The Endangered Houstonian: Houston Toad Populations on the Road to Recovery

A native Texan and Houstonian, the extremely rare and elusive Houston toad hasn’t been seen within Houston city limits since the 1970’s. Urban expansion, while great for the city, has created many challenges for our small friends over the years in the form of habitat fragmentation and increased pollution. Extended periods of drought have also made life more difficult for the Houston toad. As a result of habitat loss, the Houston toad had no choice but to abandon city life and is now found only in areas of deep, sandy soil in east-central Texas. While the Houston toad may not call the streets of Houston home, it still has a place within our Zoo, with the hope that one day this species will thrive in numbers large enough to return it to its old stomping ground.

Behind the scenes, the Houston Zoo maintains a ~1,200 ft2 Houston toad quarantine facility that serves as a location for the captive breeding of Houston toad egg strands for release into the wild. This facility is managed by two, full-time Houston toad specialists who care for the toads and work closely with the program partners in the breed-and-release efforts. This year, February 9th marked the beginning of the Houston toad captive populations breeding season. Within the Zoo’s special facility lives a colony of adult Houston toads that are cared for by members of our herpetology and veterinary teams. The goal during breeding season is to help healthy toads breed and lay eggs, with the hope that surviving offspring will boost Houston toad numbers in the wild, and add genetic diversity to the existing population, which is essential for any species’ survival.  Just last year, the Houston toad team was able to release 900,000 eggs back into the wild, which is an incredible success for a species that is constantly fighting off the looming threat of extinction.

Work to save the Houston toad has been ongoing for years, thanks to a dedicated network of organizations including universities, federal and state wildlife agencies, non-governmental organizations, and the Fort Worth Zoo. In 2015, we began to see the results of our releases with a small number of adult toads appearing at our release sites.  Egg production for release has increased dramatically each year so that over 1,000,000 eggs were produced by the Houston Zoo in 2018 alone for this release program! As of April 2018, over 270 adult toads have been found at the release sites, along with a minimum of 13 wild egg strands in one pond alone. Our releases of large numbers of captive produced eggs and tadpoles has resulted in the initial establishment of a wild population at Griffith League Ranch where they had not been seen since 2010. For the first time in many years, large multi-male choruses have been heard within the Houston toads’ new home range – a song that reminds us all of why we forge ahead despite all obstacles…an echoing reminder in the night that there is always hope for the future.

For the 11th annual Wildlife Conservation Gala at the Houston Zoo, we’re shining a spotlight on the species and habitats of the Lone Star State! We’ll come together as Texans to raise the funds our Zoo needs to keep saving Texas wildlife like the Houston toad. To learn more about how you can save this species, click here.

Saving Endangered Primates: How YOU are Helping the Cotton-top Tamarin

With their outrageous hairdos, there’s no question that in the primate kingdom the cotton-top tamarins are punk rock royalty. If you need more proof, just check out their scientific name Saguinus oedipus…it doesn’t get more hard core than that! If you’ve had a chance to visit these guys on a past visit to the Zoo, you’ll know that despite their large personalities they’re actually quite small – if it weren’t for their hair, you might mistake them for a squirrel. So how is it that such a small primate has earned itself a large enough reputation to have August 15th declared as Day of the Cotton-Top Tamarin?

Because they need our help. Cotton-top tamarins are one of the most endangered primates in the world due to deforestation and the pet trade. Luckily, our partners at Proyecto Tití in Colombia are working hard to make sure that this unique species can thrive in the wild for years to come. Proyecto Tití is committed to working with local communities to develop economic alternatives that assist in the protection of Colombia’s natural environment.  Some of their strategies to achieve this goal are as unique as the tamarin itself. Local women learn how to transform discarded plastic bags into colorfully designed, hand-knit mochilas (tote bags), which are then sold in an effort to support the community that is protecting cotton-top tamarins. Discarded plastic is also recycled and used to create fence posts farmers can use on their property. These fence posts last longer than wooden posts, and they reduce the need for wood to be harvested from the forests. More trees = more habitat for the tamarins!

There are plenty of reasons to love cotton-top tamarins, and as a result many end up in the illegal pet trade, eventually winding up in people’s homes. In many Colombian communities there is no distinction made between domestic and exotic wildlife, and many individuals do not understand how keeping a primate as a pet can be extremely harmful to the survival of the species. In 2017, the Houston Zoo supported 1,800 students that live around wild cotton-tops in Colombia to participate in education programs that focused on reducing the desire to keep cotton-top tamarins as pets. Students got to visit the forest and see cotton-top tamarins in their natural habitat. Proyecto Tití is working to reduce the number of native wildlife that are kept as pets in rural communities by encouraging families to adopt dogs and cats instead of cotton-top tamarins! By offering veterinary care and training classes, the team is helping communities bond with domestic animals reducing their desire to have wildlife as pets.

Our partners know better than anyone that there is no one size fits all solution when it comes to saving wildlife, and saving a unique species often requires unique solutions. We are inspired by the creative minds that are hard at work protecting the cotton-top tamarin, and thankful to each and every one of you that help save this species by purchasing a ticket to the Zoo.

Houston Zoo Crew Teens Travel to Galapagos to Work Alongside Wildlife Warrior Lady Márquez

Last month, the Houston Zoo welcomed a special guest all the way from Galapagos. Lady Márquez, from our partners at Ecology Project International (EPI) came to visit us here in Houston after being chosen by the Houston Zoo admissions team as a 2017 Wildlife Warrior Award recipient. This award recognizes exceptional individuals from our wildlife conservation partner programs and provides wildlife warriors with an experience that will increase their abilities/knowledge.

Born and raised in the Galapagos Islands, Lady is an EPI alumni, and now acts as their Outreach Program Coordinator. In this role, she works to empower local teens to be future conservation leaders. Driven by her passion to inspire others to save wildlife, Lady helped to create an ecology club which brings together more than 20 local teens on a weekly basis to participate in various conservation activities like: wildlife documentary screenings, beach clean ups, bird mortality awareness campaigns, ecological monitoring, and many other citizen science based programs. Lady spent several days in Houston working with our conservation education team exchanging ideas and learning more about how our programs like Zoo Crew and Camp Zoofari inspire the next generation of Houstonians to become wildlife saving heroes.

This past weekend, a select group of 16 Houston Zoo Crew teens embarked on an exciting journey to visit Lady and see first hand how she and teens in the Galapagos are working to save wildlife. Today, Houston Zoo teens met up with Galapagos teens that are part of the conservation ecology club called Mola Mola. The Mola Mola club showed the Houston Zoo teens how they survey the beaches of Tortuga Bay for marine debris and explained how they monitor sea turtle nests. In 2016, this project led to the protection of 53 green sea turtle nests, and documented sightings of 1,940 hatchlings! In collaboration with the Galapagos National Park and Charles Darwin Foundation, the eco club was also successful in creating awareness on nest protection among visitors to Tortuga Bay, a public beach that also acts as a nesting ground for the turtle species.

The Zoo has provided training, scholarships, and support for these future Galapagos conservation leaders and their instructors over the past 5 years. Throughout the rest of the week, Zoo Crew teens will participate in giant Galapagos tortoise monitoring research, visit the Charles Darwin Research Center, and much more! To learn more about our teen programs, click here.

Houston Zoo’s New Veterinary Clinic Provides Care for Rescued Sea Turtles

Along the Gulf of Mexico, we all know summertime is actually spelled BEACH. Texans from all around flock to the sandy shores during the hottest months of the year in search of relaxation and relief from the heat. As it turns out, we aren’t the only ones making a beeline for the shore! April marks the beginning of nesting season for sea turtles along the Gulf Coast, which means the number of Kemp’s ridley and green sea turtles making use of our beaches skyrockets. Unfortunately, a trip to the beach for our endangered friends may not always be smooth sailing as plastic pollution, fishing equipment, and natural predators make formidable opponents – but that’s where our veterinary clinic, clinic team and partners at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) come in!

Our vet clinic team provided medical support for a number of sea turtles in our clinic this summer. Two sea turtles, a large loggerhead and a smaller Kemp’s Ridley were accidentally caught by fishermen at Seawolf Park and 61st Street Pier. Two more Kemp’s ridleys were found entangled in plastic debris – one was found on the beach connected to a trashcan lid by a shoelace, and the other was tangled up in balloons and ribbons along with other trash. A handful of sea turtles were also stranded along our shoreline as a result of the rotating ocean currents that gifted us with unusually clear water over Memorial Day weekend.

While the summer can seem like a perilous time for sea turtles, it can also mark the start of a second chance at life in the wild. At the end of May, our partners at NOAA conducted a public release of 11 rescued sea turtles on Stewart Beach in Galveston, followed by a private release of an additional 21 green sea turtles that eagerly ventured off into Christmas Bay. Some of these lucky turtles are among the ~80 sea turtles that receive medical care from the Houston Zoo every year. Thanks to your support, we are able to not only provide medical care for sea turtles, but also participate in monthly beach cleanups that will help to ensure this species can continue to call Texas home for many years to come.

Every Monday, NOAA biologists and a Houston Zoo staff member drive over 70 miles of beach from Bolivar to Surfside searching for signs of sea turtles and responding to calls reporting sea turtles in need of help. Any turtles collected by NOAA are driven here to the Zoo, where our veterinary team take xrays, administers medications, performs hook extractions, and anything else the turtle may need in the Zoo’s new veterinary clinic.

For the 11th annual Wildlife Conservation Gala at the Houston Zoo, we’re shining a spotlight on the species and habitats of the Lone Star State! We’ll come together as Texans to raise the funds our Zoo needs to keep saving Texas wildlife like sea turtles. To learn more about how you can save sea turtles, click here.

Celebrating Our Pride of Lion Protectors on World Lion Day

Each time you visit Hasani, you are helping to save lions in Africa!

In honor of world lion day, we are shedding light on how your visit to the Zoo is saving lions in Africa! Each time you come to visit Hasani and our lovely lionesses, a portion of your admission ticket goes towards supporting organizations like Pride Lion Conservation Alliance (PRIDE), a Houston Zoo conservation partner. In fact, just by visiting the Zoo, you are helping to protect 20% of the lion population in Africa. PRIDE was created on the idea that we can do more to save lions in the wild by working together on a landscape level. Founded by six women with over 100 years of collective lion conservation experience, PRIDE is a collaborative effort that works across different African countries to save more lions and to inspire and improve future protection work. Located in Kenya, Lion Guardians is a member of PRIDE that works to save lions by recruiting young Maasai warriors and providing them with the skills necessary to transition from lion killers to lion protectors.

Lion Guardians are taught how to read, write, and speak in Swahili.

The opportunity to join the Lion Guardians team can be a life-changing experience for young Maasai warriors that have had no previous exposure to a formal education. Guardians are taught how to read, write, and communicate in Swahili, and are trained in wildlife management and conflict mitigation techniques. After completing their training, Lion Guardians are able to monitor lion movements, warn pastoralists when lions are in the area, recover lost livestock, reinforce protective fencing, and intervene to stop lion hunting parties. By protecting the livestock local communities depend on, Lion Guardians build tolerance among locals for neighboring lions and other carnivores. This conservation model can be adapted to fit the needs of many cultures and wildlife species, which has given Lion Guardians the ability to expand outside of Kenya, into Tanzania and beyond.

Lion Guardian Luke is a Houston Zoo Wildlife Warrior. Photo by: Philip J. Briggs

Since 2007, this unique approach has helped to reduce lion killing by more than 90 percent! The team has documented a tripling of the lion population in the non-protected areas of the Amboseli-Tsavo ecosystem and provided passage between the Ngorongoro and Serengeti lion populations in Tanzania. Hard work and dedication over the past year has resulted in an 80% reduction in hunting parties from previous years – an impressive feat given the high levels of human-wildlife conflict currently being experienced in and around project areas. In addition, 2017 resulted in the protection of 136 bomas (livestock enclosures), the recovery of 90% of lost or threatened livestock, and the prevention of 8 lion hunts.

We are continually blown away by the hard work and dedication our family at Lion Guardians and PRIDE put into saving lions in the wild. As part of our pride, each and every one of you are lion protectors too! World lion day may only happen once a year, but every day is a good day to share your love of these big cats. So go ahead, let out a roar, and tell everyone you know how you are saving lions in Africa!

Houston Zoo’s Crisis Response Fund Lends a Hand to Wildlife Saving Partners

We all know that one person that always keeps their cool in an emergency. They are our rock, logically assessing the situation, keeping everyone around them calm, and working hard to resolve whatever issue they are confronted with. Here at the Zoo, we have a whole team dedicated to responding to emergencies, and ensuring the safety of everyone on Zoo grounds – the Rangers. Our Ranger team is not only responsible for safety and security on Zoo grounds, but they also provide support to our wildlife conservation partners around the globe whenever they need help mitigating a crisis. How is this done? Through the Zoo’s Crisis Response Fund. Simply put, the crisis fund exists to provide support in the event that a wildlife conservation crisis or urgent situation has occurred, and is in need of urgent action. Members of our Ranger team sit on a committee that assesses each situation and uses a criteria to see how the Zoo can help partners in their urgent time of need. Since the beginning of the year, the conservation team has sent Rangers requests from three of our partners in need of support:

Okapi Conservation Project – Democratic Republic of Congo

Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo is home to multiple armed groups that compete for control of the region’s vast mineral resources. This can make living and working in the area quite dangerous, but it is also the only place in the world the endangered okapi live in the wild. On February 17th, one of the Okapi Conservation Project’s vehicles was ambushed by an unidentified group while carrying staff back to the okapi reserve. Tragically, 7 individuals lost their lives and an additional 3 were injured in the attack. The team’s truck was also damaged beyond repair. The Crisis Response Fund was able to help the Okapi Conservation Project purchase a new truck in order to ensure that daily operations could continue as the team worked to recover from this tremendous loss.

 

Turtle Survival Alliance (TSA) – Madagascar 

On the night of April 10, TSA staff were alerted to the confiscation of 10,976 critically endangered radiated tortoises from a single residence on the southwest coast of Madagascar. This is the largest rescue the TSA has encountered to date, and as such, it presented staff with many challenges. Each tortoise needed to be processed, evaluated, and provided with any medical care necessary before being placed in a temporary housing facility where they could be monitored throughout their recovery. An undertaking of this size is both labor-intensive and time consuming, and ongoing care can become quite expensive. The Houston Zoo was able to provide additional funding to help TSA carry out their wildlife-saving mission.

 

Hirola Conservation Program – Kenya 

Over the last three months, the area in and around the Hirola Conservation Program have experienced some of the worst flooding ever recorded, second only to the disastrous El Niño of 1997. These periods of high rainfall and flooding have previously proved to trigger livestock disease outbreaks that are escalated by vectors such as mosquitoes not only in Kenya, but across the East African region. Throughout the hirola’s geographical range, several million head of livestock co-occur with hirola and other wildlife species, as does the risk of viral and bacterial disease spread across species. The spread of disease from one species to another can lead to mass mortality of wildlife, livestock and in some cases, even humans. With the support of the Houston Zoo, the Hirola Conservation Project was able to secure crisis funds to vaccinate local livestock against various diseases, lessening the threat of an outbreak and further protecting the critically endangered hirola.

 

We are dedicated to doing everything we can to help save animals in the wild, and are grateful to each and every one of you who make programs like this possible through your visit to the zoo.

Malagasy Student at Rice University is Saving Lemurs in the Wild

From left: Houston Zoo Senior Director of Wildlife Conservation, Hasinala Ramangason, Rice University Professor Dr. Amy Dunham, and Houston Zoo Director of Madagascar Programs Dr. Jonah Ratsimbazafy

The Houston Zoo seeks opportunities to support current and future conservation leaders locally and around the world.  In doing so, we can help to ensure that the future is filled with leaders ready to save animals from extinction. Rice University has been working in Madagascar for many years now and several years ago we discovered our Madagascar conservation efforts aligned.  In 2018, we provided a fellowship for a Malagasy student to attend Rice University. Here is his story:  

Hello Everyone! My name is Hasinala and I am a visiting scholar at Rice University and Houston Zoo Conservation Fellow. I recently received my Masters degree in Biodiversity, Ecology and Evolution from my home university in France.  I am originally from Madagascar, but moved to France in 2011, right after I graduated from high school in order to further my education. Despite my move to France several years ago, growing up in Madagascar, the world’s most biodiverse island, has definitely influenced my career goals and research interests. While I spent most my academic career in France, I have always been focused on returning to Madagascar. This is why I have done most of my research in Madagascar, studying their most iconic animals – the lemurs!

Choosing your advisor and where you are going to conduct your research for your Master’s thesis is of crucial importance as it will influence, to a certain extent, your future endeavors and what type of research you specialize in. I first heard about Dr. Amy Dunham, my advisor at Rice, a couple of years ago, when I met one of her former Malagasy PhD students, Onja Razafindratsima, in a research station in Madagascar. A year ago, when I first started to look for a research team to host me, Dr. Dunham was the first person I contacted among a list of +20 researchers, but lack of funding made it impossible for us to work together. While disappointing, I continued on my quest, and after several months I finally secured an internship with another research team conducting work in Madagascar. I couldn’t wait to get to work, but unfortunately nature had other plans. A plague outbreak started in Madagascar, causing the research team to postpone their trip, and once again I found myself without an internship. I desperately contacted Onja Razafindratsima, looking for labs that would host me. She suggested that I reach out to Dr. Dunham again and take another shot at collaborating with one another. A few weeks later, and against all odds, Dr. Dunham had managed to secure a fellowship for me working with her at Rice University thanks to the generosity of the Houston Zoo. The next thing I knew, I was at Rice University conducting research on seed dispersal by birds and lemurs and racing against time to wrap up my thesis. This has been, by far, the most exciting internship I’ve ever had! The main outcome of this research project has been to show that birds and lemurs, through seed dispersal, are crucial for the regeneration of forest gaps that were created by major cyclones in Madagascar. With climate change, it is expected that cyclone will be more frequent and more intense. This will cause more damage to tropical forests, and consequently there will be even more reliance on birds and lemurs to regenerate forests.

This research project has really ignited my interest for research in tropical ecology and conservation, and I am truly grateful to the Houston Zoo for making this possible. My next step ideally would be enrolling as a PhD student within the same research lab, but as you may have guessed, funding a PhD is a whole other ball game!

Meet the Houston Zoo 2018 Wildlife Warriors

In 2015, the Zoo established the Wildlife Warrior award program. Carefully chosen by the Zoo’s Admissions team, this award recognizes exceptional individuals from our wildlife conservation partner programs and provides wildlife warriors with an experience that will increase their abilities/knowledge and grow them as future conservation leaders. We are excited to share that the Admissions team has just announced three new recipients for the 2018 year, that will join the ranks of 15 Wildlife Warrior alumni based in developing countries around the globe!

The 2018 Wildlife Warriors are from our partner projects all over the world saving lions, hirola antelope, and painted dogs. Here are this year’s winners:


Maria Njamba: Painted Dog Conservation 

Maria Njamba is a mother of four children and resident of Hwange. She is the Interpretive Guide at the Painted Dog Conservation Visitors Centre in Hwange. Before being employed by Painted Dog Conservation,  Maria relied on selling baskets by the road in order to make enough money to care for herself and her children.
Her life and her children’s lives changed when she was offered a job at the Bush Camp. She thought she was one of the luckiest people alive and grabbed the opportunity with both hands. Her job was the help take care of the children, feed them and make sure they were safe and happy. In her free time, Maria would learn more and more about the dogs because her main interest had become educating people about the dogs and the importance of conserving them.
Because of her passion, she became the first Interpretative Hall guide at our Visitor Centre. She has influenced or reinforced love for conservation of wildlife to more than 70,000 local and international visitors to Zimbabwe and more than 11,000 children from our Bush Camp have listened to her convincing voice as she recites the story of “Eyespot.” A compelling story that depicts the challenges the painted dogs face.

“Maria was chosen for her influence and passion for spreading the conservation message to over 80,000 Zimbabwe visitors”

 


Celestino Dauda: Niassa Carnivore Project 

In 2006,  Celestino became one of the first of 5 Wildlife Guardians in our community monitoring and extension program. Working on a small stipend he never wavered from his work and has now been a wildlife guardian for 12 years.  In 2014, we promoted him to the permanent position as Head Guardian and he works tirelessly with Horacio (the program coordinator) to coordinate  and inspire the team of 35 guardians across  remote villages collecting information on human wildlife conflict, sightings of animals and fishing.  These guardians are our connection to the villages in Niassa Reserve and this work is critically important for our team.
Celestino enjoys his work  and believes it is very important as he is learning which animals are a big problem to communities so that he can help them. We asked Celestino what his advice would be for all of us. He says we must still keep fighting to promote the message that wild animals and people can live together. This is the only way forward. He lives it and breathes our mission which is to promote coexistence between wildlife, especially lions and people.

“Celestino was chosen for his long term commitment to inspiring a team of guardians and promoting coexistence between wildlife, especially lions and people”


Aden Ibrahim: Hirola Conservation Program

Aden comes from a nomadic culture – because herding was his primary focus as a child, he did not attend school. However, he wasn’t willing to herd for long, and as such, escaped from his father’s homestead to spearhead charcoal burning for almost seven years. In 2014, Hirola Conservation Program identified him as one of the people destroying wildlife habitats and subsequently recruited him as a ranger. Although illiterate, he has worked with us for the last 3.5 years and has risen through the ranks steadily. Today he is the Manager of Rewamo Conservancy (formally Sangailu) established and overseen by the HCP. He leads a team of 12 local rangers, where amongst his great achievements is the recent discovery of the previously unknown population of Oribi antelope. Further, because of their patrols, a total of 90 hirolas were counted within the conservancy in March 2018.

Aden continues to mentor youths to join conservation and has recruited a dozen of them so far who would otherwise be vulnerable to drugs, terrorism and cattle rustling activities.  Aden is hopeful about the future where he aims to expand habitat for wildlife (a problem he contributed to in the past).

“Aden (right) was chosen for his desire to expand habitat, creating a hopeful future for hirola and other wildlife”

Houston Zoo Wildlife Warrior Lady Márquez is Headed to Town!

This weekend, the Zoo is welcoming another special guest who is visiting us from the Galapagos Islands! Lady Márquez is here from our partners at Ecology Project International (EPI) after being chosen by the Houston Zoo admissions team as a 2017 Wildlife Warrior Award recipient. This award recognizes exceptional individuals from our wildlife conservation partner programs and provides wildlife warriors with an experience that will increase their abilities/knowledge.

“We were most impressed with the fact that Lady is dedicating her life to empowering the next generation of conservation leaders in Galapagos!” – Houston Zoo Staff 

 

Born and raised in the Galapagos Islands, Lady is an EPI alumni, and now acts as their Outreach Program Coordinator. In this role, she works to empower local teens to be future conservation leaders. Driven by her passion to inspire others to save wildlife, Lady helped to create an ecology club which brings together more than 20 local teens on a weekly basis to participate in various conservation activities like: wildlife documentary screenings, beach clean ups, bird mortality awareness campaigns, ecological monitoring, and many other citizen science based programs.

One of these efforts, centered around the protection of green sea turtles, resulted in 22 students receiving training in monitoring protocols, while another 40 students helped to collect data and protect nesting sites. In 2016, this project led to the protection of 53 green sea turtle nests, and documented sightings of 1,940 hatchlings! In collaboration with the Galapagos National Park and Charles Darwin Foundation, the eco club was also successful in creating awareness on nest protection among visitors to a public beach that also acts as a nesting ground for the turtle species.

Lady has used her Wildlife Warrior Award to attend a week-long training focused on enhancing conservation efforts at the community level. This opportunity has allowed her to explore different teaching methods and begin designing her own strategies for empowering her students to address threats to wildlife and take action to save species! Now that her training is complete, Lady will spend several days in Houston working with our conservation education team exchanging ideas and learning more about how our programs like Zoo Crew and Camp Zoofari inspire the next generation of Houstonians to become wildlife saving heroes.

How Food and Retail Partner, SSA is Helping the Zoo Achieve its Wildlife Saving Mission

Each July over 250 Zoo staff and volunteers challenge themselves to reduce their plastic usage, saving animals in the wild

Here at the Zoo, we believe that even the smallest of actions can help to save wildlife. During the month of July, we put our staff to the test, encouraging them to participate in Plastic Free July. For 31 days, over 250 Zoo staff and volunteers challenge themselves and each other to “choose to refuse” single-use plastic, saving animals in the wild. This includes taking actions like refusing single-use plastic straws, using personal containers from home to carry take-out food, and many, many more. In a lot of ways, this challenge acts as a catalyst, encouraging staff to not only reduce their plastic use at home, but within their departments on Zoo grounds as well.

By going single-use plastic bottle and straw free, the zoo will be able to prevent an estimated 300,000 plastic bottles and nearly 23,000 plastic straws from entering landfills and the environment each year.

Since going single-use plastic bag, bottle, and straw free, our food and retail partners, SSA, have made huge strides towards helping the Zoo achieve its wildlife saving mission, and as a result they’ve even influenced shifts in the food and retail industry nation-wide proving that small actions can have HUGE impacts. Take french fries for example – when outside vendors used to ship fries to the Zoo, they would come in plastic bags. Our partners at SSA saw this as an opportunity to create change, and seized the opportunity by telling the vendors they were prepared to switch to another company unless a more sustainable alternative to the plastic bag was used for shipping food. Not long after, the company announced that their bags would be made from  cornstarch from now on, meaning they would biodegrade instead of sitting in a landfill. Their influence hasn’t stopped there. SSA also encouraged the company that provides souvenir cups to make a lid that was 100% straw free – the straw free alternative sold out in a matter of hours! Next up? The team hopes to help the industry develop trash bags that are completely compostable, further eliminating single-use plastic from the waste stream.

New tank tops made from plastic water bottles are saving sea turtles in the wild

While these changes can be challenging, they are equally rewarding. Every Purchase matters, since the zoo gets a percentage of all sales of everything purchased from SSA. Since swapping plastic bags in the gift shop for reusable totes, the gift shop was not expecting  their sales  to increase by six times in the first year after making the wildlife-friendly change. When Nancy Gonzalez, Houston Zoo SSA General Manager stopped giving away the plastic bags, the zoo provided supportive signage for the guests. The response was resoundingly positive to the transition. Additionally Nancy has received numerous calls from other zoo venues wanting to know how to transition away from the single use plastic bags. “We heard other zoos say, if a zoo like Houston Zoo can do it with over 2 million guests a year, we can do it too!” Since then, SSA has worked to replace single-use toy cases with reusable ones that are great for travel, and SSA Corporate continues to work with vendors to reduce the amount of plastic wrap being used to cover toys. Some items you buy in the gift shop are helping to save wildlife without you even knowing! New tank tops made from plastic water bottles are saving sea turtles in the wild, and some animal plushes are actually filled with stuffing that comes from collecting and shredding plastic bags found on beaches in Africa.

Our SSA General Manager Danny Anchondo didn’t grow up recycling, but now he works hard to find wildlife-friendly solutions in everything that he does thanks to his number one inspiration – his kids. “It isn’t just about me recycling – it is knowing that for the next 80 or 90 years that my kids are on this Earth they will continue to reuse and recycle, and at the end of the day, it is the little victories I’m most proud of. We start small, and at some point our actions turn into something bigger. In 3 or 5 years we may go to another Zoo and see them eliminating their plastic use as well, and know we helped to make that transition possible.”

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