Behind the Scenes with the SPARK Team

Written by Celina Burgueño


The wide brim of my hat is slipping down over my eyebrows. I push it back, reaching my other hand around to check the switch of my microphone. It’s pushed to the left: on, just like it has been the last fourteen times I repeated this routine. The audience is pouring into the space, filling the room all the way to my toes, but is oblivious to my presence, focused on the stage at the front. I take a few steps backwards, stand in the corner and calm myself, shaking out one limb at a time until the hat slips forward again. I push it back one last time and take a deep breath as the opening announcement is made and the crowd goes silent for the start of the SPARK World Tour.

Of course, to call it a “World Tour” is a bit of an exaggeration. It was one stop, 15 minutes down the road. What is not an exaggeration is how much it thrilled our SPARK Team trio. If you’re a reader of these blogs, you’ll have seen the post a few months back about what it is that our SPARK Team does for the zoo. If you haven’t, I can summarize it in this: we are a three-person team focused on guest engagement on zoo grounds. And as much as our trio loves that role, we always talk about our biggest dream: to take our work beyond the zoo gates. This was especially true for our favorite project, The Conservation League of Heroes, the SPARK team’s fifteen-minute play of antics focused on how recycling plastic saves sea turtles.

As the busy summer crowds at the Zoo were winding down with the start of school, it seemed our beloved show was heading towards a winter hiatus. Then came MacGregor Elementary School. With the support of the Zoo, the students at MacGregor held a loose change fundraiser, raising over $1500 for the Tiger Conservation Campaign in honor of their school mascot, and we wanted to congratulate that work. But how? It had to be something that could go to the students instead of bringing 550 of them to us. It had to be something that would engage children spanning in age from pre-k to fifth grade. And it had to be something that would remind them they could continue to save animals in the wild, long after their fundraiser had ended. It had to be The Conservation League of Heroes.

The long road to the tour is running on looped montage in my mind as I stand behind the crowd, ready to make my entrance: the first performance for Camp Zoofari, the trims and additions to the script, building the pop-art style “Conservation Wall of Fame”, the slips and falls every time we practice the chase scene. 20 minutes later there’s a new clip for the montage: the way it looked from the stage when every hand in the auditorium filled the air, curled into the shape of a C, as the students recited our Conservation Pledge, those last few, monumental minutes of the play:

I pledge to be a hero, take action big and small.
To help protect our planet, for once and for all.

No matter how many stops our World Tour makes, I think that moment will always be my favorite.

National Dairy Goat Awareness Week

By: Heather Kilway and Megan Paliwoda

On a beautiful summer morning, under a yellow tent in the shadow of the Washington Monument, representatives of the American Dairy Goat Association presented 6 kids (baby goats) to the US Department of Agriculture, officially marking June 12th, 1986 as the first ever National Dairy Goat Awareness Day. Two years later, on June 17th, 1988 the United States Congress voted that the second Saturday through the third Saturday of June would from that day forward be recognized as National Dairy Goat Awareness Week. This week is typically celebrated every year with fun goat activities such as: milking, hoof trimming, and goat obstacle courses. In honor of National Dairy Goat Awareness Week 2018, the Houston Zoo would like for you to come out and celebrate with us; but in the meantime, here are some fun facts about our dairy goats.

The Houston Zoo is home to 5 different breeds of dairy goat, which can be found in the petting zoo area of the McGovern’s Children’s Zoo:

Nigerian Dwarf: This breed originated in West Africa and is known as one of the smaller breeds of dairy goat, standing roughly 23” (2 feet) high at the shoulder. Nigerian Dwarves are known for their high-quality milk which contains a large percentage of butterfat (high butterfat content gives milk a richer, more creamy taste). They are also very friendly and hardy goats, that can thrive in almost any climate.


Alpine: Originating in the French Alpine mountain region, Alpine goats were introduced to the U.S. in 1920. They are known for their long lactation periods and for producing large amounts of high-quality milk. Alpines are also famed for being curious, friendly, and strong willed. Another fun fact is that Alpines can come in a variety of colors and usually have LONG HAIR!! At the Houston Zoo, our two Alpines, Chewbacca and Han Solo, love getting their hair brushed by guests.


Nubian: Nubian’s today have both African and Indian ancestors. This breed is known for their high-quality, high butterfat milk production. They are very adorable with their long floppy ears, strong “Roman” noses, and their tendency to be vocal. At the Houston Zoo, our Nubians (Alvin, Simon, and Theodore) are easy to spot due to their rich brown color and the fact that Nubian goats are generally at least 30” (almost 3 feet!) tall at the shoulder, and normally weigh around 135 pounds.


Saanen: Saanen goats are the largest of all the dairy breeds (even taller than Nubians!) and are even referred to as “Queen of the Dairy Goats” due to their majestic appearance and calm nature. Saanen goats originated in Switzerland and can come in different shades of white. They are known for regularly producing large amounts of milk, as well as for their sturdiness and tolerance of environmental change. Elsa, is the only Saanen goat currently at the Houston Zoo, and is considered by many to be Queen of the Herd.


Pygmy: Originally from Africa, this very small breed of goat stands no bigger than 22”-23” tall at the shoulder. Pygmies are referred to as being “compact” and having a large circumference (meaning they are noticeably round in the middle). They are known for their high-quality milk production which has an incredibly high butterfat content. Not only that, but Pygmies are hardy, animated, and very social. The three pygmy goats that live at the Houston zoo are: Belle, and her younger twin brothers, Seamus and Finnegan. (You may even see the Fantastic Finnegan performing at The Houston Texans Enrichment Zone!)

May’s Featured Members: The Duncan 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 family of Zoo Members that deserve recognition. We’re thrilled to introduce you to May’s Featured Members: the Duncan family.


We asked the Duncans to share a few words about what being Zoo Members means to them. Here’s what they had to say.

“Like Rudyard Kipling’s Jungle Book mongooses we strive to live by the family motto “Run and Find out!” The Houston Zoo affords us with consistent opportunities to do just that. We have been members of the Houston Zoo for the past three years, years that have given us countless opportunities to learn and to grow, to ask questions and to seek answers, and to quite literally run and find out.

The Naturally Wild Swap Shop has long been a favorite of our family. No matter where we are we keep our eyes peeled for interesting natural finds that we can collect and research and trade. Our son, Nils (4), has been saving up his swap shop points and dreams of one day owning his own piece of dinosaur coprolite. Our daughter, Carolena (6), has been swapping for years and now has an amazing collection including an African porcupine quill, a pearl, and a small fossilized dinosaur bone. The swap shop has encouraged us to keep asking questions and finding answers and looking for interesting discoveries at every turn.

One of the best things about our trips to the Houston Zoo is gaining first-hand exposure to such a variety of animals. Lions, and tigers, and… Go Away Birds! Our children are often asked “what is your favorite animal?” when people discover we frequent the zoo. We can’t help but laugh at the surprise in people’s faces when our son enthusiastically replies, “the Go-Away Bird!” Birds are popular with us as Carolena loves the flamingoes, Casey loves the storks, and Chris always stop hoping to hear the kookaburras laugh. The zoo continues to introduce us to animals we never knew and reintroduce us to the ones we only thought we did.

Time at the zoo is always time well spent. We never regret the choice to spend time with family and friends, enjoying the outdoors, and growing deeper in our appreciation for animals and one another. Whether bundled up in coats or slathered in sunscreen, no matter the season you can find our family enjoying the Houston Zoo and all it has to offer.  From the tropical bird house to the giraffes and yes, the mongooses whose family motto we share, our family loves to spend time at the Houston Zoo where we run and find out.”

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

Mourning Zuri

We are mourning the loss of 34-year-old Western lowland gorilla, Zuri. The elderly gorilla was under treatment for severe gastrointestinal disease for the past few months, and after a full assessment of his quality of life, and the worsening of his disease despite treatment, the gorilla team and the veterinarians made the difficult decision to humanely euthanize the nearly 400-pound ape.

Zuri was the head of the family troop of gorillas and could be seen most afternoons in the habitat in the company of Holli, Binti, and Angel. Zuri was an easy-going silverback and sired 10 offspring, including 15-year-old Sufi Bettine, who recently moved to the Toledo Zoo as a part of the gorilla species survival program.

Zuri had a known heart condition that has been under treatment in partnership with MD Anderson cardiologists. Cardiac disease is a known problem for great apes, like gorillas, and the Houston Zoo has been working with the Great Ape Heart Project for many years to help study this matter.

The Houston Zoo has helped to increase wild gorilla populations in Africa through partnerships with Gorilla Doctors providing medical care for wild individuals, Conservation Heritage–Turambe providing gorilla saving education, and GRACE: Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center providing care for orphaned wild gorillas.

Gorillas face many challenges in the wild, but the zoo is part of efforts in Africa that are finding solutions to these threats.

Representing the Houston Zoo’s Mission

Today the Houston Zoo unveiled exciting plans for the future. We’re transforming the very heart of the Zoo and taking our visitors around the world from the far reaches of South America and the Galapagos Islands to our very own Texas wetlands. These projects are the physical expression of our mission to connect communities with animals to inspire action to save wildlife.

Our commitment to our mission goes deeper than our physical footprint. We are passionately committed to living this mission every day, in everything we do. To more effectively express the Zoo’s mission and vision visually, we are proud to introduce a new Houston Zoo logo.

The new Houston Zoo logo is fresh and crisp, and it embodies what the Houston Zoo stands for today. It symbolizes the connection we share with the natural world around us and reflects our commitment to saving animals in the wild. It’s built of two hands, which emphasizes the critical role people play in saving wildlife; the green colors reflect natural landscapes; and the “Z” that has been a part of the Houston Zoo logo for so many years still has its place, in a new, modern way.

To craft this new visual identity, we worked with local design firm Principle. They met with Zoo stakeholders, conducted many interviews, sketched more than 400 ideas, presented concepts, and worked with us to finalize what you see today. We could not be more pleased with our partnership with their firm and the work they have done with us.

Soon you’ll start seeing the Houston Zoo logo around town, online, globally at our conservation partner sites, and when you visit the Zoo. When you see it, we hope you will be reminded of everything it stands for. We hope you will be inspired to see the animals at the Houston Zoo and to help save them in the wild.

March’s Featured Member: Karla Hamilton

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 March’s Featured Member: Karla Hamilton.


We asked Karla to share a few words about what being a Zoo Member means to her. Here’s what she had to say.

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“I love being a member of the Houston Zoo. In June of 2010, I went to The Houston Museum of Natural Science everyday to see Lois the Corpse flower while she was blooming. In September of 2011, a friend of mine called to tell me about Pewtunia the Corpse flower at the Houston Zoo. I immediately went down there to see her and became a member of the Zoo that day! I try to get to the Zoo every member morning as my schedule allows. I am a freelance artist and calligrapher and love taking pictures for my own pleasure and to incorporate in my drawings. I love talking to the keepers and appreciate the love they have for the animals and their jobs. I also am a member because I see that the Houston Zoo is a vital part to bringing awareness to the plights of animals in the wild and hope my small contribution is a help.

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Also I appreciate how some of the animals were rescued from bad situations and given a better life at the Zoo! I have become fascinated with the Gorillas and the Red River Hogs. I love seeing the babies that have been born there, especially the Flamingos and how fast those little white balls of fluff grow. I try to always see the Cats (I have 3 house cats of my own) and was sad when Jonathan died, but he had a good life. After December’s Member morning, I have now put the Elephants on my regular walk. I can’t wait to see their new environment. I am a great fan of Dinosaurs and was thrilled by the Dinosaur exhibit I went twice. Each month I try to see either the Reptile house, Birds, Bugs, Aquarium and Natural Encounters. There is so much to see and learn about I never get tired of going and appreciate the extra perks like Photo day and the Horticultural tour!”


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

Welcome to The Year of the Bird!

Written by Jessica Clark


We here at the Houston Zoo are very excited to be participating in monthly events to get the word out on how important and cool birds are. The month of February is when The National Audubon Society does their Great Backyard Bird Count. This count helps researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society learn more about how birds are doing, and how to protect them and the environment. A bunch of us at the Zoo love to go out on our time and bird watch. So, we thought it would be fun to give you some bird watching tips.

  1. Find a good field guide. The ones we like here, are Sibley’s Guide to Birds and National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America. Peterson Field Guide to the Birds of North America is a classic. But if you want photograph’s instead of drawings, The Stokes Field Guide to the Birds of North America and the Kaufman Field Guide to the Birds of North America are the way to go. There are also some great field guide apps.

2. Get a decent pair of binoculars. For birding you want a magnification of 8 or 10. So look for a pair that says it is 8×42 or 10×42, for example. Binoculars fit everybody’s eyes differently, so head to a sporting goods store and try a few out. They also come in a large price range, but there are some good, inexpensive ones out there. And don’t forget that strap!

  1. Find out what to expect to find. If you are going to a park (and Texas has some awesome state and local parks) see if they have a checklist. Some of them have them online and some you can pick up at the ranger offices. These checklists will tell what you may see while visiting a park. They are usually categorized by time of year you may see the bird and how common they are.

There are also some websites that tell you birds you can find in your area if you are doing some backyard or roadside birding.

  1. Learn the four-step of identification. What is the bird’s size and shape; what its main color pattern; take note of its behavior; and factor in what habitat it’s in. Do a little research on where the birds will be. Are they going to be in the tree tops, on the ground, or in the water for example. The internet and your field guide should be able to help with this. Don’t want to be wasting your time looking for an arboreal dwelling bird if you are in scrublands or a duck in the desert.

5. Find a birding group. Your local Audubon website, can let you know if there are groups or trips in your area. Like us here at the zoo, birders love to talk about birds.

  1. Record your sightings. Buy a diary to help you keep track of what and where you have seen birds. There are so many birds, it is easy to forget what you have seen. There are also apps for that. The Ebird app is a great one and you can use it to let other birders know what you have seen.

Houston is a wonderful place for birding because we are on the migratory bird route. You can see many varied species in the area. We took a thirty-minute walk just around Herman park a few days ago and saw 17 different species. From water birds like Ring- billed ducks, Pie – billed grebes, Gadwalls, American coots, Black- bellied whistling ducks and both Double crested and Neo tropic cormorants, to Robins, Yellow – rumped warblers, Pine warblers, Cardinals and Blue Jays.  We even saw a juvenile Bald eagle flying with a Red – tailed Hawk.

So, get out there, enjoy nature, and go birding!

 

The March of the Flamingos: A look into Flamingo “Dating”

Written by Carrie Mansfield


As we approach the spring season, you may notice our Chilean Flamingos becoming more active than usual. Chilean Flamingo courtship happens long before they even begin to build their nests in the summer time. Around January and February, our flock at the Houston Zoo can be seen head flagging, which is one of the first breeding behaviors they start to display. The flamingos will elongate their necks as much as possible and move their heads side to side, looking a lot like flags blowing in the wind.

In March and April, the flock will begin to do wing displays. Some can be seen standing tall and sticking their wings straight out to their sides. Others can be seen leaning forward, like a bow, and flipping their wings straight up to the sky. Some even do a wing display including one of their legs. They will stretch their leg back and to the side while simultaneously stretching their wing on the same side.

Once it gets closer to May, our flock can be seen marching around the island in their exhibit. This is by far my favorite behavior they do, because the whole flock will do it together. This is the indication that the flock is ready to start breeding and they will soon start to pair off. The females will choose the male that has the most impressive dance moves. Once paired off, you can spot the males closely following their female mate wherever they go.

I know a lot of this may be hard to picture, so here is a video from National Geographic of a flamingo flock marching.

Some of our Conservation Education team have also performed an interpretive dance depicting flamingo breeding behaviors. Enjoy.

 

Take some time on your next visit to the zoo to observe our Chilean Flamingo flock and see if you can spot any of these unique behaviors.

And if you’re looking for environmentally friendly ways to impress your sweetheart this Valentine’s day, here are a few things you can do:

  • Make a stuffed animal out of old clothing. The gift will be one of a kind and a great way to upcycle clothes you aren’t using anymore
  • Give a potted plant instead of a bouquet of flowers. A potted plant can be enjoyed for many years
  • If you take your special someone out for dinner, say no to the straw and bring your own Tupperware for leftovers. This will help prevent more plastic waste from entering our oceans
  • Or the best gift of all: create your own jazzy flamingo dance. Who doesn’t love a good dance partner?!

Thanks for reading and I hope that you will join us and National Geographic in the celebration of the year of the bird!

Meet the Mata Mata!

This is one seriously cool turtle.  It is a monotypic genus, which means that it is the only species in the genus.  They live in the Amazon river system in South America and hang out in warm shallow muddy water with lots of vegetative debris.  The shell and skin are excellent camouflage in this habitat, including how the head (with fringes of extra skin with sensitive nerves), looks like mucka mucka leaves (a common aquatic plant).  The snout is a long thin snorkel like tube that is raised to the surface to breathe.

 

Mata matas either ambush or slowly stalk their prey.  When suitable prey is within reach, the head shoots forward and the floor of the mouth lowers.  Just before the mouth reaches the prey, the  mouth opens, creating a vacuum, and prey and water rush into the mouth (which is called the buccal cavity).  The mouth then shuts, but not quite all the way, the floor of the mouth rises, pushing most of the water out, and the prey is swallowed.  This happens so fast, that you can barely see it.  Check it out!

Guest Blogger: Jessica Jones – 2017 Collegiate Conservation Program Intern

This post was written by Jessica Jones. Jessica is a sophomore at University of Houston and was a Collegiate Conservation Program (CCP) intern during the 2017 summer.  Take a look at Jessica’s experience and head to the CCP website to learn more and to apply for summer 2018!


My experience with the Collegiate Conservation Program allowed me to learn about various career opportunities within the environmental field. I started the internship as a Biology major, but at that time I was still unsure of my career path. The internship exposed me to the many jobs related to conservation and to the idea that everyone involved has an impact. The most memorable experiences I had on- and off- zoo grounds involved interacting with the public. Animal handling sparked conversations with zoo guests on the characteristics of the animals along with how we can improve their situation in the wild. One example was sharing the message of one of the ambassador animals, an American alligator named Dr. Teeth. We educated guests on the importance of alligators as they help control the ecosystem population. Through personal interactions with guests who truly wanted to learn about each animal, I realized my passion was sharing the message with others. Another on-zoo grounds benefit was the opportunity to meet with different departments such as development, marketing, education, horticulture, and many more. My encounter with the marketing team expanded my perspective of a business career as I had always been set on science. I learned that marketing was working hand in hand with helping save animals in the wild and that it is an essential part of educating the public.

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What I had learned on zoo grounds developed as we met with many of the partner organizations off grounds. From invasive species removal to dune restoration, I experienced what it would be like to work hands on with the environment as a career. Early in the internship, we were able to experience the emergence of 10 million Mexican free-tailed bats from Bracken Cave. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen, and it lasted for hours. This internship educated me on the existence of a colony of bats right here in Houston. My fellow interns and I met a young girl around the age of 8 at the Waugh Bat Bridge. Her craving to learn about the bats was inspirational. I want all children and adults to be educated about the importance of the world around us. This 10-week life changing internship helped me investigate my interests and ultimately alter my career path. I have come to believe my passion for conservation may best be pursued through an influential marketing career where I can connect and inspire people of all ages.

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