About Author: Laura Weiner

Posts by Laura Weiner


Giraffes in Australia

Laura teaches Nyota to touch a target when asked.

Laura is on a keeper exchange with the Taronga Zoo in Australia. Read her previous post, Rhinos in Australia.

Time really does fly when you are having fun! Last week, I was sitting in a meeting discussing giraffe physicals here at the Taronga Zoo. We are planning on training the giraffes on different behaviors so we don’t have to anesthetize them for routine medical procedures. I am working with the oldest female, Nyota, with one of the senior keepers.

Laura works to get a bull giraffe comfortable with having his hooves touched, an important part of giraffe care.

As we talked about our training goals and when the procedure would be, I realized I won’t be here for the final outcome. I have been here almost five months, and it actually feels like I work here! You get so involved with the animals and their care, and you forget that the time is almost up. We decided that we would both be the primary keepers on Nyota’s training and then pass it off to someone else when I leave.

It has been so great having the chance to live in another country and work at another zoo. I have learned so much about training, enrichment, teamwork, new animals, and the list could go on and on. The experience will forever be on my mind and Australia in my heart. After I finish work, I will be traveling to some amazing places. I plan to spend two weeks traveling to the north and south islands of New Zealand and then heading up to dive the Great Barrier Reef for three days. Both the people and the animals here have been amazing.

I am thankful to my team back home in San Diego for supporting me, and I look forward to returning to the San Diego Zoo with new information and appreciation for my job.

Laura Weiner is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Rhinos in Australia

Laura bonds with a young female black rhino.

Be sure to read Laura’s previous post, Australian Keeper Exchange.

As a zoo keeper we are supposed to care for all of our animals with the same expertise and energy. But we all have favorites, and mine have always been rhinoceroses! Back in San Diego I work with Soman and Surat, our greater one-horned rhino brothers (see The Dirt on Rhinos). The Taronga Zoo, where I’m doing my keeper exchange, does not have any rhinos, but I didn’t let that stop me. Last week two of my co-workers and I took the five-hour drive to the Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo. It is basically like Taronga’s version of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. You can rent buggies and drive through the pathways and hop out to see each of the huge exhibits. Most of the exhibits are single species, so it is quite different than the Safari Park’s mixed-species field exhibits. Either way, the animals have a huge amount of room to roam.

A young female greater one-horned rhino gets a "taste" of Laura!

The Taronga Western Plains Zoo has white, greater one-horned, and my favorite, black rhinos. When I started my zoo career, I worked with three black rhinos, and they have always held a huge place in my heart. I was able to visit with the rhinos and keepers at each exhibit and see how they manage their animals in such large enclosures. They have 10 black rhinos, 2 greater one-horned, and 8 whites. It was truly heaven for me! We discussed training, introducing males and females, weights, blood draws, reproductive testing, the whole lot. Visiting other zoos is such a great way to get new ideas and bring them back home. The sharing of information is so important to our job.

A Tasmanian devil at the Taronga Western Plains Zoo

They have a major Tasmanian devil breeding facility out there, too, and it was wonderful to get a glimpse of these well-known animals. Devils are very energetic and make such wonderful vocalizations. I also learned about housing them and their specific needs. Being so close to the ground, they really like to have a lookout point. Each of their individual dens had a small mountain of sticks, rocks, and dirt so they would be able to see what was going on from a small vantage point.

We stayed in the zoo house on grounds, which had wonderful old signs and pictures from zoo days gone past. I always enjoy seeing those pictures, because it will be some keeper from 1930 standing right next to a full grown hippo and just smiling at the camera!

It was such a wonderful trip, and we even saw wild kangaroos in the zebra exhibit. I am halfway through with my keeper exchange and cannot believe how fast time is flying. More adventures to come!

Laura Weiner is a senior keeper from the San Diego Zoo on a keeper exchange at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia.


Australian Keeper Exchange

A young bongo

G’day from Sydney, Australia! Normally I am the rhino, camel, and warty pig keeper at the San Diego Zoo. For the next six months I am the giraffe, bongo, zebra, tapir, and pygmy hippo keeper at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney. My blog posts were usually about weighing rhinos or what was going on in the meerkat mob a few years ago. This one is about my first six weeks here in Sydney.

I arrived at the end of October; it was all a bit overwhelming since I haven’t been a “new” keeper in almost seven years. Learning the routine at another zoo can be difficult the first week or so. I am on the ungulate team here, and the keepers have been great. We work more as a team, whereas we work more independently at the San Diego Zoo.

Taronga Zoo is set right on the north side of Sydney Harbor. Every morning when I walk in, I see the Sydney Opera House and the Harbour Bridge right over the giraffes’ heads; I would have to say the giraffes have one of the best views in Sydney! The collection of animals here is similar to San Diego’s, with a wide variety from all over the world. The most exciting thing for me as a keeper is the opportunity to see animals in a zoo that are rarely are exhibited in American zoos. I am scheduled to meet the platypus. For anyone who has seen these animals on TV, this is very exciting! They are only exhibited in Australia, and the chance to get to meet this monotreme (egg-laying mammal) will go down as one of the best parts of my exchange.

The wildlife around the zoo is also very interesting. Animals that we only have in zoos in America are flying and running around this zoo daily: rainbow lorikeets, sulfur-crested cockatoos, laughing kookaburras, and water dragons. The most exciting for me so far were the flying foxes I saw when I went to dinner last night. Flying foxes are the larger members of the bat family (Megachiroptera). I studied the smaller ones in Costa Rica in college, so I was thrilled to see these huge flying mammals in person here.

I have been put in charge of getting weights on the bongo antelope to see if the younger female is pregnant. She has been trained for weigh-ins, and we got her first weight on Wednesday. Here’s hoping her weight keeps increasing! I am lucky enough to be here for six months and look forward to updating everyone on more animals and experiences I encounter. Happy new year from Down Under!

Laura Weiner is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, The Dirt on Rhinos.


The Dirt on Rhinos

Laura gives Soman and Surat some attention.

Soman and Surat, our greater one-horned (Indian) rhino brothers have been busy growing and practicing to become adult males. They still have quite a few years to go. Along with feeding, training, and maintaining their health, as keepers we also need to keep their exhibit in great shape. As you can imagine, this means a large amount of heavy lifting. We rototill the exhibit monthly to keep the dirt nice and soft for the rhinos’ feet.  Maintaining an exhibit that large takes a lot of time and work; sometimes we need a little help.

At the San Diego Zoo, we are lucky enough to have thousands of members and others who care very much about our animals. They take an interest in their daily lives and want to know every detail. Some do this by visiting the Zoo every day, while others visit our Web site from all across the world. They are always asking what the animals need or what they can do to help. Sometimes all our animals need is some dirt. Sounds like a small request, but when you have a huge exhibit with two big rhinos, it’s A LOT of dirt.

Some generous donors wanted to provide fresh dirt for the rhinos. We use special dirt in the animal exhibits, depending on the species and where the dirt will be going. This dirt was mainly to fill in some low areas and make a big pile for the rhinos to play in. To deliver it, a huge tractor trailer drove into the exhibit and dumped the dirt right at the top of the yard. Then we used machinery to move the dirt to the appropriate places. We made sure to leave a big pile for the boys to play in and sit on. This process helps to keep their feet healthy and their minds active.

When we released them into the exhibit, they were so busy smelling all of the new dirt and enjoying the feeling. Soman laid down near the Backstage Pass area, and I swear he was snuggling with the dirt. He was rubbing on the ground like a dog in a comfy bed. They also have a great time playing in the dirt pile, taking turns pushing each other off so they can stand on top—kind of like playing “rhino of the mountain.” They dig their horns into the dirt and fling it high up in the air. So much fun!

As keepers, we thank the donors who care about our animals and do whatever they can to help. It makes our job even more rewarding.

Laura Weiner is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Camel Tuya Moves Out.


Camel Tuya Moves Out

If you are a regular visitor to the San Diego Zoo, you probably have noticed that our young Bactrian camel, Tuya, is no longer in the camel exhibit. A few weeks ago she made her journey to a zoo in the Midwest. In my last post I spoke about her pre-shipment physical (see post Training Camel Tuya) . For most of it she was stellar!

I haltered her up and walked her into the chute. She was calm since we had been working on this behavior for a few weeks now. The veterinarian checked her legs, feet, teeth, general body condition, eyes, ears, and then we had to draw blood. Since it is winter, Tuya has her full winter coat. Finding a vein is difficult enough with a moving camel, but add in four inches of thick, curly hair and it is practically impossible. We shaved her neck in the area where the blood would be drawn and she did great. It took a few tries, but we were able to draw a blood sample.

About a week later it was time to shift her into the trailer for movement to our shipping area. I had also been working on getting her to go into the trailer voluntarily. It is always easier for all involved, camel and keeper, to train behaviors and have the animals do things on their own. A 500-pound animal is not easy to convince otherwise. Once again I started slowly and gave her the chance to investigate the trailer, sniff it, get nervous and run away, and then come right back. I used her “target,” a small pool buoy on a stick, to give her something to concentrate on and reinforced her when she touched it while close to the trailer. We worked our way into the trailer, and she was somewhat confident. It was new, but I was there to comfort her.

On the move day she walked up to the trailer well with her halter on but would not go in. Sometimes this happens; the animals can sense something is different. They can feel the urgency. Luckily, the trailer has many small doors we can open, so we opened one at the back to show her a little light. Once that door was open she walked right in. It is always so rewarding for the animal to be calm and to have everything go smoothly.

Tuya was transported to our shipping area and then left a few days later. She arrived safely and will start her new life with a reason to have that thick winter coat. Working with her was a great experience and another addition to the never-ending repertoire of zoo keeping adventures.

Laura Weiner is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Training Camel Tuya

Zookeepers get very attached to our animals. We provide their daily care and for some, so much more. Tuya, our young Bactrian camel, needed much more. We provided it happily, and because of this she has grown to be about 500 pounds at almost 9 months of age (see previous post, Baby Camel: Accepted). Along with the happiness always comes the day when the animal has to make a journey to another zoo. Tuya’s father, Mongo, will be staying with us. This means that Tuya will need to be sent away to be part of a breeding herd.

I received this news about a month ago and have been preparing for her departure. When animals leave the San Diego Zoo, they must have a pre-shipment physical to make sure they are healthy and there are no issues before they head out. Tuya is very used to all types of tactile handling, so most of the veterinarian’s requests would be easy to accommodate. But just to make sure, we set up a chute in case Tuya decided to kick, a normal reaction from a camel of any age, but expected from one so young. The chute is just two corral panels about 10 feet long and 5 feet high and made of metal bars. The camel steps into this chute, and the vet has full access to the animal by reaching through the bars while keeping safe from camel kicks. Tuya had never been in a chute before, so I began training to get her used to it.

At first I just stood in the corral with her and rewarded her with a treat when she was calm. Slowly we made our way closer to the chute. She ran away kicking three times before walking into it. And this is no normal kick or two. It is the full-on happy camel dance with legs flailing in all directions. It makes me laugh every time I see it! Finally she decided it was okay to sniff the chute. I rewarded her for every few steps she took into the chute, using a “target” for her to touch to receive her reward. The target we use is a small pool buoy on a stick that we use to move animals from one point to another. With the camels I ask them to “target,” which means to touch the target with their nose. Usually this means they have to walk a few steps to reach the target; once they touch it calmly they are given food reinforcement.

Tuya did quite well for her first time. We spent a few more days taking it slow, and then I decided to put her halter on and walk her into the chute. I still used the target, which gave her something to concentrate on. If I didn’t, she usually wound up getting excited and running away.

Once comfortably in the chute, I rewarded her for calm behavior and had another keeper start touching her legs, head, belly, etc.—anywhere the vet might want to examine her to make sure she is healthy. As long as she had her camel chow pellets, she was good. I kept the sessions short so as to keep them a positive and always-rewarding experience for her.

Next time I’ll update you on her physical and how the whole procedure went. She is definitely a healthy and happy camel!

Laura Weiner is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Baby Camel: Accepted

It has been a while since my last blog post about Tuya, our baby Bactrian camel (see Baby Camel: Unexpected Encounter). Since then she has been weaned and introduced to both of our adult camels, Mongo and Mouse.

We started off with the three-year-old female, Mouse, since we expected her to be less aggressive with Tuya. Camels investigate new things by biting, chasing, and kicking at them; Tuya was no exception. Mouse started off smelling her and then would start chasing her, trying to bite her rear end in the process. We stood at the ready, just in case we needed to intervene and separate them.

Camels are also followers, so when one gets excited, they all get excited. Tuya would start running or kicking, which would cause Mouse to do the same. Of course, at this point Mouse weighed 1,100 pounds (500 kilograms) and Tuya was only 300 pounds (136 kilograms)—a huge difference! Thankfully, Tuya is very fast and can change direction quickly, which helped the situation. She was able to run out of the way of Mouse’s flailing limbs. It was quite a sight to see!

Within a few days the interactions were increasingly calm, and we felt the two of them could be left alone. They both did quite well, and we actually found them cuddled up next to each other in the morning.

When it was time to introduce Mongo, we weren’t sure what to expect. He is a large male (almost 2,000 pounds or 900 kilograms), and sometimes adult males can be aggressive. We weren’t sure if he recognized Tuya as his own offspring, but she is a female, so that helped. Mongo does not like any other males around his girls.

Mongo and Mouse had a somewhat unstable relationship before Tuya was born, and we wanted to make sure Tuya didn’t wind up in the middle of a chasing session. Tuya actually proved to be a great distraction for Mongo, and Mouse was able to eat and relax in peace. Mongo was, at first, quite interested in this small camel. He sniffed, chased, and did some half-hearted tries at biting. But mostly he behaved himself like a gentleman, as much as a camel can! Tuya enjoyed spending time with her dad and would hang out near him whenever she could.

Tuya has now been accepted completely into the herd, and Mouse has even gained the confidence to yell and spit at Mongo. In the camel world, that is a good thing! She stands up to him, and usually he just backs down, a huge improvement from their previous relationship. And Tuya has followed suit, yelling and spitting at her dad, all things I have been thrilled to see! Tuya knows she is a camel and acts accordingly.

Laura Weiner is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Baby Camel: Unexpected Encounter

Tuya with one of her keepers.

Tuya, the San Diego Zoo’s Bactrian camel calf, has been gaining about 2 pounds (0.9 kilograms) a day since she was born in March, and it was time to give her some more room to run. (Read Laura’s previous post, Baby Camel Meets Adults.) Camels love to run and kick their legs out in every direction. It is something we affectionately call the “happy camel dance” in our area. It almost seems like they are throwing all four legs out at once and then rocking from front to back. It is one of the more comical aspects of the Bactrian camel!

To offer Tuya room to start her “camel dancing” practice, we built a pen that ran the length of the camel exhibit from front to back. She was allowed access to it all day long and brought in at night for safety. Soon she was comfortable enough to stay out overnight next to her herd mates, Mongo and Mouse. We installed a gate in this fence so we would be able to access the rest of the yard for cleaning and interacting with the adults. I had no idea how important that gate would be until one very exciting minute of my life!

I was chatting with Zoo guests and answering questions about the camels while in Tuya’s exhibit pen to play with her. She walked away for a bit, and I kept answering questions, not noticing what was going on behind me. It seems Tuya, who loves resting up against the fences, plopped down next to this one and somehow made her way under it. In normal circumstances this would be fine, since she was still contained on exhibit, but wiggling her way in with Mongo and Mouse was not normal at all.

Thankfully one of the guests pointed it out to me, and I ran as fast as I could into the exhibit. Mongo was very curious as to who this small camel was in his way; he came over and sniffed her. As she started to trot away from him, I was able to guide her back into her safe pen. It didn’t take much effort and she came willingly, just as confused as Mongo had been.

It is possible my heart skipped a few beats that day, but thankfully neither of the adult camels seemed to care that Tuya had entered their space. We modified the fence so Tuya, the escape artist, would not have any more unsupervised visits with Mongo or Mouse. Either one could have bit her or kicked her just for curiosity’s sake, not knowing that they could hurt her.

Our next step is to introduce Tuya to Mouse, our three-year-old adult female. As long as we decide when they will meet, I will be happy. No more surprises!

Laura Weiner is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Baby Camel Meets Adults

Keeper Jen Moll offers Tuya the secret password.

Tuya, our baby Bactrian camel, has been doing great and growing more and more every day (see Baby Camel Care). Our next challenge, now that any health issues are out of the way, is to make sure she knows that she is a camel. It may sound funny, but we needed to get her next to her family so she would start learning the “camel code.”

We set up a pen next to the camel exhibit that was bedded down with an entire bale of hay to keep her warm and give her a nice place to rest. At first, she was to spend a few hours next to adults Mouse and Mongo. This would give them a chance to come over and visit and Tuya a chance to see and smell them. This area also gave our guests a chance to see her getting her bottles and interacting with the keepers. You can’t help but fall in love with this fuzzy little camel!

Within a week, Tuya was spending all day next to the adult camels. I would halter her up in the morning and walk her over to the nursery pen. She would be fed her bottles and spend the day checking out the scenery. At night she was returned to the warm barn for her evening snooze.

She was doing great outside, and we decided to try an overnight. We had slowly been shutting the heat off in the barn to get her used to the nighttime temperature. I must say I was a bit worried that she might get cold, but she was very good at laying in a warm hay bed. In the wild, baby camels snuggle up right next to Mom and sometimes even on top of her to stay warm. Tuya loved laying next to us in the hay, and sometimes it was very hard for me to leave. The tough life of a zookeeper!

Mouse and Mongo did not show much interest in Tuya most of the time. Camels are so focused on food that everything else is mostly ignored. But occasionally, one of them would come over and smell her. They would touch noses for a moment, kind of a camel greeting. Camels identify each other by breath. Mongo especially loves to smell our breath. It’s kind of like the secret password to walk into the exhibit. He won’t let me pass until I blow into his nose for at least 15 seconds. It must look quite comical from the outside!

Our next step: a bigger pen on exhibit.

Laura Weiner is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Baby Camel Care

Laura enjoys time with her newest charge.

Being a zookeeper is always an interesting job. But sometimes an opportunity comes along that you never expected. In March of this year, a female Bactrian camel was born. Sadly, despite heroic efforts on the part of our veterinary and animal care staff, her mother (Heidi) died shortly after birth from complications resulting from the birth, and it was necessary to hand raise the newborn camel. Just as they say it takes a village to raise a child…it takes a great team of keepers and veterinary staff to raise a camel calf.  I was thrilled to be an integral part of that team. Being the five-day keeper on the rhino string (a string is a group of animals a keeper takes care of), the Bactrian camels were under my care.

The first week, our little female calf was quite a handful. She weighed in at 77 pounds (35 kilograms) and was extremely fuzzy. I think the parts that we enjoyed the most were her humps. I had never seen a camel calf that young, so I did not know what to expect. Her humps were two little bags of skin, each flopped over to the opposite side. Completely empty. Now, of course, we all know camels’ humps are filled with fat, not water as most people assume. Camels need time to fill those humps and make them stand up straight. We had a lot of work on our hands to fatten her up!

Getting any animal to take milk from a bottle is always a challenge. Our nursery staff tirelessly worked with her to get her to drink her milk. She was quite weak in the beginning and would not come close to finishing her bottles. Each feeding (five per day) took at least an hour, and she spent half of the time laying down. We were all concerned, and the vet staff had to do IV fluid treatments to make sure she was properly hydrated and getting enough nutrients. Thankfully, as time went on she started drinking more, and the fluids were slowly phased out. We all breathed a sigh of relief, camel and keepers.

During this time I was also preparing her to be a camel at the San Diego Zoo. This means that she walks on a halter and is accustomed to meeting guests as an animal ambassador. I began placing a very tiny halter on her nose so she would become used to the feeling. When you start them out this young, the halter is like second nature, and they don’t mind it at all. She started with a small pink one and has since grown and graduated to a larger green one. She did quite well with her halter, and I started the process of teaching her how to walk out of the exhibit.

And of course, most importantly, I gave her a name. I wanted to find a name that would emphasize how special she is to us all. Her name is Tuya, which means “ray of sunshine” in Mongolian. And she is exactly that.

Laura Weiner is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, How Do You Weigh a Rhino?