Guest Blogger: Jessica Jones – 2017 Collegiate Conservation Program Intern

This post was written by Jessica Jones. Jessica is a sophomore at University of Houston and was a Collegiate Conservation Program (CCP) intern during the 2017 summer.  Take a look at Jessica’s experience and head to the CCP website to learn more and to apply for summer 2018!

My experience with the Collegiate Conservation Program allowed me to learn about various career opportunities within the environmental field. I started the internship as a Biology major, but at that time I was still unsure of my career path. The internship exposed me to the many jobs related to conservation and to the idea that everyone involved has an impact. The most memorable experiences I had on- and off- zoo grounds involved interacting with the public. Animal handling sparked conversations with zoo guests on the characteristics of the animals along with how we can improve their situation in the wild. One example was sharing the message of one of the ambassador animals, an American alligator named Dr. Teeth. We educated guests on the importance of alligators as they help control the ecosystem population. Through personal interactions with guests who truly wanted to learn about each animal, I realized my passion was sharing the message with others. Another on-zoo grounds benefit was the opportunity to meet with different departments such as development, marketing, education, horticulture, and many more. My encounter with the marketing team expanded my perspective of a business career as I had always been set on science. I learned that marketing was working hand in hand with helping save animals in the wild and that it is an essential part of educating the public.


What I had learned on zoo grounds developed as we met with many of the partner organizations off grounds. From invasive species removal to dune restoration, I experienced what it would be like to work hands on with the environment as a career. Early in the internship, we were able to experience the emergence of 10 million Mexican free-tailed bats from Bracken Cave. It was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen, and it lasted for hours. This internship educated me on the existence of a colony of bats right here in Houston. My fellow interns and I met a young girl around the age of 8 at the Waugh Bat Bridge. Her craving to learn about the bats was inspirational. I want all children and adults to be educated about the importance of the world around us. This 10-week life changing internship helped me investigate my interests and ultimately alter my career path. I have come to believe my passion for conservation may best be pursued through an influential marketing career where I can connect and inspire people of all ages.

Guest Blogger: Kenneth Nalley – 2017 Collegiate Conservation Program Intern

This post written by Kenneth Nalley. Kenneth is a graduate from Tarleton University and was a Collegiate Conservation Program (CCP) intern during the 2017 summer.  Take a look at Kenneth’s experience and head to the CCP website to learn more and to apply for summer 2018!

Summer 2017 will forever hold a special place in my heart. From the moment I heard about the CCP internship with the Houston Zoo I knew it was special, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it. Since I had a friend that had done the internship a summer prior I somewhat knew what to expect. I knew that I would learn about regional and worldwide conservation efforts and the Houston Zoo’s role in those efforts. What I didn’t know was that we would be examining what I now see as the most important part of conservation: the human aspect. Throughout the summer I would be taking a greater look at myself through the eyes of 12 strangers.

This summer consisted of a lot of critical thinking. Where do I fit into this puzzle? What is my role in conservation? It starts with learning more about yourself; which is exactly what we did. We took a strength finders test which told us what our top 5 strengths were and then we each shared our strengths with the group. This was a powerful exercise because it fostered a level of understanding and bonding amongst the group that wasn’t there prior. It allowed us to accept and bond over our differences. Throughout the rest of the summer this bond would grow amongst the group, and this better understanding of each other led to a better understanding of people’s role in conservation.


My philosophy before CCP was that people were the reason we are in this mess. Our selfishness and greed has destroyed habitats, altered our climate, and devastated wildlife. There were people like me—nature-loving, wildlife enthusiasts—and people like them. Now, thanks to the growth I experienced this past summer—I only see people. I met some of the nicest people from EXXON Mobil, who were so generous with their time and investment in us. I was able to see things from different perspectives; no right or wrong…just different. I learned and now understand that we are all in this together. Conservation is not just people who work in this fields issue, we can’t save the world alone. This effort belongs to us all—and we must be willing to listen to everyone. That’s the biggest truth I took away from this summer, and for that, I will be forever grateful for it has shaped my future in this field.




February’s Featured Members: The Costigan 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 February’s Featured Members: the Costigan family.

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

“My husband Quentin and I have been members since fall of last year, when we initially signed up for a small family membership.  We are both animal lovers and advocates, and we come to the zoo several times a year just to admire the critters and pet the goats. 🙂  My sister Rebekah and her husband Ryan moved home to Houston in June of this year, after living in Denver for 7 years.  They came home with my 2 year old nephew Rory and my 4 year old niece Ivy Anne in tow, who were born in Denver and loved the Denver Zoo, so we decided to go ahead and get the big family membership so we can all bring the kiddos to the Houston Zoo whenever we want (and when the weather cooperates!).  We took them for their first trip in September and got the family membership at that time.

We are proud to support the efforts of the zoo, and to teach Rory and Ivy Anne the importance of conservation and animal husbandry, as well as educating them about animals all over the world and how critical they are to OUR survival, as we are to theirs.  The residents at the zoo allow us to show them creatures from all over the globe; mammals birds, reptiles, and fish, and to see them in native environments. Our favorites are the cats – the big cats and the little ones!  Ivy Anne got to give a high five to a sleeping lioness through the viewing window, which was her favorite part of the entire day.  We hope to be able to participate in the program where you get to give the lions some water with a squirt bottle – that was the neatest thing ever!!  My sister and her husband are raising my niece and nephew to be caring and responsible contributing members of society, and the zoo helps us toward that goal.  Plus, we get to pet the goats (That’s my favorite part, and yes, I’m a grown woman of 45 LOLOL!)!”

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

Meet the SPARK Team

Have you ever seen the SPARK team at Houston Zoo?  This dynamic team is waiting to engage, inform and entertain you every time you walk through the Zoo gates!

SPARK stands for:
Spontaneous interactions
Passionate staff
Awe and inspiring guest reactions
Relationship building
Keeping guests 1st

The team is made up of three amazingly creative individuals who interact with more than 120,000 guests each year.  Bennett Dones, interpretative program supervisor, has been with the team since it was created “before 2000.”  Bennett can be seen weekdays at the Zoo.  He is constantly “roaming” around and his favorite interactions are those spontaneous moments with guests as he walks around the Zoo.  He loves to tell stories and jokes.

Sarah Fern rejoined the team in 2016 after spending a few years in a school environment.  She is here Wednesday through Sunday.  Sarah loves to surprise guests with carousel tickets or telling stories about our amazing elephant herd.

Celina Burgueño joined the team after graduating from college in 2017.  Celina loves performing various programs at the Houston Texan’s Enrichment Zone where she can be seen leading a marching band or introducing guests to our animal athlete ambassadors. She can be seen on Thursday s through Mondays.

Every day, find Sarah, Celina or Bennett presenting some of their favorite animal ambassadors at the Conservation Stage and other locations across the zoo. Will you get to meet Charles the Chuckwalla, a Houston Zoo legend, or take a picture with Ernie, the North American porcupine? Whoever you meet, the SPARK team is sure to teach you all about your newest friend. As you walk through the Children’s Zoo, stop by the Houston Texan’s Enrichment Zone to catch the latest presentation. Daily programming may include a chance to meet some animal athletes, make some noise as you audition to become a member of the Houston Zoo Recycle Band, or even save the Zoo from trash villain Disastra at the Conservation League of Heroes. Any time throughout the day, you can catch the team on one of their daily storytelling walks, in front of a favorite habitat and ready to tell you all about the amazing animals that call Houston Zoo home. Wherever you see them, SPARK is sure to awe and inspire you with spontaneous programming for the whole family.

Tickets for Tapirs: How Your Visit to the Houston Zoo is Saving South America’s Largest Land Mammal

Last February, the Houston Zoo celebrated the birth of Antonio, a Baird’s tapir, and quite possibly the cutest bundle of joy any of us have laid eyes on. It certainly was a treat to see Antonio sporting his watermelon-like stripes and spots as he readily greeted his adoring fans. These days Antonio is sporting a new, more mature look, but thanks to a portion of your admission ticket going towards saving animals in the wild, we are able to help protect baby tapirs like Antonio in Brazil with the help of our friends at the Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative (LTCI). Over the past 12 months the team found a total of 53 tapirs, including 28 new individuals that had never been seen before. Overall, for the past 21 years, the team at LTCI has found 144 individual tapirs, and 94 of these were radio-collared and monitored for extended periods. Finding tapirs and processing data on individuals before they are released back into the wild helps conservationists understand more about them, which then helps to create protection plans for them. This project continues to build the most extensive database of tapir information in the world and has been successfully applying their results for the conservation of tapirs in Brazil and internationally!

You may remember that the Houston Zoo hosted the IUCN/SSC Tapir Specialist Group (TSG) Seventh International Tapir Symposium back in November. Patricia Medici, the chair of the Tapir Specialist Group, also happens to be the coordinator for LTCI. During the symposium, LTCI launched their environmental education curriculum called TAPIR TRACKS, which will be used in schools and focuses on tapirs and conservation.  In the coming months, the team hopes to have the curriculum translated into Portuguese and Spanish. In Brazil, the curriculum will be presented to the Brazilian Ministry of Education (federal level) and State Departments of Education for inclusion as part of the formal curriculum in primary schools.

For the past three years, the Lowland Tapir Conservation Initiative has been functioning as a base for training and capacity building for members of the TSG and other tapir researchers and conservationists worldwide. To date, the project has hosted 16 TSG Fellows. Each of these fellows spent two weeks in the field with the LTCI staff, which provided everyone involved with multiple opportunities to share ideas and experiences, to discuss future tapir conservation initiatives, and to establish collaborations and partnerships. Multiple new tapir research and conservation programs are now being designed and implemented in Brazil and other Latin American countries because of the TSG Fellowship Program.  In 2017, the project hosted TSG Fellows from Argentina, Costa Rica, Honduras, and Peru.

In early September 2017, camera-traps were installed in front of 15 underpasses that lie beneath the MS-040, a major highway in the LTCI study region. This was done as part of a plan that the team has developed with the hope of reducing the number of road fatalities seen when tapirs and motor vehicles come into contact with one another. Over the past 2 years, the team has recorded 95 tapir deaths connected to road collisions, and these encounters can be extremely dangerous for people as well. The camera traps that were installed in front of the selected underpasses will record data for 6 months in order to evaluate how often these pathways are used by tapirs and other wildlife. The ultimate goal of the LTCI is to use the results of this study to develop similar plans for at least three other highways in the state, in an effort to make traveling safer for both tapirs and people. 

The LTCI team also carried out 50 interviews with members of the local community in order to gauge how they feel towards tapirs and view interactions with them. The amount of information gathered through the interviews was truly incredible, and the team aims to have the data analyzed by early this year! 

We are blown away by how much our family in Brazil were able to accomplish in 2017, and we can’t wait to see all of the amazing things they are able to do in the new year. We’d like to thank all of our guests for supporting projects like this one through the purchase of your admission ticket here at the Houston Zoo. Make sure to stay tuned for updates!

Mourning the Loss of Our Geriatric Jaguar, Kan Balam

This morning, the Houston Zoo humanely euthanized its male, 20-year-old jaguar, Kan Balam.  Due to the tremendous care provided to him by his keepers and the Houston Zoo veterinary team, Kan Balam lived well beyond his expected lifespan. Jaguars expected lifespan in the wild is between 12-15 years.

The carnivore staff and veterinary team made the decision after his quality of life began to decline. Quality care and continuous advances in veterinary medicine extends animals’ lives longer than ever, with most felines in human care living well beyond previous generations. Because of this, all cats, including domestic house cats and jaguars, often spend a significant phase of their lives as older animals, and are at a higher risk for geriatric complications.

Kan Balam was well known as one of the carnivore department’s most intelligent animals. The great-grandfather knew about 30 different behaviors and found joy in attempting to outsmart his keepers who dedicated their lives to caring for him.


“When caring for aging animals, we first do everything in our power to make sure they have a great quality of life,” said Lisa Marie Avendano, vice president of animal operations at the Houston Zoo. “We manage their diet and exercise, as well as their medication if necessary. It is never an easy decision to euthanize an animal, but it is one we make with the animal’s well-being as the top priority. With world-class animal keepers, four incredible veterinarians, and a complete veterinary hospital complex, our animals receive the best care possible, and that includes end-of-life decisions.

Kan Balam was born at a zoological facility in Mexico. His keepers often refer to him as “Kan B” for short. Before coming to the Houston Zoo, he had an altercation with another jaguar and lost part of his front right foot and for many years received laser acupuncture and annual chiropractic adjustments.

Jaguars range covers South and Central America, with some venturing north into Mexico and southwestern US. They are listed as near threatened by International Union of Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and their numbers continue to decline mostly due to habitat loss. The Houston Zoo is protecting jaguars in the wild by providing support to conservation partners in Brazil who work with the Brazilian government on saving the forested homes of these beautiful cats.

Whooping Cranes Weather the Storm with the Help of You and the Zoo

In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, we were reminded of the importance, and the sheer strength of community. For many months now, Texans all along the Gulf Coast region have been working to rebuild and re-establish a sense of safety and security – a place to once again call home. In the aftermath of any storm, it is not just the people that have to rebuild; and you may not know it, but through a portion of your admission fee to the Houston Zoo, you have been lending a helping hand to a very special community of Texans – the whooping cranes.

Weighing around 15 pounds, the whooping crane has a wingspan of more than 7 feet and is as tall as many humans, reaching a height of around 5 feet, making it the tallest bird in North America! Whooping cranes are best known for their courtship dance, finding mating partners through an elaborate display of kicking, head-pumping, and wing-sweeping. Adult whooping cranes can be spotted fairly easily thanks to their bright white feathers and accents of crimson red on the top of their head. The only remaining self-sustaining population of whooping cranes is the naturally occurring flock that breeds in Canada and winters right here in Texas!

If you were able to attend Nature Connects – Art with LEGO Bricks at the Houston Zoo this past summer, you may recall seeing a striking figure of this beautiful bird. At its feet were a cluster of tiny white dots – a visual representation of the number of whooping cranes that remain in the wild here in the US. One of the rarest birds in North America with an estimated population of 612 world-wide, the whooping crane saw its numbers drop to just 15 in the early 1940s, but with the help of land protection and public education, their numbers have continued to steadily increase. But what happens when natural disaster strikes?

When the cranes arrived in Texas this past fall after their 2,400 mile journey from their nesting grounds in Canada, they returned to vegetative damage from the storm surge, and increased salt content in the inland freshwater ponds that the birds rely on for drinking. Our partners at the International Crane Foundation (ICF) went to work immediately, replacing damaged ground water pumps to replenish the freshwater these birds need to survive. Notified of the situation, the Houston Zoo donated to ICF’s Hurricane Harvey rebuild in Rockport campaign.  The Houston Zoo also teamed up with the International Crane Foundation’s Texas office and established a Whooping Crane Outreach Coordinator position that will be funded by the Zoo. Filling this role is Corinna Holfus of Houston, Texas, who will work with partners like the Houston Zoo, groups, and individuals to develop awareness and caring for whooping cranes and foster their commitment to safeguard whooping cranes in their areas. Holfus will form partnerships that include involving hunters, landowners and other members of the community in monitoring and keeping watch over the whooping cranes in their areas.

With the establishment of this position, the International Crane Foundation’s North American Program Director stated “The uniqueness of having the world’s only naturally producing flock of whooping cranes choosing to winter on the Texas coast is something to cherish, take pride in and celebrate. Thanks to the incredible generosity of the Houston Zoo allowing the hiring of Holfus we’ll now be able to greatly accelerate and expand our efforts to increase the appreciation, awareness, and protection of this still fragile, slowly expanding flock.” It would seem as though birds of feather truly do flock together, and thanks to the continued support of Zoo goers like you, this native species has an even better chance for a bright future.

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 6

This blog was written by Chris Bednarski, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Herpetology Department. Chris received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from his coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for reptiles and amphibians in the Western Ghats region of India. We will be posting a series of blogs as Chris documents his work overseas.  

Chris’s goal is to survey within a section of land purchased by the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild!

Day 6:

This was the last night of surveys for this trip and what a night it was!!!  We decided to visit a stream we have passed a few times on this trip just to see what it looked like.  We all kept pointing this stream out every time we drove by it, but for some reason or another never stopped to check it out.  We parked our car on the side of the road and jumped down into the stream.  From the first second I got down into the stream until the second I left the stream it was “frog-o-mania”!  We saw so many frogs we were having a seriously hard time counting.  We estimate we saw well over 1,000 frogs of at least 6 different species but probably more like 8-12 species.  We found tadpoles and eggs of the Night frogs for the first time in our surveys.  This stream had checkered keelback snakes, wolf snakes, Brook’s geckos and one Indian black turtle!!!  I am a huge turtle nerd and finding a turtle on a night like this just puts the icing on the cake.  If we were not having such a productive night I may have been far more nervous than I was – my nemesis was everywhere… the giant fishing spiders!  With a leg span the size of a dinner plate and the ability to run across water, they make me a bit uneasy when walking forest streams at night.  Thankfully I was too preoccupied with all the amazing amphibians.

I will be hopping onto my first flight around 4AM to come back home to Houston.  I haven’t even left and I already miss being here.  Good thing the team and I will probably be meeting back up in early March to continue our surveys!!!  Until then, cheers.


Guest Blogger: Maddie Davet – 2017 Collegiate Conservation Program Intern

Maddie Davet is a sophomore at Duke University and was a Collegiate Conservation Program (CCP) intern during the 2017 summer.  Take a look at Maddie’s experience and head to the CCP website to learn more and to apply for summer 2018!

What do you get when you put together thirteen strangers, an endless supply of animal crackers, and one glistening white work van full of gas? I got one of the best summers of my life.

Reflecting on my time with the Houston Zoo’s Collegiate Conservation Program conjures a whole sea of memories – from work to play, and hill country to bay. After 10 weeks spent learning alongside some of the motivated environmentalists I have met to date, it is daunting to gather my thoughts. I have changed for the better, that is for sure. I am armed with renewed passion for conservation, an arsenal of field skills, and a network that spans well beyond Texas’s borders.

One of the greatest opportunities CCP provided me was simply the ability to connect with my fellow interns. As an undergraduate at Duke University, I have met other students from all around the world, studying everything from patent law to molecular physics; however, I’ve struggled to find diverse perspectives within my school’s environmental department. A program like CCP, which selects from undergraduate applicants across the entire country, provides opportunity for diverse dialogues about conservation and sustainability. These conversations were constantly unfolding between our group of interns, and I developed a reputation for jumping into heated discussion every chance I got.

The other undergraduates were just one source of inspiration, however. Between our on-grounds days at the Houston Zoo, the many excursions we made to the Zoo’s local partners, and the handful of global conservationists who skyped in or visited us in Houston, there were a plethora voices to be heard from. I found myself learning everything from how to effectively wield a machete in East Texas to the ins and outs of community outreach in the Brazilian Pantanal. Hearing from all sorts of Zoo visitors and employees, from Exxon’s Communication Director to the CEO of the Zoo to our favorite keeper, was an indelible gift. Their insight, alongside the many experiences I gained this past summer, gave me the confidence to choose a way forward in my own life as a conservationist.

By the end of the internship, after many introductions as the “undecided” girl with an interest in anthropology, I had been inspired to declare my plans. I stood up at the final presentation and proclaimed my intent to pursue a Bachelor of Science in Environmental Science, the formal declaration of which I am writing up today. For that confidence, and for the many memories it accompanies, I will forever be grateful to CCP.

Points on Pepper

Pepper is a 10-month-old Allen’s swamp monkey, daughter of first-time parents Naku and Calvin, and she is the life of the party in her habitat. At almost any given time of the day, you can find her running, jumping, climbing, swimming, or trying to play with the other animals in her habitat, whether they are monkeys, tortoises, or rabbits.

Like most young animals, she is extremely curious about everything around her. She will chase after birds and rabbits, stalk butterflies, catch bugs, and even try to pounce on bees! Bobbi the tortoise lives in the habitat during the summer, and she wasn’t safe from Pepper either. Pepper would follow Bobbi and try to grab her feet as she walked. And once Pepper became bold enough, she decided to hop onto Bobbi’s shell for a ride, albeit a very slow one. Calvin didn’t approve of this and would watch anxiously until Pepper got off.

Pepper also watches her mom, Calvin, very carefully. A lot of young animals learn how to behave from their parents, and swamp monkeys are no exception. Swamp monkeys sometimes like to wash their food, or rub it on rocks before eating it. They will perform this behavior while playing with enrichment items or rocks or anything else they can find. Calvin did this once when Pepper was only a few months old. Before we knew it, Pepper was trying to copy her mom. She grabbed a stick and rolled it on the ground. Calvin is an expert forager. She will spend hours digging through the mulch and dirt in the habitat, looking for bugs or for forage items that we put in there, like bird seed or currants. Pepper has mastered this behavior and will dig through the dirt with enthusiasm. And when she finds a long earthworm, she will go running around with it.

Pepper is an adorable little monkey, but she is also an important ambassador for her species. Not only is Naku a first-time dad, he was also born in the wild. Fifteen years ago, he was rescued from a market in Africa when he was about two years old. Because he was born in the wild, he has some very important genes, which he has now passed on to Pepper.

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If you're headed out to Bayou Greenway Day tomorrow, stop by our Zoomobile and say hello! We'd love to see your smiling face and talk to you about wildlife and how you can save animals in the wild.

Bayou Greenway DayMarch 24, 2018, 11:00amTidwell ParkBayou Greenway Day will be full of family-friendly activities, games, live music, FREE food and more. Get to know Halls Bayou Greenway and explore all the fun outdoor activities you can enjoy there.


🏈⚽️ Sports activities with the @[51931216313:274:Houston Texans] and @[20105631149:274:Houston Dynamo]! Mascots, cheerleaders, coaching drills, enthusiasm, and fun for the whole family.

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⚾️First 3,000 attendees will receive a FREE @[91703305430:274:Houston Astros] cap!

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Today, we took snakes (and our snake expert!) over to the Houston Chronicle to talk about why these amazing animals are awesome. Check it out! from the Houston Chronicle
Today our friends from the Houston Zoo are at the Houston Chronicle to show us a few of the snakes from their collection and to answer some of your snake-related questions. As the weather warms up many Texans will be seeing more snakes in the wild and they have some tips on safety around them.

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