Releasing Howler Monkeys in Belize – Rescued Pets Go Back to the Wild

Written by Primate Keeper Lucy Dee Anderson

In Belize it is illegal to own a pet howler monkey, and the forestry department confiscates monkeys from people to eventually be brought back into the wild. In June I had the opportunity to travel to Belize and help release two troops of howler monkeys back into a safe spot deep within the Amazon rainforest called Fireburn. (Wondering why they are not allowed as pets? Read all about why having a monkey as a pet is bad for the monkey and for you.)

Ritchie the howler monkey. Photo by Ruth Linton.

In Belize is ‘Wildtracks’, a non-profit organization that shelters the howler monkeys and rehabilitates them. This can involve medical needs, special feedings and/or socialization with other howler monkeys. Wildtracks receives animals aged from a few months old to adulthood. Each animal is eventually put into a group with other monkeys and once they become a cohesive group, they are ready to move on to the next step. This next step is the pre-release area, which is an area of forest fenced off by electrical fencing.

At Wildtracks, they have two pre-release areas, and they had two troops of monkeys to release this year. Nicky, Sultan, Livvy, Willow and Hazel had been living with Wildtracks for a year. The other troop, Charlie, Paz, Mia, Fern and Ritchie, had been at Wildtracks for about half a year. I was able to help them with this year’s release at Fireburn, an area of protected forest that traditionally had howler monkeys in it; therefore a great place to do a release! So…picture it; a bumpy ride on the back of a truck on a dirt road, then a beautiful boat ride across a lagoon, then a tractor ride deep into the jungle, then an hour trek even deeper into the jungle – this is how you travel to Fireburn Reserve!

Igor the howler monkey. Photo by Ruth Linton.

When we went to the reserve, there were several steps to accomplish in order to free a monkey:

1. Go to Fireburn and build release caging – this involved bringing a generator, drill, ladder and several panels of caging deep into the jungle!  This will be the monkeys’ home for a couple of days and also a home base once they are released.

2. Next we bring the monkeys to the jungle and put them in their release cages.

3. Allow the monkeys to get used to their surroundings, while feeding them fruit and  freshly cut leaves from the forest, called browse.

4. Release the monkeys!

5. Monitor the monkeys to make sure they are doing well and eating well. They will be provisioned with food for about 3 months until they start to eat on their own.

This was my second trip to Belize. I was there three years ago to meet some monkeys that were being rehabilitated and assist with the project. When we released the first troop of monkeys this year, that first group that I met three years ago came to see what was happening! It was so rewarding to be able to see the monkeys I met before being wild and free in the jungle again. One of those monkeys’ names was Eden. She had been confiscated as a baby, so small she could fit in your hands. When I first met her she was still being bottle-fed and was very wary of newcomers. It broke my heart to think that she had been taken away from her mom in the forest and was someone’s pet. When I saw her this year she was huge! As a fully grown adult at this point, she was swinging in the trees, howling and fully a part of her new troop. This gives me a good feeling that the 2 troops we released this year have a very good chance of thriving in the jungle of Belize!

Rehabilitation and release of any animal is a difficult and time consuming process. Although everything went extremely well overall, there were three monkeys that will need to wait until next year to be released. Livvy unfortunately broke her arm a day before the release and has had extensive medical care that is ongoing. Paz lost the rest of his troop and could not find them and so had to be returned to Wildtracks to try again next year, and Sultan, who was showing great movement and independence in the trees at Wildtracks, was simply not ready to be out in the wild and will also be tried again next year. Although these are setbacks, looking at the big picture, seven howler monkeys were successfully released this year!

My trip was made possible through the support of the Houston Zoo Staff Conservation Fund. The Fund is the donations of many Zoo employees, pooled together to support a select few of our staff’s proposals. It allows us to actively participate in conservation at many different levels and in places from Texas to far-flung areas like Belize. In the primate department, for the past 4 years we have raised awareness and provided funding for howler monkey conservation each October during our event called ‘Howlerween’. In addition to contributing funds, we travel to Belize and help them with whatever they need, from carpentry to assisting with medical procedures.

Thanks to this Fund and Wildtracks, I was able to contribute to conservation and have an amazing learning experience this past June!

The howler monkeys we have here at the Houston Zoo are ambassadors for the monkeys in the wild, and I hope to see all of you come to the Houston Zoo to see our amazing howler monkeys in action!

Sea Turtle With Eye Injury Gets 2nd Chance at Life in the Wild!

Yesterday, Houston Zoo staff assisted in NOAA’s weekly beach survey to find injured, sick or stranded sea turtles along the upper Texas coast. After the summer ends and before the sea turtle nesting season begins in April, things sea-turtle related are relatively quiet. Luckily we did not find any sick, injured or stranded turtles yesterday, and we were able to clean up a lot of fishing line from the Surfside Jetty.

NOAA biologist Lyndsey Howell shows students a large hook found on the beach attached to line. This marine debris is very dangerous for animals in the Gulf.
NOAA biologist Lyndsey Howell shows students a large hook found on the beach attached to line. This marine debris is very dangerous for animals in the Gulf.

Fishing line that is left on rocks or on the beach is extremely dangerous to sea turtles as well as other marine life because these animals can become entangled in this line when it floats in the ocean. This can either damage their body parts, or cause them to drown. By collecting and recycling old fishing line and other plastics, we can make a huge impact on protecting our local Texas species.

Fishing line that ends up in the ocean can entangle wildlife like this sea turtle.
Fishing line that ends up in the ocean can entangle wildlife like this sea turtle.

The highlight of our survey yesterday was being able to assist in the release of a Kemp’s ridley sea turtle who was injured in mid-September. The sea turtle was caught accidentally by a recreational fishermen off the Texas coast. Unfortunately, the hook was caught in the turtles’ eye, but the NOAA staff who responded to the 1-866-TURTLE-5 call were able to remove the hook. After the hook was removed, Houston Zoo veterinarian staff gave the turtle a check-up to make sure it was okay. After a few weeks of rehabilitation at NOAA’s facility in Galveston, the turtle was ready to be released back into the wild!

NOAA staff released the turtle in front of a school group at the Galveston Island State Park
NOAA staff released the turtle in front of a school group at the Galveston Island State Park

Two thumbs (or flippers?) up for protecting animals! The Houston Zoo is so fortunate to partner with organizations in order to save our local wildlife.

And, a special thanks to YOU, our guests & readers, for doing your part to save wildlife. Remember, every time you visit the Houston Zoo, you help save animals in the wild!

Attwater's Prairie Chicken Breeding Season Was a Success!

It all started on March 19, when the very first egg of the season was laid by an Attwater’s prairie chicken at the Houston Zoo, 2 weeks earlier than expected. We knew it was going to be a wild ride this season, and the Birds Department began gearing up for what would end up being one of the most successful breeding seasons ever for this critically endangered grouse.

A male Attwater's prairie chicken
A male Attwater’s prairie chicken

This bird, native to the Texas Gulf Coast, was once thriving on the coastal prairies, but now there are less than 100 birds left in the wild. We work with US Fish & Wildlife, Texas Parks & Wildlife, and NASA’s Johnson Space Center, and 3 other Texas zoos in an effort to bring this bird back from the brink of extinction.

One of the ways we do this is to incubate eggs at the Zoo, keep the chicks healthy as they hatch, and gradually introduce them into the outdoors so they can eventually be released at Attwater’s Prairie Chicken National Wildlife Refuge near Sealy, Texas.


This season, we achieved some major goals that will help the program continue to grow. With generous assistance from the Robert J. Kleberg, Jr. and Helen C. Kleberg Foundation, we built 8 new pens near the Houston Zoo Vet Hospital to get the birds used to an outside environment after hatching and growing up a bit.

Progress photo of Attwater's prairie chicken pen construction
Progress photo of Attwater’s prairie chicken pen construction

The first 10 days of a chick’s life are the most important for determining whether it will be healthy and able to survive in the wild. We worked with the University of North Texas on genetic pairings of adults to make sure the chicks would be as healthy as possible, and it paid off. Our survival rate was the highest we’ve ever had.

The annual Name a Chick campaign is another way that guests can get involved in prairie chicken conservation. This year, 85 chicks were named, resulting in $4,200 in donations for the Attwater’s prairie chicken program.

If that's not a cute chick, we don't know what is!
If that’s not a cute chick, we don’t know what is!

Education is a huge part of helping an endangered species survive. We want to educate the public on how important it is to protect these animals by knowing they are there and to keep the prairie pristine for these animals and others that live in their habitat. We also want to keep learning about these animals (our work is never done) so we can continue to have success in breeding them and releasing them into the wild.

The coastal prairie, the native habitat of the Attwater's prairie chicken, is important to protect if we want these animal to thrive
The coastal prairie, the native habitat of the Attwater’s prairie chicken, is important to protect if we want these animal to thrive

And to continue our education and the education of others that work with prairie chickens, we just completed an animal care manual for the Attwater’s prairie chickens that can be used for other prairie grouse in the US that are facing increased threats and habitat loss (yep, this prairie chicken is technically a grouse). We also recently hosted an egg incubation workshop for professionals in the field so they can gain the skills needed to help out.

The Attwater’s prairie chickens that were born at our Zoo this year are literally being released out into the Refuge as we speak. This morning, we visited some of the lucky birds to watch them stroll out into their new home, equipped with bands and tracking collars so we can monitor their success.

For more on the Attwater’s prairie chicken and our efforts to send them back to the wild, visit the Houston Zoo website.

Attwater's prairie chickens released into the wild!

The Houston Zoo has been raising chicks this year to pump up the wild population with some hearty and happy Attwater’s prairie chickens (APCs), and yesterday we were able to reap the reward for all the efforts!

Yesterday, Houston Zoo Staff and US Fish and Wildlife headed out to the APC National Wildlife refuge to release some APCs that were raised at the Zoo. They will begin their life in the wild and hopefully strengthen the population by having chicks of their own!

All of the birds are radio-collared and tagged so that USFWS can monitor the populations and keep track of the general health of the birds.

The birds were initially released into these ‘soft pens’ to get them comfortable with the prairie land, and then after a few weeks were fully released into the wild. Good luck to them!

APC Release soft pens
A few APCs leaving the soft pen for the first time! The soon flew off and started their adventure in the open prairie!
APC release prairie chickens
A group of APCs that just walked out of the pens, checking out their new surroundings.

APC release prairie chickens in field



We're releasing Attwater's prairie chickens into the wild!


We’ve been raising these adorable chicks for the past few months, and for some of them, they’ve already gotten big enough to be ready to start their life in the wild.

In the picture below, you can see the same bird on 4/22 and on 7/16. This juvenile looks a lot like a fully grown Attwater’s prairie chicken (APC), but is about 2/3 the size of an adult.



We have released 37 chicks so far in three release events since June and are looking forward to another release coming up next week, followed by at least two more releases in August!

We’ll keep an eye on these guys individually as they grow in the wild by recording their actions through radio collars and fancy foot jewelry (identification tags).


We wish them a great life in their natural habitat in the wild, and hope they feel comfortable enough to have some chicks of their own!



Houston Zoo staff assist in another exciting sea turtle release!



Houston Zoo staff assisted with another amazing sea turtle release this week in Galveston.  A more than 250 LBS loggerhead was found stranded on the Texas coast July 15, 2013.  She was found by a member of the public who called the injured or stranded sea turtle hot line (1-866-TURTLE-5) to report her.  The turtle was retrieved and given a health check by NOAA and Houston Zoo staff. 

She was in great health and an ultrasound treatment revealed that she was full of eggs.  She was released off a beach in Galveston July 16th  in the hopes that she would lay her eggs soon.  Her identifying tag revealed that she was approximately 20 years old and tagged in 1998 off the coast of N. Carolina. 

How are we helping?  The Houston Zoo houses injured or stranded sea turtles in our Kipp Aquarium until they are fit to be released.  

How are you helping?  A portion of the Houston Zoo’s admission cost goes to our wildlife conservation programs.   Every time you visit the zoo you are helping animals in the wild! 

For more about helping us to save sea turtles in the wild click here .




The Houston Zoo is saving (more) sea turtles!

Zoo vet staff has rescued another sea turtle today and already removed two fishing hooks from inside his throat! You can see the two hooks in the x-ray photo, and the photo that follows is of Dr. Joe getting ready to remove those hooks.

Kemp’s Ridley X-Ray with two hooks.

How did this guy get two hooks in him? Well, he’s actually had more than that. This guy came to us with tags that you can see in the final photo below. The tags mean that we’ve come across this guy before, and though hooks are not the only reason for an emergency visit, his specific numbers showed that he was with us in 2011 for the same issue.

It is likely that this instance of double hooks came about after he grabbed one meal from a fishing line, was cut free, and then tried to grab another snack later on and was thankfully alerted to NOAA Galveston. Often, sea turtles are released back into the ocean after the fishing line has been cut. Though this releases turtles back seemingly unharmed, these hooks do not pass through the body or deteriorate, which more often than not causes fatalities in these amazing creatures.

Dr. Joe beginning the hook removal.

So, if you see a sea turtle accidentally caught on the beach, just call 1-866-TURTLE-5 and NOAA will come out to grab that turtle and bring it to us. Though there are no repercussions for accidentally catching a sea turtle, there is enforcement if fisherman purposely keep sea turtles. Be aware, and be a Conservation Hero!

Kemp’s Ridley identification tags. You can even get a reward if you call…and can read very dirty things!

Houston Zoo staff is saving sea turtles!

Two sea turtles were brought to the Houston Zoo for medical treatment this morning. Zoo staff removed a hook from a Kemp’s Ridley and a loggerhead received an exam!

Kemp’s Ridley preparing for X-Ray.
Kemp’s Ridley on the X-Ray table.
Dr. Joe preparing to take the hook out of the Kemp’s Ridley.
Hook removed from Kemp’s Ridley.

13 Sea Turtles Go Back to the Wild!

On Friday, May 31st several Houston Zoo staff, board and committee members assisted NOAA employees with the release of 13 turtles who have been rehabilitated and were ready to continue their lives in the great open ocean!  2 different species of turtles were released on Friday. Several green sea turtles were released into the bay area and the remaining Kemp’s ridley turtles were released across the street onto the beach. The release sites of these animals are determined by NOAA staff depending on the age, size, range and diet of the sea turtle species.

The day was not only special because 13 sea turtles returned to the wild, but also because 1 of the 13 turtles was our Kipp Aquarium resident who was healthy enough to go back to the Gulf of Mexico! Although this green sea turtle will be missed, we are sure to have another sea turtle resident for our guests to see at the Zoo soon! We will keep you updated.

The Zoo’s green sea turtle gets a flipper tag before being released so it can be identified if it ever comes onto the shore again. Photo by Stephanie Adams.

Finally, the day was capped off with one more success story. The green sea turtle who was rescued from a freshwater pond outside of Houston this past fall was successfully rehabilitated at the NOAA Galveston facility through the medical assistance of the Zoo’s Vet Clinic. Many of the Vet Clinic staff were on hand at the release to let this very special green sea turtle go. It is very uncommon for a sea turtle to survive extended time in freshwater, so the fact that this green sea turtle survived and was able to be released back into salt water was wonderful!

The green sea turtle rescued from freshwater in the greater Houston area with the Zoo’s Vet Clinic team who helped to bring this turtle back to a healthy state.
Dr. Joe Flanagan releasing the large green sea turtle into the bay!
This green sea turtle swims off with ease!

Unfortunately, not all sea turtles have wonderful success stories like the ones described here. You can help create positive outcomes for our sea turtles by reporting any sightings on the beach and calling 1-866-TURTLE-5. NOAA depends heavily on the help of the public to report sightings of sea turtles, and we truly appreciate everyone who is willing to help!

This Kemp’s ridley was released with a satellite tag to track its movements in order to determine better conservation plans for the species.

With your assistance, we can have a lot more turtles returning to the wild! For more information on the Houston Zoo and our effort to conserve sea turtles, please visit our website.

The Houston Zoo's Attwater's Prairie Chickens are getting ready to go back to the wild!

We still have Attwater’s prairie chicken eggs in incubators here at the Zoo, but the oldest chicks are now 45 days old.   Because these birds are being reintroduced into the wild our staff is focused on encouraging as much natural behavior as possible to prepare them for prairie life.


The oldest chicks are now getting more vegetation in their diet, so that they recognize their wild diet.    And, their outdoor enclosures are filled with branches and bushes to encourage their instinct to hide and protect themselves from predators that threaten their survival in the wild.    

We will start reintroducing Attwater’s prairie chickens in June and July.  In the meantime, we will keep everyone posted on their development here at the Zoo, so stay tuned!

If you are interested in helping us save this species from extinction click here.

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