Save Wildlife on Your Next Vacation with the Houston Zoo

It’s no secret – everyone loves a good vacation. Whether it’s an action packed adventure or a time for leisure and relaxation, travel gives us the opportunity to escape the day to day routine and reconnect with the world, animals and people around us. As it turns out, your next vacation could do even more – on expeditions with the Zoo you can save wildlife!

One of the biggest challenges faced globally when it comes to saving species is being able to showcase the true value of wildlife to a country’s government and top decision makers. Typically, countries have wealth that is directly tied up in natural resources like forests, minerals, and land that could be used for agricultural purposes. Using, and in many cases, the over use of these resources comes at a price – wildlife habitats and natural landscapes are altered, sometimes beyond repair. So, people working to protect species are presented with a challenge – they must be able to demonstrate that an animal like the gorilla is just as, if not more valuable long-term, than the precious minerals that can be extracted from their habitat. This is where a specific type of travel comes into the equation – ecotourism. Tourism targeted at a specific species like gorillas can be carefully tracked to prove how much money the species can make for the country. Tourist dollars spent on transportation, lodging, food, and entertainment is accounted for and credited to the gorillas. Wildlife-focused tourism provides evidence to governments that it is more profitable to have thriving wildlife populations than to participate in practices that harm wild places. Perhaps most importantly, ecotourism provides an opportunity for a long-term and sustainable economy. But what’s in it for you, you ask?

The Houston Zoo’s travel program offers “behind the scenes” experiences to see wildlife through the eyes of researchers and conservationists working in the wild to protect the counterparts of the animals we have here at the Zoo. What better way to see the heart of Africa than to sit beside gorillas foraging through thick vegetation and hear heroic tales from Gorilla Doctors, a team of local veterinarians that risk their lives to provide medical care for wild gorillas. All of our expeditions are guided by local wildlife experts and experienced zoo staff, guarantying our travelers a once in a lifetime wildlife experience and the opportunity to witness the work the Zoo is assisting with to protect animals in the wild.

When you join the Zoo to see wildlife, right here in Houston or around the globe, you are helping to save species from extinction. A portion of every admission, membership, event ticket, food item, or gift purchased at the Zoo goes to wildlife saving efforts around the globe. So please, join us on this important mission – see them, save them.

My Return to Yellowstone

Written by Sue Cruver, Wildlife Expeditions Participant

©Sue Cruver

In February of this year, I took my first journey into the wild with the Houston Zoo to Yellowstone National Park. It was an amazing, life-changing experience. Led by the outstanding expedition biologists from the Teton Science Schools (TSS), I found myself surrounded by breathtaking beauty and an abundance of wildlife.  I learned so much about the different animal species, their habits and the environment, as well as the balance of nature and park conservation.

Weather made that trip a challenging one. It was cold, cloudy and snowing most of the time. Several entrances in and out of Yellowstone had to be temporarily closed, resulting in changes to our itinerary and travel routes. Not a problem. Our experienced TSS guides provided alternatives and our adventure never missed a beat. At the end of the week, it was hard to come home. I couldn’t wait to return!

©Sue Cruver

The Houston Zoo provides some great opportunities to “Travel with the Zoo.” Each year, it includes two trips to the Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks in partnership with TSS. Together, the two organizations give participants the chance to enjoy the region in different seasons and to see how wildlife adapts to seasonal changes.

Bears, for example, are hibernating in February, but not in May. Springtime means much of the wildlife will now be with their young. It also means sunshine, green grass and blue skies. As a photographer who had taken dozens of “white” pictures in February, that could mean great color shots! What was I waiting for? The Zoo still had openings for its May 2017 trip and I had to go. So I did.

©Sue Cruver

Weather! Always be prepared, don’t assume, and be sure to layer your clothing. That is one lesson I’ve got down pat. Snow in the middle of May? Never happens, but that’s how our May adventure started, along with a road closure into Yellowstone from Jackson Hole. But again, our wonderful TSS guides provided a detour that got us there via Idaho. Not a problem.

The May trip is three days in the wild. Snow fell the first day as we traveled from Jackson Hole, Wyoming (south of Yellowstone) to Cooke City, Montana (northeast corner outside the park). Along the way we saw bison with their calves, elk, deer, pronghorn antelope, and a few grizzly bears with year old cubs. To see these animals in a few inches of snow vs. a few feet of snow already gave me a different perspective of life in Yellowstone. And, I now could add “bears in snow” to my photographic efforts!

©Sue Cruver

As we drove back into the park at dawn the next day from Cooke City, the sun broke through the clouds and the temperature began to rise. Snow began to melt and color started to emerge everywhere. It was incredibly beautiful and truly magical!

©Sue Cruver

The snowy white landscape sparkled from the sunlight, and the fields and hills gradually transformed into variations of greens and browns. The sky was blue with streaks of sunlight and scattered with clouds. Tall pine trees released snow from their boughs, adding more depth and color everywhere you looked. Wildflowers peeked through a remaining thin blanket of snow.  I was in photography heaven!

©Sue Cruver

Throughout the day and the next, we witnessed a variety of wildlife and bird life as all enjoyed the return of springtime—big horn sheep relaxing on a hillside, grazing herds of bison with their calves, coyotes on the hunt or devouring a kill, grizzly bears with cubs on the move. Some special observations included finding the den of a wolf pack and its recently born cubs, an osprey resting on top of its nest near the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone waterfall, and a four-year old “teenage” bald eagle displaying its not-yet full adult plumage—a rare sighting.

©Sue Cruver

Again, it was hard to come home after such a successful Houston Zoo and Teton Science Schools adventure. Will I return again next year? That’s the plan!


May 2017

A Week I Will Never Forget

This blog post was written by Sue Cruver, a Houston Zoo Travel Program participant who recently experienced the wonders of Yellowstone with the Houston Zoo. If you would like to travel with the Houston Zoo, please visit our travel site

It began sitting at my computer one day last fall. I was reading the latest online Houston Zoo newsletter when I saw a section called “Travel with the Houston Zoo.” Curious, especially because I had been thinking about taking a trip somewhere, I clicked on the page and started learning about the different excursions available to people like me – people who love animals and are concerned about their survival in the wild.

Bald eagle in Yellowstone. Photo credit: Sue Cruver Photography

When I read about an adventure to “Greater Yellowstone in Winter” to view the wildlife and learn about this outstanding ecosystem, I got excited. It was a trip conducted by Teton Science School’s (TSS) Wildlife Expeditions, based in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and a Houston Zoo education and conservation partner.  For so many reasons, I knew it was something I had to do.  As a serious photographer, I envisioned capturing the beauty of the region and the wildlife that wintered there. So, on February 2, 2017, I boarded a plane to Bozeman, Montana for a week I will never forget.

Yellowstone. Photo credit: Sue Cruver Photography

Winter weather can be very unpredictable. I grew up in New Jersey and have lived in Massachusetts, so I knew how the cold and snow can impact travel, and how you have to dress in layers for warmth. But having lived in the Houston, Texas area for the past 43 years, I realized it was going to be a physical challenge to put myself out in that environment again. Winters in Yellowstone have been known to be extremely cold, with temperatures sometimes dropping well below zero. In addition, I was going from a city that is 12 to 17 feet above sea level to altitudes between 6,500 and 8,300 feet. Could I handle it? It definitely was worth a try.

Observe incredible wildlife with the Houston Zoo’s travel program. Photo credit: Sue Cruver Photography

So try I did, and I haven’t been the same since. It was hard to come home.

Yellowstone in winter. Photo credit: Sue Cruver Photography

The week was truly magical. The landscapes were absolutely breathtaking, and I felt like a child again walking in the snow. As for wildlife, there was plenty — bison, elk, pronghorn antelope, coyotes, wolves, bighorn sheep, golden eagles, bald eagles, mule deer, white-tailed deer, moose, trumpeter swans, a bobcat, and so much more.

Bobcat in Yellowstone. Photo credit: Sue Cruver Photography.

Seeing Old Faithful, the other geysers, and hot springs in winter was awesome. Everywhere I looked, there was a picture to be taken. And I took many, despite the fact that most days were cloudy and snowy. As I mentioned, winter weather can be challenging; this week, it only added to the adventure.

Visit Yellowstone with the Houston Zoo-more information can be found on our travel page. Photo credit: Sue Cruver Photography

Temperatures weren’t bad at all, ranging between the teens and low 30s. Snowdrifts and an avalanche did lead to some temporary road closures within the park, but these only resulted in some changes to our itinerary.  Much credit for the smoothness of these transitions goes to the incredibly professional TSS staff and guides. They were amazing!

Bison in Yellowstone. Photo credit: Sue Cruver Photography

And “amazing” is not the only takeaway I have from this adventure. I am very impressed with the Houston Zoo’s travel program and how it provides children, families, and retirees, like me, the opportunity to observe wild animals in their home environments. By partnering with the non-profit Teton Science Schools organization, the Zoo was able to add local Yellowstone guides and biologists to lead this trip. These experts knew where to find the wildlife and were able to answer everyone’s questions.

 In retrospect, this trip was not only fun, but also inspirational. I look at my photographs and am transported back to the peacefulness and beauty of the Yellowstone region. I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and remember the cold, clean, fresh air.  I focus on the quiet I found there and am less stressed. Instead of listening to the noisy media and tech world that constantly bombards us, I now think about the magnificence of this part of our country and its incredible wildlife. I can’t wait to return.

Sue Cruver

Yellowstone Family Adventure with the Houston Zoo

The Houston Zoo just returned from leading our annual Yellowstone Family Adventure program, in partnership with Teton Science Schools. This program, started in 2015, is an opportunity for families to experience wildlife together and learn ways they can help protect wildlife in their daily lives.

During the 5-day program, we experienced lots of incredible things! This year we began the program by collecting data on a bird found in the Grand Tetons, the Clark’s Nutcracker. This birds’ population is decreasing because it is losing its’ main source of food-a nut from the whitebark pine tree. The whitebark pine tree is decreasing in this area because of many threats including the mountain pine beetle and white pine blister rust. So, both the bird and the pine tree need one another and it is important to scientists to collect data on both to help improve their populations.

Coming from the aerial tram on Rendezvous Peak and ready to collect data on birds!
We rode the aerial tram to arrive on Rendezvous Peak and collect data on birds!
A sample of our data collection on Clark's nutcrackers in the Grand Tetons.
A sample of our data collection on Clark’s nutcrackers in the Grand Tetons.

In addition to data collection to help with wildlife-saving efforts, we visited the Teton Raptor Center to learn about birds of prey in the area. That evening we took a float trip down the Snake River where we learned about otters, beavers, bald eagles, osprey, moose and more!

After a full day spent in the Grand Tetons, we drove to Yellowstone National Park where we spent 3 full days. There, we monitored water quality to see how the health of aquatic areas influences the health of wildlife.

Water quality testing near Yellowstone National Park.
Water quality testing near Yellowstone National Park.
Water quality testing near Yellowstone National Park.
Water quality testing near Yellowstone National Park.

We went on several hikes in the Park-viewing wildlife all along the way!

Trout Lake, Yellowstone National Park
Trout Lake, Yellowstone National Park
Here we watched a black bear near a stream, followed by a grizzly bear who appeared shortly after!
Here we watched a black bear near a stream, followed by a grizzly bear who appeared shortly after!
Kids on the program brought interactive workbooks to fill out as they spotted wildlife.
Kids on the program brought interactive workbooks to fill out as they spotted wildlife.
Yellowstone Family Adventure participants enjoying time in nature!
Yellowstone Family Adventure participants enjoying time in nature!

During our program we saw a variety of species. The program was uniquely special this year as the National Parks Service celebrated its’ 100 year anniversary, and Yellowstone National Park was the first national park in the U.S.!

One of the highlights of our program included a morning watching a wolf pack. The pack included 8 pups, which is quite amazing! Through a scope we watched the pups play with their older siblings and parents. Wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1995 after being gone for more than 60 years. While watching the wolves, we had the opportunity to discuss the history of Yellowstone’s wolves with Rick McIntyre, a wildlife biologist who has worked with wolves for more than 20 years in the Park.

Observing wolves in the wild and discussing wolf history in Yellowstone with biologist, Rick McIntyre.
Observing wolves in the wild and discussing wolf history in Yellowstone with biologist, Rick McIntyre.
Observing Yellowstone's wolves through a scope.
Observing Yellowstone’s wolves through a scope.

In addition to plenty of wildlife viewing, we also learned about the unique geological history of Yellowstone, including the hydrothermal features (geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, travertine terraces and mudpots!). More than 10,000 hydrothermal features are found in Yellowstone alone-an astounding number!

Visiting Old Faithful-one of the most iconic geysers in the world!
Visiting Old Faithful-one of the most iconic geysers in the world!

We had a wonderful time in nature, learning about and experiencing wildlife in one of our most famous national parks. In addition to participating in citizen science, we also discussed some of the actions we could take to help the wildlife we were so fortunate to see. Two of the main actions include:

  • Switch from plastic bags to reusable bags at the grocery store to decrease the plastic that ends up in our rivers/streams/oceans. Animals like otters can become entangled in plastics or ingest them thinking they are food. Help save otters by using less plastic bags!
  • Purchase toilet paper and paper towels from companies that use 100% recycled content. Animals like black bears and grizzly bears depend on trees, and trees provide us with paper! By purchasing paper products made with recycled content, we can help protect the homes of bears.

Of course, you don’t have to visit Yellowstone to save wildlife. Making small changes in your daily life to help protect wildlife is possible at anytime, anywhere! If you are interested in Taking Action to save wildlife, find out more here. If you’d like to travel with the Houston Zoo, please visit our travel page here.

Houston Zoo Family Adventure in Yellowstone!
Houston Zoo Family Adventure in Yellowstone!
*All photos courtesy of Teton Science Schools.

Ni Hao from China (Conclusion)

Two members of the Houston Zoo team, Tarah Jacobs and Kevin Hodge, just wrapped up their trip to China. Tarah and Kevin are worked with Chinese Zoos and blogged about their experience abroad.

This post was written by Tarah Jacobs.

Our time in China has come to an end. Over the course of the 2 ½ weeks we were there we met some fantastic people and amazing animals.

whole groupWe had the opportunity to hold 2 workshops on training, enrichment and enclosure design. Over the course of those 2 workshops we had 46 people from 7 different zoos attend. The attendees were animal keepers, animal managers, veterinarians, and directors from their respective zoos.  This gave us a unique opportunity to have many different points of view and many fantastic ideas!

tarah teachingSome highlights:

  • Watching groups from each workshop create and present enclosure designs. We saw so many creative and amazing designs
  • Seeing the smile of the participants (and us!) while the animals enjoyed the enrichments that were created for them. For some animals it was the first time they had been given any enrichment!
  • Watching a Bird keeper from Chengdu zoo train 26 macaws to station when he called each of their names
  • Watching the kangaroo keeper at Hangzhou zoo train each of the female kangaroos to come over and stand so he could check the progress of the joeys in their pouches
  • Meeting amazing colleagues from half way across the world

keeper with monkey

We would like to thank the Hangzhou Zoo and the Chengdu Zoo for being amazing hosts for these workshops. Everyone went out of their way to make sure they were successful and we are so grateful for the opportunity to share our experiences with everyone who attended.


Working with Pacific Bird Conservation (Part 6)

Steve Howard is in the Northern Mariana Islands, working with Pacific Bird Conservation to protect birds and blogging about his experience.

This post was written by Steve Howard

Before I came to Tinian, I read about using mist nets to trap birds. I imagined a small net put in a quiet corner forest while we watched to see if birds went in. Not so much. It turns out there is a LOT of work involved.

This is a good spot for a lane
This is a good spot for a lane

The nets are large – 18 to 36 feet long and 8 feet high, and if the forest is at all dense, which this forest is, a space must be cleared for the net. First, you have to cut a path through the forest, all the time looking for a good spot to put up a net. The undergrowth has to be cleared and fallen braches removed in order to make a trail. When an open spot can be found where a net can be put up with a minimum of clearing, you cut a “lane” to make room for the net. Once the lane is cleared, the net is strung on two poles, usually fly fishing poles that telescope together, and the poles are secured with cord tied to tress or roots

The lane has been cleared and the net put up
The lane has been cleared and the net put up

Then you continue to cut the path and look for another spot to make a lane. It’s hot and humid in the forest, and there is very little breeze. In there, hacking with a machete and cutting things out of the way with a saw is hot, hard and tiring work. I have blisters on my feet, and my arms and legs are scratched up and sore. And I love it!!!

The birds that we catch will start a new population on another island. This will help to protect a vulnerable animal from extinction. All my life I have been sad to think of the extinction an animal as beautiful as these birds. Now, I have the chance to do something about it, directly. So, for all the hard work and blisters, I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything!!

Working with Pacific Bird Conservation (Part 5)

Steve Howard is in the Northern Mariana Islands, working with Pacific Bird Conservation to protect birds and blogging about his experience.

This post was written by Steve Howard

Two of the species we have trapped are the Rufous Fantail and the Tinian Monarch. The thing is, they both like flies. It’s very important to give the birds a diet as close to what they ate in the wild as possible. So where do you get the flies? Well, you start with tuna.

fly trap 2Here’s how it goes: you take a large metal tray about 4 inches deep and put two whole tuna in it. You take a 10 gallon bucket and cut the bottom off, turning it into a tube. Then set it over the tray. You take some window screen and make a large cone out of it, as big across as the 10 gallon bucket, then cut a small hole in in the point. You now have a fly funnel. Tape the funnel to the top of another bucket and push it inward so that it points to the bottom. Then put the bucket with the funnel upside down on top of the “tube bucket” that’s over the tuna. Wait. Flies will gather, and fly up into the tube and onto the screen and get trapped in the bucket.

fly dish fillingNow, here’s the trick. How do you get them into the cage with the bird? Take a small plastic petri dish with a lid on it, and drill a small hole on the bottom. Pull the funnel so that it is now pointing at the sky, and put the hole in the petri dish over the hole in the funnel and wait. Soon the dish will be full of flies. Place the dish in the cage, pull off the lid and quickly shut the door. Voila, that’s all it takes!!

That and a strong stomach for the smell!

Working with Pacific Bird Conservation (Part 4)

Steve Howard is in the Northern Mariana Islands, working with Pacific Bird Conservation to protect birds and blogging about his experience.

This post was written by Steve Howard

We started netting birds on Thursday afternoon, which means my education on how to extract birds from the net began as well. Mist nets are made of very small nylon thread, which makes them almost invisible, especially in low light levels. When a bird flies into it, they become tangled in the mesh, and removing them takes some skill. The bird must be removed from the same direction from which it entered the net, as the net is designed to not let the bird fly through it. Attempting to pull the bird through the net will injure it. The mesh should be removed from the feet first, then the wings, then the head – basically in the opposite order that it entered the net. I wasn’t great at it at first, but I think I’m getting the hang of it! I removed several birds today by myself.

3 Honey extractedAll the birds here are beautiful, but by far the most beautiful (to my mind) is the Micronesian Honey Eater. The feathers on the back and head are flame red and they shine in the sun as it flies by. To see one of these up close is a great privilege. We have collected a pair that will go to the Guam Zoo. This species lived on Guam before the Brown Tree Snake showed up, and to have it back, even if it is just a pair in the zoo, is very exciting for the staff of the zoo. Who knows, someone may see them there, learn the story, and decided to take action!

Ni Hao from China: Houston Zoo Interacting with Animals Around the World (Update #4)

Two members of the Houston Zoo team, Tarah Jacobs and Kevin Hodge, are currently in China. Tarah and Kevin are working with Chinese Zoos and blogging about their experience abroad.

This post was written by Kevin Hodge.

After a 2.5 hour flight from Hangzhou we arrived in Chengdu. We were greeted at the airport by Daisy, a Panda keeper from the Chengdu Zoo. As we drove to the zoo she explained that Chengdu is a rapidly growing city of around 10 million people. We noticed that the most popular mode of transportation is a moped, even for families.  We saw a family of four riding on a moped but we felt more comfortable traveling by car.

IMG_3708The Director of the Veterinary and Animal Care, Mr. Yu, was waiting at the zoo to greet us when we arrived.  It was great to see a familiar face in Chengdu. We met Mr. Yu when he visited the Houston Zoo in December and we both had an opportunity to show him around our zoo and now, he is able to give us a tour of his zoo.

IMG_3749The Chengdu zoo is very fortunate to have a few animals that we do not have in Houston including, South China tiger, Golden monkey Hog deer, Takin, and Giant panda.  Mr. Yu has hired translators from Animals Asia to attend and assist with interpreting while we are here to make sure we all understand each other’s ideas.  Overall there are 26 participates from 4 different zoos from around this area attending the workshop. Our plan is the same as it was in Hangzhou. We will present our power points on Exhibit Design, Enrichment and Training and then visit several of the exhibits in the zoo to brainstorm on ways to improve the exhibit or ways to start an enrichment and training plan for the animals.

In addition to the workshop Mr. Yu and several of the keepers introduced us to the Szechuan style food that they are famous for in Chengdu.  Saying the food is spicy is definitely an understatement!  Even though we both like eating spicy food, we were in tears and sweating while we enjoyed our dinner.  After eating they informed us that the food we were eating is very mild compared to what they normally eat.  They said it was what they would feed 5 year old children here!

Working with Pacific Bird Conservation (Part 3)

Steve Howard is in the Northern Mariana Islands, working with Pacific Bird Conservation to protect birds and blogging about his experience.

This post was written by Steve Howard


fishing pole netToday I learned how to put up a 12-meter mist net! We’ll be trapping birds along one of the old WWII Navy runways which has been almost completely taken over by the forest. The best place to set up the net is in a break in the vegetation. So where the forest has grown in from both sides of the runway, but there is still a space in the middle, is the perfect place. The nets are stretched between twenty-foot tall poles, which are rigged so they can be raised and lowered like a flag. The poles are supported with 4 guy lines that are tied to concrete nails pounded into the asphalt. So I learned how to tie knots today – the clove hitch and sheet bend – how to pound in concrete nails without breaking off the head (learned that the hard way), and how to tie the guy lines so they stay tight.

We also put some nets up in the forest. These are easier to set up because we can tie the lines to trees and put stakes in the ground. After we’re done setting a net up, if it’s not going to be used, it’s tied up so we don’t catch anything by accident. The pictures are of a net fully open and of a net closed up.

closed netsPreparations are complete now for the trapping and care of the birds. We can net them, transfer them to the transport box, get them back to bird room, put them in the cages we assembled already and feed them there! We’ll keep them in the bird room cages until they are taken, by 14 boat ride, to the Island of Guguan and released. We will go back to the woods this afternoon and start netting.

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