About Author: Karyl Carmignani

Posts by Karyl Carmignani


Roar & Snore: Sizzling Summertime Fun at Safari Park

There are many animal presentations throughout your Roar & Snore experience. The tiny pygmy falcon made a big impression on people.

There are many animal presentations throughout your Roar & Snore experience. The tiny pygmy falcon made a big impression on people.

There is really no better way to spend a summer evening than hassle-free camping under shooting stars with a warm breeze and a menagerie of animal calls echoing through the valley. The Roar & Snore Safari at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park allows you to do just that, which my friend Teresa and I did in early July. There’s a choice of tent accommodation from Classic (what we chose) to Premium (includes a Queen-sized bed, rug, and lamps—more like “glamping” than camping). Roar & Snore Safaris feature Adults Only, Family Nights, and All Ages to choose from. Check in time is 4:15 p.m. and, while strapping young men transfer your luggage from your car to a van and deposit it at your tent, campers enjoy the first of several animal presentations in a shady area in front of the Safari Park entrance. We got to meet a surprisingly fast African leopard tortoise and a hyper-alert pygmy falcon while campers checked in.

Roar & Snore accommodations are rustic and comfortable. And you can’t beat the view!

Roar & Snore accommodations are rustic and comfortable. And you can’t beat the view!

We were divided into four groups, each sporting a nifty, glow-in-the-dark color-coded wristband, and we headed to camp. We settled into our digs and savored the view from Kilima Point, overlooking the African Plains habitat replete with giraffes, rhinos, buffalo, springbok, and more. After supper, as the shadows stretched long, our guide took us through the new Tiger Trail, and we were treated to a behind-the-scenes tour of the tigers’ bedroom area and the keepers’ workspace. The structure is so well made and expertly ventilated, that if there was a wildfire, cats and keepers could hunker down in the building and stay safe.

On our way back to camp, we got another animal presentation featuring a darling little sugar glider (“the smallest marsupial”), a hypnotic sand python named Woma, whose flattish head indicates it is a shoveler of sand and soil, and a shy three-banded armadillo, which soon felt comfortable enough to unfurl for us. As we headed to see elephants, there was splashing and excitement in the air…with dusk descending, several of the elephants decided it was the perfect time to take a dip! In a tangle of trunks and trumpeting, the young pachyderms frolicked in the pool, as kids are wont to do. As one pushed another under water, its trunk opening would crack the surface like a periscope. Soon it would bob up and return the dunking. The giant matriarchs stood nearby, one tossing dirt on her back, another scratching against a log and bellowing every so often. It was a pool party I was happy to witness!

Seeing the animals at night was a truly magical experience.

Seeing the animals at night was a truly magical experience.

Returning to camp, where the fire was crackling, we were given the ingredients to make roasted marshmallow s’mores and had some time to relax and count stars before the next optional add-on: a walking tour with night vision goggles! Eight of us intrepid campers chose to participate, and we were given our super-power binoculars. With a push of a button, the eyepieces glowed night-vision green. I squealed with delight.

We headed out past Lion Camp to the Africa Tram road. It was magical—nighttime chirps and murmurs punctuated by the alto roar of Izu, the male lion. The air was cool and fragrant…and it was DARK. Outlines of palm trees and giraffes were all that were visible with the naked eye, but through the goggles, details and texture prevailed. Animal eyes reflected glowing green back at us. African crowned cranes stood stalk still, clearly visible through the goggles.

After our early morning tram tour, we saw the lion cubs Ken and Dixie warming up for the day.

After our early morning tram tour, we saw the lion cubs Ken and Dixie warming up for the day.

I was breathless with this whole new nocturnal world revealed to me. With the naked eye, about all you could see in the cheetah exhibit was an ear gliding by, but with the goggles, you could see her sleekness and spots clear as day. I wonder what she thought about this little group of upright apes peering at her through green orbs as she gracefully glided before us, comfortable in her own skin and the night. I will never, ever forget seeing the Safari Park with truly fresh eyes.

Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Still Ga Ga for Gao Gao.


Still Ga Ga for Gao Gao

Gao Gao places his arm in a metal sleeve for a blood pressure check.

Gao Gao places his arm in a metal sleeve for a blood pressure check.

Just for our blog readers, the following is an advance look at an article that will be published in the upcoming June digital issue of ZOONOOZ magazine. To see this and all our digital issues, download the ZOONOOZ app for iPad or the web reader version for your desktop, FREE!

Keeping elderly animals comfortable and healthy can entail rearranging animal groupings to avoid individuals in their golden years getting inadvertently roughed up by younger animals, providing medication for aching joints and other age-related ailments, and monitoring potential health issues with noninvasive exams. The latter requires the animal’s cooperation and can take time to train and condition the animal to go along with it. For instance, tracking the blood pressure of Gao Gao, our 24-year-old male giant panda, requires collaboration between keepers, veterinary staff, and panda. The calm competency of the staff involved and the sweet trust of the black-and-white bear are impressive!

Equipped with apples cut into bite-sized pieces, a small bucket of biscuit balls and bamboo bread, and a blood-pressure monitor attached to an extension cord, keepers and veterinary technicians got into position while I watched the procedure. Gao Gao ambled past, dapper and darling all at once, heading into the squeeze cage and eager to get down to business with a series of enthusiastic bleats and neighs (excited giant panda vocalizations). A steel sleeve, with a cutout area on the top that aligns with the bear’s forearm, was secured to the sturdy cage. Knowing that this noninvasive medical procedure entails his favorite foods, Gao Gao plunged his arm into the sleeve, grasping the metal bar at the end. “We use this sleeve to collect blood samples as well,” explained Brian Opitz, registered veterinary technician (RVT) at the Zoo, “so he knows to hold onto the bar inside the sleeve. To get his blood pressure, we just wait a few minutes for him to let go of the bar and let us place the cuff around his forearm.” All the while, Gao Gao is being hand-fed his favorite snacks, peering at us from behind those big, black eye spots.

Gao Gao does this procedure willingly.

Gao Gao is amply rewarded with tasty treats for his cooperation.

Gao Gao is a senior bear (in the wild, pandas can live up to about 20 years and up to 30 years in managed care), and keepers and vets go to great lengths to ensure he remains healthy. “Keepers put in a lot of time in training for these procedures so we can stay on top of possible medical issues without having to use anesthesia to collect bio-samples,” said Jill Kuntz, RVT at the Zoo. Over time, the grinding action of chewing thick bamboo stalks can wear down a panda’s teeth, as is the case with Gao Gao. Hence, he is given tasty little homemade biscuit balls made of dried bamboo, which he devoured with great gusto throughout the procedure.

Keepers and vets have been gathering baseline data—no one really knows what a normal blood pressure range is for a giant panda—on Gao Gao since May 2013. A few other zoos are also participating in this blood-pressure project. Every 7 to 14 days, staff gathers to collect 3 blood-pressure readings from Gao Gao, which he is agreeable to doing on either arm. “We also trained Yun Zi [Gao Gao’s son] to do this before he left for China,” said keeper Liz Simmons, “but he grabbed the blood- pressure cuff and tore it up.” Undaunted, they continued the training process, rewarding the younger bear for placing his arm in the steel sleeve while keepers peeled the Velcro apart to get him accustomed to the sound of the blood-pressure cuff. Soon, he was going along with the procedure, a skill that will surely come in handy in his homeland.

More wit

The information gained from these weekly readings will help us care for our senior bear.

Accepting the blood-pressure cuff is one of many husbandry behaviors the pandas are patiently trained to do through positive reinforcement. They also present a paw, belly, or rump to keepers, which is helpful in monitoring the animals’ health. Bai Yun, our prolific female panda, will even allow ultrasound procedures so veterinarians can monitor her pregnancies. It’s clear that the keepers are deeply committed to their charges. “We do this training for their health,” said Karen Scott, senior keeper. “That’s what we’re here for. We don’t force them.”

As the bottom of the treat bucket becomes visible, and his blood-pressure readings have been duly noted, Gao Gao calmly looks us all over. A keeper puts a few drops of rubbing alcohol on the floor, and the bear happily rolls around on it. “Usually animals balk at the scent of rubbing alcohol, but Gao Gao loves it—it’s like catnip to him,” explained Brian. It’s the ultimate treat! Gao Gao continued to rub and roll in the acrid odor, then proceeded to scent mark with his own “cologne.” With the procedure completed, he was free to mosey back out on exhibit. “We are lucky to have such an easygoing, tractable panda who allows us to do these exciting and important health procedures as he ages,” said Liz. And we are all fortunate to share the noble journey of Gao Gao’s life, quirks and all.

Watch our pandas daily on Panda Cam!

Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, With a “Headstart,” Local Turtles Make a Comeback. /


With a “Headstart,” Local Turtles Make a Comeback

Researchers carefully placed radio transmitters on five western pond turtles to keep track of them after release. (Photo by Ken Bohn)

Researchers carefully placed radio transmitters on five western pond turtles to keep track of them after release. (Photo by Ken Bohn)

Barely bigger than an English muffin, the dark-shelled turtle flails his webbed feet, and cranes his neck to peer at the people carefully applying epoxy to his shell. Usually a reclusive conservation celebrity, this pint-sized reptile is one of five turtles being released into a San Diego watershed to bolster wild populations of California’s only native freshwater turtle species. For western pond turtles (aka Pacific pond turtles) Emys marmorata the team of federal, state, and zoo scientists releasing the juvenile turtles into the Sycuan Peak Ecological Reserve is a much-needed effort to prevent their extinction.

Three years of collaboration between the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), California Department of Fish and Wildlife, San Diego Association of Governments, and the San Diego Zoo are invested into this pilot project to “headstart” pond turtle youngsters and remove nonnative species from their habitat. “We have raised these turtles at the Zoo to get them large enough to avoid predation after release,” explained Thomas Owens, San Diego Zoo senior keeper. “It’s been like reverse quarantine for them. They are isolated from animals in the collection and we make sure they are handled according to protocol to ensure we will not transmit any diseases to wild populations when we release them.” With a three- and four-year “headstart,” the juveniles are no longer bite-sized morsels for other animals.

Two days before the release, staff gathered at the Reptile House at the Zoo to test and attach the radio transmitters. Clean and dry (unusual for a turtle), each turtle was weighed before the three-gram “radio pack” was attached and then weighed after it was attached. The rule of thumb is that radio packs or GPS devices should not exceed five percent of the animal’s body weight. “Large species like elephants and crocodiles, among others, have been tracked using GPS devices,” said Thomas. “But with these small turtles, which only weigh about 300 grams, it’s necessary to use tiny battery-operated devices like these radio packs. These weigh one to two percent of the turtle’s body weight.” The battery will last about three months. The antenna is carefully glued to the turtle’s scutes to not interfere with its shell growth. After much measuring and trimming of the wire, it was carefully held in place until the epoxy hardened. The first four turtles stayed safely tucked inside their shells throughout the procedure, but the last one was more rambunctious and dared to look around, urinate, and squirm in the scientist’s grasp. “The turtles all have their own personality,” said Thomas. “Some are shy and some are more assertive.” That also explains the significant size difference between them: the oldest is not the biggest, but rather a more aggressive feeder. When they hatch, the pond turtles are about the size of a quarter, so they can be easily predated by a variety of other animals. Now, at three and four years old, these guys are past the appetizer size and appear robust and healthy; they won’t go down without a fight.

Release Day

Brandon Scott (L) and Thomas Owens, reptiles keepers at the San Diego Zoo proudly hold their headstarted turtles. (Photo by the author)

Brandon Scott (L) and Thomas Owens, reptiles keepers at the San Diego Zoo proudly hold their headstarted turtles. (Photo by the author)

We met up with Thomas and two other reptile keepers, Rachel and Brandon. The five pond turtles were secured in a box with a wet towel, ready for their journey to East County. After close to an hour’s drive, the road turned dusty and wound through rustic riparian forest dotted with car-sized boulders: we entered the Sycuan Peak Ecological Reserve. Staff from our partner organizations joined us at the gate to the reserve. Another short drive and a short hike landed us at a pool with all the things a pond turtle loves: logs and granite rocks for basking, fresh, cool water for swimming, cattails and willows for shade, and plenty of insects and invertebrates to eat. Placed gently on the water’s edge, each turtle swam swiftly into the murky pond to begin its life anew.

USGS Zoologist Denise Clark released a western pond turtle. (Photo by the author)

USGS Zoologist Denise Clark released a western pond turtle. (Photo by the author)

The released turtles will be checked on daily by USGS and Zoo staff will radio track them three times a week. “Once they have established their mircrohabitat, they won’t have to be monitored so frequently,” said Thomas. Shortly before the transmitter batteries run down, scientists will catch the turtles again, give them an exam, and attach a fresh radio pack. Nonnative predators like bullfrogs and sunfish have been removed from the area to improve the turtles’ survival. “It’s exciting to partner with organizations to help restore native species to local watersheds,” said Thomas. For the mysterious western pond turtles, the project is going swimmingly!

Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global.


Hungry New Insectivores in Town

Researcher Frank Santana prepares to release his charges into a mountain stream.

Researcher Frank Santana prepares to release his charges into a mountain stream.

The little dotted frogs could not have picked a more picture-perfect day for their release into a remote mountain stream within their historic habitat. As wind rustles the swaying tree crowns and sunshine warms our backs, the team of multi-agency collaborators—along with a bevy of reporters—descends on Indian Creek in the San Jacinto Mountains. Bred at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, 65 juvenile mountain yellow-legged frogs Rana muscosa are stowed in pairs in Tupperware containers (with puncture holes) in 2 large, temperature-controlled coolers, awaiting their freedom…and a feast of fresh crickets skirting over the water’s surface. It’s an exciting milestone, years in the making.

Amphibian Adventure
In 2002, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed Southern California’s mountain yellow-legged frog (MYLF) as endangered, with fewer than 200 adult frogs scattered throughout perennial streams in the San Gabriel, San Bernardino, and San Jacinto mountains. In 2006, a group of tadpoles (once referred to as pollywogs) were collected from the wild and brought to the Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. Research Coordinator Frank Santana took painstaking care of little guys, monitoring tank temperature, water quality, ambient light, and everything that could possibly impact the froglets’ development.

Though there was high survivorship, breeding seemed to be at an impasse, so Frank came up with an experiment to let a subset of the frogs hibernate for 60 days in a wine chiller. This proved to be the answer to the amphibian amour riddle, as the hibernated individuals were soon mating after “waking,” with six clutches of eggs laid within two days. With the fertility issue solved, Frank was able to shift his focus to field reintroduction efforts, which culminated in the dozen people buzzing about the three release sites in the stream on June 12, 2013. By raising the tadpoles in captivity into their tailless juvenile stage (about 14 months), it is hoped that there will be less predation and higher survivorship of these animals in the wild. Driving up to the release site, Frank confides that these dappled frogs are “just as deserving of a CHP escort as the pandas.” Given the years of research and collaboration required to get to this MYLF release, I’d have to agree.

The radio telemetry "backpack" will enable researchers to keep tabs on the mountain yellow-legged frog for 30 days, when it will be removed.

The radio telemetry “backpack” will enable researchers to keep tabs on the mountain yellow-legged frog for 30 days, when it will be removed.

The Fungus Among Us
Mountain yellow-legged frogs have not graced this stream since the 1990s when the perfect storm of habitat loss and degradation, nonnative introduced trout, which eat the frogs and their eggs, and the deadly amphibian chytrid fungus sweeping the globe, conspired to destroy this species. It’s up to humans to repair MYLF habitat and safeguard against the chytrid fungus. As the road wound higher into the mountains, Frank shared with me the “extra step” taken to ensure these animals released have the best chance at survival. “We are soaking the frogs twice for 4 hours in water containing beneficial bacteria, to protect them against the chytrid fungus.” Dr. Vance T. Vredenburg, a professor at San Francisco State University, discovered that a naturally occurring strain of bacteria may help ward off the fungus in frogs. This could be a game changer for amphibian conservation!

Frank gently released 65 juvenile mountain yellow-legged frogs into the stream.

Frank gently released 65 juvenile mountain yellow-legged frogs into the stream.

Release Me
Frank and Adam Backlin from U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) crouch next to the stream with several Tupperware containers bobbing on the surface. Stream water seeps in through the air holes and the frogs seem giddy with their natural habitat so near. Other USGS staff is testing the tiny “backpacks” of radio transmitters, which will be strapped onto 15 of the frogs released. This will enable researchers to track the frogs for the next 30 days to see where they settle, and then remove the transmitters. Frank wades knee-deep into the creek and gently holds a spotted, two-inch long frog on his palm over the water. The frog pauses (for a photo?), then leaps into the water, diving deep into the blessed muck on the bottom. Frank scoops up another frog. Cameras click. The liberation process is mesmerizing. One frog hops back into his Tupperware, but quickly changes his mind. Splash! As we stand under the warm sun, the frogs begin to swim to the surface, eying their audience from their chilly element. They linger, as we do, savoring this giant leap for amphibian conservation.

THANK YOU! San Diego Zoo Global is grateful to mountain yellow-legged frog recovery collaborators at the Los Angeles Zoo, the U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey, California Department of Fish and Game, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Chillin’ Out with Cold-Blooded Creatures.


Chilling Out with Cold-blooded Critters

It’s always exciting when we open a new exhibit at the San Diego Zoo, and when words like “giant,” “poison,” and “two-headed” grace the signage, well, it’s bound to be a major crowd pleaser! The brand-new Reptile Walk, home to more than 50 species of turtles, tortoises, crocodilians, amphibians, and a surprising collection of creatures native to California, is interesting, startling, and way cool, both literally and figuratively. Locals can stake claim to living in a biodiversity hotspot, and everyone can behold the fascinating creatures that swim, slither, saunter, and scurry through life. Even if you suffer from herpetophobia (fear of reptiles), a stroll along Reptile Walk will render you utterly at ease, if not downright smitten, with this captivating group of animals.

The design of the exhibits and viewing areas show how our understanding of the different species’ natural history has increased over the years, as well as our awareness about how people like to view animals in their environment. The old reptile buildings behind the Zoo’s Reptile House were almost tunnel-like in their limited viewing space, but the new Reptile Walk buildings have wide, breathable walking spaces with glass viewing areas low enough for kids to get a good look at the creatures within. It struck me how fearless and curious children are when viewing reptiles and amphibians. Apparently we learn our fears later in life!

The giant horned lizard inspired a woman to say to her friend, “Remember when we used to see those in the backyard all the time?” Many people were agog at the Mexican giant tree frog, which posed with statue-like stillness for photos, skin glistening. The screaming blue dyeing poison frog, housed with a yellow black-legged poison frog apparently get along well enough to keep their toxins to themselves.

Harboring a touch of ophidiophobia (fear of snakes) myself, I’ve been known to blanch at the sight of a snake basking in the sun, telltale bulge of its latest rodent meal slowly digesting. But as an artsy exhibit sign (see above) reminded me, only 375 of the 3,300 species of snakes have venom hazardous to humans, so what do I have to fear? And snakes, like the resting rosy boa before me, more than earn their keep by devouring insects, rats, and mice, which would overrun our communities in short order if the snakes didn’t keep their populations in check. One of nature’s more intriguing anomalies was the two-headed California king snake. The sign explained that it started out as twins, but the embryo didn’t split properly so, voilà, two heads are better than one, right? Sure, until they start squabbling. Zookeepers say they feed each head separately, lest one decides to swipe its partner’s food. Nothing gets people quite as excited as two-headed animals.

The open-air exhibit for the critically endangered Chinese alligators is part sand, part water, with ample basking areas for the two females that share the space. Dams built along the Yangtze River in their homeland destroyed much of their wetland habitat, so restoration efforts are underway. They survive well in zoos and perhaps one day they can be repatriated to their native land.

Turtles can see eye to eye in their new Reptile Walk exhibit.

Continuing along our path, the turtle house is breezy and cool, with an exotic view of the forested hillside and eucalyptus trees tall as buildings. Skyfari aerial tram buckets scoot by in the distance above. There are multispecies pond exhibits, with turtles of all persuasions paddling peacefully by. The critically endangered Roti Island snake-necked turtles really know how to stick their necks out! There are a couple of enclosures with juvenile turtles smaller than the palm of my hand. Awwww.

I feel energized! Reptile Walk has reminded me of the importance of wet habitats, like marshes, bogs, fens (love that word), and swamps and the beautiful array of wildlife that lives there. It’s a delicate balance to be sure, and it would serve us well to step a little softer as we trek through the Earth’s wild spaces.

Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, A Fresh Look at the Zoo.


A Fresh Look at the Zoo

Our panda gets comfy.

For many San Diegans, it’s easy to take our fine city, climate, and attractions for granted. Sometimes it takes out-of-town visitors to inspire us to look at our environment with fresh eyes. So it was last week when my niece, Kira, freshly graduated from college, and her girlfriend, Rachel, took a road trip from Washington to Southern California. They carved out a day to “see Auntie Karyl” and visit the world-famous San Diego Zoo. I always enjoy getting out of the office, and I was excited to escort the girls around. I found myself bursting with pride on more than one occasion as they gasped and giggled with delight at the animals and their antics. Strolling through the Zoo is a beautiful reminder of the incredible creatures we share the planet with.

After the girls shared their “must-see” list with me, we plotted our strategy and headed to Panda Trek. The red pandas were cavorting about, nibbling on bamboo and scampering along their climbing structures. “They’re so close!” Kira exclaimed. As we waited a few moments to enter the giant panda exhibit, we slathered on sunscreen and sipped our water. Soon Gao Gao, the adult male panda, was before us, snapping bamboo stalks in half like bread sticks. It’s a banner day when you get to see red pandas and giant pandas wide awake and doing their thing!

A jaguar cub gets “a licking” from Mom.

Hopping onto the convenient moving sidewalk, we headed up to Elephant Odyssey for what I hoped would be a special treat. Our jaguar, Nindiri, recently had a couple of frisky cubs, and I hoped to get a glimpse of the tiny, spotted wonders. Lucky for us, one of the cubs nestled up to Mom for some reassurance and a snack, much to the collective glee of the crowd. Continuing through the epic Pleistocene odyssey, savoring the majestic elephants and the perfectly round labors of dung beetles, we discovered the African kopje exhibit where a klipspringer remained stock still for its photo shoot and the meerkats struck some unusual poses (I’d never seen two snuggled up in a burrow entrance!).

Rachel, left, and Kira soar above the Zoo on the Skyfari aerial tram.

Urban Jungle did not disappoint with a baby giraffe, looking like a toy, bedded down next to the watchful herd, Caribbean flamingos preening beneath their misters, and the enchanting cheetah/dog pair hanging out in the shade. We took a little break at Sydney’s Grill, and quite fortuitously caught Nighttime Zoo’s kick-off performance of the Jasmine and Jade Jumpers. Their bouncing trampoline talents put a spring back in our step! Of course, no visit to the Zoo is complete without a relaxing ride on the Skyfari. The stunning view of Balboa Park and beyond, with the buttery, summer breeze in our hair, made me more than happy to share the sparkling gems of San Diego—and the Earth—with my enthusiastic visitors.

Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Primates: Quality Family Time.


Primates: Quality Family Time

An orangutan takes a burlap sack enrichment item to be enjoyed from up high.

When I heard about the special Inside Look tour offered during Discovery Days: Absolutely Apes at the San Diego Zoo, it seemed like the perfect “experience gift” for my husband. Even though I work at the Zoo, we enjoy playing “tourist” sometimes…and with behind-the-scenes ape ops, well, it was the ideal Valentine’s gift!

The walking tour took us through Lost Forest (for the first time I didn’t get lost!) and our enthusiastic guide, Kindra, showed us some monkeys along the way and explained the Zoo’s participation in the national Species Survival Plan (SSP) and how we keep the lives of our primates interesting with a variety of enrichment items and husbandry training sessions. For instance, one female spot-nosed guenon is diabetic, and keepers are able to get her into a training chute, turn around, and present her leg or shoulder for an insulin shot. She is rewarded with Craisins.

On our way to the apes, we stopped to speak with Jackie, a keeper of 15 tufted capuchin monkeys. These house cat-sized monkeys are highly intelligent, incredibly dexterous, and can fly through the trees like wind. Speaking to their intellect, they have been described as “chimpanzees in little capuchin suits.” Jackie showed us how the alpha male, Ozzie, likes to trade things with his keeper, slipping twigs and other offerings through the mesh to get a nut from her in return. There’s no denying the capuchin’s clever, problem-solving capabilities!

There are no more than 60 bonobos in zoos in the U.S. and Europe.

Bonobos (formerly called pygmy chimps) are raucous, yet largely peaceable great apes that live in matriarchal groups. Our small tour group was on a platform above the exhibit with longtime bonobo keeper Mike, who shared the ins and outs of bonobo life and what it takes to look after this extraordinary primate.  “Being a bonobo keeper has made me a better dad,” said Mike, “and being a dad has made me a better bonobo keeper.” He proceeded to provide his charges with a “scatter” of food, which generated much vocalizing from the apes. I had never heard their deafening calls when observing them from behind the exhibit glass. Mike has a great deal of respect for the bonobos and shared how they are trained to place their arm through a tube and hold still so keepers can get blood draws or administer medicine when necessary. “In the old days, we had to knock down an animal when we needed a sample or a good look at them,” he said. “Now their lives, and ours, are less stressful thanks to training.”

Our next stop was gorillas. Giddy with excitement, we approached the barn-sized back gate and met keeper April, who ushered us to the gorilla bedroom area, where we peeked from a respectable distance at silverback Maka. I gasped with pleasure at the salty, earthy gorilla scent.  Despite a genetic anomaly that left him a bit smaller than most adult male gorillas, he was an imposing presence. April described the gorilla groups like she was talking about her extended family. There are two gorilla troops at the Zoo and lone male Maka who all take turns out on exhibit. The bedroom areas are spacious and bathed in natural light from several sunroofs.

Frank, our youngest gorilla, is now 3 years old!

April led us up to the roof, where we took in a bird’s-eye view of Paul Donn’s troop. She tossed raisins and broccoli into the exhibit as she “introduced” us to the group. Sweet-faced Imani is one of my all-time favorite gorillas. If I had more hair and was a better knuckle walker, I’m pretty sure we’d be BFF’s. And little Frank is not so little anymore, yet he still sports a white rump patch, the badge of a youngster, and is filling out into a robust little lad. He plays with and copies his mighty father, Paul Donn. I count myself fortunate to share the planet with such noble creatures as gorillas.

We concluded our special great ape tour at the orangutan exhibit, where Janey and company were celebrating her 50th birthday. Though in the wild orangutans would happily live a solitary existence, at the Zoo they seem to enjoy each other and even the lanky, long-armed siamangs that share their exhibit. Their fluid, agile brachiation through the exhibit reminds me how important forests are to more species than I can count, as well as to our closest living relatives, the great apes. This tour has been a glorious glimpse into the rich lives of our simian brethren. Hooray for quality family time!

Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, A Keeper of Cats.

Take an Inside Look tour on your next visit to the Zoo.


A Keeper of Cats

An adult cheetah strolls the grounds of our off-exhibit cheetah breeding facility.

One of the best things about my job as a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global is that I get to meet the most interesting, committed, hard working animal people around! Case in point: researching an article about cheetahs at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. As it turns out, there are many dimensions to San Diego Zoo Global’s care of these vulnerable cats, and behind-the-scenes breeding programs are vital to the survival of this species.

On a warm, spring morning I met up with Lead Keeper Eileen Neff at the off-exhibit breeding area a few miles east of the Safari Park entrance. Eileen has worked at the Safari Park for 11 years and transferred to this “back area” three years ago. There are six male and eight female cheetahs, each with its own spacious pen; siblings sometimes share a pen. The cheetahs get to change pens frequently, which serves as enrichment while also giving each cat the opportunity to hang out in the “favorite” enclosure that provides the best vantage point of the other cats.

There is also a three-acre pen that has a lure, which the cheetahs happily chase. “We keep the males and females separated so that when they do get together, it’s more ‘fun’ for them,” Eileen explained. “And changing living quarters gives them new scents to explore.” As she talks about the cheetahs, it’s clear Eileen understands her individual charges intimately, down to personality traits and food preferences. “We present their food on a ‘feed pad’ since they typically will not eat meat off the ground if there’s dirt on it. They can be quite finicky at times.”

Notoriously difficult to breed in managed-care settings, researchers are working hard to tease out the “tricks” to successful breeding. For instance, a bioacoustic project found that playing the male stutterbark call to females helps get them in the mood for love. This has been a valuable jump-start to the program. “After the stutterbarks are played, the cats are moved around. If a female likes the male that is investigating her pen, she saunters and swishes by her chosen one,” Eileen explained. “We’ve had 135 cheetah cubs born here over the past few decades, which has been hugely beneficial in loosening up the genetic bottleneck with cheetahs. Collaborative efforts among zoos to move cats around to maximize genetic diversity has really helped the species.”

Listen to a male’s stutterbark [audio:http://www.sandiegozoo.org/animalbytes/sounds/cheetah_stutterbark.mp3]

Why are some cheetah cubs hand raised? Eileen explained that female cheetahs need to maximize their reproductive potential, so when they just have a single cub, it is not worth their while to invest resources and raise it for two years before they can go into heat again. So females often abandon a singleton and try again for a litter. “Fortunately, the neonate staff here is extremely talented at raising cheetah cubs,” she said. “The hand-raised cubs make excellent cheetah ambassadors, and they often go on to successful breeding. Of course, mother-reared cubs are our preference, but it doesn’t always happen that way.”

When it is suspected that a female cheetah is “due,” the keepers install cameras around her pen in the hopes of capturing the birth on film. They even put a camera inside a shelter resembling a large doghouse, where you’d think a cheetah would want to give birth. Interestingly, the females often have their cubs in the grass. “It’s great that we have this off-exhibit space where it’s quiet, and we can control the environment to some degree so the cats can relax. They feel secure enough to have their cubs in the grass.”

A cheetah came over to the fence where we were standing and rubbed against it, purring loudly. “This cheetah was a singleton and hand raised,” she said. “Mother-raised cheetahs don’t usually purr for keepers like these guys do.” The svelte, spotted cat was rumbling with bliss at the sight of Eileen. “We’re proud of our successful cheetah breeding here and proud to have a cub on grounds, but we always strive for a litter.” As I scribbled that pearl of insight down, the cheetah continued its purr fest, and I’m certain we were all totally loving life at that moment.

Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for San Diego Zoo Global. Read her previous post, Happy Gorilla Birthday, Frank!


Happy Gorilla Birthday, Frank!

On September 4, Frank, the crazy-cute gorilla at the San Diego Zoo, will be two years old. This is cause for celebration on many levels and not only because lowland gorillas are an endangered species. Frank’s mother, Azizi, a hand-raised, first-time mom, was not able to hold Frank correctly to nurse him, so keepers had to intervene. Rather than removing Frank from his troop to raise him in the nursery, the committed keepers devised a “rear assisting” program, which allowed Azizi (and his two aunts) to raise Frank while keepers helped out by feeding him and quickly returning him to his family. This strategy was wildly successful, as Frank is now a rotund, confident, 40-pound (18-kilogram) gorilla, adored by his family and fans. (Read Frank the Gorilla: First Year.)

At two-years old, Frank is filling out physically through his chest and back and becoming more coordinated by the day. After all, hanging by one arm and beating your chest with the other takes some practice! Frank has also become more diligent in securing his favorite foods. One day he discovered a coveted tomato, but Aunt Ndjia wanted it. Frank threw himself on top of the tomato and squirted the tomato goodness into his mouth, in case she still wanted to wrest it from him. Clever gorilla! Frank also spends time with Grandmother Alvila, who is getting up in years and seems to really appreciate the antics of her progeny.

Frank’s father, Paul Donn, an imposing silverback by any measure, is an excellent role model, teaching him the fine points of leadership, posturing, and enjoying life in the Zoo’s Lost Forest. They have their rowdy play times, according to senior keeper April Bove, especially in the bedroom areas where they rip around, hay flying, chasing each other until the other one is suddenly “it.” “It’s really funny when 480-pound Paul Donn is chasing this agile little 40-pound gorilla, then suddenly he is ‘tagged’ and Frank takes off after him!”

Frank has been weaned off of his daily bottles as well as his vitamin-packed gruel, so he’s pretty much on his own for dining. In addition to tomatoes, Frank loves eggplant and any kind of fruit. The latter is used for training behaviors necessary for healthy husbandry practices. For instance, gorillas need a series of vaccinations (just like human kids) to stay healthy through childhood, and Frank has been trained to present his thigh and hold still while he gets his injections. Voluntary injections make Frank’s —and the keepers’!— lives much less stressful. And who wouldn’t sit still for a ripe, fresh strawberry? Frank is also willing to present his hands and feet for keepers to inspect and soon will master opening his mouth on command, which enables staff to examine his teeth and gums. His training is based on positive reinforcement, and Frank is perfectly happy to play along and humor his keepers…for a tasty price.

On exhibit daily 9 a.m. to noon, Frank is a fearless, energetic explorer who seems to enjoy interacting with “his public” on the other side of the glass. It’s no act. Frank has a twinkle of mirth in his eyes, even in his most rambunctious moments, and he is on a sturdy trajectory toward maturity. In another ten years, he will be a silverback running his own troop. They grow up so fast, don’t they?

Frank’s Ice Cake Birthday Celebration is Saturday, September 4, at 9 a.m. at the San Diego Zoo. Swing on by!

Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Going Ape, Part II.

Watch video of Frank and his family…

Update: View photos of Frank with his cake…


Going Ape, Part II


Karyl shadowed the Zoo’s primate keepers during a Visit-A-Job program. Be sure to read Going Ape, Part 1.

Another interesting aspect to a zoo keeper’s job is “shifting animals,” where you bring the animals that are out on exhibit inside, and send out the group that has been off exhibit. Sounds easy, right? I went to bonobos to see how it’s done.

The trick is to keep the animals’ lives as positive as possible, giving them pleasant, upbeat associations with doing your bidding, particularly when the animals are unbelievably smart, incredibly strong, and look suspiciously like you. Brief positive reinforcement training sessions in holding areas, which reward the animals for desired behaviors like presenting an arm or shoulder, also gets the animals where you want them to be. It was astonishing to watch. Not easy by any stretch, but quite effective.

Sometimes more than one bonobo would scamper into the holding area at the same time, and the keeper could tell if “these two would get along” in the closed quarters for a minute or two or not. Each presented its shoulder for a finger poke, then an empty syringe poke, and a treat. They seemed to enjoy this bit of interaction, and it will pay off for staff when the bonobos are desensitized to “pokes” and can accept shots and blood draws in a stress-free manner. Like their human caregivers, bonobos (and other primates) get annual TB tests, so it is helpful when they can just present an arm for the procedure.

Meanwhile, the group that came inside was rummaging around for treats and enrichment items, and in the excitement they were all communicating loudly at an ear-splitting pitch. The keeper looked on calmly, watching the group mingle and move (they have a fission-fusion society) with his hands on a wheel that will bring down hydraulic gates to separate them in different areas. It is better if they are good friends with all the group members, rather than BEST friends with one other animal, as that will invite aggression and the potential of an inseparable duo ganging up on others. Keepers do their best to let the animals’ natural behaviors shine through and make their lives as positive and interesting as possible. Often the biggest challenge is keeping these intelligent apes engaged and challenged every day. I was dazzled by the keeper’s deft talent for shifting the bonobos quickly and safely.


We then headed back up to orangutans to see if Karen had yet cracked the code of the hot wire to tear up the plants we’d put in that morning. Smart, dexterous, and patient, an orangutan can really give their keepers a run for their money, and it is so interesting to see the big “red apes” cogitating some riddle (like how to touch the newly planted shrubs), then see them methodically solve it. We arrived to find Karen lying on her belly, stick in hand, poking between the charged wires to touch the new foliage. Clever primate! (See post Karen: Will She or Won’t She?)

Time to finish off the day back at gorillas and say farewell to my buddy, Frank. His troop was off exhibit that day, so we went to the bedroom areas where the family was hanging out, resting, nibbling biscuits, and relaxing. (Everything but checking their e-mail!) Frank came over and began swinging from his rope with one hand and beating his chest with the other hand. I swear he was grinning.

At the risk of being a champion for the obvious, gorillas (and all apes) are incredible primates that deserve our utmost respect and conservation efforts. Gorillas are blessed with more strength than they need, enough social graces to get along in groups, and a calm intelligence that has kept them moving through African forests for millions of years. They are fearless when necessary and rely on convincing displays of their brawn before coming to blows. As humans, we should take note. I thought about the oil mess in the Gulf of Mexico, the bushmeat trade in Africa, the ways we are trashing the planet with pollution and overpopulation, and, looking at little Frank, I felt deeply ashamed as a human about how we treat our collective, finite “nest.”

“We’ll do better,” I whispered to him. “I promise, Frank, we’ll do better.”

Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for the San Diego Zoo.