Local High School Student is Saving Wildlife, One Bottle of Water at a Time

This blog is written by Carolyn Jess, a high school student who helped us out as a guest blogger from 2013-2016 with a focus on native wildlife. Carolyn reached out to the Houston Zoo last year for advice on installing a water bottle refill station. Read on for her successes.

My high school is BIG. We are a 6A school with around 2,400 students and 250 teachers. We excel at many things – we have tons of school pride, great love for one another, and a strong desire to help others every chance we get…but the one thing we are really good at? Recycling. Most of our classrooms have gone paperless, but recycling bins are abundant for those that still need paper. In fact, there are recycling bins everywhere you look – we all know where the big green recycling bins are should we need them, and everyone recycles their plastic water bottles in a specially made bin. We know how to recycle.

But recently, I started thinking, are we too good at it? Is that even possible? It seems like our recycling bins are always filled to the brim, and in some cases overflowing. Plastic bottles will spill out, and despite the dedication of the recycling team and custodians, excess bottles end up in the trash. Plenty of students bring their own refillable bottle, but the fountains on campus are not built to easily refill a bottle. Students stand awkwardly at the fountain trying to hold the bottle at the right angle, and most can only get the bottle filled halfway before they have to rush off in order to beat the tardy bell. As a result, many of the students who try to do the right thing end up retiring their reusable bottles and resort to using the throw away kind since they are a faster and easier option. At the rate we are going, with 2,400 students using 2 bottles a day, 5 days a week we are looking at 24,000 plastic bottles discarded EVERY WEEK.

Something needed to be done to fix our plastic problem, so I started researching refillable water bottle stations. I wasn’t sure about costs, installation, or maintenance, but after looking at various makes, models, and prices, I found a great online resource called becausewater.com. After reading their website, I made contact with them and our question and answer session began. They offered so much assistance when it came to choosing the right model for my campus and figuring out the associated costs. Once I knew my options, I typed up a proposal and timeline for my school principle. I scheduled a meeting with her and explained what exactly it was that I wanted to do and how I would go about getting a unit installed.

It took a little while, but I finally got the go ahead to start fundraising to pay for the unit! With the help of my student council, we will have 3 fundraisers during the upcoming school year and use some of our homecoming dance proceeds to pay for the unit. The principal has decided to match our efforts – If we can raise the funds to buy and install one station on our main campus, she will get one and have it installed on our freshman campus. We will get the district’s maintenance staff to install the unit to cut down on costs, and I will be on hand to help with the instillation process as much as I am allowed. Once the unit is installed, I know our students and staff will be excited to start filling up their bottles with ease, plus it will be fun for them to see the counter at the top of the fountain showing how they are minimizing plastic waste in our environment! I am a senior this year and want to leave my school knowing that I was able to take action to help our environment and our local wildlife.

My campus is big, and it has a big heart. I hope that there is a student next year, that continues with this plan and installs another unit, and another, until all our fountains have the water bottle refill option. With these small steps come big results, 2400 times two times five, to be exact. Taking action like this leads to helping our animals in the wild, one plastic bottle at a time.

Get a Bird’s Eye View of Endangered Attwater’s Prairie Chickens at NASA’s Johnson Space Center!

You won’t see the Attwater’s prairie chicken here on zoo grounds, but you can see them now on a new exclusive web cam! Since 1995, the Houston Zoo has raised and released over 1100 Attwater’s prairie chickens into the wild. As just one of many efforts the Zoo is involved in to save wildlife, our zoo keepers breed these animals behind the scenes and release them into the wild to ensure Attwater’s prairie chicken populations will recover and thrive for years to come.

Native to Texas, this small, brown bird calls the coastal prairie grasslands home. This species is best known for “booming” – a dance done by males to attract females during mating season in which they stomp their feet and fill the orange air sacs on the sides of their neck, creating a sound that can be heard up to half a mile away! With historic populations numbering close to 1,000,000 birds, it is estimated that less than 100 of these birds are left in the wild. The Houston Zoo manages the captive breeding program for the Attwater’s prairie chicken. We have breeding facilities both behind the scenes at the Zoo and at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.  When the birds hatch and grow large enough, they are slowly introduced and then released into the wild, where they will support the already existing populations.

Last year, the Attwater’s prairie chickens released into the wild faced challenges similar to those encountered by fellow Texans as the release site in Goliad County took a direct hit from Hurricane Harvey. The eye of the storm passed directly over or within a few miles of the release site, and the lingering rains flooded most of the Attwater’s historic range. These amazing birds face many threats once they are in the wild, but robust captive breeding programs around the state serve as a safety net, giving this species a fighting chance.

It is officially hatching season for our Attwater’s prairie chickens, and over 500 eggs are currently being incubated to raise and release back into the wild thanks to the amazing bird department here at the Zoo! Post Harvey, the habitat at NASA has rebounded and is in the best condition anyone has seen in a long time. It would seem as though things are looking up for our feathered friends this year, thanks to a dedicated network of organizations and zoo goers like you that are helping to save wildlife each time you visit us here at the Zoo. Don’t forget to check out these magnificent birds at their NASA habitat via our new Attwater’s prairie chicken webcam, and stay tuned for more updates!

Zoo Crew Teen Reflects on Saving Wildlife Experience

This blog was written by Skyler Nix, a Zoo Crew member who participated in one of the Zoo’s Adventure Programs. Through these programs, teens explore natural areas in Texas and participate in outdoor activities such as hiking, canoeing, kayaking, camping, etc. as well as participating in conservation projects such as beach clean-ups and habitat restoration. 

Our sea lion family has grown over the past few years with the birth of two pups, Tj and Max. It takes quite a lot of effort, as well as time, to train, feed, monitor, and care for these now five sea lions in addition to conducting keeper chats and engaging with zoo guests. On top of all of this, the sea lion staff work additional hours to help keep our oceans clean for wildlife right here in Texas.

The Sea lion staff assists with a fishing line recycling program that aims to diminish the quantity of monofilament line on the Surfside Jetty in Surfside, Texas. This program was organized by NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association) together with Texas A&M University’s Monofilament & Recycling Program. Monofilament line is endangering wildlife such as sea turtles, fish, rays, dolphins, birds, and sea lions because it can snare and entangle animals, making it difficult and sometimes even impossible to for them to swim, fly, or find food. Our sea lion staff manages monthly clean ups on the Surfside Jetty to empty the monofilament bins as well as to collect trash, recyclables, and line caught in between rocks. In addition, these trips also provide Zoo staff, volunteers, and teens opportunities to get out in nature and take action to save wildlife.

A few weeks ago on April 21, a group of eight teens and myself were given the opportunity to travel, under the supervision of Zoo staff, to the Surfside Jetty and assist in the recycling project. We arrived early in the morning that Saturday full of excitement and ready to get to work. After meeting up with the sea lion staff on the jetty, we headed back to their truck to gear up. We equipped ourselves with gloves, trash pickers, nail clippers (great for cutting line), and buckets. We split into three groups to cover as much ground as possible – the sea lion staff at the far side of the jetty, half of the teens on the beach, and the other half covered the center.  My group was determined to get every piece of trash spotted; even if it meant getting knocked and drenched by oncoming waves. We made great progress, consistently emptying out our buckets into trash bags.

About half way through the day, we stopped for lunch. We sat together at a picnic table near the jetty, ate our lunches, refilled our water bottles, and shared our progress. What happened next will forever influence my life. A gust of wind passed over our table, and seamlessly, a plastic bag was lifted into the air and flew away (we later found the bag and properly disposed of it). It made me realize how easily trash can make its way into the ocean. Nearly 4.8 million metric tons of plastic waste enters the ocean each year; 91% of plastic isn’t recycled; every minute, a garbage truck of plastic is dumped into the oceans.  The majority of trash doesn’t start in the ocean; is starts when you decide to throw away a plastic bottle instead of recycling it. It then makes its way to a landfill, then, by wind or water, it will make its way into the ocean.

After we finished lunch and refilled our water bottles, we went back to work. This time we covered the rest of the beach and the backside of the jetty. Though we only spent an hour or so there, we got the most trash; nearly twice as much as in the center of the jetty. Plastic plates, styrofoam cups, plastic wrappers, soda cans, water bottles- all every day items we use, yet, we never really consider the consequences of not recycling these items – the consequences wildlife have to pay.

Though the day was rather daunting, in the end I felt that day was a learning experience, and I’m sure the rest of the teens I spent the day with would agree. One of the teens, Claire, couldn’t believe how never ending the trash seemed. Other teens, like Nicole and Mia, found it crazy how random items like shoes and toothbrushes made it all the way to the jetty. Hannah found a coke bottle, dated from 22 years ago (1996)! This was an overall amazing trip for me; I made new friends and helped the environment, that’s a win-win for me.

By the end of the day, we had collected 3 pounds of monofilament line (which is insane considering how light it is), 65 pounds of trash, and 58 pounds of recyclables. The line and recyclables were brought back to the zoo to be sorted and eventually recycled.

There are three things I do every day in my life that help animals in the wild that you can do too! I use a reusable water bottle, recycle, and reuse everyday items to make eco-friendly alternatives to things like plastic. For example, you can easily turn an old shirt into a new reusable bag. Since this trip allowed me to experience the effects plastic pollution has on the environment first hand, it makes me feel accomplished to know that I have kept trash out of the ocean by doing those 3 simple things.

Here are some other things you can do to help save animals in the wild!

  • Using reusable bags and water bottles instead of plastic, which can end up in the ocean causing harm to animals. The Houston Zoo is now plastic bag and plastic water bottle free!
  • If you fish, dispose of your used line in monofilament bins located along the coast at popular fishing spots – this will help to ensure that fishing line does not make its way back into the water, and can be recycled into new products
  • Pick up trash on daily walks or trips to the beach to help reduce the amount of debris that could make its way into our oceans!
  • Report any sea turtles on the beach to NOAA biologists at 1-866-TURTLE-5
  • Visit the Zoo! The fee you pay to visit the Zoo goes towards saving animals in the wild!

The next time you visit the Zoo, make sure to stop by the sea lion pool and say hi to Max, Tj, Cali, Kamia, and Jonah for me, and don’t forget to take a look at the Marine Debris Wall on the deck! Interested in going on a trip similar to mine? Click here to register for a Teen Adventure Program!

 

Rescued Sea Turtles Need Your Help!

Though you may not see them all the time, Texas is full of unique animals. Some, like sea turtles are with us year round, but your chances of spotting one in the wild are much higher during the summer which is sea turtle nesting season! There are 5 species of sea turtles inhabiting the Gulf of Mexico, all of which are considered to be either threatened or endangered. They include the Kemp’s ridley, green, leatherback, Atlantic hawksbill, and loggerhead sea turtles.

One of the main threats that sea turtles face is plastic pollution that ends up in our waterways, eventually working its way into the ocean. Just last week our partners at NOAA Fisheries responded to four calls of sea turtles in need of rescue. Two of these sea turtles were accidentally caught by fishermen – a large loggerhead at Seawolf Park, and a small Kemp’s ridley at 61st Street Pier. The other two sea turtles recovered by NOAA were entangled in plastic debris. A Kemp’s ridley was found in Surfside Thursday morning tangled up in balloon strings along with other trash, and yet another Kemp’s ridley was found on the beach connected to the lid of a trashcan by a shoelace. Many of these turtles were brought to the Houston Zoo, where our veterinary team was able to perform hook removals and provide health check-ups before NOAA took them back to Galveston. Luckily all of these sea turtles are expected to make full recoveries at NOAA’s facility, where they will remain until they are healthy enough to be released back into the wild. On average, the Houston Zoo provides care to 80 stranded or injured sea turtles a year – that’s over 500 turtles since 2010!

Thanks to the hard work of many local organizations, our once decreasing sea turtle population is on a slow path to recovery, but we need your help to keep them safe. You can help sea turtles in a number of ways, but the biggest action you can take is to help reduce the amount of plastic that makes it into the ocean! Here are some tips:

  1. Blow bubbles not balloons! Remember, every balloon that is released into the outdoors will eventually find its way back to the ground – bubbles are a safe and fun alternative.
  2. Taking a stroll on the beach? Bring a bag with you and pick up trash as you walk along the shore
  3. Reduce your plastic use! Opt for reusable shopping bags and water bottles whenever possible.
  4. Try going plastic straw free the next time you dine out – simply tell your waiter you would like to skip the straw.

And remember, if you accidentally catch or spot a sea turtle on the beach, call 1-866-TURTLE-5. Thanks for helping to save sea turtles in the wild!

 

 

 

 

 

Become a Sea Turtle Superhero in 4 Easy Steps

Spring has finally sprung here in Texas, and Texans much like the rest of the animal kingdom are emerging from their winter hideouts to embrace the sunshine. For many, clear skies and warm weather are an invitation to leave the city and make a break for the coast  – after all, who doesn’t want to spend a gorgeous day at the beach playing in the water or trying to land that perfect catch? What you may not know is that it isn’t just humans flocking to Texas beaches this spring, it is sea turtles too! April marks the beginning of nesting season, which means a heightened presence of Kemp’s ridley and green sea turtles is likely as summer approaches. A trip to the beach for our endangered friends is not always as pleasant as our trips as they are faced with many threats including plastic left in the water and on land, but luckily we have some simple ways to help make their journey safer so they continue to call Texas home for many years to come!

We want to do everything we can to help save sea turtles, but we need your help! Here are four easy ways you can become a sea turtle superhero:

  1. If you accidentally catch or spot a sea turtle on the beach, call 1-866-TURTLE-5
  2. Going fishing? Place any broken or unusable line in a monofilament recycling bin – line is recycled and made into products like tackle boxes!
  3. Taking a stroll on the beach? Bring a bag with you and pick up trash as you walkalong the shore
  4. Visit the zoo! Just by purchasing a ticket to the zoo you are helping to save sea turtles in the wild by supporting efforts like those mentioned below:
    Look for a fishing line recycling bin like this one next time you need to dispose of line!

Here at the Houston Zoo, we work to save sea turtles in a number of ways. Every Monday, a member of our staff assists our partners at NOAA Fisheries with their weekly sea turtle surveys. Additionally, some sea turtles NOAA picks up when they receive a call are in need of medical care.  These turtles are brought here to our vet clinic where Dr. Joe Flanagan and his team will take xrays, administer medications, perform hook extractions, and anything else the turtle may need. The sea lion team has been organizing and running monthly clean-ups at Surfside Jetty since 2014. Houston Zoo staff and volunteers spend an entire day down at the mile-long jetty picking up trash, recycling, and fishing line to help ensure that this debris is properly disposed of so it doesn’t end up in the ocean where it becomes a threat to animals like sea turtles.

The newest project we are involved in is in partnership with members from the Audubon Texas Coastal ProgramGalveston Bay Area Chapter of Texas Master Naturalists, and Texas Commission on Environmental Quality -Galveston Bay Estuary Program. This team identified discarded fishing line as one of the biggest threats to wildlife like sea turtles and pelicans, and devised a plan to help solve this problem by working directly with members of the community! The Texas City Dike (TCD) was selected as the area the group wanted to work in because of its reputation as a prime, year-round fishing spot. Once this study area was chosen, the group decided that the next step would be to take a trip to the dike, and collect discarded fishing line from specific locations to see just how much line was present. This collection of line took place on December 4th of last year and thanks to an amazing team of volunteers, we were able to collect a total of 21.9 pounds of fishing line from TCD. Since then, the team has made trips to some of our region’s most popular fishing locations and have conducted surveys with over 200 anglers in order to learn more about their current fishing line containment and disposal practices. From this data, we will come up with several potential messages to test with a focus group of anglers to see what resonates best with them to encourage the recycling of fishing line.

 

 

 

 

Texans are Protecting Federally Endangered Ocelots

Come meet our resident ocelot on your next visit to the zoo

Here in Houston we are all very familiar with the presence of Cougars – if the mention of this species doesn’t bring a certain university to mind, the name Shasta just might! While Shasta is quite the local celebrity, there is another Texas cat making the news a few hours south of us – the ocelot. The city of Brownsville is leading the charge to save the federally endangered ocelot, and thanks to your visit to the zoo, we’ve been able to lend a hand by providing 10 refurbished tracking collars that will help local programs keep tabs on their ocelot population.

Ocelots are endangered within the United States with less than 100 individuals in one region-south Texas. Their main threats include habitat loss (more people means more land used for agriculture, oil/gas, homes, etc.) and collisions with vehicles on roads.

Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge is where many endangered ocelots go in search of a safe place to live

One method to save ocelots in south Texas is to create roads that are safe for both animals and humans Several years ago, in an attempt to make roads safer for Brownsville locals and visitors headed to vacation on South Padre Island, concrete barriers were put in place to separate cars traveling in opposite directions. This measure helps protect drivers on the road, but unfortunately made it difficult for ocelots to cross to the other side of the road to get to remaining patches of habitat (their small size makes it difficult to see cars on the other side of the barrier, so they aren’t sure when it’s safe to attempt to cross). When it became clear that the barriers were a hazard for the ocelots, the people of Brownsville came together and asked the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to come up with a way to keep both humans and local wildlife safe.

In response to the public’s concern for the ocelots, TxDOT has joined forces with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) to build 12 tunnels beneath two roads that cut through or border the Laguna Atascosa Wildlife Refuge, where many of the endangered cats go in search of a safe place to live. On these tunnels, chain link fencing extends from above the underpass and along the sides to help funnel the cats to the under-the-road crossings, which are large enough for the cats to see what’s on the other side. This is a huge undertaking for TxDOT, who is both building the tunnels and helping to monitor their use, in order to determine what species in the area actually choose to travel via the underpasses. While it is too soon to tell which species are using the tunnels most frequently, TxDOT did spot an ocelot on one of their motion sensor cameras by a tunnel opening just last month, which has sparked excitement and hope for what is to come.

Guests attend a talk at the 2018 Ocelot Conservation Festival

There is a lot of love for ocelots in south Texas, which is evident through the community’s effort to make these wildlife underpasses a reality. The ocelot is even celebrated annually at the Ocelot Conservation Festival and Ocelot run – events that are organized by the Friends of Laguna Atascosa and hosted by Gladys Porter Zoo. Many landowners are also actively involved in saving ocelots by setting aside land that serves as preserved natural habitat for the cats. We may be a 6 hour drive from Brownsville, but despite the distance you’re saving ocelots too each time you visit the zoo! On your next trip make sure to say hello to Jack, our resident ocelot.

Whooping Crane Festival Brings Hope to Storm Ravaged Town

On the last Saturday in February, Houston Zoo staff rose before the sun and piled into a zoo van to make the 4-hour journey south to Port Aransas. While most would be sleeping, the van was full of excited chatter as the team neared its destination – the 22nd annual Whooping Crane Festival! The festival celebrates the yearly return of the whooping cranes to their wintering habitat. Due to Hurricane Harvey, the International Crane Foundation wasn’t sure if the festival would take place this year, but knowing how important this festival is for both the birds and the community, several local partners including the Houston Zoo were able to lend a helping hand to make sure it happened!

Weighing around 15 pounds, the whooping crane has a wingspan of more than 7 feet and is as tall as many humans, reaching a height of around 5 feet, making it the tallest bird in North America! Whooping cranes are best known for their courtship dance, finding mating partners through an elaborate display of kicking, head-pumping, and wing-sweeping. Adult whooping cranes can be spotted fairly easily thanks to their bright white feathers and accents of crimson red on the top of their head. This section of the Texas coast is the only place where you can see the world’s last naturally-occurring population of Whooping Cranes.

At the festival, zoo staff got to spend the day with Corinna Holfus, the new Whooping Crane Outreach Coordinator whose position is being funded by the Houston Zoo. Corinna, a Houston native, was well aware of the post-Harvey struggles Port Aransas was facing when she joined the team in October of 2017. She didn’t always plan on working with Texas species, but when the opportunity arose she recalled how excited she was at the prospect of becoming a “craniac” – a designation shared among crane lovers within the birding community. Since landing the job, Holfus has been working with hunters, landowners, and other members of the community to develop awareness and caring for whooping cranes with the hope of fostering their commitment to safe guard these unique birds. You might think that saving wildlife is the last thing people want to add to their plates when recovering from a natural disaster, but Holfus has found the community’s response to be nothing short of inspiring. “With everything that has been happening here, the whooping cranes have actually become a symbol of hope for the community. So many things feel out of your control, but people realize that they can do something to help these birds, and they have started to rally around them which has been really special to watch.”

While the storm negatively impacted human communities, it actually did a lot to help clean debris and pollution out of whooping crane habitat, which in turn led to an increase in the amount of available food sources. This has ultimately led to some pretty impressive numbers of cranes spending the winter in Port Aransas, with the number reaching a record high of around 431 birds last year. On our day out on the water we saw over 50 whooping cranes – this may not seem like much, but for people like Houston Zoo veterinarian Dr. Joe Flanagan who has been traveling to view the whooping cranes for many years it is quite an exciting turn out. “Back in the 80s to see 50 birds would have meant you had seen the entire remaining population”, he told us while looking eagerly through his binoculars.  One of the rarest birds in North America, the whooping crane saw its numbers drop to just 15 in the early 1940s, but with the help of land protection and public education, their numbers have continued to steadily increase, with an estimated population of 757 world-wide.

We are so proud to be involved in this work to help save a very unique community of Texans, and thanks to the continued support of Zoo goers like you, this native species has an even better chance for a bright future. Stay tuned for updates on Corinna’s work with the International Crane Foundation’s Texas office!

Local Community Removes Crab Traps from Galveston Bay, Saving Texas Wildlife!

On Saturday February 17th, Houston Zoo staff, including Rwandan conservation partner, Gorilla Doctor Noel, Zoo Crew, and Zoo volunteers worked alongside the Dallas Zoo and Galveston Bay Foundation to clean up abandoned crab traps from Galveston Bay.

This effort is part of a state-wide program that came into effect in 2001 in response to increased pressure on blue crab populations. Abandoned traps can also pose a threat to other wildlife like otters and diamondback terrapins, causing them harm. Fishing gear that is lost, dumped, or abandoned is sometimes referred to as “ghost fishing” because this gear can continue to catch aquatic species even though it has been left unattended.  While these accidental catches have a clearly negative impact on the health of wildlife, they can also cause problems for the commercial fishing industry. Each animal that is caught in an abandoned trap is one less that can be caught in a sustainable and ocean-friendly manner. This means that more individuals must be caught to meet the demands of the seafood market, and as a result there are less animals in the ocean working to keep it and species populations healthy.  How do we help to solve this problem? The answer is quite simple – every February, the community is invited to participate in removing these old traps from the water to protect wildlife!

While some volunteers go out on boats to collect traps, others stay behind to collect trash along the shore. All kinds of trash and recycling are collected – everything from bottles and cans to plastic straws and fishing line; sometimes even things like car tires! Removing debris from the shore is equally important, as it protects species like sea turtles and pelicans from ingesting trash or becoming entangled in line. Once boaters return with traps, they are unloaded and inspected for trapped wildlife. Any animals present in the traps are removed and released back into the water and then the traps are crushed by volunteers and disposed of at designated trap drop locations.

In total, 221 crab traps were removed from the water and over 1,000 pounds of trash, recyclable material, and fishing line were picked up from land. These efforts saved a potential 5,300 blue crabs and prevented many other animals from getting caught in abandoned traps! Looking for an easy way to help? Download the Seafood Watch App and use it when grocery shopping or dining out to make sure that the seafood you eat has been sourced in a way that does not harm wildlife. This easy action will help to ensure that marine life will continue to thrive for future generations!

School Partner – Ridgecrest Elementary

The Houston Zoo is working toward creating the next generation of saving wildlife heroes. One way we are achieving that goal is by forming lasting partnerships with school groups in and around the Houston area.  These partnerships all look a bit different from one another, but they all have one thing in common: they are inspiring students, teachers and communities to take action to save wildlife!  Ridgecrest Elementary is an example of one school that is partnering with the Houston Zoo to save pollinators through our Pollinator Partnerships.

The partnership between Ridgecrest Elementary and the Houston Zoo started when Ms. Lindsey Duke came to one of our Educator Events. “It all started when I attend my first Educator’s Night Out at the Houston Zoo.  I was so intrigued at what I experienced there and I knew that I wanted my students to experience the same” stated Ms. Duke.  During the event, she learned more about the importance of pollinators, the threats they are facing, and how her students can help.  She decided to reach out to DeAndra Ramsey from the Houston Zoo and start the process of forming a partnership centered around helping pollinators.

“Teaching kindergarten at a new campus I was a little nervous at how the initial pitch of the partnership and garden project would go but it was received with full support from administration and staff. We selected a spot on our campus that had once been a garden but had a lot of potential to be transformed into a pollinator garden”, says Ms. Duke.   In addition to picking the place for the garden and choosing the native plants that will be planted, the students have been learning about how a healthy pollinator population is vital to a healthy ecosystem.  Ambassador animals that are native to this area of Texas have been brought to the campus so that the students can see first-hand the animals they are helping with their work in the garden.

Families came together to work in the pollinator garden during the first Ridgecrest Elementary Garden Day

But it doesn’t stop in the classroom! “My goal was to make this not only a school wide project but also a community/family project.  So we had our first Ridgecrest Elementary Garden Day.  We invited families and community members out to our campus one Saturday and together we weeded and prepared our garden area.  I was blown away but the participation this event received.  To see so many families working together was amazing”, says Ms. Duke.  The Houston Zoo was able to attend the family gardening day and work side-by-side with the students and their families to transform this space into a wonderful pollinator habitat.  Starting a pollinator garden has multiple benefits, including connecting children to nature.  Preparing the space allowed families to get up close and person with a variety of Texas native wildlife such as frogs, snakes, and lizards.

Students were able to get up close and personal with some native Texas wildlife while working in the garden. A small snake quickly became the center of attention once the children learned there was nothing to fear.

As anyone who has started a garden knows, it does not happen overnight. “[We] have continued to work step by step slowly but surely transforming the garden into a space not only for pollinators to come and feast but also a learning spot for all ages.  The students along with their families have designed garden stones which we will use to trim the garden areas.  We painted reading stumps so that classes can go out and observe, write and learn in the garden.  Currently we are holding a coin drive to purchase pollinator plants for the garden and plan to have another Garden Day this spring”, Ms. Duke reported in January.

Students painted reading stumps in the garden. This will allow the entire school to enjoy the garden along with the pollinators.

Through the partnership between Ridgecrest Elementary and the Houston Zoo, the students are making connections with the natural world around them. They are taking action to save wildlife in their very own back yards and becoming wildlife heroes.  “None of this would be possible without our Partnership with DeAndra and the Houston Zoo.  Our students have had so many opportunities already in the first year of this partnership.  They have had ambassador animals come to the school and they have begun to learn about conservation of resources and species.  To hear them randomly throughout the day talking about things connected to our project is so encouraging”, says Ms. Duke.

A few of the families that took action to save pollinators during the Ridgecrest Elementary Gardening Day.

Ridgecrest Elementary has been a shining example of a school that is taking action to save wildlife. Ms Duke’s passion and dedication has inspired the students through out the school to work together to save pollinators and empowered them all to make a difference in their communities.

Rwandan Vet, Dr. Noel from Gorilla Doctors Helps Save Texas Wildlife While Training at the Houston Zoo

Many of our guests have already had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Jean Bosco Noheri (Dr. Noel) during his SOS Member Morning chat with the primate team at gorillas. Dr. Noel is here from our partners at Gorilla Doctors after being chosen by the Houston Zoo admissions team as a 2017 Wildlife Warrior Award recipient.  This award is funded through the sale of saving wildlife bracelets sold by the admissions team, and recognizes exceptional individuals from our wildlife conservation partner programs. The award provides wildlife warriors with an experience that will increase their abilities/knowledge – Dr. Noel chose to use this as an opportunity to train with our veterinary staff here at the zoo. As part of his training, Dr. Noel has been assisting with efforts to save some of our amazing local species, the Houston toad and green sea turtles – experiences he was very excited to share with all of you!

Friday, February 9th was the beginning of the Houston toad captive populations breeding season. This colony lives at the zoo and is cared for by members of our herpetology and veterinary teams. The goal is to help healthy toads breed and lay eggs, with the hope that surviving offspring will boost Houston toad numbers in the wild, and add genetic diversity to the existing population, which is essential for any species’ survival. Before the first round of breeding for each season, Houston Zoo Vet Dr. Maryanne examines each toad and provides Stan Mays, our herpetology curator, with a list of healthy females who are at the right age to lay viable eggs. Based on genetic analysis, Stan then provides a list of ideal male-female pairings and the toads are coupled for breeding purposes. Before the females are introduced to their partners, they receive a series of hormone injections to help their bodies prepare for mating, and if all goes well, egg laying! Just last year, the Houston Toad team was able to release 900,000 eggs back into the wild, which is an incredible success for a species that would otherwise be on the brink of extinction. This year, our partner Dr. Noel arrived just in time for breeding season, and got to help administer the first round of injections to 20 lucky females! Reflecting on his experience, Dr. Noel said “working with the Houston toad was really very special – to see something so small and to see how much people care for it because it carries hope for this species, was very powerful.”

Dr. Noel has also had the opportunity practice his wildlife saving skills on another Texas species – the green sea turtle! Accompanied by Dr. Joe Flanagan, Houston Zoo Sr. Veterinarian and long-time sea turtle protector, Dr. Noel made the short journey down to Galveston where he visited our partners at NOAA Fisheries. While at the sea turtle barn, Dr. Noel helped to weigh and x-ray a number of sea turtles that had been rescued along the coastline to make sure they were in good health. He and Dr. Joe also checked up on a recent surgical patient to make sure the sea turtle’s incision was healing properly. Dr. Noel recalled that the “sea turtle was doing very well and it was neat to work with this species because most people would not think you could do medical procedures on reptiles.” After their veterinary work was done, Dr. Noel was able to tour the NOAA facility, and learn about the turtle excluder devices (TEDs) they develop to ensure that shrimp boats do not catch sea turtles when they go out to sea. To cap off the day, Dr. Noel had his very first experience on the beach after only having seen the ocean from planes!

While both of these species are very different than most of Dr. Noel’s typical mountain gorilla patients, veterinary training and the ability to practice his skills on a variety of species is vital, as he is often called upon to care for wildlife other than gorillas back in Rwanda, like elephants, golden monkeys, and jackals. All of the new and additional skills and lessons Dr. Noel gains through training with the veterinary team here will help him and his team back home on their quest to save Rwanda’s wildlife! To learn more about Gorilla Doctors and see Dr. Noel in action, watch the KPRC special “Saving Gorillas: From Houston to Rwanda” here! 

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