By Tammy Buhrmester
Have you ever wondered how the staff at the Houston Zoo stays current on taking care of the animals? Many keepers, supervisors, curators and administration staff attend workshops and conferences to learn as much as they can to make the animal’s lives at the Houston Zoo the best they can be.
From October 12-15, more than 70 orangutan experts gathered for the 9th annual Orangutan SSP Husbandry Workshop, which was held in Wichita, Kansas. Two keepers from the primate department were included in this assembly of experts. The workshop covered many topics, including husbandry, behavioral enrichment, veterinary techniques, training and conservation. Each day specific topics were presented and discussed. The first day covered SSP (Species Survival Plan) updates and ongoing projects to aid the orangutans in zoos and in the wild. Did you know that 54 North American zoos house 219 orangutans? We learned that Cheyenne, one of our orangutans, is the 3rd oldest hybrid female in captivity in the United States. We discovered that this is the first time in a very long time that we have equal amount of Bornean and Sumatran orangutans in captivity. We discussed how taking pictures of and notes about our orangutan’s teeth can aid in establishing the age of orangutans in the wild. Did you know that they have the same number of teeth that we do? Aging is done by counting how many teeth the youngsters from the age of 0-12 have behind their canine teeth and when they come in.
We also were honored to hear a lecture by Lone Droscher Nielsen, a woman who founded the world’s largest orangutan rehabilitation center in Borneo. Through all of her dedication and hard work, Nyaru Menteng is the biggest orangutan sanctuary in the world, with over 600 young orangutans in its care. 148 of these animals have been released and another 100 currently are eligible for release as space becomes available. Each confiscated baby orangutan that they care for represents one adult female who was killed when her forest home was destroyed.
On the second day, we covered maternal care, nutrition, cardiac care and veterinary care. We heard how Utah’s Hogle Zoo taught their 9 year old female orangutan to mother her new little brother after their mother passed away. We discussed pregnancies (normal and high-risk), births, and maternal care training for mothers expecting babies. Two zoos presented together on how they are helping other zoo’s monitor cardiac care. The number one cause for death in orangutans in captivity is heart disease. Many zoos are training their orangutans to present their chest to their keeper and vet in order to take ultrasound pictures of their hearts. It is a training technique that takes time, patience and trust. It is very hard to explain to an orangutan that we are going to smear a gooey substance on their chest and then take a plastic stick that is hooked to a machine and place it on their chest!
The veterinary portion covered many topics such as parasite control, teeth cleaning, dry skin treatment, chronic respiratory disease, how to disinfect properly, cardiac care, weights, diet preparation and vitamins.
The third day consisted of management and husbandry practices. We discussed many topics, such as nesting behaviors, shifting, enrichment, training, growth charts for infants, exhibit design, introductions, and problem solving. This was our day to do a presentation about flexible social housing of orangutans. We use this technique as a management tool that mimics what can happen in the wild. If you spent a couple of days in front of the orangutan exhibit, you would see a different combination of animals out on exhibit. You might see Kelly and Rudi on exhibit together, then another day you may see Kelly and Indah together. You might see them alone. (Orangutans in nature are semi-solitary and do spend time on their own, with the exception of mothers and infants.)
On the last day, topics included past, present and future management, and conservation. We learned about several zoos that are designing new exhibits and night houses. We were honored to watch two presentations on two elderly female orangutans, Maggie and Daisy, who have helped their species because their keepers have shared knowledge about their husbandry. A presentation followed by a discussion of how zoos and keepers can educate their guests about orangutans in the wild was also held.
Going to workshops and conferences offer many educational opportunities for zoo staff. No matter how experienced we are, there is always room to learn more. Networking with peers offers time to discuss problems, spark ideas and get to know each other. Discovering new products, husbandry tools, and enrichment and training techniques will only make the animal’s lives better. Attending workshops has allowed the staff to learn new things which help to make each individual animal at every zoo enjoy a high quality of life, and that is the goal that all of us share.