Ungulates: Underdogs of the Zoo World

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A young female nilgai gets eye to eye with Jonnie!

I almost always root for the underdog. Did you know that most ungulates (hoofed animals) are the underdogs of the zoo world? Well, for starters, they are low man on the food chain in their natural habitats—just a bunch of snacks hanging around the watering holes in African and Asian landscapes. They are underestimated for their value and significance in their respective ecosystems. Ungulates don’t get enough credit, and I think that’s why I love working with them and acting as an advocate for them! I wish the public could see what I see at work each day at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and have a greater appreciation for these kinds of animals, too.

A male blackbuck antelope strives to impress the ladies.

What I see in the wide, open fields that house antelope, rhinos, deer, cattle, and giraffes, are protective moms lovingly caring for their young, animals instinctively sticking tight with the herd, tough males fighting it out to claim a territory or a herd of girls, animals grazing in the green grass, and lots and lots of activity! This connection of multiple species in a huge exhibit is just as exciting as seeing exhibits for lions, tigers, elephants, and gorillas.

An important part of a keeper’s job is to observe the animals. By taking the time to watch them when they are unaware of our presence, we learn fascinating things about the intricacies of herd dynamics, breeding behavior, and potential aggression among our males. For instance, our herd of Indian blackbuck, a type of Asian antelope, might as well be a reality show right now. There are multiple males guarding territories, courting females, and trying to stake their claim over the coveted prize: becoming the dominant male! The dominant male, or herd sire, wins the prize of integrating his genes into the population. Part of blackbuck courtship involves the male strutting around, ears pinned down, pre-orbital glands flared, taking each step deliberately as if to say, “Hey, ladies! You interested?” This courtship strategy is quite successful for the males, and we have a bunch of cute little blackbuck calves to prove it!

Female barasingha are mildly curious of our photographer.

I’m guessing that at some point in your life you had a connection with an ungulate—maybe it was visiting a farm on a school field trip, growing up with horses nearby, catching a quick glimpse of a deer in the wild for the first time when you went camping, or even watching Bambi as a kid and feeling a sense of connection with these iconic, yet familiar characters. I work with these species every day, and it’s the coolest job I’ve ever had!

The next time you visit the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, or your own local zoo, take some time to look at the background players and see what you think. Ungulates need love, too!

Jonnie Capiro is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, New Nilgai Girls.