zoo keeper


Rhinos in Australia

Laura bonds with a young female black rhino.

Be sure to read Laura’s previous post, Australian Keeper Exchange.

As a zoo keeper we are supposed to care for all of our animals with the same expertise and energy. But we all have favorites, and mine have always been rhinoceroses! Back in San Diego I work with Soman and Surat, our greater one-horned rhino brothers (see The Dirt on Rhinos). The Taronga Zoo, where I’m doing my keeper exchange, does not have any rhinos, but I didn’t let that stop me. Last week two of my co-workers and I took the five-hour drive to the Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo. It is basically like Taronga’s version of the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. You can rent buggies and drive through the pathways and hop out to see each of the huge exhibits. Most of the exhibits are single species, so it is quite different than the Safari Park’s mixed-species field exhibits. Either way, the animals have a huge amount of room to roam.

A young female greater one-horned rhino gets a "taste" of Laura!

The Taronga Western Plains Zoo has white, greater one-horned, and my favorite, black rhinos. When I started my zoo career, I worked with three black rhinos, and they have always held a huge place in my heart. I was able to visit with the rhinos and keepers at each exhibit and see how they manage their animals in such large enclosures. They have 10 black rhinos, 2 greater one-horned, and 8 whites. It was truly heaven for me! We discussed training, introducing males and females, weights, blood draws, reproductive testing, the whole lot. Visiting other zoos is such a great way to get new ideas and bring them back home. The sharing of information is so important to our job.

A Tasmanian devil at the Taronga Western Plains Zoo

They have a major Tasmanian devil breeding facility out there, too, and it was wonderful to get a glimpse of these well-known animals. Devils are very energetic and make such wonderful vocalizations. I also learned about housing them and their specific needs. Being so close to the ground, they really like to have a lookout point. Each of their individual dens had a small mountain of sticks, rocks, and dirt so they would be able to see what was going on from a small vantage point.

We stayed in the zoo house on grounds, which had wonderful old signs and pictures from zoo days gone past. I always enjoy seeing those pictures, because it will be some keeper from 1930 standing right next to a full grown hippo and just smiling at the camera!

It was such a wonderful trip, and we even saw wild kangaroos in the zebra exhibit. I am halfway through with my keeper exchange and cannot believe how fast time is flying. More adventures to come!

Laura Weiner is a senior keeper from the San Diego Zoo on a keeper exchange at the Taronga Zoo in Sydney, Australia.


Monkeys, Otters, and More

Jaribu and Oboi have a unique relationship.

I am the zoo keeper for the monkey and otter mixed-species exhibits in Lost Forest at the San Diego Zoo. Working with our lively bunch of animals for almost three years has brought me great joy. Being a zoo keeper for this particular group sure keeps me on my feet and my mind stimulated!  Trying to keep up with five different species in the same area and have them get along can be challenging, but it sure works out and provides for some amusing times.

Helen and Oboi enjoy each other's company.

Let’s take the upper exhibit, for example. We have Helen, our Congo forest buffalo, who is 33 years old! Normally they live 18 to 20 years in the wild and about 29 years in zoos. Don’t let her age fool you: she is a spry, sweet girl who loves to sun herself along the back of the exhibit. Sometimes you will see her with her best friend, Oboi, the male red river hog. They like to snuggle up together and catch some Zs. These two are like peas in a pod; with both of them being the same rusty color red, you can almost say Oboi is a bit like Helen’s Mini-Me. Every once in a while, you will see Jaribu, our male Allen’s swamp monkey, hang out with Oboi. Jaribu sometimes thinks he is a cowboy and will climb on Oboi’s back as if to ride him like a horse! Oboi doesn’t mind, as he gets a gentle back massage with the off-chance that Jaribu will groom him. It’s a pretty funny sight!

Jaribu is definitely our most courageous and amusing monkey. He LOVES to interact with our spotted-necked otter girls Lila and Shani. You will most likely catch him in the waterway wrestling and playing tag with the otters. It may look like a fight may ensue, but it is all horse play with Lila and Shani loving the attention.

Spot-nosed guenon Haraka

Jaribu is also a great “fisherman.”Allen’s swamp monkeys are known omnivores and can eat all types of fruit, leaves, insects, and even fish. So you might see Jaribu “go fishing” in the waterway to try and steal the otters’ fish that I toss for their midday feeding.

Jaribu’s mate, Ota, is a delightful, shy female Allen’s swamp monkey. You will also see her in the waterway and sometimes in the upper island hanging out with our male Schmidt’s spot-nosed guenon, Haraka. Don’t stare too hard at Haraka, though: he might give you a stare-down head bob, which is considered a threat to some monkeys and apes.

Check back soon to meet the animals living in the lower mixed-species exhibit!

Jasmine Almonte is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Motherhood: What if…

What if San Diego Zoo polar bear Chinook gives birth to a beautiful healthy cub? What if the cub is sick or hurt just after it is born? What if Chinook doesn’t know what to do with her tiny squawking bundle? What if she can’t produce enough milk? What if the confusion of first-time motherhood is too much for Chinook to handle? How could we help? What should we do? What would we do?

Why would we even entertain such horrible thoughts? What’s with all the doom and gloom?

Realistically, these are all questions zoo keepers, animal care managers, and veterinarians must ask when a zoo animal with no maternal experience is pregnant. Although we always have high hopes that the natural maternal instinct will kick in as soon as the baby is born, we have to prepare for all scenarios. Discussions among animal care personnel eventually lead to a “birth management plan.” The plan may begin with prenatal care, housing changes, camera installation, and den provisions. Somewhere in the middle of the plan are the answers to most of those “what ifs.” We have to decide how long we will leave the new mother undisturbed. We then have to consider how we can effectively assess the condition of the baby if there is fear that the baby is not being properly nurtured. We have to plan for the extreme case of removing the baby for veterinary treatment and hand-rearing. The Zoo’s Nutrition Department and nursery staffs need to develop a hand-rearing protocol and, most importantly, come up with a proper formula replacement. We also have to think about strategies for offering supplemental feedings if the baby’s growth rate on Mom’s milk isn’t up to par.

A tiny Kalluk or Tatqiq is feed formula while in quarantine at the Zoo in 2001.

The hand-rearing portion of the plan is where I come in. I am a member of the five-person Nursery Team at the Zoo. I was one of the keepers that hand-mixed (gallons and gallons of) milk formula for the tumbling youngsters Kalluk and Tatqiq when San Diego welcomed them into our Zoo family nine years ago. It really doesn’t seem that long ago, and it’s hard to believe that Kalluk may be a dad some day! Sorry, I digress…

Anyway, in addition to getting our hand-rearing protocol in order, two members of our nursery staff were able to participate in more than just the standard preparation. Beginning last April, Joanne Mills and I were given the opportunity to be secondary polar bear keepers. How cool is that? It so happened that the nursery workload was light while the polar bear keepers were extra busy. We were quickly shown the ins and outs of exhibit cleaning, bear feeding, etc. (Oh, I could say so much about the opposite sides of the feeding spectrum: polar bears versus nursery babies. I couldn’t believe how much meat was served to polar bears each day!)

It took a whole five minutes to fall in love with the magnificent threesome. I don’t know why it took that long. We soon realized there was a huge advantage to having nursery keepers working with the polar bears at this time of year. If any of the less-than-perfect birth scenarios occurred, Chinook would already be familiar and calm with nursery keepers. If we had to step in to offer any postnatal assistance, we would already have her trust.

Now, unfortunately, it seems as if our window of possible pregnancy is closing. We’ve been so disappointed that nothing has shown up on the ultrasounds. Our high hopes have diminished. If we aren’t lucky enough to see Chinook as a mother this year, we’ll just transfer our high hopes to next year. At least we’ve gone through all the thought processes and planning stages, and we’ll definitely be ready for whatever comes our way, whenever it comes our way.

Becky Kier is a senior nursery keeper at the San Diego Zoo.


Graceful Gerenuks

The southern gerenuk herd at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park has increased its herd size significantly this summer. Since July, all three of our adult females have successfully given birth to calves, and currently two of the three calves can be seen on exhibit in the Park’s Heart of Africa daily from 9 a.m. until late afternoon.

Reno, age seven, is our largest gerenuk and was the first mom of the summer on July 21 when she gave birth to her fourth calf, a female named Hillary. We consider Reno the herd leader, as the others often follow her around the exhibit and cue off her behavior. She is also a great help to us when we put the gerenuk inside for the night. The rest of the herd usually follows behind her until she is ready to enter the barn, and then she calmly walks them in. If any get left behind, she will come back out, gather them up, and take them in. She is also an experienced mother and has raised all four of her calves without incident, so we knew little Hillary was in good hands.

Marbles is a three-year-old female, and on August 25 she had her second calf, a boy named Turtle. Aggie, her daughter from last year, is also on exhibit with them and will turn one this November. Marbles has raised both of her calves without assistance. She is also one of the gerenuk we have done extra husbandry training with, so we expect great things from her children in the future.

Bubbles is another three-year-old female, and on September 10 she had her first calf, a male named Suds. Bubbles, however, didn’t take to her first baby as easily as Reno and Marbles did. She showed some avoidance and even alarm over this new little animal that was following her around and poking at her. So after a few hours of observation and no improvement, we brought Suds to the Park’s Animal Care Center in Nairobi Village and began to stabilize and bottle feed him. Suds took to the care quickly and bottle fed from the Care Center staff immediately. The next morning we tried to reintroduce Suds to his mother, but to no avail. We even offered Marbles the opportunity to step in as surrogate, but she has her “hands” full with Turtle and graciously declined. So Suds will continue to grow at the Care Center until he weans, after which we may introduce him to the herd and see how he does.

The herd sire, Elvis, has been very compatible with the new additions to the herd. His interest remains focused on the adult females, but we occasionally observe him smelling or licking the young ones. At night, Elvis gets his own private room in the barn so as to not disturb the females during their resting time. And in true gerenuk style, he stands up on the window of his door so he can look into the adjacent rooms and see what everyone else is doing.

For the first few weeks, mothers and calves stay overnight in what we call the baby room. This room is really not all that different from the other barn rooms, just more baby proof. Water and food is kept at a low level for the newborn gerenuk, and the floor is covered with a fine, dry dirt and wood shavings. This helps the young ones get traction as their legs strengthen. Hillary and Turtle have already graduated this phase and now have access to both baby and adult rooms.

That is all the gerenuk news for now; we do not expect any more births until next year, as all of the adult females have had their calves. So come by and see the newest additions to the herd…if you can find them tucked in the grass, that is.

Todd Ryan is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. Read his previous post, Chinese Dholes.

Watch a video about gerenuks.


Babies, Babies, Babies!

Baby defassa waterbuck

Our newest baby at the Animal Care Center at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park is a female defassa waterbuck (see previous post, Animal Care Center Babies). This little one was being harassed by some of the giraffes that share an exhibit with her, and, because she was too weak, she was brought to the Care Center for hand-raising. Once she gets bigger and stronger, she can return to her herd. She has a shaggy brown-gray coat that emits a smelly, oily secretion thought to be for waterproofing. This species tends to inhabit areas that are close to water in savanna grasslands south of the Sahara.

Another recent addition is a female Thomson’s gazelle weighing in at 4.2 pounds (1.9 kilograms) at birth. Yes, she’s small and she will stay small, as adult female Thomson’s get to be around 29 to 53 pounds (13 to 24 kilograms). This petite body size is helpful for quick speeds and making sudden turns. She enjoys tucking in a hay bed underneath a shady tree.

There are two different types of hoofed animal babies. One that gets up fairly quickly after birth and follows mom everywhere she goes is called a “follower”. The other type is a “tucker.” A tucker basically does that, tucks and hides while Mom leaves and then returns frequently to nurse her baby. Even though Mom leaves, she is always watching from a distance to make sure her baby is safe from predators. Tuckers are usually hidden very well, and their coats are very plain in color to help them camouflage into their environments. Defassa waterbuck are considered followers, and Thomson’s gazelles are tuckers. Our Thomson’s practices her tucking skills every day as she hides in her bed of hay awaiting her next bottle.

Sandy Craig is a keeper at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.


Polar Bears: Oh, Miss Chinook!

ChinookThe summer is just flying by—it’s hard to believe we are already into August! As promised, with the beginning of August we are once again looking into ultrasound exams with Chinook. Can it already be nine months since our last ultrasound? Last Friday we had an appointment with our veterinary staff to begin getting our beautiful bear back into the swing of things and, to be honest, get all of Chinook’s caretakers back into the routine as well.

The process of performing an ultrasound with a polar bear is not quite as straight forward as you would think. No wonder Chinook is the only polar bear in the universe that does ultrasound without anesthesia. First, we gather the supplies: Where did the ultrasound probe protection sleeve go? Ah yes, it was borrowed for a camel ultrasound a few months back. The ultrasound machine (a high-tech, portable Aloka) fit perfectly, protected under the counter in the polar bear kitchen for the last few months. And, of course, the all-important gel! Plus squirt bottles to mix the gel with water to help view through Chinook’s lush belly fur. Lastly, the most important item—creamy peanut butter! This is the favored treat made into liquid that our Chinook loves to slurp while her belly is rubbed during ultrasounds.

Friday afternoon arrived and all was ready, with Chinook sitting regally in her training crate watching all the set up. She had freedom to move anywhere else but seemed content to watch. All was finally in place for the first session in nine months. We were prepared that perhaps it might take a bit to refresh Chinook’s memory and regain a bit of her enthusiasm for the behavior. Boy, were we WRONG! At our first ask of her to turn around and lean into a roll-over, she gave a look that said “What took so long?” and immediately rolled over perfectly. Not even a second glance as the watery gel was applied and then followed by the ultrasound probe. Chinook simply rested, enjoying her grapes, fish, and the all-important creamy-peanut-butter “soup.” Oh, Miss Chinook, you are truly an incredible bear! What an ambassador for your wild counterparts, and what a thrill it is to work with you.

So what did we see with the ultrasound exam? As our veterinarian said, “All the right abdominal stuff.” We absolutely don’t expect to see anything this early. The ability to ultrasound Chinook for possible pregnancy is a path to get many polar bear reproduction questions answered. We know so little about the implantation process and fetal growth. This information will add to what we need to know to protect critical denning habitat for polar bears in the wild. We will be able to better know the critical times to keep these areas safe.

The news coming from the Arctic is not great these days. In June, we saw the fastest loss of ice ever measured. July brought the second-lowest ice extent and the beginning of the old ice melt. It is the old, multi-year ice that is so important to keeping the Arctic cold and our entire planet cool. Today, San Diego announced what an impact our community has had on improving our air quality. What a great testimony to what we can all do to help our environment! We must all continue to keep working as individuals, groups, communities, nations, and the world to keep our planet safe.

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Polar Bears: “Who’s Who”.


Going Ape, Part II


Karyl shadowed the Zoo’s primate keepers during a Visit-A-Job program. Be sure to read Going Ape, Part 1.

Another interesting aspect to a zoo keeper’s job is “shifting animals,” where you bring the animals that are out on exhibit inside, and send out the group that has been off exhibit. Sounds easy, right? I went to bonobos to see how it’s done.

The trick is to keep the animals’ lives as positive as possible, giving them pleasant, upbeat associations with doing your bidding, particularly when the animals are unbelievably smart, incredibly strong, and look suspiciously like you. Brief positive reinforcement training sessions in holding areas, which reward the animals for desired behaviors like presenting an arm or shoulder, also gets the animals where you want them to be. It was astonishing to watch. Not easy by any stretch, but quite effective.

Sometimes more than one bonobo would scamper into the holding area at the same time, and the keeper could tell if “these two would get along” in the closed quarters for a minute or two or not. Each presented its shoulder for a finger poke, then an empty syringe poke, and a treat. They seemed to enjoy this bit of interaction, and it will pay off for staff when the bonobos are desensitized to “pokes” and can accept shots and blood draws in a stress-free manner. Like their human caregivers, bonobos (and other primates) get annual TB tests, so it is helpful when they can just present an arm for the procedure.

Meanwhile, the group that came inside was rummaging around for treats and enrichment items, and in the excitement they were all communicating loudly at an ear-splitting pitch. The keeper looked on calmly, watching the group mingle and move (they have a fission-fusion society) with his hands on a wheel that will bring down hydraulic gates to separate them in different areas. It is better if they are good friends with all the group members, rather than BEST friends with one other animal, as that will invite aggression and the potential of an inseparable duo ganging up on others. Keepers do their best to let the animals’ natural behaviors shine through and make their lives as positive and interesting as possible. Often the biggest challenge is keeping these intelligent apes engaged and challenged every day. I was dazzled by the keeper’s deft talent for shifting the bonobos quickly and safely.


We then headed back up to orangutans to see if Karen had yet cracked the code of the hot wire to tear up the plants we’d put in that morning. Smart, dexterous, and patient, an orangutan can really give their keepers a run for their money, and it is so interesting to see the big “red apes” cogitating some riddle (like how to touch the newly planted shrubs), then see them methodically solve it. We arrived to find Karen lying on her belly, stick in hand, poking between the charged wires to touch the new foliage. Clever primate! (See post Karen: Will She or Won’t She?)

Time to finish off the day back at gorillas and say farewell to my buddy, Frank. His troop was off exhibit that day, so we went to the bedroom areas where the family was hanging out, resting, nibbling biscuits, and relaxing. (Everything but checking their e-mail!) Frank came over and began swinging from his rope with one hand and beating his chest with the other hand. I swear he was grinning.

At the risk of being a champion for the obvious, gorillas (and all apes) are incredible primates that deserve our utmost respect and conservation efforts. Gorillas are blessed with more strength than they need, enough social graces to get along in groups, and a calm intelligence that has kept them moving through African forests for millions of years. They are fearless when necessary and rely on convincing displays of their brawn before coming to blows. As humans, we should take note. I thought about the oil mess in the Gulf of Mexico, the bushmeat trade in Africa, the ways we are trashing the planet with pollution and overpopulation, and, looking at little Frank, I felt deeply ashamed as a human about how we treat our collective, finite “nest.”

“We’ll do better,” I whispered to him. “I promise, Frank, we’ll do better.”

Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for the San Diego Zoo.


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.


Going Ape, Part I

Karyl tossed food to Memba and his troop, out on exhibit that day.

Few things in life get me leaping out of bed at 4:48 a.m. like the prospect of “shadowing” primate keepers at the San Diego Zoo. We have a terrific Visit-a-Job program where a dozen employees are randomly selected each month to visit an area of their choice within the Zoological Society of San Diego for a day. It’s a great learning experience and also gives employees a clearer understanding of the “big picture.” I chose to visit the great apes, as Frank, the one-and-a-half-year-old baby gorilla, is my primate soul mate, and I’d give anything to feed him breakfast (and lunch and dinner) and gaze into his chocolate brown eyes. I’d give him a kidney if he needed it, but I hope it won’t come to that.

In preparation for my Visit-a-Job, I got a TB test (mandatory to be around primates), avoided people with colds and sniffles like a hornet’s nest (primates are susceptible to many human diseases, and I didn’t want to be an accidental vector), worked like a maniac to get my assignments caught up in the office, and baked cookies for the keepers to help keep them motivated (positive reinforcement works with all apes!). Striding through the Zoo at 5:50 a.m. to meet the keepers, I was astonished by all the people already hard at work. Within minutes, I’d be joining them.

Our first stop was orangutans. We walked past clean, gleaming counters, down the steps, and into the orangutan bedrooms. Leaving the lights off, we walked down the dim hallway checking on each animal without waking them. Then the keeper expertly prepared the juice bottles for individuals who need medication (birth control, arthritis, etc.). Back upstairs I got to help plant some shrubs inside the exhibit: $500 had been donated by a school class, the plants purchased at a local nursery, and they had just been released from horticulture quarantine (a protocol to ensure no chemicals or pests are inadvertently brought into the exhibit). The horticulturist explained the challenges of exhibit landscaping, including making sure the plants, buds, and seeds are not toxic to the animals, the varieties of grasses necessary to keep an exhibit area green all year, and how to protect the plants from the ever-curious primates. Our plants were going in behind “hot wire,” which is a gentle deterrent at best.

Slathered in sweat by 7:30, it was then time to head over to gorillas and “help” get them ready for the day. I all but tap danced in the foot bath in the doorway, as the heady, sweet smell of gorillas met my nose. They were up and about, and not too rowdy. I had met the troop several months before while writing an article about Frank and his family for the Zoo’s member magazine, ZOONOOZ (September 2009), and believe me, it was high praise when Avila, an adult female, came over and carefully stared me down, perhaps trying to place where she knew me from. Paul Donn, the imposing silverback, sat with his (huge) arms crossed while little Frank checked in with everyone, waiting for breakfast.

The keeper opened a partition about a foot high, and Frank ambled into a holding area in which he is given his special breakfast. When Frank was born, his mother was not able to hold him properly to nurse, so keepers intervened to ensure he was getting enough to eat while leaving him with his troop to learn the rules of gorilla-hood (see Frank the Gorilla: First Year). He’s had the best of both worlds! He will be weaned from his bowl of warm morning porridge soon, but thankfully the spoon-feeding task is still necessary…and the keeper let me do it!

Frank is a good eater, and he peered unblinking at me scooping his gruel into his pink mouth. I could see his tiny baby teeth in the front, white as fresh snow. He also gets fresh fruit and seemed to really enjoy the slices of green bell peppers. He weighs a sturdy 31 pounds (14 kilograms) now. I was ecstatic having the honor of being this close to this amazing animal. I’m sure Frank could feel the adoration exuding from me; clearly no malfeasance could come from this love struck “naked ape,” so he continued to stare at me throughout his breakfast. And I stared right back, tickled pink.

Zoo keepers are busy bees, especially in the crunch time before the Zoo opens at 9 a.m. Scooping, sweeping, and hosing exhibits and bedroom areas, slicing, dicing, and preparing diets (and meds), checking on animals, inspecting exhibits for animal and public safety, the list goes on and on, and are all chores that need to be done seven days a week, every day of the year. The keepers’ deep commitment to the well-being of the animals in their care (and their wild counterparts) is remarkable, as is the patience for husbandry training practices they manage to include in an already jam-packed work day. I was grateful the keepers also made time for me!

Stay tuned for Part II of my exciting Visit-a-Job day, where we meet up with the bonobos and drop back in on Frank.

Karyl Carmignani is a staff writer for the San Diego Zoo. Read her previous post, Chicken Noodle Soup (Part 2).


Fleeting Youth

Jabari, as a piglet, with his doting parents.

Well, the salad days have come to an end for some of last year’s San Diego Zoo babies (see previous post, Hogs, Okapis, Hippos, and More!).

Red river hog Jabari recently celebrated his first birthday. He’s currently tipping the scales at 70 pounds, and while he is still well away from full maturity, he is hardly the tiny little piglet that could fit in one hand.

Jabari today, with the older C.T.

Jabari is very independent; a few months ago, as part of our ongoing pig management, he was separated from his parents (Tarzan and Asali), and left to share an exhibit with C.T. (an unrelated older female). Jabari took the move in stride, making no fuss. He is also incredibly bright (as most pigs are). In order to get accurate weights on him, we needed to train him to enter and stay in a crate, stress free. The process of introducing him to the crate, getting him to go in, and closing him in for the weigh-in took all of a week.

Sekele as a baby

Sekele, our 11-month-old okapi, is doing very well. He’s been fully weaned for some time and is now separated from his mother, Safarani. Sekele’s training has been a little more challenging, especially now that he is entering the okapi equivalent of the “terrible twos.”

Sekele today

He still allows keepers up-close interaction with him and enjoys a good rubdown, but we have to be a little more careful to avoid getting injured. In another seven months or so, Sekele’s ossicones (horns) should start coming in, and then he’ll look just like a smaller version of his father, Biscotti, who is having a great time with the keepers at the Wild Animal Park.

Little Tembi left us too soon.

Unfortunately, as is life, not all the news is good. Sadly, Tembikai, the three-month-old Malayan tapir, recently passed away (see post New Tapir, New Year). This is a huge loss for our staff as well as the captive tapir population. The cause of Tembikai’s death is as yet undetermined. Tembi will be sorely missed.

Nate Schierman is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.