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!

August’s Featured Member: Nancy Hyde

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 August’s Featured Member: Nancy Hyde.


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

“I love my zoo membership! It is a special place where I can spend time with my grandchildren and enjoy nature. I have been a member of the zoo for 9 years since joining in 2009. I decided to join because of the animals and the activities.  There are always exciting new exhibits, such as when the Gorilla exhibit opened.  I also enjoy knowing that my membership helps support animals at the zoo as well as Texas Wildlife.

My husband and I take frequent “weekend walks” through the zoo to see what the animals are up to while getting in some exercise. We probably come to the zoo about 2 times a month on average. Once my first grandchild was born I couldn’t wait to take him on his first trip to the zoo!  He loves seeing the fish swimming in the fish house, watching the elephants, and playing in the piranha tunnel in the Close Encounters exhibit.

I frequently teach him animal names and sounds – now that he is 2 and a half years old he loves pointing to them and identifying them and studies them more closely. I am excited for when my other two grandchildren are a little older so I can start teaching them all about the animals. We also enjoy the family attractions like the carousel and feeding the giraffes. The Children’s Zoo is wonderful.

We have a certain path we always take when we go tot he zoo. We start out with the meerkats and work our way to the elephants, and then onward to the gorillas and chimps.  Of course the giraffes are right after and then we wrap up with the seals and Natural Encounters exhibit.  This allows us to see all of our favorite animals!

My daughter has had such a great time when I have invited her using my guest pass that she decided to get a family membership in 2017. We are looking forward to many more years enjoying the Houston Zoo as a family!”

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

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.

National Dairy Goat Awareness Week

By: Heather Kilway and Megan Paliwoda

On a beautiful summer morning, under a yellow tent in the shadow of the Washington Monument, representatives of the American Dairy Goat Association presented 6 kids (baby goats) to the US Department of Agriculture, officially marking June 12th, 1986 as the first ever National Dairy Goat Awareness Day. Two years later, on June 17th, 1988 the United States Congress voted that the second Saturday through the third Saturday of June would from that day forward be recognized as National Dairy Goat Awareness Week. This week is typically celebrated every year with fun goat activities such as: milking, hoof trimming, and goat obstacle courses. In honor of National Dairy Goat Awareness Week 2018, the Houston Zoo would like for you to come out and celebrate with us; but in the meantime, here are some fun facts about our dairy goats.

The Houston Zoo is home to 5 different breeds of dairy goat, which can be found in the petting zoo area of the McGovern’s Children’s Zoo:

Nigerian Dwarf: This breed originated in West Africa and is known as one of the smaller breeds of dairy goat, standing roughly 23” (2 feet) high at the shoulder. Nigerian Dwarves are known for their high-quality milk which contains a large percentage of butterfat (high butterfat content gives milk a richer, more creamy taste). They are also very friendly and hardy goats, that can thrive in almost any climate.


Alpine: Originating in the French Alpine mountain region, Alpine goats were introduced to the U.S. in 1920. They are known for their long lactation periods and for producing large amounts of high-quality milk. Alpines are also famed for being curious, friendly, and strong willed. Another fun fact is that Alpines can come in a variety of colors and usually have LONG HAIR!! At the Houston Zoo, our two Alpines, Chewbacca and Han Solo, love getting their hair brushed by guests.


Nubian: Nubian’s today have both African and Indian ancestors. This breed is known for their high-quality, high butterfat milk production. They are very adorable with their long floppy ears, strong “Roman” noses, and their tendency to be vocal. At the Houston Zoo, our Nubians (Alvin, Simon, and Theodore) are easy to spot due to their rich brown color and the fact that Nubian goats are generally at least 30” (almost 3 feet!) tall at the shoulder, and normally weigh around 135 pounds.


Saanen: Saanen goats are the largest of all the dairy breeds (even taller than Nubians!) and are even referred to as “Queen of the Dairy Goats” due to their majestic appearance and calm nature. Saanen goats originated in Switzerland and can come in different shades of white. They are known for regularly producing large amounts of milk, as well as for their sturdiness and tolerance of environmental change. Elsa, is the only Saanen goat currently at the Houston Zoo, and is considered by many to be Queen of the Herd.


Pygmy: Originally from Africa, this very small breed of goat stands no bigger than 22”-23” tall at the shoulder. Pygmies are referred to as being “compact” and having a large circumference (meaning they are noticeably round in the middle). They are known for their high-quality milk production which has an incredibly high butterfat content. Not only that, but Pygmies are hardy, animated, and very social. The three pygmy goats that live at the Houston zoo are: Belle, and her younger twin brothers, Seamus and Finnegan. (You may even see the Fantastic Finnegan performing at The Houston Texans Enrichment Zone!)

2018 Action for Apes Results

We’re excited to announce the 2018 Action for Apes results!

This year, we had 29 organizations take part in the challenge with an estimated 8,000 participants across the greater Houston area and beyond.  With these numbers, it was no surprise that the challenge was a competitive one!  

The collective participation in this program yielded a total of 1,977 handheld electronic devices which amounts to 1,977 actions to help save animals in the wild!  

So, without further delay, our top 3 participating groups for the 2018 Action for Apes Challenge are:

  1. Schmalz Elementary School – 458 handheld electronic devices! – WINNER!
  2. Incarnate Word Academy- 390 devices!
  3. Tomball ISD – 326 devices!

By recycling these cell phones and other handheld electronic devices, these participants have helped the Houston Zoo divert approximately 165 POUNDS of battery waste containing harmful chemicals from our landfills, local habitats and waterways. Materials, like tantalum, from these phones and other handheld devices can now be reused in new devices, reducing the demand for this material mined from gorilla habitat.

In addition, money raised from the recycling of these devices helps pay for a month’s salary of one of the Houston Zoo’s conservation education staff partners in Rwanda.

Remember to recycle your unused electronic devices too! The collection box is at the front of the Zoo near Guest Relations.

Click here for more information about handheld electronic recycling and reduction. 

 

June’s Featured Members: The Buhr 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 June’s Featured Members: the Buhr family.


We love being members of the Houston Zoo! My daughter Mikaela and I received a family membership as a gift when we first moved to Houston 5 years ago and we’ve renewed it ever since. We definitely make good use of our membership, as we usually visit the zoo three to four times a month. Sometimes these visits are only an hour or two and sometimes they take an entire afternoon, but no matter how long we are there, we always have a great time.

One of our favorite things about the zoo is the large selection of keeper chats and we try to time our visits to attend as many as possible. We have learned about llamas, cheetahs, bats, kookaburras, mole rats, buzzards, tarantulas and more in the past month. The keepers are enthusiastic about their animals and are always willing to answer any questions, whether it’s during an official chat or when you approach them in the zoo. We especially like learning the little things about the animals that you wouldn’t know otherwise, like their names, favorite foods, and quirks that make them so unique.

If I had to choose two main things that keep us coming back to the zoo so frequently, it’s the staff and the zoo’s mission. The Houston Zoo staff is comprised of amazing people that enjoy their jobs and are passionate about the animals. We’re on a first name basis with staff at the entrance gates and Swap Shop, as well as some of the keepers and they always have a smile on their faces. We’ve never had a bad experience with the staff in the years we’ve been there and, in fact, several have gone above and beyond to make our visits even better.

The zoo’s mission is near and dear to our hearts. Animal and environmental conservation is something we care about, and it’s great to see an organization that not only says it’s passionate it but follows through. The support and training that the zoo provides for organizations directly impacting endangered species is important and I’m happy to know that my membership money contributes to that. I’m also impressed with the zoo’s recycling program and their commitment to have all of their food provided by local sourcing.

Save Wildlife: Bring a Water Bottle to the Zoo

The zoo has water bottle refilling stations throughout its grounds. There are two types of refilling stations: free standing, green fountains and silver, chilled fountains attached to walls, made possible by a partnership with Texas Plumbing Supply.

These fountains are easily recognizable by the “Save Sea Turtles Here” signs. Using reusable water bottles and refilling them at these stations helps save sea turtles in the wild by keeping this waste out of the ocean. Plastic bottles and bags can make their way to Houston’s waterways and end up in the ocean, home to animals like sea turtles, sting rays, sharks, and an array of fish.

“The zoo is committed to saving animals, and their habitats, in the wild and this is just one more way we can inspire guests to take simple actions and join us in protecting wildlife,” says Peter Riger, vice president of conservation education. “We are using this action specifically to highlight the need to protect marine animals from debris. It also allows our guests to play a direct part in making a difference on our planet.”

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