Corals to Curassows: Wildlife Saved Across the Globe

From Houston Toads to sea turtles, corals to curassows, Houston Zoo keepers, veterinarians, other staff and volunteers are working to help save many species from extinction.


Here’s a visual recap of some of our successes in 2014. Click on the images to find out more about these victories for wildlife!


The Houston Zoo vet clinic not only treats zoo animals, but for years has cared for injured wild sea turtles rescued from the Gulf of Mexico. In 2014 alone we saved 89 turtles!


The Houston Zoo manages the captive breeding programs for the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken. We have breeding facilities both behind the scenes at the Zoo and at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.


Gorillas in the wild are endangered, and the Houston Zoo works with several organizations in Africa to protect and save them: Conservation Heritage – Turambe, Gorilla Doctors and GRACE.


The Houston Zoo supports the Lemur Conservation Network who work to save this unique group of animals in Madagascar. In 2014 through our support they replanted lemur habitat with 12,000 native plants!


The Houston Zoo has partnered with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Texas State University, and Texas Parks and Wildlife in an effort to recover the wild Houston toad population. Our goal is to keep this unique amphibian species from being lost to extinction forever!


Our Veterinary staff travels to the Galapagos Islands to assist with efforts to remove non-native animals introduced to the Galapagos that compete for resources and threaten the Galapagos tortoises.


The Houston Zoo has been working to save these birds since the 1970s – there have been more than 50 blue-billed curassows born in Houston.


We provide vital financial support to rhino conservation programs which enable community members to conduct anti-poaching efforts and monitor critical rhino populations.


You help wildlife just by visiting the zoo! A portion of each Houston Zoo ticket purchased goes towards protecting animals in the wild.

Skunk Works Out in Giant Wheel, Gets Fit

Lily the skunk was getting a bit round in the middle, and one of our amazing Houston Zoo volunteers came up with an ingenious solution – a giant wheel for her to jog in! Check out her workout:

When Lily was about a year old, keeper Stephanie Turner noted she had begun to put on a bit of weight. In addition to making healthy changes to her diet, she pondered a few ways for her to get more exercise. Volunteer Matthew Griffiths came up with a wild idea that had never been tried; a giant exercise wheel. If hamsters like running in wheels, why not skunks? Matthew had constructed a few items before as part of his volunteer work caring for zoo animals, but nothing this complex, and nobody was sure if the skunk would use it. Everyone was enthusiastic about the possibility, and Matthew spent several weeks designing and building a prototype.

The finished wheel is a combination of metal and 3D-printed plastic. Stephanie and Matthew set it up in Lilly’s room, and her natural curiosity took over – she hopped in to investigate. She grasped almost immediately how the wheel worked, and started regular walks and the occasional jog.

Lily’s enthusiasm for the wheel was so great that she wore out the original hollow shafts supporting the wheel; Matthew quickly replaced them and a few other small parts with sturdier pieces. The revised design has held up for more than six months of skunk workouts.

The best news is that Lily reached a healthy weight by the end of the summer, and has kept the weight off. Matthew is contemplating additions to the wheel such as a mile counter, and he’s pondering what other animals might enjoy a giant wheel to run in – mongoose wheel perhaps?

You won’t see Lily on exhibit in the Children’s Zoo; she’s a handling animal that comes out for the occasional Keeper Talk in the Children’s Zoo or a show at the Butterfly Stage. Her room and remarkable exercise wheel are tucked away in a private spot behind the scenes.

Houston Zoo volunteer Matthew Griffiths poses with exercise wheel he constructed using 3D printed parts for Lily the skunk.
Houston Zoo volunteer Matthew Griffiths poses with exercise wheel he constructed using 3D printed parts for Lily the skunk.

Shop at Whole Foods Market April 23 to Help Save Animals in the Wild

Shop at Whole Foods Market on Wednesday, April 23rd, and you’ll be helping to save wild elephants, lions, orangutans, sea turtles and a unique rare bird called a blue-billed curassow. Six Houston-area stores including all of the Houston locations and the Katy store are participating in this one-day-only event (Sugar Land has supported a different cause). Whole Foods will donate 5% of their profits earned that day to this fundraiser.

ZooBingoZoo staff will be at all participating locations from 11-1 to thank you for your support and answer any questions you might have about these conservation programs. Thank you Whole Foods Market for supporting us with this Community Giving Day!

There’s more ways to give and have fun at the same time at the Kirby Whole Foods Market: play Zoo Bingo from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. and win Zoo prizes! The proceeds from each pint of Karbach Love St. sold during Zoo Bingo will be donated to support the Houston Zoo’s wildlife conservation efforts.


Beloved Wildlife Carousel Staff Member Retires – Saying Bye to Melvin Francis

We’re so sad to say goodbye to Melvin Francis, our Wildlife Carousel Lead Operator who retired this week. “I just want to say thank you for all the waves, smiles, blow kisses, hi-fives and hugs I’ve received over the years,” smiles Melvin, “My goal was always to go beyond the borders to make someone’s day extra special when they visited the zoo, and I feel I’ve done that with so many people.”

Melvin & Carousel Kids

Melvin was at his post for nearly ten years, joining us when we built the carousel in May 2004. When he began, he effortlessly carried out the routine of the job. “But it felt incomplete to just stand there and watch it go around,” commented Melvin, and he added his signature wave to the children as they passed. “I also wanted to add something special as the ride ended, so I came up with ‘Top of the day to you!’ as they departed,” and he stuck with it as a crowd favorite over the years along with his smile-inducing “Bye!”

Working at the carousel has left Melvin with countless amusing memories. “One time a young kid brought me a candy bar, and I said ‘you have a free ride – no charge for you today.’ I ended up giving her two free rides. Then she got off, came up and asked for the candy bar back! I couldn’t say no, it was so funny.”

Over the years Melvin has seen toddlers grow into teens who keep coming back to ride their favorite animals. He was able to say hello to a number of after-school regulars and get to know many familiar faces. “It’s beautiful to see the joy the carousel ride brings to all these kids. What’s even better is to see them sharing that with the parents – to win the confidence and love of the parents through the happiness of the kids.”

And not just children can be carousel addicts. “One older couple had a goal of riding every single animal on the carousel – there are 64 animals. I saw them every single Saturday for months! They didn’t take any notes, just remembered which they’d ridden on and which they hadn’t, and kept coming back to ride a few times each week until they’d done them all.”


In addition to entertaining the carousel’s daytime visitors, the carousel also runs during a number of evening events. One of Melvin’s favorites was Dream Night, an annual event the zoo hosts for chronically ill and disabled children and their families. “Of all the nights of the year, that was one of the best to be able to participate in, to give something to those kids and their families.”

Melvin plans to spend more of his new free time with his three-year-old granddaughter. “The nickname I gave her is ‘cheetah girl.’ I’ll be bringing her to the zoo and to the carousel!”

Thank you Melvin for all the precious memories you’ve given to so many zoo visitors over the years.

Surprise! Flamingos Have Chicks For First Time in Six Years

The Bird department is all aflutter with flamingos – in the last three months they have had four chicks hatch behind the scenes and three hatch on exhibit to proud flamingo parents.

Flamingo parents keep a close eye on their lovable little cotton ball.

“We requested eggs from the Atlanta Zoo,” explained Birds Supervisor Mollie Coym, “and then were surprised by our flamingos having chicks of their own as well.” The first two hand-raised hatchings are Atlanta Zoo flamingos, and the remainder are all ours.

Keepers weren’t sure if our flamingos would sit on the eggs and keep them warm until they hatched, so at first they pulled the eggs to be kept in incubators, and replaced them with dummy eggs. “We were careful to keep track of which egg came from which sets of parents,” added Coym. When they showed great parental skills at egg sitting, keepers swapped the dummies back out with their original eggs, and soon the chicks hatched.

Is this a real egg or a dummy egg? Even the flamingo can’t tell.

When flamingo chicks hatch they resemble oversized cotton balls with beaks. They sprout up rapidly growing long necks and long legs, and their feathers turn a soft gray. Bright flamingo pink is first visible when they stretch their wings, but they won’t have their full adult plumage for two years, so you’ll be able to identify the young ones for quite some time on the webcams or your visit to the zoo.

I’ve grown into a huge grey cotton ball and I’m still just as cute!

Bird keepers walk their hand-raised chicks on a parade from behind the scenes to the flamingo yard every day at 2 p.m. Check the Daily Schedule on your next visit and join them for the parade! The daily parades will continue as they get gradually more independent, but sometime in the next two months they will likely be old enough to spend all their time with the other flamingos.

Flamingos on parade. I think this looks a bit like the Beatles Abbey Road album cover.

But don’t wait until then to see these cuties live; check them out on the Flamingo Webcam. If you’re watching the webcams you may see the parents feed their chicks a reddish liquid from their beaks – that’s crop milk. Don’t be alarmed – it’s supposed to be that color!

Like taking photos? Or just bird watching? This event is for you! Photo Day: Birding Phenomenon on Saturday, November 16 from 7 – 9 a.m.

Houston Zoo Video: Baby Flamingos Explore the Zoo

See the Siamangs Swing Through Their New Habitat

If you haven’t made it over to Wortham World of Primates recently, the newly renovated Siamang & Agile Gibbon Habitat is breathtaking. We’ve replaced the heavy wire mesh on the front with invisimesh, and you can see (and photograph!) through it like it wasn’t even there. Here’s one of the residents you’ll see:

Leela the siamang. This photo was taken through the new invisimesh!

Leela is our juvenile siamang, daughter to Jambi. She’s approaching her third birthday on October 3rd. Siamang babies take about four years to reach maturity, and she still spends lots of time with her loving mother. Here’s the two of them:

Leela and her mother Jambi

Leela is tilting her head up and vocalizing, which is why her throat sac is inflated. Siamangs are one of the apes you can hear throughout the zoo; their loud calls are designed to carry miles through the forests of their native southeast Asia. Here’s a great video of them vocalizing:

Fantastic video of siamangs vocalizing on (skip ahead to 00:28 when the vocalizations begin)

In this video they are also brachiating like circus stars. The new mesh in our Siamang & Agile Gibbon Habitat isn’t the only improvement; primate keepers worked with our Facilities staff to install an extensive system of new ropes and oak branches suspended by heavy ropes, for them to brachiate, or swing along.

OK they’re not brachiating here but this is a great photo, isn’t it? Watch the video for brachiation.

Leela and her mom Jambi have a new family member; male Berani was introduced to them this spring. He’s quite a bit smaller than Jambi so you might get them confused. Look for the tail-like tuft of hair and you’ll know it’s the male you’re seeing. These are apes, not monkeys; apes do not have tails.

These guys are not monkeys!
Apes = no tail
Monkeys = tail

Berani, our new male.

Smaller primates such as lemurs and marmosets also have tails.

Our siamangs were born and raised in zoos, but in the wild siamangs are endangered. Their native habitat in Malaysia and Borneo is being rapidly deforested. One of the main reasons is the planting of palm oil plantations. Find out more about palm oil and how your choices at the grocery store can help siamangs, orangutans and other endangered animals in the rainforest.

Leela’s siamang cousins in the wild are endangered.

These siamangs share their exhibit with Susie the agile gibbon. (Siamangs are the largest species of gibbon; the agile gibbon is smaller.) Susie is a rescued animal, who lived the first few years of her life as  “pet” and was neglected. Because of her difficult past she cannot live with other gibbons or primates, but they do not mind taking turns with their expansive habitat and giving her the run of the place when they are in their night house.

Susie the agile gibbon

See the siamangs and gibbon in the Wortham World of Primates daily. Keep in mind primates like the same nice weather we do and will be inside if it’s freezing or pouring rain.

Jambi and Leela basking in the sun and grooming

Would a Monkey Make a Good Pet?

Tarzan had his monkey Cheetah, Disney’s Aladdin had Abu, and Curious George lives with the Man in the Yellow Hat. There’s plenty of movie and TV references to monkeys living mostly harmonious – just a bit mischievous – lives with humans. But would a monkey really make a good pet?

Aladdin and Abu
Aladdin and Abu

The risks of adopting a larger ape such as orangutan or chimpanzee are clearer. Apes are up to seven times as strong as the average human and unpredictably aggressive – they have natural behaviors that serve them well in the wilds of Africa or Borneo but don’t translate to living rooms or backyards. The worse-case scenario is detailed here.

Apes can have lifespans of 50-60 years or more and need the social context of fellow primates of their own species and a natural environment in which to thrive.

But are small monkeys suitable as pets? Capuchins, ring-tailed lemurs, and squirrel monkeys might be the most common ones considered; in the show Friends Ross briefly had a pet capuchin, before it was confiscated as an illegal pet. In fact it’s illegal in over a dozen states to keep any monkey or ape as a pet, as the dangers are real for you and for the potential pet.

Ross and his
Ross from the show Friends with a capuchin monkey

Lynn Killam, Assistant Curator of Primates at the Houston Zoo, has worked with and cared for primates here for 32 years. She has received many calls from those thinking of acquiring one, asking for advice. “I tell people that primates are wild animals, and all primates are potentially aggressive. That’s why we do not go in with our apes and monkeys; the risk of being bitten is always a possibility.” Primate teeth are very sharp, their jaws are very strong, and bites are often severe.

To see some personal accounts and (warning, VERY GRAPHIC) photos of monkey bites, have a look at the stories on the Pet Monkey Info website.  The stories all have the same ring to them – “Mr. Buttons was such a good little monkey for years until one day when out of the blue… and then I spent months recovering from my injuries and my hand (or foot or eye) will never be the same again.”

Small monkeys might be more docile as infants, but they mature quickly and can live for up to 25-35 years. Primate keeper Lucy Dee Anderson works with many of our smaller primates such as tamarins and lemurs. “People think they might make a good pet as babies, because they are super cute, but they can’t care for them as adults.” Monkeys are typically sold as infants, taken at much too young an age from their mothers, and their adult life as a “pet” is typically tragic.

“As adults they can get relegated to awful cages where they are neglected,” explained Killam. In the wild these monkeys live in family groups with complex emotional interactions; they need that constant social support and when left alone, they develop emotional and mental problems.

Physical health is as much a concern as mental health for you and for the monkey; they’re similar enough to humans to carry illnesses we can catch. I won’t even mention the ebola virus which you aren’t likely to catch, but you could get ringworm, pink eye or parasites, and tuberculosis and Herpes B are also transmitted by monkeys, as well as the common cold. And monkeys are messy – they cannot be “potty” trained as a dog or cat can, as defecating wherever they happen to be is a natural behavior for them (and in the wild, it helps to replenish the forest with seeds.)

“Monkeys and apes need regular vet care to be healthy just like your dog or cat,” noted Killam, but finding a vet who will care for a primate is not an easy task.

Want to read more about adopting a monkey as a pet? Here’s some great websites to find out more:

The Humane Society’s page on primate pets

A great article on monkeys as pets from National Geographic

An entire website dedicated to Pet Monkey Info

Pet Monkey information courtesy of the Lincoln Park Zoo

Big News About a Tiny Baby Monkey – Pygmy Marmoset!

We have a new addition to our growing family of pygmy marmosets. A baby was born on July 27 here in the Natural Encounters building at the zoo. Baby was born behind the scenes, but now you can see it in the indoor Rainforest area with its family. We don’t know yet if it’s a boy or a girl.

The baby is clinging to the back of one of its big brothers.
Going for a ride on the back of one of its big brothers.

This is not the first baby for mom Oko and dad Per, and three older brothers and one older sister are all helping to care for the baby. Pygmy marmoset babies are more likely to ride on dad’s or a brother’s back than a female, though everyone takes a turn. The brothers’ names are Macchu. Alejandro and Thrix, and big sister is Calli. Another older sister is already full grown and gone off to another zoo to meet her mate. Before Oko, Per was paired with another female, Mia, and they had babies here as well.

The golden lion tamarins in the Rainforest are curious, but polite. They've seen pygmy marmoset babies before.
The golden lion tamarins in the Rainforest are curious, but polite. They’ve seen pygmy marmoset babies before.

Pygmy marmosets typically give birth to two babies, though a ‘singlet’ is not unusual at all. Single pygmy babies are typically larger than pairs, and “This one is huge!” according to Senior Keeper Abby Varela. “We weighed it on Wednesday and it’s already 36 grams!” Our vets are careful not to disturb the bond between parent and child; instead of weighing the baby separately, they weigh baby as it’s clinging to dad’s back, then weigh dad separately and subtract. Dad is a strapping 140 grams by comparison.

Baby is healthy and already 36 grams, big for a tiny baby pygmy marmoset!
Baby is healthy and already 36 grams, big for a tiny baby pygmy marmoset!

Pygmy marmosets are the world’s smallest true monkeys, typically only about five inches long (not including their long tails). In the wild they live in the rainforests of the Amazon basin of South America. Though they are not currently classified as endangered, their populations in the wild are threatened by habitat loss in some areas as well as the pet trade. That’s why they are part of the Species Survival Plan.

Next time you're at the zoo, stop by and see them in Natural Encounters.
Next time you’re at the zoo, stop by and see them in Natural Encounters.


Stem Cell Therapy for Ivy the Black Leopard

Ivy the black leopard has been suffering from arthritis pain in her legs. With the help of Ingeneron, a Houston-area firm that specializes in regenerative cell therapy, Ivy has just received an injection of stem cells to treat her pain and stiffness. The injection was followed by shockwaves applied directly to her knees to “turn on the biology” and help assist healing, according to Gulf Coast Veterinary Specialist Brian Beale who worked with Houston Zoo veterinarians to perform the procedure. Watch as Ivy receives this innovative stem cell treatment and see how well she moves and jumps just a day later!

Can’t view this video? Want to see more? Here’s some photos of Ivy’s procedure:

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