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May 9 Is World Binturong Day!

Binturongs are also known as "bear cats" because they look like a cross between those two animals.

Binturongs are also known as “bear cats” because they look like a cross between those two animals.

A bintur-what? A bintur-right? No, a binturong. Most people have never heard of a binturong let alone seen one in person, which is a good reason zoos everywhere are celebrating the very first World Binturong Day on May 9, 2015.

Binturongs are mammals about the size of a medium-size dog. They are native to the forests of China, India, Indonesia and Southeast Asian forests, including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Borneo. Something really unusual about them is their scent—they smell like hot buttered popcorn! But more about that later…

Binturongs have delighted guests at the San Diego Zoo for many years. Currently we have three in our collection and they are all animal ambassadors. Phuket (Foo-KET), a young three-and-a-half-year-old male binturong, lives in the Children’s Zoo. Called “Phu”, by his keepers and trainers, he always delights kids during school programs and impresses Zoo visitors with his playful antics during his walks around the Children’s Zoo. Another young male, three-and-a-half-year-old Khi, (Kee), lives in Urban Jungle. He loves early morning walks  through his “neighborhood.” The elder of the Zoo’s binturongs, 14-year-old Bap Rang (“Bop Rong) meets hundreds of guest each month as a regular star of our Backstage Pass experience.

Binturongs are in the Viverridae family. Some of their relatives include civets and genets, even though they don’t look anything like them. Many people think binturongs look like a cross between a bear and cat, which is why they are sometimes called “bear cats.”

Taxonomists have grouped binturongs, civets, and genets together because they have something in common: the perineal gland (located under the tail). This unique gland secretes a thick substance that smells just like hot buttered popcorn—although some people think it smells like over-cooked rice. And here’s where that special scent comes in: the secretion, called civetone or musk, carries hormonal information that allows the male binturongs to find the females in their dense jungle habitat. A binturong’s home range can be hundreds of acres in size, which would make it hard to find one another if it weren’t for civetone. By rubbing the perineal gland against branches and tree trunks, female binturongs leave scent marks in the treetops throughout their territory.

A female binturong’s estrus cycle lasts 80 days. During this time, she is looking for Mr. Bintur-right—and he is very busy looking for her! The estrus cycle is the only time a male binturong is welcome into a female’s foraging area without a fight.

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A binturong’s tail provides balance as it moves along tree branches, but the animal can also hang from it!

An adaption that allows binturongs to live comfortably up in trees is their prehensile tail. Binturongs and kinkajous (from South America) are the only two carnivores with a prehensile tail. A binturong’s tail is strong enough to support the animal’s body as it hangs from a branch—when it needs to dangle to reach ripened fruit or bird eggs. Binturongs are considered carnivores, yet their diet looks more like that of an omnivore because they eat things other than meat. They will dine on just about anything that doesn’t eat them first, including small birds, small reptiles, amphibians, carrion, and seasonally ripened fruits.

A binturong’s  gastrointestinal tract doesn’t completely digest meals—food travels quickly through their system. But that short time is just long enough for the outer layer of a seed to break down, allowing it to germinate quickly when expelled. A binturong’s scat or waste helps more plants to grow!

Now that you know more about binturongs, we hope you’ll celebrate the very first World Binturong Day by helping us preserve their future. All nine subspecies of binturong are listed as “vulnerable with decreasing populations.” Today, the biggest threat to binturongs (and so many other animals) is loss of habitat for the creation of new palm oil plantations.

Palm oil is the number one ingredient in over half of the products in the average American household today. It’s in just about everything you can imagine: crackers, lipstick, detergent, margarine, shampoo, chocolate, and more! Living without palm oil is not a viable option, but buying products made with a sustainable source of palm oil is. Certified sustainable palm oil and certified sustainable palm kernel oil are produced on plantations that comply with globally agreed upon environmental standards.

There are more than 80 different names for palm oil. This fact alone makes it very difficult for consumers to decipher ingredients on labels. But two free apps—available for all types of smart phones—will help you find and purchase products from companies that use sustainable sources of palm oil.

To find these free apps, search “palm oil” in your app store. Once you learn which products are binturong-friendly, it will make shopping easier and you will not only help the binturong but all the other animals—like orangutans and clouded leopards—that share the same habitat. Happy World Binturong Day!

 

Maureen O. Duryee is a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous blog, Clouded Leopard Success.

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Clouded Leopard Success

Clouded leopard cubs Lek, left, and Yai.

Maureen is spending three weeks at a zoo in Thailand to learn about their breeding program for clouded leopards. Read her previous post, Clouded Leopards: Getting to Know You.

t’s 3:30 am. Why am I up even earlier than usual? It is my last working day in Thailand at the Clouded Leopard Breeding Center. Hard to believe three weeks have passed. Today we began our duties two hours earlier: two breeding pairs of clouded leopards seem to be more active and relaxed in the morning than in the evening. While I’m still here to help, Ken decided to take advantage!

Dawk Mai is still in her estrous cycle. When we run these two cats together, No Name smells the ground, completes his flehmen response, and lies down, patiently awaiting his mate’s approach. He hasn’t had a mate in over eight years, yet he does not rush—Mr. No Name is just too cool! In a one-hour period, we watched four copulations, each time with Dawk Mai ending the contact. The interaction begins with him mounting her and securing his position with a neck bite. After a couple of minutes, she starts t a low, guttural growl. If he doesn’t dismount shortly after this vocalization, she reproaches him with teeth, claws, and louder growling. That does the trick! No Name not only moves aside—he runs for cover! This little female clouded leopard prompts this big male clouded leopard to run for safety. She then performs the back-rolling response, rests for a couple of minutes, and then it’s back to the ground to seek out No Name’s company for another round. These two have bred a total of 12 times over a 3-day period. There is a strong possibility Dawk Mai is now pregnant. Time will tell. Clouded leopards have an 86- to 92-day gestation, a short time to wait before cubs are on the ground. Job well done, you crazy kids!

Yai shows off her clouded leopard tail.

Sen Yai and Sak-Daa, our young and inexperienced couple, seem to be following instincts without too much trouble and have attempted breeding postures but have not completed the act…yet! Building the foundation can be a slow, tedious process; however, if done correctly, and once in place, the cats take over, and our involvement is no longer necessary. These cats pair bond for life in captivity. When the bonds are fortified, the danger of misreading one another’s behavior is eliminated. If this couple stays on course, the pair will be breeding within the next two or three estrous cycles.

The adorable Lek and Yai are four months old now. They have been microchipped and vaccinated. Lek was born with a few birth defects and has to be watched and monitored carefully. Her desire to eat isn’t as strong as her sister’s. As such, we have been separating them into different nest boxes during feeding times, ensuring their dietary needs are met. While both cubs are gaining weight as expected, Lek is much smaller than her sister and is growing at a slower pace. There have been 50 cubs born in Thailand at the Clouded Leopard Breeding Center. Raising clouded leopard cubs is what this program is all about. The project manager of the program also happens to be a veterinarian; his original diagnosis of Lek’s problems was prompt, accurate, and saved her life. While her defects won’t affect the quality of her life, they will prove to be a hindrance in her contribution to the breeding pool.

The author holds Lek, while Ken Lang poses with Yai.

The personalities of the two cubs are very different as well. Lek chuffs after eating her meals, a way of thanking us. Yai, on the other hand, plans an ambush after she is done eating, which seems to be, at least in her mind, her way of securing yet another meal! When entering the pen during non-feeding times, Lek runs up to us and licks our leg or hand and then licks some more and chuffs, a very sweet way of saying hello. Yai, however, has a habit of running into our legs with her head, and then she licks, licks some more, and then “chomps” whereever she was licking! Lek gets eye contact and then jumps forward, allowing us time to catch her in mid-air, or at least give us time to bend and offer our backs as a landing pad. Yai prefers to ambush us and tries to stay attached to the human body part she has landed on. Both cats have a full set of very sharp, needle-point claws that can do some harm. It’s a tough job, playing with these two cubs, but someone has to do it!

As I reflect on my experience in Thailand, I feel a sense of pride. Via my mission here, San Diego Zoo Global has contributed to a very successful breeding program and forged wonderful relationships with the animals and humans. Clouded leopards are recognized as an endangered species, yet thankfully, with the work being done in their native habitat of Thailand, conservationists can rest easier knowing these beautiful cats have a future in our world not only for this generation to enjoy but for our children and our children’s children as well.

TIme to sign off… and scratch a few more bug bites!

Maureen O. Duryee is a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo.

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Clouded Leopards: Getting to Know You

Sak-Daa is an 8-year-old male who has never bred before.

Maureen is spending three weeks at a zoo in Thailand to learn about their breeding program for clouded leopards. Read her previous post, Clouded Leopards: Mr. Cool Cat.

It’s 4:45 a.m. Why am I up so early? I still have jet lag (Thailand is 14 hours ahead of San Diego). A fantastically bright lightening storm just ended, and I need some time to wrap my mind around taking a very cold shower. I’ve acquired 3 new bug bites from my recent activities, bringing the total to 15, a new record, even for me. There are two constants here in Thailand: daily rainstorms and bug bites. Our day now begins at the breeding center at 6:30 a.m. Ken and I are taking advantage of the quiet mornings as well as the calm evenings to increase the contact time between the two breeding pairs we are managing. This makes for a very long but very rewarding 12-hour work day.

Dawk Mai waits for the right moment to join No Name.

It is amazing how quickly these cats learn the routines we have set in place. After one short session, we heard chuffing from both male clouded leopards when we arrived to open their pens into the adjoining females’ yard. Chuffing is a vocalization large cats make when they seem content; purring would be the equivalent from a small cat. Dawk Mai and No Name bred in the tree the first time they were put together. It did not take. Since then we have put these cats together two more times, and they have attempted to breed three or four more times. Each contact offered a different set of circumstances.

Here comes No Name!

Usually No Name cooly waits for Dawk Mai to approach him on the ground; he has now abandoned mating in the tree. This strategy has worked well for him, except the hangup seems to be getting himself to line up properly; he either comes in too high or she is too low. A female clouded leopard’s estrous cycle can last from three to nine days and profoundly affects the female’s attitude. It is important in a captive breeding situation to maximize time spent together, for obvious reasons. We have found 30-minute sessions work well for this pair. Dawk Mai approaches No Name, an attempt at breeding occurs, and then the couple separates. The Khao Kheow Open Zoo’s director is so thrilled by this breeding activity that he has promised to name an eventual cub after the San Diego Zoo.

Sak-Daa in Sen Yai's nest box.

The second set of leopards we are working with is completely different. Sen Yai (meaning “big noodle”) is a 24-pound (11 kilograms) 2-year-old female who has never bred before. Her potential mate, named Sak-Daa (meaning “power”), is an 8-year-old male who weighs 46 pounds (21 kilograms). He has never bred before either. Sak-Daa is the son of wild-born No Name, which means he has important genes.

Pairing virgin older cats is risky. There are a variety of things that can go wrong during the introduction, but the valuable cubs this pair could produce far outweigh the dangers involved. Careful planning and accurate behavioral observation are important. Before each introduction, the female clouded leopard must show signs of willingness: body posture that is low to the ground, tail in the air or off to the side, bedroom eyes, and cheek rubbing. She presents this posture to him over and over again, with the fence as a barrier between them.

We lift a small sliding door very slowly, but only when she is watching. Thus far Sak-Daa takes after his gentle giant father and confidently saunters through the opening before spending time on the floor of the pen smelling Sen Yai’s urine. The male approaches the female to breed based on the information he gathers from her urine and her behavior. Since both cats don’t really know what they are doing, Ken and I must be available to halt or promote the different responses the two have toward one another. We do this by talking to them and/or chuffing to them, the same way they would communicate with each other.

Sak-Daa, left, and Sen Yai during one of their first meetings.

We are on day 6 of introductions, putting the cats together twice a day for a total of 12 interactions. The progress is remarkable! Sak-Daa has closed the gap from not being able to approach Sen Yai to napping two feet from her. While we would like them to actually breed instead of sleep, we realize successful breeding may take several estrous cycles; she must trust him to let this happen. Male clouded leopards bite the back of the female’s neck while breeding, holding her in place until the act is complete. A great deal of trust needs to be established between the pair before breeding can safely occur. Taking the time to let them get to know one another and ALWAYS ending sessions on a positive note helps build trust.

Where did the day go? It’s now time for dinner, which means another very cold shower before meeting up with other staff members. They have taken me into their family, so much so that they make a special meal just for me, without the hot spices. I love this place!

Maureen O. Duryee is a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo.

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Clouded Leopards: Mr. Cool Cat

Maureen holds a young clouded leopard at Khao Kheow Open Zoo in Thailand.

Maureen is spending three weeks at a zoo in Thailand to learn about their breeding program for clouded leopards.

Working in Thailand sounds exotic and adventurous, and that’s definitely true. I woke up to the most wonderful tropical rainstorm this morning. I remember reading about a similar storm no less than eight years ago from a predecessor here in Thailand, Andy Goldfarb from the Point Defiance Zoo. He awoke to find the rainstorm had washed his shoes away! Luckily for me, I am living on the second floor and have a porch over my front door.

It’s 6 a.m., time to jump into the shower—a very COLD shower, as there isn’t hot water in my bathroom. But I don’t mind; it is extremely hot and humid here. The jungle is literally my front and back yard and even in my bedroom! There is a very large tokay gecko living on the interior wall, eating all the insects that find their way into my house. Vervet monkeys and spotted deer travel through my yard every day. Last night as I walked home from dinner, something jumped/ran into me so hard I bruised at the impact site. I think it was a grasshopper. Insects are huge here—they look like small mammals! The reason I couldn’t identify the cause of the hit and run, I mean hit and jump, is that my brand-new flashlight flickers from high to low beam without warning. The humidity is high enough to interrupt contact between the batteries and the LED light bulb—not good when climbing some very steep cobblestone steps and trying to avoid scorpions, cobras, and vipers. Thus far I haven’t seen any, and I hope it stays that way!

I am working at the Khao Kheow (Green Mountain) Open Zoo in Thailand. The zoo is “open” because its 2,000 acres (800 hectares) are without fencing, allowing native animals to come and go. This is a unique concept that offers its own challenges. For example, some of the vervet monkeys like the anteater’s specialized diet. As a result, the keepers feed several times a day to ensure the zoo animal is getting the proper amount. There is a hermit who lives off the land on the mountain, but he speaks to no one while on his daily trek to collect fresh water.

Clouded leopard cubs Lek and Yai

My house is on zoo grounds with all the other keepers and animal staff. I walk down the street to the Clouded Leopard Consortium’s house to eat breakfast with Ken Lang from the National Zoo. Then it’s off to the Clouded Leopard Breeding Center, where we feed the clouded leopard cubs at 7:30 every morning. The cubs are named Yai, meaning big, and Lek, meaning small. They are three months old and growing fast. We weigh them twice a week to keep up with their dietary needs.

There are 34 clouded leopards here in the breeding program, which means lots of cleaning and feeding as well as introductions of possible breeding pairs. The pairing needs to be done slowly in the calm of the evening, when the only noise is the occasional neighboring lion’s roar or the ever-present serenade of crickets, nightjars, and the tokay gecko. This twilight hour has a calming effect on the cats, allowing their natural behaviors to emerge. If a female in estrous presents herself to the intended male on the other side of the fence line, we will watch this interaction for a while, looking for certain behaviors from both cats, reducing the risk when actually putting them together. There is always risk involved when breeding carnivores, but if we can minimize problems, the chance of breeding without an injury greatly increases.

Thus far we have introduced two very different couples. Our most important pairing was Dawk Mai and No Name. Dawk Mai, meaning flower, is a 24-pound (11 kilograms), 4-year-old female who has never bred. No Name, who got his name because the keepers and staff couldn’t decide on a name, is a very, very large 10-year-old male with extra-large paws; he weighs in at 65 pounds (29 kilograms). The size difference alone would be a concern, but No Name has bred before, and both cats have valuable bloodlines. After watching the interaction between the two, Ken decided to let the pair have a go at it.

We discussed the various scenarios and what to do in case of emergency. The gate was lifted, and No Name walked through to Dawk Mai’s pen. Well, I have a new name for No Name: Mr. Cool Cat! He didn’t rush; he was a gentle giant, calm and collected. He smelled her pen for a while, chuffed every time he approached her and looked away when she swatted. He basically took “no” for an answer and calmly laid down. The civil behavior must have relaxed Dawk Mai, because she turned the tables and pursued him! After 20 minutes together, they bred in the trees. A successful breeding usually occurs on the ground and ends with the female rolling on her back and wiggling. We did not witness this behavior today. Guess what we are doing tomorrow!

Maureen O. Duryee is a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Playtime for Wolves, Cheetahs, Dogs.

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Playtime for Wolves, Cheetahs, Dogs

Arctic wolf brothers play in the new AAA.

For the first time in the San Diego Zoo’s history, we are able to offer our visitors a chance to view a variety of animal ambassadors on exhibit. These ambassadors, trained to travel to off-site events and special animal presentations, normally live in off-exhibit areas, but through a generous donation we were able to enclose a large area in Urban Jungle that houses cheetahs, domestic dogs, Arctic and gray wolves, and a New Guinea singing dog—not all at the same time, mind you, but most of the time you will see unusual dynamic pairs of animals playing together.

For example, you might find a cheetah paired with a domestic dog, or a large Arctic wolf paired with a very small New Guinea singing dog (sometimes there is no accounting for taste!), or the gray wolf running with his best friend, a golden retriever. There are currently four different dog and cheetah pairs that share the new Animal Ambassador Area (AAA):

– Karroo, female cheetah, and Sven Olof, male blond golden retriever (see Mr. Sven Olaf and Earth Day)
– Kubali, female cheetah, and Bear, male chow mix
– Bakari, male cheetah, and Miley, female husky mix (see Cheetah and Dog Pals)
– Taraji, youngest female cheetah (see Lots of Spots), and Duke, enormous male Anatolian shepherd

Each dog and cheetah pairing enjoys the enclosure a little differently. Miley loves the water and has so much fun playing in the AAA’s pool that one day Bakari decided to join her. Well, he had the shock of a lifetime when he launched into it from an overhanging rock—he had never been in water before and clearly did not share the same joyous feelings about it that Miley had! Nowadays, Bakari hisses at the pond when Miley gets going with all the splashing and bouncing. Duke chooses just to wade in the water for a cool-down period; after all, he spends most of his day chasing the little mighty juvenile cheetah cub, and so far, Taraji lets Duke have his quiet time in the pond alone. One day soon, though, I’m sure Taraji will venture into the pool as well.

Ah, a nice pile of ice!

The beauty of this Animal Ambassador Area is the fact that you never know which animals you’ll meet inside or what you will find them doing! There are three other sets of animals you might see in the new AAA:

– Kenai (see Mr. Ice Man) and Keeli, Arctic wolf brothers (see Wolf Brothers Sniff a Surprise)
– Keeli and Montana, female New Guinea singing dog
– Akela, male timber wolf, and Nala, female golden retriever

Guests are always surprised when the animal stars arrive at the AAA—we use all forms of transportation to get them here. Sometimes the animals are walked over from Wegeforth Bowl, sometimes they arrive in an air-conditioned van, sometimes they travel in a custom cart built for sea lions, sometimes they come in a shaded golf cart, and sometimes they hitch a ride on a horse-drawn buggy. The animal ambassadors are then walked into the AAA on leash and, once inside, the collar and leash come off and the fun begins! Guests may have an opportunity to speak with one of the trainers personally about the animals in the exhibit as they are coming or going; it’s a great way to learn about each individual animal and their partner. This magical encounter begins anytime after 9 a.m. daily, so please make it one of your next stops when you visit the San Diego Zoo!

Maureen O. Duryee is a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Flamingos: Caribbean Kindergarten.

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Flamingos: Caribbean Kindergarten

Do you remember when you first started school? Some of the most important lessons taught in those formative years were to share and play nicely with others. These are two of the behaviors we are currently working on with our 8-month-old flock of Caribbean flamingos living in the San Diego Zoo’s Urban Jungle.

We have 12 young birds in our flock: 5 females and 7 males. The birds are easy to tell apart because the male birds wear their number bands on the right leg and the female birds wear their number bands on the left leg. Each bird is given a three-digit number right after hatching at the Zoo’s Avian Propagation Center. This number allows us to keep track of the bird’s activity during its life span, which happens to be 50 years in zoos and about 40 years in the wild.

Number 237 is a male bird named Gobbles. When you call his name, he answers back, sounding just like the gobble of a turkey! Number 242 is a male bird named Butters; he “melts” when his favorite trainer is around. All 12 birds have distinctive personalities that continue to emerge as time goes on. Keep in mind that these birds are only 8 months old, but they are already standing between 3 and 4 feet (0.9 and 1.2 meters) tall. They will continue to mature over the next 5 years, eventually standing between 5 and 6 feet (1.5 and1.8 meters) tall. And that is, frankly, why we are paying close attention to their manners now!

It is easy to identify their young ages right now because their feathers are mostly white. The pink coloration comes from the food they eat and will collect in the feathers over time. Once they reach maturity, these birds will be a bright, beautiful pink color. I’m sure you are wondering where the pink color comes from? In the wild, the Caribbean flamingos eat shrimp and krill; these crustaceans have carotenoids or organic pigments that help to change the color of the feathers on the birds. At the Zoo, we feed them a grain mixture called flamingo pellets that contains the organic pigment as well.

If you would like to meet our Caribbean kindergarten flock and play in their sandbox (think of it as recess), we are offering a new Zoo adventure called Backstage Pass. Tickets are sold daily at the Zoo’s main entrance, or you can purchase them in advance online. This 1½-hour animal adventure begins at 1 p.m. We will introduce you to our Zoo family, including our flamingos, and leave you with memories that will last a lifetime!

Maureen O. Duryee is a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Clouded Leopard: Have Box, Will Travel.

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Clouded Leopard: Have Box, Will Travel

Norman, one of our clouded leopards that lived at the San Diego Zoo’s Hunte Amphitheater, is one of many animals that have moved their digs to the Zoo’s Urban Jungle zone. He isn’t really a show diva, but he does enjoy his quiet downtime, and I must say we pay close attention to the pleasures we provide for him as he acclimates to his new domicile. His daily schedule includes a crated visit to Backstage Pass (he is getting used to the program in a behind-the-scenes location and one day soon he will make a grand entrance for our Backstage Pass family) and loads of cat naps. It’s the cat-nap part that I’m going to inform you about, just in case you have a cat at home that loves its creature comforts; you might pick up a few new tricks to add to your repertoire!

First of all, Norman likes to visit other animals’ enclosures. He likes to check out their view, their neighbors, but most importantly, their beds. We build sleeping quarters to suit the sleeper. A small animal might get a small den to crawl into whereas a larger animal might get a wooden house to walk into. Upon his various visits to his neighbor’s places in the Urban Jungle zone, we have discovered Norman’s favorites. He likes a corner view with a hammock. This provides some sun, some shade, and lots of activity to watch. We start his morning by walking him to this corner property. He gets his breakfast and a “blood-sicle,” a flavored Popsicle made of the drained blood from meat fed to our carnivores, put into an ice tray to reshape, and then given to animals to lick. Norman loves them! We also make meat-sicles, papaya-sicles, carrot-sicles, etc.

Inside this new enclosure, Norman gets a soft blanket (folded to add cushion) on the hammock, a soft blanket placed inside a separate crate, a soft blanket laid carefully inside a different laundry basket, and a simple cardboard box with the sides folded in to add strength. He loves the box the most! He curls up into a tight ball with his tail wrapped up under his feet and takes a nap. One would think with all the fluff and pile new blankets can provide, Norman would lounge on them as often as he could. No, not this show star; he chooses the absolutely bare-to-the-bones cardboard box to crash inside of. These boxes eventually get wear and tear, but that makes them all the more special because now they have patina. We use them until the sides bust out and then give them to the girl clouded leopards to play with. Next, we find a new box for Norman to start this process all over again.

Before Norman takes his first nap, he likes to watch all the other animals at work in the morning. Some of the critters go for walks, some get exercised, and some also move to other animals’ enclosures. All of this activity parades by him. After about an hour, Norman is done watching, even though we aren’t done with our work, but he needs his beauty rest and will recline in his box until Backstage Pass program time. We have offered him rubber tubs, laundry baskets, doggie day beds, cat cradles, down pillows, but the guy insists on his cardboard. So, that’s what he gets.

Maureen O. Duryee is a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Mr. Ice Man.

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Mr. Ice Man

Kenai and his ice pile

Kenai and his ice pile

Meet Kenai, the Arctic wolf. He is a member of the super animal stars that work in our new San Diego Zoo experience for guests called Backstage Pass. Kenai makes daily appearances to private audiences while they enjoy a gourmet lunch. But in his off time, he likes to take walks through the Zoo. One of his favorite resting places happens to be at the loading dock of our Food Service warehouse. Who knew?

Kenai will guide his trainer to a cement driveway to wait patiently for a warehouse worker to bucket and hand deliver his personal pile of ice. These employees, while very busy with their own tasks, always take the time and often race one another just to supply Kenai with his ice pile. Kenai always looks the generous employee in the eye to convey his gratitude, then gleefully plunges into the cubes. Bystanders can’t help but smile watching this Arctic wolf frolic in the cold wetness. Kenai often eats it, too.

This warehouse is a busy place: semi trucks off-load supplies, construction and maintenance workers pass in and off Zoo grounds here, and daily supplies are loaded onto trucks that are delivered throughout the Zoo daily. None of this traffic disturbs the pleasure Kenai takes in his contact with his ice pile. One would think the sound of a back-up beeper on a semi truck might set off an instinctual alarm in this exotic animal. Either there isn’t one in place or he is ignoring the information, because his enjoyment is overriding it. Nonetheless, Kenai has made this stop a part of his daily routine.

If you don’t get a chance to see him at the warehouse, buy a ticket to Backstage Pass, where you’ll meet him while you eat and enjoy your ice right along with Kenai!

Maureen O. Duryee is a senior animal handler at the San Diego Zoo. Read a previous post, Kenai on Vacation.

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Cheetah and Dog Pals

cheetah_bakka_mileyBakka is a male South African cheetah and Miley is his female husky-mix domestic dog companion. This unique pair lives at Backstage Pass at the San Diego Zoo. Bakka is only a year old but has many adventures under his collar already. He began life in South Africa, where he was hand raised for the purpose of becoming an animal ambassador in the name of conservation. At six months of age, he flew to America, where he lived on a ranch in Northern California. His incredibly friendly demeanor made him a great candidate for employment at our Zoo, and after a successful interview, he became a member of our animals stars at the Zoo’s Backstage Pass program. But in order to keep him company, we needed to find him a suitable roommate. Why not a dog? Seriously, why not?

dog_mileyMost dogs are brave, smart, and, more importantly, very friendly with people. But not just any dog would do. We needed one with personality, composure, and pizzazz. A simple test was given to auditioners: walk them by barking dogs and watch to see how they react. If they ignore the commotion with grace and style, they pass. If they engage in it, then they probably aren’t what we were looking for. Miley scored a “10” in all categories.

Now I’m sure you are wondering: How were we going to introduce a one-year-old exotic male cheetah to a 2-year-old female domestic dog? Won’t he look at her as if she’s his next meal? We are trained professionals, so don’t try this at home! The San Diego Zoo has always paired dogs with cheetahs (see The Cheetah and the Golden Retriever). In the beginning, we kept these animals in enclosures that were next to each other, and we allowed contact between the two while they were with one of their trainers, leashes and collars in tow. We encouraged relaxed, calm behavior. We gradually moved to allowing the dog off leash and encouraged relaxed, calm behavior.

cheetah_bakka_miley_leashYou are now probably wondering who will be the leader in this odd coupling? If you chose the dog, you are absolutely right. So when Miley took the lead, in fact took the leash that was attached to Bakka the cheetah in her mouth and began walking him around the pen, we all applauded and laughed. Miley certainly had pizzazz! Today, if you happen to peek over the hedge at Backstage Pass or even better, purchase a ticket to enjoy this 1½-hour animal encounter, you will see Miley and Bakka working and walking together. Job well done, you two!

Maureen O. Duryee is a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo. Read about another animal member of the Backstage Pass team, Sicilian Donkey Sophia.

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Sicilian Donkey Sophia

Meet Sophia during a Backstage Pass adventure.

Meet Sophia during a Backstage Pass adventure.

Sophia is a Sicilian donkey who is so beautiful we named her after Sophia Loren. It could be Ms. Loren would find it a compliment as well, because Sophia has grace, style, and loves her audience. If lasting first impressions are made within the first 20 seconds of a meeting, then you are certain to become a fan of Sophia. Her calm demeanor, large ears, and long-haired body convey a character found in childrens books. These miniature donkeys are so friendly they are classified as domestic and would make a great companion in a home environment.

So why does the San Diego Zoo, which prides itself on having an amazing collection of exotic wildlife, have one? For the simple fact of pleasure. Our guests let out shouts of glee when they first lay eyes on this hooved beauty. Children from all walks of life come running to greet her. She loves her adoring fans, so she’ll stop right in her tracks and let you pet her, and she’ll take in all the cooing and laughter that accompanies this interaction.

Where can you see her? She lives in our Backstage Pass area in the Zoo’s Urban Jungle zone. When she’s not entertaining ticket holders of this new guest adventure, she’s out having her daily walks by the giraffes. If you want to get a portrait with a movie star named Sophia, come and be a part of the San Diego Zoo’s Backstage Pass program. We’d love to act as the paparazzi . . . just this once.

Maureen O. Duryee is a senior animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Jirra, the Not So Red Kangaroo.

Watch video of Backstage Pass.