hoofed animals


Ear Notches: Trash or Treasure?

Our newest reindeer calf’s DNA will soon be part of our Frozen Zoo.

We have over 8,500 individual animal cell lines represented in our Frozen Zoo®, a cell line collection started in 1975 by San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research founder Kurt Benirschke and his laboratory technician, Arlene Kumamoto. They started establishing cell lines on what was an easy source of material at that time: ear notches. The San Diego Zoo Safari Park had just opened a few years earlier and was home to many hoofed animals (deer, gazelles, antelope, oryx). All of these animals were ear notched as a way to identify individuals out in the field (see post Picking One from the Herd). These small ear-notch pieces were put into vials with a transport media, instead of being disposed of, and taken back to our Genetics Laboratory.

A vial containing an ear notch sample in transport media.

We still receive many ear-notch samples each year on hoofed animals new to our collection. Once we have the samples at the laboratory, the ear notch is processed and set up. We log in all of the information on the animal—species, common name, identification number, and birth date—into the Frozen Zoo database. Then the sample is taken into our tissue culture laboratory and, while working in a biological safety cabinet, or “hood,” the sample is set up. To do this, we first clean up the ear notch by removing any hair or debris. Then we cut the sample into very small pieces, and the pieces are covered with an enzyme and put into an incubator for around four hours to digest.

An ear-notch sample is processed in our Genetics Lab.

Next, when the sample looks digested, it is put into a flask (a sterile tissue culture vessel), and a special media is added and then incubated. In the next 72 hours, we hope to see cells attached to the bottom of the flask. These cells will then start to divide and grow for about three to four weeks until we have enough cells to freeze and make this animal part of the Frozen Zoo’s cell line collection. At this point, we have this animal’s DNA saved as a living cell line. At any time we can thaw a vial of cells and put them back into the incubator, and they will start to grow and divide again.

Fibroblast cells from a Siberian reindeer.

Recently, we received an ear notch from our Siberian reindeer calf. We have his cells growing, and soon his DNA will be part of the Frozen Zoo. Even though I have seen the start of many cell lines, it still seems like magic when you see those first cells start to grow and divide. What species would you choose to add to the Frozen Zoo?

Suellen Charter is a research coordinator for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read her previous post, Counting Chromosomes.


Zoo Hospital: Eat Your Food

Who knew babirusas could be such picky eaters?

Hey, Hospital Keepers! Can you get that animal to eat this food, please?

When animals arrive here from other facilities, they often are not used to eating what’s on our menu. During their quarantine period at the San Diego Zoo’s Jennings Center for Zoological Medicine, hospital keepers team with Nutritional Services staff to help animals transition to their new diets.

Upon arrival, each new animal is accompanied by a lot of paperwork from the shipping institution. The information is distributed to the appropriate staff here at San Diego Zoo Global. Such things as diet summary, enclosure description, husbandry management, enrichment ideas, likes and dislikes, photos and videos, medical records, and reproductive history are sent by the shipping institution. You can never have too much information when it comes to caring for animals!

Our nutritionists will have the animal’s most recent diet information, as well as the target diet we will be feeding printed up for the hospital keepers. Our goal is to get our newest resident heartily eating our diet by the end of the 30-day quarantine period. “They are currently eating this; we would like them to eat this. You have a month. Do your best. Go!”
The first week we usually feed our newest arrivals 100 percent of the familiar diet from the prior institution. Depending on the species, we try to offer a bit of our diet, too—a side order to their usual entrée, just to “test the waters.” Sometimes the animal chooses the novel item over their old standby, and within a week or two we have them completely transitioned. For other animals we need to go much slower, starting with 90 percent old diet and 10 percent new diet, then 75/25, 50/50, 25/ 75, and so on.

In many cases we are asked to transition new hoofed animals to our pellets prior to their release from quarantine. There are many ways we can go about completing this important task. We’ll offer one dish of the old diet and one dish of the new diet, or we’ll put the old pellets on one side of the dish and new pellets on the other side of the same dish. Sometimes we’ll mix the pellets together. If there are multiple items being offered, the food dish begins to look like a beautiful pie with wedges of different shades and textures.

One fun example was a pair of young babirusa boys that were in quarantine earlier this year. They were surprisingly stubborn about eating the new Zoo pellets. Pigs are usually easier to transition than most species because they like to eat. A picky pig is rare. So we were surprised when we would mix together the old and new pellets into one bowl, and these boys literally ate around the new Zoo pellets to get to their old stuff! After some brainstorming between keepers and nutritionists, we experimented and made an amazing discovery: if we lightly misted the new Zoo pellets with water and then “dusted” them with Crystal Light powder, the babirusa boys suddenly LOVED our Zoo fare! It then turned into the transition game of getting them off the “powdered pellets” and eating the plain pellets.

We monitor what amounts of food go in with an animal and then weigh and record everything that is left over the next day. These sheets are called “Ins and Outs” and give the animal care staff information to better understand what the animal is choosing to eat. We’ll also weigh the animal, at least weekly, to get a more accurate measure of how they are eating.

And then there is the poop. Yes, that funny topic from my previous post! We note the amount, the color, and the consistency. If a bird doesn’t look like they’ve eaten much out of their food pan, but there is a decent amount of poop on the ground, we know they’re eating enough. If a carnivore is transitioning between meat products, it might get the runs for a day. One indicator we use for a current group of deer is how many “shovelfuls” of poop we haul out every morning!

Gold-breasted starling

A gold-breasted starling just cleared quarantine this week. The bird came in eating “red pellets,” but we had to transition him to “yellow pellets.” This bird was healthy, and so was his poop, which—don’t be shocked—was red. Having the choice to eat red or yellow pellets, he would consistently choose the red. The next morning there would be nothing left but yellow pellets, not a single red one left in his food pan. So we started grinding the red pellets and dusting the yellow pellets. It took a bit, but the bird started picking up more of the yellow pellets, and we slowly phased out the red pellets. Soon his poop changed to a beautiful yellow, and we knew that he was successfully transitioned to his new diet—just another story about the fun we have here at the hospital and just a few more examples of how teamwork, communication, and patience help get the animals on the road from the hospital to Zoo grounds.

Kirstin Clapham is a senior hospital keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Zoo Hospital: The Importance of Poop.


Reindeer Boris: Basic Training

Boris takes a bottle feeding from Lead Keeper Tammy Batson.

If you visit Wegeforth Bowl at the San Diego Zoo to see the animal show, you may be treated to watching a sea lion swim, a lynx pounce, or a serval cat leap. These amazing behaviors performed on cue are the result of the many hours of training put in by our dedicated animal behavior staff. Training is key to the success of our animal shows and presentations. Training is also instrumental in animal care and management. On a stroll through the Zoo, you might notice a keeper asking a lion to rub her side against a fence or asking an ape to present his hand or chest. Training is going on everywhere at the Zoo, with animals from great apes to meerkats. Not only can it make life on exhibit much easier for both the animal and its keeper, it is also enriching. Working with a baby animal allows us the unique opportunity to start training at an early and impressionable age. The behaviors young Boris, our newest reindeer, learns to display in his Zoo environment now will help us manage him as an adult reindeer. (See previous post, Boris Learns Reindeer Games.)

Training animals like Boris to become familiar with things like weighing platforms, crates, loading ramps, trainers, and hoof-trimming tools helps prepare them for routine care and management. To introduce Boris to some of these management practices, we began working on a few training basics. Foot and hoof care is occasionally necessary in adult hoofed animals. We wanted to teach Boris to be calm and quiet when having his feet handled, so we began by gently touching his legs and feet. When he was little, Boris made us laugh with his extreme reaction to any fly that might buzz around his legs. Poor Boris reacted to one single fly as if it were a swarm of 10,000, so we weren’t surprised when his first response to our touch was to stomp and snort, trying to escape our fingers. To him, our hands might as well have been a giant fly coming to get him. Aaack! Thankfully, with practice and gentle repetition, Boris learned to stand quietly and eventually even lifted his feet when his hooves were touched.

Another important part of animal care and health is monitoring body weight. To collect the reindeer’s weights, a large wooden platform was set up on top of a scale in the reindeer’s back area. When the adult reindeer walks onto the platform, the keeper can record each animal’s body weight without causing any stress to the animal. Boris had to learn to step up onto the weigh platform just like the adults. We encouraged him to step up onto the platform by using his bottle as the dangling carrot. On his first try, Boris stepped up onto the platform as if he’d done it a thousand times before. No problem for this little guy!

Some training days that were especially fun for Boris were also a comedic scene for us to witness. One day, when a trailer was available, we backed it up to the reindeer pens and opened the door so that Boris could walk in. He walked up and down the loading ramp and sniffed around exploring the big “new thing.” Boris showed no fear. He quickly made a game of the new thing and trotted up and down the ramp leading into the trailer as if he had claimed it as his new fort. He had conquered his first trailer session with ease.

Boris has proven to be a diligent and eager student. His training will be a continued and significant part of his life in our zoo. Although he still has much to learn, he has done very well with his sessions thus far, and we are very proud of him.

Kim Wiebel is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


An Aussie in San Diego

Brent with a lesser kudu

Brent with a lesser kudu

G’day! My name is Brent, and I am one of the Sumatran tiger keepers from the Melbourne Zoo in Australia. For the next three months I am lucky enough to be working at the San Diego Zoo, participating in a keeper exchange with a great guy named Adam. I’m working in the San Diego Zoo’s hoofed animals team, while he looks after our native animals at the Melbourne Zoo. It has been an outstanding experience so far! (Read Adam’s previous blog, Hopping along the Exchange.)

Now, most of the information I knew about America came from watching Jerry Springer on Australian TV, but so far I have not even seen ONE dwarf fighting with a large security guy. In fact, every single person I have met here at the San Diego Zoo and around San Diego have been absolutely fantastic. Californians seem like very relaxed and friendly people, just like back home in Australia. I think I might stick around and run for mayor.

One of the reasons I came to the San Diego Zoo was to learn more about ungulates (animals with hooves), and there is no better place in the world to do that than here at the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park. Being a tiger keeper, most of my hoofed animal knowledge revolved around how to prepare meat to feed to the tigers…but I needed more.

Adult dik dik

Adult dik dik

The animals that I get to care for are amazing. I’m learning about reindeer, Calamian deer, Sichuan takins, Japanese serow, Soemmering’s gazelles, red-flanked duikers, Cape blue duikers, hairy armadillos, lesser kudu, pronghorn, tufted deer, steenbok, and my favorite: the dik diks. They are amazing little African antelope weighing about six pounds (2.7 kilograms) and their name comes from the alarm call they make when they are startled. Visitors to the Zoo will be lucky enough to see our one-week old baby dik dik near the west end of the Skyfari aerial tram. He could be the cutest animal in history!

Speke's gazelle

Speke's gazelle

Another animal that I look after and I’m really enjoying learning about is the Speke’s gazelle. These guys are another African antelope weighing around 40 pounds (18 kilograms), and they are super quick. But their most unique feature is their nose: they have folds of skin over their nostrils that inflate when they get excited. If I am working in their enclosure and they think I’m getting a bit close, they will stamp their hoof on the ground and their nose inflates like a small tennis ball! Visitors to the Zoo can see the Speke’s gazelle in our large mixed species exhibit just before you get to the polar bears. And you shouldn’t have to wait too long to see a Speke’s gazelle inflate its nose sack, because these guys don’t mind fighting out of their weight division, and you could see them trying to intimidate much larger animals like lesser kudus, and gerenuks, all with the help of an inflatable nose!

So, I hope the great people of San Diego get a chance to come into the Zoo soon, and if you see an Australian going walkabout, then come and say G’day.

Brent Clohesy is a keeper at the Melbourne Zoo.