Backstage Pass


Clouded Leopards: Best of Luck!

Riki stars in a new video for kids (see below)!

Riki stars in a new video for kids!

Be sure to read Janet’s previous post, Clouded Leopards: Settling In and Getting Wild.

Quarantine was over, and it was time for the nursery staff to say good luck to clouded leopard brothers Haui and Rikki. On January 12, 2013, the boys made the final move forward and graduated into their new life at the San Diego Zoo’s Backstage Pass program. Although we will have a chance to visit them in the main Zoo, we knew our special time of care here in the nursery was over. From the beginning, we knew that Haui and Rikki would be staying with us only for a short while, but it was still sad to see them go. We knew we would miss them even before they left! These boys brought a lot of life and fun into our unit, and the place would seem empty without them.

On the last day the leopards were with us, we took a minute to look back. When Haui arrived in the Neonatal Assisted Care Unit on December 1, he weighed a little over 10 pounds (4.7 kilograms) and Rikki weighed around 13 pounds (5.8 kilograms). When they left us their weights were 19 and 21 pounds (8.6 and 9.5 kilograms) respectively. When we looked back on a video taken upon their arrival, they looked so small!

Since that day, Haui and Rikki have been kept very busy at Backstage Pass. The boys have met lots of people as part of their training to keep them friendly and active. Additionally, the two are now part of the Backstage Pass presentations, are doing well on their collars and leashes, and have even been on TV.

The role of ambassador animals in our collection is to spread the word about conservation and to show the public how important, beautiful, and worthy animals are. It would be hard to find two animals more able to get that point across. These days, a look at the boys just about takes your breath away. They are quite simply gorgeous.

The trainers tell us that the boys are faring well. Rikki is still calm and relaxed and will study a new situation before jumping in. Mr. Howard (Haui) is still active and adventurous, willing to investigate and welcome new experiences. The trainers are pleased and proud of the progress the boys have made.
Caring for these two special animals was a rare treat for our staff. We will always remember our time with the boys, and we feel lucky to have been a small part of their introduction to our collection at San Diego Zoo Global. Who knows the impact these two beautiful guys will make on conservation? Haui and Rikki will spread bread on the water; who knows what will come back!

Janet Hawes is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

The boys recently participated in a video for our San Diego Zoo Kids website. They did great!


Clouded Leopards: Beautiful Boys Arrive

Clouded leopard cub Riki-san

I sat waiting in the dark, searching the various doors on the gigantic FedEx plane for signs that Nicki Boyd, behavior husbandry manager, was about to emerge. Nicki had safely landed in San Diego on this cargo-only flight from Tennessee, bringing very precious cargo from the Nashville Zoo’s clouded leopard breeding program. Suddenly, one of the security guards approached my vehicle, knocked on the window, and said, “Here they come.” Nicki and a FedEx employee carried a large airline crate across the tarmac. Inside were two beautiful clouded leopard brothers, only 14 weeks old. They were hand raised at the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere and were coming to the San Diego Zoo as ambassadors for our Backstage Pass program.

All new animals to our collection must undergo a period of quarantine, necessary to ensure that they not have any infectious disease. So, before the boys could join the gang at Backstage Pass, we had to keep them segregated while our veterinarians cleared them for a variety of infectious agents. Since the boys were young and needed TLC, we decided to quarantine them inside our Neonatal Assisted Care Unit (NACU), known as the nursery by many, facility rather than at our Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine as we usually do.

For the NACU keepers, this was something new and exciting! We hadn’t had a chance to work with clouded leopard cubs since 1990, and these cats had always been a favorite species of ours. We prepared everything in advance: our unit was clean and ready for the boys’ arrival.

The two cubs were surprisingly calm in the transfer crate, curious about their surroundings and greeting me with a shrill chirp. They cried just a few times on the drive to the Zoo but were calm and patient. We carried the crate to the nursery area and opened the crate door. As each cub was released, we weighed him and held him awhile for reassurance, then released him into his new, temporary home. We had constructed a climbing structure for the cubs to play on and placed soft towels, rugs, cat trees, toys, and other enrichment items around the nursery. The cubs sniffed around tentatively at first but were playing with each other and exploring their new climbing structure and toys almost immediately.

NACU keeper Mary Dural prepared their evening diet as directed; she weighed out a portion of raw meat-based zoo carnivore food. Nicki brought some of the meat with her from Nashville, since our zoo does not use the same product. Our Nutritional Services department will change the diet for the cubs, transitioning them from the product they are currently on to our zoo carnivore diet. Since all diet changes are made gradually, we will make the transition slowly, increasing the new diet a little bit on each successive day.

That night each cub ate heartily and drank fresh water. We watched as they played, explored, and attacked each other until they began to tire and flopped themselves down on the floor. It was time to turn out the light and put the cubs to bed. They had arrived safe and sound, but it had been a long day for them.

Janet Hawes is a lead keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, No Babies? What Do Nursery Keepers Do?


Get Invited to Festival of Flight Tweet-up

Guests of our Reptilemania tweet-up got up close with our Galápagos tortoises and took home a free snake plush!

UPDATE: All spots for our Festival of Flight tweet-up have been filled! Follow us on twitter to be part of the next tweet-up.

If you follow us on Twitter, you know we like to hook up our followers with free stuff, but by far the best perk is our tweet-ups. Tweet-ups are special on-grounds meet-ups just for our social media followers, and they usually involve up-close animal interactions and presentations not available to other guests. For our Reptilemania tweet-up, guests got to touch one of our slithery animal ambassadors, feed our Galápagos tortoises, and take home a free snake plush. For our Koalapalooza tweet-up we tracked “koalas” (the plush kind) using the same equipment that our researchers use in the field, and got up close with a kookaburra and, of course, a koala.

We’ve also had tweet-ups at the Safari Park. During Butterfly Jungle, our tweet-up guests were granted access to the event through a closed-off side entrance, avoiding the line and enjoying a private presentation of a few creepy crawlies by the Park’s insect keeper. The Park’s Cheetah Run tweet-up was even sweeter. It offered guests the full VIP treatment, allowing them to watch the run from our special VIP viewing zone and meet a cheetah up close, which is something we normally charge $40 extra for!

Guests of our Cheetah Run tweet-up got the full VIP treatment

We also hold raffles and give away free stuff at most of our tweet-ups, with prizes ranging from animal plushes to tickets for super-awesome behind-the-scenes experiences. For example, at our most recent #AnimalStars tweet-up, we raffled off five panda adoption packages and one grand prize of four Backstage Pass tickets. Check out this stellar blog and video for more on our last tweet-up.

The best part about our tweet-ups is that they’re FREE with admission. If you’re a member, consider them a perk of your membership. As you may know, Festival of Flight is coming November 10 through 13, 2011. We had a tweet-up for last year’s event involving a guided tour of the Scripps’ and Owens’ aviaries by one of our bird keepers and up-close bird viewing, but we wanted to offer something even better this year. That’s why on Saturday, November 12, at 10 a.m., we’re letting you loose (with supervision of course) in our Backstage Pass flamingo zone for some up-close flamingo fun! You’ll also enjoy presentations of a few other feathered friends by our expert Backstage Pass trainers…but there’s a catch. Because of the limited space in our flamingo zone, we can only invite 23 guests to join us for this tweet-up. So how do you get an invite? Listen close. Make sure you’re able and willing to attend on Saturday, November 12, at 10 a.m. (Zoo admission required). Then follow us on twitter and tweet these exact words:

I want to go to the @sandiegozoo #FestOfFlight tweet-up for some #FlamingoFun!

The first 23 people who tweet the above will get a direct message from us with an invite to the tweet-up. If you want to bring a guest or your kids, let us know and we’ll try to make accommodations depending on space available, but no promises. We apologize for the limited space, but we’re super excited to introduce you to our beautiful winged friends. Now hurry and get tweeting!

Matt Steele is the social media planner for San Diego Zoo Global. Read his previous post, Facebook Winner joins us in the Field.


Our Oldest Flamingo Female

30 Black Left.

In my last post (Happy Birthday, Flamingos!), I mentioned that our oldest female Caribbean flamingo, 30 Black Left, has a unique story. (Remember, we refer to the flamingos by their ID band’s number, color, and placement on the leg.) She hatched right here at the San Diego Zoo on June 23, 1959, making her 52 years old. Her reproductive history is a little unclear prior to 2005, but I can tell you something that makes her extra special, besides being the oldest female—almost every year she lays the first egg of the season!  The exceptions are in 2007, when she laid the third egg of the season (but it was the first to hatch a chick that year!), and in 2008, and I’ll tell you why in just a bit.


Since 2005, she has parented six chicks with the same male (26 White Right). This male is only 19 years old; he hatched at SeaWorld San Diego on June 1, 1992, and came to us in 1994. As with the oldest male in our flock (4 Green Right), they have one offspring who was hand raised and is currently residing in the Zoo’s Urban Jungle. If you participate in our Backstage Pass adventure and get to hand feed the flamingos, look for 246 White Right; he is their son, hatched in 2009. 30 Black Left and her mate are also internationally represented, having both their chicks from 2006 and 2007 shipped to the Emperor Valley Zoo in Trinidad in early March. Currently, they are incubating their second egg of the season. 30 Black Left laid the first egg of the season again this year, but it was not viable. The egg they are incubating now is due to hatch between July 7 and July 11. Fingers crossed that this one will hatch!

Now, why she wasn’t with 26 White Right in 2008? Early February of that year, the entire flock was moved to the Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine while we had some exhibit maintenance done. During that hospital stay, 26 White Right sustained an injury to his trachea that would require surgery, a tracheal resection. Having a world-class veterinary staff, we were not worried. However, this meant that he would have to stay at the hospital and recover while the rest of the flock returned to their newly renovated exhibit.

30 Black Left holds her own with the kids!

With breeding season quickly approaching, I became nervous that he would not be back in time for the pair to have their “first egg of the season!” All the while, a young male not even three years old started showing interest in 30 Black Left. Surprisingly, she did not refuse his advances. Then again, how could she have realized that her beloved mate would return? As far as she knew, he was gone.  And even though flamingos are usually monogamous, if something happens to their mate, they will quickly form a new bond so as to not miss a breeding opportunity. I was saddened by what was happening, but had not lost hope. 26 White Right returned to the exhibit on April 1, 2008—just 12 days after his surgery! After his release, I was sure that 30 Black Left would break the bond with the young male and return to her old mate. But wait—she didn’t even seem to recognize him!

Was his vocalization different due to the surgery and that was why she didn’t seem to know who he was? She ended up laying the second egg of the season soon thereafter; it was infertile, likely the result of the male being so young. Flamingos typically reach reproductive maturity between three and five years of age, and it usually takes a few tries before they are successful. Without any other choice, and in order to not miss a breeding opportunity, 26 White Right bonded with a new female. They had an egg together, but it did not hatch. It seemed that the bond between 30 Black Left and 26 White Right was broken forever, and this broke my heart—a pair I had seen so tightly bonded since I started working with the flock in 2006 was no more.

When the breeding season ended in 2008, since neither newly bonded pair had hatched an egg, they were free to roam about the exhibit since they did not have chick-rearing responsibilities. I started noticing that 30 Black Left and 26 White Right were spending time together again. With each day that passed, their bond seemed to get stronger until they appeared to be back to their old behaviors; they were almost never apart. During the breeding season of 2009, they were definitely back together again, and she laid the first egg of the season. I was so thrilled! How amazing is nature? And how awesome to have witnessed the strength of a bond between two very special birds?! They’ve been inseparable ever since.

Athena Wilson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Little Zebra Zahari

Keeper Tom Sica introduces Zahari to a group.

Keeper Tom Sica introduces Zahari to a group.

Hey, did you hear that the San Diego Zoo’s Backstage Pass program has “earned its stripes”? That’s right! Our family now includes a zebra; her name is Zahari. We usually just call her Zari. She is a beautiful little Grant’s zebra, which is the smallest of the plains zebra species. When full grown, Zari should be around 48 inches tall (1.2 meters) at the withers and close to 500 pounds (226 kilograms). But right now she is still a youngster at only 16 months old and does not quite tip the scale at 400 pounds (184 kilograms).

Do not think zebras are just horses with a fancy paint job. That would be like saying a leopard is just a big house cat! Zebras are exotic animals that are trained to be comfortable around people. We never consider them to be tame. Zebras are notorious for being difficult to train, but Zari is proving to be the exception to that thought.

We were fortunate to begin her training as soon as she arrived in at the Zoo. All new animals have a quarantine period at the Zoo hospital. The talented hospital keepers immediately started teaching Zari to wear a halter, be touched all over for grooming, and allow her feet to be picked up. Zari became especially attached to Lead Hospital Keeper Tom Sica. When she was cleared from quarantine, Tom was able to make her transition to her behind-the-scenes home an easy one. It takes a “herd” to raise a zebra. And although Tom remains her “dad,” she now has lots of aunties, too!

You might see the “herd” out for a stroll on Zoo grounds; we try to get Zari out for a walk every day. But your best opportunity to get an up-close-and-personal visit is to join us at Backstage Pass. Come and earn your stripes!

Louella Miller is an animal trainer at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Two-toed Sloth Training.


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.


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.


Jirra, the Not So Red Kangaroo

Jirra accepts a treat from a Backstage Pass participant.

Jirra accepts a treat from a Backstage Pass participant.

The first thing you’ll think of when you meet Jirra the red kangaroo is that either you didn’t hear the name right, or we are color blind. Jirra isn’t colored red; she doesn’t even wear a red halter. She is colored gray and wears a blue halter.

So why include a color in the title if it doesn’t apply? Well, male red kangaroos are colored red, and because they are the largest kangaroo and own a striking red fur coat, the name stuck. Scientifically this phenomenon is called sexual dimorphism. Opposite sexes of the same species are distinctive from one another either by color and size or added ornamentation.

The second thing you’ll think of when you meet Jirra is how sweet she is. She loves to meet San Diego Zoo visitors and smell their shoes. This opportunity gives each party a very up-close-and-personal view of one another. Are you interested?

The San Diego Zoo has launched a new adventure called Backstage Pass. Guests can purchase a ticket near the main entrance at the booking station and enjoy a 1½-hour encounter with animals, a gourmet lunch, and watch a private show. Come early or reserve your seat ahead of time. Jirra is one of the many animal stars that you could meet on your adventure during Backstage Pass.

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


Get a Backstage Pass

Meet our newest star in training: a cheetah cub!

Meet our newest star in training: a cheetah cub!

Have you ever wanted to ask a rhinoceros how sensitive its skin is? Or have you ever wanted to ask a cheetah why it has spots and not stripes? Or maybe you want to ask a ground hornbill how to properly catch a snake? Well, in all honesty, you can ask them all the questions you want, but you may never get an answer. That is, until now.

You'll meet several animals close enough to touch!

You'll meet several animals close enough to touch!

The San Diego Zoo’s Backstage Pass offers a unique experience to get up close and personal with some of the animal ambassadors and stars of the Zoo. Of course, the animals can’t answer your questions themselves, but we have found the next best thing! The trainers, handlers, and keepers who work with these amazing creatures every day are right there to answer your questions. You can ask them all about the species of animals they work with. And you’ll be amazed by some of the unique adaptations of the animals as well as the personal connection the trainers have with them.

Give our rhino some VIP treatment!

Give our rhino some VIP treatment!

But it doesn’t stop there! Part of the experience is a delicious picnic meal. While sitting down and enjoying the tasty food, someone might be picked from the group to help a trainer demonstrate how we train animals. I won’t spoil it for you by telling you ALL the details, but just know you are going to have a lot of fun watching how we communicate with our animals using positive reinforcement.

Enjoy a private animal show!

Enjoy a private animal show!

The overall experience takes about two hours, and I have to admit, when I was there I had so much fun I couldn’t believe how quickly those two hours went by. But keep in mind the perks of this VIP experience don’t stop there. For the entire day, when you show your VIP “Backstage Pass” lanyard, you will get seated in the reserved seating section at all of our shows and you will also get priority loading on our bus tour if you have a bus ticket or Best Value admission ticket!

It sure feels good to be a VIP at the San Diego Zoo!

Rick Schwartz is the San Diego Zoo’s Elephant Odyssey Ambassador.

Here’s more information about the new Backstage Pass program

Watch video of Backstage Pass