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!

April’s Featured Members: The Schmalz 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 a Zoo Member that deserves recognition. We’re thrilled to introduce you to April’s Featured Members: The Schmalz Family.

We asked the Schmalz’ what being Zoo Members meant to them. Here’s what they had to say. “Becoming a member at the Houston Zoo was an easy choice for our family. As a native Houstonian, I have fond memories of visiting the Houston Zoo as a child and wanted the same for our daughter June. Though the hippo house of my childhood is no more, we cherish the time we spend at the zoo making memories with our new favorite animals. Since becoming members last year, we have visited more times than we can count.

Member Mornings are a standing date on our family calendar and we look forward to having a backstage peek and learning something new every month. A recent Member Morning featuring the Asian Elephants was especially cold and rainy, but we all agree that it is the most fun zoo visit we can remember. The chilly temperature meant only the bravest Houstonians had the pleasure of learning all about residents Thai, Tucker & Baylor from Zookeeper Aaron. What a treat! Since the zoo is centrally located, we often enjoy meeting friends and family for an afternoon of animals and fun. The Houston Zoo is our family’s backyard and we look forward to being members and supporting our city’s landmark for many years to come.”

 From all of us here at the Houston Zoo, we want to say thank you to the Schmalz family and 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!

Water: The Science Beneath the Surface

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

Life Support Systems?! What the heck does that department do?  From filtration to chemistry, this blog series is a behind the scenes look into the Zoo’s most mysterious department.

Part I: Koi Stream in the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo

As anyone with a pond knows, the battle to keep things looking good is a never-ending one. Water can turn green overnight, making it difficult to see fish, and a thick carpet of slime can appear, seemingly out of nowhere. Both of these situations arise from some sort of imbalance in the pond, but the culprit is the same – algae.

There are tens of thousands of types of algae in natural aquatic systems. Mother Nature keeps them in check (just like all other species on the planet) as other organisms compete for resources, food and living space. Man-made water features are not as diverse as they are in nature, so there is little to no competitive pressure; in an outdoor pond, algae are often free to run wild.

This was the case with the newly renovated Koi Stream feature in the Children’s Zoo. The filtration system was upgraded, which made quick work of the single-celled algae that is able to turn clear water into pea soup, but hair algae is not so easily controlled – it is not suspended in the water like the single-celled varieties. If left unchecked, it grows on everything, trapping detritus (such as leaves and leftover food), slowing water flow and clogging filter intakes. In short, it can be an aquatic nightmare.

Algae in the koi stream.

So… what to do? There are a lot of chemicals that can be added to the water to kill algae, but none will permanently solve the problem. In fact, most will end up spawning even more problems! Here at the Houston Zoo, we prefer to work smarter and do things naturally; we needed to create more biological diversity in our aquatic habitat, and we decided that a great start was the addition of a teeny tiny invertebrate, the amphipod.

Amphipods are micro-crustaceans found in aquatic environments all over the world and vary widely in their habits. Some eat plants, others are scavengers, some are fierce predators, and some are even parasites. We needed a plant-eating species to tackle our algae issues, so with a few ampiphods donated by a Zoo volunteer, we began with a 600mL beaker of water with a sprig of aquatic plant and dead oak leaves to hide in. We offered these amphipods different types of algae found in various aquatic systems throughout the Zoo, but they didn’t seem to like any of it… we would have to try another species of ampiphod. Next, we collected a different species of amphipod from the Zoo’s Reflection Pool and offered them the same array of algae that we gave the first group – they didn’t seem to care for anything until we gave them hair algae from the Koi Stream, which they ate immediately.  We continued to offer Koi Stream algae over the next couple of weeks to make sure the novelty didn’t wear off.  Not only were the amphipods devouring the algae, they were growing and reproducing – SUCCESS!

Now that we had found the type of amphipod to address our algae situation, we needed a lot more of them. Three, twenty gallon amphipod breeding aquariums were set up in a secret location (not many amphipods get to have gorillas for neighbors!) We added sponge filters, submersible heaters, and plants, plus leaf litter to make their new home complete. Then, we divided our small colony between the three tanks and added a few dozen individuals from the Reflection Pool to supplement the population.  Once a week, we harvested hair algae from the Koi Stream to feed our new friends and within a few months, the population exploded into the thousands! Now we had the numbers to keep the Koi Stream algae under control, but we didn’t have the habitat to support this large population of hungry crustaceans… We couldn’t put them to work until they had a place to call home.

Amphipods can easily swim around to search for food, but the adults and young need small, confined spaces to hide in. Their preferences are dense aquatic plants (especially the roots) and leaf litter. Leaf litter wasn’t a good choice for us because it could interfere with our ability to keep the filtration system running smoothly. The Koi Stream has some natural hiding spots, but not enough for the number of amphipods we need to effectively control algae. And plants? Sometimes it’s difficult to establish plants in a koi system because koi love to eat plants!

We needed something that would support aquatic plant life while somehow keeping the plants away from the fish, that would also conform to the long narrow shape of our koi exhibit. “Floating islands,” which are planters that float on the water’s surface, allowing plant roots easy access to stream water were our best choice. Not only was this the answer to all the needs listed above, but the dense mesh that makes up the islands also provides ample habitat for our amphipods!

As mentioned before, nature is all about balance. Waste products generated by fish supply nutrients for plant life, and the more fish you have in a body of water, the more nutrients are available. By adding more plants to our koi system, we limit the nutrients available to algae since they are in direct competition with the plants for food. The plants (and floating islands themselves) will also create shade, which will help decrease algal growth, since the algae typically prefers direct sun. Adding voracious algae-eaters, our army of amphipods, will ensure that any hair algae that does manage to grow in the stream will be kept under control. The expected result will be a healthy, well-balanced exhibit with crystal clear water, using nothing but simple filtration and biodiversity.

Be sure and visit often to monitor our improvements to the Zoo’s outdoor aquatic systems – and stay tuned for floating planter updates and photos in our next blog entry, Children’s Zoo Koi Stream: Part II!

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

Saving a Critically Endangered Toad Species 7,300 Eggs at a Time

Written by Colin Thompson

While the Houston toad hasn’t been seen in the wild in Houston since 1973, the Houston Zoo currently houses about 400 of them. Every year, we use this captive assurance population to bolster the wild population in Bastrop County. In 2015 we released about 600,000 eggs and in 2016 we released over 775,000 eggs. During the 2017 breeding season, we hope to release even more! Moving those eggs from Houston to Bastrop is no simple task though. This year, we’re taking a closer look at the impact our transport practices could be having on the viability of the eggs after they’re released.

Houston toad eggs are very fragile, as they lack a hard or leathery shell like bird or reptile eggs. Instead, the eggs are suspended in a jelly which forms a long strand. Each female toad lays one egg strand per year, and each strand contains an average of 7,300 eggs, with larger strands reaching over 14,000! To make sure we are using the best possible methods to transport these large masses of eggs, we’re setting aside about 100 eggs from each egg strand to monitor as a “control group”. The “control” eggs stay at the Houston Zoo, while the rest of the strands are driven two and a half hours away to Bastrop County. When we arrive, we remove another 100 eggs from each strand before releasing the majority of the eggs into the wild. We then drive those 100 eggs back to Houston to observe alongside the control group. By doing this, we can see if the development of our eggs is being hindered by the journey to Bastrop County, allowing us to alter our methods for better viability.

So far, we’re finding that the transported eggs are developing at the same rate as the control eggs, which means our transportation methods are not having a negative impact. This is great news for Houston toads! Keep checking back for updates on this year’s Houston toad breeding project, and be sure to visit the Swap Shop and Reptile House to see this awesome native species in person!

Birthday Shenanigans

Written by Kimberly Sharkey

Our twin goat boys just turned 1!

Seamus and Finnegan are West African Pygmy goats that came to the Zoo at just two days old. They soon joined the rest of the herd, where they are now a guest favorite. The Children’s Zoo team decided to give them proper Irish names since their birthday was so close to St. Patrick’s Day.  On Sunday March 7th, we threw them a birthday party didn’t let the rain dampen the festivities. 

Zoo guests joined in on the celebration and sang them Happy Birthday while the boys enjoyed their cake and presents. One lucky girl that shares a birthday with the goats got a chance for a memorable moment and posed for birthday photos with them! The boys loved the attention and we look forward to celebrating many more birthdays with them in the future.  Stop by the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo on your next visit to wish the boys a happy birthday! 

We’re Accepting Volunteer Applications!

Written by Shina Bharadwaja

Adult volunteer applications are open through March 31, 2017!

We are so appreciative of our Zoo Volunteers, who play an important role in nearly every department at the Zoo. Whether you are interested in volunteering with events, animal teams, horticulture, or even administration, there is something for everyone. Our volunteers utilize service shifts to positively impact the Houston Zoo’s conservation efforts, locally, and around the world. With diversity in mind, we know that everyone has something unique and important to contribute to our Zoo. Therefore, we strive to provide opportunities where strengths can be applied while serving an important cause.

As a new volunteer, there are many opportunities to personalize your service by choosing from an array of shifts, such as guest service, events, and assisting in the goat contact yard. As our volunteers gain experience, they’re able to take advantage of specialized training opportunities like animal handling, interpretive storytelling, and much more! Volunteers can also join one of our many important (volunteer-run) committees which help the development of programs and shaping of Zoo culture.

If the Houston Zoo sounds like the place for you, join our conservation efforts and become part of our family by applying to be a volunteer! 

Mosquito Magnet

Mosquitos are naturally attracted to standing water, which is commonly found in items like old tires. When the tire is filled with water, they come in and lay their eggs. Houston Zoo Keepers drain the water twice each week, remove the larvae, and feed it to insects in the Bug House. The water is then re-used to attract other mosquitos. This is an easy and inexpensive way to control mosquitos! Learn how you can make your own.

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Houston Zoo Facebook Page

Take a look at our beautiful new elephant habitat that DOUBLES the existing elephant complex. It's open now, so come watch our elephants play, splash, and swim. You've gotta see this! ... See MoreSee Less


Comment on Facebook

That is great! I can't wait to come see it. Are there any plans to expand the giraffe exhibit ever? I feel like it's very small compared to all of the other really awesome exhibits for the big animals.

I feel like I've never seen grass in a zoo elephant habitat before- I bet they're hard on it! The whole exhibit looks incredible- especially the deep water! Amazing design; hope I can get to Houston one day to see it!

I took some of my daycare kiddos yesterday specifically to see the new space. They had it blocked off and wouldn't let anyone pass through the elephant area through to the hoofed animals. We were really sad we didn't get to see it.

Keep wild animals captive for the human entertainment. - Are we not better then that yet?? Shameful😢😢😢 And don't try to use that word 'conservation' - critical thinkers are smarter than that.

Yes THANK YOU for providing a more natural. Habitat for the elephant's. They need SPACE to roam. N the water added is awesome....they really needed that!

Waiting for some stupid kid to jump in and ruin it for the elephants.

Why have so many elephants babies died at your zoo ? it is because they are not meant to live in Captivity. Please set them free and stop breeding elephants for monetary value.

Not fond of most zoos, but at least these elephants are safe from killers like the Trump sons.

Jenny Carlisle I see a great excuse for Kimber to come visit besides to see her cousins!!

John and JoAnn we need to take Grant again. He will be so excited to see this!

So happy to see the Zoos continued support of the amazing Elephant Program

Karl Schuhknecht Let's go again when you get home! We can never go too much, right?

Sergey!! We have to go!! Definitely bringing mama Nina too 🙂🐘

Thank you providing a beautiful setting for their physical and mental health!

Remember it was under construction when we were there Nicky Lichtl

Molly Pesl it's time for us to go on a rainy day.... 😎👍🏼

Eddie - we gotta go soon so Adrian can see his favorite animal splish-solash

Dang! That is awesome! Why didn't you tell me it was this pretty Kristin!? 😜

JoAnn, looks like we're taking Thomas to the zoo soon! 😍

Lesli Gietz James Gietz Grant going to love see this 💙 🐘

Nichole, I think a trip to the zoo is in our future!!

Does Tye get to play as well? Thought one of the elephants was in his on enclosure

Allison Jones I want to go see the elephants in the pool!

Awsome! Just in time for the hot summer ahead...#splish & #splash

Love elephants. Such quiet, gentle, strong and wise creatures.

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Houston Zoo was live.
Houston Zoo

We are live from our HUGE new elephant habitat expansion. This incredible new area opens tomorrow! ... See MoreSee Less


Comment on Facebook

Do the Asian and African elephants coexist well?

how would you save a elephant if they had difficult swimming?

Is there opportunities for the public to get up close to see the elephants behind the scenes?

Do you offer any type of feeding or event like you have with the giraffes? Or sticking with the bath time?

Can they climb up on that ledge or is that just to keep them back from the fence

Will males and females be always separated now?

Do the elephants hug and let you get kisses?

When do the trainers talk this summer?

Will the females get to share the yard too?

How/where will males and females interact?

How much did this cost the taxpayers of Houston???

What is the depth of the pool?

About how long can they hold breath

Is there a web cam at the new yard?

How can you tell who is Tucker and who is Baylor

Are the elephants on display today?

How many elephants are there?

When is it open to public?

How deep is the pool

Still want to know why only the males are getting to use the new area.

I know they had said this habitat is for the males, does that mean the males and females will always be separated from now on

Gross question, but I'm curious... Do elephants defecate under water & is maintenance similar to a home pool?

@Cheree Neil It is to do with habits. Elephants when lacking enrichment complete stereotypical behaviours as they're known and swaying is one of them. It essentially is a display of boredom.

Kelsey Patterson - we are going to get to the zoo before you pop! Even if i have to push you around in one of those sea lion carts! LOL!

Ian, we love you and are so proud of you. Thank you for being our son.

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