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Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Zoo Review: New England Aquarium

For all of its centuries-long history, Boston has been a harbor town, a city built on fishing and trade.  With such an intimate history with the sea, it's no surprise that the city boasts a world-class aquarium, located directly on the waterfront.  Opened in 1969, the New England Aquarium is one of the great aquariums of the northeastern United States.

The fun of exploring the aquarium begins before a visitor has even purchased his or her ticket.  Outside of the main building is a stand-alone habitat for harbor seals.  The handsome little pinnipeds, natives of the Boston area, can be observed above or below the surface of the water.  Training demonstrations occur frequently, allowing visitors to watch as aquarium staff interact with the marine mammals to practice behaviors which allow the seals to assist in their own care and management.

More seals and sea lions can be seen in the New Balance Foundation Marine Mammal Center, adjacent to the main aquarium.  Here, California sea lions can be observed in an open-air pavilion where, like the harbor seals, frequent training demonstrations occur.  The sea lions are joined by northern fur seals - a species that is very seldom seen in American collections.  These were the first fur seals that I'd ever seen, as I was completely taken in by them - so much smaller, sleeker, and (to shed objectivity) so much cuter than the more common Californians.  They also looked so soft and touchable... which, as a nearby docent was happy to demonstrate, using a sample pelt,  is exactly what led to their massive decline as they were hunted for their namesake furs.

Stepping into the main aquarium, the eye is immediately drawn to the literal and metaphorical heart of the aquarium - the Giant Ocean Tank.  Reopening in 2013 after extensive renovations, this 200,000 gallon habitat forms the core around which the rest of the aquarium is built.  Spiraling walkways encircle it, allow visitors to get eye-to-eye with loggerhead turtles, bonnethead sharks, moray eels, and a host of other ocean-dwellers in a recreated Caribbean reef.  The climb eventually ends at the top of the tank, where you may watch divers enter the tank of feed and service the enclosure, or listen to an educational presentation.

Huddled around the base of the Giant Ocean Tank are three separate habitats for penguins from around the world.  African penguins, rockhopper penguins, and little blue penguins - the world's smallest species - inhabit pools studded with rocky islands for them to climb across.  Little blues are uncommon in zoo collections - this was only my second time ever seeing them, which was a treat... although I was unfortunately there during their annual molt, which meant that most of them looked like they had just fallen out of a laundry machine after a double-spin cycle.

Other galleries line the various levels of the aquarium - guests progress up the central ramp around the Giant Ocean Tank, hopping off as the mood strikes them on one floor or another.  The Temperate Gallery has an attractive display of schooling bait-fish, but the stars in the eyes of most visitors are likely either to be the massive Goliath grouper (which looks like it could - and maybe just did - swallow a kindergartner for breakfast), as well as the ethereal sea-dragons - both the weedy and the leafy - drifting in a rounded tank among strands of kelp.  The Northern Waters Gallery is dominated by a massive giant Pacific octopus, as well as lobsters (this is Boston, after all), and an attractive aviary of non-releasable shorebirds.  The Freshwater Gallery displays creatures of the Amazon, including such aquarium favorites as anaconda, piranha, and electric eel, as well as salmon.  There is also a touch tank replication of sea life of the New England coast.  Also present is an exhibit of Asian arowana, I species I first learned about through Emily Voigt's excellent book, The Dragon Behind the Glass.

As with many aquariums, New England tries to engage its visitors with rotating exhibits - at the time of my visit, the theme was "The Science of Sharks", with a touch tank of small sharks and a series of interactive exhibits on the ocean's most famous predators.  Past rotating displays have featured jellyfish and turtles

Like most of the larger, AZA-affiliated aquariums, the New England Aquarium is active with the rehabilitation of marine life. most of which is done off-exhibit.  It also maintains a specialized rehab center for porpoises, located outside of the city.

As a final treat, New England Aquarium boasts of a spectacular wildlife viewing opportunity that makes it very worthwhile for a whole day of enjoyment (post coming tomorrow).

Boston is a fine old city with many exciting historical and cultural attractions to enjoy,  A visit to the city, however, wouldn't be complete with an exploration of its natural heritage as well, and the New England Aquarium is fine place for that exploration to begin.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Sand Tiger Shark (Carcharias taurus)

Sand Tiger Shark (Gray Nurse Shark)
Carcharias taurus (Rafinesque, 1810)

Range: Temperate and Tropical Oceans Worldwide
Habitat: Shallow Waters, Bays, Reefs
Diet: Fish, Crustaceans, Cephalopods
Social Grouping: Solitary, Small Groups
Reproduction: Breed in October and November.  Gestation period 6-9 months.  Females give live birth (eggs hatch within the mother's body) in sheltered areas, typically breeding once every two years. Believed to be mature at 4-10 years (females take longer to mature than males)
Lifespan: 35 Years (Wild Estimate)
Conservation Status: IUCN Vulnerable

  • Maximum length up to 6 meters and weighing up to 300 kilograms, but 3.5 meters long and weighing 95-110 kilograms is more typical.  Females are usually larger than males
  • Grey coloration, fading to dirty white on the underside, with some metallic brown or red spots on the sides
  • Snout is pointed and slender, and long teeth are visible even when the mouth is closed.  This gives the shark a fierce appearance, which results in their having a reputation for being more dangerous than they actually are
  • Although only two pups are usually born, a female may have hundreds of eggs inside their uterus,  The first pups to begin growth will eat the other, less-developed embryos in what is known as intra-uterine cannibalism
  • Populations at northern and southern extremes of the species range will migrate towards the equator in the winter and back towards the poles in the summer
  • Sometimes hunt cooperatively, working together to herd fish into congregations where they can be more easily seized
  • The first shark species to be granted legal protection.  Believed to be in decline, primarily due to overfishing for meat and fins, as well as accidental entanglements in nets set for other species; during 18th and 19th centuries, their liver oil was used in lighting

Zookeeper's Journal: Compared to the great white shark and many of the other large, predatory shark species, the sand tiger shark is a relatively placid fish, which adjusts well to life under human care.  As a result (and bouyed by the popularity inspired by its fearsome appearance), they are one of the most commonly kept large sharks in aquariums - they certainly were the first shark species that I ever saw growing up, and remain my archetypical "shark."  For large sharks, however, "easy" is a relative term with respect to captive care.  Large sharks don't swim in the wild as much as they glide; in an aquarium tank that is too small, they may have to swim much more actively than they would in the wild.  This sometimes results in a somewhat hunched posture for a shark.  The best tanks are the biggest ones which facilitate the constant motion that these sharks would employ in the wild.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

From the News: Chester Zoo successfully breeds rare Catalan newts

Earlier today, the news broke that the removal of a ban on the import of African elephant trophies into the United States has been reversed; the ban is now back in effect.  One good news item deserves another.  Here's a story that is not going to be getting social media all fired up or drawing lots of celebrity star-power, but is just as deserving of attention: the first captive breeding ever of the rare Montseny newt!  Congratulations to the Chester Zoo!

Catalan newt
 Experts have created a purpose-built breeding facility for the newts to ensure their bio-security. Photograph: Chester Zoo

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Elephant Trophy Ban Lifted

Not a zoo issue in particular, but one which many keepers are discussing today.  Today, the Trump Administration announced that it will be lifting a ban allowing the import of elephant hunting trophies from some countries in southern Africa. 

The announcement has been met with widespread condemnation from the keeper community.  There is a fear that this measure could promote the feeling that elephants are worth more dead than alive, that it could serve as a backdoor to smuggling ivory, or that monies supposed to be going to be conservation could be funneled elsewhere. 

The fact that one of the countries involved in this arrangement has undergone a coup this week isn't helping matter.  Nor is the fact that the President's sons are known to engage in the odd trophy hunt.  Maybe someone was hoping for some new decor for the Oval Office...

PHOTO: A Kenya Wildlife Services (KWS) ranger leads volunteers to carry elephant tusks to a burning site on April 20, 2016, at Nairobis national park for a historic burning of tonnes of ivory, rhino-horn and other confiscated wildlife trophies.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Just Because It's On the Internet...

Image may contain: plant and outdoor

This was making the rounds with a fury earlier this month.  A woman in Virginia was purporting to have evidence of a red panda (which, incidentally, looks not much like a red fox) in a suburban backyard.  Sure, it was a heck of a haul from Norfolk, where an red panda went missing from the  Virginia Zoo months ago, but crazier things have happened, right?

Right, but not in this case.  In this case, it was a prank that spread a little too far and a little too fast.  Someone took a photo of a red panda at a zoo and jokingly sent it to someone else as a "Hey, look what's in my yard!" joke.  That person immediately posted it on the Internet where, it is said, a lie can run around the world before the truth gets its shoes on.

Not that it was a deliberate lie, and I'm sure no one wanted it to build up and then dash the hopes of the Norfolk keepers.  It just goes to show that once something is online, it can definitely take a life of its own.

I have an annoying suspicion that this is going to keep popping up for sometime...

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum)

Ambystoma mexicanum (Shaw, 1789)

Range: Central Mexico
Habitat: Lake Xochimilco
Diet: Algae, Aquatic Invertebrates
Social Grouping: Solitary
Reproduction:  Breed from March through June in the wild.  Sexually mature at 12-18 months.  Males dance to initiate courtship, deposit sperm packets for females to pick up.  Hundreds of eggs laid in mucous envelopes, glued to rocks and other substrate.  Hatch after 2-3 week incubation period.
Lifespan: 10-15 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Critically Endangered, CITES Appendix II

  • Body length 30 centimeters.  Weight 125-180 grams.  Females larger than males
  • Demonstrate an extreme form of neoteny, in which salamanders do not fully undergo metamorphosis and retain their larval features, most notably their branch-like gills
  • If the habitat dries up, the normally larval-like axolotl is capable of undergoing metamorphosis and turning into a "normal" salamander.  Metamorphosis can be induced in captives by thyroid hormone injections
  • Coloration is dark brown or green, often blotchy.  Albinos are frequently bred and seen in captivity, but are not seen in the wild.
  • If wounded, they are capable of converting the affected cells into a stem-cell like state and regrow missing tissue, including whole limbs
  • Herons and other marsh birds are the primary natural predator; larger fishes have recently been introduced to the lakes where axolotls live, adding to the predation pressure.  They are aso consumed by local peoples
  • Common name means "water dog" in the Aztec language, referring to the Aztec god Xolotl, god of the dead and resurrected, as well as ugly beings 
  • Commonly used in biomedical research due to their unique properties.  Breeds very well in captivity; before breeding was established, capture of wild axolotls was a major form of population decline.
  • Major threat causing the decline of the species is habitat loss (one of the two lakes where tis species occurred no longer exists) and pollution from agriculture and sewage disposal, as well as the introduction of predatory fishes

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

A Leave of Absence

Due to some personal matters which have popped up, I'll be taking a brief leave of absence from the Blog - I expect to start up again in the second half of this month.  Hope to be back refreshed and ready in a few weeks!

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Trick or Treat at the Zoo

Like every zoo and aquarium in North America, our zoo has Halloween events.  Like everywhere else, we call them "Zoo Boo" or "Boo at the Zoo", because zoo marketing staffs tend not to be too original, and they're suckers for an easy rhyme.  A small army of children (okay, a LARGE army of SMALL children) parades through the gates in search of candy.  There are a few events and games and some roaming animal ambassadors.

The next day is, inevitably, one of my least favorite days of the year, as it seems that the entire grounds of the zoo are covered with a fine coating of candy wrappers, trampled into the dirt by thousands of little sneaker-clad feet.

As I was scrapping the 867th trodden Tootsie Roll off of the pavement the other day, it occurred to me.  There is a depressing lack of animal-themed costume out there.  Looking back on my childhood, I don't think I went trick or treating as an animal once (well, not knowingly - I have seen pictures of my 3 year old self in a zebra costume, which I think is still hanging up somewhere in my parent's house).  I stopped trick or treating at a fairly early age, but many of my coworkers, at my zoo and around the country, still like to dress up as animals for Halloween.  Some get very detailed and very creative.

It would be neat to start trying to make this more of a thing by hosting animal-themed costume contests at our zoo.  We could judge them not only on their skill, but also their creativity.  Imagine someone showing up in a yellow sleeping bag, disguised as a banana slug?  Wearing a football helmet with horns attached as a bighorn sheep?  A bird of paradise costume, complete with the dance routine?  

To keep the theme interesting, the prize should be animal related.  A photo-op with the animal you were impersonating?  A behind-the-scenes tour?  An adoption certificate?  

There are tons of trick or treating venues out there to compete with for kids.  Perhaps it would makes ours stand out a bit more if we took the opportunity to emphasize what makes this one unique - animals.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Walk on the Pride Side

It's a gray, crummy, rainy day here, the perfect sort of day for wishing you were someplace else... someplace sunny, and warm, and exotic.

Australia, for example.  Besides it's extraordinary native fauna, Australia also has some pretty wild zoos - and few of them are wilder than Monarto Zoo.  Check out this new video clip as they prepare to open an extremely unique, very exciting lion habitat.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Satire: Vatican City Zoo Struggling To Breed First Angel In Captivity

Vatican City Zoo Struggling To Breed First Angel In Captivity

VATICAN CITY—After months of failed attempts to coax their sole mating pair into conceiving, officials from the Vatican City Zoo admitted Wednesday that they were unsure whether the facility would ever successfully breed an angel in captivity.
The current effort is reportedly part of an ongoing campaign by the zoo, home to Christendom’s most diverse collection of holy fauna, to increase the world’s angelic population, which has dwindled to fewer than 400 heavenly creatures in the wild.
“No systematic attempt to breed winged celestial beings outside their natural habitat in everlasting paradise has ever succeeded, so this is a daunting task,” said the zoo’s director Cardinal Lorenzo Menichelli, who explained that creating the ideal conditions for procreative intercourse would require theobiologists to learn more about angel fertility cycles and courtship rituals. “While there have been occasional signs of a potential pregnancy, such as elevated hormone levels or a dilated halo, each has unfortunately turned out to be a false alarm.”
“Nevertheless, we still hope that one day we will welcome a new baby angel into our zoo’s Heavenly Messenger Pavilion,” he added.
According to sources within the Holy See, zoo staff built an approximation of the angels’ natural habitat to facilitate breeding, installing sidewalks paved with gold throughout their concrete enclosure and a $300,000 motion-activated mist system to simulate clouds. Reports also confirmed that a special, secluded cage has been set up as far away as possible from the exhibit’s main viewing platform, which is often crowded with photo-snapping bishops and loud Sunday school children known to discourage angelic coition.
However, despite the zoo’s best efforts, Menichelli said the male and female angels seldom show interest in each other, and on the rare occasions they do, the pair often becomes spooked prior to the act of copulation by sounds coming from the Leviathan and Behemoth cages in the nearby Hall of Beasts. The cardinal added that the problem is compounded by the fact that female angels are only in heat once every jubilee year.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Arrau (Podocnemis expansa)

Arrau (South American River Turtle)
Podocnemis expansa (Schweigger, 1812)

Range: Northern South America
Habitat: Rivers, Lagoons, Flooded Forests
Diet: Fruits, Flowers, Aquatic Plants, Carrion
Social Grouping: Breeding congregations
Reproduction: Congregate in large numbers on sandbanks to nest (similar to sea turtles) at the end of the dry season.  Lay 75-120 eggs in a nest in the sand, some distance from the water's edge.  The eggs of one clutch may be sired by multiple fathers.  Eggs hatch after incubation period of about 45 days
Lifespan: 25 Years
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern, CITES Appendix II

  • Largest of the side-necked turtles and the largest turtle in South America, maximum weight 90 kilograms, length 89 centimeters.  Females are considerably larger than males
  • Wide, flat shell is gray-brown or black, skin is brown, gray, or olive green.  Orange or red marks on top of the head; juveniles may have yellow spotting which fades with age.  Two small barbels on the chin.  Males differ from females in having flatter shells and longer tails
  • The long neck cannot be completely retracted into the shell; instead, it is wrapped horizontally, leaving the side of the neck exposed
  • Mutual cleaning has been observed, with turtles taking turns eating algae off of each others' shells
  • Juveniles may be preyed upon by wading birds, caiman, and large fish.  Adults have few predators, but may be taken by jaguars or large crocodilians
  • Historically they have been heavily exploited for food, especially their eggs.  Legally protected today but still poached.  In some areas, conservationists collect eggs, hatch them in captivity, and head-start the young
  • Some attempts have been made at commercial farming, which is complicated by the slow growth rate

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Photobombed by Fiona

There's so much misery and unhappiness in the world these days.  Life needs more baby hippos... especially baby hippos as spunky and sassy as Fiona.  Recently, the uncrowned queen of the Cincinnati Zoo graced a couple that was in the middle of a marriage proposal outside her enclosure (note to the couple involved - excellent taste in animals).

Although to be honest, it sort of looks like Fiona is completely ignoring the bride-to-be, and is wondering a) who is it now who has come to bow before me? and b) what is this shiny, non-edible object that you are offering me?

Congratulations to the newly-engaged couple - I don't suppose they are in search of a rotund little flower girl, are they?  On second thought, best not - I could totally see Fiona upstaging the bride...

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Movie Review: Zoombies

This ridiculous, B-level horror movie could most accurately be described as The Walking Dead meets (meats?) Jurassic Park.  A soon-to-open safari park is getting ready to open to the public, and interns are being toured around for orientation before the big debut.  Unfortunately, that's the same time that a deadly virus spreads through the collection, turning zoo animals into undead killing machines.  It starts of with the monkeys (surprise) before spreading through the gorillas, lions, birds, and yes, we are even treated to predatory monster giraffes and koalas.

I don't know why, but a movie that's so absurdly over-the-top silly bothers me a lot less than something like Kevin James' The Zookeeper, (though both still fall far, far short of Fierce Creatures as best zoo movie).  Fans of the classic zombie horror films will enjoy the new take on this movie, laughing as characters make poor life decisions that soon change into life-ending decisions.

For zookeepers themselves, the most fun would be in the speculation of how this movie would have gone if we'd written in.  Gorillas?  Pshah.  Imagine zombie cassowaries?  Zombie mambas?  Zombie fossas, slipping through the air ducts and dropping down on you?  Granted, a lot of keepers I know have a hard time watching movies where the animals die - I know some folks who refused to watch The Walking Dead because of Shiva, the tiger - but this is just so beyond realistic (and the animals are aren't really themselves, after all) that I didn't find this too objectionable.

I think it would have also been more fun if they'd done more with unexpected zombie killer animals.  Something about watching a giraffe eat a person is very unnerving and very funny at the same time.

For some reason, I can't upload a trailer.  Here's a link to one on Youtube.

Image result for zoombies

Saturday, October 21, 2017

From the News: Pennsylvania zoos save animals here and across the globe

Pennsylvania zoos save animals here and across the globe

A few years ago, the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium rescued an animal that would eventually outweigh the average zookeeper by two tons.
The one-year-old northern elephant seal pup — found on California’s Crescent City beach in 2013 — was in trouble when the Northcoast Marine Mammal Center took him in. He was emaciated, and suffering from head and eye injuries. Blind and unable to survive in the wild, he faced euthanasia without a permanent home. He weighed about 500 pounds as a youngster, but an adult male elephant seal can top 4,000 pounds. He was running out of time.
“If there’s a call to action, we respond,” says Joseph Gaspard, director of science and conservation at Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, which happened to have an empty walrus habitat. “We talked with several other groups who couldn’t house [the seal] with the species that they had…we needed to step up.”

Read the res tof  the article here

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


"Behind every great man is a woman rolling her eyes."
- Jim Carrey

There's been a lot in the news lately about how woman are treated in the workforce, especially in light of the Harvey Weinstein scandals.  Logging on facebook, I have seen a very large percentage of my female friends displaying the #metoo hashtags.  If nothing else, it has made me more aware of the struggles for respect that many woman face, and vow to be more attentive to how I interact with female colleagues.  Not that I routinely go around sexually harassing them, mind you.  But there is more than one way to be disrespectful.

A year or two out of college, the owner of the zoo where I worked at the time called me over to come and help him wrangle some camels into a livestock trailer.  I was a bird, small mammal, and reptile keeper at the time.  I was also the only male keeper on staff.  Apart from the owner, every other person working with the animals had a XX chromosome pattern.  All of the keepers who cared for the camels for women.  They were the ones who knew the names and personalities of those camels.  They were the ones who could have, with a little time and notice, trained them to walk in voluntarily.  Failing that, they were the ones who had the best experience and judgement to know how to safely maneuver several thousand collective pounds of angry ungulate into the trailer.

I was the one who the boss chose.  And I was the one that he chose the next time he needed to move large hoofstock.  And the time after.  And when we finally did hire another male keeper (who, I must admit, was an absolute idiot), he was called to help us more animals, too.

I didn't know too much about camels and eland and bison at the time.   During the moves, the animals had my undivided attention, you know, with me trying not to get trampled to death.  If I had stopped to glance and look at the faces of my female co-workers, I don't think I would have liked what I would have seen.

mansplain (manˈsplān) - verb
  1. (of a man) explain (something) to someone, typically a woman, in a manner regarded as condescending or patronizing.

Zookeeping has increasingly become a female-dominated profession, but woman in zookeeping still face the challenge of being critiqued or judged for doing "man things" - like working with dangerous animals, using power tools, and moving big damn heavy things.  I've seen the bias in the workplace, especially in reptile departments, which are still typically male-dominated (and where the stereotype is that women in herpetology are expected to work with amphibians - small, delicate, mostly harmless - while men wrangle crocs and cobras).  

A lot of the times, the sass comes from visitors.  I've heard guests express (loudly) doubt that a woman keeper could carry a bale of hay, or stand up to an aggressive ostrich, or work a power saw - all things that many keepers do every day.  I've seen visitors cross railings and barge in to the work to tell women how they are "supposed" to be holding a hammer, or try to take a 5-gallon water bucket from them.  I've heard women visitors tell women keepers, "Oh, honey, isn't there someone else here you can do that for you?"

One memory that stands out is of a boss of mine - she was five foot six, slim and light built, long blonde hair, bright blue eyes, and looked about as feminine as a woman could.  She could also fling a hay bale halfway across the giraffe barn, muck pens for hours under a blistering sun, and, on her days off, drop a deer with one shot, then field dress it cheerfully.  She was getting ready to mow an exhibit using a riding tractor.  The second before she put the key into the engine, she heard the snide voice of a ten year old boy say to his family, "I've never seen a girl drive a tractor before... this oughta be good!"

It is a testament to her patience, discipline, and good humor that I did not have to bail her out of jail that afternoon.

The mysogny also sometimes reflects itself in comments aimed at men... even such pillars of masculinity as myself (there really needs to be a sarcasm font).  Just the other day, I was sweeping up some loose hay that had spilled outside of one of our barns.  Two older men walked by, and I heard one say to the other, "Has anyone ever told that guy [me] that brooms are for women?"  I wonder what they would have said if they'd seen the cake that I'd baked and frosted for our bear cub's first birthday.

I'm getting to the age where I'm (against my will) starting to think of every new hire we recruit as "the kids", and I'm reminding myself to do my best not to embarass them (or, more likely, myself) but making assumptions about their abilities.  In the wake of my facebook feed, I'm also going to try harder to make sure that, no matter how much disrespect some of my female colleagues face elsewhere, they'll find none at our zoo.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Zoo Review: Zoo New England - Stone Zoo

Located just north of Boston, the Stone Zoo makes up one half of Zoo New England, the other half being Boston's Franklin Park Zoo.  Over the course of its chaotic history, it grew from a small collection of local species in 1905 to a major zoo (complete with elephants, sea lions, and orangutans) in the 1970s, to closing its gates in 1990, following severe budget cuts.  Though it was able to reopen two years later, zoo lost most of its large animals and rapidly sank into decline. 

Community support rallied around the flailing zoo, however, and Stone Zoo has gradually begun to build itself back.  It will likely never again be a major zoo complete with the large collection of big mammals that it once had.  Instead, it is growing into a role of a small zoo for a small town, doing well with the space and resources it has.

Prior to his death in 2000, the star of the Stone Zoo (and its last holdover from its golden years) was Major, the polar bear.  Major may be gone, and the zoo no longer exhibiting polar bears, but his legacy can be found in the zoo's Yukon Creek trail.  American black bears occupy the site of the former polar bear exhibit and are visible nose-to-nose through large windows.  Along the meandering, wooded trail, visitors may encounter bald eagle, North American porcupine, Canada lynx, and arctic fox.  A small paddock of caribou rounds out the section.

More cold-weather animals may be seen in the Himalayan Highlands, where the stars are the snow leopards.  The leopards inhabit a rocky, hillside enclosure, secured behind thin wire mesh.  Wrapping around the back of the snow leopard exhibit is one of the zoo's finest habitats, a sprawling yard for markhor - spiral-horned Asian mountain goats which are a preferred prey of snow leopards.  The markhor may look down at visitors from the rocky heights of their exhibit, or descend to ground level to graze in a grassy meadow.  Located nearby are yaks and rarely-exhibit black-necked cranes (only the second time I've ever seen these gorgeous birds).

Treasures of the Sierra Madre highlights the species of the US-Mexican borderlands, with jaguars and pumas being the stars.  The former can be seen in an exhibit that resembles an abandoned mining camp, splashing in the water tanks for climbing through the derelict equipment.  Among the ruined abobe buildings, widows provide peek glances at snakes, bats, Gila monsters, and tarantulas, while meshed-in enclosures house roadrunners and coatis.  Chacoan peccaries (not from the Sierra Madre, but perhaps serving as a stand-in for collared peccaries, root around in a dusty yard formerly occupied by coyotes.

The best exhibit in the zoo is the beautiful, spacious Mexican wolf habitat, located in a quiet edge of the zoo.  The enclosure encompasses a stretch of woodland on a steep hillside; looking at it, I had a hard time making out where the edge of the enclosure were.  Visitors may walk along the bottom of the hill, or trek upwards and enter a viewing cave (furnished with recreated Southwestern cave paintings and a wolf sculpture) for a peek into the habitat.  I did not actually see the wolves the day of my visit, but the habitat compared favorably to many wolf exhibits I've seen around the country.

Rounding out the collection are habitats for gibbons and other primates, North American river otters, American alligators, and sandhill and whooping cranes, as well as the obligatory zoo petting barn.  There are two indoor exhibit spaces - one is a small education building (Animal Discovery Center) with tanks of small reptiles, amphibians, and invertebrates.  The other is the aptly named Windows to the Wild which is... a horseshoe-shaped building with windows into a row of habitats.  Tree kangaroos, prehensile-tailed porcupines, rhinoceros hornbills, Inca terns, hyacinth macaws, rock hyraxes, and cotton-topped tamarins are among the species seen here.  In the center of the courtyard is a lagoon of American flamingos.

While I enjoyed the collection, Stone Zoo's exhibits struck me as an odd mix of the great and the mediocre.  Some of the exhibits I loved - the markhors, the wolves, the North American cranes.  Many were average - the puma, the jaguar, the gibbons.  And others struck me as just disappointing.  Among the later were some of the smaller exhibits set along the Yukon and Sierra Madre trails.  What irked me about those habitats is that they were just poles and wire - which are easy and cheap exhibits to build, the advantage being that you could make them as big as you want to, almost.  Every time we try making one of those exhibits at my zoo, the dimensions keep growing as we build, thinking, "Oh, might as well add a little more while we're at it..."  The advantage would be, I'd hope, that some of the exhibits - such as the lynx, coati, and fox - could be expanded and improved without too much effort or expense.  I think the varied nature of the exhibits made the mediocre ones harder to understand.  For example, seeing the gorgeous whooping crane exhibit, with the broad stretch of water, shared with several duck species, and lots of tall plants... and then the black-necked crane in what is basically a dog run with grass.  Some of the smaller exhibits just generally seemed to be after-thoughts.

Still, I acknowledge that it has been a bumpy ride for the Stone Zoo, and I'm glad to see that it is back on its feet.  Hopefully, it's reached a financially sustainable, comfortable spot - a zoo the right size for its community - and will continue to develop its facilities, improving where it needs to, growing when it can.  The worst days, I hope, are far behind it now.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

He Otter Know Better

Here is a Dixon, a North American river otter at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, riding a tiny boat.  Nothing else matters today.  The facebook captions, contributed by zoo visitors, are some of the best I've ever read.  My week is now complete.  Thank you.

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Vaquita CPR

Yesterday, we shared the news about the efforts of several aquariums to save a stranded baby whale.  Today, efforts commenced to save a few dozen little dolphins.  The difference?  Unlike the baby beluga at the Alaska SeaLife Center, these 30-50 vaquita represent all that is left of their species.

Efforts have begun to herd the last vaquitas into a semi-captive situation.  There, they will hopefully breed... or at least, stop dying.  This will allow the Mexican government to continue its efforts to clear the seas of the nets that have drowned several of their conspecifics.  If this succeeds, it could be the greatest wildlife rescue since the California condor.

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Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Baby Beluga, or "The New Fiona"

For much of the first half of this year, the country was captivated by the saga of Fiona, the baby hippo hand-reared at the Cincinnati Zoo.  As we watched her grow up, it was hard to imagine even the possibility of anything more adorable.

Looks like the challenge has been accepted.

A beached baby beluga has been rushed to the Alaska SeaLife Center for emergency care.  Staff at the Center are being aided by marine mammal staff from the Shedd Aquarium, SeaWorld, and the Georgia Aquarium, among other facilities.  Hopefully the baby will continue to thrive.  If possible, it will be released back into the wild.  If it survives but cannot be released, it will be rehomed in an aquarium where it can be with other belugas.

At any rate, it's worth pointing out that people are only able to help this beluga calf because of experience gained working with cetaceans born and raised in aquariums.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Freedom from the Press

I once read a novel in which a character compared talking to the police like tap-dancing on top of an avalanche.  With a lot of skill and some practice, you can stay upright, but you can't get off, and you can't steer.

I feel like the author could have just as effectively replaced the word "police" with "reporters."

Over the years, I've had to give a number of interviews to the press.  I've done stories for new babies, deaths, new acquisitions, new exhibits, wildlife rescues, and special events.  I've done stories about completely unrelated things that have happened at other zoos that people (for some reason) wanted our opinions on, and those annoying reporter-job-shadow stories.  And, of course, every year, like clockwork, I have to do a story on how animals cope with the cold in the winter and how they cope with the heat in the summer.

Almost all could be described in one word.  Cringeworthy.

Before I go any further, I'd like to say, I am ALL FOR a free press.  It's just that most of the reporters that I've had to work with over the years are really bad writers.  And really bad film editors.  And none of them seem to have any clue on how to tell a story, or even to turn a decent phrase.  They all have a tendency to swerve back and forth between using highfalutin, overly officious language one minute and talking to their audiences like they are three-year-olds the next.

And heaven help us with quotes... I once was doing a story on some endangered addax calves born at our zoo.  I talked at length with the reporter about how endangered they are, about collaborative breeding programs, about reintroduction efforts.  At one point, one approached the fence looking for a treat, and I made a comment to the effect of, "They really love to eat."

Guess what was THE ONLY quote that made it into the story?

Equally exasperating is the attempt to infuse as much drama as possible into each story.  I was doing a story about storm prep at the zoo, and the reporter made me reshoot one segment multiple times because she felt I wasn't putting enough drama and passion into it.  Apparently, she wanted me to convey, with tears in my eyes, that it was my only hope that some of our animals would survive the oncoming storm.  No, this wasn't Irma... or Harvey... or Katrina.  We ended up getting some moderate rain.  That's it.

I suspect this is because reporters given the zoo beat in our town are from the revolving-door pool of new reporters who are given the fluff pieces.  Each one of them seems determined to make every story a Pulitzer-winner, and you can tell that they are imagining each headline as it'll look scrawled across the front page of The New York Times.

As much as I hate doing interviews, I still try to volunteer to be the one to do them, if only because I worry about my coworkers doing them.  Many of them aren't as jaded as I am, and get that deer-in-the-headlights vibe when speaking to a reporter, with the result that they tend to babble.

There's a line to walk with reporters - be honest, by all means.  But never say anything that you don't want to see in tonight's news.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Species Fact Profile: Black Mamba (Dendroaspis polylepis)

Black Mamba
Dendroaspis polylepis (Gunther, 1864)

Range: Sub-Saharan Africa (less common in Western Africa)
Habitat: Wooded Savannah, Rocky Hills
Diet: Small Mammals, Birds
Social Grouping: Asocial outside of mating.  Maintain home ranges, but not highly territorial and will share dens with other mambas or other snakes
Reproduction: Breeds October and November.  Females lay up to 17 white, elongated eggs (often inside a termite mound) 2-3 months after mating, which hatch after 80-90 days.  Young receive no parental care after eggs are laid
Lifespan: 11 Years (Wild), 20 Years (Captivity)
Conservation Status: IUCN Least Concern

  • Africa's largest venomous snake, up to 4.3 meters long (usually up to 2.5 meters) and weighing up to 1.6 kilograms.  The body is long and slender with a narrow head (often described as "coffin shaped").  Second longest venomous snake after the king cobra
  • Olive-brown to grey in color; the common name is believed to refer to the inside of the mouth, which is black or dark blue.  Underside is light gray.  Younger snakes are lighter than old ones
  • Considered the world's fastest snake, though its speeds are often exaggerated - it can move at 20 kilometers per hour for a short distance
  • If threatened and unable to retreat, the mamba will rear up (sometimes enough to look a person in the eye), open its mouth, and expand the skin of its neck into a narrow, cobra-like hood
  • Short, fixed fangs deliver a potent neurotoxin/cardiotoxin mix, capable of killing an adult human within 20 minutes.  Venom causes paralysis, causing death through respiratory failure.
  • Active by day, often basking in trees in the morning before hunting (climbs well, but is less arboreal than the green mambas), retiring to a refuge such as a hollow log, termite mound, or rock crevice at night; this lair may be permanent
  • Males compete for females by intertwining their bodies and wrestling; they do not use their venom when fighting each other
  • Originally divided into two subspecies, now considered to be one.  Previously considered to be the same species as the green mambas, though they are now recognized as distinct.
  • Latin name translates as "Tree Cobra with Many Scales"

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Death by Tourist

A common refrain among people who are opposed to zoos and aquariums is that the proper way to view animals is in the wild.  It certainly is true that ecotourism has been on the rise in recent years.  I've traveled across the US for wildlife-watching opportunities, whether it be the sandhill crane migration in Nebraska, whale-watching off the New England Coast, or seeing crocodiles and alligators side-by-side in the Everglades.  I've also gone abroad, to Africa and to Latin America.  I've loved these trips and the experiences they've provided, as well as the knowledge that my expenses are helping to support the conservation of these species.

Not everyone has as much fun.

Ecotourism can be a bit anti-climatic and, sometimes, uncomfortable.  For every David Attenborough moment you have, there's a lot of sitting and waiting, or driving and waiting, or other-things and waiting.  I had a hard time getting photos of the cranes in Nebraska because my fingers were too frozen to properly work the camera.  I've been drenched in the rain while birding ("chance of light showers" my butt...) and burned to a crisp because I was too busy watching wildebeest to remember to reapply sunscreen.  And, truth be told, I saw more species - more closely, and at greater ease, and displaying more behaviors - in one day at a mid-sized zoo than I did in a week in Belizean jungle.

Not everyone has that kind of patience.  When I went to Africa for the first time, I occasionally heard grumbles from people who had paid a lot of money and didn't feel like they were getting their money's worth, just because there weren't any elephants on view at that moment... even if we'd seen dozens the day before.

The end result has been the establishment of some unsavory practices in ecotourism around the globe.  People trying to force wildlife encounters, or engaging in unsafe practices (for humans and animals) to make them occur.  They may bait animals, creating dependence and increasing aggression, while causing poor health by feeding improper foods.  They may over-habituate animals, which can lead to aggressive begging and potentially endanger tourists.  They may harass animals by getting too close too often; cheetahs in East Africa are particularly known for abandoning their kills under the pressure of being surrounded by minivan-loads of encroaching tourists.  Sometimes, they may take wildlife captive, label themselves as "sanctuaries", and charge visitors for petting encounters.

A recent National Geographic article has highlighted recent examples of this exploitative practice in the Amazon, where toucans, sloths, anteaters, caiman, and other rainforest animals are kept as tourist playthings by local people.  While I've written before about the benefit of zoos in the developing world... this is not what I had in mind, and this is not the role that they should play.  This isn't about educating local peoples and connecting them to their wildlife heritage, all in a setting that provides for optimal animal care.  This is mistreatment of animals, forced into repeated contact with humans without a chance for privacy or escape.

I always encourage readers to do their research when visiting a zoo or aquarium.  Look for accreditation by AZA, EAZA, ARAZPA, or another accrediting body. Maybe look at pictures and skim the website for red flags.  Please do the same when patronizing animal attractions abroad, whether it be a sanctuary, a zoo, a tourist experience, or an animal encounter.  Ask yourself if it's good for the animals involved.

No selfie is worth the lives of animals.

In the Amazon, day trips that include wildlife interactions are increasingly popular, though they pose welfare and conservation concerns, advocates say.  Here, tourists crowd in on a pink river dolphin outside Manaus, Brazil.  The dolphin's scratches are a result of battling with other dolphins for baitfish.  Photograph by Kirsten Luce, National Geographic.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Zoo Joke: Toast

So, I was walking through a new zoo the other day, when I came to a small enclosure.  It was completely empty... except - in the very center - there was a piece of toast.

I had a hard time believing that it was supposed to be there, but it was so neatly centered, so prominently displayed, that it looked like it attention was being deliberately drawn to it.  In fact, the more I looked around, I noticed there was signage and even spotlights aimed at it.

Confused, I walked around until I found a zookeeper, and I asked, "Hey... is that piece of toast really supposed to be in that zoo exhibit?"

The keeper nodded emphatically.  "Oh, yes!  It was supposed to be there."

"Okay... but why?"

"It was bread in captivity."

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Thoughts for Mandalay Bay

One of the best things about being a zookeeper is that there are people in every city and state sharing your profession, people that you can relate to and connect with.  It makes for a lot of fun when you are traveling, as there is always someone you can meet up with.  One of the downsides is that it means that when there is a tragedy somewhere, there's a decent chance that people you know - some of them friends of long-standing - may be in harm's way.

When Hurricanes Harvey and Irma struck, I thought of friends working at Houston Zoo and Zoo Miami, just as I thought of my friends at Audubon Zoo and Aquarium in the wake of Katrina.  In the aftermath of yesterday's deadly tragedy, I thought of Las Vegas.

It's not just that the horrific shooting occurred in Las Vegas... it's that it occurred in Mandalay Bay, which is also the home of the Shark Reef Aquarium.   I can't imagine how terrible it must be to have something this evil, this tragic happen at your place of work - a place that you love and care about, now associated forevermore with the worst mass shooting in American history.  Imagine what it would feel like to come to work the next day, or the day after, for the rest of your career.

Thankfully, none of Shark Reef's staff were harmed in the attack.  But that doesn't mean that they are all okay.  I hope that they - and all others affected by this terrible, terrible crime - find whatever comfort and peace that they can.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Book Review: The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World

Ten years ago, if you'd asked me who Alexander von Humboldt was, I'd have probably just made up a very vague answer.  "Wasn't he... the penguin guy?" I might have answered - and it is true, Humboldt does have a species of penguin named after him, one of the most commonly kept species in zoo collections.  He also has a squid named after him.  And a skunk.  And a willow.  To say nothing of a glacier, a mountain range, a river, and an entire current.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt's New World is Andrea Wulf's introduction of the most important scientist that most people have never heard of.  Born in eighteenth century Prussia, von Humboldt from an early age became fascinated with the natural world.  That wasn't a terribly uncommon pastime in those days, when many people took an interest in nature.  What made Humboldt unique was that his interest went beyond collecting and documenting natural curios, like shells and beetles and birds.  He had a genius for seeing the interconnectedness of the natural world, how plants and animals and people and geology and climate itself interplayed with one another.

Years before anyone had even invented the word "Ecology", Humboldt had the idea in his mind.

Traveling from Germany to South America, Humboldt's explorations took him from the marshlands of the Orinoco (where he experimented with electric eels) to the peaks of the Andes, atop the volcano that was, at the time, believed to be the tallest mountain in the world.  Along the way, he mapped new territories, discovered new species, and recorded local customs and traditions... which is what plenty of other explorers did.  What he also saw and recorded, however, was how humans had changed the environment.  Deforestation, over-exploitation of the soil, and poorly thought out irrigation schemes turned what had once been abundant habitat for countless species into baked desert, displacing the wildlife and impoverishing the people.  Rather than learn from these mistakes, however, colonial authorities seemed intent on making them over and over again.

He was also renown his time as a writer as well as a scientist.  His poetic descriptions and simple explanations of the natural world made the sciences accessible to audiences around the world.

Upon returning from Latin America (via the United States, where he become friends with President Thomas Jefferson), Humboldt only traveled outside of Europe once more, on an expedition to Central and East Asia.  It's likely that his most important scientific works, however, were carried out back in Europe, in Paris (which he adored) and in Berlin (less so).  While many scientists (also a word not in use back then) hoarded their research and jealously guarded their work until it was ready to publish, Humboldt set himself up as a patron of scientists near and far.  He made introductions for them, guided their researches, proof-read their work, and loaned them money which he frequently didn't have to further their research.

Surprisingly for a biography, there are several chapters where Humboldt doesn't appear at all - at least directly.  Those chapters devotes to a host of scientists from around the world - some of whom never met Humboldt at all - who were influenced directly by his work to change the course of science.  Their numbers include Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, and Charles Darwin.  One thing Humboldt never did get around to in a long, busy life was getting married or having a family.  His legacy, however, lives on in the hundreds of scientists that he inspired, many of whom went on to change the world in ways great and small.

What baffled me the most as I finished the biography was - how have I not heard of this guy before?  I mean, besides in the very vague sense (i.e., penguins).  The answer comes towards the end.  Decades after Humboldt's death, the outbreak of World War I caused a rash of anti-German sentiment to sweep the United States.  Acknowledging that the most respected scientist of the age was a German rubbed jingoist sentiments the wrong way, and Humboldt was neatly scrubbed from history, with street names being changed to erase his memory.

American schoolchildren don't study Humboldt in classes, and, while his legacy is scattered around the globe in various place names and species names, his name is not a household one.  His greatest legacy to our civilization hasn't been the addition of a few new species to the taxonomic roll call, or the pretty poetry of his scientific texts, has been an understanding that humans aren't above nature - they are a part of nature, and capable of having an outsized impact on the rest of it.  And that was BEFORE the Industrial Revolution and the accelerated burning of fossil fuels.

It's unfortunate that, 200 years after Humboldt's first words of warning, we're still having to convince people that humans have the power to destroy the planet... and an obligation to save it.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

The Zoomusement Park

If you find yourself planning a family vacation to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and there are members of you're party that just aren't that into animal attractions, fear not!  The zoo also operates not one but TWO amusement parks on adjacent properties.  Zoombezi Bay, located on Wyandot Lake, features over a dozen water park rides, while Jungle Jack's Landing has bumper cars, a roller coaster, and other rides.  There's also a nearby golf course.   Fun for Everyone!

... Right?  Maybe not.

In recent years, zoos and aquariums have been caught in a somewhat schizophrenic bind.

On one hand, many - especially members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums - seek the legitimacy of scientific, conservation organizations.  They wish to distance themselves from the circuses, or from the zoos of old with their chimpanzee tea parties.

On the other hand... well, zoos are expensive to operate.  Aquariums arguably more so.  All of that money needs to come from somewhere.

This divide shows itself in almost every aspect of the zoo, from which animals do you exhibit (common crowd-pleasers like lions and zebras, or obscure rarities, like crested toads and Guam rails?).  Nowhere did it strike me as a hard as at Columbus.  The idea first began to come to me, however, years ago when I was visiting the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans.  A keeper and I were walking around, when we passed a construction site.  "What's that going to be?" I asked with some interest.  The keeper's face darkened.  "A water park," he snarled, spitting on the ground and stomping off.

Some keepers fear the cheapening of their profession by being lumped back in with organizations that solely use animals for entertainment.  They feel that this leaves their institution more vulnerable to attacks from PETA and other anti-zoo organizations in the future.  Others resent the redirection of funds, as well as space.  I can see what they mean.  Columbus is a fine zoo with many excellent exhibits.  One of the least remarkable, however, was its elephant exhibit - no bad, just... a trifle old-fashioned, it seemed.   I know elephant keepers and how they feel about their animals, and I could imagine the keepers at Columbus casting an envious eye to all of that land before it became an amusement park.

Many zoos offer what would best be described as rides in order to provide views of animals from a different perspective.  The boat-ride through the islands exhibit of Columbus Zoo is a prime example.  Many zoos have monorails, such as Dallas Zoo's Wilds of Africa.  Others have skyrails, such as San Diego Zoo.

Columbus is an extreme example, but most zoos and aquariums do a little amusement-parking on the side.  Endangered species carousels have popped up at zoo's all over the country (although, in Sailing with Noah, Jeffrey Bonner describes how the keepers at St  Louis Zoo were aghast at the idea of adding one, disapproving of the message of having visitors riding on saddled zoo animals).  Many zoos have added ropes courses, or kayak tours, or other games and activities.

I'm a purist at heart, myself, and would love for zoos and aquariums to be themselves, places where visitors can come to admire and appreciate the wonders of wildlife.  That being said, I also spent a lot of time walking around Columbus slack-jawed and wondering how I could get that budget.

And then, as I drove out at the end of the day and passed Zoombezi Bay, I remember.  "That's how."

Monday, September 25, 2017

Zoo Review: Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Some zoos are famous for a particular species that they display, such as the National Zoo with its giant pandas, or the San Diego Zoo with its koalas.  Others are famous for an exhibit, such as Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo with its Lied Jungle.  Of all the American zoos, there is only one that I can think of which owes its fame to a person.  The facility is the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and that person is Jack Hanna, its director emeritus.

When Hanna moved to the Columbus Zoo in 1978, legend has it that many of the local people didn't even know there was a zoo in Columbus (and, to be fair, there isn't - the zoo is in the nearby town of Powell, Ohio).  With a lot of hard work and a whole lot of media coverage, "Jungle Jack" began to shape one of America's forgotten zoos into a premiere facility with some of the best exhibits and one of the finest collections in the country.

If Columbus Zoo has a celebrity besides Hanna, it would have been Colo, the world's first captive-born gorilla, who passed away this January.  Colo's legacy lives on in the zoo's Expedition Congo trail, where the many members of the zoo's large troop (containing some of her descendants) may either be observed outdoors beneath a massive dome-like structure or inside in a multi-room viewing building.  More primates found along the trail include mandrills, bonobos, and colobus monkeys.  Grassy yards display okapi, duiker, and red river hogs, while leopards prowl a mesh-enclosed grassy yard with several climbing structures.  A walk-through aviary features many species of African birds, including ibises, crowned cranes, and turacos.  To my immense surprise, however, the exhibit which made the biggest impact on me was... the African gray parrot, one of the most common, sought-after pet parrots on the market.  I'd seen them hundreds of times before, often surrendered pets being used as animal ambassadors, but never like this.  A flock of ten or so flitted around a well-furnished enclosure the size of a studio apartment, flying together or bickering playfully as they scrambled across the branches.  Watching the birds behave as they would in the wild, I realized how inadequate most private households are for caring for these birds, with a single parrot cooped up in a small cage for most of the day until the owners come home.  Looking back on it, I suspect that was the idea behind the exhibit.

More African animals can be seen in the sprawling new Heart of Africa, where lions lounge on the wings of a small airplane that seems to have taxied halfway into their exhibit.  Visitors who are a lot smaller and more nimble than me can creep into the cockpit and watch the lions sprawl across the windshield, or meander off to watch the savannah panorama behind them.  In a sweeping grassy vista that lies past the lions, a host of African ungulates and tall savannah birds pick their way across a several acre grassland.  Nearby, giraffes occupy a separate exhibit (or is it?  I had a hard time telling...), where they can be fed from a viewing dock.  A beautiful, lush yard in the foreground is a rotating exhibit, where cheetahs, spotted hyenas, warthogs, or other African mammals may be seen, depending on who is out when.  Across the path, a troop of vervet monkeys appears to be raiding an unoccupied campsite (which, based on past experiences in East Africa, I can verify that they will readily do at the earliest opportunity).

Many zoos have remarkable African exhibits, but it's rare to find one that does as good of a job with our own continent as Columbus Zoo does.  North America is perhaps best known for Nora, the neglected polar bear cub who was raised by the keepers of the zoo until she was sent out to the Oregon Zoo upon being successfully reared.  While she is gone, there are still cubs present in the beautiful polar bear habitat, easily the best I've seen so far.  Like many polar bear exhibits, it features a deep pool with magnificent opportunities for underwater viewing.  Unlike many others, it also features a spacious green meadow pocked with boulders and logs that lets the polar bears act like... well, bears.  More bears are found down the trail - grizzlies and American blacks.  A nearby log cabin provides a sneak-peek into a habitat of rarely-exhibited wolverines.  Along the trail visitors may also encounter gray wolves (the zoo is famed for its success in breeding Mexican gray wolves), bald eagles, sandhill cranes, American beavers, North American rivers otters, and an impressive collection of North American ungulates.  Caribou inhabit a rather conventional corral, while moose immerse themselves in a deep pond and bison and pronghorn trot across a grassy yard.  The later habitat can also be seen via a train which encircles the exhibit.  For me, the surprising treat of this area was the songbird aviary, with a host of species - some commonly seen, like robins, some less-often, like orioles - flitting around.  It's strange that these birds - if they hailed from South America or Africa - would probably be commonplace jewels in our collections.  Since they are natives, we seldom give them notice.

Not to be outdone, Asia Quest starts of with... African black rhinos.  Okay, but after that, it features Asian elephants, before feeding into a winding trail that ducks in an out of buildings.  Red pandas, Asian cranes, tufted deer, and Pallas cats occupy outdoor exhibits, while reptiles and flying foxes can be seen indoors.  Sun and sloth bears are observed from inside a building devoted to educating visitors about wildlife trafficking, before guests enter yet another walk-through aviary.  Outside, markhor trot across a rocky cliff face, before visitors encounter the stars of the trail - the gorgeous Amur tigers.   As with the wildlife trafficking building, the zoo doesn't shy away from potentially grim conservation messaging, using shattered statues and blanked-out signs to remind visitors that three subspecies of tiger are already extinct... and that the other five might not be too far behind.   

The rest of the Asian collection is seen in Australia and the Islands, where visitors may observe the wildlife of Southeast Asia and Indonesia either by boat or by trail.  Komodo dragons, orangutans, gibbons, and small-clawed otters are seen in the Asian portion, before Australia takes over.  The Down Under section includes a kangaroo walk-through, a lorikeet feeding aviary, and much-beloved koalas.  At the end of the trail is the Roadhouse, a nocturnal gallery that highlights the creatures of the Indonesia and Australian night.  Wombats, kiwis, tree kangaroos, binturongs, and tawny frogmouths are among the residents of the darkened hallways, which then opens up into a beautiful, day-lit aviary.  Parrots, waterfowl, ibises, and lapwings fly overhead or stroll down the path, while kookaburras inhabit a side-enclosure.

The aquarium portion of the facility's name is represented in the Shores area, a three-building complex that houses the zoo's fish and reptile collections.  The conventional aquarium, Discovery Reef, features sharks, stingrays, and sea turtles among an 88,000 gallon saltwater coral reef.  The Reptile House has an impressive collection of freshwater turtles and terrapins from around the world, as well as venomous snakes, dart frogs, and pythons; American alligators lurk in a habitat directly outside.  The highlight for most visitors is Manatee Coast; along with Cincinnati Zoo, Columbus is one of the only US facilities outside of Florida to display these gentle giants.  Manatees present in this exhibit are rescued animals that were injured by accidents in Florida; when they cruise past the acrylic walls of their tank, it's easy to see the terrible scars that were inflicted upon them by careless boaters.  The manatees share their pool with a hawksbill sea turtle and a host of beautiful fish, while pelicans and ducks paddle overhead.  More birds are seen outdoors in habitats for American flamingos and Humboldt penguins.  A series of lovely sculptures and fountains nearby make for great photo ops.