About Author: Nate Schierman

Posts by Nate Schierman


A First for the Zoo!

Introducing the Zoo's first black duiker calf!

The San Diego Zoo is very excited to announce the birth of a black duiker. On February 22, 2012, the first birth in the history of the San Diego Zoo occurred for this particular species! Black duikers are a species of small antelope found in the forests of western Africa, in countries like Liberia, Cote D’Ivoire, and Ghana. The word “duiker” is an Afrikaans word meaning “diver,” because when they get frightened, they go “diving” into the bushes.

There are several species of duiker that range in size. The yellow-backed duiker, standing at about 3 feet at the shoulder, is the largest species; the red-flanked duiker is the smallest at a mere 15 inches high. You can see yellow-backed duikers at the Zoo. The black duiker is definitely on the smaller side of the scale. Not very much is known about this species’ behavior in the wild. It is believed that they tend to be solitary or live in small family groups, and a family is exactly what we have now in the Zoo’s okapi exhibit.
Robin, our doting mother, is doing a fantastic job! This is especially impressive since this is the first time she has had a baby. First-time mothers sometimes neglect their young, but Robin is very attentive.

Luke is our proud papa. Males don’t do much to help rear the young, and Luke, in fact, seems to be a little put off by the youngster. The little guy (as yet unnamed) adores both of his parents, sometimes opting to follow his harder-to- win-over father around the exhibit. Eventually, the neonate needs a nap and beds down in one of the available hay beds.

So, if you want to catch a glimpse of the diminutive antelope (he currently weighs about 6 pounds), come early!

Nate Schierman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, New Animals: Pigs!


New Animals: Pigs!

A male babirusa sports unusual tusks.

Changes abound around the San Diego Zoo, and some new animals have been added to my responsibilities. Six Visayan warty pigs, two babirusas, and a lowland anoa can now be found just downhill from the giant pandas.

Anoas are also known as dwarf buffalo, and that’s just what they look like! Peanut is a 14-year-old female. Sharing her exhibit are two babirusas, which are very unusual creatures. They are a species a pig from the islands of Indonesia and look kind of like the prototype for the modern pig. Let me share some fun info about them:

Babirusas have a hairless look (like a pink farm pig) to their grayish brown skin and slender snouts. But what’s the most notable thing about this species? The tusks. This particular pair is still young, but as they grow, so will their massive tusks, which can reach 15 inches (38 centimeters) in length. They have two pairs of tusks. The bottom tusks grow from the lower jaw and fit neatly around the snout. But what’s most amazing of all, the top tusks are their top teeth that actually grow UP instead of down, piercing through the skin of their nose! The tusks are relatively brittle and aren’t generally used for sparring; instead, male babirusas “box” for dominance. The large tusks are possibly a result of “runaway selection.” Females began choosing males with large tusks. As a result, tusk size kept increasing, so much so that there are reported cases of the upper tusks (which start to curl backward) actually growing until they pierce the skull and kill the individual!

This Visayan warty pig sports quite the toupee!

In the next exhibit over are the Visayan warty pigs, a breed of wild pig endemic to specific islands of the Philippines. These pigs have an unforgettable black mane and a flamboyant mop of black hair on their head. It looks almost like they are wearing a toupee! All three of these wonderful species are under pressure from habitat encroachment, aggressive logging, and poaching, but the Visayan warty pigs are the most critically endangered.

I encourage you to come to the San Diego zoo and take advantage of seeing these incredible animals in person.

Nate Schierman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, First Birthday for Hippo.


First Birthday for Hippo

Adhama watches Mom enjoy a watermelon.

There’s big reason to celebrate at the San Diego Zoo, as our young river hippo has just had his first birthday. It’s hard to believe, but little Adhama is a year old and now weighs a whopping 860 pounds (390 kilograms). To celebrate the occasion, Adhama and his mother, Funani, got to enjoy their favorite treat: watermelon! Of course, when you’re dealing with hippos, a couple of melons don’t last very long. Watch the fun below!

It’s been quite an exciting time. Adhama has enjoyed a lot of attention from his mother, his keepers, and even the media. After a video of the boisterous calf, titled “Baby Hippo Ballet” went viral, Adhama was seen on local and national television, in an article in our member magazine, ZOONOOZ, and in People magazine, where he was given a one-page spread.

It will still be several more years before Adhama is considered fully mature. In the meantime, Funani is more than happy to spend time with him and seems reluctant to cut the apron strings. As Adhama starts to show more independence, it is Funani who tends to rein him in. And whereas most hippo calves are fully weaned by six to eight months of age, Adhama can still be seen nursing occasionally.

He has met his father, Otis, through the safety of a closed gate with visual access to one another. Adult male hippos sometimes kill youngsters, and while Otis has not shown any signs of aggression toward his son, there are still no plans to put him with Funani and Adhama. Therefore, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, Otis has his turn on exhibit.

Nate Schierman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Baby Hippo! Here’s another video of the birthday boy’s big day.


Baby Hippo!

Congratulations, Funani and Otis!

After a rocky first start to their relationship (see Hippos: Big Love), river hippos Funani and Otis are now proud parents! On January 26, 2011, at about 11:30 a.m., Fu gave birth to a bouncing, baby…hippo. Hippos are a notoriously bellicose species, especially mothers with calves. Fu is no exception; therefore, we have been unable (as of yet) to definitively sex the little one. San Diego Zoo veterinarians have gotten a good visual and determined that our newest addition is healthy and doing well. This comes as no surprise, since this is Funani’s fourth offspring. It is, however, her first calf with Otis. The genetic pairing is a boon to the zoological population.

While motherhood is old hat for Funani, this is my first opportunity to work with a hippo calf and a chance for the two of us to learn a lot together. After just a few days, the little one has already learned tons. Unlike other neonates, hippo calves need to learn how to walk AND swim. In fact, this youngster was born in the shallow water of our river hippo exhibit, in front of a very excited audience of guests and employees, and immediately swam around to mother’s loving face. Soon, mother Fu was nudging the little one up onto the beach to take its first wobbly steps.

Boy or girl?

Nursing is another tricky task. They can, of course, nurse on land like other youngsters of the African wilderness, but they can also nurse underwater. Hippo calves can’t hold their breath for very long, though, and must come up for air pretty often.

The calf has learned to strictly obey mother’s rules and warnings. This is crucial for survival in the wild. When something strikes Mom as suspicious or dangerous, she communicates with the young one using short, but stern, grunts. You can bet there is also a great deal of infrasonic (ultra low-frequency) communication as well. The Zoo’s okapis (which also communicate through infrasound) have been paying a lot more attention to their neighbors these days. One could surmise the new voice of the calf is what has got them rapt.

Most recently, mother and calf have started venturing into the hippo barn. After three days on exhibit, there was quite a bit of clean up for us. But soon we had the pair back out for our guests to enjoy.

Funani has demonstrated herself to be a very dedicated and gentle mother. She can maneuver the kid around with the slightest of prodding from her huge snout and is very careful to know exactly where baby is before taking a step or lowering her massive frame.

So, what about dad? Unfortunately, male hippos are not the most trustworthy of parents. So, to be safe, we went ahead and separated Otis and Fu well before we determined she was due to give birth. For now, Otis is being held off-exhibit in our barn, where he has his own pool to laze around in.

We have yet to get a weight on this calf, but newborn hippos can weigh between 50 and 100 pounds (23 and 45 kilograms). Generally, they are fully weaned after six to eight months. So, come get a glance quickly, for it won’t be long before the youngster is a multi-ton leviathan like its parents!

Nate Schierman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Hippo Photo Goes Global.


Hippo Photo Goes Global

Jay Parker and Otis at the San Diego Zoo

When Jay Parker and his wife, Lauren, visited us here at the San Diego Zoo, they hardly thought that the trip would launch them into celebrity status. But that’s exactly what happened when they took these photographs in front of the Zoo’s river hippo exhibit. The Parkers each took a turn posing in front of the glass, with Otis, our 34-year-old male hippo, right on the other side. Zoo visitors take similar photos every day, but at this particular moment, Otis was facing the glass, exposing some teeth, and actually looked like he was smiling! The picture has since gone “viral,” and people all over the world have gotten a kick out of Otis and his goofy grin.

Otis smiles for Lauren, too!

When the exhibit opened in 1995, we knew that it would offer a very unique viewing opportunity for our visitors: being able to see the hippos in their underwater world. But we never really expected that the hippos would also get a great deal of enjoyment from watching these odd human creatures. Now, obviously, hippos can’t really smile in the traditional sense, but there is no doubt that they can, and sometimes do, interact with guests through the viewing glass. There seems to be no real rhyme or reason as to when or why they choose certain people (it’s usually the quiet ones), but they do. And when they do, it can be a very special feeling. It is exactly this connection to nature that we hope all of our guests will experience, for connecting with nature is the best way to ensure people will do what they can to help conserve and protect our natural world.

With this in mind, the San Diego Zoo has implemented its “Active Zones.” As our guest, you are not just a passive observer; throughout the day, you have an opportunity to chat with keepers, view training sessions, and perhaps even get involved in enrichment activities! In addition, you never know when you may get to meet one of our animal ambassadors as they go for a walk around the grounds. And who knows, maybe you’ll have a unique moment like the Parkers did.

Nate Schierman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Fleeting Youth.


Fleeting Youth

Jabari, as a piglet, with his doting parents.

Well, the salad days have come to an end for some of last year’s San Diego Zoo babies (see previous post, Hogs, Okapis, Hippos, and More!).

Red river hog Jabari recently celebrated his first birthday. He’s currently tipping the scales at 70 pounds, and while he is still well away from full maturity, he is hardly the tiny little piglet that could fit in one hand.

Jabari today, with the older C.T.

Jabari is very independent; a few months ago, as part of our ongoing pig management, he was separated from his parents (Tarzan and Asali), and left to share an exhibit with C.T. (an unrelated older female). Jabari took the move in stride, making no fuss. He is also incredibly bright (as most pigs are). In order to get accurate weights on him, we needed to train him to enter and stay in a crate, stress free. The process of introducing him to the crate, getting him to go in, and closing him in for the weigh-in took all of a week.

Sekele as a baby

Sekele, our 11-month-old okapi, is doing very well. He’s been fully weaned for some time and is now separated from his mother, Safarani. Sekele’s training has been a little more challenging, especially now that he is entering the okapi equivalent of the “terrible twos.”

Sekele today

He still allows keepers up-close interaction with him and enjoys a good rubdown, but we have to be a little more careful to avoid getting injured. In another seven months or so, Sekele’s ossicones (horns) should start coming in, and then he’ll look just like a smaller version of his father, Biscotti, who is having a great time with the keepers at the Wild Animal Park.

Little Tembi left us too soon.

Unfortunately, as is life, not all the news is good. Sadly, Tembikai, the three-month-old Malayan tapir, recently passed away (see post New Tapir, New Year). This is a huge loss for our staff as well as the captive tapir population. The cause of Tembikai’s death is as yet undetermined. Tembi will be sorely missed.

Nate Schierman is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


New Year, New Tapir

On January 29, 2010, San Diego Zoo staff members were delighted to discover that Chantek, a Malayan tapir, had given birth to a healthy baby boy! The average lifespan of a tapir is roughly 30 years, so at age 26 this is quite a feat for Chantek (who is currently the second oldest female Malayan tapir in the North American collection). The oldest tapir on record to have given birth in a zoological setting was a miraculous 32 years old.

Although not a record-breaking event, staff members were ecstatic about this birth. San Diego Zoo Animal Care Manager Michele Stancer, who is also the studbook keeper for the Malayan tapir, couldn’t be happier and noted that the genetic pairing of Chantek and her mate, Chukai (see post Tapir Tales), is a boon to the zoological population of this species.

At first, Zoo vets had some moderate concerns about our new arrival. The youngster, named Tembikai, had a slightly lower-than-average birth weight, and his blood glucose level was just shy of normal. Keepers observed the little guy nursing, but there was some question as to whether or not Chantek, due to her age, was producing any milk. A quick blood test showed that Tembikai had received his mother’s immunological agents, and careful monitoring of his weight evidenced his steady growth.

Now, at a month old, Tembikai is thriving. His body shape is an exact replica of the adults, complete with sloped rump and a very active prehensile nose. His coloration is quite different, though. His legs are covered in spots, and his torso has stripes that resemble a watermelon. In fact, that is what “tembikai” means in Malay. He has tripled in weight, is ably navigating his environs, boldly exploring his swimming pool, running and jumping circles around his mother, and (despite a lack of teeth) is already sampling solid foods. Weaning doesn’t generally occur until 6 to 8 months of age, which is also about the time Tembikai will start losing his “baby stripes.” Chantek (which means “beautiful” in Malay) is also doing very well. Tembikai is her eighth offspring, so Chantek is very well versed in the ways of motherhood.

Nate Schierman is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Hogs, Okapis, Hippos, and More.


Hogs, Okapis, Hippos, and More!

To coincide with a recent video interview for the San Diego Zoo’s Web site, I was asked to write an update on what’s been going on with my “string” (what we call the area/animals in our charge).

swine_rrhogsRed River Hogs:
Everyone is doing well (see One Pig, Happy Family). Jabari is now nearly nine months old and continues to flourish. He hardly resembles the tiny, striped little creature that could barely crawl into my lap. Our construction team is currently working tirelessly on building a permanent pool for the hogs to enjoy wallowing in during the hot summer months.

Baby Sekele, now seven months old, is doing very well, weighing in at a respectable 350 pounds or 159 kilograms (see New Okapi: Shh…It’s a Secret). His training is coming along slowly but surely. Sekele is already way ahead of the bar set by his older sister, Sukari. She has a big trip coming up; she will be moving to San Antonio in early February. The okapis’ exhibit-mates, duikers Luke and Mae, are doing very well.

River Hippos:
Funani and Otis continue to get along famously (see Hippos: Big Love). Ever since their reintroduction, they have been inseparable. We have witnessed them breeding many times, but so far they have not been successful in conceiving. We will continue to monitor Funani’s fecal hormone levels so that we can be certain if and when Funani does get pregnant.

Red Panda:
Julong is easy to miss—he lives right across the road from his more popular cousins, the giant pandas (see Little Red Panda). He spends most of the day sleeping, and is often hard to spot. If you happen to catch him during a moment of activity, it is well worth it. He is absolutely adorable, and if you see his face, it’s easy to tell that he is actually more closely related to the raccoon than to the giant panda. Julong is getting on in years. The average lifespan for red pandas in zoos is roughly 14 years (8 to 10 years in the wild), and Julong is about 11 years old. He has had some health problems, but we continue to watch him closely and adapt his enclosure to his changing needs. Most recently, in response to Julong’s poor eyesight and difficulty balancing, we put up some flat wooden planks (as opposed to rounded tree branches) to help him get from platform to platform.

Malayan Tapir:
The most recent addition to the area I work in is Chantek, a 26-year-old Malayan tapir (see Tapir Tales). She wasn’t getting along with her cohabitants in Tiger River, so she is currently residing in the hippo barn until a more suitable enclosure can be constructed for her. Chantek is doing very well and pays little heed to her large, boisterous neighbors. Otis, however, is rather intrigued by his new neighbor.

Well, that’s all the news for now. As you can tell, things at the San Diego Zoo are always changing, and the life of a keeper is never dull!

Nate Schierman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

Watch Nate’s video…


Hippos: Big Love

Funani (left) and Otis have an underwater date.

Funani (left) and Otis have an underwater date.

After much anticipation, river hippos Otis and Funani were finally reunited on October 15, and we couldn’t be happier with the results!

Otis came to the San Diego Zoo in January of this year, and after a brief quarantine period was introduced to Funani (see previous post, Enormous Changes for Hippos). Funani was less than thrilled about her new roommate and let him know it in no uncertain terms. After about three days together on exhibit, the decision was made to separate the pair.

During the interim, we worked diligently toward making the next introduction a successful one. First, Otis and Funani were given a “howdy,” an area where they could see, and interact, with one another without actually being able to come into contact. Second, we collected fecal samples from Funani. These samples were sent to the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research, where hormone levels were analyzed, giving us insight into Funani’s estrous cycle. This information would in turn enable us to determine when Funani was actually ovulating and would therefore be more receptive to Otis. Lastly, for extra insurance, we worked tirelessly on training Funani for tooth trimming.

Tooth trimming is a fairly routine practice for hippos in zoos, but Funani had not yet had any experience with such a procedure. Over the course of the past eight months, our dedicated staff trained Fu to stand still, open wide, and allow us to painlessly saw off the razor-sharp tips of her lower canines using a thin cable called a “giggly wire.” We accomplished this by using preferred foods as positive reinforcement in order for Funani to cooperate. If Funani decided she did not want to participate, we obliged and tried again another day. With these weapons blunted, the chances of Fu doing any serious damage to Otis would be minimized. It took a lot of patience, and special thanks go out to Manager Nicki Boyd, Supervisor Matt Akel, Lead Keeper Sue Averill, and Senior Keepers Dustin Black and John Michel for all of their work toward reaching this goal.

Finally, Fu’s teeth were trimmed and, based on behavioral observations in combination with our fecal sample study, we determined she was coming into estrus. Funani and Otis were videotaped the evening before they were introduced to ensure that Funani’s receptive behavior was accurate. The next morning the decision was made, and the pair was put together on exhibit. We watched as the two came nose to nose without a barrier for the first time in eight months. For the first half hour or so, the two hippos calmly stood face to face, at the bottom of their 150,000-gallon pool. Although quiet, it is quite possible that there was a lot of infrasonic (ultra low-frequency) communication occurring. After that first half hour, Funani was clearly submissive to Otis, and mating took place!

Since the introduction, they have been inseparable! If their breeding was successful, we should expect a newborn hippo come mid-June to early July. Clearly, patience, dedication, and a collaboration of animal care and research staff helped make this introduction a success.

Nate Schierman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, New Okapi: Shh..It’s a Secret.


New Okapi: Can You Keep a Secret?


The San Diego Zoo is very excited to announce the birth of one of the more unusual creatures in its collection: an okapi. On June 10, 2009, Safarani gave birth to her third offspring, a baby boy. At a month old, Sekele (meaning “secret”) is already weighing in at about 100 pounds (45 kilograms). An old pro at motherhood, Safarani is taking wonderful care of her young one. After nearly a month of being held in the “maternity yard,” mother and child have recently been introduced to their exhibit in the Zoo’s Lost Forest zone.

Sekele’s older sister, two year-old Sukari, and unrelated female Kelle were VERY interested in this new addition and spent a great deal of time at the “howdy” fence separating them. (Read a previous post about Sukari, Okapi Calf’s Big Adventure, Day One.) Soon, the fence will be removed and Sekele will be free to investigate the full enclosure as well as his new okapi family.

Once known as the “African unicorn”, the okapi was believed to be only a thing of myth. One of the more recent mammals to be discovered by Europeans, famed explorer Henry Stanley described it as a sort of donkey, and other Europeans who caught glimpses of its striped legs thought it to be some sort of forest zebra. The okapi, however, is the only living relative of the giraffe. Indeed, they share a lot of characteristics: an elongated neck, a lengthy tongue, and the males have ossicones (“horns”). Although not currently listed as an endangered species, the okapi lies precariously on that cliff. Living in a very isolated part of a single country in central Africa (Democratic Republic of Congo), they have a rather long gestation period, and their habitat is threatened by deforestation and human encroachment. Exact numbers in the wild are hard to come by because these creatures are so elusive, but it is estimated to be between 10,000 and 20,000. In managed care facilities, there are roughly 60 individuals, 40 of which are in the United States.

Other recent additions to the Zoo’s okapi exhibit are Luke and Mae, a pair of black duikers, one of the smaller of the duiker species. But what they lack in size, these two more than make up for in personality!

Sekele is already showing some of the rambunctiousness of his father, Biscotti, who now resides at the Wild Animal Park (see post, Exciting Times at the Okapi Barn!). But I am working hard to make him as tractable as possible. It is paramount that we get him used to having his legs and feet, ears, and mouth handled by his keepers. The more we get him used to being handled, the more routine medical procedures we will be able to perform without the use of anesthesia. In the end, it will be much safer for him and much less stressful for us.

Nate Schierman is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, One Pig, Happy Family.