group nearby to comfort him through the crate door. It was important for Smoots to have physical contact with the group through the crate door or they might see him as an ‘outsider’ and be attacked once he was fully reunited with them. While in recovery, he got sedated every other day for bandage changes and to check progress to see if his arm was healing well. Unfortunately, it was not. His surgery site was starting to abscess and even though the zoo’s vets did everything they could to treat the infection with antibiotics, the abscess was not healing.

At this point, the vets thought Smoots’ quality of life would be better if the arm was amputated so he could go back with the group. His amputation day was May 18 and Dr. Maryanne Tocidlowski did the surgery here at the zoo. Everything went well and the healing process was a lot quicker than anyone expected! On May 30, under the watchful eye of his keepers, Smoots went back into the meerkat yard with a few pals. He was instantly running around (the best he could) and greeting his fellow family with body checks and face rubs – which are all excellent signs.

Smoots (far left) having a snuggle with his mob-mates

Smoots has always been a dominant and rambunctious meerkat, and even with three legs he still runs around, climbs, and sometimes pushes around the other meerkats.  He also found his new favorite blanket (which the keepers call his ‘binky’), that he sometimes drags around the yard with his mouth so he can find his perfect spot.  It’s hard to notice sometimes that he has three legs because he really CAN do anything that all the other meerkats can do!

Climbing on top of some enrichment

Meerkats belong to the mongoose family and are also known as slender-tailed mongooses. These animals have a tolerance for venom, which is why they can eat scorpions and venomous snakes!  These animals are native to Angola, Botswana, South Africa, and Namibia. Here at the Houston Zoo, you can find our mob outside Carruth Natural Encounters.

Tons of Love Coming This Summer

Hope the storks have been working out, because a 250-to-300-pound bundle of joy is headed for the Houston Zoo! Shanti is pregnant and after a two-year gestation, the 26-year-old Asian elephant will give birth this summer.

Shanti is one of the Houston Zoo’s eight Asian elephants, and mother to youngest calf, Duncan (3) and Baylor (7). Zoo officials are optimistic that this pregnancy is advancing normally and on schedule. Shanti has received nearly two years of pre-natal care by the zoo’s elephant team and four veterinarians with regular ultrasounds and blood work.  The zoo team will continue to monitor Shanti as she progresses into the labor process, indicated by a hormonal change in her daily blood analysis.

Shanti will give birth in the McNair Asian Elephant Habitat cow barn under the supervision of her keepers and veterinary staff. After delivery, she and the calf will undergo post-natal exams and spend several days bonding behind the scenes. The elephant team looks forward to watching the pair share several key moments that will prepare them for their public debut. Nursing, communicating with mom, and hitting weight goals are important milestones for a growing baby elephant.

“All of our zoo staff looks forward to any baby born here,” said Lisa Marie Avendano, vice president of animal operations at the Houston Zoo. “But with the opening of our new elephant addition, this is a particularly exciting time to welcome a 250-to-300-pound Asian elephant calf into our zoo family. The beautifully designed expansion and our continued breeding program demonstrates the Houston Zoo’s commitment to the health and welfare of our herd and our mission to saving species in the wild.”

This is an exhilarating summer for the elephant team. In May, the zoo opened an expanded elephant habitat which doubled the entire elephant complex and immerses guests into the lives and culture of Asian elephants. The new bull barn and expanded yard gives more room for this growing herd.

Just by visiting the Houston Zoo, guests help save baby elephants and their families in the wild. A portion of each zoo admission and membership goes straight to protecting an estimated 200-250 wild e lephants in Asia. Since the Houston Zoo started its work in Borneo in 2007, there has been a doubling of the elephant population on the island. The Houston Zoo also provides funds for elephant conservationist, Nurzhafarina “Farina” Othman and her team in Asia, to put tracking collars on wild elephants. This group uses collars to follow wild elephants, conducting valuable research that aids in protecting the elephants as they travel through the forests. Farina also spends time working with farmers that grow and produce palm oil, offering her guidance in responsible cultivation practices that are wildlife-friendly.

Palm oil is an ingredient in many foods and cosmetics, typically grown in areas that were previously home to animals like wild elephants. Converting pristine forests into oil palm plantations has caused extensive deforestation across Southeast Asia.  Luckily, a growing number of producers are working to protect these areas and the animals that live there. The Houston Zoo encourages people to protect elephants in the wild by supporting companies that use responsibly sourced palm oil, increasing demand for palm oil that is grown and produced without destroying the forested homes of elephants.

Collegiate Conservation Program Interns Clean Up Surfside Jetty

Written by Collegiate Conservation Program participants: Michelle and Maddie

The Houston Zoo Collegiate Conservation Program is a 10-week internship sponsored by ExxonMobil.  The Houston Zoo is committed to cultivating the next generation of conservation heroes.  This summer 12 interns were selected to train, learn, and work at the Houston Zoo and at regional conservation partners.

Michelle: On May 19th, to complete our first week of the ten-week Collegiate Conservation Program (CCP) Internship, we went to the Surfside Jetty. There, we contributed to the goal that the Sea Lion team at the Houston Zoo works towards on a monthly basis– cleaning the Jetty of its monofilament waste and making it safe for aquatic organisms.

Located on Galveston Island, the Surfside Jetty is regularly cleaned and yet houses an unbelievable amount of monofilament. Monofilament is thin plastic fiber that becomes easily entangled in rocks, aquatic animals, and aquatic ecosystems. Fishermen often use monofilament for catching fish – however, it is not always properly disposed of in the designated bins on the jetty. Often, people are unaware that despite its deceptively thin and small appearance, it can easily harm organisms. Monofilament was stuck between the rocks, preventing it from getting out to sea, but it was difficult to remove and could still affect the ecosystems right along the jetty.

Using pliers and trash pickers, we removed as much monofilament and other trash as we could. Various items were found, as common as water bottles that people use daily and as odd as a tire. To me, one of the most shocking and relevant realizations of this Surfside Jetty cleanup was that I recognized the brands of most of the trash we picked up. We saw waste from Whataburger, Dasani water bottles, McDonalds, and other familiar brands that we see on a daily basis.

Often, we don’t think about where this trash ends up until we’re face to face with it. Our essentially mindless consumption of these products used to not even make me pause; now, I can’t look at those logos without thinking of the Surfside Jetty.

Maddie: I found Jetty Project to be truly unique for both the large and tangible impact a few hours of work provided and the opportunity it afforded to interact with community members directly affected by our efforts. One of the most rewarding moments in my afternoon involved a local fisherman smiling silently as he took it upon himself to pick up various monofilament lines around his rocky perch and hand them over to be sorted. In that gesture I saw a mutual appreciation of each other’s efforts: his to pull a sustainable harvest from the sea, and ours to keep that space healthy and available to fishermen and tourists alike.

Besides the fulfillment that came from sharing our conservation message with a target community, I enjoyed learning myself. Waste is far too easily flushed away and forgotten by the average American, myself included. Coming face to face with the garbage in our gulf forced a change of perspective. After balancing on my hips with two hands and a torso down between bug infested and tidally turbulent rocks, reaching for a single piece of monofilament, I grew a distinct appreciation for recycling. In fact, I have not purposefully used a straw (unless it came in my drink) since that day. That marks nearly a month of visions of micro-plastic popping up every time I eat out!

Ultimately, it is the changes seen in ourselves and others that makes any endeavor worthwhile. The Jetty Project enables such development by bridging the gap between wildlife and coastal communities.

Connecting People to Nature

Last week two of our partners marked this year’s World Environment Day’ theme, ‘Connecting People to Nature,’ in unique and impactful ways.

Wildlife DVD viewing, photo courtesy of Ruaha Carnivore Project

Ruaha Carnivore Project works in Ruaha National Park, the largest park in Tanzania. RCP connects people to nature every day as they work in close partnership with local villagers to reduce people-wildlife conflicts and create a greater understanding of wildlife.

Two ways Ruaha Carnivore Project has done this is through Park Trips and DVD Nights. These provide an opportunity for villagers who live near Ruaha National Park to experience wildlife, particularly carnivores, in a positive manner. These outreach programs are wildly popular with more than 30,000 attendees at DVD Nights and more than 1,000 people participating in Ruaha National Park trips!

Niassa Carnivore Project works to protect lions in Niassa National Reserve in Mozambique. This year, they celebrated World Environment Day by signing a two-year partnership agreement with Mbamba Village. This remote village used to be in the top three poaching villages in Niassa Reserve. Signing this agreement has taken the entire Niassa Lion Project team, the village association, elders and traditional chiefs hundreds of hours of negotiations and meetings with a lot of frustration and endless listening.

Photo courtesy of Ruaha Carnivore Project

All this cooperation is creating tangible results. In the small area that Niassa Lion Project manages with Mbamba village, elephant poaching has reduced from 22 a year to less than 5. Animal numbers in this area, including lions, are up. With the support of Niassa Lion Project, the number of households involved in alternative livelihoods is increasing. As the director of Niassa Lion Project says in the Facebook post announcing this agreement, “Honoring people and wildlife and meeting the actual needs of people who live in this special place is in our opinion the only long lasting solution. A major step forward.”

Niassa Lion Project and Mbamba Village Partner Agreement signing. Photo courtesy of Niassa Lion Project

While World Environment Day has passed, every day can be world environment day! We have amazing wildlife here in Houston, so take a stroll through a park, or come visit us here at the Houston Zoo!

To learn more about these projects and their activities on World Environment Day, like the Niassa Lion Project and Ruaha Carnivore Project on Facebook!


Every time you visit the Houston Zoo you are saving lions in the wild as a portion of every ticket and membership goes toward saving animals in the wild.


My Return to Yellowstone

Written by Sue Cruver, Wildlife Expeditions Participant

©Sue Cruver

In February of this year, I took my first journey into the wild with the Houston Zoo to Yellowstone National Park. It was an amazing, life-changing experience. Led by the outstanding expedition biologists from the Teton Science Schools (TSS), I found myself surrounded by breathtaking beauty and an abundance of wildlife.  I learned so much about the different animal species, their habits and the environment, as well as the balance of nature and park conservation.

Weather made that trip a challenging one. It was cold, cloudy and snowing most of the time. Several entrances in and out of Yellowstone had to be temporarily closed, resulting in changes to our itinerary and travel routes. Not a problem. Our experienced TSS guides provided alternatives and our adventure never missed a beat. At the end of the week, it was hard to come home. I couldn’t wait to return!

©Sue Cruver

The Houston Zoo provides some great opportunities to “Travel with the Zoo.” Each year, it includes two trips to the Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks in partnership with TSS. Together, the two organizations give participants the chance to enjoy the region in different seasons and to see how wildlife adapts to seasonal changes.

Bears, for example, are hibernating in February, but not in May. Springtime means much of the wildlife will now be with their young. It also means sunshine, green grass and blue skies. As a photographer who had taken dozens of “white” pictures in February, that could mean great color shots! What was I waiting for? The Zoo still had openings for its May 2017 trip and I had to go. So I did.

©Sue Cruver

Weather! Always be prepared, don’t assume, and be sure to layer your clothing. That is one lesson I’ve got down pat. Snow in the middle of May? Never happens, but that’s how our May adventure started, along with a road closure into Yellowstone from Jackson Hole. But again, our wonderful TSS guides provided a detour that got us there via Idaho. Not a problem.

The May trip is three days in the wild. Snow fell the first day as we traveled from Jackson Hole, Wyoming (south of Yellowstone) to Cooke City, Montana (northeast corner outside the park). Along the way we saw bison with their calves, elk, deer, pronghorn antelope, and a few grizzly bears with year old cubs. To see these animals in a few inches of snow vs. a few feet of snow already gave me a different perspective of life in Yellowstone. And, I now could add “bears in snow” to my photographic efforts!

©Sue Cruver

As we drove back into the park at dawn the next day from Cooke City, the sun broke through the clouds and the temperature began to rise. Snow began to melt and color started to emerge everywhere. It was incredibly beautiful and truly magical!

©Sue Cruver

The snowy white landscape sparkled from the sunlight, and the fields and hills gradually transformed into variations of greens and browns. The sky was blue with streaks of sunlight and scattered with clouds. Tall pine trees released snow from their boughs, adding more depth and color everywhere you looked. Wildflowers peeked through a remaining thin blanket of snow.  I was in photography heaven!

©Sue Cruver

Throughout the day and the next, we witnessed a variety of wildlife and bird life as all enjoyed the return of springtime—big horn sheep relaxing on a hillside, grazing herds of bison with their calves, coyotes on the hunt or devouring a kill, grizzly bears with cubs on the move. Some special observations included finding the den of a wolf pack and its recently born cubs, an osprey resting on top of its nest near the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone waterfall, and a four-year old “teenage” bald eagle displaying its not-yet full adult plumage—a rare sighting.

©Sue Cruver

Again, it was hard to come home after such a successful Houston Zoo and Teton Science Schools adventure. Will I return again next year? That’s the plan!


May 2017


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