The Houston Zoo is Sending Animals Back to the Wild!

The Houston Zoo cares deeply for Texas wildlife.   We are committed to ensuring the recovery and protection of local species and habitats.  We take great pride in our efforts to rehabilitate/assist wild animals and reintroduce zoo-born animals to the wild.   This blog series will keep you up-to-date on our 3 local recovery projects:

The Attwater’s prairie chicken is the rarest native Texas bird. It is estimated that less than 100 of these birds are left in the wild.   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.  When the birds hatch and grow large enough, they are slowly introduced and then released into the wild, where they will support the already existing populations.

There are 5 species of sea turtles inhabiting the Gulf of Mexico, all of which are considered to be either threatened or endangered. They include the Kemp’s ridley, Green, Leatherback, Atlantic hawksbill, and Loggerhead sea turtles. Some of the threats these sea turtles face in the Gulf are drowning in shrimp nets, getting caught in hook and line, vehicle traffic, development of beaches, ocean and light pollution.  The Houston Zoo has treated over 100 sea turtles since 2010 in our vet clinic. The turtles are then brought to the sea turtle barn in Galveston to prepare for reintroduction. You may also catch a glimpse of a recovering sea turtle at the Zoo in the Kipp Aquarium.

The Houston Toad disappeared from Houston in the 1960s following extensive drought and urban expansion.  Today, less than 100 of this Texas amphibian resides in Bastrop, Austin, and Colorado Counties.

Th Houston toad program began in 2007 when the only known egg strands laid by Houston toads that year were delivered to the Zoo for “head starting” – a way to start the toad’s life in captivity and release them when they reach a certain maturity. Since then, we have been building a population at the Zoo to be sure that the toads will not go extinct, as well as releasing toads into the wild to build the population there. So far, we have released more than 20,000 toads! We also monitor and survey existing populations of toads in the wild.

 Stay tuned this spring as we update you on these local efforts to put species back into their homes in the Texas wild!


Houston Zoo Attwater's Prairie Chickens Thriving in the Wild!

Last week, staff from the Houston Zoo conservation, veterinary and bird departments assisted in Attwater’s prairie chicken field work at the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge.  US Fish and Wildlife staff drove us out into the refuge in the dark of the night.  We stopped and parked the vehicles at the precise location they had tracked birds to earlier in the day.  Never having seen an Attwater’s prairie chicken in the wild before, I was very excited to trek off into the dark prairie with the US Fish and Wildlife staff member, Mike Morrow. He carried his radio telemetry equipment, I carried the net and another Houston Zoo staff member followed ready to carry the captured bird back to the vehicles to be processed.   

Each captive bird that is released into the wild is fitted with a radio collar that is used to track the birds movements.  Radio telemetry equipment is then used to track and capture specific individuals.  Each bird that was captured was examined and blood and fecal samples were taken in an effort to monitor their health.   The birds were then re-released where they were captured in the refuge.

Houston Zoo staff holding wild Attwater’s prairie chicken for examination.

It is beautiful on the prairie at night.  No city lights means a clear starry night sky and the only sounds were our feet making contact with the prairie vegetation, the birds’ wings pounding the air as we flushed them from their roosting spots and the eerie coyote calls in the distance.    We captured the first several birds relatively quickly, but the 5th bird proved to be a bit more of a challenge.   This particular bird would not let Mike get within 6 feet of her, and we made 6 attempts before deciding to give up on her.  As we began to reorient ourselves to get back to the vans, Mike revealed his feeling of defeat over the failed mission to capture this bird.  I told him I felt this was a great example of the will of this species to survive.   This animal has a fighting chance with the many predators it will face if we can’t even sneak up on it.  He whole heartedly agreed with this perspective and enthusiastically carried on with this essential species-saving work.

We assisted with the capture of 15 birds and to our delight 2 of them were raised at the Houston Zoo.  The Houston Zoo has been working with the Attwater’s prairie chicken recovery effort since 2004, so seeing an animal that has been raised at the Houston Zoo, thriving in the wild is a magnificent experience.  This is another wonderful reminder of the important role the Houston Zoo plays in the race to save species.  For more about this awesome local recovery program and others at the Houston Zoo click here.


The Year in Blogs

I do not even know where to start to make sense of some of our blog posts in 2012, all written to try and bring your attention to both the successes and issues facing our environment. I really have no idea what may or may not have caught your attention. No matter how often our IT and web team send me graphs and charts showing reader algorithms, viral feeds (unrelated to a blog on emerging infectious diseases), hits and views – it is beyond my grasp of the new world we live in. Remember, I have a smart phone and do recall saying it was making us all a little dumber, me especially.

So a quick look back at MacGyver, Cheddar Bacon and Peppermint Shakes, Chicken Pants and the fact that  Groundhogs are not the Nostradamus of the rodent world as they can barely remember which drawer they left their pants in, let alone predict the changing of the seasons.

These were all very important topics, near and dear to my heart from pollinators to climate change and even Chicken Pants which I have no idea what I was thinking of at the time that spurred that thought process. But the point is simply this – the world is a messy place, our role in the zoo is to focus on wildlife and so most of what you see and read here is about the environment and the people who work tirelessly to protect wildlife and their habitats around the clock.

We can do more to help our partners and the environment and it is so simple it hurts my head to think about it.

Have 30 seconds to spare? Try this: Recycle a cell phone – protect wildlife in Africa. Lets make this a friendly disease called the Responsible Consumer Syndrome. You can catch this syndrome by also understanding where the Palm Oil in your products originates – and protect Orangutans in Southeast Asia

The great plastic debate? Not really a debate – we are addicted to plastic shopping bags and water bottles. Do you think Krogers, Randalls, HEB and others realizes how much money they could save by not providing its customers millions of plastic bags every year which in turn would protect the environment and wildlife? Probably equal to the economy of a small country. Interesting someone thought enough of the water bottle issue to ban them from Grand Canyon National Park – I guess they think it is prettier than the other parks since it is the only one that bans plastic water bottles.

Who would have thought the National Park System would be following the lead of these countries  (mild disclaimer – these countries have banned plastic bags but they still drink water): Papua New Guinea, Germany, Kenya, South Korea, Belgium, Sweden, Bhutan, Botswana and a handful of others. You may recall I ranted about this on my  bestselling blog Doggie Doo’s and Doggie Dont’s (another disclaimer, my blogs are not for sale but I found a quarter after posting that one).

So for 2013 – we can do better. Smartphones and Smart tablets can inform us but cannot lead us to action – that is a human trait that we need to figure out how to enhance if we are going to continue to protect the worlds wildlife in the face of growing human populations and habitat loss. We have to care more to do more.

One thing I really do not care to learn more about is Poutine which my Canadian colleague tried to poison me with this year. I like my french fries with ketchup thank you, not brown gravy and curd cheese. But what we want you to learn more about are all are wonderful partners which can be found on our website or at a few of the links below:

Niassa Lion Project Mozambique, Cheetah Conservation Botswana, Hutan-Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation, Danau Girang Elephant Conservation, Painted Dog Conservation Zimbabwe, Gorilla Doctors, Education for Nature VietnamFaleme Chimpanzee Conservation Senegal, Coastal Prairie Partnership, Lowland Tapir Project Brazil, El Valle Amphibian Conservation Panama, Jane Goodall Institute, International Rhino Foundation, Art of Conservation Rwanda, NOAA’s Sea Turtle Program, USFWS, Texas Parks and Wildlife, Texas State University, National Marine Fisheries Service, Human Wildlife Conflict Collaboration, Terra Incognita EcotoursWildlife Conservation Network, Galapagos Tortoise Program, Natural Habitat Adventures, and a Thank You to all of our zoo staff, zoo members and supporters including Land Rover UAE, Anadarko, Chevron, numerous private foundations, individuals and followers.

Chicken Pants

There, I said it. Chicken Pants. Plain and simple.

We were discussing today the Houston Zoo webpage and when you look at the drop down menus, what the public is interested in seeing.

Plan Your Visit, Memberships, Animal Exhibits, Conservation are all scrolled across the top. Conservation is the home of some 40 pages highlighting the programs of the Houston Zoo Wildlife Conservation Program but is that what catches your attention? Probably not. So I blurted out CHICKENPANTS which definitely would.

I am amazed at how easy it was to find this photo

It all goes back to our evolution of an attention span that lasts mere seconds in todays technological age. Back in the Stone Age, they may have stared at the word for 3-4 minutes before being distracted by a piece of grass. Today, we have seven seconds to catch your attention and gather your interest in a story or important information.

Did you know Chickens used to just be called Domestic Fowl? Chicken comes from the word chicks (little chickens basically) and we became lazy and just resorted to Chickens. Fowl clearly did not have enough vowels to be a proper term. There are more than 24 billion chickens in the world. How have they not taken over the planet?

Penguins are practically Chickens and this is my favorite - Feathers McGraw from Wallace and Grommitt's The Wrong Trousers

The Houston Zoo is involved with a breeding and reintroduction program here for a bird that is not a chicken but is known as the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken which we also sometimes refer jokingly to as Space Chickens due to our support from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in allowing us to reproduce this endangered Texas native on their property. It is actually a Grouse. The Attwater’s Prairie Chicken (not a chicken) is also the southernmost Grouse (still not a chicken) in the world.

Which leads me back to your attention span, actually mine which has crossed over more topics than I have toes in just a few hundred words or less. Chickens for the most part do not wear pants but we are a curious bunch and just need to know why the Houston Zoo would use this as a header – it grabs our attention. In the end, we simply switched the word Conservation on our website with Saving Animals. We are conservationists as are our partners but what we all want is to Save Animals. Actually what I want right now is a palm oil free chocolate bar so I can protect Orangutans and happily eat chocolate at the same time.

Borneo Orangutan, Malaysia. This species is threatened by loss of habitat due to Palm Oil Plantations across Malaysia and Indonesia

But Saving Animals is what we help our partners do. Whether it is Cheetahs in Botswana, Lions in Mozambique, Gorillas in Rwanda, Tapirs in Brazil or right here in Texas where we work to save the Houston Toad (which no longer survives in Houston) or the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken (still not a chicken – yes, we are our own conservation oxymoron) we will strive to develop educational programs, support communities, train skills, raise funds and awareness to protect the world’s wildlife.

Now everyone get out your Chicken Pants and dance your way into the weekend.


I do not know what is happening here, and it is for the best


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