Wombats: Coming to the Zoo this Summer!

This summer, not only will we be featuring giant bugs and opening an all new Bug House, but there will also be a new mammal making its debut at the Houston Zoo: the wombat!

The wombat hails from Australia, and there are 3 types: the northern hairy-nosed, the southern hairy-nosed, and the common wombat. The Houston Zoo will be receiving two female common wombats from the Healesville Sanctuary in Australia, which is part of Zoos Victoria. There are only 6 zoos in North America that house wombats.

This is what a wombat looks like!
This is what a wombat looks like!

One of the reasons for this is that the permitting process can be quite extensive. It has taken nearly a year for the Houston Zoo to get through the process, and they haven’t even arrived yet! The curator of our John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo as well as one of our keepers in this area will be traveling to Australia soon to meet our wombats, receive important training on how to take care of them, and also to accompany them back to the US.

Wombats are marsupials, which means they are related to koalas and opossums, and they carry their young in a pouch. They behave a lot like prairie dogs or groundhogs, though, because they create burrows in the ground. A bony plate on their hind end helps protect them from predators when they are in their burrows – they stick out their rear for protection!

Speaking of the rear end of a wombat (bet you never thought you’d hear that phrase), probably the most interesting fact about them is that they literally poop cubes that look like dice – without the numbers, of course. Try throwing that little gem out at your next dinner party!

Did we mention that wombats are adorable? You probably noticed that from the photo above.

There are some important issues facing wombats in Australia. Because they are really good at digging, farmers often see them as pests. Wombats literally transform the landscape where they live – their tunnels can be 50-60 feet long…or more. And when you’re a farmer trying to plant crops, this can be particularly frustrating. There are ongoing efforts in Australia to educate farmers about wombats and to find ways to help them coexist without conflict.

The Houston Zoo is also contributing to conservation programs that help protect wombats. We have a long history in offering support for conservation efforts in Australia, mostly with koalas. We more recently have supported the Wombat Awareness Organization, Community for Coastal and Cassowary Conservation, and the Penguin Foundation Ltd. to assist with the Faerie Penguin Rehabilitation Project.

Stay tuned to learn when our wombats have arrived and when you can see them in their new habitat!

Thanks to Kevin and Ali in the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo for the fantastic information contained in this blog!

Animal Safety at the Zoo: Babies Can Teach Us a Thing or Two!

Call them clever. Call them rascals. Call them creative. Over the past several months, there have been a few animals that have found their way outside their usual space at the Zoo. In light of these recent experiences, we thought this would be a great opportunity to talk a bit about safety and how we keep our keepers, guests, and animals safe, and how we’re working every day to make the Zoo even safer.

Babies can be unpredictable – particularly the elephant variety. You may have read or heard that our newest elephant addition, Duncan, accidentally found his way outside his habitat the other day. He was sleeping, got startled by a member of his herd, and scooted right under the cabling. He was still in a fenced area not accessible to guests, but he was definitely out of his element. Luckily, the keepers responded within minutes and were able to encourage baby Duncan back into his habitat in less than ten minutes.

Baby Elephant Duncan
Baby elephant Duncan

Another recent set of escapees was a band of mongooses. These clever animals figured out a way to unlatch a utility hatch that linked their habitat to the adjoining space within the back area of the building. After some very persistent keepers offered them their favorite treats, they were coaxed gingerly back into their usual digs. We should note that at no time were they outside the building in an area available to our guests.

What did we learn from this experience? Mongooses may not have opposable thumbs, but they are quite resourceful and creative! Since then, we’ve replaced and tested the latch to be sure they’ll stay put in the future.

One of the curious mongooses
One of the curious mongooses

Finally, several months ago, two tiny baby bears named Belle and Willow decided to create their own  adventure on their very first day out in their new habitat. These enterprising young climbers went straight for the sky-high rockwork lining their habitat and commenced climbing. They enjoyed investigating a tree and a planter and were eventually coaxed down.

Belle and Willow are definitely excellent climbers.
Belle and Willow are definitely excellent climbers.

Another excellent lesson: bears, however small they might be, can scale even the highest of rocky outcrops with just a few strategically-placed footholds. With our rockwork experts working overtime to modify the habitat, the bears were able to be released back into their environment post haste with no incidents since.

Though we regularly review our very rigorous safety procedures, it’s always good to take a step back and take even more steps to be sure we continue to be as safe as possible. Though many of our animals are highly trained and all are excellent ambassadors for their species, there are still many animals that are dangerous to humans. Here are a few ways we ensure that these animals, our guests, and our keepers stay safe.

As you probably know from daily life, checking and double checking is always a good thing. Ever wondered when you head off for vacation if you really did lock your front door, and then head back to check it?

It’s important for you, but it’s extra important for a zoo that deals with animals like venomous snakes, for example. While keepers in the Reptile and Amphibian House have always double checked the locks on habitats once they have completed cleaning them, as of today, we are adding an additional layer of security. We have added a third check with a Zoo Ranger also checking each and every one prior to the building opening.  Our awesome Zoo Rangers not only help our guests when they need directions, but they are an extra layer of safety for our all of us as well!

One of our Zoo Rangers - look for the red shirts. They keep us safe and they also help our guests feed the giraffes!
One of our Zoo Rangers – look for the red shirts. They keep us safe and they also help our guests feed the giraffes!

One thing guests may not know is that our animals have even more space than you can actually see when you visit. For example, our chimpanzees have an extensive network of bedrooms behind the scenes where they can spread out and bed down for the night. We call it “shifting” when we move animals from their habitat to a behind the scenes area like this.

Because shifting animals involves opening and closing doors and movement of animals from one space to another, it is a chance for error, and making errors in these situations is a risk we can’t take. As a result, we always have two keepers present to be sure that they are checking each other’s work and that they open and close the right latches and doors, for example.

So as you can see, our animals definitely keep us on our toes. They amaze us with their abilities and surprise us with their creativity. Despite occasional surprises, though, the dedication, experience, and concern for safety of our keepers is essential to keeping our guests, animals, and staff safe. We also continue to learn from these experiences and review our safety protocols frequently to be sure safety is always first!

Rattlesnakes: the World’s Most Polite Animal?

When you hear the word “rattlesnake,” what’s the emotion that first comes to mind? Is it fear, perhaps, or maybe a bit of apprehension? We’re here to tell you that actually, there’s nothing to be worried about. And hopefully, you’ll come to think of them like we do: as the world’s most polite animal.

Western Diamondback Rattlesnake

Around Houston, there are 34 total varieties of snakes that can be found. Of these, only 6 are venomous. Of these 6, there are 3 kinds of rattlesnakes, 2 of which really aren’t found in this area much anymore. The venomous snakes include:

  • Copperhead
  • Cottonmouth
  • Coral snake
  • Western diamondback rattlesnake (can be found, but mostly west of Houston and in the Bolivar peninsula area)
  • Canebrake rattlesnake (protected by the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department; not really found much anymore)
  • Western pygmy rattlesnake (not found so much anymore)

You can learn more about these animals and how to identify them in this blog.

So chances are, you won’t see a rattlesnake in your yard. If you do, you probably are providing them one or more of the three things they need to survive: food, shelter, and water. At the risk of sounding like your friendly neighborhood homeowner’s association, we recommend that to keep rattlesnakes (and other snakes) at bay, you keep your yard trimmed and mowed, and also remove any piles of brush. They will keep rodents under control, though, so it’s not necessarily a bad thing to keep these guys around!

Canebrake Rattlesnake, Protected by Texas Parks and Wildlife
Canebrake Rattlesnake, Protected by Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

At the Zoo, we love our rattlesnakes. We have 14 total species, most of which are visible to guests. Our Curator of Herpetology, Stan, will tell you “that’s not near enough!” There are 37 species and subspecies of rattlesnake, so there’s always something new to see and learn. Stan comes from a long line of rattlesnake loving curators. In fact, former Zoo Director John Werler had a particular appreciation for these animals.

Former Zoo Director John Werler - and no, that's not a rattlesnake around his neck - it's a bull snake!
Former Zoo Director John Werler – and no, that’s not a rattlesnake around his neck – it’s a bull snake!

Why are they so special? Well, we think they are pretty darn polite. They let you know when you’re too close or when they want to be left alone by rattling their tail. What other animal gives you that much advanced notice (and loud notice, at that) to stay away? Plus, they eat rats. There are studies that show that the presence of the timber rattlesnake, found in the Northeastern United States, actually reduces the incidence of Lyme disease because it eats the rodents provide the meal for the ticks that bite the humans. Not bad for a “scary” snake, right?

Hear rattling? You're either really close to a baby human or you're too close to a rattlesnake.
Hear rattling? You’re either really close to a baby human or you’re too close to a rattlesnake.

One of the coolest rattlesnakes in our collection is the Aruba Island rattlesnake. There are only 200-300 left in the wild, and it is a protected species that only lives on the island of Aruba. The government has given this animal special protection, and the population in the wild is now stable. We are in charge of managing this population in zoos, and we do this to help the species survive in case the worst happens and the snakes disappear from Aruba one day.

The Aruba Island Rattlesnake - there are only 200-300 left of these animals in the wild.
The Aruba Island Rattlesnake – there are only 200-300 left of these animals in the wild.

Still worried about getting bitten? There’s one rule that will help you avoid it: if you aren’t bothering the snake, it won’t bother you. If for some reason an accidental bite does occur, it is because either you didn’t see the snake and were way too close to it, or it didn’t see you. If a rattlesnake notices you, it will more than likely warn you or go on its merry way.

We hope we’ve shed some light on rattlesnakes, and we hope you come to the Zoo soon to see them firsthand. We also hope that if you had worries about rattlesnakes, we’ve helped alleviate some of them. If you’re still not a fan, just follow Curator Stan’s good advice: “you don’t have to like ‘em, just leave ‘em alone.” And if you are a fan, spread the word!

Marathon Oil: Going the Distance for the Houston Zoo

The Houston Zoo has been a vibrant center for learning about the wonders of wildlife for over 90 years. By providing free admission to more than 88,000 public school students annually, the Zoo gives students and teachers the opportunity to become immersed in an engaging environment that inspires care for the natural world. However, some schools in the Houston area are unable to afford the transportation costs of a field trip to the Zoo. Thanks to the generous support of Marathon Oil, we are able to bring the Zoo fun to students throughout Houston and beyond with our Online Interactive Distance Learning program.


Marathon Oil kick-started the Zoo’s Distance Learning program in 2010 with a $50,000 gift, and their continued support has ensured its growth. Since the program’s inception, thousands of students have participated in classes that are grade-appropriate and aligned with Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards. “In the first year, we taught one class to a little over 9,000 students, and in the second year, we reached well over 10,000 students with a message about protecting wildlife and wild places in your own backyard,” says Dr. Chance Sanford, Vice President of Education at the Zoo. These distance learning classes are live and interactive, allowing students to view real-time animal behavior, feeding, training, enrichment activities, and conservation messaging.

We are grateful for Marathon Oil’s commitment to providing so many students with the knowledge to create a brighter future for wildlife.

From Orangutans to Chuckwallas: Elderly Animals at the Houston Zoo

The Houston Zoo has seen quite a number of animal births lately, and as a result there are quite a few adorable baby animals! Baby elephant Duncan, baby giraffe Baridi, and even a baby whitespotted bamboo shark have been born recently. As we mentioned in our last blog, babies are cute – but there are some great stories to tell about animals that are older too!

There are three elderly primates in particular that have very special stories. Cheyenne, a 41-year female orangutan, can’t have children, but she has taken on the role of adoptive mother for four – count them four – orangutan kids. Aurora, her most recent adopted baby, was given to Cheyenne after her mother refused to care for her. Cheyenne treats Aurora just like she was her own child. Cheyenne has an incredible degree of patience as a mother, but you could say that those four adoptive kids account for most of the wrinkles on her face!

Cheyenne and adopted baby Aurora spend some time together outside
Cheyenne and adopted baby Aurora spend some time together outside

Susie, the agile gibbon, has a much different story than Cheyenne, although she is also 41. Susie is a rescued animal – she spent her first few years of life as a pet (as you probably already know, this is NOT a good idea. Susie lives by herself because she doesn’t interact well with others of her species, so she alternates with our siamang family to enjoy time outside.

Susie may be elderly, but she still enjoys swinging on those ropes!
Susie may be elderly, but she still enjoys swinging on those ropes!

There are also animals that live at the Zoo but aren’t visible to guests. This includes Alison, who lives behind the scenes in a place called MYRA: the Monkey Year Round Retirement Area. She is a black-and-white ruffed lemur, and she is 30 years old. She has outlived two mates, and she certainly deserves a little quiet time in her twilight years! Alison also receives acupuncture treatments to help relieve her arthritis from a visiting veterinarian.

Alison, the black-and-white ruffed lemur - she brings getting older to the most elegant level!
Alison, the black-and-white ruffed lemur – she brings getting older to the most elegant level!

Another incredible animal that has already enjoyed quite a long life is Bill, our male swift fox. He will be a whopping 16 years old next month! Swift foxes typically live up to 12 years old in a zoo setting and only 3-6 years in the wild, so this guy is clearly wise beyond his years. Swift foxes are native to the central US, from Montana all the way through Texas. Their range is now very narrow and fragmented, though, because of habitat loss. Bill is a very smart fox, and he enjoys his training sessions with his keepers and hanging out with his younger mate, Sookie. You can find him in the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo.

You can find Bill, the swift fox, in the desert area of the John P. McGovern Children's Zoo
You can find Bill, the swift fox, in the desert area of the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo

Last but certainly not least, Charles the San Esteban chuckwalla is a true zoo ambassador. He has delighted hundreds (and probably thousands) of children, as he goes to schools and out in the Zoo to help keepers teach kids about animals. Born in 1987, his laid back personality has helped him win the hearts of many staff, volunteers and guests. The San Esteban chuckwalla is the largest member of the chuckwalla family, and it is also the most endangered, found only on San Esteban Island.

Charles, the San Esteban Island chuckwalla, has been delighting guests and helping kids learn since the 80's!
Charles, the San Esteban Island chuckwalla, has been delighting guests and helping kids learn since the 80’s!

Thanks to Lynn Killam from the Primates Department and Kevin Hodge from the Children’s Zoo for helping to tell the stories of these amazing animals!

Elderly Animals at the Houston Zoo

When you think of carnivores like jaguars and bears, what comes to mind? Sharp teeth and claws, perhaps? Maybe you wouldn’t want to run into them in a dark alley? This is true, but at the Houston Zoo, they have something else in common – ours are getting up there in years, and they have really interesting stories to tell.

Our two jaguars, Cocoy and Kan Balam, are quite the adorable elderly couple. If you were to compare Cocoy to one of the Golden Girls, she would most certainly be Sophia. She’s 18 years old, and her keepers describe her as a “feisty old woman.” Her age doesn’t stop her from being active, though – when keepers put enrichment items in her habitat to play with, she jumps on them like she’s a kitten! She is a great grandmother, and she and Kan Balam get into spats just like an old married couple.

Cocoy definitely enjoys her enrichment items!
Cocoy definitely enjoys her enrichment items!

Kan Balam, the younger of the jaguar pair, is still getting up there at 16 ½ years old. Most jaguars in zoos live into their late teens or early twenties, which is much longer than they live in the wild. When you visit Kan Balam, you’ll see that he limps – at a place where he previously lived before he got to the Zoo, another jaguar bit off ¾ of his front right paw. In his older years, he has developed arthritis because of this injury. That doesn’t stop him from moving quickly when he wants to get somewhere, though!

Kan Balam lost his paw before he got to the Houston Zoo, and he has developed arthritis as a result of his injury
Kan Balam lost his paw before he got to the Houston Zoo, and he has developed arthritis as a result of his injury

Our jaguars are also pretty darn smart. They, like most cats you probably know, don’t like to take pills much. If they see their keepers put them in meatballs, they’ll just spit out the pills when they gobble up the meatballs. The keepers are wise to this, though, and have learned to hide around the corner to prepare them so they don’t know the pills are in there!

Another Golden Girl is Patty, the Andean Bear. Her keepers say that she’d definitely be Blanche – she’s quite the flirter, especially with guests! Her keepers also note that she can be a bit manipulative by giving them “sad eyes.” One time, she even convinced her keepers that she didn’t get her dinner yet, and she ended up getting it twice! Her favorite foods are grapes, bananas, peanut butter, and fish.

Patty, the Andean bear
Patty, the Andean bear

Patty came to our zoo in May of 1987 at 1 year of age and lived most of her life with Willie, her mate, who passed away of old age in April of last year. She is still going strong, though, despite her ailments. She’s allergic to pretty much everything – grass, dust, cockroaches, mold – you name it! She gets local wild honey and allergy medications to get a bit of relief. She is on medicine for joint pain too, but that doesn’t stop her from climbing down into her moat without using the stairs!

Patty may be old, but that doesn't stop her from climbing!
Patty may be old, but that doesn’t stop her from climbing!

The Zoo’s two grizzly bears, Boomer and Bailey, are in their mid-30s, and they have had pretty rough lives. Before they came to the Zoo in 2007, they lived at the SPCA for a year. They were confiscated by the SPCA from a private individual who was not taking good care of them. They lived in tiny 6×4 foot cages, and they were in very poor health – their teeth were particularly bad. You may remember a video from a few years back when Bailey had a tooth removed.

Boomer has had cancer twice, which has resulted in blindness. This caused a particularly unique challenge with getting him to learn his surroundings, as he needed to go inside to get fed and so his keepers could clean his habitat, and he needed to go outside to get sun and relax. His clever keepers created a system to help him out – they spread a vanilla scent inside, and a garlic scent outside. Once he learned to associate those scents with each area, he learned to go inside and outside and navigate his habitat.

Boomer looking beautiful!
Boomer looking beautiful!

Thanks to Carnivore Keepers Angie, Cortney, and Sam for telling these wonderful stories so they could be written down, but more importantly for their love and passion for these amazing animals. We’re lucky to have incredible keeper and veterinary staff that is so dedicated to the care of every single animal at the Zoo, particularly the ones who need the most care in their older age.

Elderly Animals at the Houston Zoo: of Sloths and Mole-rats

You’ve probably been hearing a lot of news lately about the babies being born at the Zoo – we’re expecting a baby elephant any day now, and we’ve just helped welcome into the world a number of amazing arrivals, including a De Brazza’s guenon, sifaka, and quite the bevy of flamingo chicks.

One of the newest additions to the Zoo, a baby De Brazza's guenon!
One of the newest additions to the Zoo, a baby De Brazza’s guenon!

What doesn’t make the news, but is equally as impressive, is the longevity of many of our animals at the Zoo. The animal keepers and veterinary staff work hard every single day to give each animal the best care, nutrition, and enrichment possible so that they live long, healthy, happy lives. As a result, we have quite a few “elderly” animals! In this series, we’ll profile several that are particularly near and dear to our hearts.

Succotash, a Hoffman’s two-toed sloth, lives in the Rainforest habitat in the Carruth Natural Encounters Building along with several species of monkeys and birds. She’s around 38 years old – very old for a sloth! In a zoo setting, their lifespan is about 30 years. Her exact age is unknown, since she was caught in the wild and rescued from a private owner in 1975. She came to us in 1986 from the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, and she’s been here ever since.

Succotash strikes a pose in the rainforest habitat of the Natural Encounters building
Succotash strikes a pose in the rainforest habitat of the Natural Encounters building

As an elderly animal, keepers carefully monitor her health and well-being daily. Her food consumption and bowel movements are tracked and recorded every day. Keepers can usually determine if something’s ailing her based on the records we keep or by the physical activity she exerts throughout the day. If keepers do notice abnormal behavior, we notify our vet staff so that she can be examined and we can obtain urine or fecal samples for diagnosis. Right now, Succotash is doing very well.

Guests can oftentimes see her most active in the morning when she gets her breakfast or when we turn on our waterfall in her habitat. She will oftentimes go toward the waterfall to mist herself. Otherwise she can be seen peacefully sleeping while her diverse array of roommates scamper and play around her.

Another animal in Natural Encounters that’s quite a bit smaller (but no less elderly than Succotash) is Livingston, the Damara mole-rat. You can see Livingston and his mole-rat friends in the upper level of our subterranean habitat.


Livingston, the Damara mole-rat
Livingston, the Damara mole-rat

Damara mole-rats are one of two mammal species who are eusocial – they live in colonies with many individual members, but the colony behaves as a single organism. The other eusocial species in Natural Encounters is the naked mole-rat. Like ants and bees, they have a queen who reproduces, workers who gather food, and soldiers who defend the colony against predators, like snakes.

Even though the Damara mole-rats all look similar, with mostly grey fur, we are able to identify them by the unique white markings on top of their heads. You can identify Livingston because he has a completely white face and a white spot halfway down his back.

Livingston was part of the small, founding group of Damara mole-rats that came to the Zoo around 10 years ago. His actual age is unknown, but he is believed to be at least 12 years old. Their lifespan is 10-15 years.

Due to his age, Livingston has developed arthritis in his back and hind legs, which affects his movement, but doesn’t cause pain. Each day, keepers give Livingston a supplement to support joint health, similar to glucosamine. He receives regular checkups, which show that the arthritis has not worsened in the two years since he has started this supplement. His weight is also monitored closely to be sure he is eating well.

Livingston is a soldier in the colony and does not let his age stop him from doing his job! He is still regularly seen by keepers patrolling the tunnels and holding an active role in the colony.

Stay tuned for the next blog in our series about elderly animals – next time, we’re featuring our jaguars, Patty the Andean bear, and our amazing grizzlies!

Thanks to Priscilla Farley and Kamryn Suttinger in the Natural Encounters Department for the fantastic information on Succotash and Livingston!

Baby Elephant Birthwatch!

We’ve been eagerly awaiting the birth of an Asian elephant at the Zoo for many months now – Shanti, one of our resident elephants, is pregnant and expected to give birth soon. As part of the preparation process, we have trained a dedicated team of more than 75 volunteers to participate in an overnight Elephant Birth Watch program to help ensure the safety of Shanti and her calf.

Shanti and her previous calf, Baylor. She sure is "showing!"
Shanti and her previous calf, Baylor. She sure is “showing!”

Shanti is 23 years old, and she is mom to Baylor, who is now 3 years old. She is the tallest female elephant in the herd, and she can be identified right now by also being the widest…calves can weigh 250-300 pounds at birth, so it’s quite understandable!

Birth Watch volunteers and Elephant keeper staff watch Shanti via closed circuit cameras 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. The volunteer commitment is a weekly 4-hour shift, and everyone involved goes through an extensive training to be sure they know Shanti’s normal behaviors and can detect signs of labor. If Shanti is thought to be going into labor or not acting normally, the volunteers call the Elephant staff right away.

At first, volunteers stay overnight and watch the cameras between 4 p.m. and 7:30 a.m., and Elephant staff took the daytime shifts. Because we are nearing Shanti’s expected due date, Elephant keepers now sleep in the barn overnight just in case labor starts so they can react quickly, and the volunteers monitor the cameras.

The barn in the McNair Asian Elephant Habitat where Shanti and the rest of the herd sleeps - it's also where birth watch takes place!
The barn in the McNair Asian Elephant Habitat where Shanti and the rest of the herd sleeps and birth watch takes place!

Shanti also has quite a bit to do in preparation for birth. She takes daily walks to be sure that she keeps up her exercise and doesn’t gain too much weight, and her progesterone levels are monitored daily at this point to see if there is a drop. When the level drops to near zero, it’s a pretty good predictor that labor will be happening between 2 and 15 days from that point.

Signs of labor that the volunteers are trained to detect include lifting of the tail, swatting with the tail, straining, restlessness, squatting, and increased vocalizations. The most obvious sign is if her water were to break, and at that point, the animal staff goes into action.

Stay tuned to the Houston Zoo blog for updates – the next one you likely will see is a baby calf announcement!

Farewell to Aries, African Painted Dog

As the New Year dawned, the Houston Zoo bid a sad but fond farewell to Aries, one of our three African painted dogs.  Twelve year old Aries had lived at the Houston Zoo with pack mates Mikita, his nephew, and Blaze, his brother since their arrival from the Bronx Zoo in 2009.

African Painted Dog Aries
Farewell to Aries, the African Painted Dog

Painted dogs are incredibly social creatures, and they are known to mourn. As Aries’s health declined due to his advanced years, his nephew Mikita, the alpha male of the pack, took care of Aries by making sure that Aries received his share of the food. Mikita also slept next to Aries during this time, a behavior that is common within painted dog packs.

Aries was the most vocal member of his pack, often growling a few short “barks” at his keepers while he was eating. One of the most communicative social carnivores, vocalizing is very important in painted dog packs. The number of vocalizations they produce is thought to be second only to dolphins.

Aries - African Painted Dog
Aries, the African Painted Dog

Aries was a distinguished ambassador for his  counterparts in the wild. He represented all the African painted dogs the Houston Zoo works to save. The Zoo partners with an organization called Painted Dog Conservation, which rehabilitates sick and injured painted dogs in Zimbabwe and reintroduces them back into the wild.

Learn more about how the Houston Zoo helps African painted dogs in the wild

Zoo Refugees: Stump-tailed Dwarf Chameleons and Animal Confiscations

When you visit the Zoo, you get to see lots of animals – from elephants to meerkats to jellyfish to Komodo dragons – and each of them has a story. Some of them are facing extinction and are among the last representatives of their species, while others are there because they were injured or orphaned out in the wild and needed a home. Still others, as you will learn here, were confiscated.

So goes the story of several of the Zoo’s most recent arrivals, the stump-tailed dwarf chameleons. These little reptiles were making a journey into the US to become a part of the pet trade. When the chameleons arrived, many had perished and the others were in poor health and severely dehydrated-there were a lot of them, but only a small percentage survived, as they are very delicate animals.

One of the recently confiscated stump-tailed dwarf chameleons
One of the recently confiscated stump-tailed dwarf chameleons

A number of zoos were asked to take in these confiscated chameleons, because no single zoo had the facilities house all of them. That’s one of the great things about zoos – we work together very well, because our mission is the same: to help animals whenever and wherever we can.

We were able to take in 15 chameleons from this confiscation, but by the time we were able to nurse them back to health, only 6 made it. You can visit those 6 animals, now thriving and healthy, in the Reptiles & Amphibians Building.

You can see these chameleons in their habitat inside the Reptiles & Amphibians Building
You can see these chameleons in their habitat inside the Reptiles & Amphibians Building

With reptiles, a lot of the reason why they are coming into the country in the first place is to become pets. Many times they are captured out of the wild and kept in very poor conditions until they can be shipped (often also in very poor conditions). By the time they get to the US, the odds aren’t good that most will survive.

It’s not a bad thing at all to have a reptile as a pet, but it is important to know a few things first before you get started. Here are a few tips if you’re considering it:

  1. Do your research. What does the animal eat? What is its life span? Where does it live, and how will you make a home for it? How does it get water? Stump-tailed dwarf chameleons, like many lizards and some snakes, don’t drink from a water bowl. They actually need to be “rained on” with a mister or else they won’t get the water they need.
  2. Choose an animal at your skill level. Some animals are way harder to take care of than others, so know what you can handle and how much time and energy it will take to care for them. These little chameleons take a lot of work – only try this at home if you’re sure you can handle it!
  3. Find a good breeder that is responsible. You may find a good quality pet store, or you may visit an expo like the one the East Texas Herpetological Society holds each fall.
  4. Ask the right questions. Ask questions of your breeder like “has this animal been captive bred?” If the answer is yes, that’s a good thing. There is no need to take animals out of the wild. Some breeders may say “this animal has been captive born” – that doesn’t count. They may have taken the parents out of the wild, and that is no good at all. Find another breeder.
  5. Be prepared. Purchase all the “gear” you will need for your animal, like caging, lighting, food, water, and more. Go back to your research and be sure to read the instructions on how to set everything up properly too.

The more people that take the steps to help pick out the right pet, the less confiscations and “bad guys” there will be, and the better off the animals in the wild will be too. And while there are only 6 left, those little stump-tailed dwarf chameleons are not only adorable, but they are also important ambassadors to help tell the story of how we can help out animals by being responsible with our choices.

A stump-tailed dwarf chameleon is not even as big as your finger!
A stump-tailed dwarf chameleon is not even as big as your finger!
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