Watch How You Are Saving Elephants in Borneo

Thanks to your visit to the Houston Zoo, we are able to send vital support to protect elephants in Borneo. We are extremely fortunate to have members of our extended zoo family working in Asia to ensure the survival of Bornean elephants. The Kinabatangan Elephant Conservation Unit (ECU) works with local communities in Borneo to raise awareness, improve human-wildlife relationships, and give farmers the tools and training they need for elephant-friendly crop protection. The Danau Girang Field Centre is conducting the first population biology study of the Bornean elephant, and as a part of this effort, the zoo is able to provide funding for radio collars, camera traps, and graduate student scholarships. During the month of May, you will have the chance to meet Dr. Nurzhafarina (Farina) Othman, a Malaysian scientist and member of the Houston Zoo conservation field staff.

Last fall, Zoo staff and crew from KPRC Channel 2 traveled to Borneo to meet with Farina, the team at the Danau Girang Field Centre and Hutan to see the projects the Houston Zoo supports firsthand. You can learn all about Farina’s work and how you are helping her to save elephants in the wild by tuning in to channel 2 this Wednesday, April 25th at 8pm and watching the Borneo special! Here at home we continue to promote these partnerships at our McNair Asian Elephant Habitat, giving our community the opportunity to learn about our herd of elephants at the zoo, and their wild counterparts. This year’s Zoo Ball, An Evening in Borneo presented by Phillips 66 will raise vital funds for our Houston Zoo, which through partners like Farina, works on the front lines in Borneo to protect its precious wildlife. To meet Farina, make sure to check out the Elephant Open House at the zoo on Sunday May 6th.

Gorilla Doctor Noel Reflects on His Time at Houston Zoo

The following post was written by Dr. Jean Bosco Noheli (Dr. Noel), a Rwandan field veterinarian for Houston Zoo wildlife partner Gorilla Doctors, and 2017 Houston Zoo Wildlife Warrior. As part of his Wildlife Warrior award, Dr. Noel spent three weeks in Houston this February receiving training at the Houston Zoo. The Wildlife Warrior program recognizes outstanding staff employed by the Zoo’s existing wildlife conservation partners. Our Admissions’ team raises funds through the sale of colorful wildlife bracelets, and the funds from these bracelets then go to our Wildlife Warriors to receive a training of their choice. The award is designed to increase the recipient’s conservation community network and inspire empowerment by providing opportunities to gain further education through training or experiences.

 

“Last year, I was chosen as a Houston Zoo wildlife warrior by the Admissions team.  As part of this award, I was given the opportunity to train with Houston Zoo veterinarians.  In addition to zoological medicine skills, I gained so much inspiration for the conservation of wildlife sometimes forgotten or ignored in some societies across the globe.

Dr. Noel destroying a crab trap after releasing animals that were accidentally caught

On Saturday 17th February 2018, I was lucky to be part of Galveston Bay Foundation’s Crab-Trap Clean-up at the Galveston beach. To me this experience was equivalent to our “Umuganda” which means “community work”. In Rwanda, every last Saturday all our communities come together to perform a selected activity of public benefits or use. Many thanks to Martha Parker, Conservation Impact Manager at the Houston Zoo for driving me all the way to and from Bolivar. With people from Dallas and Houston zoos, we all gathered to clean up the beach and collect and destroy illegal and/or abandoned fishing tools.

Martha Parker shows the team how sea turtles feed on plastic bags

 

 

 

 

 

Once every February this activity is organized as a way to protect and conserve sea animals; mainly sea turtles. My team went to remove garbage from the beach and Martha took the opportunity to talk to the team about how sea turtles are attracted to white plastic bags and will feed on them, which can have fatal consequences.  It was a little bit discouraging being on the beach because by the time we were removing garbage, some visitors who were at the beach were littering – this shows why an education around pollution is needed. My advice to these visitors would be “Enjoy the beach but make sure you keep it clean to protect water and its community”.

Dr. Noel and the team cleaning up the beach

During my stay in Houston; I also realized that people spend most Saturdays working on their gardens, but it seemed very few care about the cleanliness of the city. With my experience with Rwandan Umuganda, I was asking my Houston friends why they couldn’t expand efforts to their neighbors and beyond to make it something to bring people together for a common activity. Umuganda is not only about cleaning or making roads – it is very important for bringing people together, educating one another, and building love.

 

For example; that Saturday one could not tell who is from Rwanda, Dallas, Galveston or Houston because we were one great team for one great cause.”

A great team for a great cause

Searching for Reptiles and Amphibians in India: Day 1

Here at the zoo we have over 420 staff members working hard to save wildlife, but our jobs as conservationists don’t end when we leave the zoo for the day. We all want to go above and beyond to do everything we can to save wildlife, and our unique program called the Staff Conservation Fund allows us to do just that! The Staff Conservation Fund was created as a way for staff to participate in wildlife-saving efforts around the globe. Each year, zoo employees can donate a portion of their hard-earned wages to the fund. This fund is then used to provide support to staff members who successfully create or enhance a conservation project and apply for funding to bring the project to life. To date, this fund has made it possible for 63 staff members to carry out 43 projects in 14 countries around the world!

One of the latest projects is being carried out in the northern Western Ghats region of India by Chris Bednarski, a senior keeper in the herpetology department. The Western Ghats is home to one-third of the plants, almost half of the reptiles, and more than three-fourths of the amphibians known in India. Unfortunately, this strip of rainforest is disappearing at an alarming rate due to logging and conversion for agricultural uses. In 2013, the Tillari Biodiversity Research Trust purchased 3500 acres in this region and began implementing several conservation initiatives. Chris’s goal is to survey within this section of land and document what species are present, as well as discover new species and note their home ranges. These findings will help to strengthen the need to protect this land, and by protecting this land, we save species in the wild! Chris has been documenting his trip, and sent us this journal entry to share with all of you about his first day in the field:

“After 22 hours of flights, a quick nap and several cups of chai my team and I were headed to our first survey zone.  It’s a beautiful plot of primary and secondary forest surrounded by several rice fields and pineapple farms.  It is a “sacred forest” that the local villagers have set up shrines and a small temple.  No plants or animals can be removed or harmed within this forest which makes this area so important for us to survey.  Over the years we have documented over 20 species of reptile and amphibian, too many birds to count, leopards, tigers, elephants and amazing invertebrates on this property.   

This is our first survey post monsoon this year and we had high hopes.  Past years have produced well for us and this trip was not a disappointment.  Our searching began at around 6:30pm as the sun was setting and we wrapped up around midnight.  We walked forest paths, streams, and around the temples.  In the lower branches of the trees we documented a critically endangered species of bush frog (Psuedophilatus sp.), in the streams an endangered species of Indian cricket frog (Minervarya sp.), and along the temple walls a plethora of Brook’s geckos (Hemidactylus brookii).  Many other species were found but these were the high lights for sure! 

Time to get all our data logged into our computers and get ready for the next day of surveys!”  

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.

A Special Anniversary in the Children’s Zoo

In August of this year, a member of the Children’s Zoo staff celebrated a special anniversary. Wendy Morrison celebrated 35 years with the zoo – all of those years dedicated to the Children’s Zoo!

Wendy started as a volunteer and continued in that position for 2 years. During her volunteer time, she befriended a young llama named Acura (unlike the car, it is pronounced Ah-CURE -ah).  When Acura became ill, she wouldn’t eat for anyone except Wendy hand feeding her.  Because of this close relationship, she was hooked and joined the staff in August of 1982 She was a young zookeeper ready to take on the world!  She has cared for many different animals during her time here.  Some of her favorites have been….Red Pandas, Llamas (including hand raising one special llama named Pib) and Jessie the Longhorn.

She saw several Mayors come and go. Kathy Whitmire, Bob Lanier, Lee Brown, Bill White, Annise Parker and now of course Sylvester Turner.  The Houston Zoo was a part of the City for many years but, privatized in 2002 under Mayor Lee Brown.  Wendy says “A lot changed.  Who would remain with the city and who would stay with the zoo?”  The privatization brought many good things to the zoo.  More funding, improved exhibits and conservation involvement around the world.  She also saw 5 different Children’s Zoo Curators come and go and is now under the 6th Curator of her tenure.  With each new leader, comes new ideas and change.  That can be exciting and challenging all at the same time.

Another big change in her time here? In 2000, the entire Children’s Zoo moved location!  Think about any time you have been involved in new construction and what that means.  Yikes! Then, think about not only moving people and things but the animals too!  It was quite an undertaking.  During the move, one of the animals, Zypher the Zebu, attempted to return to her old enclosure.  She was of course steered (no pun intended) back to her new enclosure and decided she liked it after all.

Over the years, she has seen and experienced so much. She has seen animals and staff come and go and worked through all types of weather. She has seen lots of crazy storms come through.  Some of the more notable ones were: Alicia in August 1983, Tropical Storm Allison in June 2001, Rita in September 2005, Ike in September 2008 and of course Harvey this year.  She says “When hard times hit, you find out what you are made of.  We are resilient here.”

On a personal note – She was born in Wisconsin and lived for a while in Minnesota. She came to Texas as fast as she could, moving here with her family in 1969 when she was 10 years old.   Now a longtime resident, she is a Naturalized Texan.  Wendy and her Partner of 22 years, Debbie Pillow continue to love Texas and animals.

What would Wendy like people to know about Zookeeping? “Zookeeping is always changing.  Always something new to learn.  Sometimes things repeat themselves but you have to be open to learn from your mistakes.”  Sounds like good advice not only in zookeeping but in life, doesn’t it?

Children’s Zoo Supervisor Angie Pyle had this to say: “Wendy embodies the qualities of a life time Zookeeper. She is dedicated to animal care, and has changed with every new chapter of the Houston Zoo.  Wendy is strong, determined, trust worthy and dependable.  Her knowledge of the Zoo’s history and its inhabitants is irreplaceable.”

If you see Wendy around the Children’s Zoo on your next visit, stop and say hi. She has a wealth of memories and knowledge and loves to share her experiences with guests.

Thank you, Wendy, for all your years of dedication and all you do to care for the animals.

 

National Zoo Keeper Week – Tyler’s Story

From July 19-25, zoos all over the U.S. are celebrating National Zoo Keeper Week. Here at the Houston Zoo, we are honored and privileged to have such amazing professionals on our team. We got a chance to sit down with a few of our keepers and hear their stories. Check back all week to see new keeper profiles during this great week celebrating zookeepers!


Tyler W. Parker – Houston Toad SSP Coordinator/Studbook Keeper; Husbandry Keeper

I’m originally from the Midwest. I went to Southern Illinois University Carbondale, where I received a Bachelor’s in Zoology. I knew from elementary school that I wanted to be a zoo keeper.

houston toad

Some of my daily responsibilities are: cleaning, maintaining water quality, feeding toads, making new enclosures (tanks) for toads, breeding invertebrates for toad food, and applying medication to toads when necessary.

As a Species Survival Plan Coordinator (SSP)/Studbook keeper, I am in charge of helping coordinate and set up the inter-institutional breeding efforts for each breeding season, arranging transfers and breeding loans to all involved programs for future breeding endeavors, managing the genetic diversity for the Captive Assurance Colonies at all participating institutions. Throughout the breeding season, we also participate in facilitating egg releases with our partners, USFWS, TPWD, and Texas State University.

The most enjoyable part of my job is working with so many talented people and being able to see a difference we are making in helping to recover a critically endangered species only found in this area.

If you want to do this job, like anything, try and become a Jack of all trades. Don’t just limit yourself to working with one type or group of animals. Try and learn a little about everything. You’ll need to know a little about construction, water chemistry, biology, local policy and administration (wildlife law). Also, you’ll need to be willing and able to work well with others as a team and understand you are all working toward the same goals.

National Zoo Keeper Week – Agnieszka’s Story

From July 19-25, zoos all over the U.S. are celebrating National Zoo Keeper Week. Here at the Houston Zoo, we are honored and privileged to have such amazing professionals on our team. We got a chance to sit down with a few of our keepers and hear their stories. Check back each day to see new keeper profiles during this great week celebrating zoo keepers!


Agnieszka Podraza – Primate Keeper

I work in the Houston Zoo’s primate department and I have been here since January 2015. Before moving to Texas, I worked as a primate keeper at the Little Rock Zoo in Arkansas as well as other Midwest zoos and animal-related facilities. I graduated from the University of Wisconsin – Madison with a Bachelor’s degree in zoology.

agnieszka-resizeOn a regular work day, the primate staff meets at 7AM to discuss the day’s plans. After saying “Good morning!” to all the primates, it’s time to prepare and deliver their breakfast. While the animals are busy eating, we spend the majority of our time preparing their outdoor exhibits. This includes cleaning, maintenance, setting up food, and putting out enrichment items. When an exhibit is ready, the animals are shifted outside so the keepers can set up their night holdings. Around noon, the animals receive some veggies or another snack. With the primates fed, it’s time for the keepers to enjoy their own lunch break! When our break ends in the afternoon, the primates can again enjoy extra food and treats. Keepers then use the rest of their time to train the animals, work on special projects, attend meetings, or create fun enrichment items for the next day.

One of the duties I most enjoy at my job is training. Primates are trained to present—or show—different body parts such as their ears, teeth, fingers, feet, etc. I delight in these training sessions because they help us take better care of the animals. In other words, if an animal has any cuts or scrapes, we can address those right away. Furthermore, I enjoy training because it allows me to build a relationship with that primate. A training session takes a lot of trust for both the animal and the trainer. After a lot of work is put in, a stronger relationship develops and that particular primate is more willing to work with me; this in turn makes the session more rewarding for both of us. It’s so exciting to see that moment when an animal realizes what you are asking them to do. It’s like a light bulb turning on in their mind.

Being a keeper is very physically demanding. It involves lifting, bending, climbing and staying on your feet for the majority of the day. Rain, shine, tornado, or hurricane, someone needs to be there to take care of the animals. Zoo keepers cannot decide to not show up to work. The lives of numerous exotic species depend on them, 365 days a year.

National Zoo Keeper Week – Alissa’s Story

From July 19-25, zoos all over the U.S. are celebrating National Zoo Keeper Week. Here at the Houston Zoo, we are honored and privileged to have such amazing professionals on our team. We got a chance to sit down with a few of our keepers and hear their stories. Check back each day to see new keeper profiles during this great week celebrating zoo keepers!


Alissa Van Der Kamp – Senior Primate Keeper

I get to work with all of the primates. I have a B.S. in animal science with a concentration in zoo and exotics. Typically you can find me working with chimpanzees, but I love every species of primate I work with. Everyone has a very distinct personality. Some are playful and some are affectionate, always presenting a back or a shoulder for us to groom them.

willie enrichment
Willie, one of the male chimpanzees, enjoys some great enrichment!

Training is a big part of our job. Since we don’t go inside the habitats with our primates, we rely on animal training. This helps them know when and how to move from their exhibit to their night houses so that we can clean and vice versa. Also training is a necessity when we need them to sit on a scale to monitor health. We even need to give them injections from time to time. All of these tasks are accomplished through training.

Another big aspect of my job is enrichment. Enrichment can be anything that is stimulating and encourages natural behaviors. We just added a few hammocks to the chimpanzee yard. With this addition to the exhibit, the chimps gain arboreal resting spots, new places to climb on, new arboreal travel paths, as well as shady spots. Adding hammocks involved three keepers, an extension ladder, two A-frame ladders, and about two hours of climbing, tying rope, and moving ladders! Skills like safe ladder handling, rope braiding, and power tool use may not be what people associate with zoo keepers, but they’re absolutely necessary!

National Zoo Keeper Week – Chris’ Story

From July 19-25, zoos all over the U.S. are celebrating National Zoo Keeper Week. Here at the Houston Zoo, we are honored and privileged to have such amazing professionals on our team. We got a chance to sit down with a few of our keepers and hear their stories. Check back each day to see new keeper profiles during this great week celebrating zoo keepers!


Chris Valdez – Herpetology Keeper

IMG_2239I’ve always had interest in small critters and spent a lot of time outdoors as a child. I bought my first ball python when I was in the 6th grade and from then on, continued to accumulate as many species as my parents would let me keep. Not knowing exactly what I wanted to do but having a strong passion for nature, I attended Texas A&M University and received my degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Science.

After graduating, I began volunteering at the Houston Zoo in the herpetology department and a year later, I applied for an open position and I feel very fortunate to have been hired. It has been an awesome experience being able to work with a large and diverse collection of animals in reptile house. In my section, I am responsible for the daily care of a variety of rattlesnakes and tropical pit vipers.

When I first started at the Zoo, working with venomous snakes was definitely a new experience and challenge for me. Now, it is one of my favorite parts of the job! I think it is important for people to know that the animals we take care of here are not “pets” and are not just here for out amusement, but that they are here primarily for education and to spread a conservation message.

National Zoo Keeper Week – Kenny’s Story

From July 19-25, zoos all over the U.S. are celebrating National Zoo Keeper Week. Here at the Houston Zoo, we are honored and privileged to have such amazing professionals on our team. We got a chance to sit down with a few of our keepers and hear their stories. Check back each day to see new keeper profiles during this great week celebrating zoo keepers!


Kenny Stange – Aquarium Keeper

IMG_20150718_112745467As an Aquarium Keeper at the Houston Zoo, I am responsible for maintaining appropriate water chemistry and animal health for many of the freshwater exhibits in the Kipp Aquarium and the Natural Encounters building. Regular testing of water quality, frequent water changes, and proper maintenance of filtration equipment ensures the best habitat for our aquatic life. Supplements are added to promote plant growth and we also add vitamins to our prepared diets to see that our fish get all the necessary nutrition. I SCUBA dive some of the exhibits to inspect and clean them. Additionally, I enjoy leading keeper chats during the week, where I get the chance to interact with our guests and teach them about the areas I work in.

I work with the Yellow-Bellied Piranha and Amazon fishes in the Kipp Aquarium, take care of the freshwater fishes and turtles in the Natural Encounters building, as well as the Brackish exhibit, where you can find the very interesting and peculiar Four-eyed Fish. A very popular attraction for Zoo guests is the Red-Bellied Piranha exhibit in Natural Encounters and the exciting keeper chats that are presented there.

My passion for aquatic life began as a kid when I spent my summers around the Atlantic Ocean and the many lakes of South Carolina. This fascination increased as I grew and began maintaining my own aquarium at home. The journey that brought me to the Houston Zoo began shortly after graduating from the University of South Carolina with a Bachelor’s Degree in Marine Science. I decided being an aquarist was my calling after completing my degree and spending several years volunteering in the Aquarium Department at Riverbanks Zoo and Gardens in Columbia, South Carolina. I focused on learning everything I could about aquarium husbandry and applied for every aquarium and zoo opening I could find. My persistence and determination to fulfill my dream of becoming an aquarist finally paid off when I got a call from Houston Zoo after three years of diligent searching.

For those wanting to become an aquarist themselves, I highly recommend getting involved in field work, maintaining your own aquarium and volunteering at public aquariums early and often. Read everything you can on the subject. My opportunity here in Houston came from working hard and earning a strong recommendation from my supervisor at Riverbanks Zoo. I wish anyone interested in becoming an aquarist the best of luck. It is an incredibly rewarding experience that allows you to work alongside great people and interact with wonderful guests on a daily basis.

I hope everyone can appreciate that Aquarists at the Houston Zoo are not simply ensuring animals are alive and well fed. Our jobs require a strong foundation in biology, chemistry, animal behavior and even physics. We spend countless hours maintaining exhibits and life support systems, preparing proper diets (not flake food!), and participating in several conservation projects.

 

 

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