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Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Silverback gorilla Vip is back after nearly a year of recovery from surgery

Posted by Stephanie Payne-Jacobs, gorilla keeper

39-year-old Vip, named for being a Very Important Primate, is back home in his exhibit after a long recovery. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

After a year of challenges and changes in the gorilla unit, we have much to celebrate this month. The first is the return of 39-year-old male, Vip, to the East gorilla exhibit, along with 33-year-old female, Jumoke. Vip, who is the father of seven daughters, including our own 17-year-old Akenji, 10-year-old Uzumma and nearly 3-year-old Yola, has been off view for more than a year now—since June of 2017. That’s when he underwent a lifesaving surgery due to an infection within a long-established umbilical hernia. Vip was born with this hernia in 1979, and it had remained stable since he came to Woodland Park Zoo in 1996.

Vip underwent lifesaving surgery in 2017. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

In the summer of 2017, his care team noticed a subtle change in the size and appearance of Vip’s umbilical hernia along with changes in his behavior and appetite. Shortly thereafter, an ultrasound revealed a life-threatening infection at the hernia site and it was decided that Vip needed emergency surgery to save his life. The veterinary staff was standing by, along with a surgical team from the University of Washington Medical Center. They successfully removed all the infected tissue from the hernia area, and fortified the site before closing it, using the kind of surgical mesh that would be used on humans. The mesh used was temporary—to help hold the edges of the incision site together as it healed before being absorbed by the body.

Vip was back in the unit later that afternoon, but with strict doctor’s orders to be kept separate from his family, Jumoke and Uzumma, until his surgical site was better healed and would be less compromised in a group setting. For the most part, all of them handled this well. Vip was given access to a separate room next to the females, where he could rest while still having the comforts of visual, auditory and olfactory access to his family. With the doors kept ajar to a “peek-a-boo” width (faces can look and see, but bodies cannot get through), Vip recovered slowly and surely. His hernia wound was shrinking and granulating—a sign that the tissue along the edges was healing. His care team could anticipate the whole wound closing eventually.

Unfortunately, by September of 2017, the team began to notice that the perimeter of Vip’s surgical site was no longer shrinking. It was expanding. We knew that the mesh used was supposed to be absorbed by the body over time, but due to a silverback’s weight—Vip weighed 439 pounds at the time of surgery—and the way that weight puts stress on their abdominal area when sitting and walking, Vip’s mesh began to break down and be absorbed before the surgical site had sufficient time to completely heal. This resulted in an area on his lower abdomen that looked like an open, yet superficial wound. Over the past year, the hernia area has been reassessed by veterinary staff and consultants, and despite how the surgical site looks from the outside, that team tells us that everything seems healthy on the inside. That means Vip has finally been given the green light to return to a more normal routine.

Our veterinarians have given Vip the green light to return to a normal routine. His behavior and normal appetite are positive indicators of his overall comfort. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

Currently he is managing well and his condition is not interfering with his activities, which include access to Jumoke and having full access to his exhibit. His mobility, behavior and normal appetite are all positive indicators of his overall comfort—and they are markers we will continue to monitor and measure throughout his life.

In addition to twice weekly laser therapies for age-related arthritis—at 39, Vip is already several years older than the median life expectancy for wild male western lowland gorillas—he now also participates in twice daily topical treatments on his hernia site, which helps protect him from infections. We also document the appearance of his wound, sending comparative photos to vet staff every day, who then share them with consultants from the original surgical team.

Another important step in monitoring Vip’s health is that he now partakes in voluntary ultrasounds that we can administer while he’s awake. Training with our animals and maintaining a bond of trust like this means we will be able to consistently monitor the healing of Vip’s hernia site without having to anesthetize him. Going forward, the information we are able to gather with his help will be valuable in terms of this ongoing health issue and any others that may arise.

Kwame wanders through the grass at Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Currently, he is taking part in introductions with some of Woodland Park Zoo's females and will be in the East exhibit this fall. Photo credit: Skip Brown/Smithsonian’s National Zoo

As you reacquaint yourself with Vip and Jumoke in the East exhibit, we will be busy acquainting Nadiri, Akenji and Yola to Uzumma, who will be moving over to their group. Soon, all of these females will be introduced to their new silverback, Kwame, who arrived September 6th. Yet another reason to celebrate! Once the new family group is established and comfortable with one another, Kwame’s group will be on view in the East exhibit, alternating their time with Vip and Jumoke. We’ll share more about Kwame and his group later. For now, be sure to stop by and visit with Vip and Jumoke in the East exhibit. It’s been awhile since they’ve had visitors and we know they’d love to see you!

Monday, September 17, 2018

Rhino Lookout: Patrolling for Poachers

Inside the watchtower, Mr. Nath pulls on his boots, slings a rifle over his shoulder, straightens out his uniform shirt, and heads for the stairs. He’s one of eight forest guards stationed at Kuri Beel anti-poaching camp inside Manas National Park, Assam, India and he is off on a mission this morning.

It’s time to patrol.

Mr. Nath joins a crew of forest guards setting off from the watchtower as they fan out into the surrounding grasslands. Their long sleeves and pants defend them against blades of grass that tear at bare skin. But these tall grasses potentially conceal a much greater danger still—poachers.

Mr. Nath is a forest guard in India's Manas National Park.

On foot and sometimes on elephant back, forest guards patrol day and night in search of signs of intruders. They look for evidence of human activity—a breached fence, footprints, discarded litter from an illegal poacher encampment. Their morning patrols last two to three hours, and today reveals no signs of trouble for the rhinos and other vulnerable species poachers target in Manas.

“Forest guards man the anti-poaching camps both inside and outside the park,” explains Bibhab Talukdar, Asia Coordinator of the International Rhino Foundation, Woodland Park Zoo’s partner in rhino conservation in India. Generally, three to eight guards are stationed at each camp, living on site during their duties to assure there is 24/7 coverage in strategic locations throughout the park’s 235,000 acres.

The Kuri Beel watchtower in Manas National Park. 

One of the larger stations, Kuri Beel camp is centered in the southern grasslands of the park. From the watchtower roof, those grasslands seem to go on forever, the forests and foothills of Manas far off in the distance. Even with a 360-degree view, most wildlife is lost to the naked eye in the vastness from up here, save for elephants, water buffalo and rhinos that occasionally appear as specks in the expanse. And yet, little goes unseen by these guards.

Their tools include binoculars, walkie-talkies, GPS units and transmitters, but it’s their deep knowledge of the area, its animals and its patterns that makes the forest guards so effective. They are the eyes and ears of the park, monitoring all wildlife and tracking everything from the behavior of individual animals to the dynamics of entire populations.

“Today we saw many vultures, so we went to the area and found one buffalo had died,” explains one forest guard who has worked in Manas for 36 years. He has been an eye-witness to the dramatic changes the rhino population has overcome.

“When I first joined Manas in 1981, rhino could be seen in many watering holes—sometimes up to 4-5 rhino. Many wild animals were present. But due to unrest in the area 15-20 years ago, rhinos were exterminated by poachers,” he explains.

A greater one-horned rhino in Manas National Park. 

In the 1990s, socio-political unrest in the region demanded the attention of law enforcement, and poachers took advantage. Rhinos were hunted to extinction inside Manas National Park. Poached rhino horn is sold illegally on the international market where it is valued for traditional medicine despite having no medicinal properties. Rhino horn is made of keratin. So are toenails.

But hope was not lost. Woodland Park Zoo has joined the International Rhino Foundation, national and regional Indian governments, and other partners including U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the effort to rebuild stable rhino populations across Assam. Over the past decade, these partners have successfully translocated several rhinos to Manas from more populated nearby parks. One by one the rhinos are returning, and as they settle in, breed and establish territories, they are forming a new generation of rhinos in Manas.

With the return of rhinos comes the return of interest from poachers, and conservation success is met with a heightened need to protect and defend that success. The guards are undaunted and their vigilance is paying off.

A rhino retreats into forested shade at Manas National Park. 

“In this area, we haven’t seen any poachers recently,” says Mr. Nath. He explains that now with the work of the forest guards and support from conservation groups such as the International Rhino Foundation, poachers “don’t try to come to Kuri Beel.”

It’s a point of pride for the forest guards that their work makes a brighter future possible for all wildlife in the park, not just rhinos.

According to Mr. Sarkar, a Manas range officer, “Wild animals are gradually increasing in Manas—not only rhinos, but also elephants. In 2006, there was an elephant census [in the park]. At that time there were 600 elephants, but nowadays there are more than 1,500 elephants in Manas. We can say proudly that Manas is the most newly revived park in India.”

A family of elephants in Manas National Park. 

It’s 2:00 p.m. and the sun is hot. By this point in the day, most of the rhinos have retreated into the forest for shade or are cooling off in watering holes. But the forest guards don’t rest.

It’s time for another patrol.


Action Alert: Save the Endangered Species Act

You can look out for rhinos right now. Proposed administrative changes to the Endangered Species Act would significantly weaken protections for species most vulnerable to extinction. Add your name to urge leaders to save the Act that saves species.


In the Rhino Lookout series, we’re highlighting the stories of those who are looking out for rhinos and what we can do to help. Visit Assam Rhino Reserve, now open at Woodland Park Zoo, and follow #rhinolookout for more stories. Every visit to Woodland Park Zoo supports our work with the International Rhino Foundation and more than 30 other projects dedicated to saving species here and around the world.

Rhino Lookout: Do more than see rhinos. Look out for them.

Written by: Rebecca Whitham; photos and video by: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

Friday, September 14, 2018

As mountain goats are moved from the Olympics, zoos provide homes for goat kids without known mothers

These male mountain goat kids whose mothers could not be found will have new homes at Northwest Trek Wildlife Park, Woodland Park Zoo and other zoos. Photo courtesy of Northwest Trek Wildlife Park.

As state and federal agencies move non-native mountain goats from Olympic National Park to the northern Cascade Mountains, Woodland Park Zoo is partnering with Northwest Trek and Oregon Zoo to provide permanent homes to goat kids without known mothers.

“Our plan is to translocate nanny-kid pairs when possible,” said Rich Harris, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife statewide mountain goat manager. “But when young goats cannot be paired up with their mothers, experience from other mountain goat translocation projects is that their survival rates are low.”

Northwest Trek Wildlife Park veterinarian Dr. Allison Case joined a team of state and federal veterinarians at Hurricane Ridge in Olympic National Park this week to examine the mountain goats, conduct physical exams and provide preventative and supportive care before their translocation.

Case and Northwest Trek veterinary technician Sara Dunleavy set up a temporary clinic to focus on the goat kids. Working swiftly, they examined each one, recorded its weight, determined its gender, placed a microchip and ear tag, collected blood, took cultures and nasal swabs to check for disease, and administered vaccines and antibiotics.

“Mountain goats translocated at a young age are more likely to survive in the care of humans than in the wild,” Case said. “We’re delighted to provide goat kids with great homes at Northwest Trek, Woodland Park Zoo and other zoos.”

Oregon Zoo staff are coordinating placement at zoos for additional goat kids. Our animal experts are teaming up to assure a smooth transport and relocation for the kids.

“We’re pleased to participate in this regional effort in cooperation with our colleagues in Washington and state and federal agencies,” said Amy Cutting, animal curator at Oregon Zoo. “We are all coming together in the name of conservation.”

State and federal officials were pleased when regional zoos stepped up to help, offering homes for young goats and sharing their animal-care expertise, Harris said. “We’ve partnered with Northwest Trek, Woodland Park Zoo and Oregon Zoo on many conservation projects, from Oregon spotted frog and Western pond turtle reintroduction to bat and fisher monitoring, so it was a natural to team up again.” 

“As part of our commitment to saving wildlife, including species recovery in the Pacific Northwest, we are dedicated to ensuring exemplary animal welfare and to providing a home for young goats to ensure their chances of survivability,” said Dr. Jennifer Pramuk, an animal curator at Woodland Park Zoo.

Photo courtesy of Northwest Trek Wildlife Park.

By late Thursday, four male kids without identifiable mothers had been taken to Northwest Trek. Zoo officials have not determined where these particular goat kids will live long-term. Northwest Trek can provide a permanent home for up to five goat kids; Woodland Park Zoo can care for up to two.

This effort to translocate mountain goats from the Olympic Peninsula is a partnership between the National Park Service (NPS), the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife (WDFW), and the USDA Forest Service (USFS) to re-establish and assist in connecting depleted populations of mountain goats in the Washington Cascades. Mountain goats were introduced to the Olympics in the 1920s.

Area tribes lending support to the translocation plan in the Cascades include the Lummi, Muckleshoot, Sauk-Suiattle, Stillaguamish, Suquamish, Swinomish, Tulalip, and Upper Skagit. This month’s two-week effort to move mountain goats to native habitat in the northern Cascades is the first translocation operation. Additional efforts are planned next year.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Rhino Lookout: A Second Chance for Rhinos

In India’s Manas National Park, the greater one-horned rhino population was once poached to extinction.

But now rhinos are getting a second chance there. So are the people of Manas. 

This is the community leading the cause: to look out for rhinos.

“Poachers target the rhino because of its horn. Horn earns a lot of money in the international market,” explains Bibhab Talukdar, Asia Coordinator of the International Rhino Foundation, Woodland Park Zoo’s rhino conservation partner in India.

Rhino horn is illegally traded mainly for use in traditional medicines, though it has no medicinal value. It is made of keratin. So are toenails.

The rhino’s horn can grow between 8 and 25 inches.

“In the late 1980s, early 1990s, there used to be about 80 rhinos in Manas,” according to Bibhab. “But then, due to socio-political unrest, we lost the rhino population. The poachers took advantage of the situation because the law enforcement authorities were particularly busy with restoring the law and order in civil areas. So poachers got enough scope to exterminate the rhino population.”

But hope was not lost. “As long as land remains, there is always a future.”

A brighter future requires bold vision. 

Woodland Park Zoo has joined International Rhino Foundation, the Indian government and their partners to support Indian Rhino Vision 2020—an effort to build stable rhino populations across the northeastern state of Assam. Over the past decade, these partners have moved rhinos to Manas from nearby parks where populations are increasing. 

One by one, rhinos are returning to Manas, and a new generation is taking hold. The population is now up to 30 – 35 individuals. 

Yet the threat of poaching remains.

The watchtower at Kuri Beel anti-poaching camp in Manas National Park.

Forest guards stationed across dozens of anti-poaching camps inside Manas National Park are the first line of defense for wildlife. On foot and by elephant back, they look for signs of poachers and illegal activity.

“We do patrolling daily, in the morning and in the evening,” explains a forest guard who has worked in Manas for 36 years. The tall grasses that conceal predators such as tigers and leopards can also provide cover for human intruders. “We go in teams to give us courage and to discuss our strategies.”

Courage comes from another source, too. “Manas is successful. We cannot say that it is only from our level. We get help and courage from our neighbors. That means the villagers,” says Mr. Sarkar, a Manas range officer. 

“The common people, the communities do help. We have a local council that is showing deep interest in the protection of rhinos and other animals,” adds Bibhab.

Painted by the hands of schoolchildren, a mural shows pride of and commitment to the wildlife of Manas National Park.

From within the community, a second line of defense for wildlife has emerged. “Ex-poachers have come forward now to assist the Manas National Park authorities,” explains Bibhab. “These Service Providers lend their hands in patrol, in sharing intelligence, in communicating with villagers in order to garner community support and to strengthen the second line of defense so as to ensure that wildlife is safe in Manas National Park.”

According to one of these ex-poachers-turned-Service-Provider, a sustainable livelihood made from coexisting with wildlife instead of exploiting wildlife provides more stability not just for him, but for the community as a whole. “We are feeling great because things are improving and our future generation can see rhino,” he tells us.

Students pass a rhino mural on their way into class.

The youngest schoolchildren here have never known a Manas without rhinos thanks to these collaborative conservation efforts. Still, education programs supported by International Rhino Foundation help them understand their local wildlife is not something to take for granted. 

“Students are the future. They have to take the responsibility of conservation to carry it forward,” says Bibhab. Across 63 public schools in the fringe villages of Manas, schoolchildren make an oath to conservation every morning, pledging to protect Manas National Park. Their voices come together each day in unison, and their meaning is heard far beyond school walls: rhinos will always have a home in Manas.

High school students gather before class begins in Manas.

To Bibhab, “It is the responsibility of all of us to protect rhinos. So everybody has a role to play.”

Once, rhinos went locally extinct in Manas when no one was watching. Now, the people of Manas, the government of India, partners like the International Rhino Foundation, supporters of Woodland Park Zoo, and rhino lovers everywhere have come together around a movement to do more than see rhinos—together, we’re looking out for them.


Action Alert: Save the Endangered Species Act

You can look out for rhinos right now. Proposed administrative changes to the Endangered Species Act would significantly weaken protections for species most vulnerable to extinction. Add your name to urge leaders to save the Act that saves species.


In the Rhino Lookout series, we’re highlighting the stories of those who are looking out for rhinos and what we can do to help. Visit Assam Rhino Reserve, now open at Woodland Park Zoo, and follow #rhinolookout for more stories. Every visit to Woodland Park Zoo supports our work with the International Rhino Foundation and more than 30 other projects dedicated to saving species here and around the world.

Rhino Lookout: Do more than see rhinos. Look out for them.

Written by: Rebecca Whitham; photos and video by: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

Saturday, September 1, 2018

2, 4, 6, 8, who do we appreciate? Vultures, like Modoc!

Posted by Elizabeth Bacher, Communications

Saturday, September 1st is officially Vulture Awareness Day!
Modoc is a very special vulture! Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo.

At Woodland Park Zoo, we appreciate vultures like Modoc, our 32-year old turkey vulture, every day! Why? Because vultures all over the world help keep our ecosystems healthy and clean.

Vultures don’t hunt live prey. They’re mostly scavengers that feed on dead animals which would otherwise rot. The acids in their stomach are so strong that they can neutralize all kinds of dangerous germs and bacteria—which helps minimize the spread of disease to other animals and to people.

Featherless or lightly feathered heads help vultures, like Modoc, keep clean while feeding on carcasses.
Photo by Elizabeth Bacher/Woodland Park Zoo.

Even though it might not look like it at first glance, vultures are also role models for good hygiene! Carcasses can be messy, so featherless or lightly feathered heads and necks help to keep them clean as they feed. Some vultures actually urinate on their own legs. Yeah, it sounds a little gross, but scientists think it is actually a defense against disease. Acids in the bird’s urine likely kill off any harmful bacteria they may have picked up while standing on dead rotting animals to feed.

An Egyptian vulture uses a rock as a tool to crack open an egg. Photo by Anne Wipf via DeviantArt at HermitCrabStock

Vultures are also super smart. Tool use was once seen as something only humans were capable of, as this skill shows a higher level of intelligence and problem-solving ability. Now we know that there are quite a few animals that also have this ability, like chimpanzees, elephants and sea otters to name a few. And our feathered friends are no exception. Research has found that birds like crows and some parrots are capable of tool use. The Egyptian vulture has been observed to use pebbles and rocks to break open large eggs of other birds, which they occasionally feed on. Perhaps it’s time to rethink the definition of “bird-brained”?

Measure your wingspan at the zoo's Wildlife Theater next to the raptor barn. Photo: Elizabeth Bacher/Woodland Park Zoo
Turkey vulture, Modoc, has an impressive wingspan! Photo: Elizabeth Bacher/Woodland Park Zoo

Finally, when it comes to wingspan, vultures are among the kings of the sky! Turkey vultures, like Modoc, can have a wingspan that is nearly 6 feet wide. But some of the other vulture species—including condors, which are a kind of vulture—make the top ten list for largest wingspans of all flying birds alive today. The Andean condor, for instance, can have a wingspan of more than 10 feet wide! The only flying birds that can beat that are a couple species of albatross and pelican.

The Andean condor has the largest wingspan of all birds in the vulture family. Photo by Pedro Szekely via Flickr

As a whole, vultures, including condors, have experienced dramatic population declines in the last few decades. This is happening all over the world in many varied ecosystems where vultures live and has driven many species to near extinction. One of the primary causes, other than poaching and general habitat loss, is dietary toxins. This includes everything from chemicals, pesticides and veterinary drugs that vultures ingest when they feed on carcasses of animals that were recently treated, to lead pieces which are left over in carcasses of animals that were shot by hunters. But hope is not lost. Many countries, including the U.S., are making efforts to prevent these toxins from entering the food chain by regulating the use of certain chemicals and by promoting alternatives to lead shot for used hunting.

You can see Modoc plus many other raptors in the Earn Your Wings flight program. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

There are so many reasons why we appreciate vultures like Modocand we need to do all we can to protect them! If you want to show your appreciation in person, Modoc can often be seen as part of the Earn Your Wings flight program at Woodland Park Zoo’s Wildlife Theater. Located next to the zoo’s raptor barn, and you can see these amazing birds take flight every day through the end of September, except Wednesdays, at 11:30 a.m. and 2:00 p.m

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

Expanding Our Commitment to Access at the Zoo

By: Alejandro Grajal, President and CEO

Imagine what it would be like if you never came to the zoo. You may have memories of your children enjoying the open space, learning about animals, or just being happy to share time with you. But in a wildly booming city like ours, we are also seeing increasing economic inequality. Too many of our neighbors, community groups, and families never have the chance to come and enjoy the zoo. As the President and CEO of Woodland Park Zoo, I am proud of our efforts to more than double the opportunities to keep our zoo accessible to everyone in our community– whether it’s through complimentary passes to local nonprofit partners or through new programs we launched to make the zoo more affordable and accessible to all.

A quiet moment on the Northern Trail.
Through the $5 DiscoverTicket and a $35 Explorer Pass membership, current recipients of Washington Quest/EBT and/or WIC assistance will have more opportunities to visit the zoo. The $5 Discover Ticket will be available this September 4 through March 31, 2019 at all Woodland Park Zoo entrances for up to six individuals in the same family. Earlier in August, the zoo also launched the $35 Explorer Pass membership, which provides free admission for up to eight individuals to the zoo year round for current recipients of Washington Quest/EBT and/or WIC assistance. Due to the overwhelming popularity of this program, we were unable to provide a membership to everyone who applied, but future opportunities to apply for this family membership will begin in August 2019. I am also proud that our zoo participates in the Seattle Public Library Museum Pass program, which allows Seattle Library card holders to access free entry to the zoo by reserving through their website.

Soaking up the daisy-filled Molbak's Butterfly Garden!
Guests visit with Blueberry the hornbill at an Ambassador Animal encounter.
At the same time that we are finding a way to make the zoo more affordable, we are also continuing our popular Community Access Program. We partner with more than 600 human and social service organizations across Puget Sound to offer hundreds of thousands of complimentary zoo passes. This summer also saw the first of many Zoo for All events honoring individuals and families from the special needs community as well as current and former U.S. military personnel and their families. We hope that by creating more flexible options, we will become a nationwide model for other institutions to increase their accessibility and inclusivity.

A trip to the zoo is a chance to create or strengthen our relationship with nature. We cannot accomplish our mission of inspiring everyone to make conservation a priority in their lives unless we are accessible to everyone. These programs ensure that Woodland Park Zoo continues to reach the broadest audience possible while continuing our work to inspire the empathy and connection to nature that leads to conservation actions. After all, it will take all of us working on conservation to save species and protect wildlife both locally and globally.

Up close with a new friend at Family Farm.
Opening up Woodland Park Zoo to as many people as possible is simply the right thing to do, and we are proud to double the number of opportunities for the community to experience animals, nature and each other. We pride ourselves for being deeply embedded in our community and we want to welcome everyone to enjoy extraordinary experiences. These opportunities are only possible thanks to the generous public and private support the zoo receives and from guests like you.

The zoo belongs to everyone.  It has been a community treasure for more than 100 years, and my goal is to make it a zoo that everyone can experience.

If you have ideas for ways to continue to help make the zoo accessible and affordable for other groups, feel free to contact our Community Access Program at cap@zoo.org.

Alejandro Grajal, President and CEO, with Coba the spectacled owl.
We hope to see you soon!