What Is an Elephant Odyssey Ambassador?

Good question, and pretty easy for me to answer because that’s me, Rick Schwartz! I have been a keeper at the San Diego Zoo for over eight years, working with a wide variety of animals and people. Recently I was given the opportunity to shift my focus from keeper work to ambassador work for the Zoo. As Elephant Odyssey’s ambassador, I get to travel around San Diego and the country as a representative of the Zoo. My job is to share with everyone anything and everything that is Elephant Odyssey.

That said, I need to tell you that this year the San Diego Zoo is going to open the largest exhibit area in its history: Elephant Odyssey. No pun intended, but this area is huge, and the animal care sections are going to be like nothing else out there! Of course, the Zoo is known for the exceptional care it provides to all of its animals, and Elephant Odyssey will set the bar even higher. As for guests visiting Elephant Odyssey, you will be immersed in a bioclimatic zone that will bring you into the environment AND take you back in time, too. Okay, okay, maybe I’m getting ahead of myself here. It’s all so exciting and there’s so much to share, I just can’t wait to tell everyone!

You’re probably thinking, “Do we need an ambassador? Everyone already knows about the San Diego Zoo.” As true as that may be, there are a lot of interesting facts that people may not know. For instance, did you know that elephants under our care range in age from 1 to 54 years old? Our youngest African elephant at the Wild Animal Park, Kamile, is a vibrant 1 year old and our oldest Asian elephant, Cookie, is a mature 54 years old. Did you know that the Zoo’s conservation efforts span the globe? We are conducting habitat studies in Africa, releasing California condors to the wild in North America, studying koalas in Australia, and so much more! Check out our Web’s new conservation section.

There is so much information to share with everyone about the Zoo, Wild Animal Park, and San Diego Zoo Conservation Research! Honestly, my enthusiasm for getting out there and talking to people tends to get the better of me.

Let’s face it: I’ve got a big job to do, one of elephantine proportions! The Zoo has a lot going on all the time, and this year will be more eventful than ever. Between the opening of Elephant Odyssey and the many conservation projects we’ll be highlighting, I am going to be a very busy ambassador, working hard to get the word out to everyone.

For now, as I trade out my zookeeper tools for a laptop computer, I ask that you keep checking our Web site. You’ll find new blogs popping up here and there and new videos coming online; a whole page dedicated to Elephant Odyssey should be debuting this spring.

Rick Schwartz is Elephant Odyssey ambassador for the San Diego Zoo.


Rhinos: One on One

Our two Indian rhino brothers, Surat (pictured) and Soman, have been progressing well with their training. In my previous post (Rhino Brothers Form Attachment) our goal was to separate them and put them back together with no issues; when they are separated, we don’t want either one to be nervous or even aware of the difference.

My training partner and I began by walking them each while on exhibit (of course, we are on one side of a metal pipe fence and they walk beside us on their side). When they became comfortable with this behavior, the next step was to put one of them in the barn and work with the other on exhibit alone. First we put Surat in the barn. One of us “held” Soman steady in one area of the exhibit while the other opened the door, called Surat in, and gave him treats for his good behavior. Surat had never been alone on exhibit without his brother so we thought putting him in the barn first would be the best idea.

I took this chance to work on desensitizing Soman for voluntary blood draws. The second trainer asks Soman to “step up,” which means for him to move his outside leg forward one step. Then he is asked to “steady.” This means he holds his position and does not shift his weight around or move the leg. He gets a reward (a piece of apple, yam, or carrot) for standing still. During this time I touch his leg, palpate the vein, and even use my keys to simulate the needle stick. As long as he stands still, he receives treats and many “good boy!”s from his trainers. Then we walk him, turn him around and do the same behaviors on the opposite leg. He has been doing a great job at standing still and allowing us to prepare him for the time when the vets might need a blood sample. It is always preferable to have an animal voluntarily give blood than having to anesthetize them. And it makes me feel great that I taught him how!

Once we were finished, one of us took Soman for a little walk and the other let Surat out of the barn. He behaved wonderfully while alone in his barn; he did not bang on the door or even vocalize (which sounds almost like a low version of a cow mooing, it is very cute). He also got a short walk and some keeper time. Surat is growing up and learning some manners, which is great. He is more patient and seems to be eager to work on behaviors.

Now each of the boys take turns going in the barn, and so far it is working great.

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


Curious Bird, Undiscovered Exhibit

There is a little-known group of bird enclosures off the beaten path at the San Diego Zoo. Along these cages a visitor can see the shy, but friendly, Bartlett’s bleeding heart doves, the active and territorial magpie robins, or the vocal dollarbirds. This little group of enclosures can be seen on the road just west of Polar Bear Plunge. Though it’s a bit out of the way, the enthusiastic visitor is rewarded with the chance to meet some of the most personable birds in the Zoo’s collection.

One such bird is the kagu Rhynochetos jubatus, a flightless bird from the island of New Caledonia in the South Pacific. This inability to fly makes the kagu very susceptible to introduced predators. As a result, the kagu’s future remains uncertain. Like many flightless birds, kagus are very good at hiding. There have been many mornings where I was convinced that our kagu performed an escape worthy of Houdini only to find out that he was patiently waiting for his breakfast only a few feet away!

Though kagus are very shy and cautious with unfamiliar keepers, they demand attention from their favorites. When I first started working in this area, the kagu hid from me in his “log house” located at the back right of the exhibit. As the months went by, he started coming out of his house and moved closer and closer to me in order to get to his favorite food items (usually worms and crickets). Nowadays, I’m greeted at the door with a magnificent display of outstretched wings and a cocked tail (I think he is more excited to see his food arrive than he is at seeing me).

Kagus are so rare—both in the wild and in zoos—that you won’t be able to see them on exhibit at any other facility in the United States. Don’t worry about this little guy getting lonely, though! A few months ago we introduced a female into the enclosure just next door! Though they were separated by wire mesh, keepers kept a close eye on them for any signs of aggression. Instead of being territorial, the resident male was very inquisitive and welcoming toward his new neighbor. She was cautious of her new surroundings but seemed to take comfort in being next to such a warm and “handsome” friend. The female is a recent hatch from a pair of kagus located at the aviary near The Zoo’s Bus Tour loading. This means that she will be too young to breed for a few years. But when she comes of age, the Zoo hopes to put these two together with hopes of breeding these rare and personable birds.

Mike Grue is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read his previous blog, Harpy Eagles.


Harpy Eagle Chick: A Rough Patch

Harpy eagle chick at 65 days old

Harpy eagle chick at 65 days old

The DNA sex results are in and the San Diego Zoo’s newest harpy eagle is a boy! (Read Beau’s previous blog, Harpy Eagle Chick Doubles Size.)

While male eagles are typically smaller than their female counterparts, as the holidays came and went this youngster was falling behind even the smallest healthy eaglets. The chick began to have trouble breathing, and a trip to the Zoo’s hospital was in order. With expert care from the veterinary staff, the eaglet was able to fight off a respiratory infection.

He wasn’t out of the woods yet, though, and shortly after returning from the hospital, he stopped eating entirely. For almost three weeks, committed care from vets and keepers kept the eagle afloat until he finally regained his appetite.

The chick is now back on track and, at over two months old, weighs in at nearly 6 pounds (2.7 kilograms), or almost 40 times his hatch weight! Each morning, after weighing, the eagle is carried outside in his nest tub and set in an outdoor pen. He is no longer being primarily hand fed but eats from a plate of chopped meat, which keepers set in his nest tub and replace throughout the day. The light gray feathers of his first-year plumage are opening up on his back and wings, and there’s sufficient strength in his legs now to stand for brief periods. Though he still won’t fledge for a few months, he’s beginning to flap his little wings, building up strength for when that day comes, and entertains himself by grabbing (or “footing”) the lining of his nest tub, practicing for even further down the road. Growing as fast as a baby eagle takes lots of energy though, and he still spends most of his day sleeping. At night, the tub with eaglet is brought inside where he is offered one last feeding before lights-out.

This past weekend, the chick hopped out of his nest tub for the first time. It’s just one small step toward fledging and an even smaller step toward independence. In the wild, young harpy eagles may stay around the nest for over a year! Even so, it’s an encouraging show of motivation from a chick that wouldn’t even feed itself three weeks ago.

Beau Parks is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo.

Read the Harpy Eagles blog.


Separation Progress

The amount of time that Bai Yun and Zhen Zhen are physically being separated is slowly increasing, with predictable results. As we’ve seen during past weanings, the behavior of even the most independent cubs can suddenly shift to being more mother-centered, seeking the comfort of nursing more often (although the amount of actual milk may not be that great, and cubs continue to eat their copious amounts of bamboo), and soliciting more interaction with Mom. It’s as if the cubs (Zhen Zhen included) have received the letter but don’t necessarily like the message it contains.

ZZ has spent more time trying to nurse and more time sleeping next to Bai Yun than I’ve seen in a very long time. Bai, conversely, is trying to escape the presence of the determined little cub by moving from side to side within the two exhibits, with ZZ hot on her heels. (ZZ actually tried to dive from one side of the pool to ambush her mother on the other side, falling into the pool as a result. She missed, but undaunted, she continued to pursue Bai back into the other exhibit. The girl’s got spunk!) This persistance and sudden re-interest in Mom is typical: it’s been observed with ZZ’s elder siblings, Hua Mei, Mei Sheng, and Su Lin. The level of interaction is becoming much firmer on Mom’s part, although not yet aggressive, but it appears from her behavior that Bai Yun is ready for ZZ to move on, also pretty typical at this stage of weaning The research and keeper staff are watching carefully. As always, it is the behavior of the bears that will determine the actual timetable for separation.

While there is a tentative schedule, it becomes more flexible with each passing day, so don’t be surprised at who you see where as you log onto Pandacam to follow the happenings here. Remember that this is a necessary step in the development of young pandas.

Ellie Rosenbaum is a panda narrator at the San Diego Zoo.


Little Guenon, Big Exhibit

Installment #3
Read Installment #2: Little Guenon Gets Acquainted

The exhibit that houses the Wolf’s guenons in Monkey Trails at the San Diego Zoo is beautiful. It is lushly planted and embellished with various leafy vegetation, climbing structures, pools, and grassy areas for rest and play. The exhibit is also very tall and hilly, offering our guests two-story viewing. These exciting exhibit elements are enriching for the guenon family and our guests, to be sure, but can be problematic for a youngster who does not yet “know the ropes.”

To prepare Gigi for her new life, we first turned her nursery cage into a training ground. Gigi was given the largest of our temporary enclosures. We added many elements to help her negotiate and hone her skills of balance, climbing, and jumping. Vines, perches, hammocks, and shelves elevated from the enclosure floor were added. We placed fresh leafy branches in her enclosure and started her on some solid foods. Soon Gigi had mastered balancing and swinging from the perches close to the floor, so we elevated them. Each time Gigi learned a new skill, we added a new challenge or made each one a bit more difficult.

Our next step was to introduce Gigi to the Zoo’s Wolf’s guenon exhibit. On January 13, 2009, we took Gigi for her first outing. We weren’t sure how she would like it, since it was so large and unfamiliar to her. Our plan was to show her around and make her aware of the various areas and alert her to the obstacles. It would have been understandable if she were overwhelmed by the sheer size and novelty of the space. Instead of being nervous, Gigi took an immediate liking to the exhibit. After just a few brief minutes of sitting on my lap, she elected to get down to check things out. As we made our way to the sand, grass, rock, and wood, she stood erect but relaxed. When she encountered a new object she vocalized, signaling either her excitement or indifference at each new experience. Gigi had an opinion on every subject and was not shy about sharing them with us!

Senior mammal keeper Leticia Plasencia took Gigi into the exhibit on successive days. The new routine consisted of a mid morning exhibit visit, including a bottle feeding outside in the sunshine. This was followed by several hours in the bedrooms with Gigi’s family. We began abbreviating and finally eliminating Gigi’s stuffed surrogate to encourage her to become more independent and social. In place of the surrogate, we offered more enrichment (preferred food items, toys, boxes, climbing ropes, and balls) to keep things positive for all. As Gigi’s weight and confidence climbed, we increased the time she spent with the other guenons. From this process, we began to see a somewhat surprising new alliance form. This new development surely was not what we might have expected.

Check back soon for my next blog, where I’ll talk about Gigi’s surprising relationship.

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


Meerkats: 8th Litter

It is good to know there are always constants in life. I just finished reading through all of my meerkat blogs, and I am amazed at what has happened in the three short years we have had this group! (See previous blog, Meerkats: Heat Seekers) Ngami, never one to disappoint, had her eighth litter on Tuesday, February 3. And as part of doing things her own way, she brought the pups out on day one. Of course, this is not normal meerkat behavior, but I have grown used to the way this mob raises its pups. We have all adapted to their methods and have been quite successful.

This week was a tough time to be born and out in the elements so quickly. It rained most of the time and was quite chilly for a small pup with barely any hair. I saw three pups the first day and have seen three every day since then. Ngami has been bringing them out, leaving them in the dirt and then heading off to dig a hole. After eight litters, I am not surprised. But somehow this group makes it work (with a little help from their keepers, of course).

With past litters I have been able to “tell” Ngami, our dam, to put the babies back and she has listened. This week being so cold, I needed to assist a bit more. The meerkats have been using their heated, dry nest box as a den for the pups, which is a great improvement over past choices. But I have still encountered some cold, muddy, and wet pups out of the den. On Friday, February 6, for about 30 minutes, I had put the pups back into the nest box quite a few times only to have them removed and left in the mud somewhere. I had to take all three pups into the back and warm them up under the heat lamp. I also cleaned off the mud and dried their fur. I locked the rest of the group out for about five minutes to give the pups a chance to warm up. Once they had been separated from Ngami for this period of time, she was concerned. I was glad to see that when I gave her access to the pups she took each one and placed it back in the nest box.

Over the last few days they have been keeping the pups warm and dry in the nest box, which makes all of us keepers very happy. I am hopeful that the pups will make it through these very important first three weeks and will start coming out on their own. As always, it is never quiet in the meerkat exhibit, and soon there will be 16 barking, chirping, and growling diggers basking in the sun.

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