A Day in the Life of a Tiger Keeper

Sumatran tiger Conrad takes in a different view

Ever wonder what the day of a tiger keeper is like? Here at the Safari Park, our day starts early – at 6 a.m.! When we arrive, our first order of business is to bring all of the cats that spent the night outside on exhibit into the eight bedrooms inside the tiger house.

People often think it might be difficult to convince them to come in from their beautiful and spacious exhibits, but the truth is, they usually come running. That’s because they know that once they’re inside, it’s time for breakfast! All of the cats get between 4.5 to 6 lbs. of ground meat daily, and we typically like to divide their diet up into two to three feedings throughout the day. This allows us more opportunity to work with the cats, and it also helps to make their day a bit more interesting. We’ll often use their breakfast to work on some of their trained behaviors, or as a reward for simple desensitization, such as for blood draws, temperatures, or even just for sitting comfortably inside their transport crate. During that first meal of the day, we also take the opportunity to visually inspect them, and make sure all is well.

Sumatran tiger Thomas enjoys a refreshing dip in his private pool in the Safari Park’s new Tiger Trail habitat

Once everyone is satiated, we head out to inspect the exhibits. First, we of course make sure they’re clean and safe for the cats, and then it’s time to add enrichment! Enrichment refers to anything we can incorporate into the tigers’ day to make their lives more fun, interesting, or challenging. On exhibit, that can involve anything from scattering some treats to encourage foraging behavior, to simply spraying various scents on logs, rocks, or substrates. Sometimes we’ll even use products from other animals, such as ocelot bedding, rhino dung, or hair that’s been shed by our camels. This way, their exhibits always offer them something new to explore.

Lori in action at the tiger enrichment wall

Lori in action at the tiger enrichment wall

When the exhibits are ready, it’s time to send some of the cats outside. As another way to keep things interesting, the cats are all rotated daily, between the three exhibits and the eight bedrooms inside. That way, no one is in the same place for two days in a row! The cats that stay inside for the day also have their bedrooms cleaned and well-stocked with enrichment, ranging from heavy-duty tiger toys, to scented paper bags or cardboard boxes. Coming up with novel ways to present these items is always very enriching for us as keepers too! As a keeper, it’s a highlight to watch Delta rolling happily on her rosemary bedding, or one of the boys tackling their favorite “weebil” toy.

Once the rest of our work is done, it’s time for record keeping. Not only do our tigers have twelve different keepers taking care of them, but veterinarians, nutritionists, researchers, and  reproductive physiologists also keep tabs on the cats. For that reason, keeping detailed notes is a very important part of our job. We have record books, training and enrichment logs, and daily reports that help everyone track and monitor necessary information. Throughout the day, the keepers also do various training demonstrations with the tigers on exhibit. This allows our guests to view some of the cats’ husbandry behaviors and have a better understanding of how we interact with them, but it also provides our tigers with the best possible care.

If you’re interested in tiger training, enrichment, or even general husbandry, be sure to come and visit us on Wednesday, July 29th for Global Tiger Day. There will be keeper talks, training demonstrations, and enrichment releases for everyone to enjoy… especially the cats! We hope to see you there.

Lori Hieber is senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


Talkin’ about Takins

Closely related to sheep, takins are native to China.

As guests walk through Panda Trek at the San Diego Zoo, they are always surprised at our “cool goats” on the hillside. Indeed, the takins have been amazing to watch and work with over the years and have been a huge success for the zoological community here in the United States. Currently, we have a female herd of five individuals ranging in age from 14 to almost 2. They each have their own personalities, and society in the takin world can be a little dramatic!

Summer is our matriarch and the boss of the younger females. She is also the largest and very good with the younger females. As keepers, we do not go in with the takins, so we have to move the girls either into the barn or up onto the hillside yard. Our typical goal is to always move Summer first and the rest will follow her. Behind her is her sister, Eve, who is the bossy one and has the biggest attitude. She likes to throw her weight around and act like she’s in charge until her sister, Summer, tells her that’s enough. Summer and Eve have a younger sister named Duli, who is several years younger but who also likes the idea of being in charge of someone. These three females are the daughters of the last matriarch, Blondie, and challenge each other on a fairly regular basis about who is next in line.

The two youngsters in the herd are named Mei and Mu. Mei is the daughter of Summer and is in the awkward teenage phase where she is unsure of herself. She does her best to stay close to Mom for her protection, although Summer is starting to make Mei take care of herself and will even push her away to get her to an independent point. Mu is a bit of a stinker; she likes to pick fights with Duli and Mei but have her mother finish them. She is full of energy and has a very sweet disposition toward her keepers. One of her favorite things to do is go to the top of the hillside exhibit and wait for a clear path down the hill so she can run and jump the entire way down!

Female takins can live into their late teens, but being such a large animal, we do tend to see arthritis develop in their joints. Luckily, we have an amazing vet staff who are always ahead of the game, making sure we are as proactive as possible with possible medical issues.

Takins are found in the high mountains of the Sichuan Province of China and are used to climbing, jumping, and running on uneven terrain. As keepers, we have a blast watching them chase each other and play on the hillside. We also like to hang browse for them in high positions so that they stand on their hind legs and stretch to get those leaves.

These girls are wonderful ambassadors for their species, and as keepers and educators we are always so happy to hear guests get excited about these ladies. We think they are quite special and are always happy to share our stories and knowledge with our guests.

Click here to learn more about takins.

Anastasia Horning is a keeper and educator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Wish List: Enrichment for All.


Catering to Animals in the “Back 40”

DuikersDuring my years at the San Diego Zoo, Iʼve seen thousands of guests watch keepers with as much curiosity as they give the animals. Eyes follow that besmudged, khaki-clad person, arms loaded down with buckets or pulling a wheelbarrow full of unidentifiable and smelly stuff. Where do keepers disappear to in between those brief periods of travel? What is behind that big gate or inside that noisy building? Would it surprise you to know that there are very large areas of the Zoo that are what we call off exhibit?

These areas usually house animals that canʼt be on exhibit for some reason or other: maybe they are in need of special vet care, theyʼre getting an update to their exhibit (or maybe a brand-new one!), they are part of one of our conservation breeding programs, or they just need a day off to relax in a hammock and snack on some treats. The area of the Zoo I work in caters to all of those needs and more! This area is only briefly visible from the top level of one of our popular double-decked bus tours as they pass the Elephant Care Center in our Elephant Odyssey. We affectionately call this place the Back 40.

One place in our Back 40 where I spend a good amount of time is called the Shipping Pens. Picture a place where the walls can move and the floor can drop out and where we can take care of the special needs of just about any ungulate species (hoofed animal) that we have at the zoo! One of the biggest functions of the keeper at Shipping Pens is the shipment of animals, both incoming and outgoing. When the Zoo’s curator sends us a move notice for an animal, we usually move it to Shipping Pens, where the keeper can work with our veterinarian staff to make sure the animal gets all of its necessary pre-shipment exams, gets used to being in a crate or trailer, and anything else we can do to make sure the animal will have a stree-free move. If that animal(s) is/are internationally bound, there is usually a quarantine period that is monitored by a US Department of Agriculture veterinarian, whom we also work with.

Soemmerring's gazelles keep an eye on their keeper.

Soemmerring’s gazelles keep an eye on their keeper.

The Shipping Pens keeper also takes care of special vet cases. Iʼve helped reattach a horn on a male Soemmerringʼs gazelle when he broke it off sparing with another male in his exhibit. I have found ways to get a male yellow-backed duiker to take his medication when he didnʼt want to eat anything. I have manually restrained a male pronghorn so the vet could clean out a leg wound and administer topical medication. Iʼve helped bottle feed a baby royal antelope when her mother was unable to nurse her well enough. At the Shipping Pens, I have helped nurse animals back to health and have provided them with a nice, quiet place in which to do so.

This area also has the unique distinction of being one of the most action-packed areas in the Zoo. In most areas of the Zoo, keepers might perform up to 10 animal moves a month, if itʼs busy, but in our area, there was one month when we moved over 40 animals! Keepers who work this area need to know how to work with any species of hoofed animal that visits.

If you think whatʼs happening on exhibit is cool, itʼs nothing compared to what happens behind that big gate! Sure, thereʼs an awful lot of poop to clean up, but there is also tons of really interesting stuff getting done at any given time, in any off-exhibit area. And since you canʼt come visit us, I thought Iʼd bring a little bit of our world to you! So next time you find yourself on the top level of the tour bus going through Elephant Odyssey, take a second to look left, over the big gate, and wave at us there in the Back 40!

Ashley Roberts is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Zoo Conference: AZA

Arguably the largest accumulation of zoo people in the United States takes place at the annual AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) conference. This event includes people from all aspects of zoos and aquariums to include animal care, exhibit construction, nutrition, research, and many, many others. This year’s conference took place in Atlanta, Georgia, and had an attendance of about 1,800 people. While I have been a keeper for 10 years, this was my first official opportunity to attend as a delegate, and I was excited to be a part of it.

Attending meetings and discussing our animal collections filled my first several days. We discussed the future of species, both in a zoo or an aquarium setting and in the wild. We talked about the many challenges that we face and how to create sustainability for animal populations both at home and abroad. While the scope of this challenge can be daunting, it was comforting to see all of the skilled and dedicated people lining up to accept the challenge.

A big part of this event is the sharing of science that is being done to aid conservation. Here in San Diego, we have a lot to be proud of in this department. The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research is an amazing organization staffed with world-class researchers. The work that they do benefits not only the zoo community but also the world’s wildlife. It was great to hear about some of their important work as well as hear presentations from other folks working toward similar goals from all over the country and, in some cases, the world.

In the main exhibition hall was an opportunity to visit with vendors that specialize in a myriad of zoo-related areas highlighting the latest and greatest in exhibit construction, nutrition, transport, travel, and a whole lot more. As zoos strive to be ever better, these vendors offer products and services that allow us to reach our goals.

During the down time, sitting and visiting with other delegates from all over the world allowed for a fresh perspective on our collective challenges as well as gave us the chance to talk about our successes. This is where the real idea sharing takes place and new collaborations are formed. At the end of the day, a conference like this is about bringing people together and strengthening our connections. We are all in this together, and it is in this spirit that we will prevail in protecting the world’s most precious resources.
I want to thank all the folks that made my attendance to this year’s AZA conference possible, including our curators, managerial staff, human resources, and all the keepers that filled in for me in my absence.

Jacob Shanks is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous post, Jaguars: The Next Step.


Black Rhinos: Lots of Attitude

Our black rhino mother, Lembi

The San Diego Zoo Safari Park is home to three of five rhinoceros species. All are huge and endangered, but one has a reputation for a whole lot of attitude! The eastern black rhino Diceros bicornis michaeli is the Park’s smallest rhino species, but they are also the most aggressive. This is evident when you see the black rhino enclosure separate from the mixed-species field exhibits we are known for. These rhinos can have quite the temper and are extremely territorial, so for the safety of the rest of our animals (and keepers!), the black rhinos have a home all to themselves. The Park is currently home to four black rhinos: Jambia, Lembi, Belozi, and Erik.

Jambia is our adult male weighing 2,363 pounds (1,055 kilograms), and his name means “dagger” in Arabic. He was born here on February 25, 1997, and was hand raised in our Animal Care Center by some very loving rhino “moms.”  Yet that attention did not soften his preprogrammed demeanor as an adult. To feed and clean his enclosure, keepers must first move him to another section of the compound; the last time we drove a truck into his home, we were quickly cautioned to not attempt this invasion again! If you look closely at the keeper trucks the next time you see them drive past, you might notice a truck with two ugly holes in the passenger side, a lasting reminder of this well-learned lesson.

Lembi is our female black rhino. Born at the San Francisco Zoo on July 16, 1998, she moved here in July 2000. She is a great mother and has given birth to four calves, all fathered by Jambia. At 2,557 pounds (1,160 kilograms), Lembi is, thankfully, tolerant of trucks in the enclosure as long as we don’t dillydally in getting the food out to her! She is also involved in a new training program and is responding very well to the experience, learning to touch her nose to a target and to open her mouth on command; we soon hope to begin work on blood draws and ultrasounds. All of these behaviors will lessen the need for anesthetic during many health assessments.  We work with her in what we call a protected-contact environment, meaning there is always a safety barrier between the keeper and the rhino.

Lembi is being closely followed at all times by her year-old calf, Erik. He was born on July 19, 2010 (see post, Black Rhino Calf!).  Even though he already weighs approximately 900 pounds (410 kilograms), he is the biggest baby you have ever met: he never strays more than about four feet from his mother and utters a high-pitched cry if she ventures off without him noticing. We are working very closely with Erik to have him become comfortable taking food from our hands and to condition him to a training chute. At the moment he is doing great, so long as his mother is close by (usually in a training session herself), but if we separate them he still gets pretty agitated. We are moving slowly toward the goal of working with each of them independently, since Lembi often sees that her son has dropped a few biscuits, and what kind of a mother would she be if she didn’t just clean those up for him? As you can imagine, this is very disruptive to both training sessions!

Belozi, whose name means “ambassador,” is Erik’s big brother; unfortunately, there will be no brotherly loved shared here. In a rhino’s world you have your mother’s undivided attention and love until she has a new baby. Unlike most families I know where a new baby means all kinds of toys and special bonding time for the older child, in rhino society this arrival means that you get to practice all of the skills your mother taught you because now you are on your own! In the wild, an older calf might try to follow Mom for a while longer, but usually they are chased off if they get too close. There seems to be an unspoken “one calf at a time” rule for rhino mothers. Knowing that Lembi would not be happy with Belozi’s continued presence after Erik was born, they were separated about two months before Lembi gave birth. Belozi is living the solitary life normal for a rhino in an off-exhibit area of the Park until he moves to another zoo to start a family of his own.

Although Jambia and Lembi have been very successful parents, they are getting a break at the moment. Black rhinos are part of a Species Survival Plan (SSP), and breeding is based on international recommendations that take into account housing availability and genetics. With four sons to pass on their genes, the SSP feels that this pair is well represented, so Lembi and Jambia are being housed in different areas of the black rhino compound. Make sure to take a moment to look into the exhibit from the Africa Tram Safari the next time you are visiting the Park and see who is out that day!

Kym Janke is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read her previous post, All about Antlers.


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.


Primate Enrichment

A siamang and orangutan inspect a painted gourd that was filled with goodies.

What exactly is enrichment and how is it used in the San Diego Zoo’s overall animal care program? This is a question that is asked more frequently than in the past. The general definition of enrichment is to make fuller, more meaningful, or more rewarding. This has a direct correlation to enhancing the quality of life for the primates in our care. Enrichment at the Zoo is equal in value to the provision of food, water, and shelter. Keepers spend many hours figuring out ways to stimulate the animals in our care, both mentally and physically. One of the biggest challenges is providing the monkey or ape with something that is safe and indestructible!

Orangutans are known for their independent thinking capabilities. If there is a way to dismantle or destroy something, they will find it. But just this process is stimulating! Since orangutans are arboreal, we try to provide items that we can freely hang from the climbing structures inside their habitat, simulating the natural movement of branches. Large plastic disks, balls, and other objects can be stuffed with plant material or novel food items like cereal, sunflower seeds, hot sauce, and spices. These enrichment items are then secured to the climbing structure with hardware and rope. We have to be diligent about making sure the nuts and bolts are very tight, otherwise one of our more mischievous orangutans (I didn’t want to name names, but…Karen) will be dismantling the apparatus within moments!

Hammocks are always a favored piece of furniture for most primates. They use them as storage units, to lounge in, and play on. And, for the industrious species, unravel, unweave, and retie with their own unique knot-tying skills!

The black mangabeys, which can be found in the Zoo’s Lost Forest, are very adept at manipulating puzzle feeders that are provided for them inside their “bedrooms.” Opposable thumbs come in handy when attempting to pull raisins out of tiny holes on a board or moving peanuts through a maze mounted to their enclosure. Hanging mirrors are also a novel way to spy on your neighbors down the hall! I have seen monkeys hold the mirrors (with safety glass) and angle them just right to get a good look at me or one of their conspecifics in the next room!

Primates are problem solvers. They use this skill every day in their natural environments as well as in their habitats at the Zoo. With the help of the Zoo’s March Wish List, we can provide opportunities to encourage stimulation for exploration, foraging, problem solving, and the senses. Wish List items include paper streamers for the bonobos, flowering shrubs for our colobus monkeys, and mirrors for Francois’ langurs,

Kim Livingstone is a lead primate keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Gorilla Born at the San Diego Zoo.


Gao Gao’s Special Day

Eight years! The time goes by so fast. We just celebrated our Gao Gao’s eighth anniversary. He arrived at the San Diego Zoo on January 15, 2003. He seemed to like the Zoo, especially all that good bamboo. At first he couldn’t get enough of it! Gao Gao fathered Mei Sheng just a few months after his arrival. Then he fathered three more cubs:  Su Lin in 2005, Zhen Zhen in 2007, and Yun Zi in 2009. So there was much to celebrate for his eighth year at the Zoo.

An anniversary ice cake was prepared for the occasion with two tiers, layers of apple and carrot puree, decorated with carrot candles and bright ice flowers. It was beautiful, and Gao Gao went for it right away. He started by licking off the thin layer of honey on top. He picked up the cake with both paws and held it to his mouth and began gnawing on the pureed apple layers, and holding the cake tightly in his front paws. The tiers separated, he went for the bottom apple layer first, chewing mouthfuls with obvious pleasure. He then tackled the carrot layer—yum. Later he went back and polished off the top tier and appeared to enjoy crunching into the icy puree.

Click on images to view in larger format.

Volunteers had decorated boxes for presents, painted in bright colors. Keepers filled the boxes with hay or shredded paper and lots of panda treats such as leaf eater biscuits, carrot and yam pieces, and slices of apple. Three presents were perched on logs, and he went for the one by the concrete tree stump first. With one jump he demolished the box and quickly pawed through the hay for the goodies. Finished with that, Gao Gao ambled over to the second present—the one with the big red bow—and flattened it as the shredded paper spilled out. A busy bear found all the treats.

Chris Tratnyek is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Pandas: Playtime and Bamboo.

Note: This morning, Gao Gao got some more enrichment as he moved to our auxillary panda yard, called the North Exhibit, to give Bai Yun and Yun Zi additional space. No doubt he’ll have fun checking out the new smells and scent-marking the area, and guests can continue to watch this adult male panda do what he loves to do: eat!