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.”

Zoo Keeper Skills – Operant Conditioning

Written by Kathy Watkins

Have you ever wondered what we do when a tiger has a sore tooth or a black bear has a stomach ache? With your dog, you can open his mouth or you can pick your cat up and carry her to the vet. It can get kind of tricky when you work with carnivores who are built to eat and hunt. We have to be very careful when we work around these dangerous predators so we use operant conditioning training, allowing the animals to voluntarily participate in their care. Our job is to make sure we give the best care possible and to ensure everyone stays safe and that takes a lot of teamwork.

We have a leopard who was trained to allow us to put ointment on a sore on his tail thanks to Ben’s training plan. When our Africa Painted Dog’s were getting ready to move to their new home, Tori trained them to go into the crate for a smooth drive. Our clouded leopard will let us get images of her belly thanks to Danielle’s work. With Cortney’s help, bears have been trained to accept the injection that helps them to fall asleep so we can safely treat them. As you can imagine, moving a 545 pound lion takes some team work! Keepers like Jordan and Paul have been crucial in helping with lion sedations because they are great about staying calm, jumping in quickly when needed and they are comfortable holding up the head of a sleeping lion as we move them to our state-of-the-art vet hospital. Talk about brave! Even the newest additions to the carnivore team, Alicia and Megan have been a huge help when it comes to assisting the vets during procedures and stepping in when needed. By working together with multiple departments in the zoo, the carnivore team provides world class care to the meat-eating animals that call the Houston Zoo home. As the carnivore supervisor, I am thankful for the hard work and dedication of the carnivore staff, and I am lucky to be a part of such a great team.

Local High School Student is Saving Wildlife, One Bottle of Water at a Time

This blog is written by Carolyn Jess, a high school student who helped us out as a guest blogger from 2013-2016 with a focus on native wildlife. Carolyn reached out to the Houston Zoo last year for advice on installing a water bottle refill station. Read on for her successes.

My high school is BIG. We are a 6A school with around 2,400 students and 250 teachers. We excel at many things – we have tons of school pride, great love for one another, and a strong desire to help others every chance we get…but the one thing we are really good at? Recycling. Most of our classrooms have gone paperless, but recycling bins are abundant for those that still need paper. In fact, there are recycling bins everywhere you look – we all know where the big green recycling bins are should we need them, and everyone recycles their plastic water bottles in a specially made bin. We know how to recycle.

But recently, I started thinking, are we too good at it? Is that even possible? It seems like our recycling bins are always filled to the brim, and in some cases overflowing. Plastic bottles will spill out, and despite the dedication of the recycling team and custodians, excess bottles end up in the trash. Plenty of students bring their own refillable bottle, but the fountains on campus are not built to easily refill a bottle. Students stand awkwardly at the fountain trying to hold the bottle at the right angle, and most can only get the bottle filled halfway before they have to rush off in order to beat the tardy bell. As a result, many of the students who try to do the right thing end up retiring their reusable bottles and resort to using the throw away kind since they are a faster and easier option. At the rate we are going, with 2,400 students using 2 bottles a day, 5 days a week we are looking at 24,000 plastic bottles discarded EVERY WEEK.

Something needed to be done to fix our plastic problem, so I started researching refillable water bottle stations. I wasn’t sure about costs, installation, or maintenance, but after looking at various makes, models, and prices, I found a great online resource called becausewater.com. After reading their website, I made contact with them and our question and answer session began. They offered so much assistance when it came to choosing the right model for my campus and figuring out the associated costs. Once I knew my options, I typed up a proposal and timeline for my school principle. I scheduled a meeting with her and explained what exactly it was that I wanted to do and how I would go about getting a unit installed.

It took a little while, but I finally got the go ahead to start fundraising to pay for the unit! With the help of my student council, we will have 3 fundraisers during the upcoming school year and use some of our homecoming dance proceeds to pay for the unit. The principal has decided to match our efforts – If we can raise the funds to buy and install one station on our main campus, she will get one and have it installed on our freshman campus. We will get the district’s maintenance staff to install the unit to cut down on costs, and I will be on hand to help with the instillation process as much as I am allowed. Once the unit is installed, I know our students and staff will be excited to start filling up their bottles with ease, plus it will be fun for them to see the counter at the top of the fountain showing how they are minimizing plastic waste in our environment! I am a senior this year and want to leave my school knowing that I was able to take action to help our environment and our local wildlife.

My campus is big, and it has a big heart. I hope that there is a student next year, that continues with this plan and installs another unit, and another, until all our fountains have the water bottle refill option. With these small steps come big results, 2400 times two times five, to be exact. Taking action like this leads to helping our animals in the wild, one plastic bottle at a time.

Saving Lemurs in Madagascar through Empowering the Next Generation of Wildlife Saving Heroes

Over the past week, lucky Zoo goers may have had the pleasure of running into Dr. Jonah Ratsimbazafy, Houston Zoo’s Director of Madagascar Programs and one of the founding members of GERP, an organization saving lemurs in the wild. Over 90% of the wildlife and plant life found in Manombo, one of the Zoo’s research sites in Madagascar, are found only in Madagascar, including eight species of lemurs such as the black and white ruffed lemur, brown mouse lemur, eastern and lesser wooly lemurs, and one of the most critically endangered lemurs on the island, the James’ sportive lemur. There are small mammals such as tenrecs, falanouc (a cool mongoose like mammal), fossa and ring-tailed mongoose as well as nearly 60 species of birds and reptiles and amphibians such as geckos, mantella’s, Madagascar crocodiles and many others. In the past few years, Jonah and the team at GERP have discovered two new species of mouse lemurs – they continue to work tirelessly in order to save each and every one of these species from extinction.

Jonah  took a break from his work in the field and spent all of last week visiting us here in Houston serving as a guest instructor for the Zoo’s Collegiate Conservation Program sponsored by ExxonMobil. Each year, 10 students from universities around the US are selected to spend a summer at the Houston Zoo in order to train, learn, and work alongside Zoo staff and regional conservation partners. Jonah led the interns through discussions and activities focused on current community-based conservation topics such as properly engaging and empowering local communities, addressing human/wildlife conflict, and effective leadership. Opportunities to learn from conservation heroes like Jonah are rare, and the interns treasured every moment they had with him. As Jamie put it, “his perseverance in life shines through in every accomplishment he has made, and listening to him speak you could feel his passion fill the room”. When their week with Jonah came to an end, the interns were left with one feeling shared between them all – they were inspired:

“Jonah’s visit left me with more confidence than I have ever felt in the field of conservation that is usually filled with consistent challenges and failure. As he explained over and over, it is okay to fail as long as you get back up, and as long as you set your goals and stick to them. I will never forget his visit and hope that we will one day meet again – but instead of being a college student, being a conservation hero alongside him.”  – Brooke, 2018 CCP Intern

 

It is safe to say that the lessons learned during this week will not soon be forgotten.

Dr. Jonah spent the remainder of his time in Houston making wildlife saving plans with our team at the Zoo and sharing his love of lemurs with guests out on Zoo grounds. Jonah says that no lemurs will become extinct on his watch, and we believe him! He reminds us that no matter what you do for a living, everyone has a skill that can benefit conservation, and just by visiting the Zoo you are helping to save lemurs in the wild.

To see more about the Zoo’s lemur saving work , check out this KPRC special feature.

Meet Dr. Jonah Ratsimbazafy this Weekend and Learn how YOU are Saving Lemurs in Madagascar!

This Saturday, July 7th Dr. Jonah Ratsimbazafy, the Houston Zoo’s Director of Madagascar Programs, will come from his field work in Madagascar, saving lemurs, to meet guests at the Zoo’s ring-tailed lemur and sifaka exhibit in the Wortham World of Primates. The event runs Saturday and Sunday from 10am – 3pm, with special talks from Dr. Jonah and the lemur keepers taking place at 12pm and 3:30pm.

Dr. Jonah has discovered several new species of lemurs in the wild over the past few years. He is working hard at saving all lemurs from extinction.  Over 90% of the wildlife and plant life found in Manombo, one of the Zoo’s research sites in Madagascar, are found only in Madagascar, including seven species of lemurs such as the black and white ruffed lemur, brown mouse lemur, eastern and lesser wooly lemurs, and one of the most critically endangered lemurs on the island, the James’ sportive lemur. There are small mammals such as tenrecs, falanouc (a cool mongoose like mammal), fossa and ring-tailed mongoose as well as nearly 60 species of birds and reptiles and amphibians such as geckos, mantella’s, Madagascar crocodiles and many others.

See more about the Zoo’s lemur saving work on this KPRC special feature https://www.houstonzoo.org/conservation/saving-lemurs-madagascar/ .

Dr. Jonah is here to make wildlife saving plans with our team at the Zoo, and spend a week as a guest instructor for the Zoo’s Collegiate Conservation Program. College students are specially selected for this conservation leadership training program. He will lead the interns on current community-based conservation topics such as properly engaging and empowering local communities, addressing human/wildlife conflict and effective leadership.

The Zoo’s Spotlight on Species event this weekend will be a fantastic opportunity for zoo goers to meet and hear from our special guest on how the Zoo is helping lemurs in the wild and learn more about how to support this important work. In addition to meeting Jonah, guests will have the opportunity to take part in interactive activities and shop for animal paintings, pint glasses, magnets and more (while supplies last!) 100 percent of all proceeds will be donated to saving lemurs in the wild.

Zoo members will have an additional chance to chat with Jonah during the member morning event on Saturday. Members can enter the Zoo one hour before the general public and see the keepers prepare enrichment and animal areas all around the zoo. Jonah will be near the Ring-Tailed Lemur exhibit at 8:30am.

Make sure to join us and learn how you are helping to save lemurs in Madagascar – see you there!

July’s Featured Member – Ashley England

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 July’s Featured Member: Ashley England.


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

“I became a member in 2014 when my daughter was born. The Houston Zoo perfect to bring her as an infant, giving me an interesting place to get out and about while allowing her to experience new sights and sounds. At first, she viewed the zoo from the comfort of a baby carrier, but as she grew, she began to explore every corner all on her own. After years of coming several times a month, she now knows the perfect route to see all her favorite animals and still attend most of the keeper talks held throughout the day. Some mornings are dedicated to watching the elephant baths and learning more about their personalities from their keepers, others we head straight to the McGovern’s Children’s Zoo to visit with the native Texas animals followed by some time at the amazing new Nature Play area.

One of our favorite parts of the zoo is the Swap Shop. An avid collector of ‘treasures’, she was given the perfect place to bring objects found on walks and learn more about them. This has grown into a family activity that encourages her to be more aware of the world around her and fosters a spirit of exploration. Her excitement in finding an antler shed or a burr oak acorn is only topped when she gets to show them to Ms. Sarah.  She loves to visit with the Swap Shop crew and share all she has learned about her items, then spend time closely examining them under the magnifying glasses.

I have been amazed at the number of educational opportunities the Houston Zoo provides for both of us. The Keeper talkers teach us about conservation and steps we can take to help preserve the natural world while interacting with some of the animals. ZooSprouts with Mrs. Leia focuses on different species and their habitats each month. During our visit to the bug house with her in January,  we learned about the important jobs of insects and were able to feed Millie the three banded armadillo meal worms. Even our visits to feed the giraffes on the platform are packed full of information about the zoo’s efforts to support endangered species and help conservation efforts in other parts of the world.

I appreciate the flexibility that membership provides. We prefer to dedicate an entire day to our visits, but our membership makes it easy to drop in for just a couple of hours in the morning before a winter cold front blows through, or for a short visit after a rainstorm has cooled off a hot summer day. It even helps keep us in the loop about events happening at the zoo, like preview nights for Zoo Lights, and brings us up to date on all the newest zoo baby announcements.  We simply love the Houston Zoo and are grateful to have such a wonderful place to visit and enjoy!”

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

Amazon to Andes Field Course Inspires Youth to Save Wildlife

Houston Zoo Galapagos conservation partner, Ecology Project International (EPI)  is educating local kids on the Galapagos Islands about the wildlife that lives in their area, while engaging them in hands-on activities to protect species (beach cleanups, monitoring sea turtle nests, etc.). This year the Houston Zoo supported development opportunities for EPI students.  A student named Ibrahi recently took part in EPI’s “Amazon to Andes” field course with the Houston Zoo’s support. This is Ibrahi’s story: 

Alongside a number of students from California, we went to the Amazon to Andes Course of EPI which covers several different locations within the Amazon rainforest, the Andean cloud forest, and paramo (a treeless, elevated area in South America). During the course, we fulfilled many amazing activities, and also took part in some new activities that not all people have access to. First, we made new friends because as a Mola Mola Eco-club member, we got to know students from the US, and also reconnect with one chaperone who was once a student in the Galapagos Islands Ecology Course. During our time in the field, we had to go kayaking on the river in order to get to our camping site, which was both a new and incredible experience. We also had the opportunity to interact with a Kichwa community (the only community within the national park), and learned how to make the famous “chicha”, which is a traditional beverage.

Taking a night walk in the Amazon rainforest in the search of caiman’s hatchlings was amazing, even if we didn’t end up spotting any! Making our way up to the Andean part of Ecuador was great because special birds received us – hummingbirds! I learned more about the differences between ecosystems and how to use satellite telemetry in order to find species. In the mountains, we were in search of Andean Bears and Tapirs, which are both endangered species. We weren’t lucky enough to see both animals, but an Andean male tapir, wearing a collar allowed us to track him using satellite telemetry, putting the skills we had learned to good use.

Throughout this experience we learned a lot about our ecological footprint and how we can reduce it by changing our buying habits as consumers. As I return home to study at university, I hope to make changes in order to reduce my ecological footprint and live more sustainably. By continuing in the field of wildlife conservation, I hope to become a marine biologist to do my own research about sea turtles.

Helping Communities to Help Gorillas in Rwanda

Here at the Houston Zoo we are proud to support a number of organizations that work tirelessly to protect mountain gorillas in the wild. One of these organizations, Conservation Heritage-Turambe (CHT) runs after-school programs for local primary school students and community outreach efforts that promote both healthy living habits and gorilla conservation through education and empowerment in communities bordering Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda.

CHT puts added emphasis on the importance of good hygiene in their programming, due to humans and gorillas in these communities living in close proximity to one another. Gorillas and humans are genetically very similar, and as a result human illnesses have the potential to spread to wild gorilla populations. In addition to teaching good habits, CHT also works to improve the livelihood of people in these communities, making adopting good hygiene practices easier. Last year the Houston Zoo provided a water tank for a CHT partner school, enabling 1,500 school children as well as their families and other members of the community to access clean water. In addition, two school gardens and 40 kitchen gardens were built, inspiring the local community to eat a healthy diet while lessening the need for people to venture into gorilla habitat looking for vegetables.

Promoting good hygiene practices is certainly important, but it is only one piece of the puzzle. CHT also works with students to help them understand the importance of protecting mountain gorillas and their habitat. In 2017, 219 students enrolled in a year-long after school conservation and health education program. 200 of these students received sheep that their families can use as a source of alternative income. The sheep can be used to provide wool that can be sold, which acts as a replacement for harvesting fire wood from the forest to sell. By the end of the year-long program, 78% of students reported that they better understood why mountain gorillas are important to their community, and almost 90% said that they learned that trees are important because of their role as animal habitat, their ability to prevent soil erosion, and their ability to produce the oxygen that we breathe!

When it comes to saving wildlife, there is never a “one size fits all solution”. Our partners at CHT are a great example of how creative solutions to multiple obstacles can positively contribute to conservation efforts. By helping to meet the communities’ needs, while also including community members in the discussion about issues facing wildlife and what actions each individual can do to help save them, projects like CHT not only provide a brighter future for wildlife, but for their human counterparts as well.

 

Training the Next Generation of Wildlife Saving Heroes

If you have had the opportunity to visit the Zoo over the last several days, you may have been lucky enough to encounter Gabriel Massocato a Brazilian Giant Armadillo Project Biologist and Houston Zoo conservation associate. This week, Gabriel took a break from his work in the field and traveled to  Houston on a very special mission – serving as a guest instructor for the Zoo’s Collegiate Conservation Program sponsored by ExxonMobil. Each year, 10 students from universities around the US are selected to spend a summer at the Houston Zoo in order to train, learn, and work alongside Zoo staff and regional conservation partners.  For the past week, Gabriel has lead the interns through activities and discussions tackling current field conservation topics such as monitoring techniques, properly engaging stakeholders, and addressing human/wildlife conflict.

Gabriel shares a special bond with the CCP students, as he too came to the Houston Zoo for training in 2016 after being selected by the Zoo Admissions team as a Wildlife Warrior. The Wildlife Warrior program recognizes outstanding staff employed by the Zoo’s existing wildlife conservation partners. The award is designed to increase the recipient’s conservation community network and inspire empowerment by providing opportunities to gain further education through training or experiences. In his second year as guest instructor, the student has become the teacher, and for Gabriel, the opportunity to share his knowledge and expertise, inspiring next generation of wildlife saving heroes is priceless:

” For me it is a great honor and opportunity to teach new conservation leaders. This is the moment in which I can share the data of our research with the giant armadillo and giant anteaters and show how we are doing conservation in Brazil. In addition to the subjects related to the species we are researching, students learn to talk to different partners. This is a kind of subject that we do not have the opportunity to learn at university and I am sure that learning it will make a difference in their working career. I confess that I wish I had taken such a course during my student years.” 

 

As the CCP interns reflected over their experiences this past week, which marked the halfway point for the program, it was clear that Gabriel’s visit had made quite an impact:

“To learn from Gabriel was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I will not forget; he is a testament to the quality of partnerships that the Houston Zoo creates all over the world. He embodies what it means to be an effective conservationist – knowledgeable about the technicalities of his work, yet charismatic and approachable when interacting with the general public. I expected to learn about Brazil and giant anteaters and armadillos, but in just a week Gabriel has taught me a great deal about communication, culture, and conservation as a whole.”  – Zoe, Rice University

 

Gabriel will return to Brazil next week to reunite with his team and continue with their important work addressing threats to giant anteaters and giant armadillos, and establishing long-term protection plans for wildlife in Brazil. We will miss him dearly, but know that our CCP interns will carry his wildlife saving message in their hearts and minds for years to come.

Become a Pollinator Saving Pro at Pollinator Palooza this Weekend

Pollinator Palooza: The Bee’s Knees
Written by Jessica Jones

Join us this Saturday or Sunday, June 23 or 24, 9 a.m. – 3 p.m., for Pollinator Palooza, an event dedicated to celebrating our pollinator friends that help make life fruitful!

What is a pollinator, you ask? To put it simply, a pollinator is an animal that transports pollen from one plant to another, thus helping produce all sorts of things such as coffee, fruit, and even chocolate! Pollinators come in all shapes and sizes – from small to big, fast to slow, and while some prefer to keep their feet firmly on the ground, others love to spend time in the sky!  This wide variety includes ants, beetles, bees, butterflies, bats, and yes, even lemurs! Lemurs, such as the ring-tailed lemur, help pollinate when searching for nectar and in the process collect pollen on their fur. This pollen is then spread from flower to flower as the lemur continues to satisfy his sweet tooth for nectar.

Pollinator Palooza is the perfect place to learn more about our pollinator friends like the lemur, and what you can do to help save these important species right in your own backyard. You’ll become a pollinator pro as you enjoy themed games and activities, watch a pollinator puppet show, and attend special ladybug releases taking place at 10 a.m. each day! Plus, join us for special Meet the Keeper Talks Presented by Phillips 66 highlighting pollinators, such as bats, who you can thank for tequila. This event is included in your Zoo admission and is free for Zoo Members.

Can’t make it this weekend? Don’t fret- our work with pollinators never stops. Visitors in the fall might catch a glimpse of Zoo staff catching monarch butterflies on grounds. This butterfly tagging program allows our partners at Monarch Watch to track the monarch’s migration patterns so that we can further protect areas they visit the most. Just last year the Zoo was able to tag 70 monarch butterflies!

As you stroll around the Zoo on your next visit, you’ll notice there’s quite a bit of buzz around pollinators. Informational signage lining the Conservation Stage attached to the Kipp Aquarium is there to help you learn about plants that are native to Texas, like swamp milkweed – a monarch butterfly’s favorite snack! Many of these native plants that pollinators use for food and shelter can be seen in pollinator gardens throughout the Zoo. Snap pictures of these wildlife friendly gardens and signs throughout your visit, and use them, along with our online resources, as a guide to start your very own pollinator garden at home!

 

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