July’s Featured Members – The Bowles Family

We love our Members. Their incredible support allows us to make a difference to animals both locally and all over the world. This month, we’re spotlighting Zoo Members that deserve recognition. We’re thrilled to introduce you to July’s Featured Members: the Bowles family.


We asked Mrs. Bowles to share a little bit about what being Zoo Members meant to her family. Here’s what she had to say.

Bowles family feeding giraffes at San Diego Zoo

“Our unintentional journey to become Houston Zoo members began about 2 years ago.  We decided to take our granddaughter to San Diego for spring break and visit their famous zoo.  Little did we know that visit would profoundly affect us and change our way of thinking.  We took a couple of tours at the zoo and were very impressed by the incredible work being done to protect animals and educate the public.  On one of the stops, we were treated to the sight of a herd of rhinoceroses including one of the last surviving white rhinos.  Hearing the story of the near destruction of this species caused a deep sense of sadness and despair in our hearts.  I realized then that my granddaughter’s children and grandchildren would probably only be able to see many animals because of the research, dedication and work of zoos both nationally and internationally.  I vowed then to do something to help these efforts.

Arriving home, I began to research zoos close to me in Texas.  I found that the Houston Zoo is one of the highest rated zoos not only in Texas, but also in the nation.  My husband and I decided to become members.  We then visited the zoo and took one of the Encounter Tours.  We had such a wonderful time, we returned and went on a Behind the Scenes tour.  Both times, we were in awe of how much we learned from the guides and the keepers and also the deep care and concern they have for the animals.  Walking around the zoo was such a pleasant and happy experience that we are determined to go as often as possible and enjoy all of the Animal Encounter and Behind the Scenes tours available.  We also decided to become Asante members and have included the Houston Zoo in our legacy giving.  Now we feel hope rather than despair knowing we are part of the Houston Zoo team’s efforts to keep so many magnificent animals both close by and throughout the world surviving and thriving for future generations.” -J. Bowles

From our team here at the Houston Zoo, we want to say thank you to all of our Zoo Members. As a Houston Zoo Member, your support truly makes an impact on the growth of our Zoo and wildlife conservation efforts. THANKS!

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?!

 

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!

 

Pardon Our Dust – More Room for Bears!

Written by Katie Buckley-Jones

 


Pardon our dust! You may have noticed some construction going on around the bear exhibits lately. We are excited to be renovating an old, unused space for our black bears! The Houston Zoo is home to two four-year-old female American black bears, Belle and Willow. Belle and Willow came to us back in 2013 from California. They were being fed by a restaurant and appeared to be orphaned. US Fish and Wildlife rescued them and reached out to our facility to see if we could offer them a home. Belle is often observed playing in the pool and rough housing with her sister. She is the larger of the two and tends to be a bit lazier. Willow is the mastermind behind the brawn of her sister. She is smaller and tends to be an instigator. You can often see her attempting to work through puzzle feeders or running away from her sister after waking her up.

As our bear girls get older, they are in need of more space to play and roam! The space used in the renovation has not been used for many years and was in much need of repair. We used this opportunity to take a close look at what bears need as a species and apply it to this new renovation. The Zoo is excited to offer them more room and an enriched environment. This new renovated area comes complete with built in foraging options, a cedar fort, and places to hide, dig, and climb.

We began this project by creating a tunnel between the current bear habitat and the renovated space. This will allow the girls to have the option of being in either area, so when you come visit be sure to check both places for the bears! The keepers will have the opportunity to enrich the bears further by transferring them from one side or the other or giving them access to everything. There will also be an additional bedroom area behind the scenes for the girls to sleep in.

We are thrilled to see these girls romp and play in their bigger and better habitat.  Stay tuned for more updates!

Happy Birthday Kan Balam

Written by Katie Buckley-Jones


Hi! My name is Katie and I am a carnivore keeper at the Houston Zoo. I wanted to take some time to talk about one of my favorite animals – jaguars. Here at the Houston Zoo we have three jaguars: Maya, Tesoro, and Kan Balam. While Maya and Tesoro have recently come to us thanks to the Species Survival Plan, Kan Balam has been at the Houston Zoo for 11 years.

June 13 marks Kan Balam’s twentieth birthday. This is a very exciting birthday, because reaching the age of 20 is no small feat. Most jaguars in the wild would typically only live to around 10-12 years old. Thanks to amazing medical care, dedicated staff, and no shortage of the best food around, jaguars in zoos can live into their late teens with the median age being 17.8. Currently, the oldest jaguar in an AZA (Association of Zoos & Aquariums) facility is a 21 year old female. Now that he’s 20, Kan Balam ranks as the oldest male and fourth oldest jaguar.

Kan Balam was born at a zoological facility in Mexico. His keepers often refer to him as Kan B for short. Before coming to the Houston Zoo, he had an altercation with another jaguar and lost part of his front right foot. Don’t let his limp fool you – he is still incredibly agile! He even gets laser acupuncture and annual chiropractic adjustments.

Kan B has led an amazing life and traveled to the Audubon Zoo and the Fort Worth Zoo before arriving in Houston in 2006. He is a great-grandfather and has sired many offspring throughout his life. When I met Kan B two and a half years ago, I had just left the Phoenix Zoo where I worked with his grandson, Harry. Harry was the first jaguar that took my breath away and I knew when I met Kan B, he was something special.

Kan Balam is well known as one of the carnivore department’s most intelligent animals. He knows about 30 different behaviors and finds joy in outsmarting his keepers daily. When I became his primary keeper, I knew I was in for a challenge. He made me work day in and day out for his trust and respect until I could prove to him that I was worth his time. I have never worked with an animal so full of sass, attitude, and intelligence. This old man could give anyone a run for their money. Working with Kan Balam has been the highlight of my career so far and I cannot tell you how privileged I feel to be able to work with this amazing animal every day.

For his birthday, we will be giving him some of his most favorite treats, big boxes, and a special (jaguar-diet-friendly) cake!

Happy 20th Birthday Kan Balam!

June’s Featured Members – The Hill Family

We love our Members. Their incredible support allows us to make a difference to animals both locally and all over the world. This month, we’re spotlighting Zoo Members that deserve recognition. We’re thrilled to introduce you to June’s Featured Members: the Hill family.


We asked the Hill’s what being Zoo Members meant to their family. Here’s what they had to say. “I didn’t even know I could have so much fun at a zoo!” My 5 year old niece proclaimed this after a morning spent with our out-of-town family at the Houston Zoo.  I’m proud of my city and I love showing it off to my friends and family when they visit from out of town. And no trip is complete without a day at the Houston Zoo!

Becoming members was a no-brainer for us: my sons would spend every waking hour there if we let them! The zoo has been a constant for my four year-old, Bradley, since our first play date there— when he was three months old! Even at that young age we saw the zoo as a place where he could learn and experience new sights, sounds and smells.

As he began to walk, the zoo was a safe place where we could allow him to “lead the way”. We would bounce between the various exhibits and point to the different animals. He loved pressing the buttons placed around the zoo that play animal noises!

The day before our second child, Brenham, was born we knew we wanted to do something special with just Big Brother. A family trip to the zoo was just the right thing! I waddled along behind him and we found gifts for Little Brother in the gift shop. When out-of-town family came to meet our new baby? Well you’d better believe they also took Bradley to the zoo (twice!) before they left town!

As our family continues to grow (now three sons: 4, 2, almost 1) the zoo provides us with more and more educational entertainment. We absolutely love the member mornings when we can beat the crowds (and the heat!) and see zookeepers feeding and caring for the animals. The Swap Shop has opened new ways of exploring our environment and Bradley proudly brings his treasures in to swap and share. Our Houston Zoo is set up in such a wonderful way that my kids can learn through play as they slide like otters, pop-up in the middle of the mongoose habitat or crawl through the fish aquarium.

We love our Houston Zoo and love being members. So, really, it came as no surprise when our niece proclaimed her new-found love for animals after her visit there with us. We are so thankful for the team of keepers, vets, staff and volunteers who keep the Houston Zoo a fun, safe, clean and educational place to bring our children and family. And we’ll continue to visit, with Texas-sized pride, for years to come!”

From all of us here at the Houston Zoo, we want to say thank you to all of our Zoo Members. As a Houston Zoo Member, your support truly makes an impact on the growth of our Zoo and conservation efforts. THANKS!

Jaguar Matchmaking

Written by Katie Buckley-Jones


If you frequent the Zoo, you may have noticed our jaguar exhibit has been the hot spot for our new jaguar couple.

Here at the Houston Zoo, we have three jaguars.  Our oldest male, Kan Balam, has been at the zoo for 11 years and is 20 years old, significantly older than jaguars in the wild, and even considered old for a jaguar in a zoological setting. When his previous girlfriend passed away in 2015 at the age of 20, we noticed Kan Balam seemed to long for another friend. Jaguars are naturally solitary animals, but based on the personality of Kan Balam and his history of living with another jaguar, we wanted him to have a female friend.  We contacted the jaguar SSP, or Species Survival Plan, to see what they had in mind for Kan Balam. Kan Balam is a great-grandfather and his genetics are very well represented within the zoo community, so we wanted to pair him with a female for companionship rather than breeding.

Species Survival Plans are very important for endangered and threatened animals in the zoological setting.  There is a group of people who are dedicated to each specific species, whether it is something big like a lion or giraffe, to the Louisiana pine snake.  The group keeps track of all the individuals in all AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) accredited facilities in the US and some zoos around the world. They match animals up based on genetic variability, institutional needs, and personalities of animals. This way, zoos can create a sort of zoo “ark,” using science to make sure the animals in our care are as healthy as possible throughout their bloodlines.

The SSP informed us there was a lovely six year old lady jaguar named Maya from the Turtleback Zoo, who would be a good match for Kan Balam. Maya is young and genetically important to the population.  The SSP, or “eHarmony for jaguars”, wanted to pair Maya up with a male for breeding as well. So the SSP decided to not only send us Maya, but a young male named Tesoro from the Living Desert Zoo to be her mate in the future.

As you can imagine, this has led to quite the soap opera when it comes to love triangles. Kan Balam, the older experienced male, was first introduced to Maya. Both cats got along very well and enjoy each other’s company! The carnivore keepers thought it best to wait until Tesoro got a bit older to meet Maya since both he and Maya had only ever been with their siblings.  When he first came to Houston, Tesoro was only 1.5 years old.  Jaguars do not become sexually mature until age 2.5 – 3 years old.  So this March, right around Tesoro’s third birthday, we decided to introduce him to Maya.

We waited until Maya was in estrus, the period at which female jaguars are cycling and most receptive to males, and began to do introductions. Maya was very interested in the younger, very attractive male and introductions went…let’s just say very well. We believe the success we have had with introducing Maya to Tesoro is in part thanks to Kan Balam. Being older and experienced, he taught Maya proper jaguar courtship and how to interact with male jaguars.

Maya is now the lucky leading lady of both Kan Balam and Tesoro’s lives and will be sharing her habitat with one or the other on a daily rotation.

 

May’s Featured Member – Tim Daponte and Ginnie Muller family

We love our Members. Their incredible support allows us to make a difference to animals both locally and all over the world. This month, we’re spotlighting Zoo Members that deserve recognition. We’re thrilled to introduce you to May’s Featured Members: Tim Daponte and Ginnie Muller family.


We asked Tim and Ginnie  what being Zoo Members meant to their family. Here’s what they had to say. “Our family history with the Houston Zoo began on one of our first dates so we naturally became members after we got married. With Matthew’s birth, we began a tradition of visiting the Zoo every week.

At age two, he insisted on “resting like a Rhinoceros” during nap time whenever he could not go to sleep.  When Ginnie was expecting George, Tim brought Matthew to the Zoo every Friday after school to give her time to rest. His preschool teachers could not believe his extensive knowledge of animals and their native habitats. Matthew celebrated his 4th birthday at the Zoo with his classmates and attended Zoo education programs in the summers and on weekends. Tim and Matthew especially loved the behind-the-scenes tour of the Kipp Aquarium where Matthew fed a rescued Kemp’s Ridley Sea Turtle.

George has a most special relationship with the Houston Zoo, its animals and staff. While Matthew’s weekly visits to the Zoo were interrupted by the increasing demands of school, sports, and Scouts, George has thrived on the routine of Zoo visits every Saturday morning. He enjoys the sensory experience of being outdoors in all weather conditions and the bonds he creates with the animals. As a non-verbal, autistic and intellectually disabled boy, George experiences the Zoo at a different level in a highly sensitized way. For years, he headed directly to the Giraffes and remained there, walking back and forth. Although he rarely looked at the Giraffes, his quiet presence did not go unnoticed by them, as they would stop eating and walk towards the railing as soon as they saw him approaching. There they would remain until he waved goodbye and wandered to another exhibit. His favorite Houston Zoo animals with which he spends countless hours include the typically motionless Shoebill Stork, the constantly moving Maned Wolf, and the wounded Bald Eagle whose exhibit was particularly attractive when it contained a replica nest to sit in and required walking on a ramp with hanging plastic chains to access it. His favorite exhibits include the Kipp Aquarium where George loves to run around in the dark and Natural Encounters where he retreats from the crowd by the Naked Mole-Rats. At the McGovern Children’s Zoo, he explores the Bat caves, hangs with the Swift Fox, watches the Ducks and Pelicans, and presses buttons which make bird and animal noises. At the Swap Shop, George enjoys the many wonderful items to touch offered by Suzanne and seeks refuge from extreme heat and occasional downpours (although we miss the cats Penny and Bagherra). At the end of each visit, George celebrates with a high-five from cheerful Elena as we exit.

George’s parents are not the only ones who follow him throughout the Zoo, alternately waiting patiently when he finds a particular spot where he wants to stay or running to catch him when he takes off. About four years ago, we met two little boys and their father, Robert, who like us visit the Zoo every Saturday and arrive before the gates roll up. Noah and Joey instantly loved the challenge of following their new friend George who was much older, taller and faster. They let him be the leader in this special game invented out of necessity since George, who has difficulty understanding and playing games, will not follow them.  Despite George’s lack of social and communication skills, he has formed a special bond with these boys with whom he is uncharacteristically comfortable sharing his personal space. Their friendship is just another amazing experience we attribute to our Houston Zoo membership.”

From all of us here at the Houston Zoo, we want to say thank you to all of our Zoo Members. As a Houston Zoo Member, your support truly makes an impact on the growth of our Zoo and conservation efforts. THANKS!

Carnivore Training – Animal School

Written by Stephanie Mantilla


“Do your lions go to school too?” was the question an elementary school child asked after the lion keeper mentioned that our lion sisters are eight years-old, just like them.

“Actually, they do go to school in the sense that the lions have to learn things like you do at school.” the keeper said.

 

The most important part of a zookeeper’s day is animal care. These are things such as feeding and cleaning but also equally important is making sure the animals are mentally stimulated. One way that zookeepers do this is through training. Believe it or not, you can train a cat! The carnivore keepers work on training sessions with all of the carnivores daily, and often multiple times per day. Many times when people hear the word “training” they think of dogs doing tricks. Instead of tricks, we focus on behaviors related to animal care in our training sessions.

The carnivore department uses positive reinforcement based training. For anyone who has a pet cat at home, you are well aware that if your cat doesn’t want to do something you ask, they won’t, and there isn’t much you can do about it. The same can usually be said for the large and small cats at the zoo. During training, keepers are safely outside of the habitats and will sound a whistle whenever the cat completes an action asked by the keeper. Think of it like a game where the whistle means “correct” but no whistle means “incorrect.” During training, if the cats hear the whistle, they know that a tasty treat is on the way. And if an animal decides they don’t want to train that day, they still receive their daily diet. It’s important to note that we don’t force our animals to do anything, and their participation is totally optional. The treats received during training are yummy extras to their meals, making the sessions even more rewarding for the cats.

Each carnivore has a favorite treat that the trainers will save for a training session. The lions are partial to goat’s milk, while the jaguars really like whole prey items, such as mice and chicks (previously frozen then thawed). Unsurprisingly, our bears’ favorite training treats are honey and fruit. Our cougars think all food is delicious but capelin (fish) is one of their favorites. All of these special food items mean that the animals in the carnivore department look forward to training time.

Training not only stimulates the carnivores’ minds, it also allows the animals to participate in their own medical care. Many of the trained behaviors are husbandry behaviors. Having a cheetah show you their paws, open their mouth, receive a vaccine injection, or allow blood to be drawn voluntarily from their tail allows the keeper to keep a close eye on the cat’s health and helps to strengthen the relationship between the animal and the veterinarians. During these training sessions, the animals could decide to leave at any time, so it is the goal of the trainer to make sure the sessions stay positive so the animal wants to participate.

A few of the carnivores could be considered to be on the Advanced Placement route, since they learned the standard list of behaviors so quickly. Kan Balam, our elderly male jaguar, knows over 20 different behaviors and his trainers are constantly working to teach him more. Some of his fun behaviors are to climb, dig, and hop onto a table. Our female cougar, Haley, will leap around her habitat, showing off her acrobatic abilities. Hansel, the male fossa, proves that even the little carnivores love training. When cued, he will climb to the top of his habitat at such speeds it would make a lemur squirm. Now that you know about the training we do in the carnivore department, come and see our carnivores put their training to use at our keeper chats!

Pen Pals to Save Okapis: Environmental Education

Written by Mary Fields


In the last pen pals blog, Jean Paul told us about some of the conservation work that the Okapi Wildlife Reserve does. In this blog, we will hear about the key to conservation, education!

Just like our wonderful staff and volunteers at the Houston Zoo, the OWR staff educates people in and around the reserve. They are able to reach out to the general public, schools, the government and army officials.

So how do they reach out to the general public? First of all, conservation groups do not just tell people to completely change their ways. They help out the local communities and inspire them to help save species and their habitat. The OWR holds public meetings with villages for various conservation issues. Focus groups are provided for the women in the area to help provide access to sustainable resources, such as water and fire wood. Sustainable practices are also encouraged for the farmers in the communities. Environmental issues are also broadcasted on radio stations in and around the reserve. Basically, the key is that the OWR is very involved in and care about their community!

How do they reach out to schools? The OWR realizes that getting kids started early in helping out the environment has major benefits! The OWR has provided environmental curriculum for primary schools. Conferences are also held at secondary schools and universities for students to discuss things such as the protection of the forest. And just like local schools going on field trips to the zoo, students around the OWR get to go to the Epulu station for field trips.

Now that you know how the OWR helps out okapis in the wild, you probably want to know how you can help. Simple, you can help by recycling your cell phones and electronics! You can recycle these at the Houston Zoo’s entrance and the African Forest. Make sure to follow our blog to continue learning about okapi conservation and hear more from Jean Paul!

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Do you wanna build a snowman? Don't miss Snow Days this weekend from 9 a.m. to noon (or 'til the Texas heat melts it away). Thanks to TXU Energy this winter wonder will be here today and tomorrow! ... See MoreSee Less

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Do you wanna build a snowman? Dont miss Snow Days this weekend from 9 a.m. to noon (or til the Texas heat melts it away). Thanks to TXU Energy this winter wonder will be here today and tomorrow!

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Yay, planning to visit tomorrow! How's parking for 9am arrival?

So wish Texas wasn't so far away from Georgia right now. Looks so fun!

I'm originally from Canada...you have no idea how happy this makes me!

My kiddos loved it. Had an awesome time!!

Loren Otero snow days again

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Happy National Zoo Keeper Week! We are proud of all the hard work, passion, and dedication seen in ALL our zoo keepers, and Sara Riger is no exception! Sara has been nominated for the American Association of Zoo Keepers #goldenkeeper award, and you can vote for her to win. Simply follow the link to the original post and LIKE her photo. Next time you're at the Houston Zoo, stop by the Naturally Wild Swap Shop to see Sara in action! ... See MoreSee Less

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Happy National Zoo Keeper Week! We are proud of all the hard work, passion, and dedication seen in ALL our zoo keepers, and Sara Riger is no exception! Sara has been nominated for the American Association of Zoo Keepers #goldenkeeper award, and you can vote for her to win. Simply follow the link to the original post and LIKE her photo. Next time youre at the Houston Zoo, stop by the Naturally Wild Swap Shop to see Sara in action!

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I actually met her a few months ago with two of my friends kids. She brought out a Madagascar Hognose snake. She was super informative and kind to my kiddos. They has a great experience talking to her and talked about it all day! You go girl!!!!

Sara is truly phenomenal!!!! Go LIKE this picture!!!!

Don't forget you have to like the actual picture!

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