About Author: Ashley Roberts

Posts by Ashley Roberts


Warty Pig Party!

A warty pig mother keeps busy with her piglets.

A warty pig mother keeps busy with her piglets.

If you have been though the San Diego Zoo’s Panda Canyon recently, you have probably seen our adorable Visayan warty pig family rolling in mud wallows or taking a nap in a big, fluffy hay bed. No, those aren’t warthogs you are looking at—these are one of the most critically endangered pigs in the world!

Visayan warty pigs used to be found on 6 of the Visayan Islands of the Philippines, but due to the loss of about 95 percent of their habitat, they can only be found on 3 of the islands: the western mountains of Panay, isolated areas of forest on Negros, and possibly a small population on Masbate. In 1992, the San Diego Zoo partnered with the Department of Environment and Natural Resources in the Philippines to create the Visayan Warty Pig Conservation Programme to try to save this species from extinction. The pigs we house here at the Zoo are an important part of these conservation efforts.

Our sounder, or pig family, is made up of four members. First is the male, Spartacus (as he was named at his previous institution), the largest in the exhibit. He has more prominent “warts” on his face, and his tusks are more apparent. Spartacus is still a pretty young guy, so those warts and tusks will get bigger as he gets older. He is also starting to sport a pretty impressive hairdo. Male Visayan warty pigs seasonally grow large manes that start at the top of their head and travel partially down their back and grow up to 9 inches (23 centimeters) long! The mama of the group is Kurit (the name that accompanied her). She is very valuable to the collection in the US because she is what we call a founder: she came from the Philippines, and her genes were not represented in the North American population. She is also the mom to the two piglets running around the exhibit. Alibangbang and Hinigugma (meaning butterfly and sweetheart, respectively, in Visayan) were born in our shipping pens area on December 6, 2012, and they have quickly become two of my absolute favorite charges.

One neat fact about pigs is that their gestation period is three months, three weeks, and three days. That’s easy to remember, right? Before she lived with Spartacus, we introduced Kurit to another male, based on the warty pig Species Survival Plan coordinator’s recommendation to improve the genetic diversity in the North American population. The introduction was a success, so all we had to do was wait and count, which, truth be told, was a lot harder than it sounds for an impatient keeper!

About a week before she gave birth, we started seeing Kurit doing a nesting behavior. We had given her several places in her enclosure where she could go to feel safe. She chose one den in particular and started moving all the hay we could give her to this den. It was awfully cute to watch her taking mouthfuls of hay and arranging them just perfectly in her den, even if the hay trails left behind weren’t as much fun to clean up. Then about mid-morning on December 6, 2012, we saw that Kurit had two very small, wriggling bodies with her in the house. We couldn’t have been more excited! Who doesn’t love a piglet? And we had two!

Over the days we watched as Kurit took great care of her little ones, keeping the other pigs, and excited keepers, away from her precious little ones. We brought food to her so she wouldn’t have to leave them unattended to eat, but she always let us know if we were getting too close! After the piglets were a few months old, we decided it was time to do their checkup and to find out if they were male or female. The vet techs gave our little girls a clean bill of health! A few months after that, we moved Mom and piglets to their current exhibit and introduced them to Spartacus.

They have been doing very well in their new-ish home, and it has been a real joy and privilege to watch these girls grow into beautiful young lady pigs. In fact, the weekend of their birthday, beginning with the actual day, December 6, we will be celebrating their one-year milestone with a special cake, special enrichment items, and treats for the whole family! So if you find yourself at the Zoo this weekend, make a special trip to visit the girls and wish them a happy birthday!

Ashley Roberts is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Catering to Animals in the “Back 40.”


Catering to Animals in the “Back 40”

DuikersDuring my years at the San Diego Zoo, Iʼve seen thousands of guests watch keepers with as much curiosity as they give the animals. Eyes follow that besmudged, khaki-clad person, arms loaded down with buckets or pulling a wheelbarrow full of unidentifiable and smelly stuff. Where do keepers disappear to in between those brief periods of travel? What is behind that big gate or inside that noisy building? Would it surprise you to know that there are very large areas of the Zoo that are what we call off exhibit?

These areas usually house animals that canʼt be on exhibit for some reason or other: maybe they are in need of special vet care, theyʼre getting an update to their exhibit (or maybe a brand-new one!), they are part of one of our conservation breeding programs, or they just need a day off to relax in a hammock and snack on some treats. The area of the Zoo I work in caters to all of those needs and more! This area is only briefly visible from the top level of one of our popular double-decked bus tours as they pass the Elephant Care Center in our Elephant Odyssey. We affectionately call this place the Back 40.

One place in our Back 40 where I spend a good amount of time is called the Shipping Pens. Picture a place where the walls can move and the floor can drop out and where we can take care of the special needs of just about any ungulate species (hoofed animal) that we have at the zoo! One of the biggest functions of the keeper at Shipping Pens is the shipment of animals, both incoming and outgoing. When the Zoo’s curator sends us a move notice for an animal, we usually move it to Shipping Pens, where the keeper can work with our veterinarian staff to make sure the animal gets all of its necessary pre-shipment exams, gets used to being in a crate or trailer, and anything else we can do to make sure the animal will have a stree-free move. If that animal(s) is/are internationally bound, there is usually a quarantine period that is monitored by a US Department of Agriculture veterinarian, whom we also work with.

Soemmerring's gazelles keep an eye on their keeper.

Soemmerring’s gazelles keep an eye on their keeper.

The Shipping Pens keeper also takes care of special vet cases. Iʼve helped reattach a horn on a male Soemmerringʼs gazelle when he broke it off sparing with another male in his exhibit. I have found ways to get a male yellow-backed duiker to take his medication when he didnʼt want to eat anything. I have manually restrained a male pronghorn so the vet could clean out a leg wound and administer topical medication. Iʼve helped bottle feed a baby royal antelope when her mother was unable to nurse her well enough. At the Shipping Pens, I have helped nurse animals back to health and have provided them with a nice, quiet place in which to do so.

This area also has the unique distinction of being one of the most action-packed areas in the Zoo. In most areas of the Zoo, keepers might perform up to 10 animal moves a month, if itʼs busy, but in our area, there was one month when we moved over 40 animals! Keepers who work this area need to know how to work with any species of hoofed animal that visits.

If you think whatʼs happening on exhibit is cool, itʼs nothing compared to what happens behind that big gate! Sure, thereʼs an awful lot of poop to clean up, but there is also tons of really interesting stuff getting done at any given time, in any off-exhibit area. And since you canʼt come visit us, I thought Iʼd bring a little bit of our world to you! So next time you find yourself on the top level of the tour bus going through Elephant Odyssey, take a second to look left, over the big gate, and wave at us there in the Back 40!

Ashley Roberts is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.