Have Yourself a Hairy Little Christmas!

fireplace blogBy Lacey Penning

Is there anything more exciting than Christmas morning? Yummy treats, special presents just for you and being surrounded by the people you love…Here at the Houston Zoo primate department, we strive to make the animal’s Christmas morning just as memorable. Christmas day is one of the two days a year when the Houston Zoo is closed to the public; the other day being Thanksgiving. But as they say, the show must go on. There are homes to clean, mouths to feed, and in this case…stockings to be filled with pine shavings? Let me explain.

It all starts with something animal care staff calls “enrichment”. David Shepherdson describes enrichment as something that enhances the quality of captive animal care by identifying and providing the environmental stimuli necessary for optimal psychological and physiological well-being. Basically, in a nutshell roasting on an open fire, enrichment is something that keeps life exciting and always stimulating, encouraging natural behaviors in the process. Enrichment is a constant everyday occurrence for the animals here at the Houston Zoo. On a typical day, you will find things used throughout exhibits such as forage piles heaped of sand, puzzle feeders made of PVC and even various extracts sprayed about to entice scent-marking primates. But on Christmas, things get a whole lot more holly jolly.

Zookeepers spend weeks prepping, constructing and gathering all of those special details they know are their primate’s favorite things…similar to Santa’s elves. On Christmas morning, while most of Houston is still nestled snug in their beds with visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads, zookeepers can be found Santa-hats donned and Christmas music playing, filling animal exhibits to the brim with presents, streamers and wrapping paper with only the mere audience of the animals to please. The presents are simply any animal-safe box (tape and staples removed) wrapped and filled with a variety of things ranging from: new baskets, wiffle balls and frisbees if you’re an orangutan, new blankets and children’s books if you’re a chimpanzee, new Kong toys if you’re a De Brazza’s monkey and maybe some nice new hanging bells and mirrors if you’re a Goeldi’s monkey. But what good would presents be if you didn’t have delicious treats to go along with them? Although all the primates receive a variety of fruits and vegetables every day, on Christmas they may get supplemented with favored food items that they only receive sparingly such as dried fruits, honey-peanut butter smears and grape juice for everyone! While exhibits are being serviced by keepers in the morning, some apes may even be lucky enough to watch their favorite holiday flick such as Frozen or How the Grinch Stole Christmas, as keepers set up TVs and DVD players for them. Sure, there’s the typical tug of war over everyone’s favorite blanket or movie seat, but what household doesn’t have that? Once everything is said and done, the excitement and happiness felt is worth all the hard work. After all, it wouldn’t be Christmas if you weren’t spending it with primates you love.chimp snow

We know what you’re thinking, and no, zookeepers couldn’t do this alone, we are mere mortals after all. Without the help of our extraordinary and selfless volunteer staff and donors who thoughtfully purchase and donate animal-safe presents for the animals every year, those presents would be a little bit more bleak. If this all sounds like something too merry to miss out on, there are simple ways to get involved! You can give the gift of grub! By donating to the Houston Zoo this holiday season, your money can go specifically towards all those yummy treats and meals that make things like this so special. Even better, whatever you donate TXU Energy will match, up to $50,000! Click on the link below to check it out.

Happy holidays and foraging to you and yours!


Happy Birthday Willie!!!

The Houston Zoo is wishing chimpanzee Willie a very Happy Birthday! Over the past five years, since the opening of the chimpanzee exhibit in 2010, we have watched as Willie has grown from a playful juvenile chimpanzee to a mature adult chimpanzee. During this past year, he has risen in rank to become the dominant male in the group.

10 - year old Willie the Boss
10 – year old Willie the ‘Boss’

When Willie first came to the Houston Zoo, he was the smallest member of the group and at six years old still spent the majority of his time with Lulu and Lucy, the mothers of the group. He continued to rely on them for protection during group conflicts and his primary goal in life and in interactions with the group was to just have fun and play. He played an important part in getting the original chimpanzee group comfortable living together in their new home as his solution to any tension or nervousness was to encourage everyone to play!

Willie (2)
6 – year old Willie the ‘Kid’

In the wild, chimpanzees spend the first seven years of their lives with their mothers. These juvenile chimpanzees are characterized by tan faces and a white tuft of hair above their rear ends. Between the ages of 6-9, adolescent chimpanzees will start interacting more socially with other members of the group. They lose their white tuft of hair and their faces start to change from a light tan color to black. During this time, males will spend less and less time with their family and more time interacting with adult males in the group. It is during this time that young males start participating in boundary patrols and begin to try to figure out their place in the male hierarchy. These young ‘teenage’ chimpanzees often find themselves involved more in conflicts as they try pushing boundaries and establishing themselves in the hierarchy.

At eight years old, Willie started spending less time with Lucy and Lulu and more time with Mac, the dominant male at the time. Keepers called him “Mac’s Shadow” as he would never be very far from Mac’s side. He always seemed to be looking to Mac for guidance on how to behave. During this time, Willie also started challenging the females and lower ranking males. Anytime a conflict occurred, you could find Willie right in the middle of it. His favorite tactic was to throw dirt and then run away before anyone could catch him. The only chimpanzee that could discipline ‘teenage’ Willie successfully was Mac. Willie gained rank quickly.

Willie 1
8 – year old Willie the ‘Teenager’

Over the last two years, the original chimpanzee group has been integrated with a new chimpanzee group of six chimpanzees. Willie initially was very friendly but shy about meeting his new friends. His initial interactions with the new chimpanzees were submissive and friendly. Due to his friendly initial interactions and his playful nature, Willie quickly made friends with the new chimpanzees. As the groups were combined and Willie became more confident in the new group, keepers started noticing him intervening in conflicts instead of causing them. Keepers also noticed that many of the chimpanzees started to look to Willie for reassurance and support during conflicts. One of a dominant male chimpanzee’s main roles is to manage conflict within the group. Willie seemed to be fulfilling this role in the new group.

Willie can often be found at the center of grooming and play sessions within the newly combined chimpanzee group. Besides being strong enough to maintain order, another important trait for a high ranking chimpanzee is the ability to gain and maintain allies. Bullies usually don’t last long as dominant males as the other chimpanzees in a group often band together and overthrow them. Willie’s friendly nature has gained him lots of allies. Even though he is now in charge, his favorite strategy to maintaining order is to encourage everyone to play. The one thing that has not changed about Willie in the past five years is that his primary goal in life is to just have fun and play!
Chimpanzees in zoos can live into their sixties. We look forward to celebrating many more birthdays with Willie and watching him as he continues to learn and grow into an impressive adult male chimpanzee!

What is Coltan? What is Tantalum? How You Can Help!

Written by Joshua Cano

willie chimpDid you know that you can help tens of thousands of animals in the wild with one simple action? In today’s world almost everyone has some type of electronic device. You are most likely reading this blog on your personal computer, tablet or cell phone. These and most other electronic devices share one thing in common, an element called tantalum. Tantalum is used in your microprocessors, cameras, and circuit boards. This important component is mined throughout the world, but it is destroying national parks in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Materials used to manufacture cell phones are taken from places where animals like chimpanzees and gorillas live.
Materials used to manufacture cell phones are taken from places where animals like chimpanzees and gorillas live.

Tantalum is often mistaken for coltan, which stands for the 2 ores, columbite and tantalite, which are found together. When refined, the ore tantalite becomes metallic tantalum. These ores are being illegally mined from land’s that belong to the DRC’s national parks. Large chunks of lush forests are cleared away in order to mine for tantalum. With the increase in the bush meat market, due to the increase of the human population in the area, many animal populations have dropped by as much as 50% in those areas.


So, how can you help save these beautiful animals? What is the simple action you can take? The tantalum in your electronics can be reused, thus reducing the need to mine for more. Last year, the United States was able to supplement 30% of its tantalum needs from recycled electronics.  7000+ Houstonians helped supplement that 30% by bringing in their old electronics to the Houston Zoo to be properly recycled. Next time you are at the Houston Zoo look for our electronics deposit boxes located at both entrances.

Will you be part of that 7000+ people?

Houston Community Comes Swinging in to Help Our Orangutans!

Post by Tammy Buhrmester

What do firemen, Girl Scouts, and primate keepers all have in common? They all played a role in helping the Houston Zoo orangutans swing around their exhibit. The orangutans at the Houston Zoo needed more ways to swing and climb. Previously, we used thick ropes strung across the exhibit, but between the Houston humidity and the heavy use of the orangutans, the ropes kept fraying and coming down. The decision was made to make stronger man-made “vines” to help the orangutans move more naturally as they would in the wild.


Orangutans are very arboreal; they are the world’s largest tree dwelling animal. (Recent studies have shown that they do come down to the ground fairly often, but they prefer to move in the trees.) Orangutan’s forearms are 30 percent longer than their legs, and both their hands and feet are equally capable of gripping branches of trees. They have opposable thumbs just like we do, but they also have the extra benefit of having opposable big toes (Wouldn’t that be handy?). Orangutans travel in the canopy of trees and maintain hold of branches with at least two limbs and can hang upside down from both feet.

Not only do the orangutans travel using trees, they also sleep in the trees at night. Orangutans make a new nest every night. Orangutans fold branches inwards and underneath them, as well as weave in smaller, leafy branches to build a comfy bed at night.

So how did we help the Houston Zoo orangutans swing and climb? First, we reached out to local fire stations and asked them for any old fire hoses that they were not using. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that several fire houses wanted to help the orangutans. We had over 60 rolls of fire hoses donated from many fire stations in the Houston area and from many outlying suburbs.

So now that we had the fire hoses, how did we make them look like vines? A local Girl Scout, Megan Contreras, was working on her Gold award, which is the highest award achievable in the Girl Scouts. She approached the primate staff wanting to learn about enrichment for the primates in the Houston Zoo. With help from her friends and chapter members, Megan was able to come to the Zoo and paint the fire hoses. With some splatters of brown, dark green, light green and yellow, the “vines” were coming alive.


Now that our vines were made, it was up to the staff to hang them in places that would benefit the orangutans. In one afternoon, the staff was able to hang 14 “vines” and 2 hammocks. With extra “vines” left over, it was possible to hang some in the chimpanzee exhibit which added to the chimpanzee’s ability to locomote arboreally, as well.

Now, when you come to the primate section at the Zoo you will see our orangutans and chimpanzees swinging, climbing, playing, and resting on the “vines” created by our generous Houston community. We thank you all!!

Action for Apes Challenge is in Full Swing

Our 2015 Action for Apes Cell Phone Recycling Challenge is off to a great start! The Action for Apes Challenge is a community-wide cell phone recycling contest to help save gorillas in the wild.

So far we have 21 Houston area groups who have signed up for the 2015 Challenge! These groups are from all around the Houston area and include schools, scout troops, companies, living communities and families, all working to make a difference in the lives of gorillas.

Collectively, these groups hope to recycle nearly 5,000 cell phones and other handheld electronic devices! That is 5,000 actions taken by the Houston Community to save animals in the wild.


ActionForApes_Logo_wThank you to the following groups who have joined the 2015 Action for Apes Challenge and are working hard to save animals in the wild!

American Recyclers

Bay Colony Elementary

Berry Elementary

Calder Road Elementary

Copeland Elementary

East Early College High School

George Brooks’ Office

Girl Scout Troop 16399

Go Green Club

Heritage of Towne Lake

HISD – Mandarin Chinese Language Immersion Magnet School (MCLIMS)

Holbrook Elementary

HW Grady Middle School

Incarnate Word Academy

Jersey Village High School Science National Honor Society

Keeter Family

Lake Jackson Intermediate

Lantrip Elementary

Noah Consulting

Smith, Seckman, & Reid

Sneed Elementary

If you haven’t signed up for the 2015 Action for Apes Challenge yet, it’s not too late – do it today! The Action for Apes Challenge is open to any business, community group, church, school, scout group, any group of people who would like to help save animals in the wild! 

Dickinson High School Takes Home 1st Place in 2014 Action for Apes Challenge!

10365925_708674479195725_7798650179364826206_nWe have just concluded our 2014 Action for Apes Cell Phone Recycling Challenge and it was incredibly successful with 49 local Houston schools and organizations participating! Over 25,000 participants were involved in this challenge-recycling cell phones as quickly as they could by APE-ril 30th, 2014 to join the Houston Zoo’s efforts to save gorillas and chimpanzees in the wild! A material found in almost every cell phone (tantalum) is taken from the ground in Central Africa where these amazing apes live, and by recycling phones we can reuse these materials and reduce the need to mine in animal habitats to get more tantalum.

At the end of APE-ril, the participants began shipping their recycled phones to Eco-Cell who counted every single phone from the challenge and reported the totals to the Houston Zoo. We are very excited to announce that Dickinson High School  won 1st place in the challenge, recycling a total of 384 phones! Dickinson High School will win a huge painting to be hung in their school, specially painted by the Houston Zoo’s chimpanzee troop in the colors of their choosing.

action for apes

Coming in at 2nd place was Birkes Elementary, recycling 242 phones, and 3rd place went to Parkwood Elementary School, who recycled 155 phones. Overall, all participating groups brought in a total of 2,032 cell phones which means 2,032 actions to save animals in the wild!

We are so thankful for the collaborative effort of our community in recycling cell phones to save gorillas and chimpanzees in the wild, and we could not do this important work without the Houston community. Thank you to everyone who participated and we’re already looking forward to 2015!

~18,989 Houstonians Helping to Save Gorillas and Chimpanzees!

We are up to 36 local Houston schools and organizations who are recycling cell phones to help save gorillas and chimpanzees in the wild! These 36 groups have an estimated 18,989 people participating to save apes in the wild!

Are you interested in participating in the 2014 Action for Apes Challenge? It’s easy and fun, and you get to save animals while you do it! Just check out our website to register your group.


Thank you to the following groups who are joining the Houston Zoo to help save animals in the wild through our Action for Apes Challenge:

Aldine 9th Grade School
APES classes at  Jersey Village High School
Berry Elementary
Bruce Elementary
Calder Road Elementary
CLHS Roots & Shoots Club
Cy-Fair High School
Cypress Falls High School
Dabbs Elementary
De Zavala Elementary
Dickinson High School
Durham Elementary: Young Leaders in Action and Top Dogs Organization
Girl Scout Troop 9457
Hall Elementary
Hildebrandt Intermediate School
Hoffman Middle School
Holbrook Elementary
James DeAnda Elementary School
Jennie Reid Elementary
John and Shamarion Barber Middle School
Lake Jackson Intermediate
Liestman Elementary
Lockhart Elementary School
Pack 76
Parkwood Elementary School
Robinson Elementary
Smith Middle School
Sneed Elementary
Stanley Elementary
Stovall Middle School
St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church and School
University of St. Thomas Tri-Beta Biology Honor Society
Walt Disney Elementary
W.C. Cunningham Middle school
Whole Foods Market Kirby



Six New Chimpanzees Make Their Public Debut!

newchimpOn October 30, 2013 6 chimpanzees found a new home at the Houston Zoo thanks to the combined efforts of Lincoln Park Zoo’s Project ChimpCARE, the Houston Zoo, and Curtis and Bea Shepperson, the chimps’ owners.

The Sheppersons had been under pressure from officials in the Mechanicsville, Virginia area to relocate the chimpanzees because of a recent escape and the lack of proper licenses.

On Tuesday, December 3, 2013 at 9 a.m. the chimps – Toby, Kenya, Tanzee, Kira, Chaos and Sierra – completed their standard 30 day quarantine period and enjoyed their first day outside in the African Forest’s Onstead Foundation Chimpanzee Habitat. Tuesday was also Sierra’s 14th birthday.

The Onstead Foundation Chimpanzee Habitat is the newest such facility in the nation and widely regarded as one of the world’s pre-eminent facilities.

Be a Holiday Hero-Recycle Your Old Phone at Zoo Lights!

Did you know you could be a holiday animal hero just by visiting the Houston Zoo this holiday season for our 2nd annual Zoo Lights event? A portion of every ticket sold here at the Houston Zoo goes towards saving animals in the wild. I bet you didn’t know that as a Houston Zoo guest, you are helping us save wildlife and wild places?! Well, it’s true.

And here’s something else to consider. You could be even MORE of a holiday animal hero by visiting our Zoo Lights event AND recycling an old cell phone at our front entrance (we know you have those old phones hidden somewhere!). Here is what you do:

1. Find old phone while cleaning the house and preparing for the holidays (we know this is on the to-do list).

2. Bring that old phone (or phones) with you, walk on up to our main entrance, and drop the phone in the recycling bin by our Guest Relations office (right before you hit the Admissions line!). Give yourself a pat on the back.

2. Visit TXU Energy Presents Zoo Lights (6-10pm, Nov. 22nd-Jan. 4th), spend time with family and friends as you look at the beautiful lights throughout the Zoo and leave feeling GREAT that you not only helped animals in the wild by visiting the zoo, but you specifically helped animals like chimpanzees and gorillas by recycling your old cell phone with us.

Save chimps by recycling your old cell phone with us during Zoo Lights!
Save chimps by recycling your old cell phone with us during Zoo Lights!

Wait a minute…how in the world does recycling your cell phone at the zoo help animals like chimpanzees and gorillas?

1. A mineral (called coltan) is found in almost every cell phone, as well as laptops and cameras. This mineral comes from the ground in Central Africa, which happens to be where animals like chimpanzees, gorillas and okapis live.

2. When the mineral is taken from chimpanzee habitats to be used in electronics, the homes of chimps, gorillas and okapis become disrupted and these animal populations decrease.

3. If you recycle your old cell phone with us, then the materials in the phone can be reused instead of getting new minerals from the ground in Central Africa.

4. When you recycle your at the zoo, we return it to a company called Eco-Cell that sells the individual parts of the phone so that they can be reused. Any proceeds then go to conservation efforts to save animals in the wild.

The mineral coltan is found in most phones, and comes from areas in Africa where chimpanzees and gorillas live.
The mineral coltan is found in most phones, and comes from areas in Africa where chimpanzees and gorillas live.

So, bundle up, grab your old phones, and bring your family and friends to our 2nd annual Zoo Lights event-you’ll leave knowing you are an official holiday animal hero!


In Senegal, Helping Chimps

Zoo staff member Martha is in Senegal right now working with the Faleme Chimpanzee Conservation Project, and she’s sending us updates as she gets enough internet access to make that possible! Here are a few updates from Martha:

We spent the last few days in very remote villages called Bofeto and Babouya, right in the corner of Senegal where the country meets Mali and Guinea. We checked on various camera traps to see if the cards were full, and we installed a new camera trap next to a big rocky, shaded water source. Chimp nests were nearby as well as lots of fruit so we think this will be a good spot to get photos.

Kelly from Faleme Chimpanzee Conservation Project an a local villager from Babouya put up a camera trap to hopefully get some photos of chimps!

We ate lots of “caba,” as the local people call it. It is a very sour fruit with lots of seeds, and you break it open and eat the pulp off the seeds. It’s popular with chimps, and it’s popular with us too!

“Caba” fruit, scientific name saba senegalensis – yummy and very sour!

Then, we went to the village of Bofeto teaching kids about how and why animals hide using camouflage: both to get away from predators and also to catch their prey. We went on a hike to find plastic animals hidden in the bush and then talked about why some were harder to find than others-the kids really had fun going out behind their school on this scavenger hunt!

Kids in the village of Bofeto learn all about camouflage

We also had some volunteers come up in front of the group and talk about the animal that they were and where it would hide based on its coloration, and how this would help them either find food, or get away from animals who wanted to eat them.

Kids had a great time wearing the silly hats and since they live right alongside (or in) the forest, they already had a lot of knowledge about animals and how they adapt to their environment, and how it is important to protect the habitats of animals because they rely on them for so many things!

Kids in the village show off their silly hats

Later on, we went to the village of Babouya, where the villagers got to watch a film about chimpanzees. This village lives right alongside a troop of chimpanzees and they loved watching the film and seeing the chimps doing things similar to humans (like using tools and getting frustrated when tools don’t work, and the moms carrying their young on their back, etc.).

Villagers in Babouya watch a film about chimpanzees

Amazingly, we needed assistance putting up my bed sheet for the screen and asked one of the village members to help. We weren’t sure if they were going to put it up on one of their huts, but in about 10 minutes we walked over to the center of the village and they had created their own handmade frame out of bamboo-it was amazing! They were so thankful for us playing the video, almost the entire village came-adults, kids, infants, and dogs (and maybe even some goats).

Stay tuned for more updates as we get them!

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