Shasta Is Turning 4!

Written by Samantha Junker, Senior Keeper


Turning 4 is a big deal and the Houston Zoo is throwing our cougar, Shasta, a birthday party to remember! We invite our guests to join us for fun, games, and of course singing happy birthday to Shasta as he receives his ice pop cake!

Shasta 2Shasta has dual roles here at the zoo; not only is he an ambassador for wild cougars, but he is also the official mascot of the University of Houston! Shasta VI (his official title) makes appearances at UH games via live webcam and also guards the UH senior rings before the class ring ceremony.

While his roles here keep him busy, Shasta had an uncertain beginning to his life.  Orphaned in the wild at a very young age, it took the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife several days to find him.  He was hiding so well, the searchers had to chirp like a cougar in order to locate him.  Shasta chirped back and was quickly found.  He was hungry and thirsty, but otherwise ok!  Since Shasta was still too young to fend for himself, a forever home was needed and that is where the Houston Zoo stepped in.

Shasta currently resides at the Houston Zoo with a female cougar named Haley, also orphaned in the wild.  Please join us at the cougar exhibit on Sunday, September 27 from 9:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m. to help celebrate everything Shasta!


Enrichment – Works With Pets Too!

Written by Samantha Junker

enrichment-blog-21Most of us have experienced that feeling when we get home and walk through the front door. Something’s wrong. Our eyes dart around the room trying to pinpoint what is different and then we see it. The couch. The pillow. The brand new lithium battery for my laptop (THANKS BENNIE!). Whatever it was, our pet has destroyed it.

After going through the stages of grief for my lost battery, (and making sure Bennie was ok!) I sat down and came up with a game plan of how to prevent it from happening again. Apparently, my dog was in need for something to occupy her time with. I started with her food and its presentation; fed her in toys, teasers, or hollow bones sealed with frozen peanut butter. What once took her 30 seconds now took the better part of an hour and I noticed an immediate decrease in the destruction of my property!

Looking back, it was so simple! I am a zookeeper! Enrichment is something I do every single day here at the Houston Zoo! It’s only natural I should be doing it at home as well!

If you have ever walked by any of our carnivores and noticed a toy, a hanging log, paper, or a box on exhibit, you are looking at enrichment. Enrichment is anything that encourages a natural behavior, and our zoo animals need it just like our pets at home for all of the same reasons. To change it up. To do something different. To be active and engaged.

African Lion Enrichment-0014

Zookeepers have found that if we provide something to tear, like paper, our cats get to exhibit a natural behavior, but not necessarily at the expense of our exhibit plants. If we present their food in a new or unique way, they spend more time eating. If we offer them new scents such as perfume and spices, they spend more time exploring and marking. We are offering them more choices throughout their day.

Join us for Enrichment Day on September 19 to see all of the different ways the animals at the Houston Zoo are enriched! Maybe you will find some new and exciting ideas to try at home!

Elderly Tiger Pandu Laid to Rest

Pandu, one of the Houston Zoo’s two elderly Malayan tigers, was humanely euthanized today after a long life. The decision was made by the tiger’s keepers and veterinary team after the 16-year-old tiger began to become uninterested in food, lethargic, and showing signs of pain. After an extensive medical review, our veterinary and tiger experts decided that the most humane option was to peacefully euthanize him.

pandu drinks

For  many years, Pandu received a combination of stem cell therapy and arthroscopic surgery to address orthopedic issues in his right elbow courtesy of Dr. Brian Beale of Gulf Coast Veterinary Specialists and Michael Coleman, Ph. D. and Jonathan Davis, stem cell specialists with InGeneron, Inc. These treatments greatly added to his quality of life, and gave him the energy to participate in some of his favorite activities – swimming and painting.

Affectionately called “Professor” by his keepers, Pandu was an extremely vocal cat, so much that the team had to train him to be quite while they were feeding him so that they could hear one another talk. Also one of the zoo’s most requested painters, Pandu had a preference for purple paint and his work can be found hanging in homes around Houston. Pandu was also a frequent participant in the popular tiger training window enrichment exercises.

“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,” said Sharon Joseph, vice president of animal operations at the Houston Zoo. “With four incredible veterinarians, a complete veterinary clinic and world-class animal keepers, our animals receive the best care possible, and that includes end-of-life decisions.  While it’s always exciting to celebrate births at the zoo, we also mourn heavily when one of our animals dies.”

Malayan tigers are critically endangered with only about 300 remaining in the wild. Pandu is survived by his habitat mate, a 14-year-old female Malayan tiger named Satu.

Carnivorous Plant Garden Opens May 16

We all know that the Houston Zoo has lots of carnivores, right?   Lions, tigers, bears, foxes and many more. But, did you know that even some of the plants on grounds are carnivorous?

The Zoo’s amazing Horticulture Department is opening a new carnivorous plant garden! The grand


opening will be May 16. This wonderful garden is generously underwritten by Pet Flytraps (

Carnivorous plants all have a few things in common. They all capture and kill prey. They all have a mechanism to facilitate digestion of prey. And, they all derive significant benefit from nutrients from the prey. They often grow in swamp or bog areas, and many are native to the United States. One of the most popular and well known carnivorous plants, the Venus Flytrap, is found in boggy areas in North and South Carolina.

Venus Flytrap
Venus Flytrap

There are actually 6 orders, 9 families and 595 species of carnivorous plants. It’s not hard to figure out what their benefit for humans is – pest control. Some of these important plants are endangered. You never want to take them from the wild, and when buying one, be sure it is from a reputable vendor. That is crucial information because these plants are an indicator species. That means that if there is something wrong in the habitat they grow in, they will show the effects first.

One question many have about these plants is – how can insects pollinate these plants when they eat insects? Seems like a contradiction, doesn’t it? The flowers of these plants usually grow on a stalk that reaches well above the traps. That way, the pollinators, often bees or flies, aren’t caught in the trap and eaten. You can learn more about pollinators during Pollinator Days at the Houston Zoo on June

Pitcher Plant
Pitcher Plant


Some of the plants you will be able to see in the garden include Venus Flytraps, Sundews, Butterworts, both native and tropical Pitcher Plants and more.   Members of our Horticulture Team will be available at the carnivorous plant garden from 10AM to 3PM on the 16th so that you can learn even more.



Species Spotlight: Black Bear Cubs Willow and Belle

Our American black bear cubs, Willow and Belle, are anything but ordinary. In fact, they are not black at all! The Zoo received these orphaned cubs in December 2013 and initially weighed 40 pounds. However, carnivore keeper Stephanie Mantilla reported that Willow is 139 pounds, and Belle is 148 pounds. Some of their favorite foraging foods include grapes, bananas, avocados and hard boiled eggs! Needless to say, the girls adjust well to life at the Zoo.

Interestingly enough, the girls are often mistaken for grizzly cubs. American black bears are actually most similar to the Asian black bear, and are very different from grizzly bears based on size and profile. Grizzlies are much larger in size, and have an “angled” profile because their shoulder blades stick out; black bears are smaller framed and have a more “straight” profile due to their smaller shoulder blades. The shade of black bear fur even differs from region to region! Willow and Belle both came from California and Mantilla said black bears from that region have a cinnamon-colored coat. In warmer areas, their fur looks blacker because of the heat.


While black bears in general are listed as “least concern”, their conservation status differs depending on the state. Black bears in Louisiana and various parts of Texas are listed as endangered, and each individual state lists their own sub-species of black bears as endangered or not.

“There are different sub-species of black bears, like the Louisiana black bear,” Mantilla said. “Black bears are a little bit genetically isolated, so it determines whether or not if they’re endangered or not. But overall, black bears are the highest populated bear species in the world, and they’re doing pretty well.”

And while some may think hunting is the biggest threat to this species, Mantilla added that feeding bears actually causes the most harm to them. She said it is best to refrain from feeding wild bears because they are so intelligent, they will remember where to go to find more food.


Even though the black bear are listed as “least concern”, the Zoo is committed to bringing awareness and conservation efforts for all species living here. The Zoo will hold Bear Awareness Day on Saturday, April 4 from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. All proceeds will go to the East Texas Black Bear Task Force, an organization dedicated to restoring the black bear’s historic range in east Texas through education, research and habitat management. The event will take place in front of the bear exhibits. Stop by and say hi to Willow and Belle!

The Houston Zoo is Protecting African Painted Dogs in the Wild!

The HoP. Dog029083uston Zoo loves its African Painted dogs and is committed to doing whatever we can to save them in the wild!  We partner with organizations that work tirelessly to ensure the protection of painted dogs in Africa and we strive to enhance their incredible work by providing many forms of support.

Next week we will be providing training for a Zimbabwean African painted dog researcher at the Houston Zoo.  MK is a conservationist from a local community in Zimbabwe employed by an organization called Painted Dog Research.  He will spend time with our veterinary staff and facilities staff to strengthen his skills and knowledge in animal care and construction.  He needs to have a good understanding for animal care when he is assisting other researchers with darting (shooting a dart that delivers a sedative) and providing medical care to wild painted dogs.  A solid understanding of construction will allow him to assist his team at Painted Dog Research and local communities with maintenance and building.  MK is on the front lines saving painted dogs and the Houston Zoo is proud to enhance his efforts.

MK with other researchers in the wild
MK with other researchers in the wild

One of the serious threats that faces painted dogs in Africa is being entangled in wire traps that are intended for animals like antelope.  The dogs get caught in them when they chase their prey. It is sort of like dolphins getting caught in tuna nets- the traps are not actually intended for the dogs like the nets aren’t intended for the dolphins.


Painted Dog Research have used radio tracking collars  to follow the dogs for over 20 years and have witnessed numerous mortalities from the wire traps.  They designed a specialized tracking collar with a metal plate that provides some protection for the throat and neck from the wire, but staff at Painted Dog Research believed the design could be improved to be even more effective.  They approached the Houston Zoo for assistance with a new idea to give further protection to painted dogs.


Our skilled staff take pride in their work to save wildlife.  Our facilities team jumped at the opportunity to design clips that could be attached to the tracking collar to protect the dog’s necks from the wire.   They created several prototype collars with various sizes and styles of the clips to be tested on trained domestic dogs.  The testing will  reveal an effective and safe design that can hopefully be produced this year.

photo 2
A protective clip design for tracking collar
Collar prototypes with two different clip designs.

You can save animals here in Texas from being trapped in plastic traps that can be just as deadly as the wire traps the dogs face.  When plastic bags or plastic six-pack can holders end up in our environment, animals can ingest or become entangled in them.  Use canvas bags and remember to cut every hole of those six-pack can holders to save animals in Texas!

Every time you visit the Zoo you save animals in the wild.  Thank you! A portion of your admission makes it possible for us to protect wildlife from extinction.

Clouded Leopard Cubs Play Outside!

Our twelve-week-old clouded leopard cubs Koshi and Senja took their first romp in the grass today during one of their final days behind-the-scenes. As they grow, their mischievous personalities are becoming more and more apparent. Koshi thinks it’s fun to practice his aerial skills by leaping onto the caregivers while Senja prefers climbing and has perfected the art of escaping over the baby gate barrier.

The pair, born June 6, will soon be moved into their permanent home inside the zoo after nearly three months of around-the-clock care by zookeepers. They will make their public debut in mid-September after a habitat acclimation period, which will take place under the watchful eyes of the carnivore team.

Watch the two cubs play in the grass:

Clouded Leopard Cubs Born at the Zoo!

Friday, June 6 was an exciting day at the Houston Zoo as we welcomed two clouded leopard cubs to our family. The unnamed male cubs were born after an unassisted, one-hour labor.  After a healthy proclamation by our chief veterinarian, zookeepers began steps to hand-raise the cubs.  The cubs began successfully nursing from a bottle within four hours of birth.
Clouded Leopard Cubs
The cubs are a result of the first pregnancy for two-year-old Suksn who gave birth in a private den off-exhibit.  A few hours after their birth, the cubs were moved to the veterinary clinic to begin receiving 24-hour care by the zoological team. The pair will remain behind-the-scenes for several months while they continue to grow and thrive.
This birth is not only the first birth for Suksn, but also the first clouded leopard birth for the Houston Zoo.  This is also the first offspring for the cubs’ father, Tarak, also two years old.  Suksn and Tarak have been residents of the Houston Zoo since 2012.
Clouded leopards are vulnerable to extinction because of deforestation and hunting.  Since this animal is so rare, it is important to do everything possible to ensure the health and well-being of every clouded leopard born in the care of man. The current practice among zoos is to hand-raise all newborn clouded leopards.  Following best-practices from successful breeding programs like the Nashville Zoo and the National Zoo Breeding Facility, our keepers and veterinary staff are extremely well-equipped to ensure these cubs receive the best care possible.
About Clouded Leopards
The clouded leopard is unusual among the world’s cat species. They are the smallest of the large cats, have the largest canine teeth in proportion to their body size of any other cat species, and their coat is striking, yet so well blended for their habitat, that they are extremely difficult to see.
Named for its spotted coat, the clouded leopard and its habit has remained a mystery. They live in an area ranging from the foothills of the Himalayas down the islands of Sumatra and Borneo in Southeast Asia. They are under pressure from habit loss, poaching for their attractive coats and even the pet trade in a number of countries throughout Asia.
Clouded leopards excel at climbing; there are few cats in the world which can run up a tree, rotate their ankles to run down a tree headfirst or hang upside down from a tree limb using their long tails for balance. 

-Article contributors: Sharon Joseph, Beth Schaefer, and Sara Riger

Come with the Zoo to Yellowstone in the winter


Have you ever seen the air sparkle?  Well, that happens in Yellowstone during the winter. During February 2014, 6 Houstonians ventured to Yellowstone for a special winter adventure with the Houston Zoo. All of our Yellowstone adventures are made possible by our partners at Teton Science School’s Wildlife Expeditions. The Teton Science School is an incredible educational non-profit organization that provides us with leading Yellowstone wildlife biologists to guide our trips.

DSC_1666Our trips are always full of unforgettable wildlife sightings, and this winter trip was no exception.  We found ourselves eye-to-eye with several herds of bighorn sheep foraging for food on the side of the road.



DSCN0684We spotted several moose and witnessed an exciting, aggressive display between two adults.   We had some great photo opportunities as the large mammals reared up and kicked each other with their sharp front hooves.





We joined thousands of elk in a horse drawn cart in the National Elk Refuge. The herds remained calm with the horses allowing us to be in very close proximity of huge bull elk.




Bobcat photoWe saw many bison trudging through deep snow, foraging for food with snow balls on their beards.  Birds of prey like the ruffed-legged hawk sat on high vantage points to wait for rodent movement in the snow.  One of our guides even spotted some tracks that lead us to a very rare, exciting site, a bob cat!  He was quietly sitting beside a river waiting for unsuspecting ducks to pass by.







Old Faithful and the thermal features were outstanding!  They spewed liquid that evaporated in midair.  We stayed the night at a lodge near old faithful and had an early morning walk that allowed us to see some Old Faithful eruptions without anyone else around.




One of the highlights of this winter Yellowstone experience was rides in a special vehicle called a snow coach.  The heavy snow is not conducive to regular traffic at the high elevations of the park so snow coaches (cars with ski thingies on the bottom) and snow mobiles become a necessary mode of transportation.  We got to spend two days riding around in these cool vehicles.

We enjoyed some thrilling wolf watching.  The wolves love the cold weather and were very active.  We spied on a pack of five bounding through the snow for a half hour one day.

DSC_2290Yellowstone is magical in the winter.  This was a fun filled adventure and it was the first time we have been in Yellowstone in the winter.  We lead wildlife focused Yellowstone tours regularly in the Spring and Fall, so you can join us to see baby animals in the Spring or hear the impressive elk bugle in the Fall.  Visit HERE  for more on how to join us on these exciting adventures.

The Houston Zoo houses several North American animals that are found in Yellowstone, like our newest bear cubs and bobcat kitten, and we are very proud to do what we can to support that beautiful National Park.   We provide funding to the Teton Science School for their wildlife research and educational programming to ensure long-term protection for wildlife in North America’s first National Park.

Remember, every time you visit the Zoo or come on a trip into the wild with us, you help us protect animals in the wild.  A portion of your admission, membership or trip price goes directly to saving animals in the wild.

All of the photos in this post are courtesy of Winter Yellowstone traveler, Bill Fisher.  Thank you, Bill!

Saving Lions is Elementary for Lyons Elementary

This post written by Angie Pyle.

Lions have always been a symbol of strength and power.  The truth is lions in the wild are not doing well. Lions have lost over 80% of their original range and we have seen 30% decline in lion populations throughout Africa in the past 2 decades.  Today there are only an estimated 35,000 African Lions left in the wild.  The only threat lion’s face in the wild are people.  As the human population increases, the conflicts between humans and lions increase. The good news is that there are several lion conservation projects throughout Africa researching, collecting data, educating local communities, and providing alternative solutions to human lion conflicts, and protecting the remaining lion populations.  The Houston Zoo partners with the Niassa Lion Project, which works in the Niassa Reserve in Northern Mozambique.  The Niassa Reserve has been listed as one of the strongholds or healthy lion populations left in Africa.

How does the community of Houston, Texas help save the African lion?  The best thing we can do as individuals is learn more about lion conservation, and spread the word.  The more people that are aware of the drastic decline in African lions, the more attention and contributions the groups trying to save them will receive.  Awareness brings action.  Several years ago, a local teacher by the name of Donna Fletcher approached the Zoo with a check for over $1000.  Mrs. Fletcher came up with the “cash for cats” campaign where elementary school children learned about various cat conservation projects and then brought in their spare change to donate to the Zoo to save cats in the wild.  This partnership is still going strong, and has expanded to another local elementary school, Lyons Elementary.

The Lyons Elementary School’s mascot is the Lion, so it only makes sense for them to help save them in the wild.  Not only do the children of Lyons learn about conservation, wildlife and other cultures, but they learn to take action for something they believe in.  Carnivore staff members visited the school to give a presentation on the Zoo’s role in conservation as well as a presentation on the African Lion.   The Zoo actively participates in the Lyons Elementary Science night program as well.   The children of Lyons Elementary, grades pre-k through 5th, raised $3722.25 in two weeks to help save lions in the wild!  The classroom that raised the most amount of money will be coming to the Zoo for a special “Lion Fun Day” of their own in April.  The students will get to create crafts, play conservation games, and most importantly meet the pride of lions that live at the Houston Zoo. Through community partnerships like this children can see the impact a school can have on the future for wildlife. We cannot thank Lyons enough for this incredible contribution and dedication to save wild lions.

The wheelbarrow of money we received from Lyon’s Elementary!

Principal, Cecilia Gonzales, has been supportive of the partnership from the beginning and is no doubt beaming with pride for what her students were able to accomplish for the Niassa Lion Project.  Teacher, Sarah Izquierdo, has driven the “love your lions” campaign at Lyons Elementary, and is a great example of enthusiasm, and commitment for her students.


Stay tuned for an update on Lyons Elementary students “Lion Fun Day” at the Houston Zoo in April.

To learn more about the Niassa Lion Project please visit the Houston Zoo website.

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Houston Zoo Facebook Page

Social Media Guy to Sea Lion Keeper: Can you send me a pic of you working with the sea lions in this chilly weather?

Sea Lion Keeper: Sure... (sends picture next to sea lion statue)

SMG: I'm still using this.
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Social Media Guy to Sea Lion Keeper: Can you send me a pic of you working with the sea lions in this chilly weather?

Sea Lion Keeper: Sure... (sends picture next to sea lion statue)

SMG: Im still using this.


Comment on Facebook

Are there some zoo animals that enjoy this weather?

SMG is another reason why Houston Zoo is the best Zoo!

Are we positive that’s the statue rather than it really just being that cold? 😛

More snow for TJ and Max ❤️ lucky them!

That’s my best friend Sophie for ya! 😂


Omg the Zoo is so awesome 😂😂😂 Alana Berry

Omg be warm sweetoe

Haha!! Good one!

Sweetie 💞

Ashley Jucker 😂

Mike DePope

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We've heard of stalagmites but is stalagmice a thing? ... See MoreSee Less


Weve heard of stalagmites but is stalagmice a thing?


Comment on Facebook

Ok, it took me a minute to get this. I was literally zooming in to try to find the mouse. 🤦🏻‍♀️🙄😂

Cindy Christina Angela Ramirez see I told y’all! Lol

“Baby it’s cold outside!”

That's nothing! Talk to keepers from the northern states or Canada!

i was honestly looking for a mouse lol

Annecia Wesley but where is the ice bacon? Lol

Wow,that is so neat!

Two words. Pipe insulation.

That’s awesome!

Ana Rivers Smith cool!


Pauline Ervin

Denise Daigre

Ashley Nguyen

Vicente Gonzalez

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Brrrr. It’s cold out there! We have made the decision to close the Houston Zoo tomorrow, Wednesday, Jan. 17. Don’t worry, the animals are safe and warm in their night houses!

A limited number of staff from departments like Animal Programs, Safety and Security and Operations/Facilities will be onsite to perform essential services and have the Zoo ready for us to reopen Thursday morning.

A big ol' high-five to our awesome team members who braved this icy cold to come in and care for our animals and zoo facilities.
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Comment on Facebook

Safety and welfare of the animals first! Thanks guys for all you do.

Yes thank you for everything yall do to keep the animals safe .. y'all keep safe and warm

Thank you for taking good care of our animals!

Thank u for keeping those Babies safe and warm!❤️

Thank you for all you do!

Thank you for ZOO LIGHTS. it was amazing this year!

Thank you, zoo team. Stay safe!

Mandy Rinker— really? Too cold? You’re from the Midwest girl


thank you for all you do and keep the furry babies warm


Thank you for taking care of our precious animals that we love to come see!

Thank you for keeping those beautiful animals safe. 💕

Thank you for making sure the animals are safe and warm.

Thank you for all you do for these amazing animals!!

Go, Erika!!!

Thank you 💕


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