Give the Gift of Grub to Banded Mongooses!

Often when people come across an animal that is working with a trainer here at the Houston Zoo, they see how much fun everyone is having. And it’s true – it is a lot of fun! Guests enjoy watching the keepers interact with the animals and the keepers love training – it’s one of the coolest parts of our job. Even the animals seem to enjoy themselves and it’s very stimulating for them. Because we use positive reinforcement training at the Houston Zoo, the animals choose to participate in training and it’s one of the most dynamic ways we can enrich them, both physically and mentally.

Porcupine Training

All fun aside, there’s a deeper purpose to a lot of the training we do here. When we train an animal to get on a scale, to climb in a kennel, or even voluntarily receive an injection, those are important behaviors – we call them husbandry behaviors – that help make the routine care our animals receive safe and much easier for everyone involved. This type of training is essential, and it can’t happen without…GRUB! Positive reinforcement training only works if there is something that motivates the animal to participate, and for most animals (including me!) delicious food is extremely motivating.

Recently I began caring for a new group of animals in the Children’s Zoo – banded mongoose! There are six of them, three males and three females. They are active, curious and fun to watch – if you haven’t seen them yet, stop by the McGovern Children’s Zoo – but there are several big challenges to caring for them. How do you weigh, medicate, or check on a very intelligent animal that has a burrow underground? How do you even tell them apart?! Training is the answer, so it’s a good thing for us that the mongooses are VERY food motivated.


The mongooses are omnivores just like us. They love to eat mice, chicks, meat, worms, crickets, and when they can’t find anything else, they’ll eat their salad (again, just like me!). We’ve used their love of food to train the females to come eat on one side of the exhibit and the males to eat on the other. Now when we need to get a good look at them to figure out who is who, we only have three to compare instead of all six at once. This is a huge help with medicating them and when we eventually teach them to get on a scale, it will help with that, too! Soon we will start using their favorite foods to encourage them to enter a kennel. Once they get comfortable with that it will be a piece of cake for us to move them at any time. That reduces stress for everybody!


When you give the Gift of Grub, you are giving much more than just food. You help us enrich the animals and make their lives healthier and better in so many ways. If you haven’t seen the mongoose in action yet make sure you stop by and watch them running, digging, and playing. With animals this rambunctious, I’m sure you’ll see why we’re glad for all the help we can get!

A gift of just $12 could provide 3 boxes of worms and $22 could deliver 3 boxes of crickets – two treats sure to please our mongooses! Visit the Grub Gift Shop to learn more about our annual grocery list and how you can give the Gift of Grub to the animals at the Houston Zoo. TXU Energy will double every donation made to the Gift of Grub campaign by December 31, dollar-for-dollar, up to $50,000! Don’t miss this opportunity for your contribution to have twice the impact on feeding your friends at the Zoo.



There's a Bat Out There! And it's Eating Mosquitoes, Not Your Blood

I’m a very lucky person because I get to be a zookeeper! The most rewarding thing about my career is waking up in the morning and knowing that I have an important job to do – a job that can make the world a better place. I get to spend time with animals, learn about them, and hopefully help others learn, too. Bats are one of my very favorite animals to talk about. In fact, you can come learn about bats every day at the zoo during our 10:30 Bat Chat! There are so many myths and so much fear and misinformation surrounding bats that I consider it a special honor to work with them and help people understand them better.


But even when you have the best job in the world you need a vacation sometimes. You would think that working day in and day out with the hundreds of animals in the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo I might want a break from fur, feathers, and talons, but nope!  When I take a trip I want to see lots of animals. So recently, my husband and I decided to visit Costa Rica.

Our first day there we got to our resort and starting exploring. We happened upon a quiet, dark building were a young couple was playing a game of pool. We asked them what else was in the building. They said, not much, but…

“Don’t go in the women’s bathroom!” the young woman warned me. “There’s a BAT in there!”


Needless to say my husband and I ran…but not in the direction the woman expected. When we reached the empty bathroom we slowed down and walked quietly inside. Sure enough, hanging from the ceiling was a small, brown bat, looking down at me with a very familiar face!

“It’s a Carollia!” I said. “A Seba’s short-tailed fruit bat like I take care of at the zoo!”

I had traveled over a thousand miles and the first animal that I saw was one that I spend hours with every week at the zoo – I take care of around 70 of them actually – and it was magical. I appreciated its warm, alert brown eyes, its constantly wiggling little ears, and its turned-up, leaf-shaped nose like I was seeing it all for the first time.


I inched closer until the bat finally got frightened and flew over our heads and out the door of the bathroom. We heard the woman outside start screaming. She screamed and screamed and screamed! When she finished she stuck her head in the bathroom, embarrassed.

“You guys didn’t scream,” she said.


As we walked away my husband said, “It’s so weird that she would react that way to such a tiny animal. It didn’t want anything to do with us. It wouldn’t let us get anywhere near it! And that woman screamed like she was being chased by a tiger!”

“Yeah,” I replied, “And the funny thing is, the bat was just trying to get away, so really, she wasn’t even being chased by a bat!”


Now, there are probably some of you out there who completely understand the woman’s reaction. It’s easy to let the big, scary idea of an animal that we learn from TV and movies and countless images get in the way of seeing something for what it is – in this case a very small, very shy animal. It can be hard for those of us who work with animals to understand how something we regard with so much excitement and awe could possibly be a source of fear, or worse, disgust for others.

A lot of people believe that every single bat has rabies, and it’s true that rabies is a scary, scary disease. If you see a bat that’s on the ground or out during the daytime, there is definitely something wrong. Bats are wonderful to watch but you should never touch a bat under any circumstances! You can check out this website for more information about wildlife and rabies and how to stay safe!

Bats and Rabies information from Bat Conservation International


All that being said, if you see a bat flying around at night doing normal bat things there is almost no chance that animal is sick, and even less chance it’s going to get anywhere near you!


For some reason, people also have the crazy idea that bats want to get in your hair. That’s an odd one. I’ve had the occasional bat accidentally land on me while I was cleaning their exhibit, but they never stay long and they don’t seem to have any interest in re-styling my ponytail. Some people even believe that bats will turn into vampires. It goes to show you how silly we can be when we let ourselves be afraid of something unknown. In reality, unless you’re an insect or a piece of fruit, there’s nothing frightening about bats.

When you take the time to learn about bats you start to see only the cool things, the ways in which bats are both incredibly strange and remarkably similar to us at the same time. The skeletal structure of a bat looks surprisingly like ours with hand and fingers bones stretched out into the amazing wings that make them the only flying mammal. Bats do so many of the same things we do! They eat food and try to stay safe, they have live birth and nurse their young. But they do it all upside down!


They have all these special adaptations because they have important jobs to do, too.  Whether it’s pollinating flowers so that plants can reproduce, eating mosquitoes and crop pests like they do in our own backyard here in Houston, spreading seeds around like the Seba’s short-tailed fruit bat, or helping researchers find ways to treat heart attack victims like the much maligned vampire bats, bats all have an important job to do – a job that makes the world better. A job we can’t afford for them to take a vacation from.

I really am a very lucky person. I get to take cool trips. I have a husband who will run into the lady’s room to look at a bat with me. In Costa Rica I got to see bats swirling around a waterfall deep in the jungle. I got to see bats catching fish in the ocean. And when I came home I got to go back to my important job where every day I get to watch bats lick nectar with a tongue that’s as long as their bodies and hang from the ceiling to take a bath just like a tiny, upside-down kitty cat.


I hope the next time you see a bat, whether it’s the first bat you’ve ever come across or your millionth, that you’ll think about the important job it’s busy doing and you’ll look at it like you’re seeing it for the first time. I hope you’ll think about how lucky you are – how lucky we all are! – to share the world with such strange and special creatures. And most of all I hope you’ll realize that understanding bats is an important job that YOU could do.

Bats emerging from the Waugh Drive bridge.
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