Search This Blog

Monday, February 19, 2018

Zoo History: All the President's Pets

Donald Trump doesn't have a dog.  Among all of the other... different things about the 45th President of the United States, that seems to be the one that a lot of people obsess over.  No dog, no cat.  The Obamas had Bo, the Bushes had Barney, the Clintons had Socks, and poor Barron Trump doesn't even get a pet rock to play with.

For almost as long as there have been "First Families", there have been "First Pets."  In the earlier days of the Presidency, when the White House wasn't as much as a glorified working farm where the President pottered around absentmindedly, there would have been lots of animals on the place.  Just as adults had their horses, kids had ponies to trot around on grounds with.  There would have been goats and sheep and chickens, some of which would have been affectionately adopted by the First Tykes.


Of course, just like the regular citizenry, some American Presidents acquired pets of a slightly more exotic caliber.  Some obtained gifts of native wildlife from enthused local citizens as they toured about the country.  Such was the case for Teddy Roosevelt, who literally had someone throw a badger at him as he passed through a train station in Kansas.  Josiah, as the little beastie was named, took to running around the White House, nipping at the ankles of visitors.  To be fair, Roosevelt, having an extraordinary keen interest in nature, kept a wide variety of other animals, including a hyena which begged for scraps at the White House table, who was later sent to the National Zoo.

Other animals were sent as gifts from abroad.  Unlike the giant pandas sent to the US after Richard Nixon's visit to China in the 1970s, these were sent to the President as an individual, rather than as a gift to the nation.The Sultan of Oman, for instance, sent Martin Van Buren a pair of tiger cubs. A bitter argument broke out between Van Buren and Congress as to whether the tigers belonged to him, and should stay in the White House, or to the nation, and should be placed in a zoo.  Van Buren lost that round (and most other rounds), and the cats were sent to a  zoo.   The Marquis de Lafayette, knowing that his old pal George Washington liked to hunt foxes, sent him some golden pheasants as we in case the general would like a change of pace. Those pheasants, incidentally, are now stuffed and on display at Harvard University's Museum of Comparative Zoology.

Among the most famous foreign gifts was the pygmy hippopotamus named Billy, gifted to Calvin Coolidge from the Firestone Plantation in Liberia.  By the time Billy arrived in DC, Silent Cal already had a pretty extensive menagerie, including, at various points, a raccoon, a bobcat, and a wallaby.  Somebody (presumably with the silent blessings of the White House cleaning staff) decided that Billy's acquisition was just way over the red line, and the hippo was sent to the National Zoo.  There, he achieved something that Coolidge never really obtained - a legacy (I mean, seriously, name ONE thing about Calvin Coolidge besides the fact he didn't talk much.  Can you?).  Billy became the most prolific breeder in the zoo, and his genes are still well-represented in the population today.

Other Presidents received gifts from explorers during the exploration of the country.  Thomas Jefferson, another nature-loving polymath, received a prairie dog from the Lewis and Clark Expedition... which was quickly overshadowed when he received a pair of grizzly bears from Zebulon Pike.  For a period of time afterwards, the White House became known as "The President's Bear Garden"... of course, it got burnt down a few years later during the War of 1812, so a lot of things got forgotten, probably.  Jefferson only kept the bears for a few months (on display on the White House lawn) before sending them to a museum in Philadelphia, where one had to be shot after escaping and running amok.  Jefferson also had a mockingbird that he liked to feed by holding food between his lips for the bird to snatch up.

John Quincy Adams, in turn, had an alligator, brought to him by the Marquis de Lafayette, which he kept in one of the White House's bathrooms.  On the other end of the wild and crazy spectrum, Adams also kept silk worms.  Interestingly, this wasn't the only alligator to take up residency in the White House - Herbert Hoover later had a pair, presumably to keep his mind off of the Great Depression.

To learn more about Presidential Pets - the exciting and the mundane - check out the Presidential Pet Museum.  The museum itself is now closed for renovations, but their website offers an encyclopedic view of the history of animals in the White House.  It just goes to show that, at least in the past, the Smithsonian didn't have the only zoo in the nation's capital.

Happy President's Day!

Sunday, February 18, 2018

An Unpleasant Reminder

The news this past week has largely centered around the tragedy in Florida, where a gunman attacked his former high school, killing seventeen people.  About half of the resulting coverage has focused on renewed calls for gun control, spearheaded by those who survived the shooting.  The other half has focused on the shooter himself, highlighting all of the warning signs about his behavior, many of which have been gleaned from his social media.

Lost among the many disturbing posts on his instagram have been images of small animals - lizards, toads, birds - that he killed for amusement, sometimes in quite unpleasant ways.

If it's okay with all of you, I won't post the pictures.  You can just take my word for it that they're nasty.

It's worth repeating again and again, but people who engage in cruelty and sadistic behavior towards other animals are increasingly likely to direct that same behavior towards other humans later on.  Cruelty and violence have a tendency to escalate in a person's behavior, rather than fade.  We're seen it again and again in some of history's worst monsters; even Vlad Tepes, the Romanian tyrant known as "The Impaler" who inspired Bram Stoker's Dracula, wiled away his childhood torturing small animals.

In the case of the Florida shooter, even with his instagram posts it would have been easy to slip under a lot of people's radar.  The animals he killed were wild, and so didn't have an owner or guardian to seek justice for them.  They also tended to be animals that not a lot of people cared too much about, so even when people did notice, there wasn't the reaction that there would have been if they had been, say, bunnies or squirrels.  This is part of the reason that I despise events like rattlesnake round-ups.  I feel that they normalize the joyful hatred and killing of other animals in a festive, celebratory manner.

By calling out wanton cruelty against animals, imposing stricter consequences (including, I would hope, banning weapon ownership among those convicted), we may do more than save the lives of non-human animals.  We could potentially be saving the lives of people we care about.

Friday, February 16, 2018

No Such Thing As Bad Publicity?

There is on inherent difficulty in using stories and popular culture to teach visitors about animals.  In much local folklore and culture, the animals themselves are not portrayed too kindly.  Sometimes, the association of an animal's status in culture is a very negative one, which can have significant impact on its conservation status and efforts to preserve it.

Consider the dhole - a pack-hunting Asian wild dog.

Last year, I was speaking with the curator of another zoo, commiserating over the pounds and pounds of paperwork that were needed to transport or import species that could potentially become invasive to our environment.  We were going over the list of species that the Fish and Wildlife Service has listed as potential invasives - anacondas, meerkats, flying foxes... and dhole.  I'd always wondered about that, and I asked him.  What made the government so concerned about dholes getting loose in America and destroying the America?

"I don't know," he replied after a while.  "Someone must have read too much Kipling."

Rudyard Kipling is best known as the author of The Jungle Book, the tales of the man-cub Mowgli and his upbringing in the jungles of India.  The characters of Baloo and Bagheera, Kaa and Shere Khan are well known to many readers.  One of the less-known stories from the work is Red Dog, when Mowgli's adopted wolf family must fight to defend their home from a fierce outside invader.

"The dhole, the dhole of Dekkan - Red Dog, the Killer!  They came north from the south saying the Dekkan was empty and killing out by the way.  When this moon was new there were four to me - my mate and three cubs... At the dawn-wind I found them stiff in the grass - four, Free People, four when this moon was new  Then I sought my Blood-Right and found the dhole."


To the British colonial authorities of India, the dhole was perceived as a vicious killer, one deserving of no compassion and no conservation status.  In fact, it was believed that the best way to conserve wildlife in some areas was to exterminate the dhole - they were seen as beasts that would kill wantonly, destroying all the animals that they could catch and chasing the rest clear out of the region.  A similar prejudice was based across the ocean against the African wild dog.

Compared to most of the large carnivores of Asia - the bears and the big cats - the dhole is largely ignored, with few large-scale plans for its conservation.  There is no international "Save the Dhole" movement, no popular documentaries, no organizations using them as their logos.  I have a hard time coming up with any other explanation for this apathy/indifference other than the dhole's bad press.  Few people have heard of it, and of those who have, fewer still like what they have heard.

Very few American zoos house dholes - I have only seen them once, myself.  I found them to be gorgeous, engaging animals, full of activity, bustling with curiosity.  They are intensely social and devoted to one another - the picture I took above is the one moment I was able to get one off by itself.  It was a meeting that I had long been looking forward to - I had heard of dholes, but had never gotten the chance to observe one before.  It made me said to realize that so few people would get the chance to meet or experience these beautiful animals, all as a result of a chapter in a work of a fiction.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Sporcle Quiz: Literary Lions, and Tigers, and Bears


Apex predators just as lions, tigers, and bears have played on out-sized role in our culture, and it certainly shows in our literature.  Can you match the famous lions, tigers, and bears to their descriptions?

Monday, February 12, 2018

Beautiful Buzzards and Literary Lions

Before accepting his current role as Director of the Jacksonville Zoo, Tony Vecchio served as the Director of the Oregon Zoo in Portland, Oregon.  Oregon Zoo has a history of commitment to the conservation of the native wildlife of the Pacific Northwest, and during Mr. Vecchio's tenure, the zoo was preparing to join in efforts to save another iconic native species - the California condor.  And so, as zoo directors are wont to do, Mr. Vecchio got his begging sack and began going door to door.

The thing was, many of the local businessmen and moneybags didn't seem interested.  They heard the facts and the figures and the conservation story of the condor... and no one seemed too inclined to part with cash.  Then, during one of his frequent spiels, Mr. Vecchio ad-libbed a bit.  He mentioned that Lewis and Clark had encountered condors during their exploration of the area.   "Beautiful buzzard of the Columbia," they called it, even capturing one live.  Suddenly, folks were more interested.

Tony Vecchio recounted this story to me - and a room full of other zoo and aquarium professionals - during a workshop he was giving on the power of stories to motivate visitors and change behavior.  It also speaks to the power of animals in our culture and history.

Some zoos have utilized this fascination to help educate visitors about animals.  Many zoos use story-times to attract parents with small children, with an animal-themed story seguing into facts about the real, live animals.  Akron Zoo has an entire major section of its campus designated as Legends Of the Wild, with condors, jaguars, and other animals featured prominently in myth and culture.  William Conway's How to Exhibit a Bullfrog advocated for the inclusion of displays on an animal's role in culture and literature.

Perhaps more zoos could expand upon the concept, forging new partnerships to attract new audiences.  Animal-themed movies at the zoo, with keepers serving as "Mythbusters" (the Jennifer Lopez horror flick Anaconda, for instance, or Jaws at the aquarium.  Harry Potter and owls?).  Reaching out to churches, mosques, or synagogues to hold discussions on "Animals of the Bible/Koran/Torah.  Animal-themed yoga.  Animal-inspired music by orchestras.  Curriculum tie-ins with school literature classes - Life of Pi could be read by students, then incorporate a field trip to the zoo.  The possibilities are nearly endless.

True, few of these things have much to do with the animals themselves.  The anaconda in a 1990's horror movie bears little resemblance to the snake dozing half-submerged in a pool in the reptile house.  As Tony Vecchio discovered with his condors, however, if you can help people make a connection with the animal, no matter how tenuous, you have the foundation to start building a real relationship that may impact the species for the better.

Don't believe me?  Well, Oregon Zoo got its condor facility...

Saturday, February 10, 2018

I Grew A Culture In This Place

In Inca mythology, the Andean condor was considered to be the messenger of the Sun.  The Ancient Egyptians mummified crocodiles, baboons, and other animals, preparing them for eternity in the afterlife.  Not content with hawks or falcons, the hunters of the Mongolian steppes took prey the size of wolves using trained golden eagles.  And what American or European schoolchild never heard of the Big Bad Wolf, or Daniel in the lion's den?

When researching a species for the first time, I find the most fascinating aspect to be learning about an animal's cultural history - how it fits into the cultures, economies, art, religion, and history of the people who share its environment.  Some of the stories I have come across have been truly fascinating.  Consider the black-necked stork, the South Asian and Australian equivalent of Africa's saddle-billed stork.  In India, the Mir Shikar people had a ritual for young men seeking to marry.  They had to capture one of these imposing birds - alive.  The task was not without its peril - the custom was finally discontinued in 1920, when one young man was killed by the stork he was attempting to capture.

One of the most interesting things about an animal's cultural history is that is constantly changing.  A few years ago, very few people gave a moment's worth of thought to sloths.  Now, due to their portrayal in pop culture, they are - for reasons I still don't completely understand - some of the most popular of all zoo animals.  One hundred years ago, gorillas were moved in American and European culture as menacing, hulking brutes.  In part due to the increased exposure of humans to gorillas in zoos (especially "hero" gorillas Jambo and Binti Jua) and studies on the apes in the wild, they now enjoy a reputation as gentle vegetarian giants.  The same could be said for orcas - they went from the most feared creatures in the ocean to... Shamu.  It's ironic that the newfound public love for orcas, which started in oceanariums such as SeaWorld, is now causing that species to disappear from marine parks.  

History doesn't have to be ancient to be fascinating.  Any description of the okapi inevitably settles around the fact that the mysterious forest giraffe was unseen by European eyes until as late as the turn of the last century.  Play a game of word-association with anyone and mention the word "Raven", and you're almost sure to get the answer "Nevermore", a reference to the famous poem by Edgar Alan Poe.  Poe lived out his last years in Baltimore, Maryland, which named its football franchise the Baltimore Ravens in tribute.  Not surprisingly, the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore prominently features an exhibit of northern ravens, as well as having some in its animal ambassador program, who serve as mascots for the football team.  Is it a plug for attention?  Perhaps.  But it also serves as a method of tying the animal as a symbol or mascot to the real, living, breathing creature.

Oftentimes, the cultural history of the animal plays a direct role in its conservation.  The history of the sea otter, for example, would never be complete with a description of the fur trade, spearheaded by the Russians, which almost wiped this charming water-weasel from the face of the earth, with dire consequences for the kelp forests where it dwells.  Or, closer to home, how the extermination of the American bison was brought about largely by the US Army's efforts to deprive the Lakota, Comanche, and other Plains Indian tribes of their most important food resource, thereby starving them into submission.

The cultural role of an animal tells us a little about that species... but it tells us a lot about us.  It tells us how people through the world view animals and interact with them.  When properly understood and channeled, it can become another tool in the quest to save animals from extinction.  Many people in countries around the world do not realize that the animals that they share their lands with are unique to those lands.  Developing an appreciation of the fact that they have the only stories about those animals - that their's is the only culture to incorporate them - can provide an adding impetus to protect them.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Species Fact Profile: Fiji Banded Iguana (Brachylophus fasciatus)

Fiji Banded Iguana
Brachylophus fasciatus (Brongniart, 1800)

Range: Southeastern Fiji, (introduced to Vanuatu and Tonga)
Habitat: Rainforest, Cloud Forest, Wetlands
Diet: Leaves, Flowers, Fruits, Insects
Social Grouping:  Males are territorial
Reproduction: Breeding season in November.  Clutch of 3-6 eggs laid in a burrow, hatching after 7-9 months, during the rainy season.  Young independent at birth, though the female may guard the nest site.
Lifespan: 25 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Endangered, CITES Appendix I


  • Body length up to 80 centimeters, two-third of which is made up of tail.  Weigh up to 200 grams.  Size may vary by island
  • Emerald green scales.  Males have vertical blue or light green stripes on the body and the tail.  Females are solid green, sometimes with white or pale blue spotting.  Have some ability to change the color of their scales to match their background
  • Both sexes have short crests running down the spine.  The Latin name translates to "Banded with a Short Crest"
  • When threatened, change their color to a darker shade, near black, and lunge forward with their mouths gaping
  • With the two other Fijian iguanas (B. bulabula and B. vitiensis), they are believed to be the descendants of iguanas that rafted across the Pacific from the Americas thousands of years ago.  They are some of the only iguanas found outside of North and South America
  • Threatened by habitat loss, as well as predation of both adults and eggs by invasive mongooses and domestic cats.  Fully protected, subject to captive-breeding program
  • Historically has been smuggled heavily for the exotic pet trade; the entire population of Fijian iguanas in American zoos is descended from animals smuggled from Fiji
  • Considered a national treasure on Fiji, depicted on currency and postage stamps.  Regarded as the totem of some tribes, where the name of the animal may not be spoken aloud.  Other tribes are terrified of them