iNaturalist at the Houston Zoo

Ever see some interesting wildlife at the zoo? That sounds like a funny question but, I’m not talking about the Zoo’s animal collection.  What native wildlife have you seen as you go through the zoo?  Birds, butterflies, bees and other visiting animals just passing through?  What about interesting plants growing on Zoo grounds?

There is now an iNaturalist project called Native Wildlife at the Houston Zoo. Photographs were first uploaded by our Collegiate Conservation Program to start the  guide to native wildlife as you enjoy the zoo.

The Collegiate Conservation Program at the Houston Zoo is a 10 week intern program generously sponsored by ExxonMobil. The program focuses on two important aspects of conservation – saving animals in the wild and sharing the conservation message.  The program participants must be currently enrolled undergrad students and commit to 30-35 hours weekly for the 10 weeks of the program.  The interns work with various regional conservation partners around the city learning from the experts about what they do to help save wildlife.  They also spend time on zoo grounds handling animals and sharing our Take Action messages with guests.  Want to learn more about our Collegiate Conservation Program?  Click here.

Now that the interns have added photos to the project, you can now not only learn from the observations already in there, you can add your own observations too!

iNaturalist is a wonderful program to engage people with nature. You can build your own life list or even a project for your area.  Not sure what something is?  Not to worry!  iNaturalist allows other members to comment on your post to help with the ID.  The iNaturalist program will choose the taxon with at least 2/3 agreement to automatically ID the post.  It is easy to navigate – your Dashboard is like your Facebook feed.  You can follow other members and see what they post.  You can access iNaturalist online or in a handy app you can download to your phone.  You can see what other things have been posted in the area by looking at observations or places, and can even search by taxon if you are looking for something specific.  The Help section of the program has an awesome FAQ guide and Getting Started guide to help you learn the ins and outs of iNaturalist too. You will find the Native Wildlife at the Houston Zoo by going to projects in the app or on line and searching on that project title.

Another added bonus to using the Native Wildlife at the Houston Zoo project is it can earn you points in the Naturally Wild Swap Shop! If you add a photo to the project, stop by the Swap Shop and show the Naturalist what you have added.  You will earn points for your posts!  Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop?  Click here to learn more.

Houston Zookeeper Crowned Golden Keeper

Our very own Sara Riger, Naturally Wild Swap Shop naturalist, has won the Golden Keeper award by the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK). Sara was crowned champion after receiving the most “likes” from peers, family, and several supporters on the AAZK Facebook page contest.

Zoos and aquariums across the country celebrated National Zoo Keeper Week July 16 – 22, highlighting the diversity of zookeepers and their contributions to global conservation efforts. AAZK, celebrating their 50year anniversary, received nominations from several zookeepers around the country for the first-ever Golden Keeper award. Nominated by her close colleague, Katie Buckley-Jones, Sara was one of just 10 zookeepers chosen as a finalist.

Sara’s career working at zoos began more than two decades ago. She began working at the Bronx Zoo in New York 25 years ago working with birds and mammals. She then moved to an upstate New York zoo to work with primates and lions. From New York, Sara moved to Tennessee to work for the Nashville Zoo, where she helped open their Critter Encounters exhibit and later became a supervisor of mammals. For the past 13 years, Sara has worked at the Houston Zoo, caring for carnivores, primates, and now working in the Swap Shop. As a naturalist in the Swap Shop, she inspires guests to explore the outdoors and save animals in the wild.

You can meet and visit Sara, and learn all about the natural world, at the Naturally Wild Swap Shop, located in the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo. She’ll be there to greet you with a warm smile, and sometimes with an animal in-hand!

We are so proud to have someone as passionate, dedicated, and kind as Sara on our team. Please join us in congratulating Sara on this wonderful achievement!

A Family of Zookeepers

Written by Memory Mays

Memory Mays

Normally the blogs that I write about involve Hoofstock baby announcements or fun facts about the animals I work with. This time this blog is going to be different. It’s going to be about people. Three people in fact. What better way to celebrate National Zookeeper Week than to talk about a family of zookeepers? Meet my family. There’s my mom, Phyllis, the manager of the Animal Nutrition department. And my dad, Stan, the curator of the Herpetology department. Then myself, a Hoofstock keeper. We all work at the Houston Zoo.

Stan Mays

Both of my parents have been working here for over 30 years! Within that time, they have worked with nearly every type of animal you can think of. Elephants, hippos, bugs, giraffes, sea lions, birds, snakes, frogs, apes, and goats. This list goes on and on. Growing up as a zookeeper’s kid, I heard all kinds of different animal stories from my parents and their experiences.

As a child of two zookeepers with not so normal schedules, I had to tag along to work sometimes. Particularly on weekends and holidays when day care centers were closed, but the zoo animals still needed food and care too. It’s these childhood memories that stand out the most. At a young age, what kid didn’t want to be a zookeeper? I always wanted to help out and pretend to be one. I was too young for my own set of keys and radio, but my mom would sit down with me and show me how to prep animal meals. We plucked pounds and pounds of grapes for birds, primates, and bats. We weighed out pellets and other kinds of grains for other animals too. We made popsicles for lemurs, antelope, pigs, and several different species.

Phyllis Pietrucha-Mays

I learned loads about snakes, frogs, and turtles from my dad and his position at the herpetology building. My dad would hand me a mini snake hook and show me how to properly handle snakes; of course, while using the fake stuffed animal snakes from the gift shops. To this day, I’m still fascinated by the herpetology world, particularly tortoises and Grand Cayman blue iguanas. However, my love for horses led to my love for the Hoofstock animals. I fell in love with exotic hooved animals even more when I became a Zoo Crew volunteer and spent my summers working alongside some great zookeepers.

It’s really no surprise that I wound up in the zoo world with that kind of childhood, right? I’ll admit, I tried a few other career paths like photography, and accounting, but I just kept coming right back to the zoo. I applied for and got the job as a Hoofstock keeper here five years ago. I consider myself lucky that I get to work at the zoo where I practically grew up with some amazing zookeepers. I’m even luckier that I get to share working here with my parents. Instead of just listening to their stories like I did as a kid, I now get to share and compare my own experiences with theirs.

Phyllis, Memory, and Stan at the Houston Zoo

Community Cleans the Beach for Wildlife

On Saturday, July 15, the Houston Zoo and Whole Foods hosted a beach clean-up at the Galveston Island State Park. About 60 guests came out to help clean, collecting 15 full bags of trash and 4 full bags of recyclable items! It’s important to keep trash off the beaches, and out of the ocean, to protect the animals living there. Thank you to these wonderful volunteers!

Written by Stephanie Krail, Marketing Intern

Photo Credit: Amy Blackmon

This was my first beach clean-up to ever participate in and I am so glad it was with the Houston Zoo. The first hour I spent cleaning up the beach with the other volunteers because I wanted to see first-hand what was out there and how the volunteers were reacting to it. We had volunteers of all ages helping to clean the Galveston Island State Park. I was thrilled to see that families with young children came as this is a great way to educate a child on the importance of recycling, using reusable items, and not littering. We all had a great time seeing what we could find. It was almost like a scavenger hunt, seeing who could pick up the most unusual items. We found everything from milk jugs to soles of shoes. But the most common item that we found was plastic bottle caps. We found over a thousand bottle caps in two hours. This really shocked me as bottle caps are something that we could use less of every single day. The use of reusable bottles not only reduces the numbers of plastic bottles in the ocean but also plastic bottle caps.

Sorting trash and recycling

The last two hours we spent digging and sorting through the trash that the volunteers collected. Another popular item was cigarette butts. This was really sad for me to find because not only is it littering but it can be toxic to a marine animal if they ingest it. I was so glad to do this with the zoo because they had so much information and facts about what all we were finding. They knew which plastics were recyclable and which things had to be thrown away as trash.

Overall, it was such a neat experience and I hope that the Houston Zoo continues to hold it. This is something that you could do without a huge group or budget, all you need is a trash bag and a few helpful hands! This experience helps you see just a sliver of the trash that is out on our beaches and shores and allows you to see that something as simple as using a reusable water bottle every day really can make a difference.

Most Found Items:

  1. Plastic Bottle Caps – 1,362
  2. Tiny Plastic Pieces – 761
  3. Straws – 137

Strangest Items Found:

  1. Shoes/Shoe insoles – 3
  2. Beach Balls (still partially inflated) – 2
  3. Bathing suit – 1

Campers Championing Conservation!

Every summer, the Houston Zoo welcomes over 2,000 campers into our summer camp program: Camp Zoofari.  These children spend a week learning about the Houston Zoo, its amazing animals, and all the ways we are working to save animals in the wild.  We wanted to increase our emphasis on conservation actions and engage our campers to feel empowered that THEY can truly make a difference, no matter how old they are! Thus the Water Bottle Pledge and the Trash Audit Program came into being.

It is no secret that summers in Houston can be brutally hot.  Staying hydrated is a must, especially for our campers.   Starting on Monday, the first day of the camp week, we start highlighting the importance of reducing plastic use.  One of the easiest ways we can do this is by using a reusable water bottle.  This helps marine life, like sea turtles.  On Wednesday, the middle of the camp week, we give the campers the opportunity to make a personal pledge:   to use a reusable water bottle through the rest of the summer to help save sea turtles in the wild.  If they chose to take the pledge, they are able to decorate a water droplet and then place it on the pledge banner.  This has been a huge hit with our campers so far this summer!  Each week, we get well over 100 pledges.  Campers point out the pledge banners to their parents and even ask to have their picture taken next to their pledge sign.

Another way campers are helping to save animals is through our lunch Trash Audit Program. Campers are quick to point out that recycling is important in helping to save wildlife and natural spaces. Toward this end, our campers are challenged each day to bring reusable lunch items when able, and to properly recycle when they cannot. Each day after lunch, the camper waste is weighed versus the weight of recyclable materials brought. So far, each camp week has increased their percentage of recyclable materials and on average are recycling 16% of what they bring for lunch. To assist in this effort, signs have been posted on the trash bins and recycle bins at lunch showing pictures of items that can and cannot be recycled. Campers enjoy matching their items to the pictures each week as they explore what can and cannot be tossed into the recycle bins!

Through these two programs, campers are making a difference for wildlife and demonstrating how everyone can make a difference! We encourage you to take on these challenges within your own home!


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