Ni Hao from China (Conclusion)

Two members of the Houston Zoo team, Tarah Jacobs and Kevin Hodge, just wrapped up their trip to China. Tarah and Kevin are worked with Chinese Zoos and blogged about their experience abroad.

This post was written by Tarah Jacobs.

Our time in China has come to an end. Over the course of the 2 ½ weeks we were there we met some fantastic people and amazing animals.

whole groupWe had the opportunity to hold 2 workshops on training, enrichment and enclosure design. Over the course of those 2 workshops we had 46 people from 7 different zoos attend. The attendees were animal keepers, animal managers, veterinarians, and directors from their respective zoos.  This gave us a unique opportunity to have many different points of view and many fantastic ideas!

tarah teachingSome highlights:

  • Watching groups from each workshop create and present enclosure designs. We saw so many creative and amazing designs
  • Seeing the smile of the participants (and us!) while the animals enjoyed the enrichments that were created for them. For some animals it was the first time they had been given any enrichment!
  • Watching a Bird keeper from Chengdu zoo train 26 macaws to station when he called each of their names
  • Watching the kangaroo keeper at Hangzhou zoo train each of the female kangaroos to come over and stand so he could check the progress of the joeys in their pouches
  • Meeting amazing colleagues from half way across the world

keeper with monkey

We would like to thank the Hangzhou Zoo and the Chengdu Zoo for being amazing hosts for these workshops. Everyone went out of their way to make sure they were successful and we are so grateful for the opportunity to share our experiences with everyone who attended.


Year of the Goat- Featuring Levi

This post was written by Amber Zelmer

In the Chinese Zodiac calendar, the ‘Year of the Goat’ is also known as the ‘Year of the Ram.’  A male sheep is also called a ram, so July’s “goat” of the month is actually a sheep!  Levi is our only resident sheep here in the Children’s Zoo, so we get a lot of guest questions about him.

Levi is a Jacob sheep, and he has not just two, but FOUR horns.  In fact, this breed of sheep can have up to SIX horns!  Jacob sheep are a piebald breed of sheep.  They are a popular breed in England, although their country of origin is thought to be Syria.  In the Book of Genesis, Jacob took every spotted or speckled sheep from his father-in-law’s flock and bred them.  Thus the Jacob sheep may be the earliest documented case of selective breeding, and their name is in honor of their original shepherd.


Like all sheep, Levi has wool instead of fur and does not shed his coat in the summer.  The keepers here shear Levi every summer to make him more comfortable in the warm Houston weather.  This year Levi lost nearly 4 lbs. of wool at his shearing!  Though many clothes can be made from wool, the keepers here use the wool as enrichment for the other animals around the zoo.  Our mongoose, kookaburra and skunk all enjoyed tossing the wool around or rolling in it.  Sometimes the Carnivore keepers will come over and get some of the wool to give to their animals to enjoy as well!


Not only is Levi a provider of entertainment for guests and other animals, he is also a part of our internship program at the Houston Zoo!  Levi knows several different behaviors such as turning in a circle, walking around a trainer, and even walking through weave poles!  Interns have the opportunity to learn his behaviors from the zookeepers so that they can work with Levi in their spare time.  In fact, Levi’s weave pole behavior was taught to him by a former intern!  Come visit Levi in the Children’s Zoo, and you may be able to see him working with one of our interns or part-time staff members to keep his skills sharp.

Working with Pacific Bird Conservation (Conclusion)

Steve Howard is in the Northern Mariana Islands, working with Pacific Bird Conservation to protect birds and blogging about his experience.

This post was written by Steve Howard

Transport boxes that will be used when the birds are translocated.
Transport boxes that will be used when the birds are translocated.

The adventure ends.

Today I left Tinian for Saipan, where I’ll spend the night before heading home. As of this morning, the goal of catching 50 Bridled White Eyes was met, and we were close to 50 Tinian Monarchs. In the coming days they’ll close up the nets and load the birds they have on a boat (one, frankly, which doesn’t look all that seaworthy) and take them to Guguan, an island which is a 14 hour boat ride north. Once there, the transport boxes will be strapped to backpack frames and hauled up the hill in the center of the island on people’s backs. Once in the appropriate habitat the boxes will be opened, and new populations of two threatened species will be founded.

From habitat loss to the introduction of the brown tree snake, humans have done a lot to affect the animals of the Mariana Islands. This time, the affect was positive. I’m grateful to have played my part.

One last thought. I fly tomorrow to Guam, then Tokyo, then Houston. I leave Tokyo at 4:45 Saturday afternoon, and get to Houston at 2:30 Saturday afternoon. I just can’t wrap my head around that!!

Working with Pacific Bird Conservation (Part 6)

Steve Howard is in the Northern Mariana Islands, working with Pacific Bird Conservation to protect birds and blogging about his experience.

This post was written by Steve Howard

Before I came to Tinian, I read about using mist nets to trap birds. I imagined a small net put in a quiet corner forest while we watched to see if birds went in. Not so much. It turns out there is a LOT of work involved.

This is a good spot for a lane
This is a good spot for a lane

The nets are large – 18 to 36 feet long and 8 feet high, and if the forest is at all dense, which this forest is, a space must be cleared for the net. First, you have to cut a path through the forest, all the time looking for a good spot to put up a net. The undergrowth has to be cleared and fallen braches removed in order to make a trail. When an open spot can be found where a net can be put up with a minimum of clearing, you cut a “lane” to make room for the net. Once the lane is cleared, the net is strung on two poles, usually fly fishing poles that telescope together, and the poles are secured with cord tied to tress or roots

The lane has been cleared and the net put up
The lane has been cleared and the net put up

Then you continue to cut the path and look for another spot to make a lane. It’s hot and humid in the forest, and there is very little breeze. In there, hacking with a machete and cutting things out of the way with a saw is hot, hard and tiring work. I have blisters on my feet, and my arms and legs are scratched up and sore. And I love it!!!

The birds that we catch will start a new population on another island. This will help to protect a vulnerable animal from extinction. All my life I have been sad to think of the extinction an animal as beautiful as these birds. Now, I have the chance to do something about it, directly. So, for all the hard work and blisters, I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything!!

Working with Pacific Bird Conservation (Part 5)

Steve Howard is in the Northern Mariana Islands, working with Pacific Bird Conservation to protect birds and blogging about his experience.

This post was written by Steve Howard

Two of the species we have trapped are the Rufous Fantail and the Tinian Monarch. The thing is, they both like flies. It’s very important to give the birds a diet as close to what they ate in the wild as possible. So where do you get the flies? Well, you start with tuna.

fly trap 2Here’s how it goes: you take a large metal tray about 4 inches deep and put two whole tuna in it. You take a 10 gallon bucket and cut the bottom off, turning it into a tube. Then set it over the tray. You take some window screen and make a large cone out of it, as big across as the 10 gallon bucket, then cut a small hole in in the point. You now have a fly funnel. Tape the funnel to the top of another bucket and push it inward so that it points to the bottom. Then put the bucket with the funnel upside down on top of the “tube bucket” that’s over the tuna. Wait. Flies will gather, and fly up into the tube and onto the screen and get trapped in the bucket.

fly dish fillingNow, here’s the trick. How do you get them into the cage with the bird? Take a small plastic petri dish with a lid on it, and drill a small hole on the bottom. Pull the funnel so that it is now pointing at the sky, and put the hole in the petri dish over the hole in the funnel and wait. Soon the dish will be full of flies. Place the dish in the cage, pull off the lid and quickly shut the door. Voila, that’s all it takes!!

That and a strong stomach for the smell!

Working with Pacific Bird Conservation (Part 4)

Steve Howard is in the Northern Mariana Islands, working with Pacific Bird Conservation to protect birds and blogging about his experience.

This post was written by Steve Howard

We started netting birds on Thursday afternoon, which means my education on how to extract birds from the net began as well. Mist nets are made of very small nylon thread, which makes them almost invisible, especially in low light levels. When a bird flies into it, they become tangled in the mesh, and removing them takes some skill. The bird must be removed from the same direction from which it entered the net, as the net is designed to not let the bird fly through it. Attempting to pull the bird through the net will injure it. The mesh should be removed from the feet first, then the wings, then the head – basically in the opposite order that it entered the net. I wasn’t great at it at first, but I think I’m getting the hang of it! I removed several birds today by myself.

3 Honey extractedAll the birds here are beautiful, but by far the most beautiful (to my mind) is the Micronesian Honey Eater. The feathers on the back and head are flame red and they shine in the sun as it flies by. To see one of these up close is a great privilege. We have collected a pair that will go to the Guam Zoo. This species lived on Guam before the Brown Tree Snake showed up, and to have it back, even if it is just a pair in the zoo, is very exciting for the staff of the zoo. Who knows, someone may see them there, learn the story, and decided to take action!

Spotlight on Species – Tyra, the Masai Giraffe

This post was written by Kendall Thawley.

Tyra with calf, Hasani
Tyra with calf, Hasani

Soon, The Houston Zoo will be celebrating World Giraffe Day with a Spotlight on Species for Giraffes. For just a moment, though, we’d like to shine the spotlight on one of our resident Masai giraffe, Tyra. Although her overall disposition is quite sweet and calm with her keepers, Tyra is wary of strangers and rarely seen eating at the Giraffe Feeding Platform, so many of our guests might not be as familiar with her as some of our other giraffe.  At 16 years old, Tyra is the oldest member of our giraffe herd, and has been an excellent mother to eight calves, five of which still live at The Houston Zoo. Oftentimes, when in the late stages of her pregnancies, she becomes very reluctant to leave the barn in the summer. She prefers the quiet, coolness of the barn to the heat of the outside. She also enjoys grabbing hold of small sticks and twirling them around in her mouth with her tongue and many of her offspring have picked up on the same habit. One of her sons, Jack, in particular can be seen doing this frequently throughout the days. Tyra was also the model for the large giraffe statue located directly across from the giraffe yard here at The Houston Zoo. It’s about eight feet tall, and perfect for taking photos with!

Windows Photo Viewer Wallpaper

Tyra and her family have a very important job to do here at The Houston Zoo. They are all ambassador animals for the wild giraffe populations in Africa. Worldwide, giraffe populations are plummeting. In just the past 17 years, the total number of giraffes on the planet has dropped over 40%. There are now less than 80,000 that remain. Habitat loss, poaching, and disease are claiming the lives of wild giraffe every day.  We cannot sit back and let these giants of the savannah slip quietly into extinction. On June 21st, 2015 The Houston Zoo will be holding a giraffe SOS. With it, we hope to bring awareness to the plight of wild giraffe and to do that we will have several giraffe-themed activities for people of all ages. We will also have some special and unique items for sale and all the proceeds will go towards the Giraffe Conservation Foundation, the only conservation institution focused primarily on researching and protecting giraffe in the wild. Come join us at The Houston Zoo on Sunday, June 21st and help us save giraffe!

Ni Hao from China: Houston Zoo Interacting with Animals Around the World (Update #4)

Two members of the Houston Zoo team, Tarah Jacobs and Kevin Hodge, are currently in China. Tarah and Kevin are working with Chinese Zoos and blogging about their experience abroad.

This post was written by Kevin Hodge.

After a 2.5 hour flight from Hangzhou we arrived in Chengdu. We were greeted at the airport by Daisy, a Panda keeper from the Chengdu Zoo. As we drove to the zoo she explained that Chengdu is a rapidly growing city of around 10 million people. We noticed that the most popular mode of transportation is a moped, even for families.  We saw a family of four riding on a moped but we felt more comfortable traveling by car.

IMG_3708The Director of the Veterinary and Animal Care, Mr. Yu, was waiting at the zoo to greet us when we arrived.  It was great to see a familiar face in Chengdu. We met Mr. Yu when he visited the Houston Zoo in December and we both had an opportunity to show him around our zoo and now, he is able to give us a tour of his zoo.

IMG_3749The Chengdu zoo is very fortunate to have a few animals that we do not have in Houston including, South China tiger, Golden monkey Hog deer, Takin, and Giant panda.  Mr. Yu has hired translators from Animals Asia to attend and assist with interpreting while we are here to make sure we all understand each other’s ideas.  Overall there are 26 participates from 4 different zoos from around this area attending the workshop. Our plan is the same as it was in Hangzhou. We will present our power points on Exhibit Design, Enrichment and Training and then visit several of the exhibits in the zoo to brainstorm on ways to improve the exhibit or ways to start an enrichment and training plan for the animals.

In addition to the workshop Mr. Yu and several of the keepers introduced us to the Szechuan style food that they are famous for in Chengdu.  Saying the food is spicy is definitely an understatement!  Even though we both like eating spicy food, we were in tears and sweating while we enjoyed our dinner.  After eating they informed us that the food we were eating is very mild compared to what they normally eat.  They said it was what they would feed 5 year old children here!

Working with Pacific Bird Conservation (Part 3)

Steve Howard is in the Northern Mariana Islands, working with Pacific Bird Conservation to protect birds and blogging about his experience.

This post was written by Steve Howard


fishing pole netToday I learned how to put up a 12-meter mist net! We’ll be trapping birds along one of the old WWII Navy runways which has been almost completely taken over by the forest. The best place to set up the net is in a break in the vegetation. So where the forest has grown in from both sides of the runway, but there is still a space in the middle, is the perfect place. The nets are stretched between twenty-foot tall poles, which are rigged so they can be raised and lowered like a flag. The poles are supported with 4 guy lines that are tied to concrete nails pounded into the asphalt. So I learned how to tie knots today – the clove hitch and sheet bend – how to pound in concrete nails without breaking off the head (learned that the hard way), and how to tie the guy lines so they stay tight.

We also put some nets up in the forest. These are easier to set up because we can tie the lines to trees and put stakes in the ground. After we’re done setting a net up, if it’s not going to be used, it’s tied up so we don’t catch anything by accident. The pictures are of a net fully open and of a net closed up.

closed netsPreparations are complete now for the trapping and care of the birds. We can net them, transfer them to the transport box, get them back to bird room, put them in the cages we assembled already and feed them there! We’ll keep them in the bird room cages until they are taken, by 14 boat ride, to the Island of Guguan and released. We will go back to the woods this afternoon and start netting.

Working with Pacific Bird Conservation (Part 2)

Steve Howard is in the Northern Mariana Islands, working with Pacific Bird Conservation to protect birds and blogging about his experience.

This post was written by Steve Howard

working on the boxesToday we’ll be setting up the bird room. The hotel has given us a large room to keep the birds in after they are caught. And what is behind all this work? The Brown Tree Snake. The snakes reached Guam sometime in the 1950s, probably on a cargo ship. They are very curious animals and will climb into containers to investigate, and wind up traveling with the cargo. They eat birds and chicks from the nests, and the birds here have no defense. The birds on Guam were all but wiped out. The fear now is that the snakes will find their way to the other islands. The birds on the smaller islands are also vulnerable to loss from severe storms.

So birds are caught, put into small cages temporarily and carefully monitored, banded, and then released on other islands to start new populations. These form a sort of safety net against loss of birds in the original habitat.completed boxes

So, today I learned how to put the cages together, and then we assembled ninety of them.

Once the bird room is ready, we start catching birds!

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