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Monday, October 29, 2018

Vote for education, clean air, and a future for wildlife

Posted by Alejandro Grajal, PhD, President and CEO

One of the most cherished rights of humans is the ability to influence our destiny. Democracies enable the right to vote, which is missing in many parts of the world. While in the United States, voters this fall may wait in long lines this election season, here in Washington all you need to do is put your ballot in the mail. Easy!

A young visitor meets a fancy friend at Molbak's Butterfly garden. Photo by Dennis Dow/WPZ.
Ballots are arriving in your mailbox now for the November ballot, and at the zoo, we are urging all of our supporters to vote.  In addition to many very important races at the local level, there are two important initiatives on the ballot.

Blueberry meets with her fanclub. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/WPZ.
For those of you in Seattle, there is Prop 1, the Families,Education, Preschool and Promise Plan.  Prop 1 replaces two levies about to expire – one that helps preschool and one that targets needs in K-12 (including helping students go to community college). These levies were the result of work by our City Council, and the Mayor has given her support to their renewal, as have the local chamber of commerce and labor groups.  Summer learning opportunities, after-school programs, and investments to modernize our schools are part of the levy.

At the zoo, we envision a world where all children can experience nature, learn and care about animals, and help save wildlife. The Families, Education, Preschool and Promise Plan is perfectly aligned with our mission. It will continue to create more access for educational opportunities and expand educational support to those who need it the most. 

I applaud our local elected officials in Seattle, both for creating the original levy and for working diligently on this renewal. Mayor Durkan has personally been very focused on this levy, which will make early learning a priority in Seattle, no matter where you live.

Youth volunteers engage young visitors in climate change solutions. Photo by Dennis Dow/WPZ.
Across Washington state, the zoo has been committed in its support of Initiative 1631. If passed, Initiative 1631 would be the first Carbon Fee enacted by popular vote in the world. Woodland Park Zoo fully endorses Initiative 1631 because the health of the Puget Sound region, its people, and wildlife are impacted by carbon pollution that leads to longer fire seasons, decreasing snowpack which impacts our clean drinking water and causes droughts, and ocean acidification.
Initiative 1631 will appear on your ballot as, “Initiative Measure No. 1631 concerns pollution.” The Initiative is composed of one of the broadest citizen coalitions of any ballot in the state’s memory, from farm groups to Tribes, to businesses and community organizations. The law will generate approximately $2 billion over 5 years, but the funds can only be spent on clean energy jobs and infrastructure, clean water, healthy forests, and investing in our local communities. Every investment will be overseen by a public board comprised of experts from science, business, health, and communities throughout the state. 

A river otter looks up in between diving for fish. Photo by John Loughlin/WPZ.
This past summer, Seattle witnessed firsthand the impacts of climate change from burning wildfires across the Pacific Northwest. Choking smoke and a haze that limited visibility created unhealthy breathing conditions for everyone. Fire has always been a natural part of our ecosystem and many species rely on the renewal created by wildfires. Unfortunately, this cycle of renewal that used to take place over generations has accelerated with hotter, drier weather that lasts longer during the summer months. Climate change in our region is stretching fire season from early spring through late fall, destroying critical habitat for animals and plaguing our summers with unbreathable air. 

Alejandro Grajal with Coba, a spectacled owl. Photo by Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/WPZ.
Climate change and early learning are two topics that matter deeply to younger people.  So we are calling on all people, especially those who are age 18 to 29 to really make a difference with your vote. Our educational system, our early learning and pre-school opportunities, our community colleges, the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the forests around us – much depends on your vote. Take the time to get informed and vote this November.  It could be the most important vote you will ever cast.

Mail-in ballots are due by November 6th.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

A reflection on this International Snow Leopard Day

Posted by: Peter Zahler, Vice President of Conservation Initiatives

Camera trap image of a snow leopard in Pamir Mountains, Central Asia. Photo credit: WCS Afghanistan.
The names are so evocative that they feel fictional—the Himalayas, the Karakorams, the Hindu Kush, the Tien Shans, the Altais—the world’s greatest mountains, soaring above the clouds, blocking global weather patterns, and changing the very nature of the vast continent of Asia.

In and among these enormous mountains, villagers have scratched out a living carving tiny farm plots out of the precipitous cliffs, moving their small herds of livestock up and down the steep slopes to find pasture. Traders have struggled to drag their goods through the high passes on the historic Silk Routes to sell spices, share ideas, and change the course of history. And of course men have fought wars and built kingdoms in these fearsome mountains, from Genghis and Kublai Khan’s great empires to Britain and Russia’s Great Game global power struggle of the 1800s, to local rulers reigning over individual watersheds, their tiny kingdoms impregnable in their natural rock citadels.

The Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Photo by Woodland Park Zoo. 
A remote mountain village in Pakistan's Hindu Kush range. Photo credit: WCS Pakistan.
Above all this bustle of humanity and history, staring down at the ebb and flow of humankind’s struggles in these colossal crags, is the true monarch of the mountains. Watching with its implacable, unblinking gaze is the snow leopard.

This big cat, the color of the clouds that often drift both above and below its high haunts, is one of the more mysterious large mammals on earth. It inhabits some of the most remote, rugged, and impassable landscape on the planet, living in such low densities and being so well-camouflaged that few people who share this mountain landscape—and even the few research biologists who go in search of this elusive predator—ever see one.

 Peter in the heart of snow leopard country. Photo courtesy of Peter Zahler.

After thousands of years of relative stability (if such a word can be used to describe a region of the world where continents are still crashing into each other in geologic slow motion), the snow leopard’s world is rapidly changing—now at human, not geologic speed. The increasing human population, and their increasing livestock herds, are rapidly degrading delicate alpine pastures. Conflict between herders and the predatory snow leopard, which may take livestock, leads to retaliatory killing of this large but shy carnivore. Border fences block movement of wild sheep and the snow leopard itself, while roads are being built into the high mountains increasing access, and extractive industries—especially mining—are following this access and beginning to affect the snow leopard’s home. Hunting of the huge Asian wild goats and sheep—Himalayan ibex, flare-horned markhor, Marco Polo sheep, and others—is increasing. Poaching of the snow leopard itself, mostly for its luxurious pelt but also for the growing market in traditional medicine, has had an impact on the big cat in many parts of its extensive range.

Author with snow leopard pelt, fur shop in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photo credit: WCS Afghanistan.
Luckily for the snow leopard, its beauty and mysterious allure have helped drive a concerted effort to protect this emblem of Asia’s great mountains. In 1981, Helen Freeman, at the time Woodland Park Zoo’s Curator of Education, created the Snow Leopard Trust to focus conservation actions on behalf of the rare cat. The organization still works in close partnership with Woodland Park Zoo and is active in conservation in five of the snow leopard’s 12 range countries, building community capacity for conservation, assisting in the management of protected areas, and helping local people improve their lives while protecting the snow leopard and its habitat.

A remote camera image of snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan where our work with Snow Leopard Trust is based. Photo courtesy of Snow Leopard Trust. 

Checking on a remote camera trap. Photos by Woodland Park Zoo. 
A snow leopard appears on a remote camera. Photos by Woodland Park Zoo. 
A significant amount of my own professional life has been spent in the snow leopard’s home, helping to save these big cats and the other unique wildlife of Asia’s great mountains. I can say that few places can equal the stark beauty of these peaks or the fascinating, endemic wildlife that make their home high in the clouds.

Those clouds include the great Asian monsoons that boil up off the southern oceans and roll across the plains and up against the snow leopard’s mountains. The monsoons bring torrents of rain to the foothills but rarely penetrate into the towering retreat of the snow leopard, defeated each year by the sheer magnitude of these rock fortresses.

Unfortunately, another weather-related specter is rolling unimpeded into these high mountains. Climate change is impacting these high mountains more than any other area outside of the Polar regions. In the snow leopard’s lofty home, glaciers are melting and retreating at alarming rates, while rain and snow is falling unpredictably, at different times and in different amounts. Delicate high-desert pastures are being altered, wild sheep and goats are struggling to forage, and local people are already finding their lives disrupted by these changes as they face drought and floods that tear away at the land and the social fabric of their communities.

A remote camera image of a snow leopard in Kyrgyzstan. Photo courtesy of Snow Leopard Trust.  
The snow leopard’s great highlands are not the only montane region to face the menace of climate change. Here in the Pacific Northwest we face a similar threat. Our own high-mountain glaciers are disappearing, snow pack levels are dropping, and the timing and predictability of weather patterns are changing in ways we are only beginning to understand. Woodland Park Zoo is working to learn and begin planning to lessen the impacts of climate change on wildlife and on our own lives, including how to save high-mountain specialists in the Cascades—the wolverine, lynx and marten—for whom climate change may well be their greatest menace.

Climate change is truly a global threat, and only by working together are we likely to tackle this growing threat successfully. Fortunately, wildlife conservation, including saving snow leopards, crosses boundaries and political positions, and governments have been willing to come together to find ways to help these iconic species. I have seen and participated in transboundary conservation initiatives that have brought together countries that are at extreme political odds with each other, such as Pakistan and Afghanistan.

On horseback in the Tian Shan mountains of Kyrgyzstan. Photo by Woodland Park Zoo. 
This coming week I am going to a conference here in Washington that will bring together research biologists and government staff from the western U.S. and Canada to discuss conservation of the Cascades across the two countries. While I am there the snow leopard will be on my mind, and I will be thinking about ways we can learn about and share new ideas for conservation from one part of the world to another.

Today is International Snow Leopard Day. It is a truly international day, one that unites not just the 12 snow leopard range countries but one that unites us across the globe in efforts to save iconic species such as this mysterious big cat…and in so doing, to save ourselves.

Camera trap image of a snow leopard in Pamir Mountains, Central Asia. Photo credit: WCS Afghanistan.

The soaring, treacherous Karakoram mountain range of northern Pakistan. Photo credit: WCS Pakistan.

Learn more about Washington State Initiative 1631
to help address climate change and set an example for the world on climate action.

Monday, October 15, 2018

The ZooCrew Zoo: Middle School Youth Dive Into Exhibit Design

Posted by Ryan Driscoll, Education

Editor's note: Through the ZooCrew programs, we invite youth from traditionally underserved communities to dive into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) subjects by engaging with real-world conservation issues, preparing them for continued involvement in Woodland Park Zoo’s youth programs, and inspire them to consider a broad range of STEM and conservation careers. This story is a peek into our 2018 summer ZooCrew learning session. 

This summer, the ZooCrew Summer Learning Program let the students pick the theme and explored the world of zoos and aquariums through the lens of exhibit design.  Over two four-week sessions this summer, 25 students from middle schools around Seattle explored the variety of perspectives and careers that are involved in planning and creating animal exhibits.  Taking what they learned from field trips to other AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) institutions, meetings with staff at a zoo architecture firm, and talks with various staff at Woodland Park Zoo, students worked on creating their own exhibits, signage, and storytelling for an animal of their choice.  Thanks to funding from the Families & Education Levy through the City of Seattle Department of Early Learning, a whole new generation of conservation leaders and zoo architects spent their summer exploring what it takes to make conservation the heart of a zoo.

The new Assam Rhino Reserve was a big inspiration for students as they started to think about what their own exhibits might look like.
Team Building
As with past years, we always start our summer program off with an overnight camping trip.  From spending some time in the water to working through team-building exercises, the overnight trip gave our teens an opportunity to get to know each other and to learn about their various leadership styles and how to work together.  One of our groups even embarked on a riddle hike where they encountered an eclectic collection of characters that each challenged them to solve a problem as a team to get the pieces of a riddle.  When combined with s’mores around the fire and plenty of active games, each group left ready to support each other on their exhibit journey.

The hamburger and hot dog brothers (ZooCrew instructors Thomas and Rex) have a challenge for the ZooCrew students!  If they could complete the team-building task, they would receive a part of the riddle!

With all the clues collected, it is time to solve the riddle.
Animal Perspective
The first task for each group was to figure out what animal they wanted to design an exhibit for.  With the help of Bobbi Miller, WPZ Field Conservation Coordinator, we learned about the ways that zoos work with wildlife conservation programs around the world to help support endangered and threatened animals.  Bobbi helped students to explore the conservation issues of the animals they wanted to work on, and we then visited Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium to explore how conservation and the stories of individual animals can be brought out through exhibits.  We then had the opportunity to meet with some of the animal keepers at the zoo to talk about the needs of the animals and how exhibits are designed with animal comfort and safety first.  Armed with these ideas and information (and a trip to the Seattle Aquarium to look at aquatic exhibits), students started to plan out their first designs of their exhibits.
A trip to Seattle Aquarium was really helpful to some of the groups that focused on aquatic animals for their exhibits.
Nothing helps you understand the perspective of a polar bear like watching it swim!  Students got to see the exhibits for a variety of new animals on our visit to Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium.
Animal Keeper Perspective
Our next major topic was how to design exhibits to make them work for the animal keeper staff that use them every day.  One group explored this by getting to go behind the scenes at the penguin exhibit and talk with keepers about their needs.  The other group got to see conservation in action when they visited our baby Western pond turtles and learned about what it takes to raise these local endangered turtles for release in the wild.  Students then took a trip to Northwest Trek Wildlife Park to explore a different way of designing exhibits and exploring how those exhibits impacted the animals and the keepers.  Students returned to their blueprints and started to design the ‘behind the scenes’ parts of their exhibits for both animals and keepers.

Students get a look behind the scenes at Woodland Park Zoo’s Ambassador Animals to learn about what both the animals and keepers need to make them both safe, comfortable, and healthy.

Woodland Park Zoo Animal Keeper Jordan Veasley, talks with ZooCrew students about the features of the African savanna that he finds helpful or would change to make his job easier.
Guest Perspective
The next topic was how visitors to the zoo engage with exhibits and what their experience is like.  We took a trip to the Pacific Science Center where we met with Felicia Maffia, the exhibit development manager.  Felicia used real examples at the science center to help students explore how to engage people in learning and what the design process can look like.  Back at Woodland Park Zoo, students started to think about sight lines and how they could make their exhibit interactive or immersive for guests.  With first designs close to done, students provided peer feedback and swapped ideas to get ready for their second iterations.

Sometimes to understand what it feels like to be a guest, you just have to be one!  Lily was only too happy to volunteer to find out what some guests get to experience at our Earn Your Wings program this summer.

Other Perspectives
As we entered the final stretch of the program, other considerations were added into the exhibits.  Students got to tour the ZooDoo yards and started to think about how to make their exhibits more sustainable.  They also met with Woodland Park Zoo’s interpretation department and get ideas on how to create engaging and conservation-action oriented signage.  We met with the zoo’s marketing department to talk about what it takes to get people excited about visiting and inspiring people to make conservation a part of their lives.  We also had the unique opportunity to meet actual zoo architects at Portico here is Seattle.  Students explored how perspective drawing and virtual reality can help bring to life designs and talked about what it takes to make the zoo of the future.  Of course, students also needed an opportunity to examine how you create an atmosphere of fun, so a purely research-focused day at Wild Waves was required to help them internalize those lessons.  
No better person to ask for feedback on your exhibit design than a professional zoo architect!  Xavier and Jaqueline listened intently to some suggestions and praise on our visit to Portico.
Dhillon works on his own design using virtual reality!  Students had the opportunity to try out a 3-D design program on our visit to Portico.  
You can tell how hard Vy and Patrick are working to learn about creating an atmosphere of fun on their trip to Wild Waves.
During all this, students worked on their final blueprints, created signage for their exhibit, and developed a marketing campaign to spread the word.  However, the most exciting part was still to come as students took their blueprint and brought them to live by creating models of them using recycled materials!  The program wrapped up with an overnight at the zoo where we finally got to see what the animals were up to when everyone else want home.  Out last day was spent at Carkeek Park reflecting by the water, having a BBQ, and enjoying out last day as a group.

Making the models of their exhibits was one of the most exciting, and exhausting, part of the summer.
Family Night
At the end of the program, participants invited their families to Woodland Park Zoo to show off their exhibits and enjoy an evening looking at animals.  Students then presented their projects sharing their models, their conservation messages, and some of the lessons they learned along the way.  We want to send out another thank you for all the work that ZooCrew parents and guardians put in to help make the program run smoothly this summer.  We also wanted to thank all the zoo staff and community organizations that helped provide such a great experience this summer.  Finally, we wanted to let the ZooCrew students know how proud we are of the work they did this summer.  

We know that our ZooCrew students will be a big part of the movement to make conservation a priority in our lives!

To learn more about ZooCrew and other education opportunities, visit zoo.org/zoocrew 

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Rhino Lookout: Meet Benny, a certified good boy

When Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife Detective Lauren Wendt was searching for a new recruit, she had some criteria in mind: high energy, relentless drive, sharp senses, and a love of toys.

“We knew we wanted to rescue a dog,” says Detective Wendt, who took the initiative to start Washington’s first wildlife crime detection dog program. Wendt scoured the Internet looking for a good fit. That’s when she found a then 16-month-old black Labrador retriever who had too much energy for his family and needed to be re-homed.

“Some of these dogs that get labeled as bad dogs or just have too much energy, if you give them a job to do they are so much happier. That is exactly what happened with K9 Benny.”

Sure, his paycheck is a rigorous round of tug-of-war with his favorite rope ball, but K9 Benny’s work is serious business. His nose can detect some of the most trafficked illegal wildlife parts—rhino horn, elephant ivory, bear gallbladder and shark fin—firearms, and spent casings.

Wildlife trafficking is a lucrative international crime with troubling local connections. A couple was busted with $25,000 valued in ivory at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in May this year. That same month, authorities busted one of the largest poaching rings ever to target Washington’s wildlife.

To stop the killing, Woodland Park Zoo supports ranger patrols that protect greater one-horned rhinos, Malayan tigers and African elephants from poachers. But to truly end wildlife trafficking, we must also stop the demand and close the markets.

When 70% of Washington state voters passed the nation’s first citizen initiative to ban wildlife trafficking and assure better enforcement, one million people in our community came together to make it clear—we stand for saving species. So does K9 Benny, albeit on four legs.

Benny has put more than 200 hours of training into his work. It started with a simple approach. When Detective Wendt first introduced new scents to K9 Benny’s detection repertoire, she would pair a scent with a toy so that Benny associated those odors. Then she slowly began removing the toy and rewarding him after he found the scent.

Now that K9 Benny has more experience searching, Detective Wendt trains him on new scents by hiding a target odor in a small, wooden box. She then places that box alongside a row of identical boxes without the scent. When K9 Benny is asked to “find it,” he is rewarded with his favorite toy if he sniffs out the scented box. With repetition and variety, moving the box to different positions, it takes K9 Benny a few days of several 10-minute “find it” sessions to become a master sniffer. “He is trained to sit or lie down and stare at the item. That’s his way of letting me know he found it and the location of where it was found.”

That nose—certified and reliable—is key to improving Washington’s enforcement. “A lot of these species are smuggled just like drugs, so a dog is a very effective and efficient way to detect these items. I can bring K9 Benny in and he could essentially search a whole cargo load in a tenth of the time it would take me and numerous other Fish and Wildlife Officers to do the same job.”

As efficient as he is, the task ahead of K9 Benny is enormous. In 2017, Washington ports received 1.3 million shipping containers, just one way for goods to come in and out of our state. “More dogs, in my opinion, are better than one. Hopefully down the road we can get more dogs like K9 Benny who are trained to detect the same things he is and we can expand to other species and maybe some more of our native wildlife that is also poached and trafficked,” adds Detective Wendt.

This good boy remains undaunted. At home with Wendt, he’s a couch-napping snuggler. “But the moment he sees me getting ready for work, he gets really amped up and is ready to hop in the truck.”


Action Alert: You Can Help Benny

Keep your eyes peeled for any signs of wildlife crime in Washington. From closed-season hunting, to rhino horn and elephant ivory in gift shops, your sightings can help Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife enforce law and stop poachers and traffickers.

Add the state Fish and Wildlife tip line to your phone contacts so you are always ready to report what you see over the phone: 1-877-933-9847

Text the tip line with photos, videos, or message by texting WDFWTIP and your report to TIP411 (847411)

Submit a tip online anytime


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; video by: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren

We must protect our wildlife: Woodland Park Zoo endorses Initiative 1631

Posted by Alejandro Grajal, PhD, President and CEO

When will we address climate change? Will it be when salmon can no longer spawn in Washington waters? Will we do something to curb carbon pollution once the orca has gone extinct? Or will we do nothing as wild species disappear one by one throughout the Pacific Northwest and the world?

This November, Washington state must vote to protect wildlife for generations. If passed, Initiative 1631 would be the first Carbon Fee enacted by popular vote in the world. Woodland Park Zoo fully endorses Initiative 1631 because the health of the Puget Sound region, its people, and wildlife are impacted by climate change.

Initiative 1631 brings together a wide and deep coalition of citizens from agriculture, manufacturing, business, labor, Tribes, communities of color, environmentalists, and faith communities – Initiative 1631 is truly a citizen’s initiative. Democracy starts with those who participate in it. The broad and diverse coalition behind Initiative 1631 demonstrate to our elected leaders how to build effective support for policies that mitigate the impacts of climate change. As it has been so many times in its past, by passing this Initiative, the State of Washington would be a national pioneer. Now we have the opportunity to lead not just the country, but our planet, on the foremost environmental issue impacting wildlife and human civilization.

At Woodland Park Zoo, we strive to prevent extinction and save wildlife here in our region and around the world. Climate change is the biggest threat of our generation. Record-breaking world heat records, summers choked by smoke from wildfires, increasingly erratic snowpack (that we rely on for clean drinking water and that salmon need to reach Puget Sound), and rising sea levels from melting glaciers all combine to create a threat to our existence. Wolverines require snowpack to build their dens, they cannot raise pups without it. If wolverines disappear forever other species will vanish as well. The ripple effects in our ecosystem will harm the health of our forests, drinkable water, and breathable air. Their survival, and the survival of many other species like them, depends on our commitment. 

A wolverine is caught on camera as it approaches a noninvasive hair snare designed to snag a hair that can be used for DNA testing. Photo: Robert Long/Woodland Park Zoo.
This past summer, Seattle witnessed firsthand the impacts of climate change from burning wildfires across the Pacific Northwest. Choking smoke and a haze that limited visibility created unhealthy breathing conditions for everyone. Fire has always been a natural part of our ecosystem and many species rely on the renewal created by wildfires. Unfortunately, this cycle of renewal that used to take place over generations has accelerated with hotter, drier weather that lasts longer during the summer months. Climate change in our region is stretching fire season from early spring through late fall, destroying critical habitat for animals and plaguing our summers with unbreathable air.

Over 97 percent of global climate scientists agree that climate change is caused by human activity. If 97 out of 100 heart doctors said you need a triple-bypass, wouldn’t you start clearing your schedule for surgery? Climate change is as serious as a heart attack and we need to do something soon and big if we hope to prevent its worst impacts. Initiative 1631 does just that.

Initiative 1631 will appear on your ballot as, “Initiative Measure No. 1631 concerns pollution.” The Initiative places a fee of $15 for every ton of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere by polluters. Within the first five years, the levy would generate approximately $2.2 billion. Lawmakers would be prohibited from spending these funds on anything other than the mandates listed in the Initiative – clean energy jobs and infrastructure, clean water and healthy forests, and investing in our local communities. Every investment will be overseen by a public board comprised of experts from science, business, health, and communities throughout the state. 

President and CEO of Woodland Park Zoo, Alejandro Grajal, PhD, with our colony of Humboldt penguins.
Woodland Park Zoo is committed to fostering a connection between wildlife and humanity. If climate change continues unchecked into the next decade, that connection may be severed forever. We are absolutely in a race against time. In each lifetime there are few opportunities where we can take a simple yet critical action that will ripple out into the world. Voting “Yes” on Initiative 1631 is one such action. 

To learn more about why Woodland Park Zoo endorses Initiative 1631, visit Yes on 1631 (yeson1631.org). 

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Silverback gorilla, Kwame, meets his new family for the first time: A story from behind-the-scenes

Written by Stephanie Payne-Jacobs, gorilla keeper

Note from the Editor: We told you earlier about Kwame, a ninteen-year-old male western lowland gorilla who came to Woodland Park Zoo from Smithsonian's National Zoo in Washington, D.C. just last month. That story picks up here in the words of Stephanie Payne-Jacobs, one of our dedicated gorilla keepers. She reminds us of why Kwame was chosen to be the new silverback for a group of our females and then takes us through their first days of forming a family. 

Kwame, pictured at his former home, Smithsonian's National Zoo/Photo: Skip Brown


Our search for a new silverback, the adult male leader of a gorilla family, began just weeks after Leo’s passing in March 2018. While still processing the loss of sweet Leo, we knew we had to begin the search in order to bring a sense of normality back to the lives of the females Leo had left behind. These females, 22-year-old Nadiri, 17-year-old Akenji, Uzumma, who is about to turn 11, and almost 3-year-old Yola, were faring well, but none of them had ever been without a silverback at the helm of their group.

This was no simple search, however. With a youngster like Yola in the group, we had to be sure that the prospective silverbacks had the temperament and experience that would allow for the safe inclusion of an unrelated youngster.

There were several males to choose from within the North American Species Survival Plan (a conservation program that spans across accredited zoos and aquariums), but one male seemed to stand out above the rest—Kwame. I first met Kwame while accompanying Woodland Park Zoo gorilla Calaya to National Zoo in 2015, and he seemed to be the perfect choice. At eighteen (he turns nineteen next month), he was past the young "silverback-who-needs-to-prove-something" years, and now had a disposition that displayed both tolerance and leadership. Kwame had been in an all-male group, living with his brother Kojo, for the last several years, and the two had a very typical brotherly relationship, with younger Kojo a bit more rambunctious, and elder Kwame acting as the restorer of order and calm.

After numerous meetings and lengthy conversations, it was decided that Kwame would join his new family at Woodland Park Zoo.

The first look

Kwame arrived to the zoo in the afternoon of September 6th after a pleasantly uneventful flight and transport to the zoo. As his crate was shifted from the transport van to the behind-the-scenes gorilla exhibit bedrooms, he caught sight of one of the females in the outdoor yard, and he immediately seemed to understand what the point of all this traveling was. He sat down with his back against the crate and clapped his hands, as if to say “Let’s Go!” His life-long keeper who had accompanied him said she had never observed this hand-clapping behavior before.

Uzumma. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

Akenji. Photo: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren/Woodland Park Zoo

For their part, the females were also immediately smitten. Within an hour of his arrival, Kwame shifted into the bedrooms adjacent to his new family, females Nadiri, Akenji, Uzumma and Yola. As his door opened and he entered the area, you could tell that the females were simultaneously excited and relieved by his presence. Content grunts all around soon followed.

The next afternoon, after Kwame had time to rest and acclimate to his new surroundings, we opened the strong see-through door exposing a mesh panel door between Kwame and the females. The very technical sounding term for this is a “Howdy” introduction. While all the females showed varying levels of interest, Uzumma made it very clear that she had strong, affiliative feelings for Kwame. Uzumma planted herself in front of his door and repeatedly tried to touch him through the mesh. Yola was the next to approach, and Nadiri and Akenji cycled through the room, occasionally stopping at the door. None of this surprised us, as Uzumma and Yola are the most confident of the foursome, Nadiri and Akenji a bit more cautious.

Making contact

After six days of the “howdy” introduction, and after Kwame was familiar with his new landscape, we proceeded with the next phase, the physical introduction. We decided to begin with Uzumma and Akenji, who had shown the highest level of interest (and bond with one another) around the mesh howdy door. We also had to gauge Kwame’s behavior before trusting him with little Yola.

Kwame proved to be very appropriate in his behavior. He displayed and occasionally made contact with the females (and they with him), but never excessively, and he knew how to “read the room,” displaying without presenting himself in an aggressive way.

Yola and Nadiri late last year. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo

A few days later, we felt confident adding Nadiri and Yola to the mix. By then, Nadiri and Yola were familiar with Kwame’s presence, and they had witnessed moments of excitement and calm in the physical intros with Uzumma and Akenji. As Nadiri and Yola entered the space, Kwame had to spend some time reestablishing his role in the group with some lively displays, but as everyone calmed down, the group seemed to gel rather quickly. Three-year-old Yola, as expected, was thrilled to be part of this new, dynamic group. Over the course of the next few days, she cautiously stayed within Kwame’s immediate vicinity, with her half-sister Uzumma stepping in to be sure she didn’t get too close.

Kwame’s group is now fully integrated, spending days and evenings together. Kwame has exceeded his reputation as a wonderful, well-rounded individual. His arrival has bonded the females closer together, and he seems more than ready to be Yola’s new protector and playmate. The gorilla crew couldn’t be more pleased by how this group has received and accepted one another, and we look forward to witnessing this dynamic family group grow together along with you all.

Next steps ...

Kwame continues to acclimate to his new home and his new family, and the group is more cohesive each day. Our next step will be giving him time to acclimate to the outside yard. Please stay tuned for upcoming announcements as to when this family will be ready for your visit in the East exhibit.

Learn more about gorilla conservation 

We are committed to a future for endangered gorillas. Join us and learn more about ways you can support wild gorillas and their habitat: https://www.zoo.org/wsf/africa 

Monday, October 8, 2018

What is it like to intern at Woodland Park Zoo?

Posted by Daphne Matter, ZooCorps Intern

Editor's note: This post was written by our lovely ZooCorps Communications Intern, Daphen Matter. Daphne is a high school student who spent the majority of her summer with the social media and communications team at Woodland Park Zoo. We were very lucky to get to know Daphne and all of our outstanding 2018 ZooCorps interns. Thanks to this crew of amazing teens, our summer was very productive and educational, for us and them!

ZooCorps is Woodland Park Zoo’s teen volunteer program that gives students the chance to connect with animals, conservation topics, and the public. Teens build leadership skills by engaging with zoo guests, participating in citizen science opportunities, developing useful job skills, and increasing their knowledge of animals and their habitats through the ZooCorps program.

After a competitive process of applications and interviews, 17 of these ZooCorps volunteers were selected for the ZooCorps summer internship. This position is an opportunity to broaden student perspective and learning in a conservation related career by exposure to the diverse jobs that exist at the zoo in the Animal Management, Communications, Education, Horticulture, and Sustainability departments.

Lili (Commissary) and Daphne (Communications) at the turtle release as part of Woodland Park Zoo’s Western Pond Turtle Recovery Project www.zoo.org/conservation/turtles

As the ZooCorps Communications Intern, I helped the zoo interact with its thousands of followers on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter by creating stories and content, taking photos and video, and helping to develop new projects that engage and inspire online audiences to take action for wildlife conservation.

I believe my internship was valuable because of the increasing relevance of social media in our society. Engaging with an audience through a screen, although it does have its challenges, lets us reach a far wider audience than face to face communication and amplifies our messages globally.

For example, my main project was working on Woodland Park Zoo’s plastic free campaign. With Seattle's city-wide straw ban beginning in July, along with an increasing need for change in the way we use plastics, this summer was the perfect time to launch our campaign. During the Plastic Free for Me Challenge, we created many social media posts to promote reducing consumption of single use plastics, and the total reach of all our Plastic Free July posts was 331,000 people! This shows just how important social media is to connect with a large audience. This internship not only taught me skills that will help further my career, but I can use them to have a bigger impact doing my part to stand up for wildlife.

Every ZooCorps internship experience is uniqueworking with many departments and units throughout the zoo and with a wide variety of responsibilities. From running sustainability campaigns to conservation projects to working directly with the animals, here’s a glimpse of some of the other interns’ experiences:

What is the most important thing you have learned?
“I’ve learned how interconnected the zoo keeper world is and that it is never too early to start networking.” –Dana (Australasia)

“How to critically look at a space and identify areas that need improvement.” –Mahala (Horticulture)

“I have become close friends with Microsoft Excel and learned how to present and understand data.” –Madeleine (Sustainability)

Madeleine (Sustainability) at the Cedar River Watershed to learn about Seattle’s drinking water and the zoo’s water bottle refill stations.

Why did you choose to do this internship/why is it important?
“I chose to do this internship because I wanted to learn about animal behavior and training. This unit is so important to the zoo because it emphasizes how important animal choice is when working in zoos or with animals in general.” –Alyssa (Ambassador Animals)

“We wanted to do this internship because the Northern Trail is our favorite section of the zoo and helping the animals native to the Pacific Northwest is important to us.” –Kendall and Oliver (Northern Trail)

Alyssa and Makaela (Ambassador Animals) with some new friends.

Oliver (Northern trail) recording wolf observation data.

What is your favorite thing about your internship?
“It has helped me decide that I want to pursue a career in this field!” –Alyssa (Ambassador Animals)

“Being able to finish a job and immediately see improvement directly coming from my actions.” –Mahala (Horticulture)

“Releasing the butterflies once they’ve emerged!” –Mia (Silverspot Butterflies)
Taking out the trash may not be the favorite part of Cole and Mia’s internship (Silverspot Butterflies), but they sure do smile through every bit of it!
Fun Fact?
“There is always drama in the bird world.” –Dana (Australasia)

“Vanilla is a kind of orchid” –Mahala (Horticulture)

“Yams have almost exactly the same nutritional value as bananas, but with less sugar”
 –Aleah (Commissary)

“’Fluoride crusts over your third eye’” –Madeleine (Sustainability, a unique comment from a visitor received while conducting a survey about drinking water)

“The wolves’ favorite perfume is Chanel No. 5, but the snow leopards prefer Obsession by Calvin Klein.” –Kendall and Oliver (Northern Trail, indeed some of the animals receive new scents as enrichment.)

A cockatiel being fed by our resident bird enthusiast Cole (Silverspot Butterflies) in Willawong Station.

My favorite part of this experience has been seeing all the support, commitment, passion, and enthusiasm for conservation that our online audience brings to the table. I have learned so much about what makes a post successful and the amount of effort that goes into every detail of it, and seeing our audience respond so well to content I created or helped create made me so glad. I had never realized how much dedication there was in the community!
Madeleine (Sustainability) and Daphne (Communications) earned their own stickers by participating in Plastic Free July!
All ZooCorps interns are passionate about conservation (it’s pretty much a job requirement working at a place like Woodland Park Zoo) and are committed to taking action for wildlife. Especially with the state of our environment declining so rapidly, we now need conservation efforts more than ever. This internship is important because it gives students some of the experience and skills we will need as we pursue conservation related careers and to be leaders in working towards saving our planet.
Group shot of all ZooCorps summer interns at the ZooCorps Intern Project Fair!
To learn more about ZooCorps, and how you can get involved, visit www.zoo.org/zoocorps.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Celebrate Bat Appreciation Month: Go Batty for Bats!

Posted by Elizabeth Bacher, Communications

Indian Flying Foxes. How can you not love those foxy faces? Photo: Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo
Every living creature has an important role to play in the ecosystem—a special niche that they evolved to fill. Some are very misunderstood despite the good they do, and this can lead to misconceptions that make some people fearful of nature’s most valuable players. Examples include spiders that help control insect populations and snakes that do the same for rodents. We’d like to introduce you to another often misunderstood creature—one that calls Woodland Park Zoo, home. Meet the Indian flying fox (Pteropus giganteus)—also called the giant fruit bat.

Hangin' around. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo
There are more than 1,000 different species of bats found throughout the world and the Indian flying fox—which is so named for its fox-like appearance—is one of the largest. There can be some color variation, but most of these bats are dark-brown, with tinges of black and grey about their bodies. They have long furry pointed snouts—very foxy—and a gigantic wingspan, the biggest of which can measure nearly 5 feet! Their wings, which are actually their hands, with stretched leathery skin over the bones of the 5 digits, have claws on a few of the tips. The thumbs have the biggest claws and are used to hold onto trees and for protection from other bats. This, in addition to the claws on their feet, is what enables them to safely hang and move around upside down (which is right-side up to them) from limbs and branches.

This Indian flying fox does NOT want to suck your blood. Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo
The Indian flying fox is found across South Asia, including Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, China (Tibet), Maldives, Myanmar, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. They roost in large groups or colonies on the open branches of tall trees—usually in close proximity to a body of water and food sources. So what do they eat? Of the more than 1,000 different species of bats, only three of them feed on blood, but these bats are not big on biting other animals for their dinner. Rather, Indian flying foxes are fanatical about fruit … and flowers too! That’s right, they feed almost exclusively on fruits and some nectar. Their favorites include fruits that grow in the trees native to their habitats, such as guava, mango and figs.

Some bats find their way around by echolocation—emitting sounds that bounce off of objects to find their way in the dark. This is how insect-eating bats hunt too—by using echolocation to catch their prey on the wing. Indian flying foxes don’t use sounds to get around. Like most other fruit bats, they use sight and smell. They have large specialized eyes on their furry foxy faces, that enable them to see in the dark, and have super sensitive sniffers to help them find ripe and fragrant fruits.

Photo: Dennis Dow/Woodland Park Zoo
So back to that part about playing an important role in the ecosystem. The Indian flying fox’s contribution to the environment is, in part, related to its diet. There are hundreds of plants, trees and food crops around the world that depend on fruit and nectar-feeding bats for pollination and seed dispersal. That means you can thank bats for helping to maintain a sustainable supply of foods like bananas, papayas, dates and many others.

The group of Indian flying foxes that live at Woodland Park Zoo have a nutritious diet that mimics that of their wild cousins. Every day, our animal keepers prepare a special fruit salad for them that might make your mouth water. It’s made up of bananas, melon, apples, pears, grapes, blueberries and other seasonal fruits. They also add in a bit of vegetables too, like kale, yams, carrots and romaine, plus a few additional supplements.

Wanna see these cuties right-side up? Turn the camera upside down! Photo: Ryan Hawk/Woodland Park Zoo
You can visit our Indian flying foxes in the Adaptations building on the East side of the zoo. There are six of them—all males. No foxy ladies in this group. Like most bats, they are primarily nocturnal, meaning they’re most active at night, so during the day you may often find them hanging from the top of the exhibit, roosting with their wings wrapped around their bodies like blankets. Just remember to look up and say hi!

  • The upside down position that bats take when roosting has its advantages. To take flight, they just have to loosen their feet, spread their wings and go. 
  • No, bats don’t poop on themselves. They turn upright when they have to go. And by the way, bat poop is pretty valuable since it’s known to be a really good fertilizer. 
  • Fruit bats have really fast metabolisms—they can digest bananas, mangos, and berries in about 20 minutes! 
  • When a female gives birth, the baby usually comes feet first and then grabs onto its mother as soon as being born.