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

Water: The Science Beneath the Surface Part II

This post written by Mike Fannin, Manager, Life Support Systems

What the heck do they do, anyway?  From filtration to chemistry, this blog series is a behind-the-scenes look into the Zoo’s most mysterious department.



As you may recall from Part I, Water Quality Department staff members were preparing to plant new floating islands in the CZ Koi Stream.  The islands were to serve a dual purpose:  1) they would provide space for plants that would help remove nutrients from the stream, and 2) they would house tiny aquatic invertebrates called amphipods.  Why?  To help keep our exhibit free of filamentous algae.

Planting and Launching Our New Islands – March 2017

Our three floating islands arrived at the beginning of the month.  Being science nerd types, all of us Water Quality folks were eager to open up the boxes and get these things planted!  They were made of a brown mesh (the material was very similar to a scrubber pad) and had a coating of buoyant foam on the bottom to help with flotation.   The island planter holes were pre-cut and were to be filled with a special soil.

We chose a selection of pollinator-friendly plants for our island experiment, mostly herbs like catmint, oregano, thyme and African Blue basil for the bees, but also included some Texas salvia, bee balm, and Cardinal flower for hummingbirds.  With the expertise of Jeff in the Zoo’s Horticulture Department, we got all three planted up and ready to go.  We kept the islands out of the Koi exhibit for a couple of days to water the plants, but with rain in the forecast they were ready to set sail!

Progress report – April 2017

Once the islands were in place we watered them by hand for a little over 2 weeks, just until the roots had a chance to start growing through the mesh into the stream.  After that they did just fine without us, but seemed to be putting most of their energy into root growth – there wasn’t much visible change in plant size since we planted them a month earlier.  We added a small group of amphipods to the stream during this time since we were seeing a hint of filamentous algae growth.  By mid-April another clean-up crew arrived… tadpoles!  Hundreds of them!  A few pairs of Gulf Coast Toads evidently found their way into the Koi Stream to spawn – thankfully these tadpoles are voracious algae-eaters.  Towards the end of the month, many of our island plants were in bloom.

Progress report  – May 2017

The islands are really picking up speed, although one of them is not doing as well as the other two… Horticulture is called in to investigate.  Jeff finds signs of mites and thrips, tiny arthropods that feed on plant juices and stunt plant growth.  Two of the islands are temporarily removed and sprayed with horticultural oil, a substance bad for small pest insects and mites but safe for other insects once it dries.  Meanwhile, more tadpoles have arrived (the last batch is long gone – Gulf Coast Toad tadpoles go through metamorphosis and turn into tiny toadlets in about 3 weeks).  Between the tadpoles and amphipods, the hair algae growth is kept at bay.

Progress report – June 2017

Here we are a little over three months later, and our islands are really filling in.  The plants are blooming and attracting many species of bee, beetles, dragonflies, butterflies, and damselflies.  Just as we had hoped, the Koi stream is free of hair algae even in the blazing Texas sun.  Our biological one-two punch is working!  Now that the tadpoles are mostly gone for the year, we will add more amphipods to increase the current population and keep up the momentum.  Encrusting green algae are present on the sides of the stream, but this is perfectly natural in aquatic ecosystems.  Contrary to popular belief, a modest population of green algae is actually an indicator of good water quality.  This small amount of algae plus our thriving island plants are removing nutrients from the water faster than the fish are producing them, even though the fish are fed generously a few times per week.  Koi Stream water samples are analyzed monthly by our department; the water chemistry is not only excellent, it’s among the best in the Zoo.

Our main goal with this experiment was to achieve pristine water quality and clarity, and establish a healthy fish, invertebrate and plant community – we reached this goal faster than we expected, and with no chemicals added.  Of course we have an entire summer ahead of us, but we expect to maintain the health and beauty of the Children’s Zoo Koi Stream just by letting nature take its course.  We invite you to visit the Houston Zoo this summer and hang out on the Koi Stream bridge to check out our progress!

Stay tuned for more fascinating Water Quality blog posts!

The beautification of the Children’s Zoo Koi Stream is an ongoing team project between the HZI Water Quality department, Horticulture department, and Children’s Zoo husbandry staff.

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!


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.

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