Pen Pals to Save Okapi: Camera Trap Conservation

Written by Mary Fields and M’monga Jean Paul

In the last pen pals blog, Jean Paul told us why he thinks zoos are great for conservation. In this blog, we will be learning about the importance of camera traps in the Okapi Wildlife Reserve (OWR).

Okapis, forest elephants, chimpanzees and many other species call the OWR home. Camera traps help document the presence of these species within the Ituri Forest. These photos and videos are extremely important for research and conservation efforts of okapis. Instead of relying on droppings and footprints in the 13.7 square kilometers that is the OWR (about 5.3 square miles), researchers can record data through photos and videos! This also allows them to check on the state of the animal and to check the animal’s identity.

Along with telling us about the importance of camera traps, Jean Paul sent us some camera trap photos and videos. Some of these animals’ cousins call the Houston Zoo home, including okapis, duikers and chimpanzees. These photos help researchers see what animals go through an area on any given day.

So how can you help okapis? Come visit our Okapi Spotlight on Species event at the Houston Zoo on October 18th! You will be able to recycle your old cell phones for a chance to win an okapi painting, play fun games and learn more about okapis in honor of the second annual World Okapi Day! Make sure to follow our blog to continue learning about okapi conservation and hear more from Jean Paul!


World Gorilla Day – Sunday, September 24

Written by Helen Boostrom

Why have a day to celebrate gorillas?

In fact, if you ask me and our youngest male gorilla, Ajari, gorillas should be celebrated every day!

But for those of you who need more convincing about celebrating this special day, read on for cool facts about gorillas.

Gorillas are social apes and typically live in a harem society with multiple females and one dominant male leader.  Occasionally, unattached males will form loose coalitions, or “bachelor groups” consisting of multiple male gorillas. Houston Zoo is home to both a family group and a bachelor group.

Female gorillas usually only produce one offspring every 4-6 years giving birth only about 3-4 times in their life. This low reproduction rate makes it difficult for gorilla populations to sustain themselves amid growing threats.

There are two species and four subspecies of gorilla: mountain gorilla, Grauer’s gorilla, western lowland gorilla, and cross river gorilla. The gorillas at the Houston Zoo are western lowland gorillas.

World Gorilla Day was created to help encourage people all over the world to take action to help these amazing but highly endangered animals.

How can you Take Action & Celebrate World Gorilla Day:

  • Recycle your mobile device
    • Recycling your cell or smart phone, tablet, or MP3 player will help reduce the demand for ore that is mined in some gorilla habitats, plus if you recycle it at the Houston Zoo, you’ll help raise funds for gorilla conservation.
  • Visit your local conservation organization that supports gorillas!
    • Between 2010 and 2014, Association of Zoos and Aquariums- accredited zoos contributed over $4.5 million to gorilla conservation efforts. Underlining zoos’ financial investments in these programs are their long-term commitments to bolstering their success through organizational support, scientific research, educational opportunities, and veterinary consult.

You can also join me and Ajari in our goal to make every day a gorilla celebration by learning more about these awe-inspiring animals and ways you can help. Start here.

Patty Bear Dies After Long Life

We are sad to announce the death of the current, oldest Andean bear in any AZA-accredited zoo, Patty. Also known as a spectacled bear, Andean bears are native to South American and live to be in their mid-20s in human care. Patty lived to be 31 years old, most of her long life at the Houston Zoo.

Patty suffered from allergies much of her life which resulted in thinning hair, but the keepers who spent their lives caring for Patty gave her local honey which helped her allergies.  One and a half years ago, Patty was found to have cancer that the zoo’s veterinarians removed, however, this week during an exam, her cancer was found to have returned and spread. Due to her advanced age, and the progression of the cancer, the animal care team made the decision to euthanize Patty.

Patty’s keepers will remember her relaxed personality and for how much she seemed to like building and fluffing nests out of sheets and wood wool, so she could find the perfect sleeping or napping position.

Happy Great Ape Day! September 9 & 10

Written by: Tammy Buhrmester, Zookeeper

Did you know that there are six distinct species of great apes and that the Houston Zoo is home to three species?

Orangutans, gorillas and chimpanzees are members of the great ape family.

Is It a Monkey or an Ape?

One easy way to tell the difference between a monkey and an ape is to look for a tail.  The great apes are tailless primates that have larger bodies and bigger brains than other primates.

The Social Lives of Great Apes

Gorillas live in “harem” groups (one adult male with several females and their offspring) of around five to ten individuals in a family group, although on occasion the group can be larger.

Chimpanzees live in multi-male, multi-female groups which can consist of a few dozen individuals, or more than one hundred.  Chimp groups practice “fusion-fission” which means smaller subsets exist with the larger group and members come together and split apart depending on food availability and other factors.

Orangutans tend to live alone more than gorillas and chimpanzees.  Adult females will travel with their offspring and recently have been found to also travel with another female and her offspring. Males and females only interact in order to produce an offspring.

The Houston Zoo Great Apes

At the Houston Zoo, we have 27 individual Great Apes; 7 gorillas, 14 chimpanzees and 6 orangutans.

When you visit the Great Ape gallery in the Africa forest, you get the opportunity to be surrounded by chimpanzees and gorillas.  When you watch the chimpanzee exhibit you may see Lucy sitting on her perch on the large termite mound watching over the group.  You may catch Lulu sitting in front of the air conditioner in the training room.  Willie our youngest male, may be in the yard playing a game of tag with Abe, Charlie, Kenya or Kira.

If you visit in the Great Ape Gallery in the morning, you will have the opportunity to see our gorilla family in their large indoor playroom.  Zuri, our dominant male of the family group may be eating or resting with his large foot resting on the glass.  Look up and you may see one of the three females sitting on the large tree or resting on the platform in the middle of the playroom.  Binti, our oldest female normally is found resting on the ground the floor on the left side of the play room. We also have three amazing bachelor males that can be seen outside in the large yard.  Mike usually can be found in the middle of the exhibit sitting under a tree and Chaka and Ajari are usually near each other.

When you visit the orangutan exhibit, you may see one or two orangutans on exhibit at the same time.  Each day, the orangutans take turns out on the exhibit. They each get several hours a day outside.  We vary the times that they go outside.  Normally we rotate them at 9AM, 12PM and 3PM.  Rudi Valentino prefers to go outside in the morning and Kelly likes to go out anytime of the day.  Pumpkin loves to sit by the glass and look at everyone visiting.  Cheyenne and Aurora usually can be found sitting around the platform at the front of the exhibit.  Aurora loves to hang out on top of the platform, so if you don’t see anyone, look up and you might see her.

Take Action: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle

One of the major threats facing Great Apes is habitat loss and fragmentation. Habitat loss due to logging, mining, palm oil plantations and human encroachment has had a devastating impact on Great Ape populations.

On Great Ape Day, we encourage everyone to reduce the use of paper products by purchasing Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood, paper and furniture products. When you are grocery shopping, read labels and purchase only products that is made with sustainable palm oil or no palm oil product.

Great Ape Day will be celebrated at the Houston Zoo on Saturday and Sunday, September 9 and 10.  Please stop by at the Africa Forest Great Ape gallery at 12:30PM to learn all about our chimpanzees and gorillas and at 3:30PM at the orangutan exhibit at the Wortham World of Primates to learn all about orangutans.


September’s Featured Members: The Dalmolin Family

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 family of Zoo Members that deserve recognition. We’re thrilled to introduce you to September’s Featured Members: The Dalmolin  Family

We asked the Dalmolin’s to share a few words about what being a Zoo Member means to them. Here’s what they had to say.

“We have been members for the last 2 years. I have always loved the Houston Zoo and after our first daughter was born we knew would be frequent zoo visitors. We have 2 girls (3 and 1). It has been fun seeing their love for animals develop as we visit each exhibit. We can always count on the zoo to provide us with some great family memories. Each year we attend Zoo Lights and Zoo Boo. I love that Zoo Boo is including in the membership. We usually make it a big family event and invite grandparents and cousins. There are so many games and activities that are age appropriate for the kids. Of course my daughters favorite part is wearing her costume and going around to all the candy stations, shouting “Trick or Treat”. The pumpkin patch with mini pumpkins that the kids can decorate is another favorite event.

Zoo Lights can be a bit crowded but definitely worth seeing my girls face light up as they see all the light displays. Pair the lights with some hot chocolate and its another memorable family event we participate in each year to help kick off the holiday season. We had a chance to host daughters and my nieces’ 2nd birthday party in the yellow pavilion last year. It was one of the easiest experiences for us as both families just had our second babies. We had an air conditioned room to take a break from the heat and the kids had a blast.

This summer we took advantage of our membership by adding our nanny as a cardholder. She was able to take the girls to the zoo during the day while my husband and I worked. They would head out in the morning and sit down with their packed lunch and eat before it got too hot. Last time they were there both girls had a hard time leaving the carousel and the oldest requested to ride the rhinos:) We love that the Houston Zoo allows you to bring coolers of food and drinks, makes for an economical trip. Our daughter has assigned us all with our favorite animals; she says her favorite animals are the lions, my husbands are the wolves, the youngest likes the elephants and I like the giraffes. We thank the Houston Zoo for providing our family with some great memories. We plan to keep enjoying our membership for years to come.”

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

Zoo Reopens Friday with Discounted Admission, Launching Employee Relief Fund

Although the storm has moved on, most of Houston is still reeling in hurricane Harvey’s aftermath. The entire Houston Zoo team is humbled by the concern and support shown by this community, and we could not be more proud of our fellow Houstonians as the city begins to recover.

As a place for families and communities to gather and find respite, the Houston Zoo will resume limited operations on Friday, Sept. 1.  The zoo will be open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with the last ticket sold at 4 p.m. A special ticket price of $5 will be offered at the main gate for both child and adult admission ($5 tickets not available online). Included in the $5 ticket are unlimited rides on the Texas Direct Auto Wildlife Carousel, as well as admission to Nature Connects: Art with LEGO Bricks.

“I am grateful to report that our zoo is an island of relative normalcy in an ocean of crisis,” said Lee Ehmke, Houston Zoo CEO and president. “My deepest gratitude goes to the ride-out crew members who worked tirelessly for our animals and facilities over the past seven days.”

Throughout the storm, the animals at the zoo were safe and secure in their barns and night houses and cared for by a dedicated crew of team members who stayed at the zoo for the duration of the weather event.

The zoo sustained minor storm-related flooding and downed tree limbs, but no significant damage.  However, many of the zoo’s team members were affected by this catastrophe. The zoo has launched an employee relief fund to help its team members who need assistance during this difficult time. Information about the relief fund can be found at

Standard operating hours and admission prices will resume Saturday, Sept.2.


What Do Veterinary Interns Do?

Written by Jennifer Urda

Hello, my name is Jennifer Urda and I am just finishing a veterinary research internship involving the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken. I will be starting my second year of veterinary school at Midwestern University in Arizona in the fall. The Houston Zoo is like a second home to me, as I have spent the previous three summers here as an intern in two different departments (Birds and Children’s Zoo) and also as a seasonal zookeeper for the Attwater’s Prairie Chickens. Every summer I’ve spent here has been incredible; I’ve truly gained invaluable experience and knowledge associated with the husbandry and care of the species in the Zoo’s collection as well as made valuable friendships. I am incredibly honored and proud to have had the opportunity to intern with the veterinary clinic this summer and would like to share some of my experiences in hopes of creating awareness for other current and future veterinary students that might like to apply to this program. This internship is one of two the Houston Zoo offers (the other internship involves the Houston Toads) to first and second year veterinary students, which makes it very unique as most other AZA accredited institutions only accept students on their clinical rotations.

First, I’d like to talk about the Attwater’s Prairie Chicken (APC). The Attwater’s Prairie Chicken is a critically endangered species of grouse (not a chicken!) found only in the coastal prairies of Texas. About 100 years ago, there were once around 1 million of these birds between the Texas and Louisiana coastal prairies, but throughout the 20th century their numbers began to dwindle, largely due to habitat destruction; there are estimated to be less than 100 APCs left in the wild today. Thankfully, the Houston Zoo is part of a captive breeding program for these rare birds, and birds that are eligible for release in the late summer are slowly introduced back into the wild.

As the APC veterinary intern, I am largely responsible for administering medical treatments on the growing prairie chickens. These birds can be challenging to raise and often require medical care such as administering fluids via injection and antibiotics as well as tube feeding food, sometimes up to three times a day. I am also responsible for inputting the medical records on these birds, recording my observations, and discussing treatment plans and options with the veterinarians at the Zoo. As a large component of my internship involves research, I was able to pick a topic that would be both beneficial to the Zoo and the preservation of the species, so much of my time was also spent in this manner. Additionally, I have had some opportunities to shadow the Zoo’s veterinarians and participate in other procedures such as drawing blood from a duck and giving routine vaccinations. In the coming months I hope to submit a scientific paper to Journal of Zoo and Wildlife Medicine regarding the findings of my research over the summer.

The veterinary hospital staff is an amazing team, and I’ve learned so much from every single one of them; all are incredibly passionate about their work and the Houston Zoo’s message of conservation and education. I know that the experience I have gained here as well as the connections I’ve made will be valuable in my future as a veterinarian. I highly recommend any first or second year veterinary student with a passion for conservation or zoo and wildlife medicine to apply — the experience and mentoring you will receive is phenomenal.

Earn Points in the Swap Shop

Written by Sara Riger

Have you visited The Naturally Wild Swap Shop in the Children’s Zoo? When trader’s come to the shop, they usually have treasures in their hands to trade. These may include rocks, shells, or even a pinecone. They could also bring a report about their favorite animal, a poster showing the life cycle of a butterfly, or a drawing of mountain gorillas. Anything that sparks their imagination and appreciation for nature. These objects will earn points that can then be traded for items in the shop. There are so many fun and creative ways to earn points. Now there are even more ways, and if you participate you can help save animals in the wild.

As a way of encouraging traders to be more aware of their impact on the environment, the Shop has developed a new category called Take Action. We want traders to be a part of our Take Action initiatives and to earn points. Below are Take Action initiatives that will earn points in the Shop.



  • Carry your items to the shop in a reusable bag.
  • Recycle items here at the zoo.
  • Bring you reusable bottle of water when you visit.
  • Tell us you will be refilling your drink containers with filtered water from any of the 12 refill stations located on zoo grounds. There happen to be 2 located right outside the Swap Shop, one by the Texans Stage and one by the restrooms.

Help the Zoo to be plastic free. Each of these actions will earn points toward your existing account.

  • Beach cleanup. Plastic litter on our Texas sands ends up in the Gulf of Mexico where sea life can mistake it for food and ingest it. Bring photos of your efforts to clean up beaches.

Help eliminate plastic from oceans and beaches and earn points.


  • Bring old cell phonesto the Shop.
  • Bring old electronics to the Shop.

They will all be recycled by the Zoo. Cell phone recycling is an important step to reduce waste. Make a difference and earn points.


  • Purchase sustainable seafood and show us how you are doing it. Ocean-friendly seafood is seafood that has been caught in a way that protects animals like sharks, sea turtles and ensures fish populations thrive over time. Share ways that you are practicing this through photos. Download the free Seafood Watch App from the Monterey Bay Aquarium and show us your phone. You can download the app to learn which seafood options are best choices or good alternatives. Use this app when making ocean-friendly seafood purchases at grocery stores or ordering at restaurants.

Anything that involves these Take Action topics can be researched and a report or project can be done. For example, make a poster incorporating the beach trash that you picked up and bring it to the Shop. Guess what? You will earn points. These are all tools the Naturally Wild Swap Shop is using to raise awareness about how personal choices make a difference. Have discussions with the Shop naturalists about actions you have taken so we can celebrate your successes with you. Ask what more can be done to help save wildlife. Together we can make a difference.

Conservation, Water Quality Style

Written by Karen Sprague, Water Quality Tech

“What do you know about Affinity Laws?”  My boss asked me this question after I had asked why we were installing a different type of pump on a filtration system in the Children’s Zoo.  I am an aquatic biologist/water chemistry tech… the answer to his question was “next to nothing.”  So he began to explain to me one of the most powerful sets of equations in the realm of hydraulics, and along with them a means to save energy and money and lessen our carbon footprint.

You may be asking yourself  “what in the world does this have to do with animals at the Zoo?”  Quite a lot, actually!  At the Houston Zoo, we provide naturalistic habitats so that our animals may exhibit behaviors just as they do in nature.  Often, those habitats include pools: a pool for our Sea Lions to swim in, a pool for our Elephants to take a dip in, a pool for our Flamingos to feed and bathe in – the list goes on and on.  The water in these pools is maintained and monitored closely to ensure we provide the best environment possible.  In very small pools, zookeepers can drain, disinfect, rinse and refill on a daily basis, but this is not an effective method for the larger pools… for these we need filtration.  This is where the Water Quality department comes in.

With a large volume pool comes a large and often complex filtration system that runs 24/7.  In order to operate these systems, we need large pumps, and in order to run the pumps, we need electricity – a lot of electricity.   Enter the VFD, or Variable Frequency Drive.  When designing our new 160,000 gallon Asian Elephant pool filtration system, my boss chose two centrifugal pumps powered by 10 horsepower (HP) motors and controlled by a VFD.  With a VFD, one can change the speed of the motor, the rate of water flow in the filtration system, and the consumption of electricity – in a BIG way!  Lets take a look at an example.  Uh-oh, here comes the math:

As mentioned above, we are using a total of 20 HP with our 2 pumps for the Elephant pool and they run 24/7 – let’s figure out their energy consumption and how much they cost to operate on a yearly basis if they are running at 100% speed:

A 1HP motor consumes 0.7457kW (kilowatts) of energy per hour; 20HP uses 14.914kW per hour.  Multiply 14.914kW by 24hrs and you get 357.936kWh (kilowatt hours) used per day.  But what does that cost?

Lets say the average cost for a kilowatt hour in Houston is eleven cents:

357.936kWh x 0.11= $39.373/day.  Multiply that by 365 days – it costs $14,371.13 per year to operate both of our elephant pool pumps.  That’s a big chunk of change, but proper filtration and good health are things our animals cannot live without.  Save us Affinity Laws!!

Here’s where things get either interesting or terrifying (depending on your math abilities), but one thing is for sure – we’re going to save energy and money.  The Affinity Laws include equations that can help calculate all sorts of things by manipulating variables in pump operation, but we will just use one today:  Energy Consumption = (Shaft Speed %)3.   HUH?  If you’re not an engineer, let me simplify this for you in the way my boss did to help me understand.

Energy consumption of a pump running at full speed, meaning 100% speed:

(1)3 = 1 x 1 x 1 = you guessed it… 1

And $14,371.13 per year x 1 equals – drumroll, please! – still $14,371.13.  Bummer.

But what if we decrease the pump speed to a level at which we still get the water flow that we need through our filtration system?  For the Elephant pool, the magic number is 83%:

Energy Consumption is now (0.83)3, 0.83 x 0.83 x 0.83 = 0.57, or 57%.

And $14,371.13 per year x 0.57 equals – whoa!!! – $8191.54.

By simply reducing the pump speed to 83% we save $6180 and reduce our energy consumption by 56,178.06 kWh per year.  And at 1.6 pounds of carbon dioxide (CO₂) emitted per kWh, we have also reduced CO2 emissions by 44.9 tons per year!

Reducing our carbon footprint by 44.9 Tons of CO₂ per year!

To recap – in this particular example, we have a nice clean pool, we have happy elephants, and math and physics just substantially reduced our carbon footprint.  This is good for the environment, and good for animals in wild places!  And that, Ladies and Gentlemen, is one big way the Water Quality Department contributes to the Houston Zoo’s conservation efforts.  We use VFDs for other exhibit filtration systems too, and as the Zoo’s future renovations take place we will be installing many more, saving money and electricity and reducing our carbon footprint as we go.

**Shout out to the Houston Zoo’s Water Quality Manager, Mike Fannin, for the Affinity Laws tutorial.  Kids – if you made it this far… Math and science are your friends!  Study hard!


Luna the Opossum

Written by Kim Sharkey

Meet Luna the Houston Zoo’s resident Virginia opossum. Although she is beautiful, she is so much more than just a pretty face. Luna does not look like your typical opossum because of her striking white coat, which is known as leucism.  This is a condition in which there is a partial loss of pigmentation. Her unique coloration meant that she would not have a high survival rate in the wild, which is one of the reasons that she now lives at the Houston Zoo.

Luna is now in the Children’s Zoo where she is an ambassador animal and representative for her species in the wild. She routinely goes out with staff for keeper chats and conservation education programs where she helps educate guests about opossum’s importance in the environment.

Opossums are often seen as a nuisance and not desired in backyards and gardens, however they are very critical in the controlling of pests that can contribute to disease transmission to humans. While you sleep, these nocturnal creatures are busy eradicating pests such as rodents, insects and even feasting on carrion. Ticks that carry Lyme disease can pose a huge threat to humans and our pets but opossums do a great job in controlling them, eating up to 5,000 ticks every season.

Opossums have a partial immunity to snake venom and can consume most local venomous snakes including cottonmouths and rattlesnakes. The only snake they are not immune to is the coral snake. Researchers are currently looking to find the key to their natural anti-venom capabilities.

One last benefit to the opossum’s omnivorous diet is they consume a lot of fruit and plant matter. Preferring to eat the flesh of the fruit and spitting out the seeds and rinds means they are also great seed dispersers. So while they are cleaning up the forest floor they are also helping to replant it. Opossums play an important role in our environment along with many of the other animals at the Houston Zoo. Next time you visit the Children’s Zoo you might just be able to see one of these amazing animals and learn more about their role in nature.


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There's still time to explore the Houston Zoo’s special exhibit – Nature Connects®: Art with LEGO® Bricks Presented by Coca-Cola!
Now through October 1, see some of your favorite animals unlike ever before, built with tens of thousands of LEGO bricks.
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Theres still time to explore the Houston Zoo’s special exhibit – Nature Connects®: Art with LEGO® Bricks Presented by Coca-Cola! 
Now through October 1, see some of your favorite animals unlike ever before, built with tens of thousands of LEGO bricks.


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My kids dragged me to this and it was totally worth it - I think I liked it more than they did. Amazing sculptures!

Wow..! Reminds me the iguanas in Puerto Vallarta..!

We have to go!! Erik Baza

Awe you should take Arian! Ariana Chavez

How did they do that

Technicolor Chameleon...that's pretty cool!

Gaby Torres mira tu niño seria feliz ahi

JP Harvey!

Michael Enstein

Jonathan Drake

Becky Turner, Ashley Martin, Susan Rives Horridge

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Our latest Ten Second Science video goes deep to explore how interesting nature can be. Enjoy! #SequentialHermaphroditism ... See MoreSee Less


Monday... It's okay to start thinking about happy hour already, right? Right?!

Join us at Saint Arnold Brewing Company on Friday to support howler monkey conservation efforts in the wild. From 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., $1 from every pint sold will go directly to Wildtracks, a rescue and rehabilitation center for howler monkeys in Belize.
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Monday... Its okay to start thinking about happy hour already, right? Right?!

Join us at Saint Arnold Brewing Company on Friday to support howler monkey conservation efforts in the wild. From 5:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m., $1 from every pint sold will go directly to Wildtracks, a rescue and rehabilitation center for howler monkeys in Belize.


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