The Children’s Zoo’s Personal Artist

Have you ever noticed the amazing art work on the keeper chat sign in the Children’s Zoo?

There is one keeper in the Children’s Zoo responsible for that beautiful art. Her name is Nikki Blakely and she has been with the Houston Zoo for 4 years.  Her career here started with a part time position in April 2013 and she was promoted to full time in October of 2015.

Nikki is a primary keeper in our Ambassador Animal Building and takes care of  a wide variety of animals.  The Zoo’s Ambassador Animals are the animals you see at presentations, events and on Zoomobiles.   She is also a primary trainer on several animals, including one of her favorites, Luna the Virginia Opossum.

While Nikki isn’t the only Zookeeper with artistic talents, her art is what you are likely to see as you enter the Children’s Zoo.  We always have our Keeper Chat sign out in front of the Naturally Wild Swap Shop to let guests know what the Children’s Zoo chats are for the day.   (Don’t know about the Naturally Wild Swap Shop?  Click here form more info) As you can see, Nikki has used both flora and fauna for her inspiration.  She has also used her talents on some of the enrichment for the animals.

Nikki has been coming to the Houston Zoo her whole life.  Unlike many of us, she is a Native Houstonian.  She even stayed true to Texas as she chose a college.  She attending University of Houston and Texas A & M University earning a degree in Biology.  She has raised many animals at home too!  She has had horses, fish, birds and even chickens.  Currently her pets include a ball python, 2 cats and a dove.

What would Nikki like everyone to know about her job as a Zookeeper?  She says the job is very rewarding and in more ways than just being with the animals.  It has given her an outlet for connecting her artwork with guest enjoyment to make her job even richer.

The next time you are visiting the Children’s Zoo, take a look at the keeper chat sign.  And if you see Nikki on grounds, say hi and let her know how much we all appreciate what she does.

Happy Howlerween – Learn About our Howler Monkeys

Written by Rachel Sorge

One of the first animals you’ll see when you walk into our Wortham World of Primates complex at the Houston Zoo are our Black Howler Monkeys! However, you may hear them before you see them. Howler monkeys are thought to be not only the loudest primate on the planet, but possibly one of the loudest living land mammals in the world. Their garbage-disposal like call can be heard up to 3 miles away in a dense forest. Our howler monkey troop tends to start calling in reaction to the leaf blowers we have on grounds.

During the month of October, the primate team at the Houston Zoo puts on a Howlerween fundraiser to help raise money for Wildtracks; an organization that cares for and rehabilitate orphaned, injured, and sick howler monkeys back into the wild.

Here at the Houston Zoo we have three howler monkeys. Vida who is 23, Garcia, who is 21, and Ramone, who is 14. Vida and Garcia were both born here in Houston, but Ramone came to us in 2012 from the Palm Beach Zoo in Florida.

Ramone is very easily distinguishable from our two girls due to his black color, while Vida and Garcia are both tan-brown in color. All howler monkeys are born a tan color to help them camouflage easily in the forest canopy, but the males develop the black color as they get older. Males are also much larger than the females.

Vida and Garcia may be difficult to tell apart by just a glance, but if you study their faces you can tell that Garcia has a much smaller and shorter face, while Vida’s face is wider and longer. Vida tends to be braver than Garcia, and is always ready to explore enrichment items or new objects placed in the exhibit by her keepers. Garcia however, likes to wait to see if new things are safe before exploring.

Our howler group has a variety of favorites that they enjoy. They will always come greet their keepers if there is a fig or hibiscus flower in hand and they react best to food enrichment when there are frozen bananas involved. The howler monkeys also really enjoy when their keepers hang up mirrors for them, because they absolutely love staring at themselves, and we don’t blame them!

A lot of our guests often wonder why our howlers are sleeping for a large portion of the day, and it’s not because they’re just lazy! In the wild, the howler monkey diet consists mostly of leaves and a small variety of fruits and nuts. Due to the lack of calories in their diet howler monkeys tend to sleep for a majority of their day, about 80%, saving their energy for the important things, like foraging for food and calling to defend their territory!

The next time you are walking through our Wortham World of Primates make sure to say hello to our trio!

 

 

Bat Houses for the Bayou

Caoilin, Enya, Keenan, Skyler, Joaquin, Noe, and Lila built bat houses for the displaced bats of the Waugh Street Bridge.

The Waugh Street bridge, built over Buffalo Bayou, is a Houston landmark for bat watching. The flood waters from Buffalo Bayou during Hurricane Harvey caused the bats to leave their home under the bridge and take refuge elsewhere.

Seven young Houstonians took it upon themselves to help the displaced bats from Waugh Street Bridge by building them new homes in the form of bat houses. “My daughters and her friends were upset about the Waugh bridge bats so they responded by making these rocket houses,” said Woodland Heights resident, Alan. The plans for the rocket houses came from Bat Conservation International.

The new bat houses will be mounted along Buffalo Bayou, near the Waugh Street Bridge.

Zoo Staff Take the Plastic-Free Challenge

Written by: Stephanie Krail

There is always something going on at the Houston Zoo and this past month was no different. Employees from all parts of the zoo accepted to partake in a month-long challenge to reduce their plastic-footprint thereby protecting animals in the wild.

The challenge is called Plastic Free July and the goal is to “choose to refuse” single-use plastic to save wildlife. Plastics do not break down; they can be consumed by wildlife or break up into smaller pieces and never truly go away. Items such as single-use plastic coffee cups, straws, grocery bags and doggie waste bags are only used for a few minutes until they serve their purpose and then get tossed in the trash to end up in a landfill or waterways. The Houston Zoo decided several years ago to help spread awareness of the problems plastics can hold by encouraging staff to participate in this challenge.

Several departments around the zoo joined together to discuss how they could reduce their plastic use not only as individuals at home but also as staff members here at work.

The Admissions, Membership and Call Center teams came together and signed their commitment to accept the challenge on a white board in their office. Some of the things they have strived to do includes using reusable grocery bags, reusable food containers instead of plastic sandwich baggies, and reusable drinking bottles, and the main thing, saying “NO” to plastic drinking straws. These teams received reusable tote bags to help jump start their participation. Reusable tote bags are great alternatives to using plastic grocery bags! You aren’t limited to using them just at grocery stores; bring a couple with you the next time you’re at the mall or out running errands.

The Children’s Zoo team has eliminated all plastic bags from the animals’ diet delivery and switched to reusable containers. This has saved over 7,000 plastic bags from entering landfills each year! They also switched to using trash buckets that they wash daily instead of using bags which has not only resulted in over 2,000 bags saved, but has also saved them money on having to purchase new trash bags.

Michelle Witek, Children’s Zoo Supervisor, has encouraged and shared countless tips with zoo staff by sharing her trips to the grocery store on Facebook. Some things that Michelle does while at the store are:

  • Purchase meats that are wrapped in butcher paper
  • Bring reusable sandwich style bags to fill with items from the bulk isle
  • Place all produce in reusable mesh bags
  • Look for glass jars or cardboard as an alternative to buying things in plastic containers (even deodorant)
  • When at the deli counter, ask to use own reusable sandwich style bags

Michelle certainly has inspired several of zoo staff to be more conscious of what we are purchasing at the store, but some items may not have a glass or cardboard alternative. This is where you can get creative and repurpose those items into new things, such as repurposing large dog food bags into storage bags for the recycling or garage.

The elephant team started to eliminate plastic anywhere they could two years ago for Plastic Free July and they have continued to do this year-round ever since. They no longer carry blood samples to the clinic each week in single-use plastic bags but now use reusable bags. The elephants at the zoo go through several loaves of bread which come in plastic bags. The team didn’t want to stop giving the elephants bread just because it came in plastic so they now collect these bags throughout the week and bring them home to use as doggie waste bags. This is a great example of not giving up on a product you need just because it doesn’t have a reusable alternative. Simply find a way to use it again, and you have doubled its purpose!

Some of the most difficult things the staff have run into is plastic straws! When eating out it can be hard to remember to say no to them, especially in drive-thru lines. Another challenge in going plastic-free is that it can be less convenient and, at times, seem a bit overwhelming. But know that any effort, big or small, is making a difference for wildlife. Something as simple as bringing a reusable water bottle every day to work instead of a plastic bottle helps to save animals in the wild.

In 2015, the Houston Zoo removed plastic bags in the gift shops to protect animals in the wild, by eliminating an estimated 80,000 plastic bags from entering landfills and the environment each year. Now, two years later, the zoo-based conservation organization has gone one step further and eliminated single-use plastic water bottles from all concession stands. This elimination of single-use plastic water bottles will reduce the amount of plastic waste by nearly 300,000 single-use plastic bottles in just one year.

When visiting the zoo, you can purchase an aluminum reusable water bottle (pre-filled with water) or a JUST Water recyclable, paper-based water bottle at any of the restaurants or kiosks. Or if you bring your own reusable water bottle, you can refill your water bottle at the water refilling stations located throughout the zoo. You can also purchase a reusable tote bag in its gift shops to eliminate use of single-use plastic bags. The zoo has a collection of canvas bags artistically designed with images depicting the animals that benefit from a reduction of plastic bags in the ocean.

Challenges like Plastic Free July are great ways to help save wildlife, and we encourage you to join our team and continue the challenge year-round!

August’s Featured Members – The Riley 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 Zoo Members that deserve recognition. We’re thrilled to introduce you to August’s Featured Members: the Riley family.


We asked the Riley’s to share a little bit about what being Zoo Members meant to her family. Here’s what she had to say.

“We have been members of the Houston Zoo for the past three years.  We have two sons, Cormac, 5, and Kellan, 3, and the zoo is one of our regular attractions.  Since the boys were walking, we have enjoyed planning weekend adventures where we explore areas of Houston such as walks along the railroad tracks, hiking trails in Memorial Park, museums, Hermann Park and the Houston Zoo.  We visit the zoo a few times each month and both our boys are animal fans and have their favorites, Kellan the elephants and Cormac the cheetahs.  Kellan enjoys looking through the fence and watching all of the construction equipment building out the new elephant facility and is excited for it to open.

Our family lives inside the loop and it’s a great way to get outside and learn about the animals around the world.

There is a great range of animals to see.  We recently visited Animal Kingdom at Disneyworld and the boys were excited that they had seen okapis and Egyptian longhorns in Houston when we came across these animals on the safari. The boys also love trains so we can make a fun day of it by riding the Metro light rail from downtown and walk through Hermann Park to the zoo entrance.

Our regular zoo stops include the tunnel through the piranhas, the elephants, the cheetah statue, the carousel and the gorilla exhibit, since they like high platforms and the watching the gorillas up close through the glass in the air conditioned areas.  Feeding lettuce to the giraffes is another favorite along with eating lunch on the patios next to the giraffes or rhinoceros.   Some of our favorite times to visit are days where the weather isn’t always cooperative.  There were a few of these rainy mornings where it felt like we were the only ones there.  The animals are often out and we enjoyed the gorilla exhibit as if it were a private event.

One of the best features of being a zoo member is that you can go as many times as you like and even visit for short periods of time on weekend mornings, especially with the boys at their young ages, since birthday parties are a regular event later in the day.  Birthday parties at the zoo make it even better.  The early morning membership Saturdays are another favorite.  Both kids are early risers, so we can get up and out to the zoo at 8am.   We were able to hear talks on the elephants, see the piranhas being fed and the zoo staff is ready to visit and answer questions.  Five year-olds have a lot of questions.

The different special events at the zoo are great for the boys and the Zoo Membership News keeps us current on what is in store so we can plan for it.  The boys were excited to meet Spiderman and Iron Man last Fall, enjoyed the dinosaur animatronics and Zoo Lights and Zoo Boo are annual traditions for the Riley boys and our extended family.

We will continue making the zoo a regular weekend activity for years to come.  We thank all of the Houston Zoo staff for keeping it fun, clean and always scheduling interesting events.” – The Riley family

From our team here at the Houston Zoo, we want to say thank you to all of our Zoo Members. As a Houston Zoo Member, your support truly makes an impact on the growth of our Zoo and wildlife conservation efforts. THANKS!

 

Campers Championing Conservation!

Every summer, the Houston Zoo welcomes over 2,000 campers into our summer camp program: Camp Zoofari.  These children spend a week learning about the Houston Zoo, its amazing animals, and all the ways we are working to save animals in the wild.  We wanted to increase our emphasis on conservation actions and engage our campers to feel empowered that THEY can truly make a difference, no matter how old they are! Thus the Water Bottle Pledge and the Trash Audit Program came into being.

It is no secret that summers in Houston can be brutally hot.  Staying hydrated is a must, especially for our campers.   Starting on Monday, the first day of the camp week, we start highlighting the importance of reducing plastic use.  One of the easiest ways we can do this is by using a reusable water bottle.  This helps marine life, like sea turtles.  On Wednesday, the middle of the camp week, we give the campers the opportunity to make a personal pledge:   to use a reusable water bottle through the rest of the summer to help save sea turtles in the wild.  If they chose to take the pledge, they are able to decorate a water droplet and then place it on the pledge banner.  This has been a huge hit with our campers so far this summer!  Each week, we get well over 100 pledges.  Campers point out the pledge banners to their parents and even ask to have their picture taken next to their pledge sign.

Another way campers are helping to save animals is through our lunch Trash Audit Program. Campers are quick to point out that recycling is important in helping to save wildlife and natural spaces. Toward this end, our campers are challenged each day to bring reusable lunch items when able, and to properly recycle when they cannot. Each day after lunch, the camper waste is weighed versus the weight of recyclable materials brought. So far, each camp week has increased their percentage of recyclable materials and on average are recycling 16% of what they bring for lunch. To assist in this effort, signs have been posted on the trash bins and recycle bins at lunch showing pictures of items that can and cannot be recycled. Campers enjoy matching their items to the pictures each week as they explore what can and cannot be tossed into the recycle bins!

Through these two programs, campers are making a difference for wildlife and demonstrating how everyone can make a difference! We encourage you to take on these challenges within your own home!

 

Four Sea Turtles Treated at the Houston Zoo

The Houston Zoo provided veterinary care for four sea turtles on July 7. The four turtles were rescued by our partners at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administraion (NOAA) in Galveston and brought to our Animals Hospital for care. All four have all gone back to Galveston where they will be rehabilitated by NOAA until they are strong enough to be released back into the Gulf of Mexico. 

We are so fortunate to have sea turtles in our Texas waters, and it is easy for us to all be sea turtle conservation heroes! A few simple actions taken by our community can help protect sea turtles in the wild:

1) If you accidentally catch a sea turtle while fishing, please call 1-866-TURTLE-5 so a biologist can come out and respond to the turtle-giving it adequate care and attention.

2) Switch from plastic grocery bags to reusable grocery bags-our plastic bags are light and fly away easily. They can end up in our bayous and float to the ocean. Sea turtles mistake them for jellyfish, and when ingested can make them sick.

3) If you eat seafood, choose ocean-friendly seafood! Download the FREE Seafood Watch app to use on your phone. It will help tell you what seafood is best to eat because it is caught or farmed in an ocean-friendly way that protects wildlife like sea turtles, dolphins, and sharks.

 

July’s Featured Members – The Bowles 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 Zoo Members that deserve recognition. We’re thrilled to introduce you to July’s Featured Members: the Bowles family.


We asked Mrs. Bowles to share a little bit about what being Zoo Members meant to her family. Here’s what she had to say.

Bowles family feeding giraffes at San Diego Zoo

“Our unintentional journey to become Houston Zoo members began about 2 years ago.  We decided to take our granddaughter to San Diego for spring break and visit their famous zoo.  Little did we know that visit would profoundly affect us and change our way of thinking.  We took a couple of tours at the zoo and were very impressed by the incredible work being done to protect animals and educate the public.  On one of the stops, we were treated to the sight of a herd of rhinoceroses including one of the last surviving white rhinos.  Hearing the story of the near destruction of this species caused a deep sense of sadness and despair in our hearts.  I realized then that my granddaughter’s children and grandchildren would probably only be able to see many animals because of the research, dedication and work of zoos both nationally and internationally.  I vowed then to do something to help these efforts.

Arriving home, I began to research zoos close to me in Texas.  I found that the Houston Zoo is one of the highest rated zoos not only in Texas, but also in the nation.  My husband and I decided to become members.  We then visited the zoo and took one of the Encounter Tours.  We had such a wonderful time, we returned and went on a Behind the Scenes tour.  Both times, we were in awe of how much we learned from the guides and the keepers and also the deep care and concern they have for the animals.  Walking around the zoo was such a pleasant and happy experience that we are determined to go as often as possible and enjoy all of the Animal Encounter and Behind the Scenes tours available.  We also decided to become Asante members and have included the Houston Zoo in our legacy giving.  Now we feel hope rather than despair knowing we are part of the Houston Zoo team’s efforts to keep so many magnificent animals both close by and throughout the world surviving and thriving for future generations.” -J. Bowles

From our team here at the Houston Zoo, we want to say thank you to all of our Zoo Members. As a Houston Zoo Member, your support truly makes an impact on the growth of our Zoo and wildlife conservation efforts. THANKS!

Houston Zoo Affiliates Honored for Saving Animals in the Wild

This past week, Houston Zoo conservation affiliates were awarded the 2017 National Geographic Society/Buffett Awards for Leadership in Conservation. This award was established by the Society and The Howard G. Buffett Foundation to recognize and celebrate unsung heroes working in the field. Two recipients are chosen each year – this year Dr. Olivier Nsengimana received the award for Leadership in African Conservation and Rosamira Guillen received the award for Leadership in Latin American Conservation.

Dr. Olivier with the Houston Zoo bird team

Dr. Olivier worked as a field veterinarian with Gorilla Doctors before founding his own project, the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association, working to protect the endangered grey crowned cranes from illegal wildlife trade. The Houston Zoo has been supporting Olivier’s project for the past two years. Through community engagement and education, Olivier works to rehabilitate and reintroduce cranes into the wild. So far, the project has reintroduced 127 grey crowned cranes back into the wild.

Rosamira and Chris Holmes, Assistant Curator of Birds, at the 2016 Saving Wildlife Expo at the Houston Zoo

Rosamira has worked tirelessly to protect Cotton-top tamarins, an endangered species of primate found only in Colombia. Rosamira cofounded Fundación Proyecto Tití to study cotton-top tamarins and educate the local community about the need to protect them. An important part of the project are the innovative strategies used to empower local people to get involved in protecting cotton-top tamarins. One strategy is the creation of Tití Posts – fence posts made from recycled plastic. These posts last longer and are more durable than wooden posts.

 

 

A huge congratulation to Dr. Olivier Nsengimana and Rosamira Guillen! You are supporting their work every time you visit the Houston Zoo, as a portion of all tickets and memberships goes toward saving these animals in the wild!

 

Cotton-top Tamarin
Grey Crowned Crane

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Learn more about their amazing work by friending the Rwanda Wildlife Conservation Association and Fundación Proyecto Tití on Facebook

Houston Zoo Bird Staff Saving Wildlife Part 4

This blog was written by Kasey Clarke, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Bird Department. Kasey received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from her coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Kasey documents her work overseas.  

The process described below is part of the Mariana Conservation Program to relocate local bird species to neighboring islands that do not have the invasive brown tree snake, an introduced species that preys upon native birds. 

When the bird room is full of Rufous fantails and Mariana fruit doves the veterinarians do a medical exam on every single bird. We had two vets, one vet tech, and four bird keepers helping with the exams. It was great having this many people on hand to complete this enormous task as efficiently as possible.

During this process a small amount of blood is taken from the underside of the wing with a capillary tube, just like when a person is checking their blood sugar levels. The blood is put onto a slide; this is called a blood smear. The slides are looked at under a microscope to see if the blood cells are normal and to make sure the white blood cell count is normal. If the white blood count is high that could mean the bird is fighting an infection.

Medical exam performed on a bird as it prepares to be translocated for conservation purposes
Blood from each bird is looked at carefully to ensure the blood cells are normal and the bird is healthy

After the blood is collected the bird is given a physical. The vet checks the body condition, sound of its heart and breathing, and checks its eyes to make sure it has no issues with vision. If the bird seems less than the pinnacle of health, the bird is released and not translocated. We want to make sure every bird has the best chance of surviving in its new home.

Each bird is looked at carefully by wildlife professionals

The last thing done during the exam is a feather collection. The feathers are collected so that the gender of the bird can be determined. This is not determined while we are there, but it takes about a week or two for an outside lab to do the work. This information is recorded for future data analysis.

All these things are noted for each individual bird’s records. Note cards are kept with the birds while they are in our care and we write down everything that happens. The birds’ weight, where it was found, diet consumption, bands (identification), and medical notes are all written on these cards.

Records are kept for each individual bird

Next time the birds will be prepped for departure and we will watch them sail away towards their new home!

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