Mountain Gorilla Population on the Rise

The Houston Zoo loves its’ troop of gorillas, and we do everything we can to protect gorillas in the wild.

The critically endangered mountain gorilla can be found in three countries; the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Uganda.  These gorillas have adapted to living higher up in the mountains and despite pressures from poaching, habitat loss, and disease, our wildlife partners in Africa have seen an increase in the mountain gorilla population over the last several years, thanks to dedicated protection efforts!

Here at the Houston Zoo we are proud to support a number of organizations that work tirelessly to protect mountain gorillas in the wild. Conservation Heritage-Turambe (CHT) runs after-school programs for local primary school students and community outreach efforts that promote both healthy living habits and gorilla conservation through education and empowerment in communities bordering Volcanoes National Park in Rwanda. Gorilla Doctors, an organization comprised of an international team of veterinarians, is the only group providing mountain gorillas and Grauer’s gorillas with direct, hands-on care in the wild. In addition to monitoring gorilla health and providing medical care, the veterinary team further protects gorillas by supporting health programs for people and their animals living and working in and around gorilla habitat. GRACE (Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education Center) provides care for rescued Grauer’s gorillas in the Democratic Republic of Congo and works alongside local communities to ensure gorilla survival in the wild. Facilities like GRACE are essential to this endangered species’ survival, and zoo staff is able to aid field researchers in meeting husbandry and management challenges for rescued gorillas housed at GRACE. The Houston Zoo acts as a resource to secure funding for these incredible programs, as well as offering training for project staff.

Each time you visit the zoo, you are helping to support these programs and protect gorillas in the wild! And remember, you can help to save gorilla habitat by recycling your cell phone and other handheld electronics during your next visit! These electronic devices contain a material called tantalum that is mined in areas where gorillas live – if we reuse and recycle these items, we can decrease the amount of mining that takes place in these vital habitats.

Bornean Orangutans Are Now Critically Endangered

Written by Dr. Marc Ancrenaz

Dr. Marc Ancrenaz is the scientific director of the NGO Hutan and co-director of the Kinabatangan Orangutan Conservation Project, a community-based program active in wildlife research, conservation and community development in Sabah, Malaysia since 1996. The Houston Zoo is proud to support Dr. Ancrenaz and HUTAN in efforts to protect wildlife from extinction.

Orangutans are now one step closer to extinction. Based on an assessment led by Borneo Futures, scientists from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) have officially downgraded the status of the orangutans living in Borneo to “Critically Endangered”, the last step before reaching the dreadful status of “Extinct into the Wild”[1]. Scientists have proven that the number of orangutans will decline by about 80% between 1950 and 2025 (given current development plans by the governments of Indonesia and Malaysia).


These numbers are hard to fathom. To put them in perspective, a 80% decline is equivalent to losing four out of five people we know; it is equivalent to the disappearance of a staggering six billion of the current global human population in 75 years with no new births.

orangutan-resizeActually, many populations of orangutans have already disappeared in Borneo. Some of them because of climate changes over the past millennia, most of them because of human activities; some of them because of forest destruction and conversion to agriculture, most of them because of hunting and killing.  What is clear is that at this current rate, many more populations are going to follow this path of oblivion in a near future.

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that the species is going to go extinct anytime soon. Indeed, drastic changes about the management of the orangutan habitat could be made to save the species from extinction.

However, we need to first recognize what is orangutan habitat…

Orang-utans are great apes and are our closest living relatives. This means that they are clever and highly adaptable. Despite early claims that orangutans could only survive in pristine habitats, in Borneo, orangutans are learning how to survive in deeply modified landscapes where the original forests have been replaced with oil palm or acacia plantations. For example, they are learning how to feed or to build their nests in man-made forests planted with exotic species; they feed on new plant species introduced by humans[2]. They are also changing their behavior as a response to human disturbance: they engage in crop-raiding activities at night, when people are sleeping, although they are naturally active in the daytime[3].


But there is something that the orangutan species cannot adapt to and cannot sustain: hunting. These great apes are extremely low breeders with a young being produced once every six to eight years on average. Hunting for meat, to mitigate conflicts (e.g. to stop crops from being raided by orangutan) or for any other reason has always been and remains till today the major driving force of orangutan decline in Borneo[4].

Are orangutans doomed in Borneo? This does not have to be the case as orangutans are now recognized to survive in man-made as well as natural degraded landscapes. We need first to identify ways for people and orangutans to cohabit peacefully in non-protected forests. Conservation needs also to happen OUTSIDE of the network of protected forests. Establishing and maintaining patches and corridors of forests across a landscape transformed by man would go a long way to support orangutans and many other animal species. This downgrade in status is an urgent call to reconcile people and wildlife and to reinvent ways for people and orangutans to share the same environment.

All of us need to adhere to a new vision of our world, where people and animals share rather than compete for the same ecosystems and natural resources. This is possible, this is our choice. If we fail, orangutans may follow the ever-growing list of species “Extinct Species in the Wild”.



[2] Ancrenaz et al., 2015.

[3] Hockings et al., 2015.

[4] Abram et al., 2015.

Year of the Monkey: May

Written by Abby Varela

Pygmy marm 4Last month we talked about mandrills, the largest monkeys… this month we are featuring pygmy marmosets the smallest monkey in the world. Adult pygmy marmosets weigh 120-170 grams (about the weight of a baseball), while newborns can weigh around 11 grams, which is the equivalent of two nickels! They are a new world monkey, found in the rainforest, along the Amazon basin in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia and are strictly diurnal, meaning they are only active in the daytime.

These tiny monkeys are considered mature at the age of 15 to 17 months and live in family groups ranging anywhere from 2 to 15 individuals.  In these groups, all the males help care for offspring by taking turns carrying when the infants are not being fed by the dam (mom). The sire (dad) of the group is often times the last to eat, as he is very watchful while everyone else eats, to be sure that there are no threats around. Pygmy marmosets can turn their heads 180 degrees to help watch for predators and can leap as far as 15 feet! They also have claw-like nails as opposed to flat nails to assist them in climbing and running across trees and vines. Additionally, their teeth are specially designed to help them tear into trees so they can eat the sap from them. When the group is comfortable and feels safe, they can be seen foraging, basking, grooming each other and even adults play with each other and juveniles at times. Pymy marm 2

Here at the Houston Zoo, they rotate on exhibit in the Indoor Rainforest Exhibit in the Natural Encounters building. We currently have two females that spend a lot of time with our golden lion tamarin pair. You might even be able to catch them basking in the sun together, playing, or grooming each other!

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 Year of the Gibbon – Happy Thanksgibbon!

By Diane Shea & Tammy Buhrmester

siamangHave you ever been to the Wortham World of Primates at the Houston Zoo and heard singing but did not know where it was coming from?  Once you find them, do you know what animal they are and why they are singing that song?

Gibbons are full of mysteries!

Gibbons are primates; apes more specifically.  Most people are familiar with the great apes (gorilla, chimpanzee, orangutans, and bonobos), however, there are also lesser apes (meaning smaller in size).  Gibbons are lesser apes.

Gibbons are small-bodied (about 12-20 pounds) and fast.  Gibbons are masters of their primary mode of locomotion called brachiation, or swinging from branch to branch using their arms. They can travel through the canopy of the forest up to 35 miles per hour.  You will find gibbons at home in the treetops, seldom coming to the ground.  When they are on the ground they will walk bipedally with their arms raised up for balance. They are the fastest and most agile of all tree-dwelling, nonflying mammals.  Since they are so high in the trees and travel so quickly, it is very difficult to see them in their native habitat of Asia.

Gibbons are social animals; they are strongly territorial and defend their boundaries with vigorous visual and vocal displays. There are few sounds in nature more evocative than the whooping song of a gibbon.  The sound can be heard for a distance of up to half a mile consisting of a duet between a mated pair.  Yet the songs, performed by both sexes, are highly complex and their subtleties and nuances are far from fully understood.  Males accompany females and create complex duets and the degree of synchronization between the sexes increases with practice, and the quality of the song relates to the length of time they have been together. Each species of gibbon has its own song, and each male and female song differs from one another.

The Houston Zoo is home to a pair of siamang gibbons who have been living together for a couple of years. You will most likely hear their duet early in the morning before they go outside, or later in the afternoon. Male and female siamangs are normally similar in size, but Jambi, our 19 year old female, is quite a bit larger than our 15 year old male, Berani.  You will find the pair relaxing together, or grooming each other, and occasionally engaging in play behavior. Jambi is particularly fond of twirling around and around on a large sheet tied to a rope in the exhibit, and Berani will hang from a rope above Jambi and tap her gently to get her to play with him.

siamang 2The song of the siamangs is often enhanced by the voice of our agile gibbon, Susie.   She will frequently start her own song early in the morning and the siamangs will begin theirs in response.  Susie is an extraordinary 43 years old, and is one of the Zoo’s longest residents.  Despite her advanced age, she is still a feisty lady and makes her preferences for certain foods known by open-mouth threatening keepers if they make the mistake of offering her the least favorite items in her diet first.

Susie is a special, but all too common, case. In her earliest years she was taken from her mother and kept as a pet by a private individual. By the age of three she had grown too dangerous to handle and was donated to the Zoo.  Having missed the chance for proper socialization with her own kind, she cannot be placed with another gibbon.  Because of this she gets extra attention from her keepers each day.  Although Susie was born in captivity, many gibbons continue to be taken from the wild for the pet trade, often with far less pleasant results.

In addition to the pet trade, gibbons are threatened by habitat destruction.  One of the main causes of deforestation is the palm oil industry.  Palm oil is in many of the common substances and foods that we use.  By purchasing products that use certified sustainable palm oil, we can ensure that we are supporting companies that are committed to helping gibbons.

The plight of the gibbon is often overshadowed by their larger ape cousins, but they are considered the most threatened primate; a gibbon will likely be the first ape extinction our generation will witness.

On Saturday, November 28 and Sunday, November 29, the Houston Zoo primate department will be celebrating the Year of the Gibbon, with an event called “Thanksgibbon”.  We would like to invite you to come to the zoo and meet these wonderful apes, learn about them, perhaps  hear them sing, and help us raise money to support this beautiful species by purchasing palm oil free body products, paintings done by Houston Zoo primates, and assorted conservation products.

Once you have given thanks for your friends and family, filled your belly with Thanksgiving food, taken that after meal nap, and done your Black Friday shopping, please join us to help! And, give Thanks that we have gibbons!

The Orangutan Workshop – Coming Together to Make a Difference

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.

Tammy BuhrmesterFrom 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.

Do Monkeys Make Good Pets?

Post by: Bailey Cheney

This is probably the most common question that I get as a primate keeper. It often comes up while I’m giving a keeper chat, or while I’m feeding a particularly cute Coquerel’s Sifaka. Despite all the times I hear this question, I never get tired of answering it. This is because the answer is so important to primates and their conservation in the wild. At the zoo, we like to say that conservation starts with education. If I brushed off the question with a callous answer, I would be missing the opportunity to share and educate our guests about how amazing our primates are and how they should remain with their own kind.

FeedingSo, the short answer to that question would be no, monkeys do not make good pets. However, it is a complicated “no” and requires elaboration.  I was recently given the opportunity to travel to Wildtracks in Belize, a wildlife rehabilitation and release center dedicating to ending the illegal pet trade.  It is home to more than 50 monkeys (Yucatan black howler monkeys, Geoffroy’s spider monkeys, and one white-faced capuchin) all of whom were confiscated as illegal pets by the government. All of these monkeys came to the center in conditions that ranged from bad to worse. Most were malnourished, many were sick, and there was even a spider monkey with five gunshot wounds from a poacher who killed her mother.

Wildtracks is fighting to give these monkeys a new life and a new home. They provide veterinary care to the individuals who need it, and are dedicated to giving them the skill sets needed to survive in the wild. They have a very effective methodology for rehabilitating monkeys. A few days before I arrived, Wildtracks got a call about an infant howler monkey who had just been confiscated by the local government. During my tour, Paul, the Director, allowed me into the quarantine room to see her. Before monkeys are placed with any other monkeys, they are kept in quarantine for at least 30 days so as not to spread any illnesses or parasites. They may stay longer than that if their medical conditions are severe. “Cho”, the infant howler, was considered to be a rather severe case.Kitchen

She was a sickly and tiny thing. Physically, she had extremely bad scabies, was malnourished and emaciated. What broke my heart, however, was her mental state.  She was obviously frightened and emotionally shut down. She would pull away from any type of contact and she was nervous when people were nearby. It took quite a bit of convincing for her to eat her food. Paul assigned a volunteer to be with Cho and get her used to a kind human presence so that she would accept medications and desperately needed milk formula. This was the first part of her rehabilitation process.

Like Cho, most monkeys that come into Wildtracks have received grossly neglectful care. Monkeys, although they do funny “human-like” behaviors, are not people. Unfortunately, usually the owners of the illegal pets are completely oblivious as to how to properly care for them and they feed them like you would a human infant. In some cases, they fail to provide even that kind of care. Monkeys have extremely specialized diet requirements that need evaluation according to what stage in life they are in, what their natural habitat is, and what type of produce is in season. Wildtracks takes all this into account and offers the infants and adults proper, fresh produce along with milk formula specifically suited to their nutritional needs.

After newly acquired monkeys are released from quarantine, a suitable group is found for them to live with. Because the goal of all Wildtracks animals is their eventual release back into the wild, they have to learn how to live in a group of their own kind. Primates are highly social creatures and require others of their own species to survive. This is another reason why monkeys make extremely bad pets. More often than not, they are kept as solitary pets and develop behavioral issues that are not normal for them and can often put them in danger. These developmental issues, along with isolation, can cause debilitating depression that can drastically affect their quality of life.  Pre-Release2

After the howler monkeys are placed with a group, they are assigned a caretaker. This caretaker acts as a slightly more hands-off maternal figure. They take them to the outside play-pens where the infants can learn social and survival skills. They also feed them, clean them, and break up any type of squabbles that get out of hand. After the infants get a little bit older, they are moved outside permanently and are weaned off of their maternal figure and human contact. The monkeys take this time to further solidify as a cohesive group. Eventually, they are put in pre-release, open-aired enclosures of around 1-3 acres. This teaches them how to stay in contact with each other over long distances, how to navigate wild vegetation, and how to move together as a group. When they are deemed ready physically and mentally, the howlers are taken to Fireburn, a federally protected preserve that is a natural habitat to howler monkeys. After their release, they are monitored and are still offered supplemental food sources. As time progresses, the howlers are slowly weaned off of those supplemental sources and become fully wild. Pre-Release

Generally, people who illegally own howlers only have them a few months or a year or two, because they begin to bite their owners and are then given away or rescued. As you can see, the rehabilitation process takes years. It requires a significantly long time to rectify the damage that only a few months of improper care can do to an infant or adult primate. This is why I always tell people that primates make bad pets. People can have the best intentions, but ignorance of their social and physiological requirements that primates desperately need always causes irreparable damage.

Recently, Wildtracks did a study to watch movement patterns of released groups of howlers in Fireburn. Results showed that they were thriving. They were able to find all of the monkeys that had been released, and, even found that wild howler monkeys were moving into the area. Best of all, a total of four Yucatan Black Howlers had been born to previously rehabilitated monkeys.

Personally, I’d rather see a howler monkey group happily living in a forest, than alone in someone’s home. I’d rather see them moving up in the trees, interacting with their family, and doing what happy, wild monkeys do in the wild: surviving and thriving in their natural habitat. No matter how cute they are, remember that primates do not make good pets. If you really want the best for them, admire them at a distance and let them be monkeys. Appreciate them for what they are: beautiful, incredible, intelligent, social, wild creatures.


House Calls for Monkeys and Apes – Doctors in the Zoo

sifaka weeksDid you know primates have to see doctors? Those doctors happen to be veterinarians, but it’s true! Primates are very similar to humans, and we can get a lot of the same sicknesses. Something that doesn’t seem so bad for humans, like the common cold, can be devastating to a primate if it turns into pneumonia. This is one of the many reasons why primates make bad pets; it is simply too dangerous for the primates’ health.

Our primate keepers here at the Houston Zoo have to be cleared of certain illnesses (like tuberculosis) before they can even work with our prosimians, monkeys and apes. To help protect against the spread of these diseases, keepers wear gloves and face masks when cleaning up after their animals. And if one of our keepers is sick they have to stay home, or, if just a minor problem, wear gloves and masks all day.

So let’s say that one of our primates gets sick. Here at the Zoo we have all kinds of ways to try and help them out. If a primate has a runny nose and a cough for more than a couple of days, the vets may prescribe cold medicine or antihistamines to help clear that up. Other injuries may require pain medicine. Prevention is important too, so all of our primates receive regular treatments on a monthly basis, similar to your pets at home.

Ever wonder why we ask guests not to throw snacks at our animals? Controlling calories is one reason. Another is that many species are very sensitive to unfamiliar food which could trigger severe gastric upset. We specially design the diets of all of our animals. And lastly, as was mentioned above, primates can become very sick from germs transferred from a guest via food thrown at them.

Chronic illnesses can occur in primates as it can in humans. Diabetes is one of these chronic illnesses that can impact a non-human primate’s quality of life. To help with this disease, our vets will evaluate the animal’s diet to reduce foods with too much sugar, which in turn will lower the animal’s blood sugar, and prevent or reverse weight gain. That, along with medications to help keep the illness in check, will help them live a long and healthy life. And, acute illnesses like a bladder or kidney infection are treated with appropriate antibiotics and intensive care, when necessary.

Here at the Houston Zoo we strive to make all of our animal’s lives long and happy ones. Sometimes it is harder than others with animals that don’t want to take their medication, or eat what is best for them. But that is just part of the amazing challenge that we face to give our primates all that they deserve. The vet team and animal care teams work together to ensure the best care for all of the animals in the zoo, and it is a daunting task, but one we all embrace wholeheartedly!

Painting: Animal Artwork

Written by Tammy Buhrmester

Naku painting blog finalSome scientists have heralded the capacity for art as a key feature that separates humans from other species, but the wide variety of animals at the Houston Zoo do not share the same opinion. They may be different by having paws, hooves, hands, scales, trunks, and flippers, but they still create amazing artwork. Their process is different from that of human artists, but they do it for the same reasons. Their motivations are to be creative and for rewards (theirs being food or other positive reinforcement.)

Who paints?
At the Houston Zoo, paintings have been produced by primates, elephants, birds, sea lions, raccoons, cats, spectacled bears, giraffes, tapirs and many more.

Why do they paint?
There are many reasons why we allow the primates to paint. The main reason that we paint with the primates is for enrichment. Enrichment is encouraging animal’s natural responses by stimulating natural instincts and behavior. Painting allows the animals to be creative, express their feelings and emotions, and it may be a form of stress relief. The painting process allows them to have all their senses involved: they can see the painting, touch the paint, smell the paint, hear the brush strokes or finger strokes against the canvas, and taste the paint. (Of course, we use non-toxic paint so that they are not harmed if they eat some of it.)

Sometimes our primates just like decorating their own space!
Sometimes our primates just like decorating their own space!

How do they paint?
The primates at the Houston Zoo have always shown a great deal of creativity, as is typical of intelligent beings. They are allowed to use many forms of painting tools:  their hands, lips, foam brushes, cardboard tubes, special man-made 3 foot paintbrushes, assorted browse and whatever medium they decide to add to their process (water, dirt, hay, and grass.)

Painting is done through training, but animals paint only when they are willing to participate. Keepers usually apply paint to the canvas in small dots first. To start the training we initially bridged (a cue to tell them that they did exactly what you want them to do) and then rewarded the animal for touching their hand, finger or brush to the paint on the canvas. All animals receive a small reward for touching the paint on the canvas. Rewards consist of small pieces of their diet (figs, currants, grapes, worms, juice, or yogurt, depending on the animal.) The painting activity itself is so self-rewarding that most of them forget to stop to get their reward until the painting is finished.

What do they paint?
Canvas is not the only thing that the primates paint on to make art. They also paint on ostrich eggs, glass Christmas ornaments, fabric bags, photo frames, clothing, rocks, wine glasses and much more.

What happens to the paintings?
The primates produce beautiful paintings and we use them to raise funds for the conservation of their species in the wild. The primate department raises money through the sale of the paintings to help chimpanzees, orangutans, gorillas, gibbons, black howler monkeys, turtles, elephants, binturongs, babirusa and clouded leopard species.

cheyenne painting


Next time you are walking through the Wortham World of Primates, or the Great Ape Gallery in the African Forest and see some bright pink, blue, green, or yellow on the primates or on the walls, you know that they have been expressing themselves through art!

Growing up Guenon

This post written by Sara Riger

DeBrazza less wire more brightness
If you have been through Wortham World of Primates at the Houston Zoo then you have been fortunate enough to see the De Brazza’s Monkey family that calls one of the African exhibits home. You may have to stand at the exhibit and be patient but you will surely see the bamboo begin to move and one or more of four family members come into view. The biggest of all is Albert. He is the father and very territorial so he may stand his ground, stare you down, and even bob his head at you. That is his job. He is protecting his territory and his family. You may see Amelia, the female, who looks just like Albert but is smaller in size. She is the mother of the two smaller monkeys in the exhibit. Her firstborn is named Ruby. Ruby will be two years old on December 31st, 2015. She is a miniature version of her mother, having her full colors. She prefers to hang around with dad like she is a big deal. The newest member of this foursome is Flint and he was born on November 1st, 2014 and was a welcome addition to the family. I would love to tell you about this very special young monkey and his unique family in hopes that you grow to admire and appreciate him as much as the keepers that are lucky enough to care for him do.

After Flint’s birth, keepers noticed he looked larger than Ruby did when she first arrived. Newborns are golden in color and it has been such a delight to see him start growing his characteristic, but still small, white beard, reddish brown eyebrow ridge, and eventual very distinct colorations that makes De Brazzas’s so striking. He has started to show the red on his little bottom and some black on the end of his tail which will be all black as he matures. Infant De Brazza’s cling very tightly to mom after their birth so it did take some time to determine if this was a boy or a girl. The staff then voted and it was decided to name the newest primate that was all arms and legs, Flint. By the fourth day, Amelia allowed her daughter to touch the new arrival and by the next day Ruby was grooming her baby brother. Flint was nursing exclusively in the beginning, but by day twelve he was first observed climbing off of mom and tasting some red cabbage. As the days continued he became more adept at climbing the mesh and maneuvering on the ropes. It helps to have an older sister to set an example. Amelia may have also been more at ease the second time around. There may be other mothers out there that can relate to that. He continued to test food items while still relying on milk from mom and also drinking water.

Oh Wow SM

De Brazza’s are foraging monkeys which means they look for food throughout the day. Here at the zoo, keepers provide all the primates with several feedings. Around lunch time we provide them one vegetable item from their daily allotment of diet. Flint is comfortable coming over to the keepers to take his share. De Brazza’s are a type of guenon so they have cheek pouches to store food and Mr. Flint looks quite amusing with his puffed out cheeks.


This young monkey keeps developing physically and mentally. On March 22nd, 2015, Flint got on the scale in the night house all by himself and staff were able to get a weight on him. In previous months he would stay on mom during this process so they would be weighed together. He is a whopping 2.4 pounds. He now shifts in and out of the night house by himself, oftentimes taking off in front of his mother and sister, a very brave little man. He has formed his own personality, is spending time with all members of his family including Albert, who is very tolerant of his children. It is so much fun to see Flint and Ruby hanging upside down, wrestling, eating side by side, and jumping from tree to tree as they play together. I sincerely hope the next time you visit the Houston Zoo you make it a point to come to the De Brazza’s exhibit. You will be rewarded with some major cuteness and will find it difficult to wipe the smile off your face as you continue your walk through the wonderful green place in the middle of this huge city that we, and the monkeys, call home.

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