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Thursday, October 30, 2014

A donkey allergic to hay? You don’t say!

Posted by Caileigh Robertson, Communications

Sam the miniature donkey. Photo by Dennis Dow/WPZ.

Sneezes, sniffles and itchiness are all signs of allergies in humans and, as research indicates, they’re common symptoms in allergic animals too—especially for one miniature donkey at Woodland Park Zoo.

Sam, one of our two mini donkeys living at the Family Farm, is allergic to hay! Zookeepers noticed him becoming itchy around hay, which serves as feed for Sam and his herd mate, Rico. Sam continuously rubbed and scratched against posts in his Family Farm barn, and his coat became short and thin. After a blood test came back confirming his hay allergy, our keepers and animal health team crafted a treatment plan to reduce his symptoms and ease his discomfort.

Photo by Ric Brewer/WPZ.

Keepers promptly switched Sam’s feed to Bermuda grass hay, which doesn’t trigger allergic reactions like Timothy grass, commonly known for its pollen allergen. Although Sam experiences itchy side effects from exposure to Timothy grass, Rico indulges in it without trouble—though, they’re known to sneak a few bites one another’s hay. (Allergies or not, the grass is greener on the other side. Pun intended.)

Like many humans patients, Sam also receives routine allergen immunotherapy, or allergy vaccines, to help build immunity against allergens and reduce symptoms over time. Keepers train with him regularly to familiarize him with the vaccination process, allowing Sam to best anticipate each step in his care plan (especially the apple at the end).

Photo by Dennis Dow/WPZ.

Within weeks of receiving his initial immunotherapy treatment, Sam’s constant itching slowly subsided and his coat grew back healthy and lustrous. As a result of this proactive approach to Sam’s healthcare, the miniature donkey’s hay allergy has cleared up well.

Photo by Mat Hayward/WPZ.

Within the health community, clinical overlaps between humans and animals—like allergies—are strong indications of how local and global environments affect the health of all species. Case studies of human-animal health relations span all corners of the medical industry, including obesity, cancer, geriatric health and more.

During the 2014 Zoobiquity conference, held at Woodland Park Zoo and the University of Washington on Nov. 1, veterinarians, physicians and environmental health experts will explore case studies and interactive presentations of human-animal health to demonstrate how a species-spanning approach to health and medicine can improve human, animal and environmental health.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Spiders are the best

Posted by Kirsten Pisto, Communications

Spiders are sort of the worst best. Homes and backyards in the Pacific Northwest seem to be teeming with spiders during the fall season and dewy-dropped webs float oh so delicately between the sidewalk and your face. But don’t get all antsy (ahem… spidery), we spoke with Sue Andersen, zookeeper at the Bug World exhibit, to learn more about these incredible eight-legged beauties.

Volunteer Jordan asks zookeeper Sue Andersen about her love of spiders and why everybody should appreciate them!

Sue, you have to work with spiders every day at Bug World. Were you always at ease around arachnids?

To tell you the truth, no. When I first started volunteering at Woodland Park Zoo, all I knew was that I wanted to become a keeper. My very first assignment was to help feed the golden orb weaver. They are long legged and they are web-builders, meaning they like to hang out high up in their exhibit. I’m not the tallest person in the world, so I had to really reach my arm way up into their space to feed them. It was challenging and I wouldn’t say it was my favorite thing.

After a while though, I became accustomed to them and now I’m totally comfortable with them. It’s like anything, if you aren’t used to something it can seem intimidating, but after some practice it’s a piece of cake.

Sue delicately moves a tarantula behind the scenes at Bug World. Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.

It seems like there are more spiders around during the fall season. We hear people talk about house spiders coming in from the cold. What’s the deal?

I hear that all the time, but the truth is there is no greater number of spiders during autumn, we just see them more frequently. One of the most common spiders here in Seattle is the giant European house spider, Tegenaria gigantean.

House spiders do not come from the outside into your home, in fact they are always in and around your home. These spiders migrated, along with European settlers, as people brought furniture and building materials to the west. The spiders that live in your house have adapted to live there; they would not survive if people didn’t build awesome houses for them. House spiders are usually out of sight, living in the hidden parts of your home; inside walls, basement corners or attics. In early fall, male house spiders are struck with cupid’s arrow and begin running around to find as many girlfriends as they can. These guys have longer legs, so they appear larger, and they are fast, so they can startle you if you find them in the sink or bathtub.

A giant European house spider shows off its colors. Photo by Dennis Conner/WPZ.

Aggh! Yes, they can be very startling to find. So what should we do when we do see them?

Actually, you don’t need to do anything. A house spider is a wonderful creature to have around. They eat other pest insects such as mosquitoes, fleas and earwigs and have even been known to kill hobo spiders, which some people are more sensitive to. If you see a house spider the best thing to do is just wave as it crawls by. If you really can’t deal, you can carefully scoop it into a cup and move it to another part of your house.

Sure! Gently move the spider to your basement or attic and let it go, you won’t be bothered by it and you’ll know it’s helping protect you from insects that do bite people like mosquitoes and fleas.
I wouldn’t recommend touching them, since they are likely to be startled. These spiders are much more afraid of you than you are of them. Think about just the difference in size. Humans must be terrifying! Do them a favor by letting them go.

But, I will say if you can’t bring yourself to keeping it inside your home, it’s probably better to let it outside in your yard rather than stomping on it. Just remember that you aren’t putting it back, because it did not come from the outside. Most house spiders will perish if put outdoors.

Cross orb weaver hangs out in the rose garden. Photo by Kirsten Pisto/WPZ.

What about all the spider webs we see in the mornings?

Another common spider in the Pacific Northwest is the cross orb weaver, Araneus diadematus, sometimes called the garden spider. This species is bigger this time of year, but there aren’t actually more of them in the fall. These pretty little orange and brown spiders start off as tiny creatures in early spring, and don’t reach full maturity until late summer. That’s when you see the larger webs appear with the plump female spiders on them. 

You also notice the webs more, because the leaves have fallen off the trees. The webs are so beautiful; just spend a minute admiring these intricate structures. They are marvelous!

Morning dew on a beautiful spider web in Ballard. Photo by Kirsten Pisto/WPZ.

What is your favorite spider to work with at the zoo?

I love all the animals I work with, but my favorites are the golden silk orb weaver and the tarantulas. I love looking at how brilliant some of their colorings are; they are just amazing. I’ve certainly felt the most personal growth by working with the tarantulas here at Woodland Park Zoo.

If you can forget for a moment that you are looking at a spider, and just study their brilliant colors you really begin to appreciate them for the beautiful creatures they are.

Amazon Sapphire Pinktoe Tarantula, Avicularia diversipes. Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.

Still afraid of spiders? Whether you suffer from extreme arachnophobia or just get a little jittery when you see one crawl by, you can overcome your fears by slowly learning to appreciate them. The more you know about something, the less you will fear it. 

Visit Bug World and spend some time checking out the golden silk orb weaver. Maybe you’ll even learn to love spiders as much as Sue does.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Got Zoobiquity?

Posted by: Dr. Deborah Jensen, President and CEO

Photo by Matt Hagen.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “The first wealth is health.” It’s a truism that applies to all species. Although we may think our aches and pains are uniquely human, biologically speaking, Homo sapiens is just another species of animal. As a result, we are more similar genetically to other creatures than we are different, so we share many naturally occurring diseases. Health professionals caring for animals and humans often confront similar clinical questions, but to date don’t readily have avenues to work together on solutions.

Woodland Park Zoo is working to change that.

As global health challenges ask us to be more creative about our long-term well-being, we’re asking: what can we learn from a cross-species approach to health. Can we harness knowledge from both the veterinary and human medical sciences?

At the 4th annual Zoobiquity Conference, November 1, 2014, held at the University of Washington and Woodland Park Zoo, hundreds of leading scientists and practitioners will gather to respond to these questions by exploring the species-spanning effects that asthma, obesity, and air pollution and other health problems have on animals and humans. After morning panel sessions at UW, participants will gather at the zoo for Walking Rounds—lively case discussions informed by the zoo’s animals—with our own Dr. Darin Collins, WPZ Director of Animal Health and a member of the conference organizing committee, and our veterinary team. Dr. Brian Slinker, a WPZ board member and Dean of Washington State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine also joins the dialogue.

The health of people and animals depends on an intimate relationship that is intricately woven into the health of our environment.

The term Zoobiquity was popularized by Barbara Natterson-Horowitz, M.D. and Kathryn Bowers in their 2012 book of the same name. In it they explore the spectrum of diseases that humans and animals share because of our common ancestry. Zoobiquity also advocates for cross-disciplinary communication among practitioners to spark new hypotheses and clinical approaches.

It won’t surprise you to learn that Dr. Collins and his zoo animal health team have been thinking about zoobiquity for a long time. They know that human medicine yields valuable insights when combined with modern veterinary expertise, opening up new possibilities for diagnosis and treatment. In turn, what veterinary scientists are learning about illnesses in animals, such as jaguar breast cancer, flamingo heart attacks, and respiratory problems in humans and animals is increasingly transforming human medicine.

Dr. Darin Collins discusses zoobiquity in MyZoo magazine’s Fall 2014 health issue, available to read online.

The zoo, for example, has a long history of collaborating with our region’s finest human medical and surgical teams to provide the latest approaches to treating illness. Take the recent case of Vip, our 35-year-old western lowland gorilla (his name affectionately stands for Very Important Primate). Our vet team’s approach to his complicated sinus infection, commonly treated in humans but rare in animals, is an excellent example of how we engage comparative medicine to help our zoo inhabitants thrive. 

And as the zoobiquity cross-talk deepens, what veterinary scientists are learning about naturally occurring disease is increasingly informing human medicine. Add to the mix what ecologists are learning about how the environment influences disease and an even richer mosaic of understanding evolves. This holistic, systems perspective is redefining the boundaries between animal and human medicine, and has much to teach us about how disorders develop and can be successfully treated.

Image courtesy of zoobiquity.com

For example, cancer is found throughout the animal kingdom—we all share DNA that can mutate to form tumors. Knowing that rhinos can develop cancer under their horns, the way humans can under their fingernails, or that jaguars and women are susceptible to the same kind of breast cancer, can help oncologists look for genetic and environmental factors that raise or lower risk. Similarly, all species are vulnerable to viruses and other microbes. In fact, we also share about 70 percent of infectious diseases—such as Ebola and West Nile virus—with other animals.

A presentation on penguins as sentinels for West Nile virus will be held at our Humboldt penguin exhibit during the Zoobiquity Conference’s walking rounds.

Zoos are a front line for detecting, treating and monitoring diseases that cross from animals to humans. In 1999, the Bronx Zoo was key to unraveling the mystery surrounding West Nile when first detected in the Western Hemisphere, in New York City. After noticing a sudden increase in the number of dead crows in local neighborhoods, and then dead flamingos and owls on the zoo’s grounds, zoo scientists connected the pattern of disease to one also mysteriously affecting local people, which turned out to be mosquito-borne. The discovery informed early research and development of potential vaccines. So far, mosquito control is the most effective prevention.

As the virus spread westward, Woodland Park partnered with state and federal agencies to campaign for public awareness and to protect vulnerable species, particularly birds and horses. Our own Dr. Collins also took part in an avian influenza surveillance project in Indonesia to help mitigate further spread to animals and humans in that part of the world.

How can YOU get more zoobiquity? Download our free Woodland Park Zoo app and look for the Zoobiquity mobile tour in the Maps section. You'll get to know your favorite animals through the lens of caring experts who’ve got health covered, like in the case of miniature donkey Sam's allergy to hay! Photo by Ric Brewer/WPZ.

Today, zoobiquity dialogues would seem like an obvious best practice, but this is a new sensibility. It has not always been highly valued. 

In the past, most pre-med students were not required to study evolutionary biology, which places disease in the context of species’ adaptations to changing environments. And, while ecologists studied ecosystems and species at population levels, veterinarians were studying diseases of individual animals (and sometimes wild animals). 

Now, we are already observing that changes in the environment result in changes in wild animal diseases. Some even jump across species, giving all health scientists more reasons to seek each other out. When they do, they often talk about OneHealth, a lens focused on the interconnections among all our planet’s inhabitants. The goal is to learn how those relationships lead to thriving or to sickness, and to collaborate on creating solutions. 

Ultimately, veterinarians, physicians, and environmental scientists share the same fundamental interest: to heal their patients—animal, human, and planet. Our health depends on it.

Video: 3-day-old lion cubs nursing

Posted by: Rebecca Whitham, Editor

The lion cubs, seen here at three days old, are doing well behind the scenes with mom Adia. Watch them wrestle and roll around as they position themselves for nursing in this new video:

Video: Baby Lion Cub Sweetness

In case you missed it, find the first photos and video of the cubs in the birth announcement from last week.

We'll continue to provide updates on the three boys from behind the scenes. It'll be some time before we see the family out on exhibit. For now, they need to focus on nursing, bonding with mom, developing their motor skills and getting big and strong!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Autumn colors cloak the zoo

Posted by: Kirsten Pisto, Communications

Fall is, without a doubt, one of the most beautiful seasons to stroll zoo grounds. With the autumnal nod of the Northern hemisphere, a slight shift in the earth’s axis means our days will soon be getting darker and darker until the shortest day of the year, Winter Solstice (note to self: head for the Tropical Rain Forest building on Dec. 21 to soak up some heat!).

Right now our pathways are spilling over with orange, red, gold and brilliant yellow leaves. Some of the best spots to stop for fall foliage are the oak leaf piles on the outer loop between the South Entrance and gorillas, the gigantic magnolia leaves near Thai Village, and the perfectly painted Enkianthus outside the Bamboo Forest Reserve.

If you are a photographer, visit early or late in the day and see those really warm golden hues that occur when the sun sinks low in the sky. Fall light provides some of the most flattering colors, casting a warm glow on your subject.

Here are a few of our favorite autumn details so far…

Devil’s walking stick, Aralia spinosa, photo by Kirsten Pisto/WPZ.
A fancy spider helps us decorate for fall. Photo by Kirsten Pisto/WPZ.
Heavenly bamboo, Nandina domestica. No relation to bamboo-just looks like it! Photo by Kirsten Pisto/WPZ.
Golden back-lighting shows off a leaf in mid turn. Photo by Kirsten Pisto/WPZ.
Pretty little spider in the rose garden. Photo by Kirsten Pisto/WPZ.
Redbud hazel, Disanthus cercidifolius.  Related to witchhazel! Photo by Kirsten Pisto/WPZ.
Drops of rain glimmer on a fallen leaf. Photo by Kirsten Pisto/WPZ.
And one last look at summer... a pearly pink rose still in bloom!

Photo by Kirsten Pisto/WPZ.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

The pride of the zoo: three lions born

Posted by: Gigi Allianic, Communications

The vets got a first look at the cubs on Friday. Photo by Dr. Darin Collins. 

The pride of Woodland Park Zoo just got a little bigger!

Three African lions were born yesterday on Oct. 24. The cubs represent the first litter between the mother, 5-year-old Adia, and 7-year-old father, Xerxes. This is the first offspring for the father. The last birth of lions was in 2012 when Adia gave birth to four cubs with a different male.

A screen capture from an internal cam shows Adia with one of her cubs. 

Zookeepers moved the cubs into the off-view maternity den where the new family can bond in comfortable, quiet surroundings. Before reuniting the cubs with mom, the zoo's veterinary team did a quick health assessment of the cubs and determined that all three are males. The father remains separated from the cubs and mother.

Zookeepers are monitoring the new family round-the-clock. The mother and cubs are bonding and nursing, according to Martin Ramirez, mammal curator at Woodland Park Zoo.

The three boys photographed during their quick health assessment. Photo by Dr. Darin Collins.

A screen capture from the internal cam shows three lion cubs in a behind-the-scenes den.

The first 48 hours are critical, and animal care staff will be monitoring each of the cubs closely for signs of normal behavior and development over the next several weeks. “Animal management staff is closely monitoring the litter via an internal keeper cam to ensure the mom is providing good maternal care and the cubs are properly nursing. The mom and cubs will remain off public view until they are a bit older and demonstrate solid mobility skills. In addition, outdoor temperatures need to be a minimum of 50 degrees,” said Ramirez.

A cub in the behind-the-scenes den.

“The birth of the lions is very exciting for all of us, especially for Xerxes who was not represented in the gene pool for the lion Species Survival Plan (SSP) conservation breeding program,” said Ramirez.”

Lion cubs typically weigh about 3 pounds at birth. They are born blind and open their eyes within a week or two after birth. As part of the exemplary animal care and health program for the zoo’s thousand-plus animals, zoo veterinarians will perform health check-ups every couple of weeks for weight monitoring, vaccinations, and critical blood and fecal sampling.

Xerxes arrived in the spring from El Paso Zoo to be paired with Adia under a breeding recommendation by the SSP for African lions. Adia arrived in 2010 from Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, in Ohio. An SSP is a complex system that matches animals in North American zoos based on genetic diversity and demographic stability. Pairings also take into consideration the behavior and personality of the animals.

The three cubs in their den.

Xerxes and Adia, photographed together in June 2014. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

Woodland Park Zoo’s lions belong to the South African subspecies, Panthera leo krugeri. Known as the Transvaal lion, it ranges in Southern Sahara to South Africa, excluding the Congo rain forest belt, in grassy plains, savanna and open woodlands. These lions range in weight from 260 to 400 pounds.

The African lion is the only big cat not protected under the Endangered Species Act. As few as 32,000 African lions are estimated to remain in the wild and their future remains uncertain, particularly as the growth in human population continues to impact lion populations. There is legal hunting of lions and retaliation killing because they pose a threat to humans and livestock.

A lion in the Ruaha landscape in Tanzania. Photo courtesy of Ruaha Carnivore Project.

Through the zoo’s Wildlife Survival Fund, Woodland Park Zoo supports the Ruaha Carnivore Project focused on mitigating conflict between predators and people. To help support the project, become a ZooParent and adopt a lion. Your adoption supports the care of the animals at the zoo, and $5 from each adoption goes directly to the zoo's conservation efforts.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

In the shadow of the snow leopard

Posted by: Rebecca Whitham, Editor

Just back from Kyrgyzstan’s Tien Shan mountain range—“God’s Mountains” in Kyrgyz—Woodland Park Zoo VP of Field Conservation, Dr. Fred Koontz, is preparing a field report to share with you the highlights from his trek in the shadow of the snow leopard. Here’s a sneak peek of his travels with zoo conservation partner, Snow Leopard Trust, in honor of today's International Snow Leopard Day.

As seen on Facebook:

For more posts like this, be sure to like Woodland Park Zoo on Facebook.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Choose sustainable palm oil for Halloween candy

Posted by: Bobbi Miller, Field Conservation

Every kid wants yummy, sticky, sugary candy at Halloween, but not as much as orangutans, Asian elephants and tigers want a healthy place to live and thrive. This year, with just a little extra thought, we can grant both wishes.

Original photo by Dennis Dow/WPZ; modified. Send this as an e-card to your friends!

Halloween candy has been in the stores for weeks (OK, months) now, building up to a weekend of spooky, candy-filled activities for kids and adults alike. When buying candy this year, you can make a difference in the lives of orangutans, tigers, Asian elephants, hornbills and many other animals impacted by the loss of habitat due to palm oil plantations.

Unsustainable palm oil plantations threaten the connected forests orangutans and other species need to survive.
Photo by Tim Laman courtesy of Gunung Palung Orangutan Conservation Project, a Woodland Park Zoo Partner for Wildlife.

It takes a few extra minutes to pick the right candy, but that choice sends a powerful message to companiesone that says you care about the environment and everything in it.

But wait, what exactly is palm oil and why should we care?

An elephant in a palm oil plantation.
Photo courtesy of Hutan Asian Elephant Conservation, a Woodland Park Zoo Partner for Wildlife.

Palm oil is one of the healthiest and most inexpensive vegetable oils on the market today, virtually free of trans fats. In Africa, it is the main cooking oil, and a significant source of biofuel. In the U.S., it is found in at least 50% of the packaged foods, detergents, baked goods and personal care products you would find on the shelves of your local market. And that includes candy, the very same candy you will be passing out to adorable trick-or-treaters in just a little over a week.

While palm oil is a high-quality, high-yield crop, that doesn't always mean it’s being grown sustainably, or that those growing the palm are committed to deforestation- and peat-free agriculture. Because some of the current palm oil production methods cause carbon-rich tropical forests and peat lands to be destroyed, not only does it result in loss of critical species habitat, it also contributes to global climate change.

Grown responsibly, palm oil can be sustainable. Its yield is 11 times higher than the next closest oil (soybean), and results in approximately 4 pounds of oil per hectare. That means it takes less land to generate the same amount of oil, making palm oil less expensive. Add to that the jobs created, and the fact that palms should only need to be replanted every 25 years, and you’d think it would be a win-win for everyone.

View of palm oil plantation. Photo by Achmad Rabin Taim via Wikimedia Commons.

However, the increasing demand for this healthier, inexpensive palm oil has resulted in a rush to plant. In order to secure the land, slash and burn logging has occurred, making palm plantations the leading cause of rain forest destruction in Indonesia and Malaysia, according to the United Nations Environment Program. This destruction impacts how elephants move from place to place, and how orangutans transverse the forest for food.

So, what’s a mom or dad to do when buying Halloween candy, or any product for that matter?
Easy. Become an informed consumer. Boycotting palm oil is not the answer. While there are problems with current palm oil production, it has the potential to be the best and most sustainable oil we have. It’s a matter of getting companies to commit to sourcing certified sustainable palm oil (CSPO) from producers that have made a commitment to deforestation- and peat-free agriculture.

OK, so where does that leave you in the quest for candy? Simple. Use this list of wildlife-friendly Halloween candy options from companies that have made a commitment to source CSPO, and have joined the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). These companies have heard from consumers, took the comments to heart, and are on the road to sourcing 100% CSPO for their products. You can reinforce those commitments by purchasing their products, and thanking them for caring about the environment.

In the meantime, as you decide on your costume, pull out the Halloween decorations, and head to the market, take this list along with you. As you’re choosing your candy, you can feel good about the fact that you’ve helped to secure a place for orangutans, tigers, elephants and hornbills into the future.

When you stop by Woodland Park Zoo's Pumpkin Bash presented by Delta Dental of Washington, Oct. 25-26 & 31, look for zoo-hosted trick-or-treating stations, all of which use candy from the wildlife-friendly candy list!

Make it a Halloween we can all enjoy and choose wildlife-friendly candy. Photo by Dennis Dow/WPZ.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Seven Snake Myths Debunked

Posted by Kirsten Pisto, Communications

House Slytherin forever! Vine snake checks out the camera. Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.

Witches, werewolves and snakes? Let’s face it, snakes get a bad rap. Perhaps more than any other creature, snakes are the subject of much fear and misunderstanding. Like bats, spiders and all things deemed crawly, snakes are unfairly categorized as “creepy.” Slip into any Halloween shop and you’ll find snake motifs among the Draculas and the Swamp Things. In truth, snakes are vital to a diverse range of ecosystems on every continent (except Antarctica). While there are some snakes that pose a threat to humans, the majority of the 3,400 species of snake are harmless, only about 15% are venomous.

One reason we fear snakes could, in part, be biological. This article explains how our primate neurons might respond to an image of a snake. I can personally recall my usually very level-headed mother flinging my little brother off a hiking trail in the face of a terrifying, coiled... shoelace (in her defense we were in the heart of rattlesnake territory.)

A fear of the unknown could be to blame here. Add a dash of urban legend and you've got a recipe for total snake misunderstanding. Let’s take a look at seven popular serpent myths…

1. Snakes are evil

It all started with that apple…but snakes are not vengeful or malicious; they aren’t out to get you. While some species of snake are extremely lethal and by all means should be left alone, snakes rarely bite humans unless provoked or startled. The unlucky that are bit are just that. Luckily for us, most North American snakes aren’t venomous.

2. Snakes will hypnotize you

Snakes do not have eyelids, so they cannot blink. While certain snakes rock their head from side to side to help with their depth perception, they are not performing hypnosis. The origin of this myth may have come from observing prey species that freeze in place out of fear or go still to try to blend in when facing a snake.

3. Snakes have poison tongues

Not only is a snake’s tongue not venomous at all, but it’s a snake’s way of learning about its world. Snakes use their forked tongues to sample tiny chemical particles in the air, which tell them what is going on around them.

A corn snake shows off its beautiful pattern. Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.

4. Snakes are slimy

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. A snake’s dry scales feel very smooth and silky, but are not gooey or slimy in the least.

5. Baby snakes are more venomous than adults

Within venomous snake species, adults are much more likely to have more potent venom than a juvenile snake.  Adults are also more likely to deliver a larger dose of venom to their prey. However, a more experienced snake has full control over its muscular functions and recognizes the need to conserve its venom, so an adult may be less inclined to resort to a defensive strike.

6. Snakes are liars

While the forked tongue symbolism in literature and folklore often represents a conniving creature, the fork in a snake’s tongue is actually a really cool adaptation. The fork allows the snake’s tongue to act sort of like a directional divining rod in that it helps the snake determine where their prey went, potential mates, or what else is in the area. They are just trying to get as much information as they can!

This precious reticulated python is about to curl up for a nap... awwwww. Photo by Dennis Dow/WPZ.

7. The only good snake is a dead snake

Snakes are unfairly persecuted as pests, but in fact they play an important role  in keeping disease in check and minimizing actual pests. Did you know that timber rattlers help fight Lyme disease by eating rodents that carry the ticks? Many snakes help keep rodent populations in check. Garter snakes, sometimes referred to as garden snakes, are a gardener’s best friend. This little snake keeps insects from devouring your garden goods! 

Snakes on a plane? If you suffer from ophidiophobia, (AKA: When you see a snake your initial reaction is…NOPE!), we suggest slipping into the Day Exhibit and checking out the vine snakes, these innocuous little darlings are well suited for any beginning herpetologist.

Or you can start with this adorable baby pit viper.

This baby pit viper wants to school you. Lesson? Snakes are not monsters, although they do steal pencils. Photo by Kirsten Pisto/WPZ.

Monday, October 13, 2014

It's National Vet Tech Week

Posted by: Dr. Darin Collins, DVM, Director, Animal Health

The National Association of Veterinary Technicians in America has proclaimed October 12-18, 2014 to be National Veterinary Technician Week.

Please join me in celebrating this week and share with Woodland Park Zoo's veterinary technicians, Harmony, Linda, Teri, Barb and Kimberly, how much you appreciate them and their work!

Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

Our Woodland Park Zoo veterinary technicians have over a 100 years of combined professional work experience. They are licensed professionals having graduated from accredited programs, and are members of their professional organization. Our technicians are highly trained in the latest medical advances and skilled at working alongside the zoo veterinarians to give all our zoo patients the best medical care possible.

Being a zoo veterinary technician is a lifelong learning process through continuing education, and day-to-day work where they must uphold the highest of ethical standards and provide for the humane and compassionate care of every zoo species.

Veterinary Technicians were essential to the lion cub exams in 2013.
Photo by Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo.

If compared to human medicine, veterinary technicians perform many of the known medical positions all wrapped up into one and on all the zoo’s different species. As a zoo veterinary technician, they must know anatomy, physiology, microbiology, clinical techniques, pharmacology, anesthesiology, surgical and medical nursing, radiology, and clinical pathology training.

Each one of them does the seemingly impossible every day, all year round, here at the zoo. They are key to our ability to deliver the best possible care to our zoo animal patients. As the zoo's veterinarians, Dr. Kelly Helmick and I could not do our work without them!

Thanks, Harmony, Linda, Teri, Barb and Kimberly. Enjoy your week—you deserve it!

To the budding veterinarians and veterinarian technicians out there, explore more about a career in zoo animal health care.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Why do snakes stick out their tongues?

Posted by: Kirsten Pisto, Communications

Ever wonder why snakes are always sticking out their tongues? Woodland Park Zoo volunteer, Jordan, asked some of the zoo’s most curious visitors to explain…and their answers were pretty impressive! It's hard to trick the smartest zoo kids in the world.

All snakes have a vomeronasal organ, sometimes referred to as the Jacobson’s organ. This special auxiliary olfactory organ, located on the roof of the snake’s mouth, allows tiny chemical particles to be interpreted by the snake’s brain. A lightning fast exchange, the tongue finds these particles from the air, water or ground and delivers them to the Jacobson’s organ. The organ then supplies this information to the brain which interprets the message and the snake reacts accordingly.

A snake’s vomeronasal organ, or Jacobson’s organ, sits inside the roof of the mouth. A snake’s forked tongue assists in this adaptation by fitting snuggly into the organ, the perfect delivery system for chemical stimuli.

This ball python shows off its forked tongue as it checks out the camera lens. Photo by Ryan Hawk/WPZ.

While snakes and reptiles flick this chemical stimulus into their mouth, most all mammals have a vomeronasal organ that assists the animals in detecting minute chemical scents. In cats the organ is stimulated when the cat exhibits the Flehmen reaction, sort of a sneer or curling of their lips.

Some studies suggest that humans might use this organ to detect pheromones from other people, potential mates or potential bad dates, but less is known about its function in humans. This function could be the answer to some behavioral preferences in people, but very little is known about its usefulness.

Snakes have a special shape in their lips that allows their tongue to constantly taste the air without having to open their mouth. This reticulated python in the Day Exhibit is a great example. Photo by Dennis Dow/WPZ.

Next time you visit the zoo, stop by the Day Exhibit and take a close look at the snakes. You’re sure to see this remarkable adaptation in action!

An endangered Aruba Island rattlesnake. A tiny flick of the tongue can tell a snake a whole lot about its environment. Photo by Dennis Dow/WPZ.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Update: Learning more about Watoto

Watoto, photographed in June 2014. Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo.

We have heard touching stories from so many of you about how Watoto impacted your lives, and we want to share the latest news to keep you informed on a subject we know is so close to your hearts. Following Watoto’s death in August, we have now received laboratory results that are helping us understand more about the loss of our 45-year-old female African elephant.

According to the zoo’s Director of Animal Health, Dr. Darin Collins, the most relevant finding from the pathology report was the chronic, age-related arthritis in the elephant’s leg joints, which had been described during the post-mortem examination. Additional findings in other tissues examined, such as age-related changes in heart and muscles, were mild and within expected limits and were not life-threatening. There was no evidence of an infectious disease process, in the joints or in other tissues examined. In addition, the pathologist did not find any evidence for a herpesvirus infection.

“We don’t know if Watoto fell or lay down. My clinical assessment is that she was unable to stand back up, due to the joint disease,” said Collins. Falls in elderly animals, and people, can be caused by physical conditions, such as arthritis, that impair mobility or balance. “Unfortunately, the sequence of events that occurs when an elephant is down and unable to stand becomes life-threatening in less than a few hours’ time. When lying down, large-bodied animals cannot breathe normally due to massive weight impacting their lung cavity, decreasing blood flow to vital organs and nerves, and resulting in limb paralysis.”

During multiple attempts to get Watoto to her feet, several hourly blood draws that were taken to monitor her health status showed her overall condition was in swift decline, added Collins.

“We are not surprised by the pathologist’s findings, which are consistent with those of a geriatric animal. Watoto did not show any new health concerns and her behavior and appetite were normal in the days leading up to her death,” explained Collins.

The median life expectancy is 41 years for a female African elephant. (Cynthia J. Moss. The demography of an African elephant (Loxodonta africana) population in Amboseli, Kenya, J. Zool. Lond. (2001) 145-156).

On the morning of August 22, zookeepers reported that Watoto was lying on her side in the yard of the elephant exhibit, unable to move to an upright position, an unusual behavior for her. Our keepers and animal health staff made many attempts to successfully right Watoto to her feet with careful assistance of crane-like machinery. “Unfortunately, despite these attempts, Watoto was unable to stand on her own,” said Martin Ramirez, the zoo’s curator of mammals. “Watoto simply didn’t have any more to give. We were faced with making the difficult decision to humanely euthanize her, and we made it with compassion and deep sadness.”

Collins noted that the incredibly difficult decision to humanely euthanize Watoto was by no means swift. The decision to euthanize an animal is made after consultation with appropriate animal collection staff. “We take every possible measure to ensure a sick or injured animal receives the best treatment and care possible. However, euthanasia may be the only humane option, especially for an aging animal that is deteriorating, like in Watoto’s situation,” said Collins.

Watoto was born in Kenya between 1969 and 1970, and joined Woodland Park Zoo’s elephant herd in 1971 as an orphan from the wild. She lived a long and interesting life, and loved to be playful with her keepers and zoo guests. Even in her later years, the geriatric elephant made a heartfelt impact on zoo visitors, staff and keepers, some of whom had the pleasure of caring for Watoto for more than three decades. Watoto was the only African elephant at Woodland Park Zoo, distinguishable by her large ears, saddle-shaped back and visible tusk. She was loved by all.

“We are very grateful to our community for the support they have shown us as we grieve the loss of Watoto. We will miss her regal presence and hope that people don’t forget her and the role she played as a champion for her cousins in the wild. We encourage people to continue honoring her memory by signing the 96 Elephants pledge to end the ivory trade and help save African elephants from extinction,” added Ramirez.

Zoo-goers can see the current members of the elephant herd at the award-winning Elephant Forest: females 47-year-old Bamboo and 35-year-old Chai, both Asian species.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Sinus treatment continues for Vip

Posted by Caileigh Robertson, Communications
Back in his outdoor exhibit with his group, silverback Vip is breathing more freely since his successful sinus surgery. In late August, a team of ear, nose and throat specialists joined Woodland Park Zoo’s animal health team to clear Vip of sinus blockage caused by a severe sinus infection, and have continued working with our staff to monitor his progress since the surgery. After the procedure, and necessary days of rest and recovery, Vip’s healthy appetite and curious demeanor were welcome signs to his care team.

Photo by Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

To ensure Vip is on track for long-term success, our animal health team and consulting physicians will take a look at his improved sinus condition and clear any remaining blockage during a follow-up procedure this Saturday, October 4. Our animal health team has also called on the help of a local oral surgeon to give Vip a thorough dental evaluation during this weekend’s procedure. Although the aging silverback’s prognosis remains guarded, Vip’s positive response and recovery to the recent surgery is very encouraging. We’re optimistic for a positive outcome!