A Closer Look at the African Painted Dogs

Dog Profiles:  by Samantha Junker

Join our pack for our 4th annual Dog Days of Summer Celebration at the Houston Zoo June 10 and 11 from 9:00 a.m. – 2:00 p.m. We’ll be offering special Meet the Keeper Talks*, enrichment demonstrations, and crafts for the kiddos. In anticipation for the event, we’ve assembled a short profile on our African painted dogs. Each one has their own unique personality. Take a look!

Blaze “The Pirate”


Blaze is currently the oldest male painted dog in the country at 14 years old. While he seems to enjoy the company of the new females, their antics sometimes appear to be too much for him and he would much rather nap in the shade away from the ruckus they are making.  The most vocal dog in the pack, Blaze frequently “barks” out his orders at his keepers and demands his food when he wants it and where he wants it.

Mikita “The Alpha”

African Wild DogsMikita is the nephew to Blaze and the leader of our pack. He is the peacekeeper and protector, making sure the young girls don’t play too rough with Blaze.  Once the first dog to approach trainers when called, he has made it perfectly clear that he enjoys the company of the new females more than his keepers.  He will look at us as we call his name for feeding and then walk away to lie down next to one of the girls until they decide to come inside too.

Amara “The Gazelle”

AmaraAmara’s name means “grace” and she has proven it fitting as she leaps like a little gazelle through the grass.  She is easily excitable, especially for food, and will often leap in the air on all four legs to show her delight.  Even at 3 years old, Amara is the leader of the new females and will often call to them to ensure they are nearby and haven’t wandered off.  She is definite proof that big personalities come in small packages.

Ghost “The Brave One”

GhostEvery pack needs a warrior and Ghost is definitely ours.  She is usually the first to charge into any new situation or investigate any new toy, though she will often look to Amara for guidance.  She feels she has to be involved in every situation and will sometimes interrupt training sessions with other dogs to make herself known.  Ghost is easily identified by the white patches with two black spots (eyes) on each shoulder that look like little ghosts.

Akilah “The Obstinate”

AkilahAkilah definitely marches to the beat of her own drum. She does what she wants when she wants and if that doesn’t coincide with her keepers’ plans, then so be it! She is also very tenacious when she feels one of the other dogs has something better than she does.  Her keepers were amazed as she stole a bone right under Mikita’s nose, watched him as he selected another one, stole the second bone, and started her own cache with a third and fourth.

*Meet the Keeper Talks are generously sponsored by Phillips 66.

Year of the Monkey – Mandrills

Written by Dena Honeycutt

It wouldn’t be Year of the Monkey without discussing the largest monkey! Mandrills are the largest monkey and we have them at the Houston Zoo! When zoo folks talk about monkeys, we sometimes refer to where they are from; we either call them a new world monkey or an old world monkey. As the name suggests, new world refers to the “new world” of Central and South America and old world refers to Europe, Africa and Asia. Mandrills are an old world monkey from western Africa.

There is so much to say about mandrills, I thought I’d answer some common questions and comments that we get about our mandrills:

mandrill tailAre these apes? They don’t have a tail!

Mandrills do have a tail, it is very short. Since mandrills spend most of their time on the ground and not in trees, they don’t really need a long tail. Tails are used by monkeys to help them balance themselves while walking or running on branches.

And the male’s behind is very colorful!

And yes, male mandrills are very colorful on both ends and there is a good reason for that. In the wild mandrills live in dense forests and in very large groups with both males and females. As they travel, the males will lead and bring up the rear of the group. Predators such as leopards are more successful if they attack quickly from behind. The coloration of the male mandrills face and behind are the same pattern so as to confuse predators as to which end is facing them.  Pretty cool, right?

Mandril 2

Oh and the males have really big canine teeth…

mandrill canine


Celebrate Tapirs with the Houston Zoo

Written by Mary Fields

Bairds Tapir-0013-6217It’s a pig! It’s a bear! It’s an anteater! Those are just some of the animals that people call tapirs on a day to day basis, but you can learn exactly what a tapir is and much more at our Tapir Spotlight on Species event!

On April 23rd and 24th, the Houston Zoo will be holding a Tapir Spotlight on Species from 10:00 am until 3:00 pm each day. Throughout the day we will have fun activities for everyone to play, a photo-op, and a chance for you to help enrich our tapirs!

The Houston Zoo is home to two Baird’s tapirs, Noah and Moli. You may remember Noah from last year’s SOS, but this will be Moli’s first time celebrating World Tapir Day with the Houston Zoo! Moli came to us from Zoo New England this past summer to be our breeding female. Baird’s tapirs have a gestation that lasts about 400 days or 13 months. Baby tapirs look quite a bit different than their adult counterparts; they are born with stripes and are only about 15 pounds!tapir sos blog

The Houston Zoo will also be celebrating Earth Day on April 23 & 24. Tapirs and many other species are losing habitat due to deforestation for palm oil. Come by our tapir yard to learn all about helping tapirs and the other species that share their habitat!

National Pig Day

Written by Helen Boostrom and Nina Russo

Today we would like to celebrate 2 amazing residents of Wortham World of Primates: Remley & Jambi, our Babirusa. Babirusas are members of the pig (Suidae) family. Pigs in Wortham World of Primates? Babirusa are found in the same type of Indonesian forest as orangutans and both species are in danger of extinction largely due to habitat loss. At the Houston Zoo, the babirusa live across from the orangutan exhibit.

Babirusa swimmingBabirusa are very cool! In fact, they spend a lot of time working to keep cool. They like to roll and wallow in mud which helps protect them from the sun and bugs. They also really like to swim as they are island dwellers.

The easiest way to tell them apart is by their teeth. Jambi is our male and has very obvious tusks. These are his canine teeth which will grow continuously throughout his life. Babirusa males wear down these tusks by rubbing them against trees and rocks.

Jambbi 1

Remley also has canine teeth but they don’t become tusks or grow continuously. Males have these tusks to use when sparring with other males over females or territory. Males are semi-solitary and spend most of their lives alone. Females spend most of their time with other females and offspring. They don’t usually engage in conflicts with others and so have no need for tusks.

Remley pic

So why should care about babirusa? For starters, they are very intelligent. Here at the Houston Zoo, we train husbandry behaviors with our babirusa. This means that they learn behaviors that help us take better care of their health. And you thought you couldn’t teach an old pig new tricks!  To keep their minds sharp we provide them with daily enrichment such as putting their food in a puzzle feeder or forage pile, or placing scents around the exhibit for them to discover.

They are also very unique and attractive animals which brings wildlife enthusiasts to Indonesia for ecotourism. This helps support the local economy. In addition, the babirusa have been an important part of the culture of the region. They show up in art including masks and folklore. One legend says the babirusa use their tusks to hang off tree branches when they sleep at night. And they are just so cute!

What’s even cuter than an adult babirusa is a little babirusa piglet. Remley and Jambi have had one offspring Hadiah who has grown up and moved to start a family of her own.

Hadiah pic

How can you save these adorable, genius babirusa?

Babirusa are endangered in the wild. One of the biggest problems they face is habitat loss. Palm oil plantations are a major cause of habitat loss in Indonesia. By paying attention to product labels and only using items that use sustainable palm oil, you can help protect babirusa and many other Indonesian species.

Monkey of the Month: The Monkey with the White Beard

Written by Nicole Gams

Featured this month is the De Brazza’s monkey (Cercopithecus neglectus), named after Italian-French explorer Pierre Savorgnan de Brazzas. It is a handsome species with a sleek gray coat, red brow and white beard. They are a type of guenon, which is a genus of colorful old world monkeys endemic to central Africa. The De Brazza’s monkey tends to live near water in swamps, bamboo and dry mountain forests. They will forage on the ground, but are mostly arboreal, which means they like to spend time up in trees. They eat primarily fruit and seeds but also eat leaves, flowers, buds, lizards and insects. Unlike most other guenons, they don’t live around other guenon species and they are very secretive with no alarm call. Instead, they freeze when danger approaches so as not to attract attention. They live in polygynous (multiple male and female) groups anywhere from 5-30 individuals. Some groups only consist of a male and female and their offspring, suggesting occurrences of monogamy in this species. It’s believed that females stay in their natal groups and the males leave to join other groups; however, this is currently being investigated by field researchers.


Here at the Houston Zoo we have a family group of De Brazza’s monkeys. Albert is the father whose job is to protect his family. Other than being almost twice as large (males average 7 kg while females average 4 kg), males and females can be hard to tell apart because they look exactly the same. However, males tend to have a more pronounced red brow and one can always look for the male parts, which are bright blue. If Albert is ever staring you down, he’s not admiring you or your outfit. He’s doing what’s called a threat display, but don’t be offended; I’m sure your zoo attire is just fine!  He’s simply doing his job and he does it very well. Albert can also be found strutting around with an arched tail and shaking tree branches which are both displays of dominance. Amelia is our adult female and Albert’s mate. They have had two offspring while living here: Ruby who just turned two at the end of December, and Flint who just turned one last November. The two youngsters can often be found wrestling and chasing each other around the exhibit. If at first not seen, they are likely heard rustling in the thick bamboo cover. Ruby, being the first born, had only her parents to play with. Albert was a doting father who Ruby may take after just a little too much, as she also will threat-stare and shake branches. Then there’s our newest and still adorable addition, Flint, who has not quite gotten his adult coloring yet. Young are born a bright golden hue and eventually the fur darkens with age. As younger siblings do, he likes to pull on his sister’s hair and tail, enticing her to a game of chase. Flint is very independent at this point; however, he still likes to be near his sister or mom, and still nurses occasionally. De Brazza’s monkeys are mature at 5-6 years of age.

pblog3Although currently listed as least concern on the IUCN red list, their existence is threatened by the clearing of habitat for agriculture and the timber industry. They are also hunted for the bushmeat trade. (Albert and Amelia came to Houston 11 years ago after being rescued from the bushmeat trade in the Democratic Republic of Congo. It is not common practice for zoos to obtain animals from the wild except under dire circumstances such as this one.) They are one of the most widespread African primates that live in forests, but there are low densities throughout their range. Some De Brazza’s populations occur in multiple protected areas, safeguarding them – to some extent – from habitat loss. However, as more forests disappear this could fragment the populations, making it difficult for individuals to move between populations. Natural predators include the large African eagle, leopards, and chimpanzees.

Just by visiting the zoo you are helping to protect animals in the wild, as a portion of the proceeds from all ticket sales goes towards supporting our various conservation partners. One of those partners includes the Human-Wildlife Conflict Collaboration (HWCC) whose conflict transformation approach has led to reductions in poaching.

It is a privilege to have the animals we have at the zoo and for our guests to be able to experience them so intimately. Come and see this dynamic monkey species at the Wortham World of Primates.

The Curious Case of the Banded Mongooses

Banded Mongoose-0014-1282“Hey look over there, it’s a meerkat!” You might hear something like this when you first visit the banded mongoose exhibit within the children’s zoo. Guests from all over come to this exhibit thinking they are observing the meerkats, so why is it that our mongoose family has a mistaken identity? Throughout the zoo we have an array of animals that guests love to see. Between the giraffes, elephants, and gorillas, sometimes the little guy goes by unnoticed. In the spirit of rooting for the underdogs of the zoo let’s take a look at who the mongooses really are and what makes them so special.

From the plains of sub-Sahara Africa, our carnivorous little mongooses are in fact part of the same family as meerkats. This is the simple reason many guests get the two confused due to the similar size and appearance. Ranging from four to four months old, the zoo is home to fifteen mongooses that on a daily basis do absolutely everything together.  Banded mongooses in general are colony dwellers; living in big groups, hunting in groups and even raising babies in a group. To keep our mongooses well fed and eating things they would naturally encounter in the wild, the keepers provide a wide variety of meals for them ranging from insects, meat, mice, fruits and vegetables. Courtney Ligon, mongoose keeper, said the mongooses’ favorite thing to eat is the mice whereas the fruits and vegetables are not so popular among them.  The keepers typically feed the mongooses before the zoo opens to the public but guests can sometimes see them chowing down on worms or mice during enrichment periods. Although they receive a wide variety of food every day, Courtney said the banded mongooses don’t start eating like that from birth. Banded mongooses don’t open their eyes until about two weeks of age and can’t consume solid food until a month after birth. Then again mongooses grow very fast and a month’s time is nothing compared to the growth rate of humans.mongoosecombo

Aside from their mistaken identity, mongooses bare another common misconception in the form of snake fighting. Just about every depiction of a mongoose in popular culture represents a fearsome battle with a cobra, but the truth is not all types of mongooses do that. Banded mongooses are just one of over thirty types of mongooses across fourteen specie classifications and are quite different from their snake fighting counterparts. Indian gray mongooses, who live in solitary, are the ones typically known for their ability to fight snakes due to their thick coats and receptors that render them resistant to snake venom. However, banded mongooses are much smaller in nature and do not possess the qualities to take on a venomous snake. Banded mongooses may not intentionally engage in conflict with snakes but that does not mean they don’t encounter them. The mongoose keepers have been known to lay out snake sheds within the exhibit, being one of the many ways the keepers bring out natural characteristics of the wild and from our mongooses.

IMG_6160Enrichment is very important for all our animals at the zoo and due to the curiosity of the mongooses, the keepers like to keep things unique and playful. Ranging from puzzle feeders to putting worms in containers, the keepers engage the mongooses in enrichment every day while constantly keeping an enrichment chart on hand in order to keep track of what the mongooses get on any given day. The banded mongooses have a different keeper every few days, switching up the routine and keeping things fresh due to the various training styles among the keepers. One of the coolest things our keepers do for the mongooses is give them hard boiled eggs to play with. Now you may be wondering what is so cool about an egg, but in fact this activity brings out one of the most natural sides to our little friends. In the wild, banded mongooses will take hard shell food, such as eggs and snails, and throw them with their legs against a hard surface in order to crack it open. The keepers encourage this by not only giving the mongooses eggs, but also rocks, nuts, and coconuts. Aside from the enrichment activities done by the keepers, our mongooses also receive enrichment from their exhibit. The mongoose exhibit is home to two different types of tunnels, the mongoose tunnels and the guest tunnels, both of which provide an enriching experience. The six mongoose tunnels that run through the exhibit are made of PVC pipe and provide the mongooses a place to hide, sleep, and take food if necessary. The guest tunnels are meant for kids to have a fun and engaging experience but it not only excites the kids but also keeps the mongooses playful and curious as they gather around the tubes just about every time a kid pops their head up in one.

Next time you visit the zoo make sure to check out our playful mongooses as they enjoy their natural exhibit and when someone yells “hey it’s a meerkat!” you can make sure to tell them about all the things you learned here.

Sea Lion Enrichment

Sea Lion-0317-4805Animals in the wild have to work for a living to ensure that they can find food and shelter. At the zoo our animals’ daily lives are more predictable than in nature, which is why our zookeepers provide a variety of enriching activities that will challenge the animals physically and mentally. The sea lion keepers are no exception as they provide some of the coolest enrichment activities for our favorite marine mammals here at the zoo.

The lives of our sea lions are constantly being filled with enrichment. Just about everything the sea lions do on a daily basis involves a form of enrichment. Sea lion keeper, Anastasia Kotara, said that the keepers cannot force anything upon the sea lions because they want them to voluntarily choose to play on their own. Due to this, the keepers are constantly shaking things up in terms of enrichment so they can keep the sea lions guessing, remaining curious about their daily schedule. A constant change of schedule sets the sea lions apart from most animal areas at the zoo and a large reason behind this is due to the different personalities and natural behavior of our sea lions; requiring the keepers to remain diligent in preparing activities. Keepers use many of their enrichment tools to encourage the sea lions to work for their food and show off natural instincts. Enrichment devices such as containers, balls, and hoops to swim through all serve a purpose in enriching our sea lions. Typically, fish are put in the containers or in the middle of toy balls where sea lions can work on cognitive skills as well as playing to bring out characteristics they would naturally have in the wild.sea lion blog

Training is a huge part of our sea lions’ lives. Considering that the keepers train them throughout the day, training is a form of enrichment. Every keeper has their own enrichment device that they have chosen to train with, making every training session unique and positive for the sea lions. A sea lion’s level of training solely depends on how long they have been training for. Some of the sea lions, such as Rocky, are new to the style of enrichment that our keepers provide, requiring the keepers to take a different approach. Anastasia said training Rocky is a refreshing experience because he is willing to participate in all enrichment activities. Some of the sea lions can be stubborn and lose interest in an activity if it becomes familiar. The female sea lions have been at the zoo since they were ten months old, requiring a form of training and conditioning that keeps them seeing new and exciting activities. A big part of their change in enrichment is through the sea lion show for the guests. Demonstrations such as having the sea lions distinguish between objects are just one of the many activities our guests can see and the show is constantly switching routines to not only keep the sea lions playful but to keep the guests guessing; enriching the experience for both.

Every year the sea lion keepers have an intern to whom they ask to come up with an enrichment project that will benefit the sea lions and other endeavors in animal enrichment.  This is one of the many ways the zoo keeps things fresh for our sea lions. This year Daniel Magid, sea lion intern, came up with a project involving the construction of a fire hose raft for our sea lions. Partnering with the Volunteer Enrichment Committee, Daniel oversaw the completion of the raft which is made up entirely of fire hose material and PVC pipe. No hardware was involved in making the raft which is important for the safety of the sea lions and the salt water environment. The PVC forms the outer rim of the raft while the fire hose material fits together through slits to make up the body of the raft. Daniel said that through the completion of the raft, they realized that there were potential safety hazards for the sea lions so the team went back and added weaving to tighten up the material. The raft is currently entered in a competition known as Hose2Habitat where it will go up against other enrichment building tools made from fire hose and other types of material. The winner receives a fire hose cutter which would be utilized for all the animal departments in the zoo. Regardless of what happens in the competition Daniel and his team are incredibly proud of the raft as it will not only provide the sea lions new and exciting enrichment building but also showcase an idea that others can use as well.

The point of enrichment building is to change up the animal’s environment with the hope of bringing out their natural characteristics. Through the constant creation of fresh ideas provided by our keepers, enrichment building has never been more exciting and successful for our sea lions.

Baby Giraffe at the Zoo!

We are proud to announce the birth of a female Masai giraffe, born shortly before 7:45 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 31 in the McGovern Giraffe Habitat at the African Forest. After a 3-hour-long labor both first-time mom Asali and the yet-to-be-named calf are doing well and are currently bonding behind the scenes with keeper and veterinary teams watching over the pair.

Baby Giraffe -0001-9336

“It’s always exciting when we have a new baby at the zoo, and when that baby is more than six feet tall, it’s an incredible moment,” said Hoofed Stock Supervisor John Register. “Our team is thrilled to welcome a new baby to our giraffe herd.” The calf weighs 160 pounds and is 6 feet, 3 inches tall.

On average, giraffe pregnancies last from 14 to 15 months. A new born Masai giraffe calf typically weighs between 125 and 150 pounds at birth and measures approximately six feet tall. Giraffes are the tallest living terrestrial animals, with the average male standing at 17 feet tall and weighing 2,500 pounds. Females average more than 14 feet tall.

Over the last decade, the number of giraffes in the wild has dropped by 40%, with less than 80,000 giraffes remaining. Of the nine subspecies of giraffes, the Houston Zoo is now home to ten Masai giraffes, including six males and four females. According to the statistics available from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, there are currently slightly more than 100 Masai giraffes living in 28 North American zoos.

The honor of naming the newest member of the Houston Zoo herd will go to Jim Postl, Houston Zoo board of directors’ member, who won the naming rights during an enthusiastic live auction at the 2015 Zoo Ball. After a few days bonding with her mother, the new calf will make her public debut and her name will be announced.

Year of the Goat – Featuring Jack

In honor of the Chinese animal zodiac, we’re celebrating the Year of the Goat! We have over 20 different goats representing 5 different breeds. In addition to their different colors, shapes, and sizes, all of our goats also express individual preferences and personalities!

To highlight our goats individual ‘flair’, we’ve decided to feature a different goat each month and share what makes each one so unique and lovable!

JackAs zookeepers in the Contact Area in the Children’s Zoo, we receive a lot of questions about our goats. Most people want to know their names or how old they are. When it comes to Pygmy goat twins, Jingle and Belle, most guests want to know if they’re babies. (In case you were wondering, they were born in December of 2013 so they are just a little over a year and a half old at the moment. So they are not technically ‘babies’ any longer; they’re just really small goats!) But the goat that keepers get the most questions about is probably Jack. ‘Is she pregnant?’ is the most-asked question in the yard, and we keepers smile and shake our heads as we reply, ‘No, HE is not pregnant.’

Just like humans, goats come in all shapes and sizes. Some goats are tall and skinny, and some goats are short and round. As a Nigerian dwarf goat, Jack was bred to be short in stature. In addition to his short legs, Jack just happens to have a barrel belly which has some guests convinced that his belly is full of baby goats! In fact, Jack’s belly is just full of gas!

Jack naps in the goat yard
Jack naps in the goat yard

As ruminants, goats have a four-chambered stomach. Each chamber has a different job to help break down plant material, which is very difficult to digest. The rumen is the largest chamber of their stomachs and is where most of the fermentation of the plant material occurs. This fermentation produces gas, and gas can expand when it’s hot; often giving our goats a slightly balloon-like appearance.

Jack doesn’t seem to be bothered by the cases of mistaken identity and is one of the friendliest goats in the yard. He can often be seen hanging out with the twins Bono and Trent, who are Jack’s younger brothers. In fact, Jack is currently the oldest goat in the Contact Area! Come visit Jack on September 12th as he celebrates his 12th birthday!


Baby Rhino Born to Former Houstonian

Baby Rhino - K. Meeks, White OakWe’re excited to share the adorable photos of the newborn female white rhinoceros born in Florida on Aug. 12. Many of our friends might recognize her mama, Lynne, who lived here at the Houston Zoo from 2010-2013 before her move to Florida. The new calf was born at White Oak in Yulee, Florida at 12:15 p.m. after a very short and easy labor. The Houston Zoo has had a long relationship with White Oak and is proud to share in this joyful news.



Here at the Houston Zoo, guests and Members can visit with the three young male white rhinos in The African Forest – half-brothers Mumbles, George, and Indy. They share the same father but have different mothers.

Baby Rhino - K. Meeks, White Oak

White Oak is one of the world’s premiere wildlife breeding, education, and training facilities.  Located along the St. Marys River in northeast Florida, the wildlife conservation facility spans 10,000 acres of pine and hardwood forest and wetlands. Founded in 1982, White Oak is an Association of Zoos and Aquariums certified facility and works closely with zoo and conservation partners to advance its conservation mission.

White Oak has dedicated significant natural areas, facilities and staff to care for rhinos. The facility has produced over 35 rhino calves and is recognized as a leader in rhino conservation breeding. For more information on White Oak please visit www.whiteoakwildlife.org

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