animal keeper


Gerenuk, Steenbok, and Sable Antelope Babies

A gerenuk younster kicks up its heels.

The Animal Care Center at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park has welcomed three new additions! On September 10, we received a newborn male gerenuk antelope. His mother was a first-time mom and was therefore inexperienced at raising a baby. After keepers watched the mother and calf for several hours with no sign of interest in her newborn, the decision was made to raise him at the nursery (see post Graceful Gerenuks). He will be housed behind the scenes in our infant isolation area until he gets a bit older.

The word “gerenuk” comes from the Somali language and means “giraffe-necked”. Gerenuks are able to stand up on their hind legs and stretch out their long necks to get food off of tall bushes or small trees. For our gerenuk boy, we hang fresh browse just out of reach to encourage him to use his unique grazing adaptation. Soon enough, he will return to the gerenuk exhibit, located in the Park’s Heart of Africa, where he can be with his herd.

On September 18, we received a newborn steenbok. This is a small type of antelope found in savanna and arid regions of southern and central Africa. This little one’s mother was being treated at the hospital for an injury and during her stay there she gave birth. The mother was unable to care for her baby due to her injury, and so the baby was brought to the Care Center. Adults average 15 to 30 pounds (6.8 to 13.6 kilograms). Currently our little boy is about 3.6 pounds (1.6 kilograms) and continues to grow bigger and stronger every day. Once he is weaned, he will return to his exhibit, which is located in the Heart of Africa.

Last but definitely not least is a large African antelope called a sable antelope that was brought to us on September 30. She was too weak to survive in the field exhibit, so she is being hand raised. This particular type of antelope species shows sexual dichromatism; this means that the coloration, size, and the presence or absence of parts of the body used in courtship displays or fights, such as ornamental feathers, horns, antlers, or tusks, is different for females and males. Females and young are bright chestnut to dark brown, and mature males turn to chestnut or jet black. Both males and females have beautiful semicircular, ridged horns. Female’s horns can get 2 to 3 feet (0.6 to 0.9 meters) in length, while the male’s get to an impressive 2.6 to 5.5 feet (0.8 to 1.7 meters) long. Our sable baby will return to her herd before her horns get to their maximum size.

Caring for our nursery babies requires a lot of support. Toys and other play items provide essential stimulation and promote proper muscle and brain development for the curious baby that must experiment in order to learn. Enrichment helps us to create an environment that not only serves the developmental needs of our hand-reared babies, it also creates an environment that is just plain fun! If you would like to be a part of helping and enriching our babies, please visit the Adopt an Animal section of our Web site.

Sandy Craig is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, Babies, Babies, Babies!


New View of Enrichment

Red river hogs enjoy food pellets stuck to a toy with peanut butter.

Kym has been a carnivore keeper for eight years, but recently switched to caring for herbivores and is writing a series about her new experiences. Read her previous post, Picking One from the Herd.

Environmental enrichment is a term that zoo keepers are very familiar with. We want to add diversity to the animals’ environments so that they are mentally stimulated, and as I am sure you can imagine, this is one of the most important tasks a keeper has. It is, in my opinion, just as important as providing food, water, and shelter.

Both the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park have an Enrichment Committee, of which I have been a member since I started working at the Wild Animal Park. The goal of the committee is to promote and share enrichment ideas, organize workshops where staff and sometimes volunteers can make enrichment items, review requests for new items, and share the successes (and sometimes not-so-successful outcomes) of the enrichment provided. We are constantly searching for new and exciting ways to enrich the lives of the animals in our care. Think back to when you were a child: if you had just three toys, they wouldn’t be very interesting after a while. Luckily, we all had parents and holidays, which meant new toys were never very far away! The members of the Enrichment Committee reach out to keepers at other facilities, the pet industry, and even sometimes children’s toy stores to come up with fresh ideas.

There are a lot of factors to consider when offering a new enrichment item. First and foremost is safety: we want to be sure that what we are providing could not harm the animals in any way. Are there any parts that an animal’s foot or tooth could get stuck in? Could the animal eat the item, and if they did, would it be harmful? Could the animal break the item? We try to think of every possible way the animal could interact with the enrichment item and the consequences that would follow. Once the keeper decides that the item is suitable, we submit an enrichment approval form to the animal care supervisor, veterinarian, and nutritionist. If they have questions or concerns, these will be discussed at the Enrichment Committee meetings, and finally, the item will either be approved, modifications will be needed, or, in some cases, the request will be denied.

So it probably seems like I am well versed in the world of enrichment and that this is an established part of my job. So what is different now that I am working with herbivores on the Park’s West Run? Well, the second thing keepers have to consider when offering enrichment to the animals is how they are going to react to the item. After we have established that the item is safe, we have to ask a very important question: will the animal use it? A new toy would not be very interesting if you didn’t even touch it! Keepers look at the natural histories and behaviors of the animals in their care and try to solicit these behaviors with the enrichment items.

A lioness takes down colorful cardboard prey.

After working with carnivores for the past eight years, I have developed an understanding of their behavior patterns and their likes and dislikes. I am confident that when I introduce a new item, I can predict how the cat will interact with it. Being territorial, any item that causes an exploratory reaction is beneficial; this could be spraying different scents around the cats’ enclosure or introducing a new “furniture” item that the animal was not familiar with. Cats are predators, so enrichment items that bring out the chase- and-kill behaviors are usually very successful. The lifestyle of an ungulate is quite the opposite of this: they will usually live in groups and try to avoid being detected by predators. Play is not as common in deer as it is in tigers!

In order to come up with interesting ideas for enrichment items, I have had to learn a lot about the animals’ lifestyles and what behaviors are natural to them. Thanks to the help of the veteran keepers of hoofed animals, I have made quite a few discoveries. For example: male deer, antelope, and sheep spar with items such as hanging bamboo and plastic drums. This behavior is natural to them, since they would fight with other males for dominance and breeding rights. The deer and the small antelope spend a lot of time retrieving biscuits from a puzzle feeder or searching for them through piles of hay. I am sure you can see how this would relate to a natural foraging behavior. All of the animals are intrigued and curious when a mirror is hung on the fence, and the equids love to toss things around. I also tried some new items, such as cardboard animals, (cardboard boxes are decorated and connected together to look like animals), which I offered to the horses. They were very apprehensive at first, approaching slowly and then backing away quickly. Overnight, though, they must have mustered up some courage because the “animals” were in pieces in the morning!

These are just a few examples of the enrichment items we offer; our goal is to offer a new item to each animal each day. Not to say that we don’t reuse the same enrichment items and toys, but we try to move them around so the animals never get bored. If you are interested in helping with enrichment for the animals at the Zoo and the Wild Animal Park, please visit our Animal Care Wish List!

Kym Nelson is a senior keeper at the Wild Animal Park.


Picking One from the Herd

A herd of impala at the Wild Animal Park.

Kym has been a carnivore keeper for eight years, but recently switched to caring for herbivores and is writing a series about her new experiences. Read her previous post, Making Friends with a Rhino.

One of the most difficult skills I have had to learn since transferring to the West Run at the Wild Animal Park has been animal identification. I know you are probably wondering why this would be a new skill; don’t we need to identify the tigers and lions? Well, of course we do, but our methods are very different when it comes to identifying hoofed animals.

With a tiger, identification is easy: they have stripes and each tiger’s set of markings is unique to that individual. Simple enough. So what about lions? Generally speaking, keepers have a much closer relationship with lions than with a slender-horned gazelle, for example. Keepers learn to see differences in bone structure, coloring, and behaviors to help them identify the lions. With antelope and gazelle, it is quite common that a herd will number at 20 plus individuals, all of which are quickly running around a large exhibit. In this setting, building individual relationships can be near impossible! So how do we it? A series of ear notches and a colored tag in the right ear identify each animal.

My first step in learning this new identification system was to memorize what number corresponded with each tag and notch. The color of each tag denotes a number: Red=100, Yellow=200, Orange=300, Blue=400, White=500. The placement of the notch and the ear it is on lets you know its value. You can try it for yourself using the diagram at left.

So if I asked you to identify animal #369, could you? Now try to imagine having to pick this animal out of the herd, and it never stands still! It is definitely harder than it sounds. The field keepers who have been at this for a while simply glance at an animal and can identify it in seconds, while it takes me a lot longer to be sure I have read the notches correctly. It can be explained most simply as if you were learning to read a new language; at first you probably do a lot of translating in your head to be sure you have the right word, but once you are fluent you no longer need to do this, you just read the word. When I look at an animal I see each notch separately and then have to add them up; an experienced keeper sees the whole number in one glance.

When a calf is born, keepers must “process it,” which means they give it a quick health check, determine its sex, and identify it. This has to be done quickly for a few reasons: some mothers can be quite protective of their newborns, and we do not want to threaten the solidity of the bond the new calf has with its mother.

The first step in the processing is to find the baby. Some species of antelope and gazelle are classified as altricial and are hidden by their mothers; you would be surprised at how camouflaged a newborn red-fronted gazelle is when resting next to a rock pile! Other youngsters are much easier to locate, but a lot harder to catch! These babies are called precocial, and this means that within a few hours they are up and running at their mother’s side. With these babies there is an extra step to the processing—catching it! This is usually done from the back of a truck driven alongside the herd; the baby is scooped up to the waiting keepers. Being on the back of a truck does not insure a peaceful time, as some mothers are so protective that they try to jump into the truck with their baby. Because of this, it can take up to five keepers to process a single baby: one to drive, one to hold the calf, one to process the calf, and two to defend the truck from unwanted additions!

The tagging and notching happens very quickly and is similar to having your own ears pierced. I have learned that one of the most important preparations is to ensure that the front and back of the tag lines up so that the piercing will be straight and fast. I have not had to tag a baby yet but have had some practice loading the tag and piercing some cardboard “ears.” I am confident that when the time comes I will be ready. As for the notching, placement is key: a low 4 notch can resemble a 7 and alternatively a high 7 notch could be misread as a 4. I have had to notch two babies and took my time positioning the notch before being speedy with the execution. Neither baby seemed to notice the notch, and both were happy to be returned to their mothers afterward. In all, the processing takes between two and five minutes and provides a lifetime of valuable information to the animal care staff!

Kym Nelson is a senior keeper at the Wild Animal Park.


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…


The Best of Both Worlds

Rick and Rio meet some Zoo visitors.

Rick and Rio meet some Zoo visitors.

As many of you know, I have been working at the San Diego Zoo for nearly nine years now. Prior to stepping into the Elephant Odyssey Ambassador position (see post, What is an Elephant Odyssey Ambassador), I had worked as a keeper in the Children’s Zoo at the San Diego Zoo. Being a keeper is a dream job: working hands on with very unique animals from around the world and being able to share my experiences with our guests is more enjoyable than you can imagine.

Of course, the job of Elephant Odyssey Ambassador has been an amazing adventure and very enjoyable, too. It has kept me very busy, as you may remember from my previous posts. But not so busy that I could not stop in at the Children’s Zoo to work a little with the animals, from the high-energy fossa named Isa to the laid-back binturong named Bandar or even the silly and vocal Amazon parrot Rio. There are so many different animals, I couldn’t possibly name them all here, if for no other reason that there’s just not enough room in this post!

Now that Elephant Odyssey is open at the Zoo, I am doing less traveling around the country to tell people about the new exhibit. However, I am giving talks and more tours of the exhibit to show people this amazing experience at the Zoo. Although giving tours and talks keeps me busy, I am also finding I have more time to spend in the Children’s Zoo!

The last few weeks I have been able to balance my time pretty well between both jobs, working as a keeper and as an ambassador. You might think both jobs are quite different, and in many ways they are; however, in some ways they are alike. For example, both jobs allow me the opportunity to share my passion for wildlife and conservation to anyone and everyone I cross paths with!

If by chance you happen to find yourself over in the Children’s Zoo, feel free to say “hello.” Of course, the same goes for when you see me over at Elephant Odyssey: if I am giving a tour, doing an interview, or just walking through, make sure you say “hello.”

Rick Schwartz is a senior keeper and the Elephant Odyssey Ambassador for the San Diego Zoo.


Capybaras: Getting Comfortable

The capybaras living on Elephant Mesa at the San Diego Zoo are doing great. Every morning they wake up, stretch (it’s very cute), and start walking toward me looking for a folivore biscuit or a slice of carrot. If I don’t arrive fast enough, in their opinion, they start cooing and vocalizing for their breakfast. In my last blog, Welcome, Capybaras, I was spending time getting them to eat out of my hands and allowing me to touch them. We have progressed wonderfully since then.

All nine of them will come over for food and sometimes it looks like I am swimming in a sea of large rodents! They have all been mostly polite taking food from my hand, but sometimes they get pushy and will chase one another out of the way. Along with hand feeding I have been working on getting them used to being touched. Checking their teeth, the pads on their feet, and general health care is always easier when they will come over for a scratch. So far five of them will allow me to touch them. In the beginning they are always scared and will do a sort of sideways hop to get away from my hand. But if they happen to stick around for more than five seconds, something clicks and they really start to enjoy it. All of their hair will slowly stand on end and their eyes will close. Usually if I can get to this point with one of them, they will come over again for touching easily the next time.

This entire group of capybaras is going to be living at the Zoo’s new Elephant Odyssey exhibit and this means training them for transport. As much as a parade of capys would be cute, I don’t think we could stop them from eating all of the leaves on the way over there! There is a side yard at their exhibit where most of their food is placed. At different times of the day I allow them access to this yard to eat. If you happen by the exhibit and see nine capys waiting patiently by the door, you’ll know why. Once I open it they all pop through the opening and enjoy their meal. When it comes time to move them to their new exhibit, it will be much easier than trying to round them up while on exhibit.

They will have a huge pool and many areas to hide out in if they choose to at Elephant Odyssey. Make sure to come visit them on the Mesa before they head back to be the present-day representative of the much larger Pinckney’s capybara.

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


Koalapalooza: Vets Share, Too!

I hope you were able to visit the San Diego Zoo January 16 through 19. If not, boy did you miss a good time! It was the Zoo’s first Discovery Days celebrating koalas with Koalapalooza (see blog, Koalapalooza: A Joey Is Named). Discovery Days events are a great new way for people to learn more about a targeted species.

During these times, keepers and researchers will share information about the species being featured and show some of the things we are doing to help save them and their habitats. And keepers from all around the Zoo share information about some of the animals they work with during an extended All About Enrichment weekend. Discovery Days are also a great time for the public to learn what they can do to help wildlife.

Horticulture staff explained the differences between eucalyptus species, the mainstay of a koala's diet.

Horticulture staff explained the differences between eucalyptus species, the mainstay of a koala's diet.

During these four days, it really isn’t just keepers and researchers sharing information, it’s a variety of departments; there are booths from horticulture, the Wild Animal Park, education, development, and of course my favorite, collection health.

During Koalapalooza, the Collection Health Department, which consists of veterinary services, nutrition, and wildlife disease laboratories, participated by having a booth where guests could speak with veterinarians, vet technicians, hospital keepers, nutritionists, and hospital administration. We had posters and information describing what we do, medical procedures playing on the computer and TV, digital images of some of the medical cases from the Zoo, plush animal bandaging, a vet truck demo, and remote drug delivery presentations.

A Zoo vet shows some of the equipment found on the specially equipped vet truck to Zoo visitors during Koalapalooza.

A Zoo vet shows some of the equipment found on the specially equipped vet truck to Zoo visitors during Koalapalooza.

Yvette Kemp is a senior hospital keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

Read Yvette’s previous blog, Deiriai the Swamp Monkey