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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What I learned on my summer vacation (in Africa)

Posted by: Bobbi Miller, Conservation/Advanced Inquiry Program Zoology student at Miami University of Ohio and Project Dragonfly

As I prepared for my trip to Namibia, all the images from childhood television shows like Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom and Daktari flooded my mind. Would I see a cross-eyed lion? Would Marlin Perkins stand back while Jim went over to examine the deadly puff adder? It didn’t really matter; I was going to Africa—the place of my childhood (and adult!) dreams.

But this was no photo safari complete with luxury accommodations. This was an Earth Expedition to Namibia, part of Miami University of Ohio’s Project Dragonfly Master’s Degree program. I was going there to learn.

On the way to the Cheetah Conservation Fund. Photo by Bobbi Miller/WPZ.

There was the requisite coursework like cheetah biology, community based conservation and education, and conservancy management, but what I really learned was something much more important: the wildlife we so closely associate with Africa is in serious decline.

Our base of operations was the Cheetah Conservation Fund just outside of Otjiwarongo.

Welcome to the Cheetah Conservation Fund Centre. Photo by Bobbi Miller/WPZ.

We’d be staying in cinderblock dorms while we learned more about the loss of African species to human/wildlife conflict, human settlement, and poaching. Naturally, the first animal on our list was the cheetah. Today there are only 10,000 cheetahs left in the wild, having disappeared from more than 70% of their natural and historic range. Where the cheetah remains, it often finds itself in conflict, as it takes the blame for livestock losses and can be persecuted and killed by ranchers.

Dr. Laurie Marker’s Cheetah Conservation Fund specializes in working with local ranchers to use livestock guarding dogs to protect their herds, safely corralling herds at night as a preventative measure. When livestock losses do happen, CCF works with ranchers to investigate. Taking the time to observe the prints left behind on the scene or the remains of the attacked livestock can help determine who the real culprit is—and many times it’s not a cheetah. Through this process ranchers are learning to live with the cheetah, rather than fear and kill it.

Cheetah. Photo by Bobbi Miller/WPZ.

A trip through Etosha National Park meant seeing the sort of wildlife I had been dreaming of. We were delighted as our bus slowed to give us a glimpse of our first rhino. Upon closer observation we noticed open wounds and extreme emaciation. Life would likely be short for this rhino, adding to their endangered status even more. To date, the black rhino has suffered a population drop of approximately 98% due to poaching for rhino horns. A talk with a former Etosha wildlife ranger confirmed my fears— even in the park animals are not safe these days; poachers will track them and take them wherever they can find them.

A healthy rhino at a watering hole. Photo by Bobbi Miller/WPZ.

And then it finally happened—we saw an African elephant. And not just one elephant, but a small family group with a very sassy youngster in the lead. It was magical. Standing just to the side of our bus was a small herd of the largest land animal.

African elephant family. Photo by Monica Ackerley.

And then it hit me—100,000 elephants had lost their lives in the past three years to poachers. This small family, so proud and strong, may not be here in the next 10-15 years. And not just this family group, the way things are going, unless poaching is stopped, African elephants could become extinct in the wild in my lifetime. And that is when the tears began to flow, and I thought about the conservationist Cynthia Moss and her statement, “We are going to lose the largest animal on earth just so people can have trinkets.”

The little elephant was filled with personality. Photo by Kendra Hodgson.

But there is hope. Zoos are working hard to educate visitors about the realities of life in the wild. Like they say, it’s a jungle out there and life in the wild is not always pretty. Seeing an animal up close really does create a bond and builds a connection making you want to take action. Knowing and loving the animals we care for in the zoo made seeing them in the wild even more powerful, and reinforced how critically important it is to make sure we are taking steps to save them.

And for elephants (and rhinos), it’s critical that we act now. Through the 96 Elephants campaign, we’re shining a light on the illegal poaching of elephants for ivory. If you haven’t already, please lend your support to the campaign by adding your name.

Finally, human/wildlife conflict doesn't just happen in faraway countries. The issues that livestock ranchers in Africa have with big cats are very much the same issues ranchers in Washington state have with wolves. Taking lessons learned in other countries, where they’re making peaceful coexistence work, and applying it to what we do here in the states is a critical next step in protecting our environment and the species that live in it.

Life at the waterhole. Photo by Monica Ackerley.

Africa was not only the place of my dreams, it is now permanently in my heart. If I walked away with anything, it is the profound meaning of this Namibian proverb:

The earth is not ours; it is a treasure we hold in trust for future generations.” 

Nothing could be truer.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Update: Gorilla Pete's Surgery a Success

Posted by: Rebecca Whitham, Editor

The handsome Pete. Photo: Dennis Dow/WPZ.

Thank you all for your well wishes for gorilla Pete, whose dental surgery to remove a premolar was a success! The 46-year-old silverback is already back in his exhibit and doing well. While he was under anesthesia, our animal health experts had a chance to give him a close exam and found Pete to be in good physical condition with no signs of significant cardiac disease—great news for our oldest gorilla.

Big thanks to our zookeepers and veterinary team for keeping Pete in great health for his old age—now if they can just figure out what to do about that growing bald spot of his!

ICYMI: See how keepers provide special TLC for aging Pete and his mate Nina in their golden gorilla years. 

Monday, September 22, 2014

What a way to celebrate Elephant Appreciation Day

Posted by: Rebecca Whitham, Editor

What do elephants need ivory for? 
Digging, lifting, pushing and defending.

What do people need ivory for?

African elephants. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher/Wildlife Conservation Society.

Today is Elephant Appreciation Day and already 5,200+ of you have shown your support by taking the pledge to end the ivory trade in Washington state. With 3,000 additional signatures coming in from our friends at Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium, together we’re reaching out again to elected officials to ask them to consider sponsoring legislation.

The herd is being heard and we have the proclamation to show it! Governor Jay Inslee has proclaimed today Elephant Appreciation Day in Washington state:

What a way to celebrate how far we have come in raising our voices for elephants! Let's keep the momentum going. Please share this post to your networks and encourage your friends to sign the pledge at www.zoo.org/96elephants. On behalf of the elephants, we thank you!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Good things come in three… flamingos!

Posted by Kirsten Pisto, communications 
What is sweeter than a brand new downy-white flamingo chick? How about three!
A keeper gently holds one of the new chicks. Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.
The tiny chicks hatched one after another on August 31, September 5 and the last one just a few days ago, September 16.
Peeking into the incubator where the chicks stay cozy. Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.
The chicks are being hand raised and hand-fed by a team of dedicated staff, ensuring a higher chance of survival. Several times daily, the chicks are fed a mixture of whole egg powder, a little corn oil, a calcium supplement, vitamin E and water, known as a chick “slurry!”

When the little chicks are old enough to eat on their own, in about 30 days, they will join the adult colony in the flamingo exhibit. The flamingo keepers also must exercise the chicks. 

The flamingo chicks practice swimming in the baby pool chick tub. Video by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.

Leading an exercise session for three flamingo chicks might be the best job in the world. The keepers lead the chicks to an outdoor area where they are encouraged to walk and stretch to strengthen their tiny legs. The chicks also get swimming lessons in a small tub to prepare them for swimming safely in the pool in the flamingo exhibit. Chilean flamingos have a range that extends from an elevation of 15,420 feet in the altiplano (high mountain plateau), to lowland saline estuaries where some overwinter along the southwest Chilean coast.
Stretching those feet! These hardy, social birds of South America stand an impressive 40 to 42 inches tall when full grown. Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.
The downy-white feathers they sport will slowly become gray over the next month and won’t turn pink until about a year. Within two years, the juveniles will have their fabulous, full pink feathering. A group of flamingos is sometimes called a “flamboyance”.
Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.
Right now the flamingo chicks have small, straight bills, but in a few months their beaks will begin to curve. They will use this to their advantage as they filter food by holding their bill upside down while feeding from and skimming the water.

The chicks will soon join the rest of the flock in the flamingo exhibit. Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.
These three chicks bring the total number of flamingo hatchings to 14 since the exhibit opened in 2008. Woodland Park Zoo supports the Flamingo Research & Conservation in Southern South America project through its Wildlife Survival Fund. The project focuses on research, management, conservation, capacity development, and outreach activities at key sites throughout the flamingo distribution range. Continued monitoring is necessary in order to track conservation status of lowland wetlands, and to determine factors driving flamingo use of these wetlands.
Chilean flamingos, Phoenicopterus chilensis on exhibit in the Temperate Forest. Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

The Golden Years of Gorilla-hood

Posted by Kirsten Pisto, communications
Everyone has their favorite animal at the zoo, or maybe even a few, but we’d venture to guess that heaps of you have an especially soft spot for our oldest gorillas, Pete and Nina.

The pair dines on Italian plums, a treat from their keepers. Video by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.

Walking by the west gorilla exhibit, you can’t help but check in on the wrinkled pair. Nina, famously posing with her trademark stick and pink tongue, greets her visitors with a curious eye for people watching. Her attention to visitors has endeared her to hundreds of thousands of guests. Everyone knows her. The tiny, grandmotherly-gorilla seems to be the most adored among our youngest guests; and may have singlehandedly taught the children of Seattle how to stick out their tongues. (Sorry, moms). Pete, with his silver hair and balding head, has stuck by Nina’s side for all her 46 years. The gentleman of gorillas, his keepers say Pete is polite and appreciative of any attention he receives, expressing his gratitude with content grunts. Pete was an excellent dad and is still very companionable with Nina.

Pete and Nina, chillaxing in the summer sun. Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.
At 46 years old, the iconic pair is a foundation of the zoo’s gorilla program. Pete and Nina have lived at Woodland Park Zoo since 1968 and have had four offspring together (Wanto, Kamilah, Zuri and Alafia), all of which have played a big role in furthering future generations through the gorilla Species Survival Plan (SSP) at other zoos. They were also surrogate parents to Nadiri and Akenji when their mother, Jumoke, was unable to raise them. Pete and Nina have 13 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.

What a great mom! Nina with daughter, Kami, born in 1977. Photo by Woodland Park Zoo.
But, how do gorillas live to be great-gorillas?

Pete and Nina are part of a special geriatric gorilla health program here at the zoo. Just like humans, gorillas are affected by many of the same health issues related to old age.

By their appearance alone, it’s evident they have aged, explains Martin Ramirez, the zoo’s curator of mammals. “Nina and Pete are experiencing some of the same aches and pains of aging humans. They’re more sedentary, they have arthritis and they are experiencing gradual weight loss. However, while the senior gorillas are doing relatively well for their age, we have to accept the fact that the couple is facing their sunset years. We will continue to give them the same quality care we give all our animals.”

Matriarch Nina, reigning with her signature stick. Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.
Hey, handsome! Pete's red hair might be balding, but he's still got style. Photo by Dennis Conner/WPZ, 2007.

As part of the zoo’s exemplary quality care program, Nina and Pete are under a prescribed program to help manage their geriatric infirmities. “We medically manage their osteoarthritis with daily medications to help maintain their mobility, and provide vitamin and mineral supplements for overall health,” explains Dr. Darin Collins, the zoo’s director of animal health.

According to Pat Owen, a collection manager at the zoo, the gorillas’ zookeepers conduct visual checks twice daily on Pete and Nina. “The keepers take a close look at how each gorilla is moving about, their appetites and fluid intake, how responsive their eyes are, and the condition of their gums, teeth and jaws,” says Owen.

During one of these checks, keepers noticed that one of Pete’s lower teeth didn’t look quite right. With closer inspection it was determined that the tooth was infected. Performing surgery or examining an animal under anesthesia poses a risk, especially for elderly animals, despite every safety precaution taken to ensure a successful procedure. The last time Pete was anesthetized was for a dental procedure in 2008. This Saturday, September 20, he will experience an anesthetic procedure for the potential extraction of or endodontic repair on the infected lower right canine tooth. Depending on Pete’s stability during the procedure, the medical team will attempt a cardiac ultrasound for potential age-related cardiovascular concerns that are prevalent in male gorillas. The procedure on Pete will be performed at the zoo’s Animal Health Complex where Collins and the zoo’s animal health team will work alongside a medical team consisting of endodontists, a dentist/oral surgeon and radiologist. Because of his age, anesthesia for the geriatric patient is a high risk. “However, leaving the infected tooth is potentially life threatening so we are taking the risk to intervene on his behalf,” says Collins.

Nina snacks on a celery stalk while she keeps an eye on her visitors. Photo by Dennis Dow/WPZ.
Bette Davis once lamented that “Getting old is not for sissies,” but with a crew of dedicated keepers, a world-class animal health team and a community of adoring fans, Pete and Nina are two gorillas living their golden years in a community that couldn't possibly love them more. 

Here are some tips inspired by our oldest gorillas on how to age gracefully…
  1. Stick out your tongue. A sign that Nina is content and relaxed, sticking out your tongue proves both enjoyable and reduces stress. Children will fall madly in love with you.
  2. Keep trying new things! Pete enjoys novel enrichment items such as a bouquet of falling rose petals from our organic rose garden.
  3. Eat a wide variety of vegetables. Gorillas are vegetarian and forage all day to eat a variety of vegetation, including fruits, leaves and veggies.
  4. Snack on yogurt. Yogurt is really great for the health of your gut; even Pete and Nina receive non-fat yogurt treats to keep their digestive systems in check.
  5. Visit your doctor regularly. As the field of zoo medicine continues to evolve (improved husbandry and management techniques, excellent animal care, better nutrition, increased medical knowledge, diagnostic and therapeutic techniquesanimals in zoos are living longer. “A few decades ago, gorillas lived only in to their 30s or even younger. Today, the species, particularly female gorillas, can live in to their 40s and 50s,” explains Ramirez.
  6. Spend time with your best friends and family. It’s clear to see, Pete and Nina are quite fond of each other and whether they are sharing an afternoon kale snack or grooming each other, their companionship enriches both of their lives.
  7. Stay fashionable! Looking good is feeling good. Don’t stop rocking your signature look!
Nina models a Sounders scarf in 2012. Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.

Visitors spend time with Pete and Nina, the zoo's oldest gorillas. Video by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.

We wish you well on your upcoming tooth procedure, Pete!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Woodland Park Zoo soaks up the sun

Posted by: Caileigh Robertson, Communications
Past the zoo’s LEED Gold-certified West Entrance and around the corner from the sustainably built Humboldt penguin exhibit, Woodland Park Zoo is rolling out yet another sun-soaking, solar project: the largest community solar project in Washington state.
Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo
Through a partnership with Seattle City Light and Phinney Neighborhood Association (PNA), 60 new solar panels are currently being installed on the zoo’s Rain Forest Food Pavilion and behind-the-scenes Commissary building. Dubbed Community Solar on Phinney Ridge, the project includes placing a 16-kilowatt grid of solar panels on the zoo’s food pavilion—similar in appearance to the zoo’s solar-paneled Historic Carousel—and an additional 45-kilowatt system on the zoo’s animal food center. A hop, skip and jump from Woodland Park Zoo, PNA’s historic Phinney Center will also be boasting a new, energy efficient rooftop as part of the project. Together, the zoo and PNA will generate more than 75,000 kilowatt hours of electricity annually, making it the largest community solar project in the state.
Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo

Best of all, zoo visitors, members and neighbors can all take part! City Light customers can purchase one or more pieces of Community Solar’s output for $150 per unit and, in return, will receive credit on their electric bills through 2020 for their units’ production—a worthwhile reward for their contribution to creating a more sustainable city.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

TKCP takes home top honors for AZA International Conservation Award

Posted by: Caileigh Robertson, Communications

We’re proud to announce Woodland Park Zoo’s flagship conservation program, the Tree Kangaroo Conservation Program (TKCP), was prized with top honors for the International Conservation Award at the Association of Zoos & Aquariums (AZA) national conference held this week in Orlando, Florida!

AZA names conservation as its highest priority, and annually recognizes exceptional efforts by AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums, related or international facilities, and conservation partners toward habitat preservation, species restoration, and support of biodiversity in the wild through its International Conservation Award.
Photo by Russell Mittermeier
Established in 1996, TKCP determined that the Matschie’s tree kangaroo and its unique habitat faced increasing threats from deforestation and over-hunting. It was clear habitat protection and sustainable resource management practices were needed to help this little-known species survive in its natural habitat. In Papua New Guinea (PNG), where local people own and control over 95% of the land, the TKCP team joined local residents, as well as government officials, to help implement a long-term habitat protection plan, raising conservation awareness and understanding, and fostering the commitment of local communities that depend on forest products and services.
Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo
TKCP takes a holistic approach to conservation, encompassing livelihoods, education, health, and land-use planning in partnership with local landowners. The endangered tree kangaroos remain the program’s flagship species—an animal both culturally and biologically significant to PNG—though TKCP’s mission extends to habitat protection for a wide range of threatened species that call PNG home.
Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo
Five years ago, TKCP worked with local landowners to establish the Yopno-Uruwa-Som Conservation Area (YUS CA), the first of its kind in the country. The 180,000-acre area, voluntarily pledged by local landowners to help protect the wildlife native to PNG’s Huon Peninsula, has become a model of locally-owned protected forests that not only conserves wildlife while also focusing on the importance of community health and livelihood. TKCP has made great strides in empowering local residents to manage the community’s environmental and natural resources through their innovative initiatives and community approach, and established TKCP-PNG—a partner non-governmental organization—to manage the YUS Conservation Area. TKCP-PNG was also recently honored by the United Nations for its advancements in sustainable wildlife conservation and local livelihood solutions with the highly-esteemed, annual Equator Prize.
Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo
TKCP and Woodland Park Zoo established a partnership with Caffé Vita, a Seattle-based coffee roaster, to bring alternative revenue to the YUS landowners and their communities. Through a direct trade agreement, YUS farmers have exported nearly 8 tons of coffee over three years to generate profits that benefit 11 local villages. The funds are reinvested in the community through education, health and development projects. As a result, farmers are providing their families and neighbors with necessary schooling, health education and a reliable income. 
Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo
We’re honored to be recognized for our continued contributions to wildlife conservation, tree kangaroo research, and the communities of Papua New Guinea.

You support Woodland Park Zoo’s conservation programs every time you visit the zoo. Visit the ‘roos at the heart of TKCP on your next zoo visit by making a trip to the Day Exhibit, or check out zoo.org/tkcp for more information.
Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo

Monday, September 15, 2014

AZA grants Woodland Park Zoo seventh consecutive accreditation

Posted by: Caileigh Robertson, communications

Good news! Woodland Park Zoo has been granted accreditation by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums’ (AZA) Accreditation Commission, marking the seventh consecutive time for the zoo. AZA requires zoos and aquariums to successfully complete this rigorous accreditation process every five years in order to be members of the Association. Accreditation was announced Saturday, September 13 during AZA’s national conference held in Orlando, Florida.

“Only zoos and aquariums that meet the highest standards are accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums,” said AZA President and CEO Jim Maddy. “The community should take great pride in knowing that Woodland Park Zoo is a proven leader in the care and conservation of wildlife, and in inspiring people to take action to protect the natural world.”

To be accredited, Woodland Park Zoo underwent a thorough review to ensure it has and will continue to meet rising standards, which include animal care, veterinary programs, conservation, education, and safety. 

Great grey owl, photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.
“The accreditation is a testament to our commitment to providing exemplary animal care, driving local and global wildlife conservation efforts, furthering science-based learning within our community, and inspiring our annual 1.2 million visitors to ensure a future for wildlife,” said Woodland Park Zoo President and CEO Dr. Deborah Jensen.

The accreditation process included a detailed application and a meticulous on-site inspection by a team of trained zoo and aquarium professionals. The inspecting team observed all aspects of our operations, including animal care; keeper training; safety for visitors, staff and animals; educational programs; conservation efforts; veterinary programs; financial stability; risk management; visitor services; and other areas.  Finally, top officials were interviewed at a formal hearing of AZA’s independent Accreditation Commission, after which accreditation was granted. 

Thanks to Woodland Park Zoo visitors for inspiring us to be the best that we can be and holding us to the utmost standards. 

Monday, September 8, 2014

The facts about Woodland Park Zoo elephants

Asian elephant Chai at Woodland Park Zoo. Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Woodland Park Zoo loves our elephants Chai and Bamboo, and we deeply mourn the loss of their herd mate, Watoto. Her recent death sent waves of grief through our community of staff, volunteers, members and guests. She was part of our family and will forever be honored in our memories.

Woodland Park Zoo’s elephant program continues to spark dialogue in our community. Productive dialogue has led to positive change, including the creation of the community-based Elephant Task Force, which concluded our elephants are in good physical and emotional health, and recommended some improvements to our program already underway.

Unfortunately, this dialogue is being colored by inflammatory campaigns from local and national activist groups and the media they garner. These campaigns rely on alarming sound bites that confuse and mislead well-intentioned people and mischaracterize the zoo as profit-driven and entertainment-focused. We are a conservation- and education-based nonprofit whose earnings are reinvested in our mission to “save animals and their habitats through conservation leadership and engaging experiences, inspiring people to learn, care and act.”

Woodland Park Zoo is a community-based organization that remains open to dialogue, and while we certainly respect personal conviction related to animals, we believe you deserve to draw your conclusions based on accurate information.

We invite you to spend a few minutes reading and absorbing the following counterpoints to misleading arguments published in the most recent action alert issued by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA):

Read the complete counterpoint analysis at www.zoo.org/facts

The Real Elephant in the Room

Here’s the real elephant in the room—the future of elephants is at stake. Each day, 96 elephants are killed in Africa. At this rate, the species will be extinct within 20 years. In Asia, elephants are endangered and wild populations continue to be decimated. This cannot go on. We will not be the generation that allows elephants to disappear.

African elephants. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher/Wildlife Conservation Society.

Every time you visit the zoo, you contribute to conservation. Your visit allows us to support direct conservation action on the ground in Africa and Asia through partners like the Tarangire Elephant Project in Tanzania. There our collaborative efforts support a network of 33 game scouts in seven villages who serve as anti-poaching patrol. Our partner reports that in the last year alone, 55 poachers have been arrested.

Village Game Scouts sponsored by the Tarangire Elephant Project in the Makame Wildlife Management Area, Tanzania. Photo by Boniface Osujaki/Tarangire Elephant Project.

We believe those who connect with nature are inspired to protect it. At Woodland Park Zoo, the elephants are conservation heroes. They bring the fight against elephant extinction into the hearts of our visitors and stir us to action. And we’re seeing incredible results. This summer alone, 5,000 zoo visitors and community members have joined our 96 Elephants campaign, named for the number of African elephants killed each day to fuel the international ivory trade. Shockingly, the United States is the second biggest market for ivory in the world. With your help, we are putting pressure on elected officials to end the ivory trade in Washington state. Working with a coalition of more than 150 zoos and partners, we’re committed to stopping the demand, stopping the trade and stopping the killing.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife repository of confiscated ivory. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher/Wildlife Conservation Society.

What we do collectively is powerful, but let’s not forget about the individuals in our herd. Each has his or her own voice and story to tell, like 9-year-old zoo member Karina, whose advocacy for elephants among her school peers earned her the honorary title of Future Zookeeper of the Year. Karina represents the next generation of conservation stewards whose actions and attitudes will determine the fate of endangered elephants, and in hands like hers, the future looks bright.

Woodland Park Zoo has been a part of this broad community for more than 100 years, and in that time, much has changed in our knowledge and practices, and in our mission and vision. Looking forward, we’re committed to always listening, always learning, and always evolving, working toward one vision: a world with elephants for generations to come.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Do you know Mo? International Vulture Awareness Day coming up

Posted by: Karen Stevenson, docent; Susan Burchardt, raptor keeper; and Anna Martin, docent

When you saw “Vulture” in the title, what came to mind? Did you think of the Marvel® comic book character? Of big, red-headed black birds pecking around fresh road kill? Important members of almost every continent’s cleaning crew? A featured friend of raptor fans at the zoo? How about “all of the above”?

Vulture in flight. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

The cartoon version is property of Marvel comics and we’ll let Marvel speak for him, but living, breathing, feathered vultures are represented at Woodland Park Zoo by Modoc, the zoo’s turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). Mo is a member of the Raptor Center’s educational team. He is the zoo’s ambassador for all vultures around the Old World (Europe, Asia and Africa) and the New World (the Americas).

Susan Burchardt, one of the zoo’s raptor keepers says, “Vultures are easy to ignore or vilify, but they are a cornerstone in so many ecosystems.” They’re often misunderstood. On September 6, International Vulture Awareness Day, the zoo’s raptor keepers will help “grow the love.” We think vultures are marvelous!

Modoc the vulture. Photo: Mat Hayward/Woodland Park Zoo.

In the wild, vultures live in large groups sometimes called wakes or committees. They are scavengers—they eat only fresh kills (once a carcass begins to smell, the vultures lose their appetites for it) and they have tough guts: anthrax, hog cholera, and botulism are no match for vultures’ stomach acids. Besides cleaning carcasses, vultures help keep these lethal bacteria out of our ecosystems. Imagine the mess if we didn’t have vultures’ help: rotting carcasses, germs and disease spreading, flies everywhere, and the smell!

Vultures are an example of divergent evolution. Old World species look similar to New World vultures, but the Old World species evolved to find food visually—they keep an eye on snow leopards in the Himalayas and move in to eat what the snow leopards leave behind. Some New World species, including California condors and turkey vultures, are able to smell a fresh kill up to a mile way and swoop down to begin cleaning the carcass right away. They sometimes fly high overhead, circling, waiting for an animal to die.

Vultures are known to circle overhead. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Circling is a useful but unfortunate behavior. In Africa, Old World vultures circling over poached elephants guide game wardens to poachers—and in a grim turn, poachers have started poisoning the elephant carcasses, killing hundreds of vultures while the poachers escape with the elephants’ tusks.

Poachers’ poisons aren’t the only threat. Cattlemen in India and Africa accidentally poison them too. You see, vultures aren’t picky about the meat they eat, so they sometimes eat cattle carcasses. Diclofenac is a common veterinary drug once given to cattle in India and Africa (and still administered in some European countries). The drug, as used by humans, is perfectly safe, but though vultures can easily stomach anthrax, diclofenac is poison to them. Hundreds of thousands of vultures have died in India and Africa after eating the meat of inoculated cattle. 

What a beauty! Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 protects vultures in the U.S., but as you can see, the same is not true for other vultures in other places. The zoo is one of hundreds of organizations helping raise awareness of vultures through International Vulture Awareness Day. The zoo’s celebration will focus on vultures’ habits, diets, and threats; and ongoing research, including banding, tracking, and analyzing pellets. (Don’t know what a vulture pellet is? Come by! They’re fascinating, we promise.) Mark your calendars, join the fun!

Vulture Day Schedule of Activities
September 6, 2014
10:00 a.m. – 3:00 p.m., Ongoing activities:
  • Crafts
  • Banding Station: kids will get measured, weighed and banded just like researchers band vultures in the wild
  • Carrion Piñata: participants will use a vulture hand puppet to pull treasures out of a pretend carcass just like vultures forage for food
  • Vulture Pellet Guess: participants will guess the number of vulture pellets in a jar. Prizes will be awarded at 2:30 p.m.
  • Vulture Information Carts: Information about vultures will be available throughout the day
10:30 – 10:45 a.m., Vulture Talk  
10:45 – 11:15 a.m., Bean Bag Toss 
11:30 a.m. – noon, Raptor Flight Program
12:15 – 1:00 p.m., Scavenger Hunt and Bean Bag Toss
1:00 – 1:30 p.m., Research Study – Net Demonstration
2:00 p.m., Raptor Flight Program
2:30 p.m., Announcement of Vulture Pellet Guess Winners and Awarding of Prizes

Come see us!