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.

 

 

The Houston Zoo Helps Howler Monkeys in Belize

This post was written by primate keeper, Meredith Ross.

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Wildtrack’s volunteers carry the howler monkeys through the jungle to the release site(photo courtesy of Molly Davis)

Belize is home to two species of endangered primates, the Yucatan black howler monkey and the Geoffroy’s spider monkey.  It is illegal to own primates in Belize, but despite that, one of the biggest threats in the wild is the pet trade. That’s where Wildtracks comes in. Located just outside Sarteneja, Belize, Wildtracks is home to forty-three monkeys, most of which have been rescued from the illegal pet trade. Wildtracks will rehabilitate these monkeys and release them back into the wild in the nearby Fireburn Reserve. Seventeen howler monkeys have been released into Fireburn thus far, and in June 2014, they were joined by four more. Two pairs of howler monkeys, “Sultan & Livvy” and “Paz & Kofi”, were placed in carriers, taken for a car ride, a boat ride and then were carried on bamboo poles up to their new home in the jungle. They were kept in pre-release cages for three days in order to acclimate them to their surroundings and then, on the morning of June 16th, their cages were finally opened and they were returned to the wild. Sultan and Livvy were the first to be released. Livvy began to explore immediately, while Sultan was a bit unsure, staying on top of the cage for a few minutes. Eventually they both began to move through the trees and happily munch on the plentiful leaves in their new home. Paz and Kofi were released at a site several yards away from the first group. Once again the female of the group, Kofi, was the brave one; she immediately started to explore her new jungle home. Paz had to be coaxed out of the cage by one of his caregivers, but then happily joined his mate Kofi, up in the trees. They will be followed by staff and volunteers for the next three months to ensure that they are adjusting well to life in the jungle. I followed Paz & Kofi for their first three days of freedom. They seemed a bit hungry on the first day, but by day two they were eating lots of leaves, finding nice places to rest near each other, and spending time at the tops of trees sunning themselves. Paz in particular is a success story. He spent his early life as a pet on a very short chain, where he could only rock himself for comfort. Even at Wildtracks, he exhibited nervous tics attributed to his former life as a pet. Once he returned to the wild, all those aberrant behaviors seemed to fade away as he followed his mate Kofi through the jungle.

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Paz and Kofi exploring their new home
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Kofi “hanging out” in the jungle
Photo courtesy of Wildtracks
Photo courtesy of Wildtracks

 

Back at Wildtracks, volunteers work tirelessly to prepare the next generation of monkeys for release.  The youngest members,” Ini” and “Vicki”, are at least three  years from release but they are still learning valuable skills to help return them to the wild, like which leaves to eat, and how to  climb branches that will support their weight. Like most of the monkeys at Wildtracks, Vicki was stolen away from her family and sold into the pet trade; she was moved to Wildtracks after being rescued by the Belize Forestry Department. Ini was found alone in the forest with a broken arm, his mother presumably shot by poachers. Despite their troubled past, both are doing great now, healthy and happy in their new home.

The Houston Zoo Primate Department has helped fundraise for Wildtracks and spread their conservation message for the last few years at our Howlerween event each October. Houston Zoo Primate Keepers have traveled to Wildtracks for the past couple of years to share their knowledge of primate care, including the creation of enrichment devices like the forage board above, as well as tracking the post-release howler monkeys in the jungle. In 2011, Houston Zoo Primate Keeper Rachel met a tiny, scared and malnourished 5 month old howler monkey named Nicky during her two week stay at Wildtracks. Last year, primate keeper Lucy Dee was there as Nicky was released back into the wild. This year, as I walked through the Belizean jungle, I got to meet Nicky. He was high up in the canopy of a tree, howling at the people below him, while the other members of his group kept traveling through the forest.  He is finally back where he belongs, successfully living as a truly wild howler monkey and a living testament to the amazing rehabilitation work of Wildtracks.

7We hope to continue to spread awareness of the importance of primates living in nature in order to finally stop the traffic of these animals as pets. Wildtracks and the Houston Zoo, working together, are making a difference in Belize. Come to our Howlerween celebration to learn more and see how YOU can help! To learn more visit www.wildtrackbelize.org

Photos courtesy of Wildtracks

Keeper Profile: Memory Mays – National Zoo Keeper Week Series

From July 20-26, 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 get the inside scoop on what it’s like to be an animal keeper. Be sure to follow along with our keeper profile series during this great week celebrating zookeepers!

Keeper Profile: Memory Mays

Hi Memory! Tell us a little about yourself. Since we’re always asked what it takes to be a zookeeper, can you give us some details about your journey to the Houston Zoo?
Hi! I’ve been employed here for a little over 2 years now. I received a Bachelor’s degree in Biology and a Minor in Chemistry from University of Houston. The Houston Zoo is, so far, the only zoo I’ve worked at. I even volunteered here as Zoo Crew when I was 13 years old. And even then, I volunteered in the Hoofstock Department. I love hoofstock!

What is a typical day like for you?

Every day at 7 a.m., we start our day with a morning meeting where we all discuss the day’s upcoming events and projects that need to be done. After that, the team splits up to go to their assigned sections. This is when I say ‘good morning’ to all of the animals that I get to work with and check to make sure everyone was comfortable over night. Then, it’s time to prepare foods and distribute them to everyone and give medications to any animals that need it. After that comes the most time-consuming part of the job. Cleaning. We clean the exhibits, let the animals out onto exhibit, and then we clean all of our barns, dishes, tools, and much more. The afternoon is normally spent working on projects and, my personal favorite, animal training sessions.

What would you say is the part of your job that you enjoy the most?

My absolute favorite part of being a zookeeper is spending time with the animals and learning all of their funny little quirks. Just like people, animals have personalities and some of their quirks are really funny.

What is the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part of the job is definitely the fact that we work outside in the Houston weather. It doesn’t matter if it’s raining, scorching hot, or on rare days…freezing; you’re going to see us zookeepers out there taking care of the animals, making sure they are happy and comfortable. Even if that requires us to sweat a lot, or wear 5 layers of clothing, we do it because we love what we do.

What is one thing you want visitors to know about being a zookeeper?

It takes a long time before you can call yourself fully trained as a zookeeper. In some other jobs, you go through a 4-week or 6-month training period. I’ve been here for a little more than 2 years now, but I’m still learning new things every day.

Do you have any good stories to share?

One very cold winter day, my co worker and I decided to give the rhinos and greater kudu antelope some natural enrichment. Enrichment involves different items, scents, or props we use to encourage the animals to use behaviors they would use in the wild. For this day, what we had in mind required one of us to climb into the rhino mud wallow and smear mud all over a barrel. Guess who drew the short straw… yours truly! After 15 minutes in the very cold mud wallow with mud up to my elbows, we hung the barrel up and left the exhibit. As we let the animals out on exhibit, we anxiously watched to see if they would play with it… Guess what happened. Nothing! All of the animals walked right by the barrel without a second glance.  That’s what happens sometimes when you put out enrichment items. That’s OK though because we got a good story and some funny pictures out of it!

Keeper Profile: Kelly Pardy – National Zoo Keeper Week Series

From July 20-26, 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 get the inside scoop on what it’s like to be an animal keeper. Be sure to follow along with our keeper profile series during this great week celebrating zookeepers!

Keeper Profile: Kelly Pardy
Kelly picture

Hey Kelly. Tell us a little about yourself. Since we’re always asked what it takes to be a zookeeper, can you give us some details about your journey to the Houston Zoo?

No problem. I work in the bird department, and I’ve been at the Zoo for almost a year. Before the Houston Zoo, I spent some time at the Minnesota Zoo, Northeastern Wisconsin Zoo, and the International Crane Foundation.

 

What does a typical day look like for you?

We start off with feeding all of the birds and cleaning all of the exhibits. After our morning routine, we have “rounds,” which involves the whole bird department getting together to talk about what’s happening in each separate bird section (e.g. eggs laid, medical notes, general observations).  After rounds and lunch – human lunch, that is – we feed out the rest of the food – bird food, that is – to the birds.  The rest of the day is pretty variable.  We generally work on projects (re-perching, extra cleaning, records, etc.), and we do keeper chats.  Red-crowned cranes, laughing kookaburras, and king vultures are the particular chats that I present.  At the end of the day, we pull all the food, clean the dishes, and lock up until the next day when we start all over again.

Whats the most enjoyable part of your job?

I love working with a wide variety of species because it facilitates a great learning environment.  I’m always observing new behaviors, different interactions, or even just researching general life histories about the birds which may be currently unfamiliar to me.

And the hardest part of your job?

Being from Wisconsin, which has more defined seasonal changes, the Texas heat has been a huge adjustment for me.  I’m getting used to it, but I still have a long ways to go!

What is one thing that you would like visitors to know about being a zookeeper?

Working so closely with animals is an amazing experience, but there’s a lot more to the job than that.  It’s a lot of hard work and most people do it because they are incredibly passionate about the animals with which they work.

Any good stories that you can share?

One thing that I’m really excited about is our golden-breasted starlings.  We haven’t had any golden-breasted starling eggs hatch at the Houston Zoo for nearly 30 years.  This summer, we’ve had 3 chicks hatch and all have fledged from the nest!  They can all be found together in Birds of the World.  Stop by and check them out!

 

Keeper Profile: Jeff Bocek – National Zoo Keeper Week Series

From July 20-26, 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 get the inside scoop on what it’s like to be an animal keeper. Be sure to follow along with our keeper profile series during this great week celebrating zookeepers!

 

anegadaKeeper Profile: Jeff Bocek
Hi Jeff. Tell us a little about yourself. We’re always asked what it takes to be a zookeeper, so can you give us some details about your journey to the Houston Zoo?
I’ve been a part of the Houston Zoo team for about one year and eight months. I currently work in the herpetology department, and my favorite animal is the crocodile monitor. Before the Houston Zoo, I worked at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago.

What does a typical day entail for someone working in herpetology?
My mornings are spent cleaning, feeding, and performing general husbandry duties. Afternoons are usually spent maintaining equipment and completing ongoing projects.

What’s your favorite part of your job?
The favorite part of my job is designing new exhibits and training our lizards for husbandry tasks.

What’s the hardest part of your job?
The most challenging (and also most interesting) part of my job is staying on top of the knowledge one needs to have about animal natural history and staying meticulous when it comes to venomous snake handling.

Any good stories? 
I’m pretty proud that through training one of our Anegada Island iguanas, I was able to use a target pole to get her onto a scale. A target pole is simply a stick with a little red ball at the end. Without lots of training sessions and dedication, it remains just a stick. But, by working a little bit each day, I taught her to recognize that the target pole was an invitation to move where I wanted her to go, and I would reinforce the good behavior with treats. This makes getting weight measurements much easier!

Keeper Profile: Lucy Dee Sheppard – National Zoo Keeper Week Series

From July 20-26, 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 get the inside scoop on what it’s like to be an animal keeper. Be sure to follow along with our keeper profile series during this great week celebrating zookeepers!

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Keeper Profile: Lucy Dee Sheppard

Hey Lucy! Tell us a little about yourself. We’re always asked what it takes to be a zookeeper, so can you give us some details about your journey to the Houston Zoo?
Absolutely! I work with primates here and I’ve been at the Zoo for the past 6 years. Actually, the Houston Zoo was my first job and I even interned here before I was hired as a keeper.

What can a primate keeper expect to experience in a typical day?
The answer… a lot? You ready for this? Here we go.

Each keeper is assigned to one of our 7 animal sections every day, or as our dietitian. Starting at 7 a.m., we meet with the whole department to discuss what’s going on that day and share news from across the sections. From 7:30 a.m. to 8 a.m., we prepare diets and make the rounds. During the 8-9 a.m. hour, we clean our exhibits, put out enrichment items(objects or certain types of food to stimulate minds and encourage natural behaviors) and deliver breakfast outside. Then, it’s time to shift the animals onto their exhibits. From 9 a.m. to 12 p.m., we clean the indoor night-house areas and put additional enrichment inside for when the animals come in at night. During lunchtime, we feed our animals – some examples of food could be plant material browse (leafy branches), primate biscuits, or ice treats. After all the primates have had their lunch, the primate keeper team eats – usually between 1 and 2 p.m. The late afternoons are spent providing more food to our animals and working on some animal training sessions. We may also work on projects like exhibit maintenance or making complex enrichment.  Afternoons are also a great time for meetings due to the busy mornings!

What’s the part of your job that you enjoy the most?

I love to work with animals on training behaviors.  Primates are very intelligent and they can be taught a number of different behaviors.  The behaviors we teach them help us with husbandry.  A good example of this would be teaching our chimpanzees to present specific body parts to us. This allows us to check legs, arms, and hands for any scrapes or notable marks so we can be sure everyone stays healthy and happy.

What’s the hardest part of your job?

The hardest part of my job is when an animal passes away.  We work with our animals every day, often spending more time with them than we do our own families. Because of that hard work, along with our access to amazing veterinary resources,  most of our animals live long and happy lives into an old age. However,  that doesn’t make it any easier when it is time for them to go.

Any good stories you can share with us?

I think one of my fondest memories from my time here so far was an interaction I had with Solaris, the Bornean Orangutan.  Orangutans are very intelligent and know individual keepers and have a different relationship with each of us.  Once, when Solaris was outside on exhibit, there was a huge crowd of people at the orangutan viewing window.  I passed by and Solaris caught my eye.  I went up to the window and put my hand on the glass.  He ran right up and put his hand exactly on the same spot on the opposite side.  This showed me not only how smart they are, but that we were friends!

 

Zoo Keepers Celebrated During Honorary Week

cheetah walkThe Houston Zoo employs more than 150 Zoo keepers who passionately care for the animals at the Zoo. This week, we’re celebrating National Zoo Keeper Week and we’ll be posting daily keeper spotlights right here on the Zoo Blog. From designing enrichment programs and overseeing medical care to cleaning exhibits and implementing positive reinforcement training, our keepers do everything it takes 365 days a year to care for our animals.

At the Houston Zoo, our keepers have a variety of backgrounds and interests and we hope you’ll enjoy getting to know a few of them all-week-long. You’ll also learn a little about their daily routine, including some tasks you might not know a keeper does. For instance, did you know that every day the elephant keepers use a giant tractor called a skid steer to help them scoop 2,000 pounds of poop out of the elephant yard? And that’s just from overnight! Also, the Zoo employs seven keepers whose sole job is preparing all the food for our animals. Each day this crew arrives at 4 a.m. to chop, bake and wash all the food for the Zoo. They even chop 25 pounds of salad mix every day just to satisfy the growing appetites of the endangered Attwater’s prairie chicks.

Our keepers even provide round-the-clock care for the animals in extreme circumstances. If a hurricane is barreling toward Houston, keepers are an essential part of the Zoo’s ride-out team who ‘ride out’ the storm at the Zoo to keep the animals safe. Keepers also stay close-by 24/7 waiting to assist in the delivery when a giraffe is preparing to give birth. And if keepers have to hand-raise an animal, they share overnight duty to make sure the newborns are fed and monitored.

It takes a lot of hard work and an equal amount of passion to be a Zoo keeper. Next time you’re at the Houston Zoo, help us say “thank you” for all that they do.

National Zoo Keeper Week is celebrated each year beginning on the third Sunday in July. During the week, zoos nationwide honor animal care professionals and the work they do in animal care, conservation, and education. There are approximately 6,000 animal care professionals in the United States.

 

 

Keeper Profile: Stephanie Mantilla – National Zoo Keeper Week Series

From July 20-26, 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 get the inside scoop on what it’s like to be an animal keeper. Be sure to follow along with our keeper profile series during this great week celebrating zookeepers!

 

Keeper Profile: Stephanie Mantilla
Steph-Bug-Resize

Hi Stephanie! Tell us a little about yourself. Since we’re always asked what it takes to be a zookeeper, can you give us some details about your journey to the Houston Zoo?

Sure! I have actually been at the Houston Zoo for three years now and I work with our carnivores. I hold a B.S. in Biology and Environmental Science and I have lots of experience working with animals. Before I came to Houston, I worked at the Brookfield Zoo for three years, Virginia Aquarium for two years, and held internships at the Cosley Zoo, Racine Zoo, and The Wildcat Sanctuary in Sandstone, Minnesota.

 

So what does a typical day look like for you in the carnivore department?

I come in at 6 a.m. and our entire department has a morning meeting to plan out the day. After that, I’ll go to my section and we begin to work on training sessions with the animals that I care for (Willow the black bear cub, Mattie the lion, Tarak the clouded leopard, and Haley the cougar). This helps us maintain the relationships that all keepers have with their animals. It takes a lot of hard work to establish trust with an animal. Our next task it to shift our animals around so we can monitor diets and at this time we’ll also administer any medications if necessary. Next, it’s cleaning the exhibit areas, then more shifting to get the group on exhibit and even more cleaning the inside areas that the animals just left. Enrichment is an important part of the day so I’m always sure to spend some time working in various enrichment to the routine. We’ll do keeper chats and/or lion and tiger window tours depending on the day. And guess what…. all of this happens before lunch! The afternoons tend to be a little quieter, and we typically work on things like developing future enrichment ideas, training exercises, and finishing projects.

What would you say is your favorite part of working at the Zoo?

For me, it’s seeing animals up-close every day. It’s also very rewarding to watch our animals develop behaviors after working tirelessly on our training sessions.

What would you say is the hardest part of your job?

It has to be the weather! From freezing winters in Chicago, to the humid heat of Houston, we’re out there all the time, all day long.

What is one thing you want visitors to know about being a zookeeper?

Being a zookeeper isn’t just playing with animals. Nearly all zookeepers have at least a bachelor’s degree, some master’s degrees. If you’re interested in becoming a zookeeper, it’s important to pay attention in school and get good grades.

Do you have any good stories you can share with us?

Sometimes, Shasta the cougar likes to play a game before he will shift to our inside areas. Cougars enjoy stalking their prey, so if Shasta can see us inside our building, we’ll turn our backs to him. When we turn back around to face him, he will be closer but frozen in a different position as he stalks closer to us. It is like a more intense version of “red light, green light.” Don’t worry though, we’re not in Shasta’s area. We’re in a safe spot so Shasta can enjoy the chase, and we can enjoy providing some enrichment that mimics natural behaviors.

Stay tuned for more interviews with our fantastic keepers!

Bear Awareness Day

Come and join the Houston Zoo in celebrating our annual Bear Awareness Day on Saturday, March 8 . Also help us in welcoming the newest additions to our collection.  Belle and Willow, 12-month old Black bear cubs, arrived at the Zoo in December of last year.  They were both found orphaned in Maricopa, CA.  Black bears are found in almost all of North America including East Texas.  That’s right!!  East Texas was once home to the Louisiana black bear but by the 1950’s the last native black bear had been killed in Polk County.  In 1992 the Louisiana black bear, (Ursus americanus luteolus), was listed as threatened by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife.  Today, populations are finding their way back to East Texas.

baby bears

In 2005 the East Texas Black Bear Task Force was formed as a subcommittee of the Black Bear Conservation Coalition www.bbcc.org .  The task force promotes the restoration of the black bear in its historic range of East Texas through education, research, and habitat management by bringing together individuals, organizations, and state and federal government representatives to support the recovery.

Meet our Carnivore Keepers when they demonstrate the safe way of camping and hiking in bear country.  We will help you determine the difference between black and brown bears as well as show you what to do if you encounter a bear.  Come and join us for Bear Awareness Day on Saturday March 8th from 10 to 3 and learn how bears play an integral role in nature and how we can help support their return to East Texas.

Activites:

11:00 a.m. – Grizzly Bear Exhibit Keeper Skit- Hiking in bear country

2:00p.m. – Black Bear enrichment and keeper chat

Kids can experience how to forage for food like a bear and color a bear mask

Displays:

Big Thicket National Preserve

Texas A&M Forest Service

Bio Facts Table- skulls and furs

Campsite displaying the safe way to camp in bear country

The Houston Zoo Commissary- displaying a variety of food that bears eat.

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