Zoo Goers are Saving Marine Wildlife in Argentina

Join the sea lion team at their SOS event June 9th from 10am-3pm

Just a short drive from Galveston, the Houston Zoo has strong ties to the Texas coast. Regular participation by staff in sea turtle surveys and beach cleanups help to keep our local marine wildlife safe, as do efforts to reduce our plastic intake by going plastic bag and bottle free on Zoo grounds.  However, with animal ambassadors from all over the world in our care, our goal is to not just protect local marine life, but to help our ocean dwelling friends like sea turtles, sea lions, and sea birds all around the globe! This Saturday, June 9th from 10am to 3pm the Houston Zoo’s sea lion team will be hosting a spotlight on species (SOS) event in celebration of World Oceans Day, where you can learn more about these efforts and support projects like the one run by our partner Dr. Marcela Uhart in Argentina.

A veterinarian and long-time conservationist, Dr. Uhart works with the University of California Davis as the Regional Director of the Latin American Program at the Wildlife Health Center. For over 20 years, Dr. Uhart has focused on the health of marine species, and works to protect a variety of animals such as sea turtles, sea lions, sea birds, and whales. Much like the work we are doing here, Dr. Uhart and her team are able to best protect marine species through efforts to reduce marine debris. In 2017, these efforts were carried out in a variety of ways:

  • With the help of over 300 volunteers, the team completed their 2nd marine debris census and beach cleanup. The cleanup covered 13 coastal towns near Buenos Aires, and resulted in the collection of 40,000 debris items – 82% of the items recovered were plastics.
    Results of the 2nd marine debris census
  • During April and May 2017 the team performed weekly beach surveys, covering over 100 miles (that’s similar to the distance from the Zoo to Texas A&M University) of Buenos Aires province coastline. These surveys resulted in the discovery of 30 deceased sea turtles, an improvement over the numbers found in 2016. Determining the cause of death can help to influence policy and the promotion of better commercial fishing practices.
  • Additionally, the team also hosted a workshop on a method called Community Based Social Marketing (CBSM), a method of creating changes in behavior by identifying and addressing barriers and benefits individuals or communities may face as a result of a change. An introduction to CBSM was presented to 24 local participants, providing them with tools to improve their impact on public policies in their communities as well as help them more effectively drive cultural and behavioral changes in citizens, with the common goal of reducing pollution of the coastal environment.
    Volunteers helping with a beach clean up in Argentina

 

 

 

 

 

 

We are extremely proud of all of the hard work Dr. Uhart and her team are putting in to save marine species, and we can’t wait to see what they are able to accomplish in the coming months. By attending the sea lion team’s SOS event this Saturday, you will be helping to support Dr. Uhart’s efforts to host a second behavior change workshop for the local communities. In addition to providing training, funding will assist in being able track results from data collected this year, all in an effort to reduce marine debris on the beaches of Argentina.

Wildlife Warrior Award Winner Visits Uganda

Our admissions’ team raises funds to help save animals in the wild through the sales of colorful wildlife bracelets guests can buy at the entrance to the Zoo.  In 2015, the Zoo established this conservation hero award program called Wildlife Warriors to use the bracelet funds to recognize and enhance the outstanding staff employed by the Zoo’s existing conservation partners. The program has awarded 15 Wildlife Warriors to date from our conservation projects in developing countries. All of the warriors honored were carefully chosen by the Zoo’s admissions’ team. The award is designed to increase the recipient’s conservation community network and inspire empowerment by providing opportunities to gain further education through training or experiences.

Valerie Akuredusenge, Program Director of Conservation Heritage-Turambe was selected as a Wildlife Warrior in 2016. Just last month she completed her training with a conservation education program in nearby Uganda called UNITE. Below is an account of Valerie’s training, in her own words:

To wrap up my story telling about my time with Unite, I am happy to share about my experience and what I took back from my visit.

During my visit with UNITE for the Environment,  I was able to learn about their conservation programs namely Teacher Training and Evaluation by observing teachers while they are teaching in the classroom to assess teaching methods, quality of content used, and whether or not they are integrating environmental education into their teaching.  In addition, I was also given the opportunity to visit two partner schools of UNITE.

What I took back from UNITE to CHT:

What I took back from the UNITE’s Teacher Training is that their approach helps in terms of sharing conservation messages to a wider audience  and one can expand upon the program to more areas. As far as CHT builds up its teacher training through annual open day, my experience with UNITE will significantly contribute in terms of strengthening and improving our existing program.

As far as the UNITE’s evaluation is concerned, I had time to also observe teachers while they were teaching.  By connecting my experience from Teacher training and that of teacher observation, I could really tell that the teachers were integrating environmental education in their teaching. This is another approach that CHT will try to see if it applies by collaborating with its partner schools and education officers.

By also visiting UNITE’s partner schools, I learned about what communities and schools are doing in terms of environmental conservation.

In short; I deeply thank the Houston Zoo and its Admission Team for having selected me as one of their wildlife warrior winners in 2016. I would also like to express my sincere thanks to the North Carolina Zoo for their wonderful program, UNITE for the Environment. Corrine Kendall finds my sincere thanks here as well for playing an important role while putting me in touch with UNITE. Additionally, I would however request a continuous collaboration between CHT and UNITE so we can keep on exchanging programs and learning from each other.

Staff Saving Wildlife in Vietnam

One of our amazing veterinary technicians is currently in Vietnam training staff from the organization, Save Vietnam’s Wildlife. Jess, our talented vet tech is training staff in Vietnam on medical procedures for animals including blood collection, animal handling skills, intubation techniques and how to respond to different anesthetic situations.

Developing these skills in the staff at Save Vietnam’s Wildlife will help them further develop their animal health assessments of critically endangered animals such as pangolins. Jess started her work immediately upon arrival, when the organization rescued a total of 32 pangolins, bringing the total under their care to 77. Pangolins are the most trafficked mammal in the world.

Jess’s work is fully-supported by our Staff Conservation Fund, a grant for Houston Zoo staff, funded by Houston Zoo staff to support their passion to save animals in the wild. This is a unique program to the Houston Zoo and has allowed our staff to carry out 43 projects around the world to save wildlife over the past 10 years.

4 Sea Turtles Receive Medical Care at Houston Zoo

On Friday, September 29th, 4 sea turtles visited the Houston Zoo’s Vet Clinic for medical care. These turtles had a variety of issues that needed attention, and were rescued by biologists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Galveston facility.

3 of the 4 sea turtles were Kemp’s ridleys, one of the most endangered sea turtle species on the planet (and the smallest in size!). One of these turtles had an injury on its’ shell and Houston Zoo vets performed surgery on the turtle to try to repair the damage. The remaining Kemp’s ridley turtles were brought to the Zoo to ensure they did not accidentally ingest fishing hooks, and our radiographs showed that they had not.

The fourth turtle seen by Houston Zoo vets was a hawksbill sea turtle. This turtle showed signs of internal digestion issues. Zoo vets performed surgery on the turtle and it will recuperate at NOAA’s facility in Galveston until it is healthy enough to be released.

Anyone spending time in the Galveston Bay/Gulf of Mexico area can potentially come into contact with a sea turtle. If you see a sea turtle on the beach or accidentally catch it while fishing, please report it by calling 1-866-TURTLE-5 so a biologist can respond to the turtle and make sure it gets the care it needs before going back into the ocean. Similarly, while fishing, you can ensure the protection of sea turtles by placing your fishing line in monofilament recycling bins so it does not end up in the water, potentially entangling a marine animal.

Green Sea Turtle from Kipp Aquarium Returns to the Wild

Through our partnership with NOAA Galveston’s sea turtle conservation program, the Houston Zoo spent the last several months rehabilitating a green sea turtle in our Kipp Aquarium. Last Tuesday, the green sea turtle was successfully released into the Bay! NOAA Galveston responds to sea turtle strandings on the Upper Texas Coast, and when medical support and/or rehabilitation support is needed for a stranded animal, the Houston Zoo is proud to work alongside NOAA to provide this care.

Three other turtles were released last Tuesday afternoon, including an injured turtle that was found by the Foster family in the ship channel. The Foster’s reported the turtle to NOAA by calling 1-866-TURTLE-5, and the family was able to assist in its release after the turtle recovered from its injuries. Thanks to local community members like the Fosters, this turtle lived to be rehabilitated and released back into the ocean.

You can ensure Texas sea turtles are protected by reporting any injured or accidentally caught turtle to 1-866-TURTLE-5. Additionally, you can reduce your use of plastic to prevent trash from ending up in our waters, which sea turtles may mistake for food and eat. The Houston Zoo has gone plastic bottle and plastic bag free, and you can too! Try switching to reusable water bottles and fabric shopping bags to reduce your plastic consumption. Find out more about our efforts to reduce plastic pollution here.

Houston Zookeeper Crowned Golden Keeper

Our very own Sara Riger, Naturally Wild Swap Shop naturalist, has won the Golden Keeper award by the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK). Sara was crowned champion after receiving the most “likes” from peers, family, and several supporters on the AAZK Facebook page contest.

Zoos and aquariums across the country celebrated National Zoo Keeper Week July 16 – 22, highlighting the diversity of zookeepers and their contributions to global conservation efforts. AAZK, celebrating their 50year anniversary, received nominations from several zookeepers around the country for the first-ever Golden Keeper award. Nominated by her close colleague, Katie Buckley-Jones, Sara was one of just 10 zookeepers chosen as a finalist.

Sara’s career working at zoos began more than two decades ago. She began working at the Bronx Zoo in New York 25 years ago working with birds and mammals. She then moved to an upstate New York zoo to work with primates and lions. From New York, Sara moved to Tennessee to work for the Nashville Zoo, where she helped open their Critter Encounters exhibit and later became a supervisor of mammals. For the past 13 years, Sara has worked at the Houston Zoo, caring for carnivores, primates, and now working in the Swap Shop. As a naturalist in the Swap Shop, she inspires guests to explore the outdoors and save animals in the wild.

You can meet and visit Sara, and learn all about the natural world, at the Naturally Wild Swap Shop, located in the John P. McGovern Children’s Zoo. She’ll be there to greet you with a warm smile, and sometimes with an animal in-hand!

We are so proud to have someone as passionate, dedicated, and kind as Sara on our team. Please join us in congratulating Sara on this wonderful achievement!

Houston Zoo Bird Staff Saving Wildlife Part 5

This blog was written by Kasey Clarke, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Bird Department. Kasey received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from her coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Kasey documents her work overseas.  

The process described below is part of the Mariana Conservation Program (MAC) to relocate local bird species to neighboring islands that do not have the invasive brown tree snake, an introduced species that preys upon native birds. 

Departure

The day before departure the Mariana fruit doves receive a colored band and are placed in the transport boxes. This is the last time they will be handled before they are released. The doves do not receive color combination bands like the Rufous fantails because they were banded with a metal band that has a unique number engraved on it.

On departure day the birds are taken to the dock and moved onto the boat. Everyone involved from US Fish and Wildlife and the MAC program shows up to help and to see the birds off and wish them safe travels. It is a joyous occasion with a great sense of relief. The birds are just hours away from being released to their new home. A crew of mostly US Fish and Wildlife employees and three MAC plan representatives will accompany the birds on their journey.

Once they reach their destination the transport boxes will be loaded onto backpacks. They hike up a mountain to the pre-selected release site. Below is a photo of Anne Heitman demonstrating the backpack.

The rest is up to the birds. In the coming years the department of Fish and Wildlife will do population studies to make sure the birds are reproducing.

It was quite an honor to be involved in this project. It is amazing to work for the Houston Zoo and get opportunities like this one!

Houston Zoo Bird Staff Saving Wildlife Part 4

This blog was written by Kasey Clarke, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Bird Department. Kasey received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from her coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Kasey documents her work overseas.  

The process described below is part of the Mariana Conservation Program to relocate local bird species to neighboring islands that do not have the invasive brown tree snake, an introduced species that preys upon native birds. 

When the bird room is full of Rufous fantails and Mariana fruit doves the veterinarians do a medical exam on every single bird. We had two vets, one vet tech, and four bird keepers helping with the exams. It was great having this many people on hand to complete this enormous task as efficiently as possible.

During this process a small amount of blood is taken from the underside of the wing with a capillary tube, just like when a person is checking their blood sugar levels. The blood is put onto a slide; this is called a blood smear. The slides are looked at under a microscope to see if the blood cells are normal and to make sure the white blood cell count is normal. If the white blood count is high that could mean the bird is fighting an infection.

Medical exam performed on a bird as it prepares to be translocated for conservation purposes
Blood from each bird is looked at carefully to ensure the blood cells are normal and the bird is healthy

After the blood is collected the bird is given a physical. The vet checks the body condition, sound of its heart and breathing, and checks its eyes to make sure it has no issues with vision. If the bird seems less than the pinnacle of health, the bird is released and not translocated. We want to make sure every bird has the best chance of surviving in its new home.

Each bird is looked at carefully by wildlife professionals

The last thing done during the exam is a feather collection. The feathers are collected so that the gender of the bird can be determined. This is not determined while we are there, but it takes about a week or two for an outside lab to do the work. This information is recorded for future data analysis.

All these things are noted for each individual bird’s records. Note cards are kept with the birds while they are in our care and we write down everything that happens. The birds’ weight, where it was found, diet consumption, bands (identification), and medical notes are all written on these cards.

Records are kept for each individual bird

Next time the birds will be prepped for departure and we will watch them sail away towards their new home!

Houston Zoo Bird Staff Saving Wildlife Part III

This blog was written by Kasey Clarke, a member of the Houston Zoo’s Bird Department. Kasey received a Staff Conservation Fund grant from her coworkers at the Houston Zoo to carry out a wildlife-saving project for birds in the Mariana Islands (a chain of islands in the western North Pacific Ocean). We will be posting a series of blogs as Kasey documents her work overseas.  

The process described below is part of the Mariana Conservation Program to relocate local bird species to neighboring islands that do not have the invasive brown tree snake, an introduced species that preys upon native birds. 

The bird room for native birds who are being relocated to islands without the invasive brown tree snake

When the birds come in from the field, it’s time for some important record-keeping. The birds are banded, weighed, and their wings, legs, and tails are measured. They are also given a physical to make sure they are in good body condition. We check for signs of nesting as well (such as a bare spot on their belly). Each bird gets a metal band with a unique number engraved on it. This helps us to identify each bird and more easily keep track of them as we feed and monitor their condition.  Below are several photos of the process for both the fruit dove and the rufous fantail that we met in the previous blog entry.

Measuring the tarsometatarsus length
Measuring primary feathers
Measuring tail feathers
Checking feather quality
Measuring tarsometatarsus length
Banding the birds-putting small tags on the birds for identification purposes

After they receive their physical they are placed in their own individual box. The dove boxes are larger than the boxes for the fantails because they are much larger birds. They will then travel to Guguan (another island in the Mariana region). This travel time also gives us a chance to collect feather, blood, and fecal samples in order to determine sex and the stress level of every bird. Disney Animal Kingdom sends a team from their veterinary clinic to collect these samples for a study they are doing on cortisol (stress hormone) levels. I will go more in depth on the process of the medical exams next time.

Dove boxes
Fantail boxes

Every day the fruit doves are fed a mixture of papaya, Kaytee exact high fat formula, and water. This is done three times a day. The rufous fantails get fed meal worms and flies four times a day. The idea is to have them eat consistently to ensure they are as healthy as possible throughout their journey.

Next time we will see our rufous fantail friend get a medical exam.

Rescued Sea Turtle Returns to Wild

This blog post was written by Heather Crane, a Houston Zoo staff member in our Sea Lion Department. The sea turtle release described below would not have been possible without prominent sea turtle conservationists at NOAA Galveston who provided all care and support to rehabilitate the sea turtles mentioned in this blog.

On October 30, 2016 a group of volunteers and I were at a scheduled Sea Lion team Surfside Jetty cleanup when we discovered an entangled green sea turtle. Cleanups are executed monthly by the Houston Zoo Sea Lion Team. Through a partnership between the Houston Zoo and NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), fishing line is removed to prevent wildlife entanglement and pollution. We notified NOAA of the entangled sea turtle by calling the sea turtle hotline at 1-866-TURTLE-5. While we waited on a NOAA scientist to arrive, the turtle became more entangled and appeared distressed. My worst fear started playing out before me: this endangered turtle was drowning. Help was still 30 minutes from arriving. I made the decision to enter the water to disentangle and retrieve the sea turtle. My team of volunteers stood close by to assist and ensure my safety. Our Conservation Intern of the time, Taylor Rhoades, also entered the water to free me when my shoes also became entangled in fishing line. The in-water dangers that exist pose a threat and it is not recommended that members of the public enter the water. NOAA biologist, Lyndsey Howell, arrived and removed the fishing line that was tightly wound around the front left flipper of the turtle. She took the green turtle to the Galveston Sea Turtle Facility to begin what would become a seven month rehabilitation and recovery.

Green sea turtle entangled in discarded fishing line
Houston Zoo staff and intern retrieve sea turtle from in-water entanglement by fishing line

On Friday, May 19th, the sea lion team was invited to watch the rescued green sea turtle be released back into its natural habitat. This was an unexpected surprise and a very special and generous invitation from NOAA, which will forever have an impact on my life. NOAA was scheduled to release five green sea turtles on Friday. I was surprised when we were told our team would help release some of the turtles. We got a lesson from the biologists, Lyndsey and Heather, on safe handling and release practices before being allowed to release the turtles. I took the first turtle to the water and when it touched the surface of the water, it knew exactly what to do. I watched it until it disappeared into the water about 15 feet in front of me. Next, my supervisor, Sophie Darling, took a turn releasing a turtle too. After four turtles were released, the only one that remained was the turtle I had rescued in October.

Houston Zoo Sea Lion staff and NOAA biologist prepare a green sea turtle for release back into the wild
Houston Zoo Sea Lion Supervisor, Sophie, prepares a green sea turtle for release back into Galveston Bay
Houston Zoo sea lion staff helps return a rehabilitated sea turtle to the wild! This turtle was cared for by NOAA Galveston

The surprises just kept coming. Not only would I have the opportunity to watch the turtle I rescued go home, I was also going to be the one to release him! I had never imagined I would be part of this endangered animal’s story, and certainly never thought I would see the full circle process. When I peered in to the container in which the turtle had been transported, it appeared healthy and active. And WOW! It had doubled in size too! I would recognize this turtle anywhere, even if it had doubled in size. The posterior edge of the shell had a small hole in it when I first encountered it in October. Additionally, due to the tight fishing line that was wrapped around the front left flipper, there was distinctive line entanglement scarring. As I walked towards the water, I stopped to take a picture with the turtle before wishing it farewell and good luck. As I waded out into the shallows, I only felt excitement. I think I was still in shock that NOAA had included me in this turtle’s journey. I lowered the turtle to the water and it took just a moment for it to start swimming. First, it swam backwards, which both confused and humored me, but then, it swam gracefully away towards the deeper water. As I watched, I could think of fewer greater moments of joy in my life.

Houston Zoo staff member, Heather, was overjoyed to help release the green sea turtle she helped rescue from the Surfside Jetty just 7 months ago.

The Houston Zoo has empowered me to take an active role in conservation of wild animals. The Houston Zoo’s partnerships with NOAA and other conservation organizations are invaluable and are what make our conservation programming successful. I feel proud to know that this is only one example of how the Houston Zoo lives its mission of saving animals in the wild. Many people have thanked me and have told me how I impacted the life of the green sea turtle I rescued that day. In the end, we both impacted each other. When I reflect upon proud moments of my life and career, this experience will always be amongst the experiences of which I am most proud. I am proud, too, to be a part of team dedicated to ensuring clean waterways through the dedication of time and energy every month to cleaning the Surfside Jetty. And I could not be more thankful to NOAA and all the work they do to rescue, rehabilitate, and release these beautiful and endangered turtles.

To watch a short video of the green sea turtle being released, please visit: Sea turtle release

You can help protect sea turtles in Texas by disposing of fishing line properly. Place fishing line in designated monofilament recycling bins, or take it home with you and dispose of it in your trash so it does not blow into the ocean where animals like sea turtles, fish, dolphins, and birds can become entangled. 

Look for these bins when fishing-you can dispose of your fishing line here and it will be kept out of the ocean where it can harm animals like sea turtles!
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